Game of Thrones Ventures Into the Unknown

Now that the HBO blockbuster series has caught up with the George R. R. Martin books on which it’s based, all bets are off.

Courtesy HBO

In the end, we are all rendered equal.

For the past four years, I’ve written season previews for Game of Thrones with the smug superiority of the book-reader. Sure, there would be surprises ahead, but having made my way through George R. R. Martin’s successive tomes, I typically had a pretty good idea of the overall direction the  plot would take.

Beginning this season, though, the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have caught up with or surpassed Martin’s material in all but a handful of particulars. Moreover, HBO, which had in previous years provided media outlets with screeners of the first four episodes, has decided to keep a tight lid on this season for anyone whose name is not Barack Obama.

Which is all a long way of saying that this time around I have no more idea of what is going to happen than many of you reading this—and undoubtedly less than those of you who have been poring through online speculation or devouring annotated versions of the trailers.

I thus approach the season with both excitement and no small degree of apprehension. Game of Thrones has typically been at its best when it has hewed most closely to its source material. Though Benioff and Weiss have proven themselves brilliant adapters, the storylines that they have written (or rewritten) themselves have generally been among the weaker ones of the show. Their alternative take on Qarth comes to mind, as does the utter silliness of the Jaime-and-Bronn road trip to Dorne. The tragic fall of Stannis Baratheon, too, although foreshadowed in the books, seemed unduly rushed in execution (so to speak) at the end of last season.

On the other hand, there have been occasions when Benioff and Weiss improved on Martin’s work, such as the duel between Brienne and the Hound at the end of season four, which was vastly more satisfying than the characters’ tedious wanderings around Westeros in the novels. Moreover, given the extent to which Martin seemed to lose his way in his fourth and (especially) fifth books—the sixth is still forthcoming—it’s an open question regarding who is better positioned to bring this saga to its (no doubt bloody) conclusion. That Benioff and Weiss appear to have set themselves a firm schedule—two more seasons after this one, of seven and six episodes respectively—seems to me a good sign.

So where does that leave us? Certainly with more questions than answers. The season premiere, “The Red Woman,” screened for a small number of people in Los Angeles—I was not among them—and it evidently proceeds directly from last season’s Jon-Snow-stabby finale. (There are a few more very mild spoilers here.) From there, we can proceed to outright speculation, modestly informed by the trailers that HBO has released.

With Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow (maybe) dead, it looks like Ser Davos will become the principal Good Guy in the North, perhaps with an assist from the wildling Tormund. And given that this season looks to feature the White Walkers more than previous ones, they’ll likely have their hands full. We also know that Melisandre has arrived at Castle Black following the deaths of Stannis, his wife, and his daughter. How is Davos going to take it when he learns (as he presumably will) that the Red Priestess had his favorite reading tutor, the Princess Shireen, burned at the stake for, shall we say, a decidedly limited payoff?

Ramsay Bolton will be on the warpath, although it’s not entirely clear against whom: presumably remaining Stark loyalists, the Night’s Watch, the wildlings, or some combination of the three. He’s also going to be mighty ticked off (and given his usual demeanor that is saying something) when he learns that his wife, Sansa, and his lickspittle, Theon, have escaped Winterfell. Sansa is, as was pointed out last season, “the key to the North.” Moreover, that marriage is all the more important to Ramsay now that his father, Roose, has gotten Fat Walda pregnant, putting Ramsay’s claim to House Bolton in jeopardy.

As for Theon and Sansa, they obviously survived the fall from Winterfell’s ramparts far better than Ramsay’s plaything Myranda, and the trailers make it clear that a hardened Sansa will be looking for revenge. Who might help her attain it? Will Brienne finally—finally—make good on her promise to defend a Stark daughter? And where will all three of these characters head from Winterfell, whether separately or together? North to the Wall? South toward Sansa’s maternal castle of Riverrun? The latter had a storyline in the books that has not yet been shown onscreen, and it looks as though that oversight may be rectified this season. Expect to see more of Catelyn Stark’s uncle, Brynden Tully—the Blackfish, and sole survivor of the Red Wedding.

Speaking of plots that were excised from the books, there was a quite substantial storyline on the Iron Isles that will apparently feature this season. Look for Yara Greyjoy, Theon’s hard-as-steel sister, to reappear in a more prominent role, along with one or more newly introduced family members. Kingsmoot, anyone?

Sticking to the North, this season will also feature the return of Bran Stark, who spent season five developing his superpowers off-screen. Various shots in the trailers show him standing beside both the Night’s King and Max von Sydow (a.k.a. Brynden Rivers, a.k.a. the three-eyed crow). Has Bran regained the use of his legs, or are these merely visions? I’m guessing the latter. And as long as we’re discussing Stark boys, whatever became of Rickon, along with Osha and Shaggydog?

The intrigue at King’s Landing looks as though it will be taken up a significant notch. First off, Jaime will be returning to Cersei with the corpse of their Dorne-poisoned daughter, Myrcella. Don’t expect Cersei to take that terribly well—this will, after all, be their second child killed by poison—and don’t forget that Jaime will presumably also have with him Myrcella’s betrothed, Trystane Martell. Awkward. (Then again, it’s possible that Trystane will not make the journey in one piece.) Another question is whom Cersei will principally blame for her daughter’s death: Dorne? Or her brother Tyrion, who sent Myrcella there, and whom she already blames for the death of Joffrey? And back down South, how exactly will Prince Doran deal with the death-kiss treachery of Ellaria and her Sand Snakes? If there ever were a call for Areo Hotah’s axe, this would seem to be it.

That’s not all that will be going on in King’s Landing, however. It’s clear that the Cold War between the Lannisters and the High Sparrow will be heating up. In the first trailer, Cersei—fresh off her Walk of Shame—memorably tells former paramour (and first cousin) Lancel, “I choose violence.” And don’t forget that she now has Ser Robert Strong, a.k.a. the reanimated Mountain, to help her mete it out. Dame Diana Rigg has also let it be known that her Queen of Thorns will have an open conflict with Cersei, which could easily be a high point of the season. Where exactly young Queen (twice over) Margaery fits into all the machinations in the capital is less clear.

Across the Narrow Sea, Arya will get a second chance with the Faceless Men, in the wake of her emphatically Tarantinoesque slaying of Ser Meryn Trant. But this time around she will be blind, which can hardly help.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen is back where she started, having wandered off and gotten herself captured by yet another Dothraki horde. (Sigh.) Luckily, Ser Jorah and Daario Naharis are in hot pursuit, with the former somehow managing to find the ring that Daenerys dropped last episode: a needle in the unfathomable haystack that is the Dothraki Sea. And back in Meereen, Tyrion and Varys—my early pick for best pairing of the season—will be charged with keeping the peace, along with Grey Worm and Missandei. The Sons of the Harpy have been wounded, but there’s no reason to believe they are vanquished. And those dragons in the vault will need tending in Daenerys’s absence.

Which brings us to the biggest question of all: Is Jon Snow dead? Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it is: Will Jon Snow remain dead? Everyone involved continues to insist that he is done for, and the trailers have been at pains to show him as a lifeless corpse as frequently as possible. But there’s still plenty of reason to think otherwise. Ser Davos seems to be protecting Jon’s body in one of the trailers. To what end? Could raising Jon be a way for Melisandre to start making amends for torching Shireen? After all, Jon and the Red Woman—remember, this is the title of the premiere—did develop some notable sexual chemistry last season. And there is a split-second flash in one of the battle scenes in the first trailer in which someone with awfully familiar-looking hair can be seen on horseback in the background …

Meanwhile, the trailers also suggest that we may get some flashbacks from Robert’s Rebellion—perhaps courtesy of a newfound Bran super-sight? And if, as widely speculated, one of those flashbacks involves the Tower of Joy and a young Eddard Stark’s attempted rescue of his beloved sister, Lyanna—well, it would be a bit anticlimactic to finally reveal the long-held secret of Jon Snow’s true parentage after he’s already dead.

But as noted, there are many, many more questions than answers as we head into this season. What game will Littlefinger be playing now? (His plot has already deviated substantially from the books.) Will Sam and Gilly reach Oldtown? What will Drogon do when he wakes from his nap to find Mom missing? Will Lady Stoneheart finally make an appearance? What new storyline will Benioff and Weiss invent (I hope) for Bronn? How many new cities will be added to the title-sequence map? And, perhaps most important: What have I failed to mention or forgotten altogether? Amplifications, clarifications, and further speculation of all sorts are welcome in the comments. Spencer Kornhaber, Lenika Cruz, and I will resume The Atlantic’s customary Game of Thrones roundtable beginning Sunday night.