Game of Thrones Season 8 Premiere Reviews: Critics Mostly Loved Reunion-Filled Season Opener

A record 17.4 million viewers watched the final season premiere on Sunday, which was HBO's largest streaming night ever.

by | April 15, 2019 | Comments

Game of Thrones returned for its eighth and final season on Sunday night, picking up more or less precisely where season 7 left off: “No time skipping, no flashbacks or flash-forwards, just straightforward storytelling mostly set in a single location: Winterfell,” according to Den of Geek critic Ron Hogan. Maybe a few weeks of travel time had passed, but that’s about it.

While a few critics found the episode lacking in action and momentum, the vast majority were wooed by sentimental references to episodes of yore, long-awaited reunions, and icy introductions, which drove the initial Tomatometer score to the high 90s. The score has since settled closer to 93% — while good overall, making it one of the lowest-rated season premieres of the eight:

season 8: 93% Winterfell
season 7:  93% Dragonstone
season 6:  86% The Red Woman
season 5:  96% The Wars to Come
season 4: 95% Two Swords
season 3:  98% Valar Dohaeris
season 2:  100% The North Remembers
season 1:  100% Winter Is Coming

Rhaegal and Jon Snow in Game of Thrones season 8 premiere (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

Surprised that the return of HBO’s powerhouse series scored so high on the Tomatometer (compared to normal TV)? Then check out our “All Game of Thrones Episodes, Ranked by Tomatometer” — of more than 60 episodes, only one has turned up Rotten and more than 20 sit comfortably at 100%. “Winterfell” is currently hovering in the range of the season 7 premiere, “Dragonstone.”

HBO on Monday reported that a record 17.4 million viewers watched the episode, and the premiere marked the largest night of streaming for HBO. The premiere exceeded the previous series high of 16.9 million viewers for the season seven finale and grew by 1 million viewers over the season 7 premiere audience. The network also reported that Sunday’s viewing was the most tweeted about episode of Game of Thrones ever with more than five million tweets and 11 million mentions over the weekend.

See what critics had to say about the season 8 premiere — Episode 1: "Winterfell" 92% — below.

Have we seen these scenes before?

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season 8 (Helen Sloan/HBO)
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

There were plenty of callbacks for all the loyal viewers who have stayed the distance; from the little boy running through the crowded Winterfell streets and climbing a tree to see the arriving army led by Jon and the Mother of Dragons… to tiny touches like Arya wearing her hair like her late, much lamented father Ned Stark did.— Lucy Mangan, Guardian

Episode one was very much set up with the chess pieces all assembled for the last great game – Jaime Lannister was the final one to show up as he met Bran for the first time since the season one premiere. The encounter between the two served again as another cyclic moment that reiterated the end is nigh.— Neela Debnath, Daily Express (UK)

Let’s Break Down Those Reunions and Introductions

Arya and Jon in Game of Thrones season 8 premiere (Helen Sloan/HBO)
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

Daenerys and Sansa have problems with each other from the jump. Daenerys tries to be gracious to Sansa when they meet, and Sansa tells her that Winterfell “is yours,” but there’s tension between them… It doesn’t take long before having a “king,” a queen, and the woman in charge of Winterfell all in one room becomes an issue. — Ben Kuchera, Polygon

One of the most interesting reunions was between Tyrion and Sansa Stark as the former husband and wife reminisced. He complimented her but she warned him that he’d grown foolish by trusting Cersei Lannister. — Neela Debnath, Daily Express (UK)

In a really lovely scene, Arya and Jon hug it out and compare swords… She then asks Jon to never forget that he is their family, which is the foreboding of what comes later in the episode when Jon finds out the truth about his parents. — Sinead Brennan, RTÉ (Ireland)

The biggest takes place in the crypts of Winterfell, when Sam approaches Jon and breaks the news to him of his parentage. Jon’s understandably shell-shocked to learn of his very legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, especially since he’s always been the one who’s least fancied himself a king. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of his blooming romance with Dany, which is about to get infinitely more complicated now that he’s in the loop about not only who he is but what that makes her to him (other than an ideal dragon-riding companion). — Isaac Feldberg, Boston Globe

There were so many reunions that it’s hard to pick my favorite! — Paul Dailly, TV Fanatic

Is It Sentimental?

Bran and Jon in Game of Thrones season 8 premiere (Helen Sloan/HBO)
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

Winterfell plays on the viewer’s emotions and sense of history, because the bulk of the episode is characters who have been apart from one another having reunions, all the while the episode’s general layout echoes the pilot episode of the series. — Ron Hogan, Den of Geek

The reunions were generally really satisfying and well done; there was warmth, emotion and humour without them ever coming off as too twee. The same cannot be said for the dragon date Jon and Daenerys go on… Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see Jon riding Rhaegal, especially considering his Targaryen bloodline, but it felt a little bit Jasmine and Aladdin and not so much Game of Thrones.— Sinead Brennan, RTÉ (Ireland)

As it happens that moment, too, contains a throwback. When the two come across a waterfall, Daenerys says: “We could stay a thousand years. No one would find us.” That is almost verbatim what Ygritte said to Jon in the cave, back in season 3. — Anne Cohen, Refinery29

There’s a massive difference between the meaningless banter exchanged between Arya Stark and her old captor, The Hound, and the far more meaningful reunion Arya shares with Jon Snow.— Aaron Riccio, Slant Magazine

The eighth season premiere was, by Westerosian standards, a sedate affair, concentrating largely on retrenchment, and narrowing the scope of the narrative and emotional landscape. This was doubtless disappointing to the many who expected nothing but mighty spectacle all the way down the home straight. — Lucy Mangan, Guardian

How Does It Look?

Jon Snow and Rhaegal in Game of Thrones season 8 premiere (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

The good news is that HBO seems to have ransacked the Iron Bank, because just about every shot looks beautiful, and while previous seasons often rationed out the effects shots, it seems like everything is on the table visually for this table-setter. — Ben Kuchera, Polygon

Some fans might be frustrated by a dialogue-heavy, action-light hour so close to the show’s ultimate finale, but it felt right to allow the characters to breathe before diving back in to the Great War. Thrones is, after all, a show built on drawn-out arcs of power struggle between well-drawn, charismatic characters: they are people first, chess pieces second. — Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman

[The] dragon ride is, admittedly, a spectacular feat of CGI and injects a bit of whimsy into an episode that needed to march a lot of characters into place in very quick fashion. — Hillary Kelly, New York Magazine/Vulture

 What Lies Ahead?

The Battle for Winterfell looks set to take place midway through the season; after that comes the reckoning. — Lucy Mangan, Guardian

What is the state of Cersei’s pregnancy? It’s a question this episode only hints at.— Andrew Bloom, Consequence of Sound

What does Jaime’s arrival in Winterfell portend for him and for their upcoming battle? Where will Bronn’s loyalties take him after Cersei pays him to murder Tyrion and Jaime, the only two men that the mercenary might comfortably call his friends? These moments all feel inevitable. — Todd Gilchrist, Birth.Movies.Death.

The previews for next week show us that Jaime will have to deal with some (rightfully) angry Starks on their home turf. — David Malitz, Washington Post

Forget winter. The Great War is coming. Armies are marching. Evil queens are scheming. There is no time to waste. The end is near, just five episodes away. — Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times

Final Verdict? A Worthy Beginning of the End (Mostly)

Tormund, Berric and the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones season 8 premiere (Helen Sloan/HBO)
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

After a two-year gap and a dragon’s-feast worth of hype, fans probably wanted grand plot movements. Instead, they got a buffet of inevitabilities… Yet I’d argue that this was one of the best Thrones episodes in a long time. — Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic

Nothing so freighted with expectation could possibly live up to it, and the first episode of season eight doesn’t… In most respects, it is a classic opening throat-clearer, clocking in at just 50 minutes without adverts and bringing us up to speed. — Ed Cumming, Independent (UK)

What makes this premiere work is the way it combines necessary plot milestones with sequences of straightforward indulgence. — Kathryn VanArendonk, New York Magazine/Vulture

Kickass team-ups, dragonfire takedowns, and Sansa snark? Wonderful things one and all. But as Game of Thrones prepares for the final battle between ice and fire, let’s hope it remembers that a spoonful of poison will help the sugar go down. — Sean T. Collins, Rolling Stone

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