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5 pieces of Game of Thrones history that paid off at the Battle of Winterfell

5 pieces of Game of Thrones history that paid off at the Battle of Winterfell


And one that mysteriously didn’t

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Photo: HBO

HBO’s Game of Thrones is a dense series with a huge weight of history behind its story. So in practically every episode, something happens that could use a little explanation. Every week, The Verge will dive into a scene or event from the latest episode of the series and explain how we got here. Whether you’re basically a Game of Thrones maester or you need a little reminder about previous events, we’ll try to help you keep your history straight.

Game of Thrones’ longest episode ever, “The Long Night,” features a spectacle that was billed as a battle unlike any other ever seen on television. (Depending on your TV setup, it may have literally gone unseen. Seriously, this was a darkly lit hour and a half, which sparked an endless wave of online complaints from viewers struggling to figure out what was going on.) It was a frantic episode of TV that mostly focused on the play-by-play of the war against the undead. So instead of our usual weekly lore breakdown, this week, we’ll be looking at some of the smaller moments seeded throughout the show’s past that finally paid off here.

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night”

Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes

Okay, so let’s start with this episode’s big event: Arya kills the Night King. But while she seemed to pop up out of nowhere to stab the dreaded leader of the White Walkers, her role in this story has been seeded for years, with her Faceless Man training and the foreshadowing of her Valyrian steel dagger giving her all the tools she needed.

As the episode reminds us, the foreshadowing for the big kill goes back even further — all the way back to season 3, episode 6, when Melisandre first meets Arya and issues a prophecy: “I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me: brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.”

As it would happen, the reunion she promised came at the Battle of Winterfell. And the blue eyes Arya would shut forever were the Night King’s, along with every other wight and White Walker, all of whom stemmed from him.

The Red Woman and the Onion Knight

But where did Melisandre suddenly come from? The enigmatic Red Priestess of R’hllor (aka The Lord of Light) reappears this week after largely doing nothing for the last two seasons, once she fulfilled her task of resurrecting Jon Snow at the beginning of season 6. That was also when we learned Melisandre is far from the young woman she appears to be. Her magic is tied into her jeweled necklace. When she removes it, she resumes her true form of an incredibly old woman.

Her magic has also tended to be somewhat erratic over the series, perhaps due to her advanced age: while she was able to bring back Jon Snow and murder Renly Baratheon with a shadow-baby, her other attempts at spellcasting and communing with her god have been less successful — like when she had Stannis kill his only daughter, Shireen, to ensure a military victory against the Boltons, which he then failed to secure. Shireen’s murder (and the lackluster advice Melisandre gave Stannis) are chief among the reasons that the normally calm and kind Ser Davos promised to kill Melisandre.

These trends return in this episode, too: Melisandre is able to ignite the Dothraki warriors’ blades easily, but she spends crucial seconds trying and failing to ignite the trenches around Winterfell to block the wight onslaught later in the battle. By the end, it seems her strength has been exhausted, or she feels her purpose has been fulfilled: she removes her necklace one final time and walks out to her death in front of the gate of Winterfell at the end of the battle.

Theon Greyjoy’s apology tour

While Bran Stark’s overall battle plan is extremely enigmatic — like basically everything Bran does and says at this point in his role as the mystical Three-Eyed Raven — one part of his strategy is clear: he's relying on Theon Greyjoy for his personal defense as the forces of Winterfell try to lure the Night’s King into a trap.

On the surface, that may seem like an odd move, given that back in season 2, Theon betrays Bran, who was serving as the acting Lord of Winterfell in the absence of his brother, Robb Stark, who went to fight as King in the North in the War of the Five Kings. Theon sells Bran out to ingratiate himself with his estranged father, Balon Greyjoy, though that doesn’t work because Balon is kind of a dick.

Regardless, Theon seizes Winterfell, breaking the trust of the family that fostered and raised him. But he saw no joy in his conquest: House Bolton gained control of Winterfell and the North, leading to Theon’s season-long arc of abuse at Ramsay Bolton’s hands.

But at least Theon could say he didn’t kill Bran or his younger brother Rickon, who died later anyway at Ramsay’s hands. Instead, he secretly set them free. Between helping Sansa escape Ramsay, finally saving his sister Yara, returning to Winterfell to fight against the undead, and defending Bran with his life, Theon eventually earned Bran’s praise and a sense of redemption, even taking on the Night King himself.

The seven lives of the Lightning Lord

Beric Dondarrion isn’t a wight, but he’s perhaps the closest thing: where Jon Snow died and was brought back just once, Beric was resurrected by his friend, the Red Priest, Thoros of Myr six times. His final death presumably came in this episode, given that both Thoros and Melisandre are now dead.

Throughout the show, Beric has assumed that the Lord of Light has been returning him to life all these times for some grand purpose. This week, we found out what that was: Beric managed to save Arya’s life against a group of wights, keeping her fighting so she could kill the Night King, seemingly for good.

That may seem anticlimactic, given how fast it all happens and that he doesn’t even live to see the effect of his sacrifice, but his protection of Arya does speak to something more significant: the consistency between the prophecies Melisandre had from the Lord of Light and those Thoros had. Together, they have a dramatic theological impact on the world of Westeros as a whole, implying that there is a greater power at work, with some sort of divine plan.

The Night King’s demise

The Night King is dead, killed not by dragonfire or some other esoteric magic, but by a Valyrian steel blade to the chest. And while it may seem like mere chance that Arya was able to succeed where all other attempts to destroy the Night King failed, there may be more to it than that.

Back in season 6, episode 5, Bran has a vision where he experiences the creation of the Night King by the Children of the Forest. He was originally intended as a weapon to destroy mankind, which was infringing on the Children’s land and destroying their sacred weirwood trees. But the Children’s plan spectacularly backfired.

In that vision, Bran sees a man stabbed in the chest by a dragonglass dagger right next to a weirwood tree, creating the Night King, the original White Walker who would birth all of the other White Walkers and wights.

It’s no coincidence that similar conditions were present when Arya killed the Night King: a stab to the chest in front of a weirwood tree. Looking closely at the fatal moment, it seems that Arya even stabs the Night King in the same place he was wounded to enact his original transformation.

In fact, given Bran’s seemingly advanced foretelling abilities, and the fact that he gave Arya the dagger back in season 7, it’s entirely possible this entire battle was merely the final move in a long-running plan on his part to lure the Night King into the conditions that could allow Arya to destroy him once and for all.

Photo: HBO

Wherefore are the weirwoods?

But that gets us to the piece of lore that didn’t ever pay off: the weirwood trees themselves. The entire run of Game of Thrones has been alluding to some greater power in the weirwood, including the popular theory that Bran could somehow use them to burn the wights to death. But after all of the foreshadowing and flaming spirals, after the revelation that the weirwoods can destroy wights, after the setups connecting them both to Westerosi religion and pre-human magic… those clues seem to have gone exactly nowhere. It’s easy to imagine an ending where Bran activates the latent magic of the weirwoods and destroys the Night King once he’s lured onto sacred ground. That would be its own form of tying the Night King’s death back to his birth. But apparently not. That was a lot of buildup for surprisingly little pay-off.