The final season premiere of Game of Thrones (excuse me while I reach for my Costco-sized box of tissues) came with great expectation and went. It was just shy of an hour, bursting with moments of hilarity, discomfort, and a moment or two of questionable dialogue. It was gorgeous and cinematic, as we have come to expect from the HBO juggernaut. Ramin Djawadi continues to be the proverbial handsome God of Music.
The sharpest note of “Winterfell,” however, was not a singular scene but rather how deeply the writing harkened back to the pilot episode of the show: “Winter is Coming.” The echoes were present from the opening scene to the closing shot. Some of the callbacks were more subtle than others, but in the context of this being the beginning of the end, it largely worked. The key was for the show to toe the line of tapping into to our deep sense of nostalgia but in away that feels like the story is moving forward, that things have changed, maybe irrevocably.
The opening scene harkens back to Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) climbing stones and trees to catch a better glimpse of the arriving Baratheon royal family. Here it is an unknown boy doing the same to catch a glimpse of the arriving Targaryen army. Arya (Maisie Williams) is once again initially missing from the welcoming party, rushing to observe her memories from the past in the flesh and seeing the dragons with an eye of wonder. Fittingly, it is Sansa (Sophie Turner) who formally welcomes the new arriving party, a key reversal from a pilot where she wanted nothing more than to be as far away from the North as humanly possible.
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) remarks to Sansa about the beauty that she holds, a remark a younger Sansa took with great pride from Cersei (Lena Headey) but now looks upon with a sharp disinterest. Sansa understandably worries about the grain and supplies rations now that there is an army of Unsullied, Dothraki, and two fully grown dragons. It’s a valid concern echoed by Catelyn’s (Michelle Fairley) pilot concerns about the amount of alcohol alone Robert (Mark Addy) was going to consume.
In the macabre, destroyed halls of Last Hearth, Lord Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) unfortunately continues to remind us why it is a bad idea to name a child “Ned.” The limb, um, artistry, around his displayed body is reminiscent of the design the White Walkers left in their wake at the beginning of the series. When he awakes, his eyes pop and I was instantly reminded of the young girl in the pilot, whose piercing blue eyes instantly told the audience that there was something terrible amiss.
Arya and Jon’s (Kit Harington) reunion held a significant amount of pathos. Arya and Jon spent little screen time together, but their importance on one another’s character development was immense. When she presents Needle to Jon, it mirrors the heartbreaking scene in season one where Jon gave her that very sword, a sign that he believed in the path she was choosing for herself. The additional pathos in this nostalgic comeback comes from Jon not realizing yet how much Arya has changed since the last time they had seen one another. It mirrors additionally how Jon has yet to fully realize how much Sansa has changed and how much more capable she has become.
Bronn (Jerome Flynn) echoes Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) brothel dalliances in a callback that was maybe gratuitous but ends on a note of poignant tragedy. In the latter’s case, he was interrupted by his brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and in this case, it is arguably the less pleasant company of Qyburn (Anton Lesser). Qyburn’s arrival signals further memories from “Dark Wings, Dark Words” (Episode 3.02) and “The Children” (Episode 410). The most infamous crossbow in Game of Thrones history, it was a tool of manipulation by Margaery (Natalie Dormer) against Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and it was used by Tyrion to discover that Tywin (Charles Dance) did not in fact shit gold.
The writers making that particular crossbow a potential weapon by which Bronn is going to kill Tyrion and or Jaime is more than just “a keen sense of poetic justice.” It’s a beautiful layering that exemplifies the types of callbacks and nostalgia that lift a story instead of just giving it a cheap emotional punch. Tyrion was often used to psychological abuse by his family, often finding some reprieve only in Jaime’s presence. Bronn arguably became his truest friend, the one with whom he was able to forge a deep friendship in spite of their numerous difference. For that friendship, never absent their respective realities, to be attacked by the same crossbow Tyrion used to put an end to his abusive father is heartbreakingly poignant.