Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Below follows a collected series of thoughts, conjectures, and predictions written prior to the final four episodes of HBO’S Game of Thrones.
I know that George R.R. Martin gave series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss the broad strokes of the ending he is very slowly working towards, so I’ve considered some of the textual clues as well as those given to us by the adaptation. I’m also keeping in mind that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and responding heavily to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and some of those tropes are being either used or subverted purposefully. That said, the HBO series closed several narrative doors throughout its run, and as such the predictions are not necessarily going to match up with where I think the books are heading. (Dorne, you always deserved better.) I put a lot of stock in the long-known fact that Martin intends to name his final book A Dream of Spring. It tells me that the Song may end with Westeros in ruins, but with enough hope that it may be rebuilt and flourish again when winter finally passes. From that sense, I’m thinking a great deal about what that sort of Westeros would look like.
THE BATTLE OF WINTERFELL
Let’s start with the impending assault by the army of the Night’s King, a cataclysmic event in which we expect to see several major characters taken off the board. I’ll start with my assumed list of survivors: Jon, Danaerys, Arya, The Hound, Jaime, Tyrion, Brienne, Grey Worm, Samwell, Gilly (and little Sam), Jorah, Davos, Varys, Podrick, and Edd Tollett.
Jon and Danaerys have a saga to complete; whether or not it ends with one or both of them dead, that does not happen here in Winterfell. The Hound has been on a collision course with what remains of The Mountain for his entire life, and whether or not Martin intends to cheat him of that, I doubt the showrunners will. Jaime and Tyrion, similarly, both have a reckoning with Cersei coming due, and I believe that Brienne’s fate is tied to Jaime’s (more on that later). Arya I expect to live if for no other reason than I believe we will see Nymeria return again with all the wolves of Westeros behind her, like the Eagles of Tolkien’s stories, but that they do not arrive for this battle and Arya will be the only person who can understand what it means when they do. Grey Worm and Missandei’s story has long had the notes of a tragic song, and their plans for a life beyond war are screaming red flags that they will never be allowed such happiness — but I do believe that Grey Worm has been set up as the anticipated death here and that Missandei dying instead is the twist we will be given. Sam, Gilly, and little Sam feel like the closest this story might give us to a happy ending for somebody who spent their life abused and bullied, although it’s also likely that Sam could die defending Gilly and little Sam, and that his name will instead live forever even though he does not. Jorah’s fate is tied to Dany’s, and while I do believe he will ultimately die in service of his queen, I think he makes it to King’s Landing before that occurs. Davos has unfinished business with Melisandre and might even be allowed to return to his family, the rare old soldier who finally gets to lay down his burdens. Varys survives long enough to see the realm positioned for its future greatness, but this may require a sacrifice on his part, one final manipulation to bring all the pieces in line. One could see Varys, for example, betray Danaerys in the short term to Cersei for a longer goal of helping Danaerys emerge victorious, only to be executed, or at best exiled, for that initial treachery. As for Podrick — I dunno, this one’s a hunch. He’s Brienne’s squire and he’s made such strides towards knighthood himself, which either marks him for a glorious future or an untimely demise. I flipped a coin between him and Gendry and it came up Pod. Dolorous Edd? I don’t think the gods would be so merciful as to let him die. I think they enjoy his somber japes quite a bit and will keep him around as long as they wish.
So this means I expect these characters to fall in the battle: Beric, Tormund, Gendry, Missandei, Theon, Bran, and Sansa.
Before I get into these, though, I’ll note that I expect the Battle of Winterfell to end in a sort of defeat for both the forces of the living and the dead. I expect to see the castle overrun, and survivors retreating south down the Kingsroad or scattered elsewhere, but that the Night’s King fails to capture or kill Bran in any way that suits his true aims. And I believe that part of the reason there are survivors left to retreat at all is because Melisandre returns from Volantis in this hour, leading the army of the Fiery Hand from the Temple of R’hllor, an elite fighting unit alleged to carry spears made of dragonglass. It will not be enough to save Winterfell, but it may be enough to save many more of its people than would have survived otherwise.
So, with that scenario in mind: Beric Dondarrion’s survival is one of those things that’s way off-track from the books; in Martin’s text Beric died at the end of Book III by giving up what remained of his unnatural life force to resurrect Catelyn Stark. But in the series this would be a good moment for him, should he finally go. It would be fitting and poetic for him to at least see the army of R’hllor emerge when the night is darkest and most full of terrors, and then to expire with a measure of hope. I predict that Tormund dies saving Brienne, his love unrequited but feeling no regret for that. Gendry, like his father before him, charges headlong into a melee with his hammer and holds his own until he simply no longer can. Missandei dies attempting to save as many of those in the crypts as she can, leaving the northerners ashamed for how distrustful they were of her before she gave her life for them. Theon earns a measure of redemption both as a son of Winterfell and a warrior of the Ironborn when he buys Bran enough time to escape his body; Bran I expect to warg into one of the dragons, probably Rhaegal, the one that Jon is riding who was named for his natural father. The body of Brandon Stark is killed, but the Raven survives and escapes, thwarting the White Walkers for the moment.
Sansa, as I’ve predicted before, seems to have been set up to give the last of herself to Winterfell and her people. I believe she will make a decision that assures many of her charges survive but that she herself does not, and that in the grief afterwards Danaerys will learn the lesson she failed to grasp while Sansa was living — that a true leader looks beyond themselves and their ambitions to their responsibilities and those who look to them for guidance. It is a lesson Cersei has refused to learn, and has rendered herself incapable of learning. While Dany’s story has seen her surrounded with several men and women whose character and insight have helped shape her into a true queen, Cersei has progressively alienated or seen killed everyone who might have done the same for her, leaving her only with sycophants and mercenaries such as Qyburn, Euron, and the Golden Company. In her defense, Cersei has been molded into such a creature by the life she’s led to this point, filled as it has been with disappointment and betrayal by her father, her brothers, her husband, and even erstwhile allies such as the High Sparrow.
I also believe that Sansa will not return as a wight; I believe she may either kill herself with a dragonglass weapon or with fire so as not to be raised again, or that Arya may do it for her, closing the circle of their sisterhood in one final, painful act of heroism. I’m unsure about the rest of those I’ve named as doomed, although I suspect Beric has died and been raised so often by the Lord of Light that the Night’s King may find him impossible to raise. But Tormund, Gendry, Missandei, and Theon would be especially terrible for many of the individual survivors to behold.
The survivors continue south towards King’s Landing to inform Cersei that the defenses have failed. I think that on their path south there is an opportunity to march past Greywater Watch, the home of House Reed, and that we will see Meera again alongside her father, Ned Stark’s old war companion Howland Reed. When Jon first told Danaerys that he was in fact Aegon Targaryen, son of Prince Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark, her response was to challenge the claim based on the fact that he had received the information from his best friend Samwell Tarly and his brother Bran. Howland Reed is now the only person still alive who was at the Tower of Joy, who saw Eddard Stark bring forth the child who would be named Jon Snow and referred to as a bastard to protect him from King Robert’s wroth. As such, he offers a truly independent confirmation for Jon and Dany to consider. I do not know if the crannogmen over whom Reed is Lord continue south with the host of surviving northmen, or hold the line as long as they can, but his purpose in this tale is to dispel doubt once and for all, and lead us to the final question of whether or not Jon will be a challenger to Dany instead of a subject.
THE SECOND BATTLE FOR THE DAWN
I don’t have a complete sense of how this will end, but I do believe where it ends will be in the fields and streets of King’s Landing, the capital city of Westeros and the site where Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters Visenya and Rhaenys first alit upon the mainland from the Targaryen home of Dragonstone. As the Night’s King pushes further south in pursuit of Bran, we should expect to see forces from all corners and Houses of Westeros, from Dorne, and possibly even some more from Essos — led by Daario Naheris, who is incapable of following an order when he feels Danaerys might be in trouble.
The prophecy of Azor Ahai’s rebirth will at last come into play as a final moment of magic against the power of the Long Night, with a singular hero who rallies the living to defeat the dead. Melisandre began her journeys in Westeros believing that Stannis was this vaunted “prince who was promised” and later came to accept that she was wrong from the start. She has since shifted her viewpoint to Jon Snow, shaken by her ability to resurrect him, and will no doubt be doubly convinced when she learns that he is the son of Prince Rhaegar — who himself so believed that the child born to him and Lyanna Stark would be the warrior of destiny that he’d intended to name him Aegon despite the fact that one of his two children with his wife Elia Martell was already named Aegon.
Other clues in the text and in the narrative arc of Jaime Lannister have been leading us to believe that he is fact the fabled Azor Ahai, including Old Valyrian or possibly Old Ghiscari translations discussing a “gold hand” in the prophecies. For myself, though, I think this is another misdirect. Martin often talks about how prophecies in his world are never as literal as they seem, and while some might bend closer to the truth than others, some are misinterpreted and then those misinterpretations passed down, creating a current version far removed from anything accurate. In his text, he also seeds two details that I’ve considered significant. The first is a dream that Jaime has, shortly after he has been released from Harrenhal but has left Brienne behind at the mercy of the Brave Companions. In the dream he finds himself in a dark cave beneath Casterly Rock, facing off against the shades of long-dead knights with Brienne by his side. Both hold flaming swords; in the course of the battle his goes out but hers remains lit. Lightbringer, the sword of Azor Ahai, was a similarly flaming sword, allegedly forged through both magic and the sacrificed life of his beloved wife Nissa Nissa. When he awakens, he is so stirred by what he saw that he turns back to Harrenhal and saves Brienne from being killed for sport by a captive bear.
The other detail is that in Old Valyrian, “prince” is a gender-neutral term, which means the “prince that was promised” need not be a man at all.
I’m saying that Brienne — who was recently revealed by Martin to be directly descended from former legendary Kingsguard Lord Commander Ser Duncan the Tall — is actually the hero of destiny that Melisandre and others have been waiting for, and that her part in the final battle will come as a surprise to everyone, because the assumption in both this world and in our own has always been that such heroes are male.
It would be one version of Jaime’s arc for him to go from the man we first meet pushing a child out of a tower window to being in fact the mythical savior of all living creatures, but I think this arc is easy and not what Martin has planned for us. Jaime’s actual arc is much deeper and richer; his story is one of a boy who believed deeply at first in notions of honor and nobility inherent in knighthood, of the same stories in which Sansa Stark may also have grown up invested before her illusions were shattered. He was a reliable and eager squire in his youth, and found himself in awe of such capable and compelling men as Ser Barristan Selmy, Ser Arthur Dayne, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, and Brynden “Blackfish” Tully. As he grew, however, he found himself embroiled in the political infighting between his father Tywin and King Aerys, and also began to meet knights of less savory reputations than those other paragons who he’d assisted and fought alongside. His cynicism began to grow, and he gave himself willingly to Cersei’s manipulations, one of the few places in which he could find joy. When he killed the Mad King he found that the only stories that mattered were the ones that named him an oathbreaker and kingslayer, and that the reality, in which he had saved the lives of thousands from death by wildfire, would never be heard. Indeed, the only person who he confesses that truth to is Brienne.
His arc does not, and should not, end with him as the hero of legend. His fate is to be at the side of Brienne, the person most deserving of knighthood as he once believed knighthood should be. However the living finally emerge victorious, it will be Brienne of Tarth who stands at the center of their ranks.
YOU WIN OR YOU DIE
With the existential threat vanquished, there will remain only questions of who is left to rule, and what that kingdom will look like. I do not believe that this story has been told — this Song sung — simply to place Danaerys Targaryen upon the Iron Throne as the sovereign of the Seven Kingdoms, because that would amount to nothing more than the story of how a centuries-long dynasty lost the throne for a couple of decades before getting it back. I also do not believe Cersei Lannister survives to continue as queen; she has been brought to her lowest points before now and will never allow herself to sink to those depths again. She may make one last attempt to consolidate her power as she has done twice before, outplaying Eddard Stark at the game of thrones and outwitting both the High Sparrow and Margaery Tyrell during her trial, but find that the alliances she needed to pull off this plan were no longer alliances she knew how to forge. Bronn will discover that he has loyalties built on more than his comfort and financial self-interest, choosing to defy Cersei’s orders to assassinate both Jaime and Tyrion, and likely pay for the moment of integrity with his life. An attempt on Danaerys’ life is thwarted by Jorah paying with his own, at last making restitution for having served Robert and Cersei as their spy so long before.
Cersei may have long suspected that Tyrion would be the brother most likely to end her life, but I suppose she gets that wrong as well, and that she and Jaime will die together — him with both his natural and golden hands around her throat, her with a blade in his heart, the two of them seeing each other one last time as the siblings, lovers, and children they once were before the story ends for them both. And for Tyrion, I see him redeem himself for many past mistakes with a battle plan that not only serves the living well in the battle against the Night’s King, but sets up the second sack of King’s Landing — ironically, after being the man whose planning had saved it and whose worth during the Battle of the Blackwater went largely unknown by the city’s ungrateful wretches.
The history of Westeros is important to the future of Westeros. The seven kingdoms that existed before Aegon set about his conquest were The North, The Vale, The Riverlands, The Rock, The Reach, The Stormlands, and Dorne (the last of which was never actually conquered in deed, but only in name, until being united much later through marriage and treaty). After Aegon’s conquest, however, these were considered to be one realm with House Targaryen its sole ruler. My conjecture is that after the battle with the White Walkers is over, and Danaerys finds herself having won the right to rebuild instead of the right to rule, she will understand that the supreme power represented by the Iron Throne is one that led to the sort of disharmony that all but destroyed her family and also to such scheming and plotting that it left humanity near the brink of extinction, unable to see past their own petty concerns of title and rank to deal with an enemy willing and capable of ending them all. I see Drogon melting the Iron Throne down to slag, as it was once itself carefully forged in the fires of Aegon’s dragon Balerion, the Black Dread.
I do not see Jon Snow staking a claim to the Iron Throne. I see a man who grew up believing he was owed nothing, and who often found himself in situations where leadership or responsibilities he did not want were being thrust upon him, including the roles of turncloak, Lord Commander, and King in the North. He was raised by Ned Stark as a son to value loyalty, duty, and honor; he is not likely to unbend his knee to Danaerys simply because he has been given a new sense of identity. He may have been born Aegon Targaryen and hidden as Jon Snow, but he will also be one of the last surviving children of Winterfell, and I believe that in the reconstruction era that follows he will return to rebuild that castle as Jon Stark, with aid from whoever remains alive in the north. (This includes Lyanna Mormont. This isn’t even a discussion point, this is just a fact.) And I think he will tear down the Wall once and for all; I do not imagine that his experiences will leave him believing that trapping the Free Folk north is a price worth paying for what was ultimately proven to be the illusion of security.
Instead, I see Danaerys understanding that she cannot pretend to be supreme over the entirety of the wounded, winter world she inherits. So while Jon rejoins the only people he has truly known in the north, Tyrion is sent west to rebuild the Rock and the Reach, as the sort of learned and clever man he is. I see Samwell and his family returning to House Tarly as Tyrion’s warden, re-imagining two houses formerly known for their strict military mindsets into those where knowledge and studiousness were valued, where no more sons would be packed off to the Wall in shame if they failed to be strong soldiers or cruel generals. Tyrion and Sam seem also like the sort of smart, clever men capable of being stewards to the Citadel in Oldtown and of forging a real peace with the westerlands’ neighbors on the Iron Islands, something that might sway their culture in some way from being nothing more than marauding thieves and rapists.
Dorne remains Dorne, although as far as the TV series is concerned one is left to wonder who may be considered its ruling House, with all Martells and Sand Snakes now murdered or captive.
Essentially, for Danaerys to “break the wheel,” as she has declared, she must reconsider what the wheel is, and decide for herself how much of it she is willing to give up in the name of the realm. Can she accept being the queen of one kingdom out of four? Can she accept that there is glory in being Danaerys the Healer in addition to all of the other titles she has amassed to her name since she first fled into exile?
TATTERS AND THREADS
The Hound and The Mountain do at last finish in combat the enmity that has defined their brotherhood, what fans have fondly referred to as “CleganeBowl.” While a simple grudge match is satisfying enough on its own, I suspect that fire will play a significant role, and that there may even be a measure of pity left in Sandor for his brother as he ends this facsimile of life that he has had thrust upon him. The pity, however, may be all that is needed for the Mountain to strike his own mortal blow, and The Hound, finally, is allowed to achieve the peace he failed to find for long in life.
I foresee Grey Worm fighting alongside the Unsullied with the passion of a man who only has Danaerys left to live for, and while he might survive the war and be asked to continue serving at her side, I feel that it is more likely he accepts the offer she gave him when she first bought him away from the Great Masters of Astapor, and takes his freedom. Perhaps he returns to Essos, to turn his spear into a plowshare, and attempts to understand what life is when he isn’t asked to continue dealing death.
There will be a moment when Melisandre finds herself waiting for Davos, and when Davos makes her pay the debt she owes for facilitating the murder of Shireen. I think she dies declaring herself guiltless, offering that everything happened the way it needed to in order for the Lord of Light to be victorious, and I expect Davos won’t care for that answer at all. I also, somehow, imagine him being allowed to settle on Dragonstone, and serving in some capacity as a Queen’s Hand.
Brienne remains with Danaerys as the first woman to serve as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, fulfilling her need to swear solemn oaths and also following in the footsteps of her forebear Ser Duncan, and perhaps Ser Podrick Payne follows in the footsteps of the late Jaime Lannister as one of the youngest men ever to serve in the Guard as well. The woman who was once sneered at as Brienne the Beauty perhaps enters the songs as Ser Brienne the Brave, and such a power structure in King’s Landing becomes the sort of thing that makes Westeros ask itself what else they might achieve when they let go of their feudalist and patriarchal assumptions.
If Jon does return north, one wonders if Arya returns with him to remain his guardian and surviving family member, considering how close they have always been. Once upon a time it seemed more likely to me that Arya would simply disappear into the forests and rivers, as her direwolf once did, perhaps that she would take a ship past the Iron Islands and see what else lay to the west of the mainland. But we’ve now watched Arya fight very hard to go from being Arya Stark, to being the boy Arry, to being No One, to being Arya Stark again. She has become more her father’s child than ever, and with the rest of her family now gone, she is responsible for maintaining and growing her pack with Jon.
Euron’s attempt to escape from the wreck of Cersei’s plans is likely met by Yara Greyjoy’s Ironborn, but it’s also just as likely that he attempts to escape to Essos and succeeds in doing so, living out his days in relatively disgraced exile. Euron once claimed that he had sailed through the Smoking Sea, the treacherous volcanic waters left behind by the Doom of Valyria, and it may be that during his escape he finds himself going there for real, and failing to return. Somehow I imagine Qyburn goes with him. It becomes less important if either man dies horribly, as much as it is that neither man is ever heard from again.
I see Bran remaining in the mind and body of Rhaegal, surviving the wars, and then heading off to live his solitary life as the memory of the world, leaving only Drogon behind to live out his life at Danaerys’ side. I see her allowing herself the joy of keeping Daario as her consort and of feeling no need to hide it from the world.
I see Robin Arryn being carefully shepherded to adulthood by Lord Royce. I see the bones of Ellaria Sand staring in agony at the bones of her daughter Tyene as the Red Keep crumbles, yet another symbol of the excess and madness that often followed the Targaryen kings of old. I see the Iron Bank annoyed at its inability to collect its loans.
I see a lot of different things and every one of them might be wrong, and for as much as I’d enjoy being right I’m also looking forward to seeing what ways I might be surprised.