In the opening scenes, a group of Wildlings north of The Wall has been massacred. One terrified rider encounters the horrific array of dismembered bodies in the snow and rushes back to tell his two companions. He’s never seen anything like that before—surely other Wildlings couldn’t have done that? His fellow rider openly scoffs, assuming the “witness” is a scaredy cat making up stories. When they ride back, the bodies are indeed gone. There’s just a flash of a tall, icy being, a scream, the skeptic is dead and we know the other riders will be next. We later learn that looming figure is an undead “White Walker.” It reanimates a girl it killed, a mere child. It’s chilling to see her icy blue, dead eyes—without a word, we know she means to kill, too. The rest of that first episode then unfolds as normal life—well, normal for the world of Game of Thrones—but from that sprinkling of magic at the start, we know there will be more to follow.
It’s also smart of the show’s writers—and of the novelist George R. R. Martin—to create a point of view with which many viewers/readers can identify. Although the inhabitants across the Seven Kingdoms live in an extraordinary world of castles, battles and pet “direwolves,” they are skeptics about actual magic, just like most of us—just like that rider who scoffed (and died). For most people, it’s a given that “dragons don’t exist.” But as more magic gradually permeates the series, they—and we—start to believe.
Perhaps it’s because there’s a human element: Its diviners can’t always control it. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), potential heir to the Iron Throne, walks through fire to hatch dragon eggs. There are now three of the magical creatures in the world, though only two remain at her command—and they often have a mind of their own. Teenaged Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), another contender for the throne, is schooled by mentor Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) to become a dark, powerful warrior, able to shape shift into anyone. When she disobeys him, he blinds her; when she proves her loyalty, he instantly returns her eyesight. Arya uses her newfound abilities to exact revenge on her list of nemeses from her past. While our protagonists and their antagonists across the Seven Kingdoms jostle for the right to sit on the Iron Throne, we meet the Red Woman, Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a priestess who notably uses dark magic to murder potential heir to the throne Rennly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), and later bring real contender Jon Snow (Kit Harington) back to life. Gradually, we see the rules of this world evolve. The dead don’t just return as White Walkers; they can now return as themselves.
But for me the most devastating episode involving magic (at press time, ahead of Season 8) remains “The Door,” in which young Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) develops his magical abilities to simultaneously time travel and enter the minds of living beings. Paralyzed from the waist down after being pushed off a ledge by Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Bran only feels free when he’s in the mind of his freely roaming pet “direwolf,” or when time traveling. In an almost Avatar-type situation, Bran learns to commandeer—“warg into”—the mind of his family’s lifelong manservant, Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a gentle giant whose sole word is “hodor.” Hodor mumbles and repeats this word, which sounds like gibberish. He is only able to follow simple instructions, and often carries the paralyzed Bran, whom he loves.
One fateful night, Bran falls into a trance in the cave of his mentor, the Three-Eyed Raven (Max Von Sydow), himself a mystical creature. Hodor sits comfortably alongside in the cave with their companion, Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick). Bran and the Raven time travel and visit past events at Bran’s childhood home of Winterfell, seeking truths. Unexpectedly, here Bran sees that Hodor had been a healthy young stable boy named Wylis, who was able to speak and easily engage with society. Meanwhile in the present, a dead army, led by their White Walker king, converges on the cave in pursuit of Bran, who had unintentionally revealed their location. Hodor is terrified, unable to move.
Meera screams at Bran to wake from the trance and enter the mind of Hodor to carry Bran out of the cave. Her pleas reach Bran’s mind, and from Winterfell he manages to contact the present-day Hodor, who carries him out to safety. But when Meera cries to Hodor to “hold the door” to the cave and keep the dead army bottled inside, through Bran the words simultaneously bridge to young Wylis in the past. Wylis collapses in a seizure, repeating, “Hold the door!” As Meera hauls Bran away in the snow, Bran disconnects his mind from Hodor, who does his best to hold the door though succumbs to the icy army in the present. In the past, Wylis’ convulsions and desperate repetitions meld into one word: “Hodor.”
It’s cyclical and tragic, as we learn how Hodor’s fate was sealed in both timelines. We also wonder: Is Bran able to change the past? The show keeps us guessing, but that heartbreaking image of sweet Hodor struggling to hold the door in the present while convulsing and screaming in the past stays with us.