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Season 8, Episode 1 of Game of Thrones had plenty of plot twists and shocking moments to keep even the most casual viewer coming back for more. But after a few re-watches, even more layers of the story come to light. Though Thrones has become increasingly reliant on callbacks in its latest season, this episode functions as an intentional bookend to Season 1, Episode 1: “Winter Is Coming.” In other words, I could keep you here all day and we would never be able to quite get through all the throwback references in this particular installment of Game of Thrones. But don’t worry about this being completist, it’s simply an attempt to hit some highlights. So here’s a spoiler-free look at some of the book and show references, callbacks, and Easter eggs you might have missed from “Winterfell.”
Winter Is Coming: The opening of the episode with Queen Daenerys arriving at Winterfell was, of course, a very intentional refraction of Queen Cersei and King Robert Baratheon’s arrival in Season 1. Ramin Djawadi’s score even recycles King Robert’s Theme—which is not a tune we often hear on the soundtrack these days. The little local Winterfell boy scampering through the crowd is meant to invoke both young, rebellious Arya and Bran, while Sansa—ever the lady—is playing the role of Ned/Catelyn imperiously welcoming a visiting monarch to her home. “Winterfell is yours, Your Grace,” she says to Daenerys, precisely imitating her father’s long-ago words to Robert.
But Sansa also gets the chance to refer back to her own experience when Daenerys—with far better intentions than Cersei—gives the eldest Stark girl a compliment she’s heard before. She’s a little less impressed this time. Jon’s visits to both his family crypt and the godswood in this episode see him retracing Ned Stark’s Season 1, Episode 1 tracks. (Of course, his reunion with Arya under the weirwood tree was full of its own specific references.)
In fact the episode ends, just as it begins, with a direct nod to the pilot when Jaime Lannister himself finally returns to Winterfell.
Jaime’s arrival is halted in its tracks as he locks eyes with Bran (a reference, of course, to their last fateful meeting, which closed out Season 1, Episode 1), but you have to admit that even all these years and several darker shades of hair color later, the Kingslayer still knows how to make an entrance.
Ice and Fire: Before the season started, the showrunners dropped a clue that this year’s premiere would have a reference to the cold open that kicked off Game of Thrones nearly a decade ago. That cold open, if you don’t recall, saw a trio of Night’s Watch Rangers stumbling across some White Walker–made carnage, including a little Wildling kid pinned to a tree who later creepily opens up her bright blue eyes and scared the snot out of everyone. Take that but add screeching and fire and you have the shocking Season 8 reveal of poor dead Ned Umber at Last Hearth. While it’s true that the spiral pattern of limbs around him invoke the spiral patterns we’ve seen before from the White Walkers throughout the series . . .
. . . when lit on fire that flaming Ned pinwheel also bears a passing resemblance to the Targaryen sigil. R.I.P. little baby Ned Umber.
Dark Sisters: Look, I’m confident you knew exactly what Sansa was talking about when she said Joffrey’s wedding had its moments but I thought you might enjoy the visual anyway.
I’m also pretty sure you knew what Arya meant when she said she used Needle “once or twice.” What’s interesting is that though we’ve seen Arya kill quite a few men and women at this point, she hasn’t actually used Needle to do so all that often. “Once or twice” is actually fairly accurate. And while we’re on the subject of weapons . . .
. . . just in case you didn’t recognize the crossbow Qyburn handed Bronn when he tasked him with assassinating Cersei’s brothers, it’s the same one Tyrion used to murder his father, Tywin, back in Season 4. Qyburn mentioned that Cersei has a “poetic” sense of justice. You might recall that in the Season 7 episode titled, yes, “The Queen’s Justice,” Cersei tortured Ellaria and Tyene Sand with their own weapons: some lethal lipstick. So naturally she hung on to the crossbow that killed Tywin for precisely this occasion. She is exactly that kind of petty. (And yes, that wasan Ed Sheeran reference in Bronn’s sex scene, how observant of you.)
Chasing Waterfalls: We’re not sure that Jon Snow has a lot of game, but he does have some certain patterns when it comes to the women in his life: a) Get them in front of some kind of waterfall, b) watch them express the desire to stay with you forever, c) profit. Pretty smooth, you must admit. But are Daenerys’s words here justa callback to poor Ygritte and her cave? One fairly common theory among those trying to predict the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire is that Daenerys and/or Jon will have to take the Night King’s place north of the Wall in order to ensure that . . . um . . . balance returns to the Force? Or similar. So is Dany predicting her own doom here? Or Jon’s? Tune in to find out. Meanwhile, what was up with that look Drogon shot Jon?
Speaking of Drogon, maybe Daenerys should think twice before cracking jokes about dragons eating anything they want to. We’re only, like, three seasons removed from that time that Drogon went on a BBQ spree in Meereen and accidentally roasted a little girl instead of a goat. Whoops.
A little smoother, perhaps, on the romance front are Gendry and Arya, who are back together again after several seasons apart. Their banter leaned heavily on an old multi-season “milady/m’lady” joke about their class difference and her hidden gender identity. (With a small dash of Princess Bride farm-boy wit thrown in for good measure.) Some sharp-eyed book lovers think their exchange here—where Gendry nicely tells Arya she looks “good”—is a reference to what’s known as the Acorn Hall plot from A Storm of Swords. In that book George R.R. Martin writes:
Gendry put the hammer down and looked at her. “You look different now. Like a proper little girl.”
“I look like an oak tree, with all these stupid acorns.”
“Nice, though. A nice oak tree.”
He stepped closer, and sniffed at her.
“You even smell nice for a change.”
As cute as that is, I think I prefer this show version where the pair bond and flirt over the badass weapon Gendry is going to make for her. Not over a dress. Either way, their reunion callback is certainly preferable to the one Arya shares with the Hound.
I get it. He’s tough. She’s tough. He’s a dog. She’s a wolf girl. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Book Readers Only: Speaking of book references, there was a pair of nice ones in the King’s Landing plot. Euron tells the captive Yara that he doesn’t want to kill her because all his sailors are mutes. This is a nod to the fact that in the books Euron’s ship is called The Silence because it’s crewed by men who have had their tongues cut out by . . . Euron. When he attacks other fleets, he’ll drafts enemies that he’s captured into his service in order to replace the men he himself lost in battle. But to make sure they don’t conspire with each other to overthrow him he cuts out their . . . well, you get it. Longtime friend of the show and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiastar Rob McElhenney and Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr briefly cameoed as two of Euron’s men.
Meanwhile, Cersei plays the role of the disappointed book reader in this episode when she hears that the Golden Company arrived without their elephants. Their leader, Harry Strickland, cites the sea crossing as a reason the Golden Company left the elephants behind. We suspect the real reason was budgetary.
Speaking of budget, it’s been 1,079 days since we last saw the direwolf Ghost on Game of Thrones.
Promises Promises: During that big planning meeting at Winterfell, Sansa mocked her (ex/current/??) husband Tyrion in front of the assembly by repeating back his hyperbolic phrasing of “the biggest army the world has ever seen.” For those steeped in the show, this particular turn of phrase should recall the King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder who promised his followers they would know when to act because he would light the biggest fire the North had ever seen. Things didn’t exactly go well for Mance in the end. Let’s hope Tyrion’s plan turns out a bit better. But we have to say, given Cersei’s plans down South, things don’t look great for the Hand of the Queen.