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Why Does the Night King Want to Destroy ‘Memory’ on Game of Thrones?

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.”

About halfway through “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Bran tells the assembled Winterfell Avengers that the Night King isn’t simply set on destroying humankind. He is, very specifically, after our beetle-browed young seer.

The war council accepts this explanation at face value. “That’s what death is, isn’t it?” marvels Sam. “Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. Just animals.”

But what does it mean to “remember” in Game of Thrones? And how much stock should we put in Bran’s interpretations, which — as Daenerys suggests when Jon finally reveals his true parentage — feel a shade too convenient?

Memory is a consistent preoccupation in Game of Thrones. This is especially true for our central family, the Starks, steeped as they are in the regional motto “The North remembers.” Old Nan’s folktales have turned out to be scraps from the historical record. The long shadow of Ned Stark — both his stringent ethics and his untimely demise — looms over his children years after his death. Even the Stark house words, “Winter is coming,” are a buried memory disguised as a premonition, urging vigilance in the face of a second Long Night.

But memory shapes more than just the Stark story lines. In the very first episode, Robert Baratheon insists that Ned take him down to the Winterfell crypt so he can moon over Lyanna Stark’s mortuary statue. Though he later admits to Cersei that he “can’t even remember what she looked like,” he tells Ned in that first episode that he dreams of killing Rhaegar “every night” as punishment for Lyanna’s supposed abduction and rape. Daenerys inherits her brother’s childhood memory of Targaryen glory and it drives her across the Narrow Sea to Westeros. Memory is figured as the very thing that keeps humans human: As Archmaester Ebrose tells Samwell Tarly at the Citadel, the scholars remain cloistered because “we are this world’s memory. Without us, men would be little better than dogs.” Memory permeates every level of the known world. It is a force with personal, familial, social, and historical power.

If the season-eight premiere was structured around the notion of repetition, with all of its visual spirals and narrative callbacks, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” deepens that motif, with nearly every scene featuring a moment in which a character recounts a memory. It opens with Daenerys saying, “When I was a child, my brother would tell me a bedtime story about the man who murdered our father,” as she faces that man. Jaime and Tyrion reminiscence about their first trip to Winterfell and their long-gone roles as “golden lion” and “whoremonger”; they swap old inside jokes and Tyrion gently corrects his brother’s memory of his incestuous relationship with Cersei. “She never fooled you,” Tyrion says. “You always knew exactly what she was, and you loved her anyway.” Arya teases Gendry for being such a poor chronicler of his time against the White Walkers; Brienne sputters at Jaime that they’ve never had a conversation where he didn’t insult her.

Bonds are forged, or reforged, through the power of a witness’s recollection. Brienne recounts how Jaime saved her from being raped by the Bolton men. Sansa — herself haunted by what Ramsay Bolton did to her — recalls how steadfast Brienne has been in service to her family and, by the transitive property of trust, accepts her testimony on the Kingslayer’s behalf. Later, she offers a similar support to Tyrion, telling Daenerys that her former (or technically current?) husband “was never anything but decent to me.”

In this battle-preparation hour, nostalgia is a kind of coping mechanism. Nearly everyone seems to believe that death and destruction are a foregone conclusion, and gallows humor runs as freely as wine. The warriors around the fire recite a litany of the battles they’ve survived: Blackwater, the Battle of the Bastards, the Siege of Pyke, the Battle of the Whispering Wood. Tormund tells a weird, only-in-Westeros version of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” It’s almost as if, with the future too painful to contemplate, the characters decide to keep their cold feet to the fire and their faces to the past. Like the Jenny of Podrick’s lament, maybe it seems sweeter to just keep dancing with the ghosts in limbo for a while. (Only Grey Worm and Missandei let themselves dream about the day after the battle, which makes me believe that at least one of our Final Brown People will not survive to see Naath.)

Nostalgia is a kind of coping mechanism for the viewer, too, as we face the potential extermination of characters we’ve spent nearly a decade watching. Your mileage may vary as to whether moments like Arya sleeping with Gendry or Brienne being knighted felt like fan service — and if it did, whether it was satisfying fan service — but these moments were undeniably presented as payoffs on a long-running investment from viewers. Either way, it’s very hard — and I’d argue, missing half the fun — to try to see Game of Thrones as a fully self-contained world that isn’t in constant dialogue with its viewers, and this is particularly true if you’re thinking about the concept of memory. After all, the “history” in question doesn’t simply exist within the bounds of the fictional story. As a viewer, you can buy fat chronicles of Westerosi prehistory, lose yourself in magisterial Wikis, or marshal textual evidence from 70 hours of footage to debate the finer points of prophecy interpretation. Game of Thrones may or may not be the last show we watch together, but it is certainly a story we fashion together. (And that’s been true for nearly a decade, too, as Laura Miller’s wonderful 2011 New Yorker profile of George R.R. Martin and his fandom makes clear.)

To be a Game of Thrones fan, then, is to be aware of the seams and constructions of storytelling. But within the world of the show, too, we’re constantly cautioned about the potential for narratives to be fictionalized, misunderstood, or twisted. Dragons are supposed to be gone from the world, but they’re not. Jon was supposed to be Ned Stark’s bastard, but he’s not. The world has spent years believing one version of the Kingslayer tale, but in the third season Jaime reveals the true story to Brienne. Archmaester Ebrose warns Sam not to put too much stock into humans’ tendencies toward doomsday narratives, just as Melisandre’s visions of a resurrected hero from the past have evaporated. And let’s not forget dear, departed Littlefinger scoffing to Varys, “Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies,” which were said to have been forged into the Iron Throne. “A story we agree to tell each other over and over till we forget that it’s a lie.” After all, there aren’t even 200 swords in the throne — Littlefinger counted.

Game of Thrones is as much a story about historiography, or the construction of historical narratives, as it is about one particular historical narrative. So with that in mind, what should we make of Bran’s declaration that the Night King seeks to erase the world and its “memory”?

The idea that Bran is some kind of planetary hard drive that must be protected from the Y2Kish threat of a White Walker attack, least all of humankind be somehow destroyed, is a shaky one. Bran says that the Night King has tried to kill Three-Eyed Ravens before him, but it’s not as if the Three-Eyed Raven has been a major presence in Westeros as we know it: Before Jojen and Meera Reed came on the scene, none of our characters had heard of him, save Bran’s occasional vision as child. If the Raven had been killed by the Night King before he passed his mantle onto Bran Stark, would anyone have noticed the “world’s memory” had been destroyed? If so, the mechanics of that civilization-ending jolt remain unspecified.

In fact, we’ve spent a fair bit of time with a centuries-old institution charged with being “the world’s memory”: the maesters of the Citadel. Sam’s response to Bran echoes what Ebrose said to him in season seven about the maesters being what makes humans human: Without the maesters, humans are like dogs who “don’t remember any meal but the last, can’t see forward to any but the next. And every time you leave the house and shut the door, they howl like you’re gone forever.”

Sam seems to explicitly recall this speech when he suggests that Bran’s knowledge — unlike the maesters’ — “doesn’t come from books” and aren’t “just stories.” It’s an odd turn from Sam, whose journey has consistently been one that weaves together and valorizes both direct experience and academic learning. Yes, it’s funny that when Sam is arguing why he should fight with the other men against the Night King’s army, he rattles off that he was the first to kill a White Walker, has “killed Thenns” (“Thenn,” corrects Edd, dolorously), “saved Gilly more than once,” and, by the way, also “stole a considerable number of books from the Citadel library.” (He’s also not a virgin, Edd, unlike you.) But the litany isn’t inaccurate. It’s Sam’s hours of labor in the archives, with a crucial assist from Gilly, that provided the missing piece to Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy: the fact that Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia Martell had been annulled, making Jon the true heir to the Iron Throne. So book learning does have a claim to knowledge, too.

Bran’s omniscience threatens to “break the story,” as the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber noted at the end of the seventh season, by revealing information and unraveling mysteries too quickly. But to privilege the perspective of a single character, even one who has shuffled off this mortal coil and now exists in some supernatural state of embodied suspension, also seems to violate what we’ve been led to understand is the fallible nature of perspective, memory, and narrative. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are structured, Rashomon-like, around the perspectives of multiple characters — who are, it’s worth noting, decidedly not omniscient. (They’re not even first-person narrators.) If true, perfect, complete knowledge — truer than “books,” truer than “stories” — ultimately exists within one mortal figure, what kind of history lesson have we been learning all along?

Perhaps we’re being asked to consider the “end of memory” as a figurative fate, rather than a literal one that can be achieved by killing a single character. After all, despite the crowded, tangled memories that motivate our characters, Westerosi history has been shown to have some striking amnesiac gaps. Generations before this story began, “civilized” humans forgot the White Walkers are real, and the entire civilization forgot that it was humans and their colonizing, warring ways that indirectly led to their enemies’ creation. Perhaps the Walkers have reemerged because it is finally time for humankind to reckon with the havoc it sowed long ago — that is to say, the collective memory has already been erased, and the Walkers are merely the lagging indicators.

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