Worldbuilding has always been a key pillar of the fantasy genre, and often plays a key part in the outcome of plots therein. George RR Martin’s fiction differs little from Tolkein’s or even Rowling’s in this regard; the Wall and Valyria will figure as much into the fate of our characters as Fangorn Forest or Hogwarts before it. But it is not just in geography that these fantastical worlds are built, but in history as well.
Game of Thrones is a snapshot of Westeros at a specific time. The six seasons of television have covered roughly 2-3 years of story time, while occurring in a world believed to be over 12,000 years old. The narrative propels forward on the backs of past events. The death of Jon Arryn and the fallout of Robert’s Rebellion are the starting point of our story, and more ancient events such as Aegon’s Conquest and the Long Night loom large as Daenerys and the Night King respectively set their sights for Westeros.
Understanding the history of the Seven Kingdoms may be the key to unraveling what’s to come, and the viewing audience got history lessons writ large and small in the season’s midpoint episode, "The Door."
In this hour’s first flashback, the Three-Eyed Raven leads Bran Stark to a weeping weirwood tree, encircled by a spiraling stone structure (a pattern that calls back to the horse heads Jon Snow and Mance Rayder found in Season 3). Here, Bran is horrified to find a group of children-of-the-forest performing what appears to be a blood sacrifice.
Leaf, the child who has hosted Bran and Meera, drives a dragonglass dagger into the heart of a man chained to the weirwood. But instead of blood, the dagger disappears into the man’s chest as his eyes turn an icy blue. Bran awakens to a startling truth: the White Walkers were created by the children. When Bran asks why, Leaf’s response is simply "you."
Back during the Dawn Age, Westeros and Essos were one supercontinent, connected by the land bridge of Dorne. In those days, no men inhabited what would later become the Seven Kingdoms. Instead the lands were populated with children of the forest, giants, and other magical beasts (according to the maesters; Westerosi history is as imperfect as our own). These races hunted with rock and stone and dragonglass; they worked with the birds in the air and the trees rooted deep in the earth.
This peace ended when the First Men crossed in Westeros with their bronze weapons, warring with the children and burning down their weirwoods. Years of war raged on, and in an act of desperation, the children used dark magic to break the Arm of Dorne, shattering the land bridge and separating Westeros from Essos. The First Men were already in Westeros, however, and the war raged on for centuries more until a peace was eventually brokered, and the First Men would come to adapt the old gods of the children and worship at the weirwoods.
Other acts of desperation were not beyond the pale, then. That the children of the forest, the seemingly peaceful, natural race of Westeros, conjured the White Walkers is as frightening as it is shocking. Just like the human actors in our story (such as Bran and Melisandre), they too cannot completely control the magic they wield, as it is magic still beholden to the judgment of fallible beings.
And like our own history, the tales passed down to us are aggrandized and embellished, the heroes lionized and their enemies vilified.
Bran learned a hard truth at the Tower of Joy; his father didn’t defeat Ser Arthur Dayne in single combat, but was saved by Howland Reed. And though it was men and children of the forest who defeated the White Walkers when the Long Night first came, it was the children who created the threat in the first place. (One wonders if the abnormal change of seasons in Westeros is linked to this as well.)
This strikes to the core of Martin’s story. A Song of Ice and Fire seeks hard truths and logical consequences of this fantastical, medieval backdrop. It has exposed what religious fanaticism, political backstabbing, and warmongering would actually cost the people of Westeros, and how the imperfect choices of men doom them all.
Bran’s enrollment in Westerosi History is cut short, however, as he recklessly explores the Land of Always Winter on his own, coming across the Night King and his wight army.
The Night King apparently can see and touch Bran, which lifts the enchantments protecting the Three-Eyed Ravens cave. Remembering discussions from Hardhome last year, it is rumored that the Night King may have been a Stark, and we know now Walkers are made from humans. It is possible, then, that a Stark with the same abilities as Bran could be the Night King, thus making him Bran’s equal in the wars to come.
But for the nonce, it means the Night King sets his sights on the cave beneath the tree.
Death comes looking for Bran Stark, and would have claimed its prize if not for a herculean effort from Hodor, Winterfell’s simple-minded stable boy. Wherein the earlier scene gave us ancient history writ large, this week’s thrilling climax was interwoven with history on a much smaller (albeit Hodor-sized) scale. Bran, Meera, and Hodor must flee the cave before its overrun with White Walkers.
In a beautifully shot and paced action sequence, the children act as the last line of defense to give our heroes enough time to escape. Bran is trapped in his greendream, back in the courtyard of Winterfell on the day his father (as a young boy) was sent to the Eyrie to foster with Lord Jon Arryn (and as a young "Wyllas" watches on).
Meanwhile, Meera fights off wights and White Walkers alike, Reed defending Stark just as her father did at the Tower of Joy. History repeats itself, and then as Bran and Hodor make their final flight, history becomes the present in the episode’s heartbreaking conclusion.
The mysterious origins of Hodor pales in comparison to that of the Walkers, but in a brilliant twist, Hodor’s origin acts to preserve the life of Bran Stark, who perhaps can save the race of men.
Bran is lost in his dream in Winterfell, but he hears Meera’s screams to Hodor to "hold the door," and for Bran to warg into his strong friend to fight back against the wights. He does.
Past and present tragically intersect, as Wyllas crumbles to the ground in Bran’s dream, shaking violently and yelling "hold the door" in agreement with Meera's plea, and as his seizure takes hold, the words slowly transform into "ho-dor," his mind and words simplified forevermore.
In present time, Hodor puts the last of his giant-sized strength into holding the cave door shut as Bran and Meera flee into the darkness beyond. The musical theme of House Starks wails as wights cut and claw their way through Hodor, forever fated for this one moment. Hope survives, but at a terrible cost.
Aside from thematic and narrative impact, the final scene itself was gorgeously filmed, marked with memorable images and scored by some of Ramin Djawadi’s best work.
The Night King approaching the fire, the wights crawling along the walls, Leaf’s explosive sacrifice all mark some of the show’s finest film making to date. It echoed the horror and grandeur of "Hardhome", but in lieu of the scale of that episode, "The Door" was altogether more personal and heroic, and the story and cinematography came together perfectly.
Another nod must be given Kristian Nairn, who has played the role of Hodor since the series’ pilot. His first named appearance was in the series fourth episode, the aptly and tragically named "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things."
Since then, Hodor has been the guardian of one of the main protagonists, a source of comic relief, and one of the most human and endearing characters on the show. Nairn has achieved this with only one word at his disposal, but even then, he’s been able to inflect different emotions and conviction into "Hodor."
The viewer’s history with Hodor is what makes the ending so powerful; we’ve been endeared to the character fully, and have experienced highs and lows with him over the course of six seasons. The tragedy of Hodor’s handicap and death calls forth tears, but his sacrifice may ensure that the history of Westeros continues to be written.
As Game of Thrones plows forward into its final act, the events of the past come into focus, illuminating current conflicts and undermining the few truths we had. It is from this history, however, that characters can learn what roles they have to play in the wars to come.
"I prefer my history dead," Yara Greyjoy is counseled in A Feast for Crows. "Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood." And the bloody history of Westeros barrels forward.
A Brief History of Nearly Everything (in Westeros and Essos)
- Historical themes are not just relegated to north of the Wall this week. On the Iron Islands, a Kingsmoot, the first of its kind for thousands of years, is held to determine the next king of the Iron Islands. The Greyjoy line has ruled Pyke for much of history, but with the only living male son of Balon being unable to procreate, the line is in question. Yara puts forth herself as queen, offering peace instead of war and ruin. Theon comes to his sister’s aid, noting she is not only strong and wise, but trusted and respected amongst the Ironmen as well.
Yara’s coronation is cut short by uncle Euron Greyjoy, last seen flinging Balon King from the rope bridge of Pyke (a fact Euron does not conceal). With bravado, charisma, and perhaps one-too-many eunuch jokes, Euron wins the voice of the Ironborn with his promise of conquest and dragon queens. It appears Euron is bound for Meereen, but first, it’s in his best interests to kill Balon’s surviving children, the only ones who could pose a threat to his claim for the Salt Throne.
- In Braavos, Arya Stark gets her own history lesson, this time as she scopes out the next victim of the Faceless Men. She observes a folly detailing the fall of Robert Baratheon, complete with actors portraying Cersei, Joffrey, Tyrion, and her father Lord Eddard. Arya enjoys it at first, but grows dismayed as the story colors her father unfavorably, while mostly ignoring the monstrosities of Joffrey. Too, Arya learns that her sister was married to the Imp, and the play’s portrayal of that relationship offers a stark contrast to the extreme courtesy Tyrion actually afforded Sansa.
Here too we find the issue of imperfect humans telling imperfect histories. This version of events will likely be viewed by thousands the world over, and will become the accepted historical record. It offers a wonderful echo to themes explored elsewhere with the children of the forest and Tower of Joy. On a more personal parallel, Arya now joins her sister in having watched a "humorous" recreation of one of the most traumatic losses for House Stark (Sansa, at the Royal Wedding, endured Joffrey’s dwarf-driven War of the Five Kings re-enactment).
- Speaking of, Sansa Stark gives Petyr Baelish her own history lecture; this of the events that transpired at Winterfell last season. Sansa asks Baelish if he knew about Ramsay, and before he can even answer, Sansa lets him know the truth: to have known makes Petyr Sansa’s enemy, to have been ignorant means Baelish is reckless and stupid. Sansa asserts herself here, and all the Knights of the Vale are not worth putting her fate in Littlefinger’s hands again. Sophie Turner has been marvelous this entire season, but this scene may be her finest work yet.
Another important nugget: Brynden Tully, the Blackfish, has apparently retaken Riverrun. The Blackfish was one of Robb Stark’s most loyal generals, and Tully forces could be a huge boon for Sansa and Jon’s chances of taking the North. Brynden was last seen excusing himself to take a piss before Walder Frey and Roose Bolton sprung their trap on Robb Stark. Since the Red Wedding, Walder Frey has been acting as Lord Paramout of the Riverlands, the title stripped of the Tullys for supporting the Young Wolf.
- Finally, as it is the halfway marker of the season: thanks to everyone here on DRaysBay for fostering a community where these reviews can live beside game recaps, and for providing thoughtful and humorous discussion. Thanks to everyone else who reads, shares, and enjoys these pieces, as they are often just as fun to write (especially the last two weeks). And special thanks to Daniel Russell for working with me and giving me this opportunity.