Game of Thrones season 8 episode 1 review: There isn’t much going on in one of the most anticipated returns in television history

Ed Cumming
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Game of Thrones season 8 episode 1 review: There isn’t much going on in one of the most anticipated returns in television history

This review contains spoilers for episode one of Game of Thrones season eight

So then, here we are. Is this the most anticipated television programme ever? Scripted, I mean. Not a royal wedding or something like that, comparable though it might be in terms of incestuous dynasties with British accents. The final episodes of M*A*S*H* and Seinfeld and Friends surpassed Game of Thrones for viewers in the US, but they didn’t have to be released around the world at the same time to prevent piracy, didn’t launch a thousand tedious think pieces, didn’t make TV critics stay up all night to deliver you this hot fresh-baked review. I’ve been writing about Game of Thrones for more than eight years. Something something adulthood. There was a time when I had a great deal of affection for this programme. It felt like a secret club, if expensive blockbuster TV watched by millions can be described that way, where it was OK to enjoy dragons and magic and sigils and subtle misspellings of medieval English terminology.

Nothing so freighted with expectation could possibly live up to it, and the first episode of season eight doesn’t. We have been promised a series of finales, six bumper episodes of Hollywood-scale ambition, where stories that have been drawn out over 70 hours will finally reach their conclusions. There will be love, death, enormous battles. This episode doesn’t do much of that at all. In most respects, it is a classic opening throat-clearer, clocking in at just 50 minutes without adverts and bringing us up to speed.

Frankly, there isn’t much going on, compared to previous episode ones. The new title sequence shows us the gaping big hole in the Wall, through which the Night King’s armies are flooding. At Winterfell, where everyone except for Cersei and a few Greyjoys has gathered, there is grouse but no real beef between the various former mortal enemies. At this point I’m afraid it’s impossible to care whether the Karstarks are joining.

The big climax is Jon learning his heritage, the climax of a theory the most ardent fans of the books will have been wondering about since 1996. Kit Harington’s shortcomings as an actor are abundantly clear by this point, but we have to cheer the poor lad in, like that bloke in the Olympic swimming when everyone else was disqualified. Go on Kit, you can do it. It was at least funny that Bran decided to get Sam to tell Jon after his magic dragon ride with Dany. If ever there’s a time to tell a chap a woman is his aunt, it’s just after an al fresh-snow tryst. Still, hopefully this puts an end to their excruciating shenanigans. “Handsome couple,” observes Tyrion from a rampart. Better seen than heard.

Elsewhere, Arya is being given a love interest, chirpsing our favourite simple blacksmith, Gendry, affording us the prospect that by the finale they’ll be going at it hammer and tongs. Sorry. The only threats, aside from the uncountable army of undead ice warriors, are macro. It’s hard to feed a large army in the north, especially if it has two hungry dragons, and the influence from overseas, here represented by the Iron Bank’s mercenaries, hasn’t gone away either.

The truth the hype industry can’t acknowledge is that Game of Thrones has grown less interesting as it has increased in size. Like anyone after sufficient feasting it is both bloated and cramped. It’s still good fun, but the high intrigue of the show at its best, when you really felt anyone could die at any moment, you wanted everyone to win, and you had no idea what would happen, has been lost in all the pomp and circumstance. The heroes have been making themselves obvious for a while, at the expense of the drama. Arya, Jon, Daenerys, Bran, Jaime, Tyrion: these characters have a role to play to the end. Their jeopardy is no longer credible, as was obvious when Jon launched his mad mission beyond the wall in the seventh series.

I like Game of Thrones, but I’m not sure I love it any more. I will enjoy the remaining episodes but like the cast, crew, writers, directors and, I suspect, many of the viewers, the main feeling when it is all over will be not bereavement but relief.