In the final poem of his Four Quartets, a rumination on the cyclical nature of war and the redemptive power of fire, T.S. Eliot had this to say about the great ouroboros of beginnings and endings: that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began, and to know it for the first time.”
When Game of Thrones began, nearly eight years ago today, it introduced us to Westeros through the eyes of the Stark children, as they clamored over ramparts and up wagons to catch a glimpse of the royal procession, dreamed of marrying golden princes or becoming noble knights, and believed in a world with an arc that bent inevitably toward justice and happy endings. It was a rose-colored moment in a bottle, a romantic, prelapsarian fantasy that they would look back on, later, as a way to measure how much they had lost—and now, how far they have come.
In the premiere episode of its final season, Game of Thrones brings us full circle, opening on another child weaving through the crowd at Winterfell to gawk at the pomp and circumstance of another royal procession—and Arya who parts the sea of people and lets him through. While all of the surviving Starks have finally returned to their home, no children remain, either because they are dead or because they stopped being children long ago.
Arya is no longer the little girl running around the castle in a soldier’s helmet, but an assassin par excellence. Sansa is no longer a quixotic teen enraptured with fairy tales, but the shrewd, steely Lady of Winterfell. Bran is no longer a boy with dreams of becoming a knight, but a warg and a greenseer. For as long and painful as the path home may have been, it was never a path back to the people they were or the things that were taken from them; there is no map to the lost city of the past, no road that leads anywhere but forward.
For all his transformations—bastard to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to King in the North to the pseudo-consort of a dragon queen—somehow it is Jon Snow who understands this the least, who arrives where he began and, in the immortal words of Ygritte, somehow seems to know nothing. He seems weirdly determined to keep his family locked in the amber of memory; never mind that Arya is now a deadlier fighter and Sansa a vastly superior politician, he still thinks of them as a prepubescent tomboy and a petulant, swooning teen. “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone,” he harrumphs to Arya in the Godswood, unable to see what is obvious to Arya and the rest of the world: Sansa actually is smarter than everyone. Like Ned and Robb before him, Jon seems to have inherited the fatal flaw that spelled doom for so many Stark men: He sees the world not as it is but as he is.
Perhaps that’s why Sansa is more than a little skeptical of his endorsement for Daenerys Targaryen as queen. “Did you bend the knee to save the north or because you love her?” she asks. She’s already seen her father and her brother invite political catastrophe and death by listening to their hearts rather than their common sense, and she’d rather not retread that particular narrative just because Jon is getting laid for the second time in his life and dragons are the world’s coolest roller coaster. Arya, too, reminds Jon to remember who his family really is, advice delivered with just enough ice to carry a hint of threat, assuming Jon were perceptive enough to notice, which he is not.
Sansa’s already seen her father and her brother invite political catastrophe and death by listening to their hearts rather than their common sense, and she’d rather not retread that particular narrative just because Jon is getting laid for the second time in his life and dragons are the world’s coolest roller coaster.
Her warning takes on new relevance toward the end of the episode, when Sam Tarly finally tells Jon the truth about his parentage, something Bran Stark refuses to do personally because … they’re cousins instead of brothers? I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but Bran’s been kind of a dick ever since he came back from his freshman year abroad in the past and/or future, so I’m not particularly invested in analyzing his inscrutable moods.
And so Jon learns that he is actually Aegon Targayren, the true born son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targayren, and thus heir to the Iron Throne. This is information that might have been useful to know before he slept with his aunt, but since that ship has already literally and metaphorically sailed, it’s better late than never. The revelation shakes Jon to his core, although his initial horror seems like it has more to do with not wanting to break his vow to Daenerys than disgust at their extremely close blood relationship. It says a lot about Westeros in general, and Jon in particular, that his first reaction is “but muh honor” and not “oh damn, I committed incest,” but I suppose everyone has their own order of operations.
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister is—as usual—embroiled in her own drama, which today involves having sex with Euron and getting really annoyed that she can’t Amazon Prime herself elephants. Oh, and putting out a hit on both her brothers. Her wanting to see Tyrion dead is no surprise, but I find it a little difficult to believe that she’d be willing to assassinate Jamie—her twin brother, who also happens to be the father of her unborn child—just because he went off on some semi-suicidal quest she didn’t agree with. Not because it’s heartless but because it’s weird and unearned and doesn’t make sense.
Even more baffling is Tyrion’s willingness to believe that Cersei is actually sending an army North to help him rather than a crossbow bolt to penetrate his skull, since his cynicism and distrust of his family, and Cersei in particular, has been a defining character trait of his since Day One and only reinforced at every turn. Naturally, it falls to Sansa to ask why he is behaving completely out of character, and he has no good answer because the real answer is “the script.” “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” Sansa sighs, turning away from her (former?) husband. I miss the early seasons too, girl.
To its credit, the show does capitalize on the consolidation of major characters by giving us some long-anticipated reunions—and equally uncomfortable reckonings. Sure, we all wanted to see Arya leap into Jon’s arms and talk shop about swords, but there’s also the discomfort of Arya facing the Hound for the first time since she left him for dead, or Daenerys stopping by to thank Sam for helping Jorah only to accidentally reveal that she burned his father and brother to death. Whoops!
And then there’s Jaime Lannister, who infamously closed out the series premiere by pushing a little boy out a window and paralyzing him for life. Jaime, too, has finally arrived back to where he began to find himself changed—once golden and arrogant, now graying, humbled, disfigured, both more and less than he once was. The episode closes the circle by bringing Jaime face-to-face with Bran, who sits in his wheelchair in the courtyard, now a man, or something more, or something less. They lock eyes, see each other for the first time, and say nothing about what they have lost, or how far they have come.