“Now it begins.” – Sir Arthur Dayne
“No. Now it ends.” – Ned Stark.
One of Game of Thrones signature talents has always been its callback ability. As a way to show us that the chapters in the history of their world follow certain patterns, or as in the Season 8 premiere “Winterfell” to highlight just how far all the remaining characters of this show have come.
The episode opens with an unnamed boy running through the snow, struggling to see past the adults who are blocking his vision. He achieves a better vantage point by climbing a tree in order to watch the procession of Unsullied and Dothraki armies marching towards the Winterfell castle and manages to get a good glimpse at the Queen Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. This calls back to the series premiere, “Winter is Coming” in which Arya ended up climbing on a wagon in order to get a better look at King Robert Baratheon and his family when they came to visit Ned Stark. As Jon and Dany make their way towards, Winterfell, Arya watches from the crowd again and just like before, remains unnoticed by the people in the procession who should have recognized her. At the end of the episode, the Night King leaves a macabre message that Tormund, Beric and the Night’s Watch find at The Last Hearth (ancestral home of House Umber) that’s reminiscent of the one found by the young Lord Royce in the prologue of the series premiere. Even Bronn’s foursome getting interrupted is an echo of Tyrion’s brothel encounter in the first episode.
These callbacks are the work of the directors and writers deliberately working to stir up memories of how this story began. It reminds us of our introductions to these characters, taking us back to the interactions they had with each other in those first few moments in the beginning and brings the viewers full circle when they are reunited. Previous season premieres of the show have been slower, taking the time to set the table and pieces for the plot that would unfold over the season. The season 8 premiere does that elegantly while taking the time to remind us that the reason we love this show are because of the character interactions. The calm before the undead storm gives us a chance to take stock of each character’s journey through their conversations. It’s an opportunity for to view the reunions we’ve waited for for years, for other characters to meet for the first time and to reveal previous hidden information that could be a detriment to the upcoming war efforts. The episode does not progress the plot significantly, but it works in its attempt to reinvest us in these characters and their futures as the shadow of war looms over them.
Arya is the engine that the episode relies on in order to achieve this effect. Out of each character’s journey, hers has been the most isolated, as she’s been forced to leave behind any relationships she made along the way from Jon to Gendry and to Sandor (The Hound). Those three relationships were important in shaping the character that we see today as well as reminding her who she was and where she was from. You can make the argument that she’s changed the most since the first episode, as her expressionless face watches the men she had once known ride past her without any recognition. Which makes it even more heartfelt when those defenses fall away when she comes face-to-face with long-lost friends and family over the last two seasons. Her meeting with The Hound might have played off icily to some, but I feel that that’s the warmest reunion they were going to get. Arya learned a lot from her captor/mentor and it’s clear that there’s some sort of mutual respect centered around their abilities for survival that only murderers can understand. Her reunion with Gendry was much warmer, reigniting the camaraderie that was established between them in their time together in Season 2 and hinting at some romantic/sexual tension as well. Yet the most rewarding reunion came between her and Jon – characters that haven’t seen each other since S1E2, “The Kingsroad”. Jon was one of the few people in Arya’s life that supported her decisions to be whoever she wanted to be in life and there was nothing better in the episode than the hug they shared (even though the jab at Kit Harrington’s height comes close).
As happy as these reunions were though, there’s still the reminder that all these characters have had tumultuous journeys that have made their outlooks on the world different from the last times they were together. We can see this when Jon praises Arya about whether she’s used Needle and her face falters slightly as she responds with “once or twice”. The same can be seen in his reaction as he wonders what the girl he left behind has become. It can be seen when Bran and Jon reunite and Jon, like his siblings before him, can immediately see that something seems slightly off about his younger “brother”. The mutual appreciation that Sansa and Tyrion share for each other’s survived hardships fades slightly as she calls out his foolishness for trusting in Cersei. The kids have come a long way during their journeys of cripples, bastards and broken things and it’s established in these reunions that we have been waiting for.
The Whole New World, magic dragon ride between Jon and Dany leaves much to be desired. Maybe it’s because the eventual reveal of incest hangs over their relationship which makes it feel like its demise is ultimately a formality. There’s no investment that I feel like I can have with this relationship when there are several, smaller interactions which are more rewarding to the viewers because of the time those characters spent together just as much as the time spent apart from each other.
The most exciting thing from the episode comes from the reunion between Jon and Sam Tarly, considering that they haven’t seen each other since Jon’s first life. Sam leaves his hiding place to finally tell Jon the truth about his parentage after discovering that Dany had burnt his father and brother alive to punish their treason. Yet something about the reveal felt off, considering that he exposed this information to Jon without evidence. Dany’s diplomacy tactics with Sansa and the Northerners leaves much to be desired yet she approached Sam with frankness when she learns that he saved Jorah’s life. Sam’s reveal to Jon played as a retaliation to the fact that Dany killed his family members. The lack of investment I have in the relationship between the two Targaryens makes me wish that they would just approach this issue head on, rather than wasting time flying around the North looking for secluded spots to get their freak on.
As the show has moved further past the books, the plot playground has shrunk, as well as the show’s focus. Some moves feel perfunctory, as means to get characters in the right positions for the episodes to come. Yet I feel that this premiere was one of the best in the show’s history, setting the table for the end that’s in sight, but also allowing us to spend some quality time with the characters we’ve grown to love over the years.
P.S. WHERE IS GHOST?!!!