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'Game of Thrones' Season 8 premiere recap: 'Winterfell'

Spoiler alert! The following contains spoilers from “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 1, "Winterfell." Read our recap of the Season 7 finale here . You can relax now. Few pop-culture events have been as anticipated as much as the eighth and final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The hype for Sunday’s season premiere was astronomical, and the possibility that the fantasy series would letdown its legions of fans very real. Many of those fans likely expected fire, death and destruction from the first moments, and those who did might be disappointed by the gentle and typical opener that accomplished what nearly every season premiere in “Thrones” history has done: Re-established characters, locations and relationships, and set the table for greater things to come. Listen to this week's episode of USA TODAY's podcast, The Mothership, on all things "Game of Thrones" in the player below . We last visited Westeros in the disappointing and illogical Season 7 finale, which aired Aug. 27, 2017. And while it’s hard to lose the bad taste from that season's misguided final episodes, the premiere took a deep breath and focused on the characters rather than the spectacle, a necessary change. The pacing was too fast at some points and too slow at others, but it sets up the season for success, if writers can squeeze everything into those five remaining episodes without making them seem overstuffed (no big deal). As the episode concluded with a pitch-perfect callback to the series' 2011 premiere, we are no closer to discerning what “Thrones” is really about. We don’t yet know which war is really the most important. No one (major) died; no one was resurrected. We’re left with the same stomach-churning anticipation and tension, desperate for more. Let’s see how long the series can sustain it. Time is a flat circle. This is HBO, we should have known. Instead of starting with death, incest or dragons, the premiere kicks off softly with a direct parallel to the very first episode. The young Northern village boy we see darting and climbing as Dany’s processional marches to Winterfell is an homage to Bran in that pilot episode, climbing on the walls of the keep to see King Robert Baratheon’s caravan arrive, and set to the same score. It’s clear from this short scene that the Northerners aren’t totally on board with Dany, her dragons or her armies. (And from the looks Missandei was getting, they also might be racist.) Sansa is not pleased, either, but Bran, who has a short, emotionless reunion with Jon, isn’t interested in small talk anymore. Essentially greeting Jon and Dany with “Oh hi, there’s an Ice Dragon,” he is a stand-in for every fan who thought the plot wasn’t moving quickly enough. Now that the introductions have been made, Dany, Jon and Sansa hold court in Winterfell’s great hall, but no one is happy about the arrangement, or nice to each other. After a brief introduction of Chekhov's Umber kid (more on him later), wonderful little Lyanna Mormont calls out Jon for giving up his crown and, essentially, turning his back on the title that all the lords in the room had given him. It’s not new that the Northern lords grumble about their chosen leader (it’s become really annoying) but Jon needs to deal with the fallout from his unilateral decision for a whole kingdom. Sansa doesn't warm to Dany (a dynamic that feels right, although it happens very quickly) and the Northerners are even more enraged when Tyrion mentions the Lannister army Cersei is supposedly sending. Sansa, meanwhile, is the only smart person who doesn’t believe Cersei is sending men to help them, and when she and Tyrion have their own reunion, she throws shade at him: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” Their scene is well-executed and shows the stark (pun intended) change in the power dynamic between them since they last met in Season 4. Tyrion had all the clever answers then, and Sansa was just a little pawn in Tywin’s schemes. Now she's a trusted leader, and Tyrion is an adviser with a penchant for giving bad advice. The reunion fans have been looking forward to most is Arya and Jon's: Siblings (or so they thought) who'd been close as children and were the saddest to say goodbye in Season 1. Jon gave Arya Needle, the sword that became part of her identity as a killer. Thankfully, the scene doesn’t feel like fan service in the way many of the Season 7 reunions did. Jon hardly knows or understands Arya anymore, considering his absurd question about whether she’s ever used her sword. He’s also taken aback when she sides with Sansa on the issue of Dany. But Arya’s uninterested in outsiders. She’s back with her family, and she’s strongly defending it. There’s one person who's happy about Walkers getting through the Wall: Cersei, chilling in King’s Landing with Qyburn and Euron. Euron (who still has Yara hostage, in case you forgot) has brought the head of the Golden Company to his queen, a fellow named Captain Strickland. Strickland brought his troops, but no elephants. Cersei is clearly annoyed and so am I, to be honest. Who didn’t want to see elephants on the battlefield, “Lord of the Rings”-style? Euron is also less than satisfied with his and Cersei’s arrangement, and pressures her into having sex with him. It’s telling that, even after all these years, Cersei, the reigning queen, is still selling herself the way her father did when he married her to Robert. She may have all this power at her disposal, but she’s not really free. In their post-coital banter, Euron prattles on about impregnating Cersei, which sends up a red flag. It seems that days or even weeks have passed since Cersei first told Jaime she was expecting, and she's not visibly with child at all, one more bit of evidence for the “no baby” side of the debate. Elsewhere in King’s Landing, Qyburn brings Bronn a big offer from Cersei: Kill Jaime and Tyrion (with the crossbow Tyrion used to kill Tywin), and be showered with gold. It's the ultimate test of Bronn's loyalty versus his greed. We don't have to wait for Jon to learn that he’s a Targaryen for him to take his first dragon ride (on the creature named after his father, obviously). The visually stunning and refreshing moment of “Thrones” celebrating wonder and beauty also displayed the best chemistry we’ve ever seen between the Jon and Daenerys, gratifying considering how important their relationship has become. And in an episode full of callbacks, Dany’s remark that the pair could stay at the waterfalls for “a thousand years” echoes what Ygritte told Jon way back in Season 3: That they should stay in the cave forever. But things are happy and peaceful only in Dany and Jon’s little world. Just like Lyanna, Sansa is furious with Jon, asking if he bent the knee because it was the best thing to do for the North, or because he’s in love with Dany? (Spoiler alert: It's the latter). In many ways, it was nice that “Thrones” writers didn’t dilly dally revealing to Jon his real parents' identities. But it still felt a bit rushed. Within a few minutes, Sam meets Dany, learns about his father and brother, grieves, talks to Bran, reunites with Jon and drops the Aegon bomb. All of these things had to happen, sure, but the momentum was overwhelming. John Bradley is a great actor, and his character's grief was cut short so that Jon Snow could have his big moment. But Sam’s was far more interesting. So the secret is finally out. Jon knows, and now it’s up to him to do something about it. Considering his decision-making of late, it probably won’t be smart. While you (and Jon) were reeling about the whole Aegon Targaryen thing, “Thrones” casually sneaked in its most terrifying moment in years, a reminder that the show can thrill and awe in more ways than you expect. Tormund and Beric survive Viserion’s assault of the Wall (although we kind of knew that already). The duo, plus the rest of the Eastwatch survivors, make their way through an abandoned creepy castle that's so poorly lit the audience can barely see them run into Dolorous Edd (we missed you, Edd) and what remains of the Night’s Watch. The Night King has been to this castle before, marched south toward Winterfell and left a present for the survivors: the Umber boy (told you he’d come back), dead and nailed to the wall at the center of one of the White Walker’s infamous spirals. The guys are just chatting away while the kid’s eyes open and he lets out an ear-splitting screech. Beric stabs him with the flaming sword and the whole spiral is set afire, making it no less scary. It all begs the question of how – and more importantly, why – any of these men survived the Army of the Dead, and what they can possibly do to help now that a hundred thousand (or so) wights and Walkers stand between them and Jon.