“Game of Thrones” season eight premiered this weekend, with the first of the final six episodes. For millions of hungry fans, it was something of a reunion: Characters who have travelled far and wide over the past few years returned to where it all began, to face an enemy no one believed in. This week’s episode — the beginning of the end for a fantasy story that has spanned generations and continents — deliberately echoed the original pilot in both structure and in style, reminding fans that those who were once children and pawns in the great game are now the ones in charge.
When “Game of Thrones” premiered all the way back in 2011, it was considered one of the strangest bets HBO had ever taken. Though high fantasy tales like “Lord of the Rings” had swept the Oscars a few years before, and “Harry Potter” was slaying at the box office, both franchises were seen as outliers. “Game of Thrones” was also more complex than either story, a meditation on the nature of power with a cast of dozens that would soon bloom to hundreds. Pacing an introduction to all of the main characters was so difficult it took two pilot episodes to get it right.
This week’s episode — the beginning of the end for a fantasy story that has spanned generations and continents — deliberately echoed the original pilot.
But that second pilot, entitled “Winter Is Coming,” managed to make the whole endeavor seem almost easy. Perhaps then it’s not surprising Sunday’s episode spent so much time looking back. The original cast has shrunk back down to a nearly manageable size again, a mere two dozen or so speaking parts. And with a gap of more than a year separating the end of the seventh season and this final season premiere, much of the hour was spent reminding everyone who these characters are, in a mirror image of how they were introduced in the first place.
In the initial pilot, after a quick introduction to the Stark brood of the North (father Ned, mother Catelyn, five kids, plus one bastard) the first major set piece “Game of Thrones” staged depicted the arrival of the ruling family from the South. The interactions between the high-born characters and their various underlings defined their personalities as well as their place in the hierarchy.
This same conceit was used on Sunday to again bring viewers up to speed on the Stark family. It also highlighted just how much the world has changed in eight seasons, and how much it hasn’t. In the original scene, Arya is the last to line up with her family, too busy sneaking around, trying to get a glimpse of the train before everyone else. This time, too, she’s not standing with her sister and brother but out with the crowd gathering intel. Knowledge has always served her well, as has her ability to keep her head down. Friends, family, traveling companions, allies and enemies all ride by, none giving her a second look, as she registers who has survived — and who has not.
Such deliberate juxtapositions reinforce the passage of time for other characters as well. Sansa Stark, the girl who once blinded by finery, now looks coldly upon a new queen and her beautiful furs. Instead, it is Daenerys who hopes to flatter and charm, and Sansa who responds with the icy disinterest originally perfected by Cersei.
Such deliberate juxtapositions reinforce the passage of time for other characters as well.
But while Sansa may have adopted Cersei’s diction, she’s outgrown the woman she once desired to emulate. When the men around her boast they’ve assembled “the greatest army the north has ever seen,” as if everyone should be very impressed with their work, she responds with logistics. How exactly is she supposed to feed all these men? How many Dothraki mouths will a bushel of wheat feed? And what do dragons eat anyway? (Maybe let’s not answer that last one in front of the children.)
The episode’s structure is evocative as well. The episode’s major reveal — that Jon Snow is actually not Ned Stark’s bastard as he has always believed, but the son of Ned’s sister Lyanna and her legal husband Rhaegar Targaryen — is a mirror reflection of the pilot’s scene between Ned and Robert, best friends grieving over Lyanna’s grave. Then, Ned lied to Robert about his sister, because the truth would ruin their friendship. Now, Jon’s best friend Sam reveals the truth, despite what it could do to their friendship.
Then there was the pilot’s cold (literally) open, with its first glimpse of the coming White Walker menace, and a mysterious warning left in the snow. The threat may have been forgotten as those down south focused on their political machinations, but its spectre remained. An epic battle beckons now, but the White Walkers haven’t stopped leaving ominous messages. A dead Northern child nailed to a wall, surrounded by a mysterious symbol, makes the connection between season eight and season one brutally clear for those who remember the show’s first White Walker.
But it’s the end of the episode that really nailed how things come full circle. The moment Ned Stark is beheaded late in season one was a real turning point for many fans. The murder of the supposed hero sent a clear message: This show is different. But Ned’s death is actually the second tragedy to befall the Stark family. Ned’s son Bran Stark is also set up to be a traditional fantasy hero, the prepubescent kid who doesn’t know yet he’s special. Bran’s expected trajectory is radically altered when he is thrown out of a tower window by the queen’s powerful brother Jaime Lannister. It’s a shocking ending to the opening hour, as fans wondered if he would survive.
Naturally, season eight’s first episode ends with Jaime, now stripped of his titles and place in the family. Jaime is riding back into Winterfell for the first time since that incident, one his character has spent the last seven years slowly living down. And who is the first person he sees? None other than the very much alive Bran, a twist that elicited shocked gasps on Twitter. This time, the question is if Jaime will survive. Let the circle be unbroken.