MANILA, Philippines – “When you play the game of thrones, you win or die,” Cersei Lannister once said. With the eighth and final season about to premiere, we zero in on its last players, and ask, who wins and who dies?
It’s been an agonizing two-year wait for the upcoming finale. With George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter and his A Song of Ice and Fire books’ finale A Dream of Spring yet to arrive, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have already beaten the written epic to the punch.
The game’s players have been whittled down to a few while the army of the undead marches past a breached Wall. Meanwhile, the struggle for the Iron Throne still transpires with Cersei Lannister planning to remain on it as the battle for humanity “beyond houses and honor and oaths” rages on.
For all we know, as the Valyrian saying goes, valar morghulis – all men must die, so the conclusion can be as grim as it can be.
Now, the showrunners could hew close to Martin’s original intentions for a Tolkien-esque, “bittersweet” ending.
“I’ve always taken my influence from J.R.R. Tolkien, and if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, Sauron is defeated and the ring is destroyed in the end, but it’s not a happy, happy ending. There’s a real sense of things lost, too, and I found that very powerful, very moving,” he told Channel 4 News.
But it was not a total Thrones drought. Before the final 6 episodes air, there has been ample time to marathon the series thus far. Some have even come up with crackpot speculations about the endgame.
Here’s a refresher on some key plot points, burning questions and issues from the previous seasons:
The Great War
“There’s only one war that matters: the Great War,” Jon said in the previous season’s finale, The Dragon and the Wolf, which ended on a colossal cliffhanger.
The Night King rode ice dragon Viserion, Daenerys’ child, to lead his entire Army of the Dead – wights, giants, and god-knows-what – past the destroyed Wall at Eastwatch and down south.
“Our enemy doesn’t tire, doesn’t stop, doesn’t feel,” said Jon in the upcoming season’s trailer. The decisive battle is at hand, and it really should be humanity’s only concern.
The King in the North was correct to say that their fellowmen aren’t the real enemy. He and Daenerys even parleyed with the incumbent ruler of Westeros, Cersei, not to “settle differences,” but to show (bringing in a wight in a box) and tell them of impending icy ruin for the Seven Kingdoms.
While wights, the dead reanimated by White Walkers, can be destroyed by burning and dragonglass (a volcanic glass), there are only two known substances that can take down a White Walker: the aforementioned dragonglass and Valyrian steel (which according to myth, is forged with magic and dragonfire in ancient Valyria).
There are only a few Valyrian steel weapons lying around – including Jon Snow’s Longclaw, Brienne of Tarth’s Oathkeeper, Jaime Lannister’s Widow’s Wail (formerly Joffrey Baratheon’s), House Tarly’s Heartsbane (in the possession of Samwell Tarly), and a nameless dagger in Arya Stark’s possession.
It is also established that when a White Walker falls, so do the wights that he turned. So it must also be the case that if the Night King is killed, the entire Army of the Dead also dies. Without doing so, it’s an entire cycle of wight creation for every living soldier felled.
So, Cersei extended a truce to “Ned Stark’s son” with the pretense that the royal bannermen will join the fray against the hordes of the undead. Ever the ruthless, cunning lioness, she would rather see her enemies ruined though.
It is Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, after all, and the fantasy writer has never been one for a neat, good-triumphs-over-evil kind of resolution. The Long Night will not simply end with Jon Snow or somebody plunging a Valyrian-forged sword into the Night King.
“Conflict will always begat conflict, and there will inevitably be parties who seek advantage even in supposed black and white, good versus evil struggles. That ugly truth about humanity, and its knotty emotional toll, is what Martin genuinely seeks to infuse into Westeros and high fantasy,” argued Den of Geek’s David Crow.
After some final stand against the Army of the Dead, there can still be conflicts and power vacuums left in its wake. The series finale could very well be about this and not simply end with the defeat of the Night King.
House Lannister divided
Cersei has already made known her sinister plan: she doesn’t intend to pause the war to fight alongside the silver-haired Mother of Dragons and the King in the North who bent a knee to the Targaryen queen.
Meanwhile, Daenerys could easily lay siege to King’s Landing and burn everything to the ground with her two remaining dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal – the Lannister usurper included. However, she doesn’t want to become yet another tyrant like her father, the deposed Mad King Aerys, so her advisors Tyrion Lannister, her Hand, and Varys, her Master of Whisperers, have kept her in check.
After obliterating House Tyrell and sacking Highgarden’s gold, Cersei employed the 20,000-strong Golden Company to take out her remaining enemies. Euron Greyjoy is tasked to ferry these elite sellswords across the Narrow Sea to fight for the Queen.
This has alienated even her own brother and lover, Jaime, who had shown his redeeming qualities since pushing Bran off that tower ledge in the first season. He just couldn’t stomach reneging on their previous promise.
“When the fighting in the north is over, someone wins,” Jaime told his sister, under the assumption that they are damned either way because they’re outnumbered. “If the dead win, they march south and kill us all. If the living win and we’ve betrayed them, they march south and kill us all.”
Jaime rode north alone to enter the fray, abandoning Cersei who apparently is with child after the deaths of Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen.
It’s possible dragons or the undead won’t be the ones to take Cersei down. It’s her strong, stubborn hold on power that could very well be her own undoing – as it has been in the past – bringing to mind soothsayer Maggy the Frog’s prophecy about her in A Feast for Crows:
Valonqar means little brother.
She once thought it was Tyrion, who she has always showed her contempt, blaming their literally little younger brother for the deaths of their mother, Joffrey, and Tywin, their father. But now it could be Jaime himself, before she follows in the Mad King’s footsteps to burn everything in Wildfire.
Will the rains weep o’er her halls and not a soul to hear?
Jon Snow: King in the North – or of the Seven Kingdoms?
At the end of season 6, a long-standing theory was confirmed in Bran Stark’s vision: Jon Snow isn’t the bastard son of Ned Stark but is actually a Targaryen. By the subsequent season, additional significant details lent more credence to that fact.
Rhaegar Targaryen, Daenerys’s brother and heir apparent to the Mad King Aerys, annulled his marriage to Elia Martell. In love with Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna, he married her in a secret ceremony.
The fruit of that union was Jon Snow, whose real name is Aegon Targaryen – making him the true Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne. This means that Daenerys, to whom Jon had subjugated himself, is his aunt.
So far, only Bran and Sam Tarly know about Jon’s true heritage, and they’re in Winterfell, where the Targaryen fleet is headed before the imminent clash with the Army of the Dead.
Now, Daenerys, thinking that she is the only living Targaryen, has made it her mission to take back the Iron Throne. If – assuming the Great War doesn’t get in the way – Jon finds out about his true heritage, this could make the Targaryen queen uneasy.
But didn’t he sleep with her in the season 7 finale?
Incestuous relationships – Jaime and Cersei notwithstanding – are still kind of scandalous in the Song of Ice and Fire universe. But among the Targaryens, there is precedence, as they were known to marry within their bloodline to keep the blood of the dragon pure, so to speak.
Dany could just marry Jon, but convenient resolutions like this doesn’t feel very Thrones-like. Still, there are other relevant concerns that could also get in the way of the King in the North’s claim to the Seven Kingdoms.
Jon, “a Targaryen in name but ever a Stark in personality,” isn’t very politically-minded and is even as virtuous as his would-be father Ned was.
The King in the North also didn’t need to bend the knee to Daenerys, and moreover, he shouldn’t have revealed this to Cersei during their meeting in King’s Landing. Should he sit on the Iron Throne, his naïveté could cost him, as he makes the kind of ill-conceived moves that Tyrion had warned about: “Stark men don’t fare well when they travel south.”
Before their after-dark tryst, Jon questioned Daenerys’ ability to bear children again. In the blood magic rite that cost her Khal Drogo and their child, she was left barren, and this is what she was led to believe – even with Daario Naharis.
But after Jon was killed by mutineers in the Night’s Watch, he was resurrected by Melisandre. Is there a touch of magic somewhere there?
Setbacks to a Targaryen Restoration
In her mission to reclaim Westeros, it had seemed that Daenerys was unstoppable and invincible with her dragons (of course), as well as the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and a portion of the Greyjoy fleet led by Yara. She could easily burn King’s Landing to the ground, but that would be a slaughter of the innocent – after all, Dany wants to break the wheel.
One of the first tactical moves that Tyrion Lannister, Dany’s Hand, plotted against the usurper, Cersei, was to take their family seat of Casterly Rock.
While the Unsullied would take the Lannister castle, Yara and Theon would sail with the Greyjoy fleet to Dorne to ferry House Martell’s army, now under the control of Oberyn Martell’s paramour, Ellaria Sand.
That was the plan, but Euron Greyjoy ambushed his niece Yara’s fleet, killed Sand Snakes Obara and Nymeria (Oberyn’s bastard daughters), and captured Tyene, Ellaria, and Yara herself, who Theon wasn’t able to save.
Meanwhile, the Unsullied found Casterly Rock undefended, but it was all a trap, as Euron was able to destroy their fleet, effectively stranding the forces led by Grey Worm there. As this was happening, Jaime Lannister looted Highgarden, and put an end to House Tyrell by poisoning the acerbic-witted Lady Olenna.
Dany, astride Drogon and the Dothraki in tow, successfully launched a surprise counter-attack that almost cost Jaime his life.
But it was hearing about – and seeing – the approaching Army of the Dead that forced Dany to park her entire conquest and ride her dragons to fight in the frigid north instead.
“The dragon has 3 heads,” Rhaegar once told Daenerys in a vision detailed in the books, and even depicted in House Targaryen’s sigil. This was popularly understood to mean that two other characters would ride Daenerys’ child-dragons to battle in her reconquest of Westeros.
Drogon, the biggest and mightiest of them, took a liking to Jon – even allowing him to pet him, perhaps sensing the Targaryen blood coursing through his veins. So it seems to be Jon’s – rather, Aegon Targaryen’s destiny to ride Rhaegal, his father’s namesake.
In season 7, there was a massive gamechanger. Viserion was killed by the Night King and turned into a flying ice zombie, so the blue flame-breathing beast was now a weapon of mass destruction.
The Starks: ‘The lone wolf dies but the pack survives’
The remaining Starks are back in Winterfell. Sansa, its wise warden, presides over it while Jon, the King in the North, tries to persuade the southerners to join the fray in the Great War. Arya, now a ruthless assassin, and Bran, now the Three-Eyed Raven, are with her as well.
Winterfell, the bastion of the northerners, could be where Jon, Daenerys, and the rest take their last stand against the Army of the Dead – if the season 8 trailer is any indication. What roles will Ned and Catelyn’s children play?
Arya, for the longest time in Essos, had trained to become an assassin with the Faceless Men. In the process, she gained the ability to take the form of other people.
She also has an ongoing kill list, which includes the recently eliminated Petyr Baelish (a.k.a. Littlefinger), and then Cersei, too. But does this list still matter with ice zombies and their unstoppable blue-skinned lords on their way?
Bran Stark, for his part, remains an enigmatic but significant player in the Great War ahead.
Apart from his knowledge of Jon’s Targaryen heritage because of his greensight – an ability akin to time traveling (somehow influence events, too, i.e. Hodor), Bran can also warg and take control of living things. Undoubtedly, his magical powers as the Three-Eyed Raven will make him a central player this season.
“You will never walk but you will fly,” the previous Raven told him.
The Night King
The Night King is the primordial White Walker. It was revealed that he was once an unnamed man turned by the Children of the Forest, the original and once-mythical inhabitants of Westeros, as a weapon against the First Men, conquerors who destroyed their sacred weirwood trees and slaughtering their people.
At some point in Westerosi history, the White Walkers turned against their creators, but for what?
No one knows the Night King’s true intentions yet. No one even knows his former human identity. The sinister figure is clearly capable of cunning strategy (see: Ice Viserion), but at this point, there is little information to glean about his motivations.
The only thing that is certain is that he is humanity’s common enemy and he must be stopped. His Army of the Dead outnumbers the living, and he can easily get reinforcements with the gesture of his arms – which you’ve seen before.
Who will sit on the Iron Throne?
In Season 2, Daenerys had a vision: and before her the Iron Throne stood – unoccupied – in the ruined, snow-filled Great Hall. Is this an omen that nothing will be left to rule – that any power struggle at this point is futile?
It must then be asked: who will be there when spring dawns with its first light? If humanity survives the Great War, who will be there to lead and guide them?
With real-life history as inspiration, there are even those inclined to believe that a rudimentary form of democracy can be built upon the foundations (or ruins) of the Seven Kingdoms.
Your guess is as good as everyone else’s at this point.
Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season premieres exclusively on HBO and HBO Go on Monday, April 15, at 9 am, Manila time, simulcast with the US. It will also be available on HBO On Demand. New episodes will air every Monday at the same time with an encore telecast at 10 pm. – Rappler.com