'Game of Thrones' Final Season: 23 Burning Questions Before the Last War Begins

'Game of Thrones' S8E4 the Starks - Publicity - H 2019
Helen Sloan/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode four of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Last of the Starks."]

"Dracarys." With one fiery High Valyrian word, Game of Thrones entered the endgame. Two episodes remain as creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss prepare to end their version of George R.R. Martin's tale, and the vision is now becoming clearer: all-out war is indeed on its way to Westeros, and the Night King doesn't need to exist anymore for all life to die.

In "The Last of the Starks," two major players were removed from Game of Thrones forever: Rhaegal the dragon and Missandei of Naath (Nathalie Emmanuel), both killed on orders from Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). The result? A furious Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), already ready to unleash fire and blood upon her enemies thanks to losing so much in the Great War against the White Walkers. The stage is set for the Dragon Queen's wrath to wash upon Cersei and countless others in King's Landing, a royal rumble of the highest order.

Of course, Daenerys isn't the only main Game of Thrones character with a mind to kill Cersei. Indeed, she should take a number; the list is long, and Dany's not the likeliest of the possible avengers. (Note the lower-case, people.) Besides, she has other problems on the mind, like the fact that there are people within and outside of her inner circle actively campaigning for a new candidate to rule the realm: Jon Snow (Kit Harington), rightful heir to the Iron Throne thanks to his Targaryen lineage.

Red Wedding architect David Nutter directed "The Last of the Starks," his final bow on Thrones. The man behind the next episode: Miguel Sapochnik, he who helmed "The Long Night." His next and final episode marks the series' penultimate hour-plus, an event that guarantees a heavy character culling as well as a crystallization of the series' central themes. In an early attempt at crystallization (and as an excuse to say "crystallization" thrice), here's another round of Game of Thrones burning questions about "The Last of the Starks," the race for the Iron Throne, Daenerys' apparent madness, Cersei's impending death and a whole lot more.

1. Missandei! Rhaegal! No! Why?

The short answer, to borrow a phrase from George R.R. Martin himself: "Because life is meaningless and filled with pain." We're in the Game of Thrones endgame now, and if the surprisingly low body count of last week's "The Long Night" lulled us into a false sense of security, well… shame on us, then. With only two episodes left, the time has arrived for major players to leave Westeros forever. Sadly, the twin deaths of Missandei and Rhaegal are only the beginning.

2. But why them? Why Missandei and Rhaegal, specifically? Is this Martin's fault?

Maybe, but hard to say definitively. While Martin is the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the novels on which Game of Thrones is based, he has yet to kill either Missandei or Rhaegal in any of his published works. The two Targaryen loyalists are alive and well, through 2011's "A Dance With Dragons," with no immediate signs of death in sight. That said, we know Martin provided show creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss some significant insight into his future plans. Broad strokes in some cases, and highly specific story twists in others. For example, Hodor (Kristian Nairn) and the now infamous "hold the door" death, comes straight from Martin's mind, even though the scene has not yet played out in the books (and indeed may play out differently in the execution, if not in the essence). Are Missandei and Rhaegal's deaths equally inevitable in Martin's work? Likely, even if the details are sure to change.

3. Fascinating stuff, guy, but you're still not answering why these two specific characters had to die. Please do that?

In the micro sense, they died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time; Drogon could have earned those scorpion bolts if he was flying a little lower, and Missandei may have survived if she wasn't on the high seas and readily available for a good old fashioned Iron Islander abduction. In the macro sense, they died because Daenerys' story as written by Benioff and Weiss demands it. Missandei and Rhaegal are but two of the latest high-profile casualties on the Targaryen side of the line. Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) died last week, as did half of the Dothraki and the Unsullied, according to the Winterfell war council's rough estimates. Their deaths were preceded by Viserion's own demise one season earlier, not to mention his traumatic undead resurrection and subsequent final death in "The Long Night." Then there's Jon Snow, Daenerys' kinda-boyfriend and definite-nephew, secretly the true heir to the Iron Throne. Everything Daenerys wants and everyone Daenerys loves are either dead, dying or changing in ways she never anticipated. She was already on the edge of madness without losing Missandei and Rhaegal specifically, but now that her best friend is gone and yet another one of her winged children is dead as well? All bets are off for the newly rebranded Mother of Dragon.

4. "The edge of madness," you say. Interesting choice of words, given Daenerys' history. Is she about to follow in her late father's footsteps and become the Mad Queen? Is Dany the true villain of Game of Thrones?

First of all, to the second question: no, it's not that simple. Unlike the Faceless Men of Braavos, Game of Thrones does not deal in black and white; it operates in the moral gray, the murky meat between light and darkness. The Night King was an elemental force of destruction, sure, but he was less a character and more an avatar of an idea. There are humans in Thrones who are utterly vile and contemptible, but the ones who are completely incapable of redemption are mostly dead and gone; there's no one big bad who doesn't have some justification behind their wickedness, and that includes Daenerys and even Cersei, despite the fact that she just…

5. … ordered Missandei's beheading? Really? You want to go to bat for Cersei after that?

Okay, fair. Hard to justify Cersei's actions. But she's not the villain in her own mind, is the point, and we're working within a world in which everyone's the hero of their own story. Early on in "The Last of the Starks," as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) share a drink, Cersei's younger brother reveals the true spirit of Thrones' attitude toward villainy: "We may have defeated [the White Walkers], but we still have us to contend with." The Army of the Dead was a massive problem that the forces of Westeros needed to deal with, but when it comes to the true existential threat facing the Seven Kingdoms and beyond? In that fictional world, as in our own, the call was always coming from inside the house — be it House Stark, Lannister, Targaryen or otherwise.

6. All that said, Game of Thrones really wants us to consider the possibilities of Daenerys as a Mad Queen, right?

Right. From the very first episode of the final season, Daenerys' character has been on trial. When folks like Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) are calling you out, you might not be the pillar of morality you think you are. A few more characters fueled those fires in "The Last of the Starks," including Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill), privately debating Daenerys' worthiness for the Iron Throne. Varys talks about how every tyrant he's served (and he's served many) operates under notions of destiny. Tyrion posits that it's possible Daenerys truly was born to save Westeros; the way Peter Dinklage performs the scene, however, makes it clear Tyrion isn't fully buying what he's trying to sell. Combine those factors with all the deaths Daenerys has weathered in the past few episodes, the stage is certainly set for history to repeat itself with Daenerys burning King's Landing to the ground, or at least die trying.

7. Will she "succeed," then? Do you think Daenerys is going to destroy King's Landing?

Not outright, no, but I do think her war with Cersei will result in large swaths of human casualties that will require extraordinary measures to stop. Refer back to season two's House of the Undying vision, in which Daenerys saw herself walking through the Red Keep with snow falling down against the Iron Throne; there's another vision belonging to Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in which a dragon shadow flies over King's Landing. Versions of both these visions are likely to pass in the next episode, literally in the case of the latter, and maybe even literally in the case of the former, should winter come and should Daenerys' dragon-riding fury result in a huge hole blown through the Red Keep's roof. At the very least, Daenerys' vision about Snow claiming the Iron Throne may very well come to pass, in no small part thanks to her own actions.

8. Thanks, I hate it. Seriously, after 70 some-odd episodes of watching Daenerys overcome a lifetime of abuse and powerlessness by punishing the abusive and powerful, she's about to become the thing she hates by killing thousands of innocent people? Why did we bother with any of this?

Because life is meaningless and filled with...

Don't quote Martin, give me a real answer.

Fine, how's this? Daenerys' downward spiral following the win over the White Walkers speaks to the bittersweetness at the heart of Game of Thrones. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the final two seasons' shortened episode order, the drama's great thematic point is arriving at a jarring and frankly clumsy pace, but the point remains: Game of Thrones is exploring how we can achieve greatness in the face of impossible odds if we band together as a species and overcome our individual frailties — notions of destiny, grievances and grudges we hold for one another, unthinking loyalty to family and legacy — but sticking to those lasting changes is easier said than done. If our individual needs and pain can fall in favor of fighting together toward a common goal, then yes, something as impossible as the Night King can be conquered. But what next? Do people stop being people? Can true change take hold, or are we destined to repeat our vicious cycle and destroy each other?

9. But didn't Martin say Game of Thrones would end on a bittersweet note? This sounds way too bitter. Where's the sweetness?

The sweetness was conquering the White Walkers and proving that rallying together for a greater good is absolutely possible, albeit not without tremendous effort. The bitterness is where we're at now, as we see how apt we are to fall back into old habits — and it's not just Daenerys' insistence on fulfilling her destiny, lest she bear the brunt of the thematic force. We're seeing it with Arya (Maisie Williams) and the Hound (Rory McCann), heading south to King's Landing because they have people they still feel the need to kill. We're seeing it with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), drawn back to Cersei despite finding true happiness with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Jon Snow wants to forget about the whole Iron Throne thing, but the forces around him won't let him drop the issue. Some if not all of these characters will die in the episodes ahead, thanks to their refusal to abandon old baggage or otherwise learn how to recycle their emotions and histories in healthier fashion. Some will live through the war to come — and therein lies the bittersweetness: the survivors who will remember the fiery way in which this story ended, but will also remember the truly remarkable way in which humanity once banded together to overcome an extinction-level event.

10. That's more or less the point of Jon Snow's funeral speech at the start of the episode, isn't it?

That's how I read it. Here's the king's speech again, which is best appreciated with the drama's greater thematic context in mind: "We're here to say goodbye to our brothers and sisters, to our fathers and mothers, to our friends. Our fellow men and women who set aside their differences. To fight together and die together so that others might live. Everyone in this world owes them a debt that can never be repaid. It is our duty and our honor to keep them alive in memory for those who come after us and those who come after them for as long as men draw breath. They were the shields that guarded the realms of men and we shall never see their like again."

11. Good speech. So, it's Jon, right? He really is going to take the Iron Thone at the end of the day after all, isn't he?

On paper, it still feels too tidy. It's the fairy-tale ending, right? The black sheep of a prominent family lives his whole life thinking he's nothing special, only to find out he's the rightful king of the land. In almost any other story, Jon Snow ending his run as King of the Seven Kingdoms would be as happy a happily ever after as it gets. Except Jon Snow really, really does not want this ending. The show made his disinterest in the throne explicit this week, both from Snow's own lips as well as in Tyrion's argument with Varys. For his part, the Spider counters: "Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn't want to rule?" Jon tells Daenerys he won't allow anyone to pressure him into claiming the Iron Throne. But the best intentions won't stop others from pushing for Jon to take his birthright, and soon, he may have no choice but to cave. It's an extension of Jon's arc in "The Long Night," which frustrated a whole lot of the audience, but left me very intrigued by the thematic possibilities of his story.

12. You were satisfied by Jon screaming at Viserion? Really?

Really! Here's how I read it. Just like the audience, Jon was all in on the idea that he was meant to destroy the White Walkers, probably at the expense of his own life. Why else did the Lord of Light allow him to cheat death? Out of nowhere, here comes this other high purpose about Jon's claim to the Iron Throne, a power and responsibility Jon never wanted, and one that will completely transform his life for the worse. In the battle, all Jon wants to do is pick up Longclaw and challenge the Night King, likely dying in the process. Instead, he's pinned down by a furious dragon and cannot move or fight against it at all. All he can do is bark angrily at the face of his new nightmare, an ice dragon, an undead metaphor for Jon's own ice-and-fire angst. It's a cathartic act, if a highly frustrating one, and therefore deeply resonant. After all, who among us hasn't responded to existential dread by screaming into the void?

It's literally what you're doing right now!

Exactly! I'm not the first person to bring this up by any means, but we had a big clue about Jon's eventual storyline as far back as season six, when he executed Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale). Before his death, Thorne left Jon with some haunting parting words: "I fought, I lost and now I rest. But you, Lord Snow, you'll be fighting their battles forever." Who knows about "forever," but Jon's sad destiny may be that he's going to have to play the game of thrones for the rest of his long life, like it or not.

13. But the fact that Jon gave away his veritable dog without so much as a hug should instantly disqualify him as a candidate to rule Westeros, right?

Obviously, yes. #JusticeForGhost, for sure.

14. Do you think we have seen the last of Ghost?

Maybe not, depending on the series finale's structure, but outside of some epilogue sequences? Yeah, I think we're done with Ghost and his new companion, Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju). There's too much business still ahead in the final season with only two episodes left; Jon and Tormund's final scene together felt like a curtain call for the Free Folk figurehead, as well as a farewell for Sam and Gilly (Hannah Murray), who have hopefully earned some measure of a happy ending. If the final season can get away with sitting Cersei out for two full episodes in a row and the vast majority of a third, then Thrones can certainly end the stories of Ghost, Tormund, Sam and Gilly a bit earlier than the series finale. If you love those characters and wish them nothing but continued happiness and health, then you're advised to hope we never see them again.

15. You mentioned Cersei. Any chance she survives the war ahead?

Always a chance, but a very slim one at best. Tyrion provided the out, and she rejected it out of hand. Short of winning the war and keeping the throne, Cersei's days are numbered. It's more a matter of how she dies than if.

16. So, how is Cersei going to die?

A few different options! Daenerys could scorch the earth and burn Cersei to the ground, King's Landing be damned. Arya Stark is heading to the heart of Westeros as well, very likely to cross Cersei's name off of her list. After killing the Night King, how much of a threat could Cersei possibly pose? Who are we to bet against the woman who crushed the White Walker army in one single move?

17. And yet you're betting against Arya, aren't you?

I am. Not to beat a dead horse (or a soon-to-be-dead direwolf, as it were), but I do think we're going to lose Arya Stark very soon, thanks to her vengeance quest. Details are outlined here. She did mention she doesn't intend to return to Winterfell, so perhaps she knows this is a one-way ticket. I hope I'm wrong; I'll be very happy to miss on this one. With any luck, we're going to get the "Last Hope" version of my Final Path prediction for Arya.

18. As a quick aside, since Arya is traveling to King's Landing alongside the Hound, do you think we're getting the Clegane Bowl next week?

Yes. Like death, taxes and Thanos, the Clegane Bowl is inevitable, and it will almost certainly occur in the penultimate episode. My money's on the Hound winning the day. How about you?

19. I'm too risk-averse to gamble, but enough about my anxiety. Who do you think will kill Cersei?

Jaime Lannister is the obvious pick, and sometimes, it's best to go with the obvious. He leaves Brienne and Winterfell in a way that strongly suggests Jaime's desire to square up with his own past. Jaime says both he and Cersei are "hateful," the sense of self-loathing rich in his voice as he spits the word out. But are we supposed to buy the idea of Jaime Lannister returning to King's Landing to fight for his sister, especially after he narrowly avoided a crossbow bolt from Cersei by way of Bronn (Jerome Flynn)? The likelier scenario is Jaime fulfilling his own destiny of sorts by echoing his past. Long ago, Robert's Rebellion ended when Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) returned to Aerys Targaryen's service posing as a friend, only to lead the final charge against the Mad King, resulting in Jaime's infamous king-slaying act. Expect Jaime to pull a page out of his father's own playbook, coming back to King's Landing under the guise of helping Cersei, only to pull the rug out from under her and earn a new nickname in the process: Queenslayer.

20. Who else is going to die next week?

Official predictions are locked and loaded with reasoning bulleted out here, but if you want my just-the-facts list: Drogon, the Golden Company, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek), Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser), the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), Arya, Cersei, Jaime, Varys and Daenerys.

21. You really think all those people are going to die?

Probably not, but it's who I'm eyeing! Anyone in the war zone is fair game, so add these folks to the endangered list: Jon Snow, Davos, Tyrion, the Hound and Brienne should she pursue Jaime to King's Landing.

22. Is there anyone who is completely safe next week?

What a dangerous position to take! But I'll gamble if you won't: Sansa, Bran, Tormund, Ghost, Sam, Gilly and Bronn will all live through the Last War, chiefly because they won't be there to see it happen.

23. I'm running out of questions and I'd like to leave this on a Lost number, so let's close out with a big, sweeping catch-all: do you have any other thoughts on the episode or the general state of Thrones at large?

A few quick hits:

• Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is now a legitimate Baratheon, which is fun! Before the season, I speculated that the series may end with Gendry on the Iron Throne, perhaps as Daenerys' husband. I still think this is a possibility, especially given Dany's role in giving Gendry his name and titles, not to mention Arya turning down Gendry's proposal. Also possible Gendry could wind up on the throne if Dany and Jon die or otherwise decide they don't want the thing; in such events, Gendry has the best claim.

• Davos will end the series as Gendry's righthand man, one way or the other. It is known.

• A few parting shots at Euron Greyjoy. First, he is the worst. Second, he has not yet killed a dragon in the books, but it's very likely on the horizon, assuming the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire sees the light of day. In Martin's version of events, Euron (who is a much more terrifying figure than he is on the show) possesses Dragonbinder, a magical horn with the power to control dragons. As there is no Night King in Ice and Firethere are compelling arguments that much of his material (i.e. claiming Viserion) will fall upon Euron in the book. Not really important for wherever we're heading next on the show, but hey.

• Sansa encouraging Jon to chug Tormund's horn is one of the best throwaway moments of the final season so far. "Go on, I believe in you" may not go down as one of the great line deliveries in all of Game of Thrones, but by the Seven, it should.

Read all of THR's Final Path series, featuring character-by-character predictions:

1. Jon Snow
2. Daenerys Targaryen
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Cersei Lannister
5. Jaime Lannister
6. Sansa Stark
7. Arya Stark
8. Bran Stark
9. Samwell Tarly
10. Theon Greyjoy
11. The Hound
12. Brienne of Tarth
13. Varys
14. Melisandre
15. Davos Seaworth
16. Jorah Mormont
17. Bronn
18. Tormund Giantsbane
19. Beric Dondarrion
20. The Dragons
21. The Night King
22. Across the World of Ice and Fire
23. Final Predictions

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