For about 50 minutes, the Season 8 premiere episode of Game of Thrones, “Winterfell,” was a typical table-setting affair. Lots of people arrived in either Winterfell or King’s Landing, and conversations that laid out each character’s motivations made up the bulk of the episode. We got reunions aplenty and Daenerys told just about everyone she met to bend the knee. Thrones is back!
Then, the episode finally delivered the “splash” that director David Nutter promised back in November 2018: Tormund, Beric, and Dolorous Edd arrive at the Last Hearth. And damn, do they find a bombshell. The group stumbles on this:
It’s the body of Ned Umber, the child who is technically Lord of House Umber whom Jon pardoned last season. Earlier in the episode, he’d returned to his home to begin preparing for the war against the White Walkers, but the war found him first.
“It’s a message,” says Beric. “From the Night King.”
The distinctive pattern of those severed arms points toward the truth in Beric’s words. And when little Ned wakes up seconds later, his eyes a pale blue, it confirms that the White Walkers were the ones who did this. Luckily for the group of humans, Beric has a flaming sword on hand:
If this is a message, what is the Night King trying to say? It’s too soon to suss out his exact meaning (and the answer may be little more than “We’re coming for you”), but the symbols he used didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, the White Walkers have been sending a message to the humans since the very beginning of the show. This is from three minutes into the very first episode:
That’s not exactly a spiral, but that opening scene—in which a handful of Night’s Watch rangers stumble on at least one White Walker—also features a dead child nailed to a tree:
The scene in Season 8’s premiere is clearly a callback to the very first scene of the series. Between them lies seven seasons, 68 episodes, and multiple moments when the White Walkers attempted to send “a message” to the humans.
In Season 3, when Jon, Mance Rayder, and the wildlings arrive at the Fist of the First Men, they find the aftermath of the White Walkers’ attack on the Night’s Watch there. There are no dead humans at the Fist, but there are dead, mangled horses. A lot of them. “Always the artists,” Mance says before the camera zooms out to reveal a spiral pattern of horse carcasses:
I don’t know whether the Night King has seen The Godfather, but he took the idea of using a horse’s head as an intimidation tactic and turned it up to 11 here. More importantly: Mance’s words are more than just a clever quip. He was able to unite the wildlings in part because of the White Walker threat, making him as familiar with them as anyone we’ve seen in the show. The way he says “always” in this scene indicates that this is hardly the first time the White Walkers have left such warnings.
So, why spirals? In Season 6, we learn that the spirals aren’t a creation of the White Walkers. In fact, they may be an invention of the Children of the Forest. When Bran has his vision back to the creation of the White Walkers in Episode 5 of that season, the camera shows us an overhead view of the weirwood tree the Children are gathered around:
And in Season 7, when Jon is in the caves on Dragonstone, we see more spirals left from the Children in the carvings on the walls of the cavern:
There are even some symbols that resemble the one the White Walkers left in the series premiere:
David Benioff, one of the showrunners of Thrones, confirmed that these symbols came from the Children on an “Inside the Episode” segment after Episode 5 of Season 6. He even confirmed the connection between the Children’s symbols and those used by the White Walkers:
There are certain symbols and patterns that recur throughout the show. The first time we saw that was in one of the very first scenes in the pilot, when Will the ranger sees the wildling body parts in an odd pattern displayed by the White Walkers. We see it again north of the Wall with the dead horses displayed in a spiral pattern, and then you see it again here and learn where these patterns come from, that they’re ancient symbols of the Children of the Forest used in their rituals, and the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers.
That brings us back to Beric’s analysis, that the Night King wanted to leave “a message” for the humans. Beric seems correct, but he couldn’t have possibly known all the mythology that goes into the symbols the White Walkers are using. That they still use symbolism of the Children of the Forest shows that they may still have a connection to the Children—or at least, that they remember how they were created. Perhaps if there are any Children left, they could explain what, exactly, these symbols mean. And that could be the first step to figuring out what the White Walkers want.
Episode 1 of Season 8 brought us a message. Let’s hope that by Episode 2, someone figures out how to decode it.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.