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‘Game of Thrones’ Loose Ends: Can Bran Change the Past?

The former Three-Eyed Raven said that “the ink is dry,” yet there are hints that those words are not strictly true. If Bran’s abilities involve more than just seeing events unfold, he could be the key to stopping the Night King.

HBO/Ringer illustration

In four days, Game of Thrones will finally return. And 35 days after that, Thrones will end. In less time than it seemingly takes Littlefinger to zip around to every corner of Westeros, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will deliver a conclusion to the story George R.R. Martin first introduced 23 years ago—and in that precious time they’ll have to answer half a hundred pressing questions: Who will live? Who will die? Who will tell Jon he’s doing it with his aunt?

Separate from those series-shaping questions are countless smaller but still crucial details that the show may or may not explore in the final season. These are Thrones’ loose ends: the characters, places, events, prophecies, and more that the story has made audiences wonder about over the past seven seasons but has yet to satisfyingly wrap up. In the run-up to the final season’s April 14 premiere, we’ll be digging through these loose ends, looking at why they matter and how they could affect the endgame as we count down the days to Thrones’ long-awaited conclusion.


The Loose End

Bran Stark remains the most mystifying, tantalizing character on Game of Thrones. His transition into the Three-Eyed Raven granted or heightened his powers—as a warg, as a creepy conversationalist, and as a greenseer. That last ability has allowed Bran to view several scenes from the past, ranging from the Night King’s creation to a training session at Winterfell to the Tower of Joy to the Mad King screaming “Burn them all!” to the moments before his father’s beheading. It’s also seemingly offered him visions of events that could come to pass, including the Sept of Baelor blowing up and a dragon cruising over King’s Landing.

What we’re still wondering is the extent to which Bran can change the past and thereby affect the future. Both the books and the show have hinted that he has some capacity to project himself into the past and has at least some limited sway over other characters’ actions in those earlier eras. Where those limits lie will determine whether he’s merely an effective fact-finder (and a devastating trial witness) or more of a magic bullet that could decide the outcome of either the existential struggle against the White Walkers, the fight for the Iron Throne, or both.

Why This Loose End Matters

Time travel is complicated, but the stakes are simple and sizable. If Bran can change the past, he could conceivably journey back to a critical juncture and prevent an undesired event from occurring—and, by extension, alter certain circumstances in the series’ present (perhaps risking unintended consequences). That said, if Bran’s time traveling is more akin to flow-walking from Star Wars—that is, he can mostly look but not touch—then he’ll only be able to relate fun facts he’s gleaned from his trips down memory lane (such as Jon Snow’s Targaryen heritage, which will strengthen Jon’s claim to the throne but may make it harder for him to date Aunt Dany).

Even if Bran can’t meaningfully change the future by nudging people in the past, we may still discover that he had a hand in orchestrating the present state of affairs. The case of Hodor is instructive: Hodor’s mind was already damaged when the show began, but as we learned in Season 6, that damage stemmed from a seizure caused by the confluence of Bran warging into Hodor, hearing Meera Reed’s order in the present (“Hold the door”), and Bran’s concurrent proximity to an adolescent Hodor (né Wylis) via vision of the past. Bran’s actions apparently linked Hodor in two timelines, which more or less literally blew his mind. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar reveal in Season 8; perhaps Bran unwittingly played a part in bringing about some other significant circumstance that would constitute a change in the past, if not in the present. One way or another, Bran’s potential to tinker with time represents one of Season 8’s most important known unknowns.

How Season 8 Could Address It

In A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a young Bran tells his wizened caretaker at Winterfell, Old Nan, “I don’t want any more stories. I hate your stupid stories.”

“My stories?” Old Nan responds. “No, my little lord, not mine. The stories are, before me and after me, before you too.”

“I don’t care whose stories they are,” Bran answers. “I hate them.”

Ironically, the boy who insisted he hated stories grew into a teenager who has access to all of them. Bran, like Patrick Stewart on Extras, has seen everything—or at least has the ability to. As actor Isaac Hempstead Wright explained in a December 2017 interview, Bran hasn’t had time to view every event from the past. That kind of comprehensive recall comes from spending eons in a cave beyond the Wall, where there’s nothing better to do. But he can call up specific occurrences and view them firsthand, converting all of history into a streaming service that Bran can binge. The Three-Eyed Raven tells him he has to learn “everything,” so it’s no wonder he’s not very talkative.

That trick comes in handy if one wants to, say, render the smooth-talking Littlefinger temporarily speechless by quoting his own “chaos is a ladder” line back to him (or later, render him permanently speechless by confirming that he betrayed Ned Stark, thus condemning him to die). But it could come in even handier if Bran could turn the past into a Bandersnatch-style personal playground and actively intervene.

Now, we know that Bran can exert some influence on the past. During his on-demand viewing of Ned’s visit to the Tower of Joy, Bran calls out to his father, and Ned hears him—or at least senses his presence in some other way (although the Three-Eyed Raven maintains that it may have been the wind). However, when Ned turns around, he doesn’t see Bran, and he pauses for only a moment before continuing on his path to the tower. That scene echoes another in A Dance With Dragons, wherein a time-traveling Bran also seems to catch Ned’s attention for a fleeting moment, as well as in A Clash of Kings, which may feature Bran talking to past-Jon via wireless weirwood (unless it’s just Jon’s dream). This is different from Bran warging into a weirwood and communicating with characters in the present. If Bran can make a young Ned turn around, we can’t rule out the possibility that he could compel another character to do something with more major repercussions.

If Bran could freely affect the past by unlocking latent powers (or just shouting really loudly), we wouldn’t need six episodes to tie up the on-screen saga. All he’d have to do is warp back to the scene of the Night King’s creation and tell the Children of the Forest, “Hey, maybe don’t do that.” Obviously, an outcome along those lines would be extremely unfulfilling in a narrative sense; after watching seven seasons full of sacrifice, suffering, and character growth, no one wants the story to end via deus ex raven. What’s more, such a twist would introduce the typical paradoxes endemic to time-travel plots: If Bran changes the past in a way that drastically reshapes the present, the conditions that allowed him to time travel never would have existed (and so on). Then Game of Thrones would turn into The Terminator, and all of our heads would hurt.

Fortunately, it seems likely that Thrones will preclude that possibility. Old Nan’s assertion that “stories are”—before Bran, at least, if not necessarily after him—is backed up by the Three-Eyed Raven in the Season 6 episode “Oathbreaker.” After the Three-Eyed Raven yanks Bran back from his vision of the Tower of Joy, he tells his protégé, “The past is already written. The ink is dry.” He seems to be describing a closed causal loop, à la Harry Potter’s Time-Turners: Any actions Bran might take in the past will only help bring about conditions in the present as they were before he tried to meddle, just as Hodor’s damaged mind was a consequence of Bran’s sightseeing tour of the Winterfell that once was.

That means that Bran may inadvertently cause the very problems he’s attempting to solve. One fan theory posits that Bran may try to reason with Aerys II, accidentally driving him mad (or more mad, with an assist from generations of inbreeding) and inciting the internecine conflict that makes Westeros more vulnerable to undead invasion. On a more positive note, maybe the Bran we know and Bran the Builder—the ancient, semi-mythical architect of the Wall—are one and the same; this theory is supported both by the Brans blending together in Old Nan’s mind and by an HBO-produced image of Bran the Builder being ported around on a platform. Perhaps the Wall only exists because Bran went back and built it, although it’s unclear what would inspire present-day Bran to travel back in time to build a barrier that already exists in his era. Almost anything that’s transpired in the series, right down to the Stark kids finding their direwolves, could be a direct or indirect result of Bran’s temporal tampering.

Of course, there’s also the theory that Bran, having failed to stop the White Walkers through previous time-travel attempts, eventually opts to journey all the way back, warg into the unlucky human who became the Night King, and avert that fate—the Game of Thrones equivalent of assassinating an infant Hitler. In Season 6, the Three-Eyed Raven warns Bran, “Stay too long where you don’t belong and you will never return.” Maybe Bran lingered too long in that body and turned into the Night King himself, imbuing his adversary with his own powers.

From a storytelling perspective, a series of repeated, world-altering time-travel attempts by a character who’s spent large swaths of the series on the sidelines and who hasn’t done a lot lately to endear himself to viewers seems like a lot to cram into six episodes (even though most of the episodes are extra-long). And the more complex the time travel gets, the greater the risk of confusing viewers or opening loopholes that leave fans wondering, “Wait, why didn’t they …?” After all the buildup of Bran’s abilities, though, it would be a big letdown if he functioned as nothing more than a conduit for flashbacks and exposition. Bran is far from the show’s most charismatic character, but he may be its most intriguing and transformative.

In the Season 7 finale, Bran tells Sam, “I can see things that happened in the past. I can see things happening now all over the world.” He doesn’t say he can see the future. We know he can’t picture it perfectly, because when he reunites with Arya at Winterfell in Season 7, he tells her that he’d mistakenly assumed she was heading to King’s Landing to assassinate Cersei. On Thrones, then, the future is always in motion, which suggests that despite his powers, Bran is probably no more certain than we are about how this epic ends. For now, we should all endeavor to live like Littlefinger: envisioning every possible series of events. It’s likely, though, that when the last act comes, we, like Littlefinger, will still be surprised.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.