To go forward, you must go back

Hi guys, I hope you guys are all doing well and that you’re enjoying the final season of Game of Thrones – squeeee it’s so exciting. However, I know some of you out there are trying to avoid Game of Thrones, so you might want to sit this one out if you do because I’m going to be going full spoilers up in here – proceed at your own peril!


As many people noticed, the new season has a beautiful new title sequence, but that they also noticed something slightly different – they seem to go backwards compared to previous seasons. This has led me to re-watch the last two episodes (at the time of writing) to work out what is happening and why the producers would choose to do this. We’ll weave in some bits of book analysis and analysis of previous shows and ultimately try to work out what the show and George may be implying.

The beginning of the end

As many eagle-eyed viewers noticed, the title sequence for Season 8 has been thoroughly overhauled to include lots of new details and there have already been many excellent analyses of the new titles, e.g. SaraSmartist’s on Twitter. Moreover, the art director of the Season 8 credits, Kirk Shintani, told Buzzfeed that:

From episode to episode, pay attention, because there’s lots of hints scattered around.

With this in mind, we know that we should probably pay attention to the credits for any potential clues.

Starting at the beginning of the titles, the astrolabe previously showed the Doom of Valyria, then Robert’s Rebellion and the Baratheon victory on the Trident, in that order as you can see in the screenshots below (pulled from the wikia).

In the new season’s title sequence, the astrolabe has been revamped and now shows the fall of the Wall, the Red Wedding and the birth of Dany’s dragons, respectively:

This demonstrates a reversed chronological order in comparison to the events in the show and in the way that the astrolabe events were previously depicted.

In addition to this, the direction of the camera panning Westeros now goes from the broken Wall down to King’s Landing in the south, so far stopping at the Last Hearth and Winterfell en route. Once again, this is a reversal of the title directions compared to previous seasons.

Another thing that wallops you over the head when watching the first episode of Season 8 is how many parallels to Season 1 there are. So many, in fact, that Maisie Williams said that every viewer should go back and re-watch Season 1 in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

This parallel starts right from the get-go, with a small child running through crowds to get a better look at the army arriving at Winterfell, with the monarch arriving to the sounds of the House Baratheon soundtrack:

Screenshot (5)

It is continued with the line-ups in the Winterfell courtyard, with the representative of House Stark giving Winterfell to the monarch:

These are really strong visual parallels that viewers cannot fail to recognise, and this is scattered throughout many of the scenes that we see in Season 8 so far. So, what is the point of this reversal and the similarities between Season 1 and Season 8?

I think the showrunners could be tapping into a deeper motif that is present within the episodes and A Song of Ice and Fire itself – the idea of starting back.

“We should start back”

“We should start back” is the opening line of the A Game of Thrones Prologue and it is the opening to an ominous chapter and our first glimpse of the Others. This is uttered by the hardened old ranger, Gared, to ask the arrogant lordling Waymar Royce to reconsider their ranging. It is a call to stop and take stock of the unnatural stillness surrounding the rangers on their northern wanderings. By not starting back, the rangers are attacked by the Others and killed to a man (either by the Others or by Ned Stark).

Similarly, Sansa and Joffrey on their tour of the Riverlands come across Mycah and Arya playing at swords – “We should start back” says Sansa, but Joffrey continues on regardless and causes the deaths of poor Mycah and Lady and the abandonment of Nymeria.

In contrast, Tyrion Lannister faces his own start back moment when jailed in the Eyrie. Having talked his way into a sky cell, he finds himself staring into the bloody blue, a call to jump to his death or start back. He chooses to talk his way back out of the sky cell, a mirror image of his entrance there, so starting back in a sense. His brother Jaime does something similar, leaving Harrenhal, receiving a strange weirwood dream, and starting back to Harrenhal to save Brienne.

We also see the start back motif in some of the common refrains of the series, such as Quaithe’s cryptic:

“To go north, you must journey south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.”

Dany’s catchphrase of “if I look back, I am lost”and even Tyrion’s “wherever wh*res go” (referring back to Tyrion’s formative experience with Tysha taht has coloured all of his interactions with women since) also allude to starting back.

This is all over the books and it is something that has been explored by great analysts like Rusted Revolver, Ravenous Reader and Lucifer means Lightbringer, amongst others. Moreover, as is pointed out over and over again, we see many parallels between historical characters and the present characters, as well as repeated symbolic motifs and archetypes throughout history. Importantly, I think this speaks to patterns not only of an individual’s behaviour (e.g. Tyrion’s mouth getting him into trouble, Waymar’s arrogance getting the rangers into trouble) but also of the patterns of behaviour on a societal level in Westeros, that also need changing – we should all start back.

Dance with me then by sanrixian

This is why I believe the reversal of the title sequence and parallels to Season 1 are important clues, as very literal depictions of this motif. Now we are reaching the climax of the series, I think this motif is coming at us thick and fast and I’ll explore a few of the ways I think the show is, er, showing this and how some of this plays out in the books.

Redemption arcs

Importantly, it seems that starting back is the means by which one begins to redeem themselves in a sense. A clear example of this can be seen in Lucifer means Lightbringer’s reverse reading of the Prologue; by reading the Prologue forwards, the symbolic narrative depicts the start of the Long Night, but in reverse, the Prologue shows the end of the Long Night. By starting back, the character who (symbolically) caused the Long Night can reverse their actions and redeem themselves.

This idea gets a direct callout in the Season 8, Episode 2:

Tyrion: I remember the first time we were here The first time I saws this hall. You were a golden lion. I was a drunken wh*remonger. It was all so simple.
Jaime: It wasn’t so simple. I was sleeping with my sister and you had one friend in the world, who was sleeping with his sister.
Tyrion: I was speaking in relative terms.
Jaime: Do you miss it?
Tyrion: Of course I miss it.
Jaime: Well, my golden lion days are done, but wh*remongering is still an option for you.
Tyrion: It’s not. Things would be easier if it were. The perils of self-betterment.

Jaime and Tyrion both reference their first appearance in the series so strengthen the idea that they have started back, while showing how much they have changed as characters. Notice that the starting back is specifically associated with the perils of self-betterment, which speaks to this redemption idea of starting back as a necessary element of moving forward. How pertinent that this is called out in Winterfell, the episode where both of these character were introduced doing the activities they now repudiate.

As is implied above, Jamie Lannister has something of a redemption arc although, personally, I feel it’s far from satisfying in the show but whatever, this isn’t an episode review, don’t at me 😛 In the narrative, Jaime goes from throwing a small boy from a Winterfell tower window so he isn’t discovered banging his twin sister to abandoning his sister in King’s Landing to return to Winterfell and fight the undead. He also at least acknowledges attempting to kill a child was wrong in the show and apologises to Bran in the godswood, so gold star, Jaime, for having the basics of a moral compass now.

Theon is another prime example of starting back as a redemption arc – in earlier seasons, he had the opportunity to fight with the Starks and chose to betray his foster family by attacking Winterfell instead. This was despite serious misgivings on his part, internally – this is similar to Waymar ignoring warnings and carrying on with the ranging, instead of starting back. Now, having been presented with another chance, Theon and the ironborn stand poised to protect Bran in the heart of Winterfell. Given the strong parallels to Season 1, I wonder if Theon’s lifesaving archery skills will be necessary to save Bran’s life from undead wildlings and former Night’s Watchmen, in a parallel to being saved from Osha and the deserters.

Screenshot (13).png

One important aspect that I think is highlighted in Jaime and Bran’s interactions in the godswood and with Sansa’s reaction to Theon is the theme of forgiveness. While Theon/Jaime/others atoning for their crimes is a necessary part of a redemption arc, it is not sufficient – the victim’s forgiveness and choice of peace over vengeance is also essential to allow both characters to move on.

This is exemplified beautifully by (book) Ellaria’s comments to the older Sand Snakes in ADWD:

“A start?” said Ellaria Sand, incredulous. “Gods forbid. I would it were a finish. Tywin Lannister is dead. So are Robert Baratheon, Amory Lorch, and now Gregor Clegane, all those who had a hand in murdering Elia and her children. Even Joffrey, who was not yet born when Elia died. I saw the boy perish with mine own eyes, clawing at his throat as he tried to draw a breath. Who else is there to kill? Do Myrcella and Tommen need to die so the shades of Rhaenys and Aegon can be at rest? Where does it end?”
“Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maidenhood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must El and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loree for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end?” Ellaria Sand laid her hand on the Mountain’s head. “I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?”

This is the cycle of violence that is perpetuated in Westerosi society and, as elucidated by Ellaria here, it cannot be stopped with more violence. Instead, peace and forgiveness is the only way to break this cycle. This theme is one that has been explored well by  Bronsterys, Melanie, Lot Seven and others in the first episode of NOWIE so I recommend you all check that out too.

Fall is coming

The fall of the patriarchy that is! (Yes, my British sensibilities are offended by using ‘fall’ that pun, but it just had to be done.)

Another example of starting back that we see comes in the form of changes in the face of larger societal norms. For example, Brienne finally receives the honour and recognition of a knighthood, regardless of her gender, prefaced with this:

Tormund: She’s not a ser? You’re not a knight?
Brienne: Women can’t be knights.
Tormund: Why not?
Brienne: Tradition.
Tormund: Fuck tradition.

In addition to being some of the best Braime shipping material we’ve had access to in years, this speaks to an important aspect of starting back. Society’s framework, which disenfranchises women systematically from positions of power and strength relative to men, is something that had not been questioned until this point. Specifically, tradition here is the societal expectations of women in Westerosi society imposed on every member of that society, over and over and over again. By encouraging Brienne and Jaime to abandon tradition, Tormund is asking them to return to their ideas of what can be done and what should be done, ensuring that they do not repeat the errors of their ancestors. This is the culmination of Brienne and Jaime’s dynamic and honestly I could not be happier.

Me, a Braime shipper, watching this scene

It is not only that women were disenfranchised from traditional male activities – they were also systematically disenfranchised from power. Historically, Westeros never had a Queen ruling in her own right, despite many instances of the oldest Targaryen being a woman – Queen Visenya was older than Aegon the Conqueror, for instance, and Queen Rhaenyra was declared heir by every lord in Westeros but her younger half-sibling Aegon II usurped her in the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. There’s even a Princess Rhaenys, the “Queen Who Never Was”, who everyone agrees was totally amazing and she totally should have been queen instead of King Viserys I. This motif can even be found in the myths of the far east,specifically the Blood Betrayal, where the Amethyst Empress was usurped and killed by her younger brother, the Bloodstone Emperor, a crime so terrible it brought on the Long Night. Ba’al the Bard has done excellent work on this so far and I, for one, am looking forward to the next instalments, so go and check that out once you’re done here :D.

Now, in contrast to these historical precedents (or lack thereof), we see queens everywhere – Queen Daenerys, Queen Cersei, Queen Yara, queen (of my heart) Sansa.

Daenerys: We have other things in common. We both know what it is like to lead people who aren’t inclined to accept a woman’s rule, and we’ve both done a damn good job of it from what I can tell.

Screenshot (16)
I’m also a fully fledged Dansa shipper now

In addition to this, Season 6 and 7 brought many more women ruling the various kingdoms – Dorne gained Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes, and the Reach was ruled by Olenna Tyrell. This somewhat parallels the end of the Targaryen civil war, the Dance of the Dragons. We got a lot more information about this in the Fire and Blood history that was published last year but, most interestingly for this analysis, Cregan Stark was planning to continue the war but the women ruling preferred peace and that is how the war ended (woot, go Black Aly Blackwood!!). This re-instatement of women’s political powers helps to protect lives and break the cycle of vengeance, hearkening back to Ellaria’s quote earlier.

Jerry Springer, RLJ edition

And the scrolls from the Citadel show… Ned is NOT the father! Dun dun duuuuuuun….

Much like the angry parentage reveals on trashy reality TV shows (that I secretly love), origin stories could be another example of a start back motif, given that the characters have to reconsider who they are and where they come from in light of new information.

The prime example of this is Jon who is just learning about his Targaryen heritage. I’m not entirely sure what impact this is having on him, but his first thought was to reevaluate Ned’s actions. Given that Jon has modeled himself on Ned so thoroughly (Season 6’s costume change is a strong visual example of this), the fact that Ned’s actions can now be seen in a totally different light is as much of a start back moment as learning Rhaegar was the baby daddy. Moreover, the his is the song of ice and fire reveal will presumably be a key aspect of the end of the Long Night.

We can also see that this information is causing Dany to reassess her life, having grown up as one of two Targaryens in the world, and witnessing the demise of the other one. Now, up pops another one from out of left field with potentially some of the worst timing possible and Dany’s stony face here is meant to make us think of Mad King Aerys’ paranoia about treasons. This is especially pertinent given that we are being reminded frequently of her burning of the Tarlys and that this act was directly compared to the Mad King by Varys and Tyrion in Season 7. As Tyrion says in the books:

It all goes back and back, Tyrion thought, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads.

This is Daenerys’ start back moment – does she continue her father’s legacy of burning anyone who could challenger her, or does she break that cycle by choosing peace, forgiveness and compromise? Given that I think broken cycles are kind of a theme this season, I’m going to guess the latter on her part. As we discussed above, I also think that Sam’s forgiveness will be an essential and necessary as part of Dany turning back from the Mad Queen brink.

Screenshot (19)
tfw you’re pissed at bae but have to face the zombie apocalypse

Ending the Night without End

As we learn in Season 8 Episode 2, the Night King and Three Eyed Raven have been in eternal conflict with one another, epitomising a cycle of warfare and violence again. This is highly reminiscent of the description of R’hllorism:

The red priests believed in two gods, she had heard, but two who were eternally at war. (ASOS, Daenerys VI)

Now, as was hinted at by Bran in the episode – no one has ever tried dragonflame before. I think this is a strong clue that dragonflame may be able to stop the Night King and this could be backed up by continuing the above quote:

The red priests believed in two gods, she had heard, but two who were eternally at war. Dany liked that even less. She would not want to be eternally at war.

Eyooo, that’s the saviour choosing the idea of peace, and not a continuing cycle of violence. Again, this ties directly into the themes we have been talking about so far.

Those of you who are familiar with Lucifer means Lightbringer may have noticed him churning out the endgame analysis over the past couple of weeks – Parts One, Two and Three are uploaded already and we are looking forward to whatever brilliant ideas this week’s episode may trigger.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, the most relevant analysis here is the idea of the weirwood trees being ‘set on fire’, which LmL explores throughout Weirwood Compendium A. In the Iron Islands, myths of the Grey King abound and one of these includes him taunting the Storm God so much that the Storm God throws a thunderbolt, which sets fire to a tree that the Grey King then possesses. Interestingly, Theon (i.e. the ironborn guy in Winterfell) describes the leaves of the Winterfell heart tree as like a blaze of flame among the green and anyone who has read my fire colour analyses knows that burning trees are a staple symbol of greenseer activity. This myth of the Grey King also ties in to a large number of other symbols that seem to be associated with the start of the Long Night, which are detailed by LmL here.

In the first part of his endgame analysis, Lucifer means Lightbringer breaks down *that* Ned Umber scene:NedUmber

Lots of analysts have done amazing work on this so far (s/o GrayArea, JoeMagician and Smokescreen), but I think Lucifer means Lightrbinger’s analysis is most appropriate for our start back analysis here. As many have noted, the spiral and Ned are very reminiscent of the weirwood spiral where the Night King was transformed and, hey, we have a heroic Azor Ahai wielding a fiery sword to set this tree symbol on fire. As we just outlined, this can be a symbol of the start of the Long Night but here, with the fire driving out the icy power of the White Walkers from Ned Umber’s corpse, it seems to be the end of the Long Night too. That the same action can cause and end the Long Night seems to be the start back motif in action – think of Tyrion both talking his way into and out of the Eyrie’s sky cells, or the reverse reading of the Prologue where the same actions that symbolically led to the Long Night appear to symbolically end the Long Night when reversed.


The showrunners seem to be tapping into a motif that present in the books, starting backThis is represented through the reversal of the title sequence, strong parallels to Season 1, individual redemption arcs, societal change and potentially the event of the endgame. As Daenerys says:

I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into show analysis, it was lots of fun to write and will hopefully cure me of this red fire writer’s block.

Thanks as always to George RR Martin, and to all my friends and mythenthusiasts on the Twitteros. Thanks to HBO (images from them, unless otherwise specified) and thanks to you, dear reader, for hanging out with me today. If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment below or find me on Twitter as @ELSmith1994.

Speak soon ❤

  • Archmaester Aemma

5 thoughts on “To go forward, you must go back

  1. You’re an amazing writer, Aemma. I loved how you managed to write the unpalatable final seasons into something savory and interesting.
    I met you at Con of Thrones. We talked briefly after the Unicorns & Magic panel. Keep up the awesome work ^_^


  2. This essay is an extraordinary achievement. The book analysis in particular is among the best things I’ve read about ASOIAF and should be required reading for everyone who wants to understand the story. For example, you demonstrate the contrast between (i) Tyrion starting back out of the sky cells instead of going forward into the bloody blue and, on the other hand, (ii) Waymar rejecting Gared’s advice to start back, just as Joffrey rejects Sansa’s advice to start back, which in both cases leads to disaster. This helps explain perhaps the most important theme of the books, and I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that it ties into breaking the cycle of violence, as you show later in the essay. Fantastic!


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