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Littlefinger’s Plan, Dany’s Army, and Ramsay’s “Pink Letter”

HBO
HBO

The world of Game of Thrones is so vast that even the act of characters meeting is notable. Before Sunday night’s “Book of the Stranger,” the last time Jon and Sansa were in the same place was the first episode of Season 1, when Lord Eddard Stark, his family, and his favored servants lined the yard at Winterfell to greet King Robert Baratheon. Sansa stood in the front with Ned; Jon was one row back with Theon. They never interacted. Sansa’s arrival at Castle Black marks the first time the audience sees the two of them speak to one another. And not a moment too soon — Jon’s big plan for his second life, before Sansa put her boot in his ass, was basically to roam the land alone, feeling sad and stuff. It’s a pivotal meeting, and I haven’t even gotten around to shipping Tormund and Brienne yet. They have so much in common, namely intimate experiences with bears. Now, to the questions.

North asks, “How many days would it take an army to march from the Vale to Castle Black?”

The journey would take weeks, not days. Westeros, from the Wall to the tippy-toe of Dorne, is roughly the size of South America. In Season 1, Cersei Lannister mentions that the ride from King’s Landing to Winterfell, a journey of roughly 1,800 miles,* took a month to complete. The distance from Runestone in the Vale (where Lord “Bronze” Yohn Royce has been laboring unsuccessfully to turn young Lord Julian Casablancas into a martial man) to Castle Black is about the same, though the route is more winding and involves negotiating the Mountains of the Moon. The knights of the Vale would be moving north with more purpose and haste than the late King Robert’s bloated royal retinue. Assuming House Arryn’s banners muster swiftly, employ forced marches, are made up exclusively of cavalry, have a minimal baggage train, and are blessed with good weather, I think a two-and-a-half-week journey is probably a reasonable guess.

*I arrived at this number by using the length of the Wall (300 miles) to estimate the total distance.

Jay asks, “Surely Littlefinger knows that the knights of the Vale will have to travel through the Twins in order to get to the North. What’s the play here?”

After the knights of the Vale descend the High Road over the Mountains of the Moon, they can then make a right turn at the Kingsroad. From there, it’s a straight shot up to Castle Black. This takes them well east of the Twins and the Green Fork of the Trident River, which Walder Frey’s great double-middle-finger toll bridge stands astride.

You’re probably thinking of the Neck, the swampy isthmus connecting the North with the rest of Westeros, and the ancient fortress of Moat Cailin, which bottlenecks the Kingsroad there. No army has ever taken Moat Cailin from the south. The stronghold is not continuously manned, though, owing to its generally dilapidated state and location smack in the middle of a pestilential bog. It’s up to the Warden of the North to order it garrisoned. Lord Ramsay Bolton has a lot going on right now, so staffing up Moat Cailin is probably several slots below “torture Rickon (again)” and “beat off while feeding Osha’s corpse to the dogs” on his to-do list. Also, real talk, ease of travel through the Neck would help the showrunners expedite the plot.

Doug Tulak asks, “If the Reach has the second-largest army (according to Jaime), who has the largest?”

It has to be the Vale. Lysa Arryn — even though she was Catelyn Stark’s sister and the aunt of the late King in the North — pointedly held her realm out of the War of the Five Kings, and as a reult the fighting men of the Vale are fresh as daisies. Like Switzerland in The Sound of Music, the Vale’s valleys and meadows are untouched by the war that raged just beyond her mountains. In the books, Littlefinger uses this oasis of stability as an opportunity to Bobby “Axe” Axelrod the Westerosi commodities market, buying up the Vale’s harvest to take advantage of future increases in food prices. The only snag in the Vale’s rocky mountain high — besides having a teenage breastfeeder with poor impulse control and no hand-eye coordination as its Lord Protector — is increased raiding by the emboldened mountain clans that Tyrion armed back in Season 1 as a reward for, among other things, escorting him south without cutting off his cock and feeding it to “the goats.” Other than that, the Vale is a very chill place.

Liam asks, “With the addition of the Dothraki, how many soldiers does Khaleesi have in her army now?”

To quote Herman Melville, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” Daenerys now has an enormous military at her disposal. Khal Drogo commanded the largest khalasar of his day — 40,000 murderous horsemen. I counted seven khals present at Dosh Khaleen HQ when Daenerys showed them how she got the title “The Unburnt.” (Vaes Dothrak, beef up your fire codes.) If we assume that each khal had a horde half the size of Drogo’s, that’s 140,000 men. Daenerys’s Unsullied have suffered heavy losses in Meereen, but they originally totaled 8,000 spearmen. That brings us to just under 150,000 men. Those estimates are conservative; the books speak of Khal Pono, originally one of Drogo’s followers, commanding a khalasar 30,000 strong. We’re also ignoring the 2,000 horses of Daario’s Second Sons cavalry, the emancipated slave gladiators of the fighting pits, and the various noncombatant camp followers attached to each group. The question now is how to get all those people across the Narrow Sea.

Katie asks, “Why didn’t anyone make Dany join the Dosh Khaleen when Drogo died?”

There was simply no one interested in delivering her to Vaes Dothrak after her failed attempt to save Drogo’s life turned him into a vegetable. The Dothraki have a strong aversion to sorcery. Daenerys showing mercy toward Mirri Maz Duur — a maegi! — was bad enough. Allowing the sorceress to sacrifice Drogo’s horse was several steps too far. Drogo’s bloodriders became enraged. One of them, Qotho, tried to kill Dany and, if not for Ser Jorah, would have succeeded. Most of what remained of Drogo’s khalasar when the khal fell ill abandoned Dany then. Those who stayed had, by that point, broken every taboo in Dothraki culture; they had no incentive to follow through with the Dosh Khaleen tradition.

Nick asks, “Does this episode confirm that Dany is immune to fire?”

Casually strolling the interior of a building as it’s consumed by flames while khals and their henchmen turn to charred lumps around her, then emerging from the conflagration unblemished, is a strong indicator that Dany is immune to fire. This is a change from the books. “TARGARYENS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO FIRE,” said George R.R. Martin in 1999 in ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. “The birth of Dany’s dragons was unique, magical, wondrous, a miracle. She is called The Unburnt because she walked into the flames and lived. But her brother sure as hell wasn’t immune to that molten gold.” Whatever the case, there’s an internal logic for Dany’s increased abilities: magic returned to the world with the birth of her dragons; as the beasts have grown stronger, it stands to reason that magic has as well.

Michael asks, “Why can’t Jorah just cut off his arm to stop the greyscale from spreading?”

A common saying holds that there are three cures for greyscale: “axe and sword and cleaver.” (Greyscale humor!) But in the absence of the medical expertise of a maester, amputation is, in itself, practically a death sentence. And anyway, hacking off the infected limb is not guaranteed to stop the spread of the disease. Looking for a cure before his mind goes full stone-man is the best of Jorah’s bad options.

Stuart asks, “Is TV Ramsay Bolton the greatest warrior/schemer the Seven Kingdoms has ever known?”

No. He has a certain low cunning, but he’s no Tyrion or Littlefinger or Varys, just to name characters who are alive. And, while a fierce fighter, he’d be no match for Jon, Brienne, Jorah, Daario, any of Dany’s bloodriders, Lord Umber, Tormund Giantsbane, etc., etc. He owes his success to decisive action in a time when the families of the North are just trying to keep their heads down and consolidate their losses.

Paul asks, “What beat would you put to the show’s version of ‘The Pink Letter’?”

The “Pink Letter” is so titled because, in the books, the Boltons use pink wax to seal their missives. Ramsay also likes to write in blood and send scraps of human skin rolled up with the parchment. (So in case you’re wondering if Lord Bolton can get worse, the answer is: yes.) As for the beat, I’m thinking trap. Probably “Jumpman”:

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 17, 2016.