HBO’s Game of Thrones

Time is a Bloody Spiral Between “Winter Is Coming” and “Winterfell”

The Mexica believed that time was a spiral. Not a circle, where everything that happened previously was destined to happen again, identical, ad inifinitum. Not linear, where the way forward was uncharted and momentum, progress, and change ruled the day. But, as author/illustrator James Gurney once pointed out to my eight-year-old brain, a combination of the two: a spiral. The forces of history push us ever forwards, but events rhyme with one another—parallel but not identical. That was what I couldn’t get out of my head after watching “Winterfell,” the final season premiere of Game of Thrones.

The episode was a pretty stunning homage to the very first of the series, 2011’s “Winter Is Coming.” A number of articles (as well as Benioff and Weiss’s “Inside the Episode”) pointed out the parallel scenes of King Robert and company’s arrival at Winterfell and Queen Daenerys doing the same, with almost-identical shots of the Hound riding in, and Sansa having the same lines as her mother, as well as the return of the leitmotif of the Royal Baratheon line. Similarly, where “Winter Is Coming” ends with Bran being flung from a tower by Jaime Lannister, this Sunday’s premiere ended with the first time since that moment that the two characters have seen one another. Jon and Arya are reunited with parallel presentation of swords and a familiar hug. We also see the return of long forgotten items, places, and character traits set to new purpose: Joffrey’s crossbow, the Winter’s Town main road, Gendry’s blacksmithing skills. It’s always delightful to me when long-running shows reflect on themselves by providing these nods and connections to their early history. It’s certainly one of the more innocuous forms of fan service. But, importantly, in Game of Thrones (and in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels), time is not cyclical. It spirals, and much of the parallelism felt designed to make viewers reflect on how far things had come, and how far gone some characters have become in the interim.

This was, after all, an episode of forward-moving consequences as well as echoes. Take the episode titles, for a start. The series premiere was named for the Stark family motto—“Winter is coming”—a bleak prognostication of inevitable decay. The most recent episode’s title may technically be a reference to the Stark ancestral home, but it also serves as a bookend on that same motto: winter fell. The looming dread is already upon us and what has brought us to this point ensures that we cannot go back. Martin’s novels often play with the butterfly effect of minor character actions. Any good storyteller keeps track of the events that have led their characters to the next part of their arc, but Martin especially delights in the ways that the smallest mistakes or the most meaningless of interactions end up haunting characters down the line. Jaime Lannister sarcastically telling Roose Bolton to send along his regards to Robb Stark at the Red Wedding becomes a pivotal piece of evidence in falsely convincing Catelyn Stark that the Kingslayer was one of the architects of her son’s murder—an act that currently seems poised to get him killed by Catelyn’s surviving children. Sunday’s episode took this same philosophy to heart. Dany’s decision to immolate Randyll and Dickon Tarly last season felt like a dramatic but ultimately minor referendum on her questionable ability to rule. In this episode, we see its revelation spur Sam to reveal Jon’s heritage to him in an indelicate manner where the information becomes more weaponized and destructive than it might have been otherwise. The scene mirrors one in “Winter is Coming” where Ned and Robert speak about Lyanna’s death in front of her sarcophagus—a trusted advisor and a King with uncertain Targaryen lineage (the Baratheons could be considered an unofficial offshoot of House Targaryen) confer about one’s problematic hatred of Daenerys—but the roles are now reversed and instead of the secret of Jon’s heritage being concealed, it is revealed. We may be channeling an earlier moment, but there is no going back.

Similarly, Jon and Daenerys’ tryst in a remote cave recalls, almost precisely, his earlier fantasy with his then-lover Ygritte. But where that moment was erotically charged, filled with possibility and promise for the future, this one is weighed down by grief and dramatic irony. We, as viewers, know that Jon and Dany’s romance is (probably) doomed, being both incestuous and politically explosive. Jon and Dany as characters know that there is no possibility of the fantasy lasting for more than the span of a moment, given the immense responsibility that both are saddled with by their people and dire circumstances.

And everywhere else, the episode reminds us, in ironic and familiar ways, of characters’ inability to return to past iterations of themselves. Sansa, who once believed, wholeheartedly, in the power of romantic love to trounce political reality, now questions Jon’s motives in pledging his allegiance to Daenerys—asking if he did so for the North or for love. Arya, who once took comfort in the simplicity of a misogynistic gender binary—men and masculine activities are good, women and the feminine sphere are bad—sours her reunion with Jon, at least somewhat, by siding with Sansa and pronouncing her once detested sister as “the smartest person” she’s ever known. Where Tyrion was once the stalwart shield that guarded Sansa against the rest of his family’s machinations, now he is an emissary of two conquering queens who threaten to undo the Lady of Winterfell’s hard-won security. Varys, Tyrion, and Davos, all veteran advisors of multiple monarchs, are finally working together at one unified scheme—to join Jon and Dany in matrimony. But, for perhaps the first time in the show, we know much more than they do and understand that all three, despite their combined wisdom, are unaware of the long-held secret of Jon’s parentage that will utterly undo their best-laid plans.

Even moments that feel as though they should be the end points of stories are revealed to the beginning of another spiraling layer of disappointment and consequence. Theon rescues Yara but he’s only saved one of his families, and the other one, his foster family, is facing an even greater threat. Euron finally achieves his petty goal of sleeping with Cersei but is only further wracked by a need to be reassured of his sexual prowess. Bronn is content to be a survivor and take in the pleasures that money can buy while accepting his next murderous commission, but the one that might finally let him retire requires him to murder the only two men who have ever come close to being his friend. Cersei amasses the army she has always dreamed of: Lannister soldiers, the Iron Fleet, and Golden Company mercenaries, but she is bitterly (and hilariously) disappointed by the lack of war elephants. It may be one of the more winking, meta-discursive moments on the show, but it is also another proof that, in a spiraling conception of time, cyclical repetition does not mean fulfillment or signify an end.

Screenshot: HBO

Sigmund Freud, in his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche, tells us that the “unheimliche,” or “uncanny” in English, is a quality in which things are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Spiral time is uncanny. We are reminded of familiar events and sequences but they are spiked with the creeping dread that they are not quite what we think or expect them to be. Maybe this is most clear in the season eight opening titles which seem almost to parody the familiar sequence. Winter has come to the famous game board, leeching the color out of mechanical kingdoms and landmasses. It forces us to see things from the perspective of the White Walkers, starting at the breach in the Wall instead of King’s Landing and showing the tiles that lead south flipping over to reveal a hellish blue incandescence as the forces of death advance. Moreover, we are now asked to dig deeper and look within to see what makes the game work. Where previous seasons were content to focus on the outer machinations of how cities and empires are built (with the occasional broken piece like Harrenhal), now we dive into the wheels within wheels. We see the interiors and the undersides of familiar places, be it the hallowed safety and tradition of Winterfell’s crypts, or the rotting dragon skulls and black cells that lurk below the throne room in King’s Landing. King’s Landing and Winterfell can’t just be pieces on a game board to be used as needed once you have been inside them and seen what makes them tick. The game isn’t just wrapping up in order to be started anew; it is becoming unplayable.

We might be tempted to think of spirals as orderly and predictable, but “Winterfell” reinforces the idea that time in Westeros is not organized in a tightly-bound pattern but a widening gyre: each revolution around the center may echo previous events, but it brings its own entropy and decay. My partner (perhaps prudently) hates the over-quoting of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” (published the same year as Das Unheimliche) so I am sure I’ll be on the receiving end of a firmly raised eyebrow, but Yeats is rather appropriate here. After all, his poem tells us that, within this widening gyre:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned

History is a whirlwind: a vision of chaos where historical parallels cannot lead those who augur them to wisdom and forethought. If “Winterfell” is the second coming of the series pilot, it is one where things have fallen apart. After all, the spiral is literally the language of the white walkers—the mark of their having descended on the innocent. And what better metaphor for innocence drowned than a shrieking abomination in the form of murdered child, nailed to the wall of the Last Hearth, the arms of his subjects spiraling out from his mutilated body. The blood-dimmed tide is yet to arrive, but winter has come.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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