Ever since its 1996 publication, readers of George R.R. Martin‘s A Game of Thrones have spent their free time on message boards and in fan communities theorizing about the world of Westeros. For many years, the biggest and most popular game-changer on the board boiled down to three loaded letters: “R+L=J,” the equation designed to highlight Jon Snow’s true origin as the offspring of the late Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
Martin’s ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire series has yet to confirm the Jon Snow theory. Indeed, Martin has yet to confirm Jon Snow’s continued survival; last he left him in 2011’s A Dance With Dragons, Jon was still bleeding out from his betrayal at the hands of the Night’s Watch. HBO’s Game of Thrones, meanwhile, has not only revived Ned Stark’s “bastard son,” it has turned him into a king, potentially twice over. Jon’s secret Targaryen roots are no longer so secret, at least not to viewers of creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ adaptation of Martin’s story — and that’s just one of the many Ice and Fire burning questions already well and fully answered in the context of the award-winning, record-smashing television juggernaut, set to end its run with a final six episodes beginning Sunday.
The end of Game of Thrones means the end to an extensive era of theorizing and speculation. Certainly, the series will conclude with enough room for fans to continue wondering about Martin’s own eventual ending, assuming he ever ends it; a harsh but increasingly valid question as the years march on, with two novels still planned albeit without any real sign of release. As season eight’s final six episodes start to unfold, many if not most of the questions fans have spent decades wondering about will finally have an answer — but the resolution of the story isn’t interesting enough on its own. Sure, it’s compelling to consider the next R+J=L level reveal, and equally exciting to think the answer is on its way within the next six weeks — but for my money, as the beginning of the end looms, it’s just as fascinating to ponder what Game of Thrones is about to reveal about itself as a television and storytelling behemoth.
Your interests heading into the final season may and should vary; for me, here are some of the questions I’m most intrigued by as Game of Thrones, viewed by many as the greatest show that ever was or will be, stands at the edge of the end.
1. Who will win the Iron Throne?
The contenders are many: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the sentimental favorite whose entire storyline has centered on her quest to reclaim her birthright; Jon Snow (Kit Harington), recently revealed as the true heir thanks to his secret Targaryen name; Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the current occupant, who will have to be forcibly removed from the chair if she’s ever going to leave it; Gendry (Joe Dempsie), the last Baratheon standing, even if he’s not exactly the legitimate heir… the list goes on. Entering the final season, everyone has their best guesses as well as their outside-the-box hopes (Hot Pie for President!), and even HBO’s marketing for the final season revolves around the question. We have our pick locked in. But here’s the bigger question: Are we asking the right question?
2. Will there even be an Iron Throne?
In season two, as Daenerys walked through the House of the Undying in Qarth, she experienced a truly terrifying vision: a stroll through the Red Keep of King’s Landing, snow pouring in through a gaping hole in the roof, the Iron Throne completely abandoned. The symbolic seat of power in Westeros was still technically standing, but should we take the vision seriously as an omen of the future — namely, that when Game of Thrones ends, there won’t be an Iron Throne for anyone to sit on? Sure, we could wind up with a scenario in which Daenerys wins the war, yet decides to melt down the throne as a grand gesture to the people of the Seven Kingdoms. A Targaryen built the thing in the first place — why not destroy it? Satisfies Dany’s desire to “break the wheel,” after all. But there are darker possibilities for why we could wind up with an empty Iron Throne.
3. What if the White Walkers win?
In the past, Martin has described his planned ending with a single word: “Bittersweet.” An ending in which the Night King crushes humanity and takes control over Westeros…feels a bit too much on the side of “bitter,” doesn’t it? Then again, it all depends on your worldview, and how you interpret the word. For Martin, maybe humanity rallying together to try and defeat an overwhelming obstacle, while still losing, would be sweet enough — and perhaps in his mind, there’s a sweetness to an ending that highlights the folly of man, an existentially difficult prospect for the audience to chew on after the screen goes dark.
4. What if Cersei Lannister wins?
It’s another existentially challenging notion. Jon Snow and friends could achieve the impossible and defeat the Army of the Dead, only to get ruthlessly ruined by Cersei and her treachery. To paraphrase one of the late, great Game of Thrones characters, our lack of imagination toward Cersei and her capacity for cruelty could leave us exposed to a huge blindside. In its own way, it fits the notion of a bittersweet ending: Humanity rises up and takes on its greatest challenge, but our pettiness as a species still lingers, getting in the way of true change. On and on, the wheel spins. Game of Thrones made its first major statement in season one when the Lannisters defeated the Starks with the public execution of Sean Bean’s Ned. Two seasons later, they struck again with the Red Wedding. Why should we expect the Lannisters’ worst attributes to fail in the face of the endgame? The traditional fantasy narrative has us gearing up for a happy-ish ending… but as another great Game of Thrones character once said: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
5. How much heartache should we expect?
With the threat of White Walker and Lannister victories officially considered, it’s worth noting that the greater expectation is for a happier ending … but not without some significant loss. See again: Ned’s death and the Red Wedding, not to mention the shocking deaths of folks like the Red Viper (Pedro Pascal) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) we suffered along the way. It’s been a while since Game of Thrones offered one of those truly jaw-dropping shocks, killing off a character previously deemed unkillable. (Shout-out to season six’s Light of the Seven sequence and season seven’s death of Viserion, though both are best remembered as staggering sequences, less so as heart-breaking developments.) Season seven’s biggest main character deaths: Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), two players we’re sad to lose for entertainment purposes, but not even in the same orbit as some of the aforementioned deaths. Will Game of Thrones provide its core cast with plot armor strong enough to withstand the stakes of the final season, or will the series part ways with a wide swath of fan-favorites if the stakes of these last battles demand it? Even worse, can we expect to see the Night King raise some fallen characters from the dead and enlist them as members of his army — for instance, Zombie Hodor, as has been speculated ever since the lovable giant died north of the Wall? It feels oddly morbid to root for such an outcome, but this is Game of Thrones. If you’re not here for the stomach-churning twists and turns, what show have you been watching?
6. Wait a minute, dial it back: Zombie Hodor?
7. What are the odds we see Lady Stoneheart?
Speaking of zombies! In Martin’s novels, days following her death at the Red Wedding, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) returns from the grave thanks to a certain someone who dabbles in fire magic. The result: Lady Stoneheart, a vengeful version of Catelyn who wreaks havoc on the Freys and Lannisters. The book-reading crowd has waited to see Stoneheart on Game of Thrones ever since the season three finale. All these episodes and years later, she still has not arrived — and sadly, she never will. Lady Stoneheart is a monument for all the rich details from Martin’s text that will never come to pass on Game of Thrones, certainly not with only 432 minutes left on the clock. Among other characters from the books we do not expect to ever meet: the Dragon Tamer Quentyn Martell, both “Griffs,” Val the Wildling and Strong Belwas — tremendously enjoyable characters in their own rights. If you’re craving more Thrones when the series ends on May 19, and you haven’t read the books yet, consider yourself well and fully advised to dip into the original material.
8. Are six episodes enough to finish the story?
Well, what does Maester Martin think? I didn’t get the chance to ask this exact question when I caught up with him at the Game of Thrones final season premiere event in New York City last week, but all the same, his thoughts on the nature of the event itself may reveal an answer: “I don’t think it should be the final season.” As mentioned, Benioff and Weiss’ adaptation has left several characters and full storylines from Martin’s material on the floor; if it was a one-for-one translation, there would likely be a few more seasons left. For the scope of Martin’s ambition, six episodes is not enough to satisfy all the nuance of his tale. For the scope of the story Benioff and Weiss have been telling, especially given how they were forced to veer off-course from the novels in season six, once they passed Martin’s own pace? Four hundred and 32 minutes should be more than enough to satisfy the job.
9. But what if the ending is terrible?
Honestly, for some fans, it’s going to be worse than terrible. When Game of Thrones concludes, there will be an inevitable contingent of viewers who are repelled beyond words by the way in which Benioff and Weiss ended the tale. Of course, there will be another contingent of fans, the ones who absolutely loved the ending. Then there’s everyone in between: the liked-its, the really-liked-its, the didn’t-mind-its, the forget-about-its. A show of Game of Thrones‘ size simply cannot satisfy all customers; indeed, like HBO’s The Sopranos, it may end up alienating most customers. But as with Sopranos, a polarizing end can become perfectly fitting with time and distance. Maybe that’s the fate Game of Thrones is riding toward. Maybe it’s heading toward something considerably more immediately agreeable, if not quite universally loved. For my money, Game of Thrones needs to stay true to its characters and true to the reality of its well-worn fantasy world — if it can stick the King’s Landing on those two points, then it really doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.
Follow THR.com/GameOfThrones for more coverage. The final season premieres Sunday.