The build-up to the final season of Game of Thrones has been unbearable. Since the end of the show’s first season in 2011, fans have been clamoring to find out how the HBO series will conclude. Now, at the end of this very long road, it seems that nothing could live up to the hype. There is no ending to Game of Thrones that compares to the conclusion in our minds.
In the premiere of the final season, director David Nutter and writer Dave Hill reached back to remind viewers of the show’s origins. The episode, entitled simply ‘Winterfell’ was full of echos from the Season 1 premiere, ‘Winter is Coming’. Echos to a time before it was the biggest show on television. A time before every person with any pop culture awareness knew about “that dragon show.” The structure, tone, and events within the episode asked the audience to consider precisely how far Game of Thrones has come in the last eight years.
Most of the episode’s allusions to the first season are clear echos. A king and queen ride into Winterfell and meet by the Stark family. Men of the Night’s Watch find an ominous and threatening spiral of body parts left behind by the White Walkers. A visit to the Winterfell crypt changes the fate of the seven kingdoms forever. Ending with an interaction between Bran and Jamie.
But now these events are at the end of something, not at the beginning of it. The beginning of a winter that was always coming. The end of a show that was always going to wrap up. Watching ‘Winterfell’ and remembering the beginning of Game of Thrones is like remembering bygone snow days during the first snowfall of the year. In some ways it’s new. But in others, it’s well worn. Informed by years of experience that have taught us what to expect.
When we left Jon and Daenerys last season, they had pledged to help each other defend The Seven Kingdoms from the army of the dead. In exchange for her support in the great war, Jon had finally bent the knee to Queen Daenerys, First of Her Name, Mother of… and so on. The two had also struck up a romantic relationship, strengthening their alliance even further.
Unfortunately for the happy couple, the North is less enthusiastic about their newly minted king seeding his power to a southern queen. The northern lords accuse Jon of treachery. After all, they didn’t crown him King in the North so he could turn around swear his fielty to a foreign invader. But, as Jon points out, the North needs allies to fight the dead. He gave up his crown to protect the North. Given a choice between saving his people and saving his power, he picked his people.
Jon reunites with his siblings whom he has not seen since Season 1. His reunion with Bran is utterly bizarre, considering that Bran is a sort of strange robot tree boy now. And his reconnection with Arya, a moment fans have been waiting for for years, was sentimental, but tinged with the sort of distrust Arya carries with her in all her interactions these days.
Arya had a few reunions of her own this episode. She saw Sandor Clegane, The Hound, for the first time since she robbed him and left him to die. She also saw Gendry, her traveling companion from Season 2, for the first time since the Brotherhood Without Banners shipped him off to see Stannis.
The most important reunion of the show, however, was between Jon and Sam. Not just because of the beautiful friendship those two characters share, but because it provided the most crucial moment in Game of Thrones. After seeing Jon ride a dragon, and finding out that Daenerys killed his family, Sam tells Jon who he is. He is not the bastard son of Ned Stark. His real name is Aegon Targaryen, and he is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Not the King in the North. Just the King.
In King’s Landing, Euron Greyjoy has returned with The Golden Company, a band of sellswords who have, famously, never broken a contract. Cresi doesn’t seem at all interested in helping fight the Great War. Her plan is to remain in King’s Landing and fight the remains of whichever army wins in the North. She’s also charged Bron with the task of killing Tyrion if he survives long enough to make it back to the capital.
Euron’s obsession with Cersi continues from last season. Euron does not know that Cersi is already pregnant with Jamie’s child, so he tells her that he is going to put a baby in her. He also asks her how he compares in bed to her dead husband and her brother. Euron seems to have a bit of a death wish.
With all this going on inside the castle walls, Theon Greyjoy has finally returned from the dead, seemly banishing Reek once and for all. After all, what is dead may never die. Theon leads a troop of Ironborn to save his sister for Euron’s ship. After she’s safely back on her own ship, Yara gives Theon permission to travel to Winterfell and help the Starks save the North.
An Ending We Always Expected
Both within the fiction of the show and on the meta-narrative level, it’s remarkable how much this episode feels like a beginning. Where ‘Winter Is Coming’ was the calm before eight seasons of thrilling television, ‘Winterfell’ feels like the prelude to the most exciting season yet. There’s not much in ‘Winterfell’ that feels surprising. That could be because audiences have spent so much time anticipating the end of Game of Thrones.
But it could also be because this is just the windup. The short, calming breath before the wheels come off. For all the speculation fans have done, Game of Thrones was never a show that worked because you didn’t know what was going to happen next. It is a show that works because the things that happen are so crazy, they shock you whether you knew they were going to happen or not. After all, we always knew where this was going.
Winter was coming.
Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights at 9:00 on HBO.