The following contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 and the A Song of Ice and Fire book series.
If there is one thing we know about Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones it’s that she’s a survivor. Both of her parents and all of her children are now dead. Her only other family of note, her brothers, might as well be dead to her too. But still Cersei lives on.
Not only does she live on but she is also fully prepared to withstand and survive the world’s greatest challenge yet: an army of the dead descending down from the Frozen Wastes to come take away her Iron Chair. It’s a dire situation and that’s why she’s brought in some help. One army we already know about: Euron “Crow’s Eye” Greyjoy and his Iron Fleet of sturdy ships. In Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell,” we are introduced to another army that intends to keep the capitol (but really just Cersei) safe: The Golden Company led by Harry Strickland.
Who are The Golden Company and Harry Strickland? They’ve actually been mentioned on the show a couple of times before. Way back in Game of Thrones Season 4, Davos Seaworth pleads with his then king, Stannis Baratheon, to call the Golden Company in Essos to help him win the Iron Throne. Stannis shoots down the idea (merciless killjoy that he is) says that he will not rely on sellswords (the Game of Thrones word for “mercenaries” basically) to take back what’s rightfully is.
The thing is though – The Golden Company, both in the show and in the books, is not just another sellsword company. They’re THE sellsword company. As implied by their name, the Golden Company is the golden standard of hired military help in Essos and the known world. They are known for never breaking a contract. It’s why Davos urges Stannis to hire them and it’s also why in Season 7 Cersei takes out a loan from the Iron Bank of Braavos to purchase their services.
The Golden Company’s powerful reputation goes all the way back to its founding more than a century ago. The Golden Company has origins in the most brutal civil war the continent of Westeros had seen prior to Robert’s Rebellion: the Blackfyre Rebellion. The causes of the Blackfyre Rebellion are complex and worthy of intensive study…in fact there is enough material presented in the Blackfyre Rebellion that it seems like a natural candidate to be the setting for one of the many Game of Thrones spinoffs in production.
Briefly, however, House Blackfyre was a cadet branch of House Targaryen founded by one of King Aegon IV’s legitimized bastards, Daemon I Blackfyre, in 184 AC. The Blackfyres fancied themselves the real inheritors of the Throne and it led to several civil wars between the Targaryens and the Blackfyres that nearly tore Westeros apart. Following a decisive defeat in one of the first Blackfyre wars, many supporters of the Blackfyres including another one of Aegon IV’s bastards, Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers, fled to the Free Cities of Essos.
While in Essos, Bittersteel established the Golden Company as both a means of financial survival and to keep the Blackfyre supporters’ swords literally and metaphorically sharp should another Blackfyre Rebellion rise up. Over time the Golden Company grew to include accomplished sellswords from around the world and not just the initial Blackfyre supporters. Eventually the Golden Company became a beast unto itself and came to be known as the best collection of sellswords that money can buy.
The modern day Golden Company is world-renowned for both its skill in combat and its ironclad principles. In addition to never breaking a contract, the company operates with a level of opulence and splendor not common for a bunch of mercenaries. They are a disciplined crew that don’t even necessarily see themselves as sellswords but rather a free brotherhood of exiles looking for glory (and cash). The leader of the sellswords sets up shop in a tent surrounded on all sides by pikes with golden skulls atop them – each skull being the bejeweled remains of a previous Golden Company captain.
The current commander of the Golden Company is Harry Strickland (played by Marc Rissman in the show). He meets briefly with Cersei in “Winterfell” and we can tell by his golden attire that he’s the real deal. Sadly he couldn’t bring elephants over from Essos for Cersei.
In the books Harry is probably not the best choice for captain and his poor leadership skills are an indication that the Golden Company might be succumbing to some of the same bloated generational rot that many of the major houses and institutions of the known world are. That’s unlikely to come into play in the show though as…hey, we’ve only got five more episodes to go here. Also unlikely to come into play is the fact the Golden Company in the books eventually heads further east to meet up with Daenerys and support her claim to the Throne.
For the purposes of the show though, Harry Strickland and the Golden Company are a tool for Cersei to remain alive and in power…and judging by their legendary reputation, a splendid tool they’ll make.