Will The Winds of Winter Change Game of Thrones Ending for the Better?

George R.R. Martin revealed that his latest book, The Winds of Winter, is moving further away from how Game of Thrones ended. We examine what that could mean.

Game of Thrones Season 8: Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.
Photo: HBO

Winter is coming. Still. More than 11 years after the last published entry in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, aka the source material that Game of Thrones is based on, author George R.R. Martin took to his lovably antiquated blog—complete with its “Not a Blog” name—to reiterate his apocalyptic blizzard remains forthcoming. Of course these periodic reminders are less newsworthy than they were five years ago. For most of the last decade, Martin has blogged to his loyal literary fans that The Winds of Winter remains a priority, even after Game of Thrones surpassed Martin’s printed story roughly around 2016.

Since then, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended Game of Thrones with a highly divisive final season in 2019 and seemed to reveal the shocking end point that Martin has always had in mind, including when he shared this bombshell idea with the television writers: fan favorite Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke in the show) will take her dragon and burn King’s Landing to a cinder, killing Lannisters and innocent peasants alike. Afterward, her lover and nephew Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) puts a blade in her heart.

These turned out to be the most controversial twists in a series finale that featured a spate of them. However, fans still eager to learn the original author’s full vision (or those just perhaps desperate for something less bitter and rushed), were greatly teased by Martin’s latest blog entry. Once again, the scribe trotted out his analogy of some authors being architects and others being gardeners. Martin? He’s definitely a gardener, taking his time and letting his story evolve and grow in surprising ways. However, according to the writer’s latest update, that garden is taking unexpected shape as he continues work on The Winds of Winter.

“What I have noticed more and more of late… is my gardening is taking me further and further away from the television series,” Martin wrote. “Yes, some of the things you saw on HBO in GAME OF THRONES you will also see in THE WINDS OF WINTER (though maybe not in quite the same ways)… but much of the rest will be quite different…”

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Martin goes on to note that some characters who died on the show will live in his books, and vice versa. All of this has gotten fans hopeful for a happier, or at least better structured, ending. Could Martin let Jaime Lannister find and keep his redemption until the end? Would Martin so cruelly kill off the entire Tyrell family? Could Jon instead of Bran become king of the Six Kingdoms?! Will Daenerys NOT become the Mad Queen?!?!

Obviously only Martin and maybe his editor know for sure. But there’s a lot of material in “A Song of Ice and Fire” that already points toward drastic ways the story could change, even if Martin only began considering them in the years after he gave Benioff and Weiss a general outline for how the story will end. Below are just some of the biggest dangling threads on the page that could transform the narrative in minor and major ways. Some of these at first glance may look like superficial differences, but remember another one of Martin’s favorite metaphors is Edward Norton Lorenz’s “butterfly effect.” The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Japan may tip the scales for a tornado forming in Kansas several weeks later. And breaking your oath to the Lord of the Crossing over a wedding betrothal pact can lead to shockingly steep consequences.

So let us entertain what those butterflies could look like in The Winds of Winter.

What Jon Snow Finds When He Returns from the Grave

It was one of the most depressing endings imaginable for a ASOIAF novel in 2011. Or at least it would’ve been if most readers couldn’t see through Martin’s game when he shockingly (and rather anticlimactically) seemed to conclude Jon Snow’s character arc in a red gush: Jon was slaughtered by his brothers of the Night’s Watch at Castle Black. It was bitter, especially because Jon ignored the warning signs that he was aggravating his compatriots throughout A Dance with Dragons due to his kindnesses to the free folk (wildlings), especially Val—the sister of Mance Rayder’s widow (although Mance Rayder is actually alive, having faked his death with a supernatural lookalike, and is now captured in Winterfell under the alias of “Rattleshirt” by the bastard Ramsay Bolton.)

If you’ve only watched the television series, the more I describe the powder keg of a situation at the Wall, the more you realize there is an armada of details that were not included in the show. Ergo, while Game of Thrones spoiled that Melisandre will resurrect Jon Snow from the dead (as any book reader who paid attention to Thoros of Myr’s favorite magic trick predicted), the world he’ll awaken to may have little in common with season 6 of the television series.

Beyond having to deal with the need for revenge/justice on his treasonous brothers, Jon will find a much more complex political situation. Before he died, he had decided to march on Winterfell with the free folk due to Ramsay Bolton alleging in a monstrous letter that he has married Jon’s sister (more on that in a moment) and defeated Jon’s newfound ally Stannis Baratheon in battle. He also claimed Stannis died off-page.

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For years, fans have speculated Ramsay is a liar, and Benioff and Weiss ironically confirmed as much since they revealed that Martin told them he planned to have Stannis sacrifice his sweet daughter Shireen Baratheon to the Lord of Light. And on the page, Stannis left Shireen, along with his wife and red priestess Melisandre, at the Wall where Jon was murdered.

All of which is to say that rather than Jon awakening and finding a cut and dry reason to avenge his own death and then be encouraged by his long-lost sister Sansa to retake Winterfell, he’ll find a political maelstrom in which a supposed ally will return to the Wall and attempt to sacrifice a little girl—and his own kin—under Jon’s protection. The snowball effect of these different circumstances could be significant since Jon will have command over loyal men of the Night’s Watch, free folk, and even some Baratheon men when this comes to a head… particularly since, according to Ramsay’s letter, Stannis’ retreating army will contain what’s left of Theon Greyjoy (the “Reek” Ramsay demands back) and a woman who claims to be Jon’s sister….

Winterfell, Stark Sisters, and the Whole North Situation

One of the biggest points where Game of Thrones intentionally diverged from “A Song of Ice and Fire” is when it had Sansa Stark return North to marry Ramsay Bolton. On the page, she has yet to set foot back inside Winterfell despite her longing for her lost home. Rather it’s Sansa’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole, whom the Lannisters and Boltons are attempting to pass off as Arya Stark (whom they presume is dead), and therefore key to supposed legitimacy in the North.

Yes, on the page the character remains a young girl whom Theon/Reek and the readers knew when she was growing up. Ramsay also still does monstrously unspeakable things to her on their wedding night (as bad as the scene is in the show… it’s worse in the book). However, she is neither Sansa nor Arya, meaning as far as the North is concerned, the only living Stark child is the bastard Jon Snow—at least until the other living four are found.

Further, unlike in the show, the North truly remembers what happened at the Red Wedding. While Stannis might’ve been defeated by the Bolton forces at Winterfell in the book, most of the Northern lords who seem to begrudgingly accept Roose Bolton’s authority as Warden of the North are perpetuating a conspiracy to betray the Boltons. Lord Wyman Manderly, the portly patriarch of White Harbor, heavily implies to Reek that this is a “murmurs farce” that will soon end, and the book would seem to suggest Manderly has already killed several Freys and men who participated in the Red Wedding and served them as meat pies to unsuspecting fathers and Boltons during Ramsay’s wedding feast (which Game of Thrones adapted into a direct Titus Andronicus shoutout with Arya feeding the most guilty Frey sons to Walder Frey in the show).

So to recap: the Boltons think they hold Winterfell while being surrounded by enemies within, Stannis survived his defeat and is headed back to the Wall, presumably with Theon, and Jon Snow will be resurrected in time to see Stannis attempt to sacrifice his daughter to the same red god who beckoned him from beyond the grave.

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It is easy to imagine a number of ways things play out differently: the Boltons could be slaughtered in a mirror of the Red Wedding without Jon ever stepping foot on a battlefield for the much hyped “Bastard Bowl;” Theon could meet Jon again without a spared Sansa to redeem him in a brother’s eyes (could Theon be beheaded before ever meeting Bran again?); and the North will have reason to rally around Jon while being oblivious that the true born Stark children are alive. This could have dramatic repercussions throughout the series, or even on plans Martin previously passed to Benioff and Weiss.

Personally, I could see Jon actually preventing the planned human sacrifice of Shireen. Should she or Stannis survive these turns of events, it would spiral the entire Baratheon thread of the story in new directions… assuming of course the Jon who returns from the dead is still exactly like the one who died, which is never a guarantee with blood magic.

Could Robb Stark Have an Heir?

While on the subject of Starks, one of the key early differences between Game of Thrones and “A Song of Ice and Fire” remains the fate of Robb Stark’s wife. In the book, she is named Jeyne Westerling and she is the daughter of Gawen Westerling of the Crag, a bannerman to Tywin Lannister. When last Catelyn Stark sees her in A Storm of Swords, she is desperate to have her husband’s child.

In the show, the character is changed to Talisa of Volantis (Oona Chaplin), and she both becomes pregnant and dies by Robb’s side at the Red Wedding. Benioff and Weiss did this, presumably, because they were told the character has no importance beyond this point in the greater story and decided to up the tragic factor of the Red Wedding. And Martin does seem to signal he was done with the character in A Feast for Crows (published in 2005) where Jeyne’s mother reveals to Jaime Lannister she secretly gave Jeyne a tea that would’ve aborted any baby after Robb’s death.

But that book was published nearly 20 years ago. What if in Martin’s “gardening,” he changed his mind? What if he liked the idea of throwing a wild card like another Stark child, who is the son or daughter of the only actual “King in the North,” into the game? Jeyne’s mother could have been lying. And if so, things might get very far away from Game of Thrones’ ending, indeed.

Jon Connington, “Aegon,” and Another Targaryen Enter the Game

Jon Connington and Aegon VI Targaryen. If you don’t know who these characters are, it’s because the TV show deliberately chose to omit them and the can of worms they opened in the fifth ASOIAF novel, A Dance with Dragons. But according to Connington and a lad he (secretly) named Aegon, there’s another Targaryen in the story who is neither Daenerys nor Jon Snow.

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Once upon a time, Jon Connington was Lord of Griffin’s Roost and the final Hand of Aerys II (the Mad King). When Tyrion Lannister stumbles upon him in his travels through Essos in A Dance with Dragons, Connington lives a life of exile and disguise, traveling under the alias of “Griff” with his son “Young Griff.” However, it’s eventually revealed that Young Griff is not his child, but a lad Connington is raising to think he’s a royal—Prince Rhaegar’s youngest son by Elia Martell to be exact. Thus Aegon VI.

In other words, the lad is another nephew of Daenerys Targaryen, as well as Jon Snow’s actual older brother. And given the patriarchal laws of Westeros established by the Dance of the Dragons civil war roughly 200 years before this story began (and the basis of House of the Dragon), young Aegon would have a better claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys by rights of being a male heir descended from King Aerys II’s eldest son.

This is a dramatic game-changer… if it were true. While this is entirely speculation by fans, there is good reason to believe this young Aegon is not the son of Rhaegar but actually a descendant of the Blackfyre line, an off-shoot of the Targaryen family derived from Prince Daemon Blackfyre I, the bastard son of King Aegon IV Targaryen who rose up and caused a civil war about a hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones.

It’s easy to see why Connington and Aegon were cut from the series. This is a whole new plot thread introduced late in the story, and one that could cause it to expand exponentially. It would make getting to an ending that much more difficult… which perhaps explains why Martin has been working on the newest book for over a decade.

Consider this: Lord Varys was never only about doing what was right by the realm in the earliest seasons of the show or in the novels. He conspired with Pentoshi merchant Illyrio Mopatis in the first book/season to undermine Robert Baratheon and to murder Daenerys Targaryen—and only after they had previously convinced her clearly inadequate brother Viserys to marry Dany off to the Dothraki. In retrospect, selling Dany to the Horse Lords might’ve been an attempt to move her and her hapless brother out of the way, with both Varys and Illyrio failing to predict her strong leadership qualities or the birth of her dragons. But to what end?

It’s strongly hinted at in the books that Varys himself could be descended from the Blackfyre family line. This would explain why a wizard would geld him for a blood magic ritual—as Melisandre says there’s power in king’s blood—as well as why he shaves his head (he may not be naturally bald but hiding his silvery Targaryen hair). And if Varys is a Blackfyre, young Aegon may be his nephew and the son of Illyrio Mopatis. The Pentoshi merchant speaks wistfully to Tyrion on the page of his lost wife who might’ve been Varys’ sister.

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If Varys’ endgame is to pass off his nephew as a true Targaryen and heir to the Iron Throne, then that could turn the game of thrones upside down. Suddenly, it’s easy to imagine Varys conspiring against Dany and lining up the lords and ladies of Westeros behind a sweet Targaryen male child instead of a dragon conqueror—who is also a woman.

In the books, Littlefinger has hinted he has an intended betrothal for Sansa Stark, who is still in his leering care in the Vale. Could he and Varys be scheming to marry Sansa to this Targaryen pretender? It would make more sense than giving her to Ramsay as a plaything. Also, if Littlefinger’s ultimate goal is the Iron Throne with Sansa as his wife, would it not be easier to marry her to an actual King of the Seven Kingdoms and then dispose of said-king (who’s still just a boy) when it’s convenient?

All of which puts Sansa just that much further away from returning to where her heart lies—Winterfell—and makes her apparent journey to being Queen in the North (if that is still her ending in the books) that much more circuitous. But it’s the type of development that could clarify…

The Daenerys of It All

There are so many other plot threads to tease out from the books that this article can barely touch on—from Arya’s ongoing training at the House of Black and White to the fact that Benioff and Weiss have already admitted that Cersei blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor to kill the High Sparrow and Margaery Tyrell was their own invention, and not Martin’s—but the thing fans will likely be most desperate about is whether Martin will change the apparently bleak ending to Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline.

If we’re being completely honest… probably not, summer child. One of the things that made the final two episodes of Game of Thrones so jarring was that after several seasons of the show’s increasingly simplified, black-and-white morality, the series finally took a hard left turn back into Martin’s cynicism about power and those that wield it. At the end of the day, the system will always favor those on top to the detriment of those at the bottom, and how better to illustrate this sad reality of human nature than having “the good one” who dabbles in white savior imagery (at least in the show) actually turn out to be as flawed and hypocritical as all the rest? Her good intentions could even leave her damned.

We are promised throughout the books and early seasons that Dany will take what is hers through fire and blood, and she bats not an eye when Khal Drogo promises to burn Westerosi cities and rape their women. However, since gaining power through first dragons and then her Unsullied army, we’ve only seen her use that capacity for mass violence against irredeemably repellent foes like slavers. Her conquests have been of liberation, not purely destruction. There hasn’t been a hint on the page how that same power will be wielded against an enemy we might have more sympathy for. Or has there been?

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When last we saw Daenerys at the end of A Dance with Dragons, she was spared from a slaver’s revolt in the fighting pits of Meereen by Drogon and was about to be taken captive by a horde of Dothraki. But before the Horse Lords came to claim the Silver Queen again, we spend some time in her head, where she reaches this bleak conclusion about Meereen following the latest instability.

Dany has an imagined conversation with her banished yet beloved Bear Knight, Ser Jorah Mormont. They discuss her recent setbacks in Meereen and the dismal truth that this is the first city that will deny her.

“I was tired, Jorah,” Dany says to a phantom. “I was weary of war. I wanted to rest, to laugh, to plant trees and see them grow. I am only a young girl.”

“No,” the imaginary Jorah answers. “You are the blood of the dragon. Dragons plant no trees, remember that. Remember who you are, what you were made to be. Remember your words.”

“Fire and Blood,” Dany says to herself, almost like a prayer.

In this moment, it would appear Dany is making a decision about Meereen—and it seems to be a bloody one. If and when she finally gets back to the city, she appears ready to extract its obedience or despair at a heavy price. Many readers, myself included, interpreted this to mean she was prepared to unleash a Targaryen’s sense of justice on the city, which typically means fire. And the fact she reached that conclusion by receiving imaginary counsel from a man she’s rightly disowned continues to expand on a growing plot thread in the book of Dany’s “visions,” which the show ignored.

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Whether Dany and Drogon actually go on to raze Meereen—or perhaps are given reason not to by the actions of others like her Hand, Ser Barristan Selmy (who’s still alive in the books), or even Tyrion Lannister who remains a slave in Meereen—is still unknown. However, it is likely Martin will continue to emphasize the growing isolation and sense of entitlement in Daenerys Targaryen instead of just basking in her godlike power, as the show did for much of the final two seasons until it was time to pull the rug out from under audiences.

Similarly, rather than rushing the threat Jon’s parentage might have on Daenerys’ claim, Varys and possibly Littlefinger could politically poison the well against the would-be conqueror by raising up their own false Targaryen idol who the lords and ladies of Westeros line up behind, perhaps after an earlier fall of the House of Lannister. This could dramatically change the political landscape that finds Daenerys a stranger in her own lands—isolated and vulnerable to anyone but her own interior counsel. Her father similarly drifted more inward throughout his reign. When the truth of Jon’s parentage comes to Dany, it might not arrive like a blast of dragonfire, but as one last weary denial by Westeros after the realm has already backed a Targaryen pretender over her.

While it’s not the ending I personally wanted, knowing Martin’s climactic set piece in King’s Landing makes it hard to imagine it could be anything else. Still, how the books get there could easily be more satisfying.

The Larger Game of Thrones Ending

These are but a handful of threads that could be pulled in wildly different directions. There of course remains many others, such as the arcs of Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. The Ser Jaime of the books and the one of the TV show diverged long before season 6, with Jaime seemingly forsaking Cersei by choosing to follow Brienne deeper into the riverlands instead of helping Cersei fend off the menace of the Sparrows (roughly where season 5 ended in the show).

Perhaps Martin originally intended Jaime to go back to Cersei and fail at fully becoming “a good man,” but the literary Jaime is on a path with Brienne to run into the resurrected and ghoulish Catelyn Stark, aka Lady Stoneheart, which as a narrative thread could take Jaime much farther away from the concerns of Cersei and King’s Landing than he ever was on the TV series. Conversely, Lady Stoneheart could just kill him as she so clearly wants to do (it is the Undead Catelyn, and not Arya, who is slaughtering Freys throughout Westeros, after all).

Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine Cersei holding on long enough to become the final big bad for the next two books. Yes, Benioff and Weiss created a nifty and satisfying way for her to turn the tables on the Tyrells and Sparrows, however Martin has always been more concerned with consequences of actions than the showrunners.

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If the literary Cersei were to really blow up the Sept and declare open war on the Tyrells, King’s Landing would begin to starve within a fortnight as the Reach (the only fertile region of the South not ravaged by war) shut off the food supply—and now in winter. Further, the highly religious portions of the city already indicated they were ready to riot. You throw in an act of sacrilege like blowing up Westeros’ version of the Vatican and then causing mass starvations…. well, it’s hard to imagine Cersei surviving the winter long enough to ever meet Dany.

Elsewhere, there remain the White Walkers still looming large. In the books, they’re simply called “the Others,” and unlike the show they have no Night King leader. How can they be defeated then? Will it be Arya who saves the day… or Bran Stark? On the page, Bran might be training to become the new Three-Eyed Raven, but he has yet to lose his humanity. And if his new abilities actually lead to the destruction of the Others, it might provide an easier rationale for the lords and ladies of King’s Landing to rally around him after all the Targaryens and Lannisters are gone.

The truth is that this is all speculation, but the appeal of Martin’s story is that actions have consequences, and the more variables you throw in, the harder those consequences become to predict. We’ve enumerated a handful of variables that already exist in the five published novels. And if those books taught us anything, it’s that the author likes to expand his world instead of shrink it for a tidy ending.

It’s been 11 years since Martin let us into his garden, and if a few of these weeds growing in the margins have taken him by surprise, imagine what shape they could look like today.