'Game of Thrones' Final Season Premiere: 11 Callbacks to the Pilot

Game of Thrones E801 - Still 5 - Publicity - H 2019
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for the final season premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones, "Winterfell."]

"Time is a flat circle." They are not the cold words of a great Westeros family. Instead, they hail from an HBO drama of another color entirely: True Detective. Ser Rustin of House Cohle's iconic phrase all the same connects to Game of Thrones, especially in light of the final season premiere and its connection to the fantasy epic's very first episode.

Indeed, there are a ton of obvious connections between "Winter is Coming" and "Winterfell," the season one and eight premieres, respectively. Then there are the quieter nods, the ones a viewer may not glean at first glance. Ahead, The Hollywood Reporter rounds up both kinds of callbacks, as the end of David Benioff and Dan Weiss' tale takes a deliberate path forward with its earliest moments in mind.

• Both episodes begin beyond the Wall, albeit not as obviously as some of the other connections. In "Winter is Coming," the series takes flight when a trio from the Night's Watch sets forth from Castle Black, only to encounter a White Walker and its undead minions in the Haunted Forest. "Winterfell," meanwhile, begins with a brand new opening credits sequence that starts from beyond the Wall for the first time ever, charting the Army of the Dead's progression into Westeros. It's a quick and powerful way to demonstrate just how far the series has come, but still never far from its frozen beginnings.

• In "Winter is Coming," much of the action centers on King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his procession arriving in Winterfell. "Winterfell," of course, follows suit, albeit with a different royal party: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and Holder of So Many Other Titles. Back in the day, King Robert rode into town on a horse. Same deal with Dany, except she has a couple thousand additional horse lords in the form of Dothraki warriors, not to mention the two dragons sailing overhead. 

• The final season premiere's handling of Dany's arrival mirrors the way King Robert first landed at Winterfell in "Winter is Coming." Then, there was a focus on both Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) doing everything in their power to sneak a look at the royal family. Now, Arya is still sneaking about, but not with the same childlike wonder — not until she sees the dragons in the sky, at least. Bran, meanwhile, is in the courtyard of Winterfell, patiently awaiting the arrivals; his youthful enthusiasm has passed to another young child, an anonymous boy who climbs the towers outside Winterfell, not unlike Bran's favorite childhood pastime. 

• Listen closely, and you'll notice that the scenes sound very similar, too. That's because composer Ramin Djawadi's score stands the test of time, with the same themes from the pilot echoing forward into the events of "Winterfell," as Daenerys and Robert's arrivals audibly call back and forth to one another.

• King Robert came to Winterfell to ask a Northerner for help: old friend Ned Stark (Sean Bean), who he wished to name Hand of the King. As incentive, Robert offered a marriage pact between his son and Ned's daughter, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Sansa (Sophie Turner). Much to unpack there in terms of how that old offer echoes through time now. For one, Sansa was once starstruck at the possibility of becoming a princess and even a queen; now, she's on the other side of a Lannister marriage, albeit to Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), completely disenchanted with his family's golden lies. There's still a shot at love between Houses Baratheon and Stark, however, in a fashion Robert neither intended nor could have predicted: his bastard son Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Arya, old friends from the time they spent on the road together years ago, now reunited with much more mileage under their belts. It was hot in the blacksmith forges of Winterfell, and not just because of the sparks flying from Gendry's hammer.

• The relationship between Northerner and Southerner is another thread bonding the two episodes, except flipped. In "Winter is Coming," Robert came to Ned with crown in hand, desperate for a friend. In the modern Game of Thrones moment, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) needs Dany and her army to help fend off the White Walkers, promising to support her pursuit of the crown in turn. In the pilot, Robert and Ned not only made their deep love for one another known, they also went off on an episode-ending hunt together. In "Winterfell," Jon and Daenerys went far north on a hunt of their own, and also made their deep love for one another known — in a very different fashion from Robert and Ned, sure, but still!

• Jon and Daenerys reflect another couple from the first episode of the series: Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey). Both couples snuck away from the greater group in order to spend some intimate time alone. Both couples were caught in the act: Jaime and Cersei by Bran, Daenerys and Jon by the dragons. One of these gotcha moments is not like the other.

• Sadly, yet another common bond between the Jon/Daenerys and Jaime/Cersei pairings: incest. In the case of the Lannister siblings, their inbreeding was their proud secret. For Jon, it's his new shame, as he finally learns the truth about his Targaryen roots. "Winterfell" does not yet deal with how Jon plans to act on the secret, but for the audience at least, the sensation of feeling scandalized in this manner is as familiar and ancient as it gets on Game of Thrones.

• The location where Jon learns the truth about his parents matters, too: the Winterfell crypts, right beside the bones of his dead father. This is the same place where Robert and Ned met in "Winter is Coming," in which they paid homage to Lyanna Stark — Robert's late beloved, Ned's late sister and Jon's late mother. Indeed, just as Robert and Ned were veritable brothers due to their time together as children under the tutelage of the late Jon Arryn, Jon's reveal in the crypt comes courtesy of Sam, his veritable brother due to their time together at the Night's Watch.

• The episode ends with a huge callback to the series premiere: Jaime and Bran's reunion. At the end of "Winter is Coming," Jaime famously pushed Bran out of a window, claiming, "The things I do for love." At the end of "Winterfell," Jaime is back in the North, rejecting his sister in order to fight for the allied forces of the living. One can imagine his new mantra: "The things I do for honor." Tell that to Bran, who is now living a very different life, all thanks to his fateful encounter with the Kingslayer so many years ago.

• Finally, while it's not the end of the episode, it's worth returning to where we started connecting the two hours of Thrones: the White Walkers. In "Winterfell," Beric and Tormund reach the Last Hearth just in time to see the Night King's handiwork: a boy nailed to a wall, surrounded by severed limbs positioned as an ancient glyph. It's the same glyph seen in the pilot's first sequence, when the Night's Watch riders found a bunch of wildlings similarly butchered and positioned. The symbol itself draws its roots from the Children of the Forest, who created the Night King. What exactly does it mean for the Army of the Dead and its larger mission, not to mention the larger Game of Thrones themes? Consider it a mystery to puzzle out on a future occasion.

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