Warning: contains spoilers for anyone not up-to-date with Game of Thrones season five.
In late 2013, three writers sat down to lunch in Santa Fe. This week, Game of Thrones audiences were given an extraordinary glimpse of what must have been discussed over the breadsticks and San Pellegrino.
Knowing that the series was on course to overtake the books, George R. R. Martin sketched out the broad lines of his last act over that lunch with the Game of Thrones showrunners. That makes season five the first run of episodes written since Martin entrusted his endgame plans to the DB Weiss and David Benioff, and now it’s finally starting to show.
Bolstered with the knowledge, Weiss and Benioff set about creating the least faithful-to-the-books season so far. Plots were streamlined, sped-up, transposed for other players, or simply cut. Key locations and characters were pushed to a later season or chopped altogether. Like Britain in the Sixties, everyone in Westeros simultaneously discovered foreign travel. Jaime and Bronn went back-packing in Dorne. Varys escaped to Essos, and Tyrion was fast-tracked to Dany’s pyramid in Meereen.
And all of it, arguably, was in the service of episode eight, “Hardhome,” and its place in the series as a whole. “Hardhome” didn’t only bring the Game of Thrones ‘week nine will blow your socks off’ tradition forward by seven days, it also fast-forwarded three seasons to give us a glimpse of how the series could ultimately end.
“I’ve seen the White Walkers and they’re coming for us, for all the living.”
Though more did happen in “Hardhome” than the fight between the Wildlings and the Wight army (I seem to recall Arya setting up a mobile whelk delivery business), it left just about everything before those zombie kids eating Katrine from Borgen more or less a blur. Cersei, Sansa, and Ser Jorah’s awful predicaments were trampled underfoot by the giant that is the ultimate battle between the living and the dead.
That battle is where Game of Thrones’ real stakes lie, and it’s also where the show has to end. So much is clear from George R. R. Martin’s next two book titles, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Winter is coming and bringing with it the long night’s ghosties, ghoulies, and long-legged beasties. Repelling an army that recruits those it’s killed is going to be no mean feat. But spring follows winter, say those titles, meaning said beasties’ Seven Kingdoms takeover bid is ultimately destined to fail.
To ensure that it does, the extended squabble over that pointy throne is going to have to take a back seat as lawful good and chaotic evil join as one to repel the forces of darkness. Who’ll rule The Seven Kingdoms? Whoever has the required XP to forge the quarrelsome living into harmonious ranks and defeat an army of the undead.
“Only you can lead the living against the dead.”
Chief contender for the role is Daenerys Stormborn, mother of dragons, breaker of chains, wearer of cutaway dresses, and the last of the Targaryens (unless R+L = nah, let’s avoid all that here). If Dragonglass kills Wights, goes the logic, then imagine what actual dragons will do. The fiery breath of Dany’s children must be White Walker-Kryptonite. Let’s hope so, because the latter appear to be walking extinguishers when it comes to common-or-garden flames.
Another favorite to lead the defense is the rapidly promoted Jon Snow, the pint-sized ice to Dany’s teensy fire. He may not have mystical reptiles on his side, but he does have a Valyrian steel sword (forged in the ancestral home of dragon-rearing House Targaryen), which enables him to turn White Walkers into refreshing granita with a single swipe. Jon’s also clocked time in the field, parlayed with Wildlings, and won command of the Night’s Watch at such a prodigiously young age that he automatically qualifies for an interview on Wogan when all this is over.
Perhaps it’ll take a coalition of the two to defeat the Wights. Samwell will no doubt work out that whole Dragon/Kryptonite deal given access to a few more books (he, Gilly, and little Sam need to get away from the Wall anyway if recent events are a sign of things to come for them in Jon’s absence). Perhaps season six will see Jon’s recruitment drive take him over the Narrow Sea to attempt to convince the Khaleesi and her firepower to join a military alliance?
Finally, there’s Stannis Baratheon, a grey-muzzled stickler for grammar, fealty, and people not burning his only daughter alive. Melisandre (another red fire glowing in all that ice) told Stannis in “The Gift” he must become king before the Long Night begins as only he can lead the living against the dead. How far do we trust her visions, though? If it comes down to a choice between ruling and sacrificing Shireen, which way will Stannis lean?
“The Long Night is coming and the dead come with it.”
Justifiably perhaps, some have accused season five of going nowhere fast. After “Hardhome,” though, all those lengthy voyages and lengthier conversations about what it takes to rule have revealed their purpose. They’ve been busywork while the entire series shifts tectonically. All those destined to have a hand in the final existential battle are moving forward, while those without a place in the bigger picture are being dismantled and discarded.
The mighty Houses Lannister and Tyrell appear to be going the way of the Starks before them, murdered, imprisoned, and scattered over the globe. Ramsay Bolton’s cruel days are surely numbered now that Reek is beginning to break free of his programming (“They weren’t Bran and Rickon.”), while his family’s fall at Winterfell has been foreseen in Melisandre’s fires.
Some question marks remain. Where, for instance, will Arya fit into the battle of the living and the dead as a servant of the many-faced god? And Varys? What will be the result of Maester Qyburn’s investigations into resurrection (“the work continues,” he informed Cersei in “Hardhome”). And what role will Bran Stark come to play? Can we expect him to roar into battle atop Hodor’s shoulders at first light on the fifth day, a magical army of fireball-throwing Children of the Forest in his wake?
“I’m going to break the wheel.”
After “Hardhome,” Game of Thrones’ remaining two or three seasons now have a clear direction. From this point onwards, it’s no longer a fight for the Iron Throne, but a fight for the Seven Kingdoms. While winter crept steadily forwards, the audience and characters alike have been distracted by the turning wheel of Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, and Tyrell, a puppet show compared to the real wars to come.