After an agonising year-and-a-bit wait, Game of Thrones, the biggest TV show on earth bar none, returns in the early hours of tomorrow. Given the prolonged gap between the seasons – necessitated by storylines that have now outrun George R. R. Martin’s source material – here’s a pre-release primer on the situation around Westeros, now that Winter has truly arrived.
In the North:
The start of last season saw the resurrection of Jon Snow – a will-they-won’t-they event that HBO had spent the best part of a year teasing – who was returned to life by Melisandre, one of Westeros’s biggest wildcards. Upon returning to life, Jon proceeds to quit the Night’s Watch, claiming that his ‘watch was ended’ by his brief sojourn into the land of the dead (not sure how that would hold up in court, but the Seven Kingdoms don’t seem a litigious place).
Released from his vows, Jon has become one of the biggest players this side of the narrow sea. Reunion with his sister (or should that be cousin?) Sansa, along with the defeat of Ramsay Bolton at last season’s climactic Battle of the Bastards, has consolidated Jon’s claim to be the King in the North. But Littlefinger – who has arguably had the biggest impact on the events of Game of Thrones, without ever seeming a contender himself – is hanging around Winterfell, eyeing the Iron Throne from himself, and potentially poisoning the ear of Sansa. That looks like it might be the biggest flashpoint in the North, and perhaps Littlefinger’s days are numbered. He has a lot of enemies and not many friends.
But most importantly, Jon is the only player left in the Game who is conscious of the enormity of the enemy from beyond the wall. Winter has arrived and the White Walkers are coming. Jon’s experience at Hardhome make him cognisant of the existential threat to humanity, beyond the petty squabbles of the Stark/Lannister/Targaryen power grab. In other words, whilst Daenerys and Cersei are vying to be next Tory leader, Jon’s eyes are firmly on Brexit. But can he alone refocus the Westerosi against the Night King?
In King’s Landing:
For much of the first six seasons, Game of Thrones has been worried about who wears the crown. Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, Tommen Baratheon – now it’s Cersei Lannister’s time to sit on the deeply uncomfortable looking Iron Throne. But just as she’s achieved her life’s ambition (albeit having first witnessed the untimely deaths of her three children) the show has revealed that the true battle will be between ice and fire; human and zombie. Cersei, who has played the Game more ruthlessly than anyone else, looks like a sitting duck in King’s Landing.
And she must face some sort of narrative punishment for the extremity of her actions in last season’s finale, where she blew half of King’s Landing (and several major characters) to smithereens, rather than face trial for incest. Somehow that power play has resulted in her becoming Queen, but Jaime, her brother, lover and closest ally, appears to have doubts, and with enemies on all sides, Cersei’s position looks very vulnerable. How long can she survive against hordes of the undead, the King in the North, and the rightful Queen crossing the sea?
On the Narrow Sea:
The final major piece in the jigsaw at the start of the new season is Daenerys Targaryen, who was last seen with an army and armada, crossing the Narrow Sea. Game of Thrones has long felt like an origin story for Queen Daenerys, but with the emergence of Jon Snow’s true ancestry – half-Stark, half-Targaryen; a balance of ice and fire – she is no longer a hot tip to sit on the Iron Throne when the series concludes. Still, she is strong, fair and reasonable, and currently has a number of key allies – the Dothraki, Tyrion, Varys, the younger Greyjoys – as well as a strong claim to the throne.
The bigger question is whether her desire to take back her father’s crown, which has at times verged on megalomaniacal, will prevent her from realising that she ought to be more worried about hundreds of thousands of reanimated corpses heading her way. Reclaiming her heraldic home at Dragonstone will be her first priority; if I were her SpAd I’d try and make treaty negotiations with Jon her second. Up until now, her bloody mindedness has been her greatest strength, but now it could be her biggest weakness.
Still, she has three massive dragons and they could be key. We don’t yet know whether dragonfire can kill White Walkers, but Valyrian steel (an established way of taking them out) is sometimes referred to as ‘dragonsteel’ and White Walkers have also been killed by dragonglass. Whether or not they can simply burn them to death, Daenerys’s dragons are going to play some role in the war in the North. But will she be willing to accept Jon as a leader, or will she head for a Pyrrhic victory against the man who should be her closest ally?
There are many other storylines that may play a part (The Hound and Beric Dondarrion with the Brotherhood Without Banners; Olenna Tyrrell’s entreaties to the Dornishmen; Samwell Tarly in a … well, library) but we shall have to wait and see. The Game is nicely weighted at this point, with excessively evil characters having been successfully despatched (Joffrey, Ramsay and Roose Bolton, Tywin Lannister, Walder Frey and more ) and few Westerosi looking likely to step into that breach (though Euron Greyjoy, introduced late in the day, looks like he could cause trouble). The battleground may have shifted, but Game of Thrones will remain as politically savage as ever, and after the summer we’ve just enjoyed, won’t that be a welcome relief?
Game of Thrones returns on Monday on Sky Atlantic.