When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, its first episode, “Winter Is Coming,” had to accomplish a lot in a relatively short time. It had to present Winterfell, Ned Stark’s seat in the North, as the show’s emotional home base, while giving an idea of the expanse of Westeros and introducing a bunch of characters at once.
It did this in part by allowing us to see Ned’s best friend, King Robert, arriving from King’s Landing in the South along with his mighty royal procession, through the eyes of several of Ned’s children — most notably Bran and Arya.
Eight long years later, Bran and Arya are still major characters on the show — and though their worlds have since been totally upended, their childhood home is still the series’ emotional heart. The season eight premiere, “Winterfell,” emphasized this by having most of its major characters meet back at the Northern castle for a series of long-awaited reunions.
Returning to the North gave the show the chance to pull off a trick that prestige dramas love: making “Winterfell” (801) mirror “Winter Is Coming” (101) both structurally and dramatically. As Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff explains, “Lots of TV shows try to find ways to make their final seasons reflect their first seasons. ... Just nodding toward the start can really make the audience feel the weight of the end, and it doesn’t take that much effort to pull off.”
Revolving the show in part around kids whom we’ve watched literally grow up before our eyes creates that sense of gravitas, especially when a circular structure reminds us how far they’ve come since episode one. But bringing everyone back to Winterfell also gives us a sense that everything from that fateful first episode on has been leading back here, VanDerWerff notes: “[E]nough gigantic events have happened throughout [the show’s] run that bringing everybody back to Winterfell feels almost inevitable on some level — as if before the end, we had to come back here and get as many people within its walls as possible.”
If you haven’t watched Game of Thrones’ first episode in a while, don’t worry: We’re going back to the beginning to find some of the more obvious parallels between “Winter Is Coming” and “Winterfell.”
1) In both episodes, White Walkers leave carefully displayed corpses as macabre artwork for the humans to find
Episode 101 opens with a chilling sequence. A trio of men from the Night’s Watch discover a grisly scene in the forest: the massacre of a group of Wildlings, which the killers have arranged in a horrifying display of dismembered bodies. It quickly becomes clear that the killers are none other than White Walkers, long thought to be extinct as a species. It’s a brief, gory, but memorable shot:
Episode 801 features a similar scene involving a group of stragglers from the fall of the Wall, led by Tormund Giantsbane, Beric Dondarrion, and Edd Tollett. They’re all trying to make their way south beyond Last Hearth, a small castle belonging to a minor lord of the North, Lord Umber. That’s the kid you may remember from recent assemblies of the various houses at Winterfell. Jon most recently sent him back home earlier in this episode to fetch his armies from Last Hearth — only apparently, he got home just in time to become zombie food. Poor kid.
The White Walkers pinned him to a wall and arranged his zombified corpse in a garish, Hannibal-style decoration made out of more dismembered body parts. Tormund and the others wind up having to burn him, still stuck to the wall. Yikes.
2) Where’s Arya?
In both episodes, when the royal procession arrives, Arya Stark is seen hiding in the crowd instead of waiting to receive the nobles with her family. In 101, she’s shown maneuvering somewhere higher up so she can see better — like her brother Bran, whom we see climbing the tower for a closer look as well. Both of these images are mirrored in 801, when we see a young boy trying to navigate the crowd so he can properly see the arriving entourage before finally scaling a tree.
Arya’s reactions as she watches the nobles process in are also mirrored. In 101, we see her smirking at the arrival of Prince Joffrey, among others; in 801, she undergoes a litany of emotions as she watches three people arrive with whom she has very different relationships: her half-brother Jon, her best friend, Gendry, and her worst frenemy, the Hound, who is also in the original season one procession. In fact, he’s the only character who appears in both processions.
The season eight premiere also verbally echoes Arya’s childhood games. In 101, her mother asks her sister Sansa, “Where’s Arya? Sansa, where’s your sister?” Sansa shrugs. In 801, the moment Jon arrives, eager for his long-awaited reunion with his favorite sibling, he asks Sansa, again, “Where’s Arya?”
“Lurking somewhere,” she responds.
3) “Your grace, Winterfell is yours.”
In both episodes, the current ruler of Winterfell greets an arriving monarch with these words. In 101, the ruler is Ned Stark, who welcomes Lord Robert Baratheon. In 801, the ruler is his daughter Sansa Stark, now “the Lady of Winterfell,” and she’s giving a gracious but wary welcome to Daenerys Targaryen as she arrives with her army alongside Sansa’s (presumed) half-brother Jon Snow.
4) The monarch’s arrival at Winterfell receives the same musical flourish
For King Robert’s episode one arrival, Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi introduced a well-known theme, aptly named “The King’s Arrival.” For episode 801, Djawadi used a variation on that theme when Dany and Jon show up.
5) Both episodes contain a visit to the Stark crypt, where Lyanna Stark’s memory is an important plot point
In episode 101, Robert visits Lyanna Stark’s grave in the Winterfell crypt as soon as he arrives at the castle. Lyanna was Ned’s sister and Robert’s true love. The two had been engaged, but Lyanna was allegedly abducted by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen in a move that sparked an uprising, known as Robert’s Rebellion, and led to Robert deposing Rhaegar’s father the Mad King and taking the Iron Throne for himself. Lyanna, sadly, didn’t survive the violence.
But what we know by episode 801 is that Rhaegar never abducted Lyanna at all; they had, in fact, fallen in love and married in secret, after which Lyanna died in childbirth — giving birth to Jon Snow, whom Ned raised as his own illegitimate son to protect him from Robert’s wrath. In 801, while visiting the crypt to pay his own respects to Ned’s grave, Jon finally learns this huge secret for himself from his best friend, Samwell Tarly.
The season eight premiere also calls back to Jon’s ongoing identity crisis, introduced in episode 101. In 101, Tyrion Lannister commands Jon never to forget that he’s a bastard — to “wear it like armor.” Now in 801, Samwell essentially tells his friend to don his true armor and accept his real identity as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.
6) Both episodes take us to a brothel scene involving Jaime and Tyrion Lannister
In episode 101, we first meet Tyrion Lannister in a brothel and are introduced to him as the clever, lecherous “imp” whose love of wine and whores is made clear when his brother Jaime shows up to rib him about it.
In 801, Bronn, a grudgingly reformed mercenary who has been serving both Lannister brothers in some capacity for most of the series, is interrupted in his pursuits at a King’s Landing brothel by Cersei’s Master of Whispers, Qyburn. Qyburn comes bearing a grim proposition for Bronn: Cersei wants him to backstab Tyrion and Jaime and kill them both if they manage to survive the fight against the White Walkers. Qyburn hands Bronn a giant crossbow, which shrewd fans will recognize as the same one with which Tyrion shot and killed his father in a climactic episode of season four. Cersei gave it to Bronn to kill Tyrion as a deliberate act of dramatic irony.
If it’s not a trick, it’s a stunning development on Cersei’s part to kill Jaime, her longtime lover (and brother) and the father of all her children. (Three of them are now dead; she may or may not be pregnant with a fourth.)
7) Remember me?
The first episode of Game of Thrones, “Winter Is Coming,” had a pretty unforgettable ending: Jaime Lannister pushed Bran Stark out of a turret window in order to protect the secret of his incestuous relationship with his sister, Queen Cersei. This shocking moment, which happened just before the credits rolled, permanently paralyzed Bran, and its repercussions are still rippling through the show to this day.
Both characters have changed tremendously since then. Jaime has been fully redeemed from his former villainy, and Bran has become the Three-Eyed Raven. But Jaime hadn’t seen Bran since that fateful encounter, so to bring the structural and dramatic similarities full circle, the show made Jaime’s arrival at Winterfell the last thing that happened in episode 801.
The result: Jaime, arriving at Winterfell to pledge his assistance to the North, saw Bran across the crowded castle courtyard in the show’s final moments and proceeded to freak out while Bran stared at him coldly, making it clear that bygones are definitely not bygones.
Aaaaand roll credits.
What is it they say, again, Jaime? “The North remembers”? Perhaps you should have remembered that when you permanently injured a kid for the sake of a woman who now wants to kill you. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have had such a nice structural bookend, and a moment that felt so much like a payoff eight years in the making.