Game of Thrones is a story about how structures shape individuals, societies, and even stories themselves. In the title sequence, we literally see this world being constructed, piece by lovely clockwork piece, under the light of an astrolabe whose orbiting bands depict both the known cosmos and the history of Westeros — a steampunk vision of physical and narrative form being called forth from the void. Bloodlines that determine one’s fitness to rule; walls that keep tribes separated; genre conventions that dictate whether dead people are, in fact, existentially required to stay dead: These are the forces our characters are both carried along by and push back against.
In recent seasons, our sprawling tale has lost some of the scaffolds that kept it coherent, like a commitment to logical rules of time and space and a rigorous pairing of action to consequence. But the show is still deeply concerned with shapes and patterns, as signaled by the early image in Sunday’s season-eight premiere of those knife-neat rows of Dothraki and Unsullied marching into Winterfell, their leaders, Daenerys and Jon, looking like a pair of photo negatives in their white and black furs.
As in this year’s spiraling dramas Russian Doll and Bandersnatch, one central motif of the reunion-filled “Winterfell” is the loop. The very first scene makes a series of explicit callbacks to season one, episode one: the reception line prepared to greet the royal procession, the small boy climbing to get a good view, the cold open (all puns intended) featuring a sole figure moving through the snow.
“Winterfell” further establishes this looping pattern by closing with a reminder of how this whole saga began. Jaime, his hair having turned from a summer-blond Lannister mane to a dark-gray-streaked crop, enters Winterfell only to realize that the young man silently watching him is none other than Bran. The last time they met, in the pilot, the Kingslayer was pushing the little boy out of a tower window, thus precipitating the War of the Five Kings. Similarly, the big reveal of Jon’s true parentage circles back to the inciting incident of another war: the love affair that instigated Robert’s Rebellion, which ended when Jaime earned his “Kingslayer” epithet by killing the Mad King Aerys II. For many seasons now, fans have passionately debated scenarios in which Bran’s time travel might make him a persistent eddy in Westerosi history, not only making his presence felt at the Tower of Joy or warping Hodor’s mind so that the gentle giant can for decades utter nothing but a presagement of his own horrible fate, but jumping further back to whisper “Burn them all” in Aerys’s ear, or further still to build the Wall, or further still to actually be the Night King. Layer in these theories and you start to get a sense that this universe could be endlessly recursive, spiraling and feeding off itself forever. Chaos is a ladder, but maybe it’s also a feedback loop.
Thematically, too, “Winterfell” hearkens back to the show’s earliest seasons, when so much of its animating energy came from the psychic drama of nuclear family relations: siblings resenting one another and children chafing against the legacy of their parents. Daenerys’s outsider status feels as much like a product of tension between reluctant sisters-in-law as it does between mingling foreign empires. (The small shared look of POC acknowledgement between Grey Worm and Missandei as they ride into Winterfell notwithstanding.) Jon has to face the fact that Bran and Arya have grown up, but not in the way he anticipated. The squabbling sisters of the first season have formed a tight alliance and his younger brother has become, well … whatever Bran’s become. “You’re a man now,” Jon says upon embracing him, eyes welling. “Almost,” says the Three-Eyed Raven.
Poor Samwell Tarly is hit with the news about his father and brother’s death ― or “murder,” as D.B. Weiss pointedly calls it in the behind-the-episode featurette ― at Daenerys’s hands. John Bradley’s face shows how painful Sam finds the loss of his family, despite the complicated, often cruel relationship between them. Meanwhile broken, weathered Theon is pulled back into the gravitational orbit of the family he grew up with and the foster brothers he has always measured himself against. It’s telling that even when Jon hears the much-hyped news about his parentage — while the statue of Ned Stark looms behind him in the Winterfell crypt — his first reaction isn’t to reel at the fact that he’s fallen into a classic Chosen One plot, but that the man he’s spent his whole life believing to be his father, and holding up as his paragon, was a liar.
In returning its characters to their homes and families, the episode not only loops but also contracts in time and space. After hours of boomeranging across two continents, it focuses on just three major strongholds: Winterfell, King’s Landing, and the Umbers’ castle, Last Hearth. Architecture is as much a shaping force as anything else on Game of Thrones, and with the destruction of the Wall in the season-seven finale, it’s as if everyone in Westeros is taking shelter where they can. Just as the revised title sequence takes us inside famous buildings for the first time, “Winterfell” takes place largely in a series of private, interior spaces: bedrooms, ship cabins, torchlit crypts.
At its best, Game of Thrones asks you to hold two narrative visions in your mind at once: the vast sweep that will end up in history books and the more personal dramas that spring up in the cracks. This episode puts a great deal of attention on the latter, with nearly every scene taking place between just two characters (save the occasional foursome, of course). This zooming in allows us to focus on the loveliest, most lived-in performances we’ve seen in a while. My notes from Sunday feature a running list of “good face acting,” noting things like the return of Maisie Williams’s sunny smile and Sophie Turner’s series of crisp and steely expressions ― particularly the moment where she softens as she asks her brother, knowingly, whether he bent the knee to Daenerys to save the North or because he loves her. After a haphazard seventh season in which so many characters behaved in ways that seemed to contradict our understanding of them, it was a relief to see the writers lean on these characters’ long-standing knowledge of each other’s history and patterns. (I loved, for instance, the sweet moment just before Sam reveals the truth to Jon when his long-separated friend asks, in essence, “How are the wife and kids?”)
On my second watching of the episode ― after I got over the fact that Cersei actually slept with Goth Pacey, still as ripe and dirty as ever ― I was able to enjoy the return of Game of Thrones’ keenest weapon: Lena Headey’s endlessly expressive face. After seasons where it seemed frozen in that perpetual half-tilted smirk, we could see it shimmer between an armored grimace and flashes of soft, raw feeling. The scene is so quiet, you can hear insects chirping. Even Pilou Asbæk got a chance to show something like a human smile.
But Headey adds another layer of interiority by giving us glimpses of what Cersei will not show Euron. She may say she likes his arrogance, but she sits turned away from him, the edges of her robe crossing her body like crime-scene tape, looking like any woman who’s just had a sexual encounter she feels slightly mixed about and so retreats into her own thoughts for a while. When Euron reaches around to touch her and says, “I’m going to put a prince in your belly,” Cersei shows a twinge of something like shock, then a hard bit of a smile. As he walks out she swallows ever so slightly and looks down at her wine with an inscrutable look. Does this mean she’s no longer pregnant ― if she ever was? Does she really have feelings for the funky pirate king, is she manipulating him, or as a woman who has lost or driven away everyone she’s close to, is she just longing for some human connection? I don’t know, but as the episode kept focusing on these smaller, narrower frames, the moment felt like the dead center of a private mystery, a pearl of a secret Cersei will keep from the world, and us viewers, for a little bit longer.
So, given all of this hour’s repeating structures and patterns, what are we to make of its most conspicuous design, the Night King’s cryptic spiral on the walls of Last Hearth? How exactly are we supposed to read this “message”? Like the show’s numerous prophecies, our Big Bad’s repetitive riddling patterns beg to be decoded. Is it merely a display of force? A schematic of the deadly and unseasonal weather pattern that trails in his wake? Maybe it’s supposed to echo the Targaryen sigil or reference some yet-unknown bit of lore from the White Walkers’ makers, the Children of the Forest. Maybe it’s a drawing of the wheel Daenerys has come to break.
But I think the spiral is as interesting as a thematic, narrative symbol as it is as a puzzle to be solved within the fictional world of the show. After all, its shape mirrors the episode’s repeated patterns of loops and interiors, as well as the show’s long-running tension between smallness and sprawl. The spiral’s arms spin outward from a central seed of violence, a fractal ripple that could depict endlessly radiating chaos ― Game of Thrones’ own widening gyre, as it were ― but also suggests an endless circle, a pattern that offers no escape. The White Walkers were created in an attempt to stop ancient civil war among the living, and they’ve returned to revisit that fate on their makers’ descendants. What is dead may never die.