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A Few More Winters: Game of Thrones Offseason Update

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HBO has basically confirmed at least eight seasons; a look at what that means for the story going forward.

For the last few years, the common refrain from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (collectively known as D&D) is that our Westerosi saga would end up being around 70 hours of television; that that would be the time necessary to give George RR Martin’s novels a proper adaptation. From this, most fans and critics assumed this to mean seven seasons of the world’s most popular show, given the one-hour allotment that HBO gives it.

This never rung true for me, however. Between the 54ish-minute average runtime and my own knowledge of the books yet to come, seven seasons never seemed adequate to me. So it came as no surprise when HBO Director of Programming Michael Lombardo stated that HBO and D&D have agreed that it would take about eight seasons to finish telling Martin’s story. This announcement, coming out of the Television Critics Association press tour, came with some other nuggets: HBO is willing to do a prequel series if Martin greenlights it, that the station trusts D&D to handle the controversial material with care, and that Jon Snow is dead.

But I wanted to focus in on the eight season news, and what we can divine about the remainder of the series from it. First, I think it’s worth looking at the source text to understand the nature of the A Song of Ice and Fire epic. In a very rough sense, the story still breaks down into the traditional three-act structure; the exposition, the conflict, and the climax. Martin has enriched this further by making each act its own epic story: the first act is the War of the Five Kings, culminating with the Red and Purple Weddings. The second act, dubbed the Dance of Dragons, focuses on Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power, as well as Jon, Arya, Sansa, and Bran growing into their roles as players. And lastly, the Winds of Winter, which will focus on the existential battle between the realms of men and the mysterious White Walkers from beyond The Wall.

All this basically informs the television show as well; the first 3-4 seasons encompass Act One, the last season and half (plus part of the next season) will be Act Two, and the final two, two-and-a-half seasons will be the climax and denouement. Adding all this up, we have eight seasons covering seven books, with the final three seasons pivoting towards the series endgame (a taste of which we got during this season’s apex episode "Hardhome").  Given where the season 5 ended, we can make some guesses (both writ small and large) about what’s to come still in the series. Let’s look at the major plot threads and where they are headed, in a broad sense (a.k.a. not here to talk Jon Snow resurrection theories!).

The Wall

Season Five ended with a knife right through the heart; fan favorite and dreamboat Jon Snow was murdered by his own men for the betrayal of his vows; he allowed the Night Watch’s sworn enemy, the wildlings beyond The Wall, to pass through the gates and into Westeros. Coupled with his fling with Ygritte and relationship with Mance Rayder, Jon was not universally liked in the first place. But the question is, what now?

As we saw at Hardome, the army of the dead is marching on the Wall, and its ranks swell with each victory, with each new fresh corpse. First Ranger Aliser Thorne (and mastermind behind the conspiracy to murder Jon) will likely be in charge when Season 6 opens up. He will likely have to deal with Tormund and the rest of the Free Folk now south of the Wall; calling back to the Battle at the Wall in Season 4, Thorne and Tormund teed off against each other, and Aliser suffered a pretty serious wound from it. So there is already bad blood between the soldiers.

Two wildcards remain, however: Ser Davos Seaworth and the Lady Melisandre. Both returned to the Wall around the time of Stannis’s demise, and both will likely play a large part in whatever comes next for the Watch. While Melisandre’s magic may come into play regarding a possible Jon Snow resurrection, Davos’s future arc is much murkier. Does he take the black, with no Stannis around to serve anymore? Does he possibly head south to find Sansa Stark? Or something altogether new? The Onion Knight may be the key to what comes next at the edge of the world.

Beyond the Wall

The White Walkers are coming, but something more important will be returning in season 6: Bran Stark, the Broken Wolf. Actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright has confirmed he will be back next season after a hiatus during the fifth installment. When we last left Bran, he had just met the Three-Eyed Raven, who had assured him that he would never walk again, but that he would "fly."

While we don’t know exactly what this entails, we do know that Bran already possesses powers to control animals, and to see into the future and past. Given our narrative began with Bran’s fall, we know he has a major part to play, and his powers will factor in heavily to the final battle with the Walkers. And now that the show has embraced flashbacks as a tool, we may finally get some insight into what happened during Robert’s Rebellion, 18 years prior to the starting point of Game of Thrones.

Also: Hodor.

Winterfell

The scene around Winterfell is an utter mess, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. Stannis Baratheon’s army has been annihilated, and the Boltons now have uncontested control over the North. However, that grasp may be tenuous now that Sansa Stark (along with Theon) has fled the castle. Boltons aside, the northmen revered the Stark family and Ned especially. With Sansa no longer in the Bolton fold, some of these lords may not be so subservient to the treacherous Roose and Ramsay. "The North Remembers," we were told, and there’s a chance (or at least, a hope) that the Boltons get theirs this coming season.

The wildcard here, much like last season, is Brienne of Tarth. Will she stumble upon Reek and Sansa outside the battlements of Winterfell? Will she go after the Boltons instead, the family that helped orchestrate the murder of her last liege (Catelyn Stark)? Or does she head back south with Podrick?

King’s Landing

When we last left King’s Landing, a broken, naked Cersei was allowed to return to the Red Keep as she awaits her trial. Elsewhere, Ser Loras and Margaery Tyrell await their own trials and sentencing for their crimes. While Kevan Lannister and Grand Maester Pycelle have seized control of the Small Council, the real power in the capital rests with the High Sparrow, whose religious fanatics have taken over the city.

The big unknown here is the reanimated corpse of The Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane. He made a brief but harrowing appearance in the season finale, and if Cersei is unable to politically maneuver herself out of this predicament, trial by combat will be her best bet. Ser Gregor was a daunting opponent when living (RIP Oberyn), but as an undead corpse, he is nigh unstoppable.

Dorne

By far season five’s weakest storyline was the Dornish thread, which was not only poorly written and executed, but utterly wasted two of the show’s best actors, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) and Jerome Flynn (Bronn). Both are on the way back to King’s Landing with the fresh corpse of Jaime’s daughter/niece Myrcella, who was poisoned by Ellaria Sand. What happens next is uncertain; will Jaime still head home, staying out of the viper’s nest that already claimed his daughter’s life? Or will he turn the boat around and seek vengeance? Of course, with Jaime is Prince Doran’s heir, Trystane Martell, who is to take a seat on the Small Council in King’s Landing. What the Lannisters do to him remains to be seen, but what is crystal clear is that Dorne is about to enter into a war with the Lannisters.

Braavos

Arya Stark, man. From adorable daughter of Eddard Stark to merciless assassin-butcher, no character has a darker arc than the little she-wolf. After her extrajudicial killing of Ser Meryn Trant, the kindly Jaqen H’ghar punished her by taking away her eyesight. In his eyes, she has not committed herself fully to the ideals of the House of Black & White. Season six will be a crucial one for Arya; does she immerse herself fully in the Faceless Men order, or does what Stark remains in her have her head back to Westeros?

Oldtown

The only new location I will cover, Oldtown, is the destination of Samwell Tarly, Gilly, and little Sam. Given the dangers at the Wall, Sam had decided that the best place to take Gilly is as far south as possible. On the southwestern tip of Westeros lies Oldtown, a major port and home of the Citadel, where maesters are trained in the sciences of man. Sam, ever the astute reader, is off to see if any of the books kept there may shed more light on the White Walkers and how they could be defeated.

Of note: Oldtown lies not far from Horn Hill, the seat of House Tarly. Is a family reunion possible for Sam?

Meereen

In episode nine’s incredible finish, Daenerys Targaryen took flight on Drogon and flew far away from her throne in Meereen. In her stead, Tyrion Lannister has taken the role of Lord Protector and looks to set the civil unrest to calm in the city. In this, he will be aided not only by Missandei and Grey Worm, but Varys, who reappeared in the season finale to banter with our favorite Imp.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Dothraki Sea, Dany and Drogon were beset by a horde of Dothraki riders. Right before the birth of the dragons in season one, Dany witnessed most of Khal Drogo’s khalasar abandon her; the Dothraki follow strength, and a pale foreign girl with no wealth and no army was no fit leader. Fast forward five years, and Daenerys Stormborn has acquired both of those, as well as three grown dragons. If she can bring the Dothraki into her fold, she will now have a full-blown cavalry to complement the Unsullied infantry already in her command, and her eyes may finally turn west towards the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

So, as it stands, there are still several plot threads that need to be resolved; some are more short term (i.e. Cersei’s trial), while others are starting to point to the series endgame (the White Walkers, Dany’s return to Westeros). With so much still to wrap up, and likely some new plot threads heading our way, three seasons more of Game of Thrones appears to be the perfect number to wrap up this sprawling epic.

A Couple Extra Ravens

- Bran Stark is not the only confirmed character returning after a season five hiatus. Gemma Whalen, the actress who plays Theon’s sister Yara Greyjoy, is confirmed to be returning for this sixth season. When we last left her, she had aborted a rescue attempt of Reek, who was being held at the Dreadfort at the time. Whether she factors into the Northern storylines or will be back at the Iron Islands is unknown.

- Speaking of Greyjoys, casting tidbits point to the casting of one of Theon’s uncles, Euron "Crow’s Eye" Greyjoy. Without any spoilers, Euron is a favorite of many in the ASOIAF fandom, and his role appears to be an important one; while no actors have been cast yet, it’s a good bet that the biggest addition to the cast will be the actor playing this role.

- As mentioned earlier, this season should have some more flashbacks to events prior to season one. From casting and location news, it’s all but confirmed that we will get a major sequence from Robert’s Rebellion this season, and this is arguably the most popular sequence in any of the source material. Rightfully, the fandom is jazzed.

- As for potential prequels, the best bets are Martin’s Dunk & Egg tales or Robert’s Rebellion. Dunk & Egg centers around Ser Duncan the Tall (Dunk) and Prince Aegon Targaryen (Egg), the latter of which has been mentioned several times by Maester Aemon (his dying words, "Egg…I dreamed I was old"). Aegon is an ancestor of Daenerys, and the story, set 100 years prior to Game of Thrones, focuses on these two characters as they grow up together, whereby Aegon eventually becomes the King on the Iron Throne, Aegon V, also known as Aegon the Unlikely (being a fourth son of a fourth son).

Robert’s Rebellion is a far less likely undertaking, but would provide some great backstory for our current narrative. Many of the show’s characters would be younger versions of themselves here (Jaime, Ned, Robert, Stannis, and others all play major roles), as well as fabled characters Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Again, doubtful this is ever made, but it would make for gripping television.

- I don’t know what bugs me more: the Kit Harington Hair Watch, or that I’m the only one using the appropriate phrase "Kit Hair-ington Watch." SMH, people.

- Boy it feels good to talk some Thrones, doesn’t it?

Winter is Coming