Groundhog Day. The day a tiny mammal’s shadow tells us when winter will come to an end. Me? I prefer my weather forecast in the form of a white raven (the telltale changing of seasons in Westeros).
For a few days, rumors spread that Game of Thrones will not return for its final season until April 2019, and while it was clarified that the April return date was likely a false rumor, HBO has confirmed that it will be at least another year until the shortest season airs. Some might be happy to see winter ending soon, but for Thrones fans, there is only one winter that matters…and it is taking too long to come.
On the bright side, there is plenty of time to revisit the series—and I highly recommend that all fans do so—before they hit us with the last six episodes. So for those looking to stay on their GoT game during the off-season with theories, refreshers and more, I’ll be posting once a month on my recently rebranded GoT column, Whispers of Winter.
By way of recapping the series so far, let’s start with my definitive ranking of the Game of Thrones seasons, from best to seventh-best (because, let’s be honest, “worst” does not apply to GoT):
The infamous Red Wedding aside, there are so many underrated scenes that are forgotten all too often once the credits role on that fatal episode. In no particular order, some of these include: Daenerys revealing her “mother tongue” to the Great Masters, consequently inspiring the Unsullied to fight for her as free men; Bolton men removing Jaime’s sword hand, and Jaime learning later that Roose Bolton is actually on the Lannisters’ side; the Night’s Watch wreaking havoc beyond the Wall, many of them participating in the murder of Lord Commander Mormont; Samwell Tarly learning the magic of dragonglass and being dubbed “Sam the Slayer;” and Theon losing his favorite toy at the hands of a sadistic character who is still anonymous up to that point.
And speaking of Ramsay Snow/Bolton, Season Three is also the introductory season for other future favorites like Tormund Giantsbane and Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall; Bran’s traveling companions Meera and Jojen Reed; Grey Worm and Missandei; and the Brotherhood Without Banners, headed by Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. It is said that some of these scenes, specifically the Red Wedding, directly inspired the idea to turn the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, into the HBO masterpiece it is now—and it shouldn’t take a vision in the flames to understand why.
For those of you who don’t know, the Red Wedding only occurs a little more than halfway through the third book—which partially explains why the first few episodes of Season Four are so satisfying. They hit us in the heartstrings right off the bat by melting down Ned Stark’s sword and reminding us who has the upper hand, but only until the second episode, when someone takes a swing at the Lannisters by poisoning the king at his own wedding. The second episode! This is the earliest that GoT has ever killed off a principal character, and the first time sending us on a bit of a “whodunit” thrill ride.
In the midst of Tyrion’s murder trial, Oberyn Martell becomes a fast GoT favorite only to have his head smashed by the Mountain. Arya has more names on her list than ever in aftermath of the Red Wedding, and the Hound becomes more like a mentor to her than a captor. Dany adds “Breaker of Chains” to her own growing list of names as she sweeps through Slaver’s Bay and takes up residence in Meereen. Jaime begins to resent his remaining family members, betraying his father by refusing his own birthright and his sister by sending Brienne off to protect Sansa. Littlefinger reveals that he was behind not only Joffrey’s murder, but also Jon Arryn’s, the murder that started the War of the Five Kings. And Tyrion escapes all of this alive, killing his lover and the most powerful man in Westeros en route to freedom.
It seemed inappropriate to follow Season Three with anything but Season Four, but in my eyes, the fourth is really tied with the sixth. The death count in this season alone—three Tyrells, Ramsay and Roose Bolton, Tommen and Myrcella Baratheon, Walder Frey and his sons, Rickon and Osha, Hodor and Summer, the Blackfish, the giant Won Won, all of Jon’s murderers and the list goes on—might be higher than any other season in terms of major losses. Then you have the return of not only Jon, but also missing characters like the Hound, the Brotherhood, Edmure and Brynden “Blackfish” Tully, the Freys and Bran Stark & Co.
By the end of Season Six, a direwolf hangs over Winterfell for the first time since Season Two, and it only takes the series’ most expensive (but worth it) battle to get there; Dany frees and renames Slaver’s Bay “The Bay of Dragons” before finally heading home with Westerosi allies and enough ships to make the Iron Fleet look small; and Cersei sits on the Iron Throne with nothing left to care about but power. Arya returns to Westeros with both eyes in tact and a thirst for vengeance; Sansa gets a little revenge of her own; and, thanks to Bran’s visions, it is finally revealed that the recently crowned King in the North should never have been a Northerner to begin with.
Once you reach the Season Four finale, nearly all the characters you spent most of Season One trying to keep track of are either dead or have changed allegiances, so when you learn that it all essentially started because of Littlefinger’s betrayal, you feel a little betrayed yourself. Ned, Robb, Catelyn—they all basically died for nothing. So why isn’t Season One lower on my list? Simple: character development.
The one thing that makes Season One so great is returning to it a second time, knowing what you know now. You can’t truly appreciate the characters and the many GoT storylines without remembering where they started. Until you revisit the beginning, it’s hard to envision Dany as a scared little girl with no dragons, slowly learning how to be a leader as the pregnant wife of Khal Drogo. Or Jon as an arrogant Night’s Watch recruit, expecting to rise quickly among some of the greatest warriors in Westeros and finding a band of thieves and rapers instead. I think about Bran climbing the walls of Winterfell with dreams of being a knight, and Jaime shoving him out the window without a second thought, and realize both of those characters are gone—Bran barely human anymore and Jaime a man of honor and strategy. And when I remember Sansa’s tantrums and her fawning over Joffrey, I cannot be more thrilled that Season One Sansa is dead and buried.
The worst of it: Ned Stark. The man you thought was the main character, but only lasted eight episodes. After watching only the first few episodes, you would never have believed that he, or King Robert Baratheon for that matter, wouldn’t live to see Season Two. What is dead may never die.
The bottom line is, the series as a whole would be nothing without Seasons One and Two. At the heels of Ned’s death, the War of Five Kings is just getting started, with both Renly and Stannis Baratheon laying claim to the Iron Throne, Robb Stark continuing his rebellion as King in the North, Balon Greyjoy joining the fold and Dany, the fifth “king,” learning crucial lessons in Qarth.
Once you meet new characters like Margaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, Ser Davos Seaworth, Stannis Baratheon and the Red Woman, Yara and Balon Greyjoy, Jaqen H’ghar, Gilly, Podrick, Ygritte (Jon’s wildling lover) and Lady Talisa (Robb Stark’s wife), it’s difficult to remember that there was ever a season without them. It’s also in the Season Two finale that we see the Army of the Dead in full for the first time.
Some other season standouts: Tywin Lannister enlists Arya, a captive at Harrenhal, as his cupbearer and actually begins to enjoy her; Dany gains perspective about the road to the Iron Throne, learning the hard way that she cannot just demand ships from strangers and expect the old Westerosi houses to rally to the side of a teenage girl with no armies, no allies and three still-very-tiny dragons; Theon betrays Robb and takes Winterfell with 20 men—staging the murder of Bran and Rickon before his own men give both Theon and the castle up to the Boltons; and Tyrion briefly becomes a war hero before nearly dying at the Battle of the Blackwater, where Cersei comes within inches of a murder-suicide with Tommen.
The shortest season to date also contained some of the longest episodes to date, and for that we thank HBO.
With only two monarchs left to vie for the Iron Throne, the first half of the season was essentially a chess match: S7 E2, we lose the Iron Fleet and Dorne (Cersei 1, Dany 0); S7 E3, Dany loses Olenna Tyrell and Highgarden but takes Casterly Rock (Cersei 2, Dany 1); S7 E4, Dany unleashes the Dothraki and we lose the entire Lannister army (tie game). From there, the season centers around Jon finally getting what he wants: the world to believe that the real threat lies to the North.
My issue with this season is that it’s almost too satisfying. Everything you’ve always wanted, but didn’t necessarily expect to actually happen, happens. Just when you thought Arya had a one-track mind for revenge, the remaining Starks reunite; they band together to take down Littlefinger; principal characters who have never met get major screen-time together; Dany and Jon get together in more than one way; a dragon falls; Jon is a Targaryen; and the Wall comes crumbling down. Nevertheless, all of this was inevitable, and it makes the anticipation of what’s to come even more unbearable.
Let’s be clear, Season Five might not be any fan’s favorite, but it didn’t exactly disappoint—and it might even be the most talked about during the off-season. Let’s begin with the fact that Hardhome is not only one of the best zombie scenes in history, putting The Walking Dead to shame, but it was also a crucial turning point to the entire series—we learn that Valyrian steel kills White Walkers and that the wights come back to life but can’t swim, and it’s the journey to Hardhome that turns the wildlings toward Jon Snow while also leading to his death. We also know for certain now that at least 100,000 dead men and counting are marching on the Wall.
I’ll admit that Cersei, Arya, Tyrion and Sansa/Theon’s storylines are all slow-moving, but they each end with a punch: Cersei digs her own grave; Arya takes the first famous name off her list; Tyrion joins forces with Dany; and Theon becomes the unlikely hero, helping Sansa escape Winterfell.
Dany accepts her seemingly inevitable death in the fighting pits until Drogon comes to her rescue…despite unintentionally leading her to the clutches of the Dothraki. Stannis finally shows his first thread of emotion and then turned right back around to break our hearts with arguably the most gut-wrenching murder of the series. Which pairs nicely with Jaime’s first sincere paternal act, only to have his beautiful and accepting daughter die in his arms. And then to push it one step further, they kill off Jon Snow and spark a yearlong debate about his potential return.
Winter is here:
It’s been a ten-year summer for our friends in Westeros, and now that winter is here, the end of the world might be coming with it. When GoT returns, it will be the first time that all of Westeros believes in the threats they assumed would never return: dragons and White Walkers. But who (or what) will prevail?
The only thing we know for sure is that the final six episodes, some of which are rumored to be feature-length episodes of 80-plus minutes, will not end exactly the way anyone expects. Until that time, all we can do is recap, speculate, remember the fallen and avoid spoilers.