This Thursday through Monday: The Long Weekend Of Thrones. Full schedule here.
(The following article contains plot details for the entire series—both books and show. Reader discretion is encouraged.)
Sonia Saraiya: About a year ago, my friend Taryn and I were in the middle of a long conversation about Game Of Thrones, and we made a list of every major character on the back of a diner placemat. The list was there to organize our thoughts about the show, the books, and the fate of the series: Each character who we thought would die was crossed out. Each one we thought would live was circled. Each we thought would survive—albeit in a changed form—got an asterisk. And perhaps most importantly, whoever we thought would sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros got a crown.
Game Of Thrones is a story of subtle moments more than epic battles; as has been observed by many fans of the books, one of the fascinating draws of the series is that the main characters all died 15 years before George R.R. Martin starts telling his story. And yet there is one story that is the series’ theoretical endpoint—the fate of the throne of Westeros. It’s sort of a red herring. In the first book and season, the idea of who will get the throne is what leads Ned Stark to his doom; by the second or third, who gets it is incidental to what really matters in the story—the smaller struggles of power and agency that these men and women face every day.
How on earth could this possibly end? That’s the question that drives forward so much of this narrative—and so much fan enthusiasm for it. Martin’s story has blown itself up multiple times, killing its own heroes with impunity. What will be left? And what could it possibly mean?
I am a fan of Film Critic HULK, who has a wonderful primer on storytelling available for anyone with a few hours to kill. And one of his big lessons for scriptwriting is the following: The ending is the conceit. If the story means something, then the way you end it means the most—because that’s what the audience is leaving with, whether that’s in text or on-screen. I don’t think Taryn and I drew up that list because we had a particular burning desire to lay out some theory. Instead, I think we—like most, if not all, fans of this series—just want to know what this whole story is building up to.
What’s interesting is that even though A Song Of Ice And Fire has to end in some way, Martin himself is not above toying with us—and with our need for an ending to feel satisfied. The man knows how to create a climax, that much is clear. But every time he gestures toward another book, a kind of panic sets in. What if there is no plan? What if this never ends? What if there was no point to all of this? And if it sounds like I’m having an existential crisis, I sort of am—on behalf of these fictional characters whose existence I have gotten a little too invested in.
I have read the fan theories. I have made some of my own. I have pointed to the text for my claims. And I have done so in the hopes that this all means something, though I don’t know what.
Brandon, you’re a show-only fan (at least for now), so I’m curious. Are you as invested in the endings as I am, or is the show making this a different experience for you? And do you want to offer up your theories first, or should I submit the diner-placemat list?
Brandon Nowalk: I want to go first just because I have less information. But since you (and Hulk) put it that way, at the moment I’m invested more in the series than the ending. As you say, the show keeps reinventing itself to a certain degree, and each castle has its own genre flavors. I’m interested in each episode as an episode and each season as a season and even these first four seasons as some kind of first act more than I am in the series’ ending right now. It’s the boy who cried, “Winter is coming.” I’ll believe it when I see it.
Still, the prospect of the ending is tantalizing. What could it be? When I look at the series so far, I see a bunch of stupidly dying patriarchs—the worst being Khal Drogo dying of bravado—and a bunch of women left to pick up the pieces. I see Cersei trying to be her father’s heir and getting denied out of custom. I see gender-progressive Dorne rising up to pick up the fight against the Lannisters. I see Sansa and Arya and Margaery and Brienne finding their own individual sources of power. The treatment of all this isn’t so clear, however. Yara gets not one but two rousing speeches and then is dispatched for apparently the whole season in the blink of an eye—well, one of Lucille Bluth’s blinks, anyway. Male nudity is to titter at and female nudity is to drool over with perhaps the lone exception of Daario’s butt, quickly followed by Melisandre fully naked for an entire scene. Chalk up the sex and violence to the expectations that come with an HBO show, but there’s some serious tension between the story’s gender values and the show’s priorities.
The even more obvious trend is toward the supernatural. Dany’s dragons are so big now I expect them to be practically unstoppable. The White Walkers and company are well known among the wildlings and perhaps even the crows. There are giants and visions and divine resurrections. Whatever Melisandre says about her magic being mostly theatrical, Beric Dondarrion died and came back to life. I don’t know if I actually believe it, but between the White Walkers and the Lord Of Light, I’m sitting here waiting for someone to resurrect the not very rightful but awfully handsome king Renly.
With all that in mind, I wonder if there will even be an Iron Throne by the end of this. Both Daenerys and Bran see visions of a deserted, wintry throne room. How does Westeros just continue as it was? Assuming the kingdom doesn’t get broken up or anything, though, I think the obvious contenders are the kings still actively vying for the throne: Dany, the sole heir to Robert’s predecessor; Stannis, the sole legitimate heir to Robert; Tommen, the illegitimate but sole ostensible male heir to Robert; Myrcella, maybe (am I crazy here?), if anything happens to Tommen and assuming she’s empowered by Dorne’s progressive politics; and maybe Balon Greyjoy, but I think he might just want independence for the Iron Islands and not dominion over the entire continent. Hard to say when the show barely gives the Greyjoys the time of day.
If you really want to get speculative, there are plenty of other contenders. The mystery of Jon Snow’s genealogy is introduced and then abandoned, like so many plots, due to beheading, so I fully expect that to become important at some point. We talked about this on Twitter, and you said I had stumbled on the prevailing theory, that Jon is actually the son of Dany’s older brother Rhaegar and Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna. I’m not sure where that puts him in the line of Targaryen succession, but he does appear to be an unkillable main character so he’s in the running by virtue of narrative prominence alone. Then there’s Littlefinger, who has pulled the strings on so many world-historical events in modern Westeros history that he can’t be denied. And Varys is a powerful survivor with an eye on the throne as well, according to that great tête à tête with Oberyn.
So those are the obvious candidates to my mind so far. Barring yet another rebellion—The Martells? The Boltons? Nymeria?—my first instinct is to see Daenerys on the Iron Throne eventually, based purely on genre tropes. This story screams that she’s being set up to win in the end. This being Game Of Thrones, though, that could just as easily mean the sword will drop right before she gets there.
Any obvious candidates to add to the list, Sonia? Better yet, who are the dark horses? Is Sansa in the running yet or what?
SS: I’ll preface this by saying that I think George R.R. Martin is not above switching courses midstream—in fact, everything since A Storm Of Swords has indicated to me (and other fans I’ve discussed this with) that the story laid out in the first few books might not be the story he’s intending to follow up on. There could be a feint toward something else entirely, in the hopes of shocking even us unflappable, holier-than-thou book fans.
That being said, it’s been clear right from the start that outside of the Stark family, Martin was interested in Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister for no good reason except that they might survive the series. They’re fascinating characters, and he’s done a lot to explore them both. And as it turns out, they would complement each other really well. Because if Dany is the perfect charismatic leader—Stormborn, Mother Of Dragons, beautiful and terrible, like Galadriel if she hadn’t gone to the west—Tyrion is the perfect acharismatic leader, a man who is entirely indispensible and universally despised. Even in this past season, the seeds for this dichotomy are there—Dany’s able to inspire, but not quite to govern; Tyrion saved King’s Landing, but no one at his trial will give him a kind word, let alone leniency.
And here’s the biggest clue: Dany has three dragons, but she can only ride one at a time—and to fly them into King’s Landing would be to conquer Westeros the way her ancestors did. My take on A Song Of Ice And Fire is that Martin wrote it to subvert what we consider the canonical fantasy text: The Lord Of The Rings. (Sex! Women! Complicated shades of gray between good and bad!) And what better way than to subvert the idea that a monarch can be inspiring and strategic, good and just?
Except this, too, falls apart really fast. At the end of A Clash Of Kings, book readers were treated to a vision in the House Of The Undying that is absolutely tantalizing: Perhaps as chilling as the one in the show, but with a lot more lore and prophecy (and question marks). Chiefly, Rhaegar Targaryen, abductor of Lyanna Stark and Dany’s eldest brother, speaks to his wife Elia as she holds their infant son, and says: “There must be one more. The dragon has three heads.”
I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many, many theories as to what Rhaegar was trying to do with his son Aegon and the whole “prince that was promised” prophecy. (My new favorite is the one that posits that Mance Rayder is Rhaegar in disguise.) There’s a lot in just that vision. But “the dragon has three heads” is easy enough. Three dragons; three heads; three conquerors. Dany needs not just one doppelgänger, but two.
This is where Jon Snow comes in. Your instincts are my instincts, Brandon. Jon gets too much attention to be just Ned Stark’s bastard, and if the show hints at it, the books practically scream it: Jon is the bastard son of a king. If he’s got Targaryen blood, maybe he could ride a dragon a little better. Or maybe there’s some reason that the world needed him.
Then there’s also that other thing—the title of the whole goddamn series. A Song Of Ice And Fire. Okay. So fire, that sounds like Dany and her dragons. Ice—is that the White Walkers? Or just winter? Does fire have to fight ice, or be in harmony with it? We know that like, one of the few things that can kill the White Walkers is what Sam Tarly calls dragonglass—obsidian. That, and straight-up fire. Presumably, dragons breathing fire on White Walkers would kill the shit out of them. So maybe the dragons have to sweep through Westeros just to save the country from itself.
Or maybe it’s an indicator of the series’ ’ship-tastic one true pairing: Dany and Jon, the (potential) romance of ice and fire. Maybe like, the whole three heads of the dragon thing is that they have Stark/Targaryen kids and Tyrion is their weird godfather.
Because there are two more weird wrinkles here: One, it’s been discussed time and again that as Dany’s dragons get bigger, they are less and less able to stay in one city. One of the past Targaryen kings kept his dragons in a stadium-type thing so they wouldn’t wantonly kill children and livestock. They were pretty unhappy there, and eventually died out. Rhaegar was obsessed with getting the dragons back, but he doesn’t seem to have figured out how to keep them happy while a Targaryen was on the throne. And two: In the final moments of A Dance With Dragons, (this reveals a major plot point) Jon Snow totally fucking dies. Like—probably not actually. He probably isn’t going to be in the corporeal form that we’re familiar with, but considering that all those Stark kids are able to warg out into their wolves, he’s most likely inhabiting Ghost’s head while looking for another human body to occupy. Or fuck, I dunno, maybe he’s a White Walker now. Either way, that story has gotten more complicated.
And if you’re wondering why I sound panicky, it’s because sometimes it feels like there is no ending to this story—just a long, neverending “and then...”
BN: Sonia! I can’t unsee that A Dance With Dragons whopper!
What to make of it, though? Every time I think there are characters who really can’t die, Martin proves me wrong. I like that about him. Makes this more interesting. And I’ll agree with Hulk in one respect. Since I only know about a third of this story so far, it’s that much more difficult to get a sense of this thing as a whole. So maybe Dany or Tyrion or Bran or Sam or Cersei or Sansa or Arya are up for grabs in the death department. You’re absolutely right about Martin regularly changing the shape of this story. First I thought it was about the Lannisters and the Starks. That isn’t the half of it. And the further we go in the future, the more we learn about the past.
It’s interesting how the books are capable of so much more intrigue. The idea of Mance Rayder being Rhaegar in disguise thrills me. Does Maester Aemon know? And if Jon’s a Targaryen, too, that gives their meeting a whole extra layer. I understand disguise and identity is a recurring motif in the books—Sansa dying her hair in the Vale, Barristan Selmy in Essos, Reek—but it’s harder to pull that off on the show beyond little things like Arya chopping her hair off and Jaime pretending to be an ordinary criminal on the road home. Unless, as in this case, we’ve never seen the true identity before. I don’t even know what it would really mean for Mance to be Rhaegar, but the surprise—and the connection to one of the series’ formative incidents—invigorates me.
I’m curious about Bran. Obviously you have a better idea of where he’s headed than I do, but he’s suddenly getting all this Chosen One talk that’s making me nauseous. Meera says, “If we lose you, we lose everything.” You know this is important because nobody explains what in the world she’s talking about like they would in real life. Instead they let it hang in the air, tacitly agreeing this is Big Fantasy Prophecy Bullshit. Eye-rolling storytelling aside, the point is Bran’s capital-I Important. Okay, then. So what’s his purpose? Might he have some stronger connection to the Tyrion-Dany-Jon power trio? Might he be able to warg a dragon? To fly?
While we’re at it, I’m very curious about Rickon. He’s a child now, but we’d have been short-sighted to write off the importance of Tommen and Myrcella way back when, and I have a feeling the same is true of Rickon. I’ve been wondering since the season three finale what would happen to him when he gets to the seat of House Umber, since the reason he was sent there in the first place—Umber being a Stark loyalist—is exactly the reason that place might be dangerous for him in the new Bolton regime. Either way, it’s far from certain that the castle is a safe haven for Rickon, and with Bolton men looking for him, there’s even more reason to fear for him. Season four has been conspicuously quiet about him, but I’m not buying it. Rickon’s gonna matter, really matter, before this is all over.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the opening credits, around the title are four sigils: the Stark wolf, the Lannister lion, the Targaryen dragon, and the Baratheon stag. But it’s been a long time since a true Baratheon has done anything of significance (no offense to Stannis, all offense to the writers of Stannis). Is that just a throwback to how the show began or is there some special Baratheon I’ve been overlooking. I’m racking my brain but I can’t think of anyone outside of Stannis’ family who qualify, since Robert and Renly died without any heirs. Come to think of it, just a few episodes ago Melisandre made some noise about Shireen’s importance. Is there some connection between her scale disease and dragons?
I’m not far from suggesting Rickon and Shireen are going to get married and unite the bloodlines the way Ned and Robert never could, so I turn to you. Apparently I believe the children are our future. What about you?
SS: Sorry. If it makes you feel better, there are basically no spoilers left after Sunday’s episode. You say you know one-third of the story—but honestly, I think you’re closer to two-thirds. Not that much really happens in the fourth and fifth books—nothing nearly as climactic as the events of the first three books. And even though Jon’s death is far off in the future, it’s vague and kind of mystical—and was at least partially written as an in-joke about football teams. (As you can see, being a fan of Martin’s books requires an awful lot of faith and fortitude.)
That list I made with Taryn was that pretty much everyone dies, by the way. In part because if the series invests in a named character, that indicates they have influence or talent, and that means they have a huge target on their backs. Can you really imagine Cersei or Jaime Lannister surviving a regime change? They’re too recognizable. Stannis Baratheon has been trying to get himself killed ever since his brother was offed. Daario Noharis is too cocky to survive a war for his queen. Jorah Mormont probably won’t want to live for much longer, now that Dany has sent him away. The ones who make it, in my mind, are the ones who we see beginning to perfect the art of survival. And as you say, Brandon, sometimes that means being able to shed the inconvenient trappings of identity. Both Sansa and Arya now have wised up to the inherent death sentence in the Stark name. There is no Theon anymore, because Theon would have been killed, while Reek manages to eke out a small sort of existence. And sure, Rickon might well survive—because Rickon, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist. (There is a really funny poster by Tumblr user apio that pokes fun at this—she appropriates the fancy font and background of the HBO posters, and then superimposes “RICKON?????????????????????” on it, which succinctly sums up my feelings.)
Obviously, we could discuss what might happen for ages (I fear I’ve led you astray with the Mance Rayder theory, but also, HEY, THE MANCE RAYDER THEORY.) But it’s time for brass tacks, Brandon: What do you think happens before this series ends? Here are my predictions:
- Iron Throne: It’s hard for me to imagine a future without Daenerys on the Throne at some point—even if she ends up abdicating in favor of being a better mother to dragons. But she has the spirit, the tenacity, and the hair to make it work. I don’t know if Westeros would really greet her as a conqueror, as everyone says they will. But especially if she shows up as the White Walkers are coming down from beyond the Wall, she is going to have Westeros eating out of her hand.
- Dies: I don’t think that Jaime and Brienne are going to bang, despite my intense investment in them. Actually, I think it’s way more likely that their only moment truly together is the moment they both die. And yes, I just made myself sad with that statement.
- Survives: Sansa Stark, bitches. She’s the only one I’d put real money on, because she’s like a goddamn cockroach. Of course, my personal hope is that she survives by way of killing Littlefinger for being a mega-pedo. Maybe she’ll adopt a direwolf—the successor to her Lady—and train it to tear out people’s throats. Maybe she’ll never return to Winterfell and pass as a commoner for the rest of her days. Maybe she’ll end up Queen in the North. But I think she’s going to make it out of this.
- Also: I will be shocked, shocked, if Jaime and Cersei Lannister don’t turn out to be half-Targaryen. One of the dropped tidbits in A Dance With Dragons is that the mad king Aerys—Dany’s father—might have had his way with Joanna Lannister on the night of her wedding to Tywin. Her firstborn children are twins—incestuous twins—and at least one of them is bona fide nuts, if also fantastic. It all matches up with what we think of as being Targaryen traits. And then there is that dropped aside from Jaime’s aunt Genna Lannister in A Feast For Crows: “Tyrion is Tywin’s son, not you.” Maybe it’s metaphorical, and maybe it totally isn’t, Brandon.
BN: I agree with just about everything you’ve predicted, so in the interests of discussion, I’ll see your predictions and raise you.
- Iron Throne: All signs point to Dany on the throne eventually, as you say. But until that point, where does the line of succession go after Tommen, Myrcella? Stannis? Melisandre has said—and apparently revealed in fire visions—that Stannis will sit on the throne. Parlor tricks or no, I saw her give birth to a shadow monster so I’m gonna side with The Lord Of Light on this one. I say Stannis gets the throne for a hot spell, maybe just in time for Dany to oust him.
- Dies: Seven hells, Sonia. I don’t need to see Jaime and Brienne get together, but there’s a lot of ground between that and them dying together, you monster. Which is why you’re probably exactly right. But given how Martin likes his patterns, I’m going to predict Jaime dying in Brienne’s arms à la Ygritte and Jon. And while I think you’re probably right about most everybody dying, here’s a heartbreaking option: Arya. Maybe it’s just season four talking, but it’s getting hard to imagine Arya continuing on her path in this particular universe and not meeting doom. Besides, she’s one of the most likable characters in the series, which makes her a magnet for misfortune.
- Survives: Absolutely Sansa. It had been a while since we’d seen her really play the game—since back when she was betrothed to Joffrey and rocking that Manchurian Candidate programming—but after her stunt at the Vale with Littlefinger, it’s clear she’s learned a thing or two. But most importantly, Syrio! I know book readers are all, “Don’t get your hopes up,” but just because it hasn’t happened in the first five doesn’t mean Syrio hasn’t survived somehow. I’m chalking it up to being a faceless man for now, since I don’t really know the details of that process yet, but regardless, I think Syrio’s still kicking for now.
- Also: Whoa, very interesting Lannister sibling news. That would make Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella Targaryens, too. And here we thought Dany was the last one. The seed is strong, indeed. And now that I’ve said that, it’s curious that in four seasons only Dany and Gilly have been pregnant, and only one baby survived. Margaery’s of age, and I wouldn’t put it past this show to have her sleep with a tween to solidify the Lannister hold on the throne. If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s unpleasantness. But also? I’m all about Mance Rhaegar.