James Hibberd
April 01, 2013 AT 01:55 AM EDT

No more posters. No more trailers. No more $15,000 fan-art oil paintings. No teaser interviews and red carpet photos and viral videos. We’re done with all that. Game of Thrones is back and this is the season that fans of George R. R. Martin’s novels have been most excited about since the show’s pilot was first announced years ago. This is The Empire Strikes Back of the Thrones-verse — except on this show, the Empire always seems like it’s striking back.


We start in darkness. Howling, steel clanging, screaming — presumably the sounds of the White Walkers attacking the Night’s Watch since we then see–

Cold Open: A very cold open — Sam is running in a blizzard, as fast as he can considering he’s draped in a Wookie. We’re picking up the action moments/hours after the season 2 finale left off, when the White Walkers and a herd of the undead descended upon Sam and his Night’s Watch brothers.

Sam finds one of his dead brothers holding his own severed head. Ah, it’s good to be back — we’re only seconds into the Thrones premiere and already we have a decapitation. You wonder what happened here — was his head placed in his hands? Did it just fall there? And does the guy look like Jesus on purpose?

No time to wonder — there’s zombie coming with an ax. Sam is rescued by Ghost. Jon Snow’s direwolf starts chewing on the undead, who then bursts into flames. Ghost, you can breathe fire now! Oh, wait, no. The fire was from Sam’s surviving Night’s Watch brothers, who also just arrived. The Lord Commander gives Sam crap about not sending the ravens to alert Castle Black of the attack. That was his job, his only job! Sam glares at him like: Dude, I’m 260 pounds and just outran the undead while wearing a shag carpet in a blizzard, cut me some slack.

Credits: New stuff: Winterfell is smoking since it burned down in last year’s finale. There’s a new city: Astapor, where Dany is headed this season. It has these little rowing tracks. Perhaps Astapor is big on Pilates?

Frostfangs: Back to the snow. Or rather, Jon Snow. The Wildling camp is located near an inhospitable area called the Frostfangs. I bet Jon is kicking himself for not naming his direwolf that. Does Snow look like he’s limping as he walks into the camp? The actor broke his ankle last year, and a double was used in some shots (there’s a link at the end of this post to a story with more details on that).

Snow sees an army camp and a — giant … a giant giant. Big giant! Big-but-not-too big. Just-the-right-size giant. Big enough so you think “Giant!” but not so big you think “CGI!” or worse, “Jack the Giant Slayer.” Thrones is just throwing a giant in there in the first few minutes of the premiere, like it’s no big deal. I never loved adding yet another mythical creature into this grown-up fantasy saga — all it takes is one unicorn and I’m outta here — but the Thrones team did a nice job on this. The giant must have just returned from the Wildling’s day spa since he’s still wearing a detoxifying body wrap. Jon looks awed.

“First time you’ve seen a giant Jon Snow?” taunts humpy Wildling snow warrior Ygritte, who warns: “When they’re angry, I’ve seen them pound a man straight into the ground like a hammer to a nail.” Wow, hate to see them when they’re horny.

NEXT: Pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain!

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