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The Ringer’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Club

Our superfans go deep on the Season 6 finale’s hugely emotional reveals, the book characters we could still see, the latest insane theories, and more

HBO/Ringer illustration
HBO/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Ringer’s Game of Thrones Book Club, where superfans Jason "Maester" Concepcion and Mallory "Mother of Dragons" Rubin let their super-nerdy banners fly for all the world to see. Jason and Mallory helped break down the Season 6 finale on the most recent installment of After the Thrones, but are going even deeper and weirder here to discuss readers’ emotional state, the most intriguing character arcs, some truly bizarre theories, and much more. For even more "Winds of Winter" talk, check out Alison Herman’s review of the finale and head back to The Ringer on Tuesday for Jason’s final Ask the Maester column of the season.

Spoiler warning, obviously: If you’re not caught up on Season 6 and haven’t read every precious word that George R.R. Martin has written, proceed with extreme caution.

Mallory Rubin: Maester Jason! Hold me! Help me! My heart feels as massive as Wun Wun’s, swollen by an astonishingly emotional series of Season 6 finale reveals. We have so much to discuss — Jaime and Cersei’s future, Sam’s library card, FREY PIE — but we have to start with the Tower of Joy.

We know. Finally, we know. After waiting six seasons in show land and 20 years in book land, we learned the truth of Jon’s parentage on Sunday night: Jon isn’t Ned’s shame; he’s Ned’s secret, the son of Lyanna Stark and the boy Ned spent a lifetime protecting with lies so that he could honor his sister’s dying wish.

It wasn’t surprising: Thanks to a Hodor-size heap of supporting evidence, fans have long believed with something bordering on certainty that Jon is really Lyanna’s kid. But amazingly, that conviction didn’t remotely diminish the impact of the moment. When I heard Lyanna whisper "promise me," words I’ve now read on the printed page more times than I can count, I got chills. When the shot cut from the newborn’s wrinkly face to modern-day Jon’s scarred visage, I wept. I’m tearing up again now as I type this.

That the scene delivered so fully despite so many people being so sure they’d already solved it speaks to the brilliance with which the showrunners handled the material. But it also speaks to how deeply we all cared. This question united the fandom; it fostered and then fueled a community of obsessive discussion and speculation. For me, this is up there with The Prince’s Tale and Harry’s walk into the Forbidden Forest in Deathly Hallows; Desmond finally reaching Penny on Lost; and learning the identities of the Final Five cylons on Battlestar Galactica. It was devastatingly sad and surprisingly beautiful, and it mattered to me in a way that the best fiction can when it transcends the typical confines of storytelling.

And of course, it pulled off another masterful feat: In resolving one monumental mystery, Bran’s Tower of Joy vision posed another, because we can’t hear the name Lyanna whispers when she’s begging Ned to shield Jon from Robert’s wrath. So, Maester, I ask you: Does R+L=J? Is Rhaegar Targaryen Jon’s father, as we’ve long assumed and as I still believe? Is the show milking the fandom’s favorite discussion point for every last drop, or is there a chance that part of our equation has been wrong all along? Members of the Kingsguard battled to the death to protect that tower; they must have done so to serve a Targaryen heir. But might that Targaryen have been someone other than the dragon prince?

Jason Concepcion: After so much time and so much speculation, seeing what happened inside the Tower of Joy — the promise, the bed of blood, the newborn babe — was emotional and surreal.

Emotional because, though book readers largely take it as an article of faith that Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon, we didn’t really know. Now, after so many feigned protagonists and tragic, bordering-on-cruel plot reversals, we really know that Jon is the hero, the prince whose safety Ned literally promised.

It’s surreal because part of me never thought we’d get here! And, if not for George R.R. Martin agreeing to allow his story to be adapted for television, we might not have. So, a moment of silence for George; he squandered a 5–0 lead and now the core mystery of his epic tale has been revealed by someone else. That must feel terrible.

OK! [Claps hands; rubs them together vigorously.] ARE WE REALLLLLLY SURE R+L = J? I always have been and still mostly am. But, that suspiciously timed volume drop has me reconsidering what we actually know. We know that Rhaegar Targaryen shocked the realm by crowning Lyanna Stark the Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament at Harrenhal and that, a short time later, he either abducted or ran off with her. And we know that nine months later, Lyanna gave birth to Jon in the Tower of Joy amid a "bed of blood."

Stay with me now: What if Aerys II is Jon’s father? Problem pregnancies were a hallmark of the Mad King’s relationship with his wife, Queen Rhaella. Between 263 AC and 274 AC, after giving birth to Prince Rhaegar, the queen miscarried three times and gave birth to two stillborn babes and three feeble infants who soon perished. Admittedly, that’s smoke with very little fire. But if you subscribe to the theory that Aerys is Tyrion’s father, Joanna Lannister dying in her own bed of blood suddenly seems not just tragic, but portentous.

Now, let’s pour wildfire on this smoldering heap of speculation. The Mad King was infamous for becoming sexually aroused by fire, specifically the sight of people burning. What if Lyanna’s pregnancy was the perverse result of King Aerys watching Lord Rickard Stark get roasted alive in his armor? Awful as that possibility is, it would be a very GRRM touch.

I don’t know that I buy any of this, but I’m open to the possibility.

All that aside, the question now is this: How will the realm find out that Jon is a Targaryen? What say you?

(A random PS: The three heads of the dragon: Dany rides Drogon, the black dragon; Jon the White Wolf rides Viserion, the white dragon; and Bran the Greenseer "rides" Rhaegal, the green dragon??? I AM FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW.)

M.R.: Two words: Howland Reed. Maybe Bran will surface from his latest tree trip determined to head right to Jon to tell him all he’s learned. I’m assuming that we saw the Ned-Lyanna scene entirely through Bran’s eyes, meaning he didn’t hear papa’s name either. If that’s not the case, then he’s well informed and ready to download Jon. If that is the case, though, why share a half-truth with Jon when Bran can attempt to piece the puzzle together? Isn’t gaining complete knowledge part of being the Three-Eyed Raven? Bran knows that Howland was at the Tower of Joy battling beside Ned, and he just so happens to be traveling through the North with Howland’s daughter, Meera, the one person capable of locating Greywater Watch in the swamps of the Neck.

Bran could try to find Chekhov’s nurse, but you know what Howland has over her (other than a known location)? He can help shed light on Lyanna’s life, not just her death. I can’t stop thinking about the Knight of the Laughing Tree, the story that Meera tells Bran about a mystery miniature knight who rides to defend the honor of a picked-on crannogman at the tourney at Harrenhal. As you noted, we know that this is where Rhaegar crowned Lyanna the Queen of Love and Beauty. We also know, from Meera’s tale, that Rhaegar played a song at the tourney’s feast that made Lyanna weep. It’s pretty clear that Howland is the crannogman in question, and I’ve always believed that Lyanna was the knight — she cared for Howland after his beating; the weirwood on the knight’s shield points to a Northern rider; and this kind of impersonation is totally something Arya, whom Ned said reminded him of Lyanna, would do. Plus, it explains why Howland would have gone with Ned to Dorne: He wanted to help rescue the woman who once rescued him.

But here’s the kicker: Aerys was so miffed when the knight beat the bad guys and refused to unmask that he sent Rhaegar to chase down the mystery (wo)man. Maybe this is when Rhaegar and Lyanna fell in love! And maybe Howland knows it, or can at least help Bran piece it all together.

I say "love" because I can’t really stand the idea of Jon being the product of rape and betrayal; this all means so much more if he’s the fruit of true passion, the messiah born of a willful union between ice and fire. Plus, if Jon is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s kid, he’s Dany’s nephew; if he’s Aerys’s kid, he’s her half brother. Bastard or not, one of those scenarios makes him a much bigger threat to her claim, and I can’t see how that helps a story that’s invested more time in Dany’s path to glory than in literally anything other than, to quote my main man Ian McShane, "tits and dragons." Plus, Jon and Dany can totally hook up if they’re aunt and nephew; by Westerosi standards, that’s only kind of creepy and weird. If they’re siblings, that’s Lannister-level filth, and no one wants that.

Speaking of Lannisters, and speaking of dope color-coded clues to this tale’s conclusion (amazing dragon theory, by the way!), can we agree that the final part of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy is about to come true? Tommen’s exit sealed the bit about gold shrouds for all of Cersei’s children, which brings us to the part of the prophecy that the show never included: "And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you."

"Valonqar" is High Valyrian for "little brother." Many have assumed that this line foreshadows Tyrion returning to take his revenge upon the evil sister who made his life hell. But Cersei just did the thing that Jaime once killed a king to prevent: She burned them all. Doesn’t Jaime have to take her out? Wouldn’t it be pretty easy to choke the life out of her with his golden hand? Or will all the talk about the two of them being the only ones who matter trump everything else? If Jaime forgives her, what’s next for them? And if he kills her, what’s next for him?

HBO
HBO

J.C.: Poor Jaime. I feel for the guy. (As much as it’s possible to empathize with a person who would get down with his twin sister, push a child out of a window, and threaten to launch a baby from a catapult.) He’s in a lose-lose situation here.

Cersei has no end game. She just incinerated numerous important Southern nobles (including her uncle Kevan, the sitting lord of Casterly Rock) along with untold members of the gentry; hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians; and an influential religious leader. West of King’s Landing, the Freys, the Lannisters’ last ally, just lost the head of their house. Cersei might rule the capital with steel and fear, but she’d be taking her chances just leaving the Red Keep. The united strength of the Reach and Dorne represents a mortal threat to Cersei’s reign, and that’s assuming the Lannister army stands behind her. She has no chance against Dany’s military might. Oh, and the Lannisters have been low-key broke since Season 4 and Book 4.

If Jaime supports Cersei — and just two episodes ago, he declared that he was willing "to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her" — that would likely mean leading Lannister troops in the field against the family’s enemies, which, at this point, is basically everyone. Sooner or later, the Lannister army is going to get run and Jaime’s towheaded cranium will end up on a spike.

If Jaime fulfills the "valonqar" portion of Maggy’s prophecy — which would entail getting past the undead Mountain one-handed — he’ll be a kinslayer, a kingslayer, an oathbreaker, and, worse, a Lannister in a post-Lannister world. Brienne is the only person in Westeros who might’ve cut him a break, but she’s duty-bound to oppose him after the recent siege of Riverrun.

Jaime is a tragic figure; he saved thousands of lives when he killed the Mad King, but lost his honor forever.

This has me thinking, though: With the Reach now at war, Randyll Tarly is going to be too busy to look for Heartsbane. This frees Samwell up … to do what exactly?

M.R.: Sam the Slayer! Man, in a season thick with violence and despair, there was something truly transporting about the look of bliss on Sam’s face when he walked into the Citadel’s library. (Side note: Is it just me, or did the library look like a cross between the British Museum’s Reading Room and Dumbledore’s office, with a little Burrow action thrown in for good measure? I’d give all the wine in the Arbor to spend time there, and would definitely be willing to shave my head and tape down my boobs to sneak by the sexists at the gates.) Sam’s finally where he belongs, surrounded by parchment and knowledge and far, far away from bad dads.

Of course, Sam’s not in Oldtown for leisure time. He’s there to study up, and hopefully in a hurry. Completing (or even truly starting) his Maester’s training is going to be a bit too time-consuming with the fate of the world at stake, so hopefully Sam will stumble upon the right tome in a jiffy. He knows what obsidian and Valyrian steel can do to the White Walkers, but he needs to find something more. Specifically, he needs his light bedtime reading to reveal the old secret to stopping the Others. Will Sam learn what saved the realms of men the last time and what can stop the Night King this time? As Benjen reminded Bran, and us, in the season finale, there’s powerful magic in the Wall that prevents the Others from passing. Since Mance’s gang began hunting for the Horn of Winter, I’ve assumed the Wall will fall; Benjen’s statement only reinforced that belief, because the Night King needs to hit the Seven Kingdoms at some point. So if the Wall falls, will Sam know how to raise it again? Might he learn how to stop it from crumbling in the first place?And, perhaps most crucially of all, will he and Gilly have time for some romps when they’re rushing back to Jon on the snowy seas, or will they be too busy sketching out plans to save the world and changing Little Sam’s nappies?

Speaking of babies: All this talk of Dany’s need to marry got me thinking about the state of her womb (which is a totally normal thing to say, right?). Show Dany has hinted at being barren; book Dany definitely thinks she is. But we’ve gotten some hints to the contrary. What do you think? Will Dany be able to procreate with her new mate of choice? Did she allow Mirri Maz Duur to get into her head with her now infamous pseudoprophecy, "When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. When the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves. When your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child. Then he will return, and not before"? And — get ready, because I’m about to get weird — if her womb is quickening again, does that mean Drogo’s coming back?

J.C.: This is so weird. I love it. Also, there’s nothing that brings me more joy than imagining George R.R. Martin saying, "Her womb is quickening," in that nasal voice of his, which sounds like a clarinetist swallowing his reed. I agree that, at least in the books, it’s likely that Dany is no longer barren. In the last chapter of A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys, adrift in the Dothraki Sea, wakes from a dream to find that her [extremely GRRM voice] moon blood is flowing for the first time in she-can’t-remember-when.

(ASIDE: In researching this, I’ve developed a newfound reverence for the fantasy subgenre of George R.R. Martin period prose. Let this wash over you:

"Moon blood, it’s only my moon blood, but she did not remember ever having such a heavy flow." — A Dance With Dragons, Chapter 71

"Afterward, when their moon blood did not come at the accustomed time, Lysa had gushed happily of the sons she was certain they carried." — A Storm of Swords, Chapter 2)

The problem with Dany’s (alleged) fertility leading to a Drogo return is that when Mirri Maz Duur issued her half-prophecy, half-taunt, she was setting the criteria for a comatose Drogo to return to his former self. Unfortunately (except for the part where this is how the dragon eggs hatched), Dany smothered him with pillows and burned his body on a funeral pyre. There’s no body for Drogo to come back to.

Drogo staying dead has its benefits, though. The Great Khal wasn’t one for sharing, and, as future world leader, Dany is out of Drogo’s league now anyway. In order to forge a lasting peace for a post-conquest Westeros, the Khaleesi is going to have to find the right life partner and put a ring on it.

Speaking of which: Any bachelors (or bachelorettes) out there that you like for the position of Mr. (or Mrs.) Khaleesi?

HBO
HBO

M.R.: Hey, Dany had some below-the-sheets fun with Irri in A Storm of Swords; maybe Yara’s right for her after all! Of course, my true hope is that Dany finds Jorah, throws an arm-condom over his greyscale, and makes sweet love to her bear for the rest of his days. With Little Lyanna and the Mormonts entering the great game in a big way in the showverse, Jorah actually wouldn’t make such a poor ally. His family would need to forget its shame long enough to speak to him again, of course, but if he was able to win back his Khaleesi’s trust after betraying her, anything’s possible.

You probably have to be (a) in love with Iain Glen or (b) drinking copious amounts of shade-of-the-evening to be pulling for this outcome, but what can I say? Just because a Dany-Jon pairing seems like the ultimate end game doesn’t mean we should quit imagining alternate couplings while the clock counts down.

The finale might have put another alternate pairing on our radar. I’d given up hope of Quentyn Martell appearing on the show, but Dorne’s return to the fray has me wondering if someone in Sunspear might still make a move for Dany’s hand. There was no show Arianne for Doran to promise to Viserys, and no show Quentyn for Doran to send after Dany, but perhaps Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have another card to play. Sure, so far most of their card-playing involves killing anything with a penis and doing the Dornish version of burning their bras in a show of female strength, so offering up a dude to Dany doesn’t really seem like their style, but the Martells and Targaryens have sealed pacts with marriage for more than a century, so perhaps we haven’t met our last Dornish drinking buddy yet.

I’m just as curious about the man who brought Dany and the Dornish together, though. What’s Varys’s next move? And can we be certain that he’s on Dany’s team for good, given his past, Stannis-centric statements about the danger of a ruler with blood magic on his or her side and Dany’s current cheerleading squad of red priests and priestesses?

J.C.: Mal, I think we might need to upgrade Ser Jorah’s arm condom to a full torso prophylactic considering the time that’s passed. Maybe a whole boiled-leather gimp outfit with two holes cut in it.

I, too, have been anxiously waiting to see if Varys might have some cards hidden close to his perfumed vest. Certainly, after "The Winds of Winter," (we have to talk about this title) it’s probably too late in the great game to upset the status quo with a character like Young Griff, a.k.a. (Fake?) Aegon Targaryen. Although, Varys playing a double game with Illyrio and running a secret, possibly fugazi Targ as a Dany backup plan would fall nicely under the "once for blood" part of the "three treasons" prophecy that Dany received in the House of the Undying. Which, alas, does not exist in the show.

There might be time for a Quentyn-type character and a quick tragicomic meet-cute. Maybe. Once Dany lands in, we assume, Dorne, moving Quentyn from an awkward wannabe suitor with visions of dragons in his head to a barbecue briquette screaming, "I made a terrible mistake," would be, at most, a two-episode arc. I’m holding out hope for that now, actually.

Jumping back a bit, is naming the finale "The Winds of Winter" a troll move by the showrunners?

M.R.: I feel for George, man. He birthed this masterpiece, and even though HBO took his baby and lovingly swaddled it and provided it with ample nourishment and kisses, it can’t be easy to watch the network teach this story to drive, and send it off to prom, and drop it off at college while he’s still stuck on the middle school T-ball field. I firmly believe that the rest of the books will be fulfilling and wonderful reading experiences regardless, and I really don’t feel like I’ve been cheated out of anything by learning about Jon’s mom or the White Walkers’ origin or Hodor’s Hodoring or anything else on the show first. Still, knowing that swaths of fans who’ve invested years in this tale experienced these essential late-game moments on a stage other than the one he initially created has to be agonizing for our boy, and so my heart breaks for him a little more each week. Using the name of the still-unpublished book that’s sparked more "WHERE IS THIS THING? PLEASE WRITE THIS BEFORE YOU DIE!" message-board bullying than we’ve ever seen feels like rubbing unnecessarily coarse salt in an open, festering wound. (But it is a good title! Can’t deny that!)

Before this book club chat gets as long as GRRM’s next manuscript, let’s tie it to a raven’s leg and send it off. Any final thoughts? How thrilled were you to finally see your main man Manderly, however briefly? Did you salivate when we got a slice of Frey pie at long last? And are you going to spend more time over the next few months wondering what characters like Littlefinger and Arya will do next, or sending George loving reminders that we’ll line up for him at midnight no matter what?

J.C.: The show and books are so different now that I don’t feel spoiled at all. Frey pie is a perfect example; it’s a great bit from the books, but it requires the reader to do some textual sleuthing to unlock the savory goodness behind the lines. Adapting it for Arya’s arc, and making her the mysterious hooded man stalking Winterfell in A Dance With Dragons, is a great change for television. But, it doesn’t affect what we know about the book version of The Winds of Winter at all.

In closing, I offer some quick Season 7–8 predictions based on where things stand at the end of Season 6:

The Winds of Winter will be released in Spring 2017. Martin just got some good advice from Stephen King (basically, "SIT DOWN AND WRITE") and I’m hopeful that he took it to heart.

Cersei and Euron will be the big bads of Season 7. Season 8 will be all Night King, all the time.

Littlefinger will die midway through Season 7 after failing to split Jon and Sansa. (After being revealed as a Targaryen and coming back from the dead, Jon now has the world’s only suit of Valyrian plot armor.)

Lannister guardsmen in the Red Keep will begin dying mysteriously as Arya looks to complete her Pokemon set of death.

Melisandre will join up with Beric, the Hound, and the Brotherhood Without Banners, taking over the Lady Stoneheart role. They will go to the inn at the crossroads from A Feast for Crows, where they will meet Brienne, Podrick, and GENDRY.

That’s all for now. This was a joy, Mal! Hopefully Chris and Amanda don’t kill us for writing 4,000 words about Game of Thrones. Any closing thoughts?

M.R.: Just that I’d really like a suit of Valyrian plot armor! Though not as much as I’d like Arya to reunite with the Hound, Hot Pie, and Gendry, or Ghost and Nymeria to rule the world at the end as you recently brilliantly suggested. Sometimes, we deserve to have nice things. And what’s nicer than two chickens with pets and pals?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.