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Consider the half-drunk words of the wise Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), spoken moments before Game of Thrones brought itself to the edge of its biggest battle ever: “I think we might live.”
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) promptly laughed in Tyrion’s face. In fairness, Tyrion laughed as well. The reaction likely mirrored the uncomfortable giggling rumbling through households far and wide as viewers watched their favorite Thrones characters enjoy some final moments of peace before their almost certain demises. Among the reasons why “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” landed as well as it did: it was happy — and probably for the last time.
But what if Tyrion is right? What if he lives? What if his drinking buddies Davos, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), Podrick (Daniel Portman) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) survive as well? Heck — what if everyone lives?
Few people expect the battle for Winterfell will go off without a hitch. Indeed, most people expect Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his allies will lose the critical battle in the war against the White Walkers. But what if most people are wrong? What if it all somehow goes according to plan?
Sure, the White Walkers are unlike any enemy ever faced on Game of Thrones. As the blacksmith Gendry (Joe Dempsie) tells Arya (Maisie Williams), they are “death.” But you know who else brings death, and plenty of it? The Dothraki, the horse lords of Essos who crossed the Narrow Sea for the first time in their history, inspired to do so by the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Also inspired by the Mother of Dragons: the Unsullied, led by Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), a ferocious fighting force unlike anything known in the world of ice and fire, born and raised in blood and battle. With dragonglass-tipped weaponry at their disposal, these fighters are on the front lines against the Army of the Dead. Who are we to doubt the people who have fought so fearlessly for the Breaker of Chains?
The Unsullied and Dothraki aren’t alone in their stand against the wights, either. They have some of the best fighters in Westeros on their side: the Knights of the Vale, commanded by Bronze Yohn Royce (Rupert Vansittart). Sure, we mock Robyn Arryn (Lino Facioli) without mercy, and deservedly so, but the men he presides over are as heroic as they come. The Knights of the Vale single-handedly turned the tide at the Battle of the Bastards, the last major showdown at the gates of Winterfell. They know how to win wars on this battleground. Why should we doubt them now?
From an individual standpoint, some of the single most legendary heroes in modern Westeros history are ready to fight, swords in hand — Valyrian swords, in the cases of Brienne, Jaime and Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). Jorah wields Heartsbane, the ancestral sword of House Tarly, given to him by Samwell (John Bradley), one of the smartest men in the Seven Kingdoms. He passed it over with all the heart and bravery so perfectly cultivated by his own father, the late Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo). The power of Jorah’s own father courses through Heartsbane as much as it wears the influences of Samwell’s parents. A similar energy courses through Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail, the swords wielded by Brienne and Jaime, created from Ice, the Valyrian greatsword once owned by the late Ned Stark (Sean Bean). If it wasn’t enough that Sers Brienne, Jaime and Jorah are some of the best fighters in Westeros, then perhaps the destiny working on their side is enough to tip them over the edge.
There are other heroes fighting throughout the Winterfell war as well, though their purposes are less known. The Hound (Rory McCann) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) were last seen together, and while it feels very likely that we’ll lose the Lightning Lord, let’s not forget that he’s cheated death so many times before; what’s one more between friends? The Hound, meanwhile, cannot die until he’s met his brother on the battlefield — and there are no Lannister loyalists in sight right now. Whatever happens here, the Hound at least has more life left in him.
In the godswood, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) plans to wait for the Night King, with little more for help than Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) at his side. Everyone expects the Ironborn to die. But are we underestimating him as well? Are we not giving enough credit to Theon as one of the very best archers in Westeros? With a well-aimed dragonglass arrow, he could put down the Night King, forever changing his cowardly narrative by single-handedly saving the Seven Kingdoms. Okay, hard to picture that outcome, even through the rosiest of lenses, but still! Why are we so quick to underestimate Bran, who knows all and sees all as the Three-Eyed Raven? If he believes in the plot to bait the Night King out of hiding, why shouldn’t we trust him?
Besides, if Theon fails, there’s always Jon Snow and the dragons. In the strategy session, he stressed the importance of keeping the dragons nearby to chase the Night King should the need arise. The final season has already established Jon’s ability to ride Rhaegal. It was bumpy at first, but by the end, he had the hang of it. One of the most popular theories heading into the final season surrounded Bran taking over the undead Viserion and giving Jon Snow a huge chance in the battle against the Night King. Maybe it’s about to happen right here, right now.
Maybe — just maybe — the Night King isn’t even at Winterfell at all. Some fans think the White Walker leader will skip the battle altogether and take his world-ending business down south. (The Night King’s Landing has a certain ring to it.) If that’s the case, then maybe the combined forces of men will be able to beat back the Army of the Dead at Winterfell, only for further battles to commence in the Westeros capital in the back half of the season.
But those words are worth stressing, too: the back half of the season. There are three full episodes left once the action-packed Winterfell battle ends. That’s one of the key reasons why it’s hard to imagine Jon and his allies defeating the Night King here at the midpoint of the season … but even if they do defeat the White Walkers, there’s still so much left to accomplish. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) remains large and in charge of the Iron Throne, with the Golden Company at the ready alongside what’s left of the Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) fleet. Bronn of the Blackwater (Jerome Flynn) still has crossbow in hand, his turn against old friends Tyrion and Jaime still up in the air. The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) still lurks in the distance, waiting to meet his brother on the battlefield. The fate of Westeros’ soul is still an ongoing question, even without the Night King and his minions involved; there’s the whole matter of who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of Game of Thrones, and whether there will even be a throne at all. Keeping the Night King in the mix for this question definitely amplifies the stakes, but is it essential? Maybe not. The final season may have plenty of other compelling curveballs without the White Walkers in play.
Here’s the thing: Tyrion is definitely wrong, at least if we’re applying his sentiment to everyone about to join the fight. People are going to die. No chance everyone lives. How many times do you need to hear the words “the crypts are safe” to know that the crypts are absolutely, one hundred percent unsafe? (That said, some fans are theorizing the Night King will try to raise the bones of old Stark lords in the crypts, only to find that the old Stark bones can’t be manipulated because they are too pure and good; a bit of a reach for me, but I like the optimism!) There are enough characters who feel like they have reached the ends of their arcs that at least some of them are bound to die. As we’ve been warned before: “If you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
We’re well and thoroughly trained by now to expect the worst from Game of Thrones, after all the beheadings and Red Weddings and their ilk. But more than being trained to expect the worst, I think it’s instructive to pay attention to another Thrones lesson: expect the unexpected. Characters die with alarming frequency, but sometimes they don’t, even when all signs point to it. Season seven’s “Beyond the Wall,” for example, was infused with certain doom, and only one person died: Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), hardly a major loss, all due respect to the top knot. Instead, the sense of impending dread for the sword-wielding heroes was setting us up to lose an unexpected entity: Viserion, one of the three dragons — a big loss, sure, but definitely not the chalk pick heading into the hour.
With that lesson fresh in mind, what are we expecting heading into the big battle at Winterfell? Total loss, or close to it, with handfuls of series regulars plucked from the board. It’s a very likely outcome, sure — but with time still left between now and the eventuality, why not follow Tyrion’s lead and have a bit of half-drunk hope? After all, here’s what we’re not expecting: the White Walkers to be destroyed halfway into the final season. Wouldn’t that be a twist?
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