Welcome back, one and all. Welcome back to the lands of ice and fire. Welcome back to Westeros (and only Westeros this time). The wait ended and the tale — now only 12 episodes left — began to spin towards its conclusion. Whatever happens from here on out is the climax and the end of things. Though it felt like we might never get here, the time is getting closer to the end of this tale and its various characters. For some, it’s the end of their lives. For others, it’s the end of their ambitions. And depending on what happens at The Wall, it may come to be the end of everything for all.
When last season ended, we saw Arya Stark take her revenge upon the man who carried out the Red Wedding — Lord Walder of House Frey — and on his two immediate heirs. But that was not enough for the assassin trained by the Faceless Men. Donning the disguise of the old lecher, Arya called for another feast for the rest of the Freys in line of succession. With a toast featuring the best wine, Arya poisons and destroys House Frey in absolute effect. She rips the Riverlands away from the men who butchered her sister-in-law, slit her mother’s throat and disfigured her brother’s corpse and ends House Frey for good for having betrayed guest right and for having taken her family away from her. Her warning to Lord Walder’s widow that “Winter came for House Frey” sure to echo into the tales and songs as sure as Lord Tywin’s destruction of House Reyne turned into “The Rains of Castamere.”
But that is not all Arya is after. For years she has repeated a list of names to herself as a mantra or as a prayer. A list of targets of men and women who have wronged or attacked House Stark’s members. The Hound, Polliver, Rorge, Ilyn Payne, Meryn Trant, Melisandre, Thoros of Myr, Beric Dondarrion, The Mountain, Walder Frey, Tywin Lannister, Joffrey, Cersei Lannister. Some like Meryn Trant, Polliver and Walder Frey, she has already killed. Others like Tywin Lannister and Joffrey have escaped her vengeance by dying at the hands of others. And one, The Hound, she forgave. But her heart burns to kill Cersei Lannister and it is towards her she heads after leaving The Twins. She runs into a band of Lannister guards trying to keep some semblance of peace and shares a meal and drink. They laugh at her bold claim, thinking it a joke. Will they be so eager to break bread and share the road with someone who can carry out this claim and throw Westeros into even greater chaos.
For her part, Queen Cersei is hard at work trying to devise a plan to stop the various factions aligned against her. Mad though she may be, she is not wrong to count the Sand Snakes and the Queen of Thorns, the new King in the North or the suddenly-returned Queen Daenerys among her enemies. Her brother, Ser Jaime, is quick to point out that they’ve no allies anywhere in the realm left to side with that can make a difference. In that, though, he’s surprised by the arrival of Euron Greyjoy, King of the Iron Islands and the Iron Fleet. Though Cersei had counted him amongst her enemies, Euron is rather eager to forge an alliance through marriage with Cersei. The Lannister siblings are quick to point out how untrustworthy a pirate he is. He promises to return with a gift worthy of his claim as proof of his trust. What kind of gift could he be thinking of? The head of an enemy? The head of a dragon? A prisoner of value? Whatever it is, for Cersei, it costs her nothing. Should he fail, it has removed a rival. Should he succeed, he might tip the balance of things.
As for the rival to the North, King Jon Snow is finding the difficulties of managing both a large kingdom of Northerners and his own House complex. There is truth in the words Sansa states: “Reward those loyal and punish those who betrayed.” It’s the way it is done amongst the powerful of Westeros. Jon rejects that, however, and instead chooses to put the blame for the betrayal of the Umbers and Karstarks on the men who died fighting him at the Battle of the Bastards. He does this for two reasons. First, because he truly believes it is wrong to cast out innocent children and family out of their ancestral homes for crimes they did not commit. Second, because with the approaching march of the White Walkers, Last Hearth (Umbers) and Karhold (Karstarks) will be the first major castles to be in their path. To shore up the defenses, Jon sends Tormund and his wildlings to Eastwatch by the Sea, the eastern castle at the edge of The Wall.
But this reveals the differences in the lessons Jon and Sansa have learned over the course of the story. For Jon, loyalty and being forthright with those who stand beside you are central tenets of his style of leadership. That’s what he learned from Ned Stark and Jeor Mormont, from Qhorin Halfhand, Mance Rayder and Alliser Thorne. For Sansa, it is vital to show your strength and to reward those who stick by your side; thus ensuring their loyalty to you. That’s what she learned from Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger. These are different tutors that passed on different messages to erstwhile pupils. After all, neither Jon nor Sansa expected to have leadership over the North fall to them. That was meant to be Robb’s role. Sansa was to have wed some lord or prince while Jon was meant to inherit nothing and have to seek his fortunes far away. But the end of Ned and of Robb has forced Jon and Sansa to have to seize power for their house’s sake as well as the North’s in order to unite it all against the White Walkers. Not that it will prove easy; not with Littlefinger still about Winterfell and trying to drive a wedge between the wolves.
Tormund is not the only one headed towards Eastwatch by the Sea. The Brotherhood Without Banners appears set on a course there also, guided by the visions in the flames from Thoros of Myr. In their midst rides Sandor Clegane, The Hound. Having agreed to ride with them after they let him deliver justice to some renegade members, Sandor comes face to face with some of the consequences of his earlier actions. A year before, while riding with Arya, he had stabbed a man and robbed him and his daughter of the little silver they had stashed away. Now, he got to see first hand what his actions had wrought. The man and his daughter, starving and with no means of obtaining food, had chosen suicide over starvation. Afraid of that truth, Sandor had wanted to move on. However, with no way to avoid it, he instead chose to dig the freezing earth in order to give both a proper burial. For that man and his child, their end came when The Hound met them. The Hound’s end came when he was left to die by Arya. For the new Sandor is capable of feeling guilt and regret. How would he do if he were to encounter his former charge now? Or her sister, Sansa? And how will those new emotions affect Sandor as he rides into certain battle against the White Walkers?
It is the quest for an edge against the demons of ice which prompted Samwell Tarly to travel south and join the order of maesters in Oldtown. The hope was that, somewhere in the vast halls of knowledge the maesters kept, a way of defeating the Walkers could be found. However, Sam is finding that his life is instead one of dull routine; cleaning after the many patients, feeding the students and the maesters, tending to the chamber pots and the sick. All the while, he’s studying anatomy under Archmaester Marwyn and growing frustrated about his lack of access to the ancient tomes. Marwyn explains to Sam that, for the order of maesters, the threat of the White Walkers is not some greater threat than any other faced before. Sure, they came before, but that’s why there’s The Wall. Winters come and go. Kings rise and fall. Houses are born and then fade away. It is the cyclical nature of things. There is always an end to something, but not THE end. Not the end of everything. Because everything cannot end.
Sam is not trustful of this though. He’s seen the White Walkers. He’s killed one of them. He fears that The Wall won’t be enough this time. So he takes a maester’s keys and breaks into the restricted section in order to obtain the knowledge he seeks. And in one tome he finds it: a mountain of obsidian that is on Westeros and can be used to make all the weapons they need to fight the walkers. The mountain is located on the island of Dragonstone. He decides to send that message to Jon, hoping he can do something with it. The only problem for Jon Snow is that Dragonstone has a new owner: Daenerys Stormborn. The Targaryen queen has returned to the place of her birth and, at long last, touches Westerosi soil. And though she has grander designs and her Hand, Tyrion, was friendly with Jon, it’s unlikely she’ll just let the King in the North take her mountain of dragonglass freely.
So this is where the story picks up: with chaos throughout the land, two kings and two queens each vying for power, others seeking other goals and winter finally at hand. The questions though abound. What will Daenerys do when she hears Jorah Mormont is at Oldtown in the care of the maesters for his greyscale? What will Jon and Sansa do when Lord Commander Edd Tollett sends them a raven saying Bran is at Castle Black with news of the impending attack? What will the Seven Kingdoms do when they find out that the White Walkers are real and are marching towards them?
It all feels like the end of the world until it stops. But with warfare, hunger, freezing cold and who knows what else around the corner, maybe this is the time it does not stop. Maybe this is the time winter comes and stays for good. Maybe this is really THE end.