Winter is finally here. After 60 episodes, Game of Thrones is rapidly approaching its long-awaited endgame, with the penultimate season set to begin Sunday. And while this chapter certainly promises many winners, there can be only one MVP. Who will it be? Our staff has some thoughts on who is set up for success this season:
Mallory Rubin: Jon Snow didn’t want to be Lord Commander. He didn’t want to be King in the North. He didn’t even want to go take back Winterfell until Sansa convinced him to do so. He’s certainly never set his sights on the Iron Throne. And that’s precisely why he’s poised for an MVP run in Season 7. George R.R. Martin loves a reluctant leader, and few have been more reluctant than Jon. The White Wolf is too busy focusing on mankind’s survival to give a thought to, let alone a damn about, power. While Cersei and Dany and all the other players worry about the Red Keep, Jon’s sweating the White Walkers.
“For centuries our families fought together against their common enemy,” we hear the newly anointed King in the North say in the final Season 7 trailer. “Despite their differences. Together. We need to do the same if we’re going to survive. Because the enemy is real. It’s always been real.”
Jon thwarted a wight in Jeor Mormont’s office. He killed a White Walker and stared down the Night King at Hardhome. He knows better than anyone that the words we hear Davos speak in the first official Season 7 trailer are the only words that really count: “If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together, we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”
And it looks like Jon is going to try to do something about it. Numerous trailer shots appear to show Jon north of the Wall, fighting the army of the dead:
Could Jon, like the fabled Last Hero, ride north to find the Children of the Forest and seek their counsel on how to defeat the White Walkers? Bran now knows that the Children created the Walker scourge, and Sam could gain similar insight now that he’s at the Citadel. Either could enlighten Jon, sending him forth to fulfill his destiny as Last Hero 2.0.
Well, one of his destinies. The Season 6 finale beautifully resolved the 20-year (in bookland) mystery of Jon’s parentage, in so doing propelling the already fierce fan speculation that Jon is the Prince That Was Promised, Azor Ahai born anew. Jon wasn’t killed and resurrected so that he could live a quiet life in the Winterfell godswood: His heritage is the story’s core mystery, his rebirth the biggest clue yet that a saga long thought to be devoid of a true protagonist could belong to one savior after all.
Or, at least, that one savior will try to synch up with another:
That sure looks like our Northern boy, our beautiful blue rose, down south of the winter snows — perhaps in Dragonstone to ask the newly docked Dany to align with him against the Night King. Prevailing won’t be easy, particularly with the meddlesome Littlefinger whispering in Sansa’s ear in an effort to sow dissent in the Stark household, but it should guarantee Jon a pace-setting usage rate and a season-defining arc.
I just have one plea: #ProtectGhost.
Alyssa Bereznak: Tyrion is not a magical being. He can’t switch faces. He has no mystical command over wild creatures. If he stepped into a ring of fire he would be flambéed like a campfire marshmallow. And to quote Bronn, he’s “a shit warrior.” This Lannister’s talents lie neither in swordsmanship nor the supernatural. Rather, the reason he’s been able to survive for so long as a dwarf in this world — through all the battles, servitudes, sieges, death sentences, and kidnappings — is his propensity to learn, quick-witted thinking, and general wine-induced IDGAF attitude. He’s a smart enough improvisor to know when to shoot his dad with a crossbow and leave town forever. He’s audacious enough to confront two hungry dragons and convince them not to eat him as a snack. And he’s gregarious enough to attempt small talk with the likes of Grey Worm and Missandei.
Do these skills matter when you’re face-to-face with, I dunno, a supernatural ice king and his massive army of undead skeletons? Maybe not. But they’ve at least secured him a position in the camp most equipped to fight Westeros’s preeminent threat. Tyrion has managed to be a powerful person in a powerful regime without also being its main target. As long as mortals are still ruling the realm, he’ll be able to wriggle into their upper ranks and scheme through each day’s threats with the ease of a Monday-morning crossword puzzle. And if it just so happens that the Night King prevails, I have faith Tyrion will be able to hide away in some shipping container, make his way to a far-flung tower in Essos, and wait out the world’s slow thaw with a couple barrels of wine.
Claire McNear: As best as I can tell, the most effective way to stay alive in Game of Thrones is to be deeply loyal and also capricious as hell. Does Drogon love his many-braided incest mother? Yes. Will he allow her to fly him into untold world-shaping battles — at great risk to his own red-black belly scales — to melt her enemies, their ships, and (I bet!) their castles? Definitely. Will he also abandon her to a horde of pissed-off Dothraki riders and value his taste for goats and goat herders’ children over Daenerys’s attempts at nation-building? You bet.
Drogon is big, mad, and mean. He is loyal to Daenerys, but also seems basically indifferent to the political heave-ho our Mother of Dragons is increasingly concerned with: Drogon already established in his Season 5 sojourn to the Valyrian Peninsula that he’d be just fine circling abandoned cities solo and roasting whatever and whenever he wanted. I think Drogon views Daenerys in roughly the same way that I view my cat: I like my cat and I’d be mad if you insulted her, but I’m not going to do what she tells me.
Mostly, though, I’m Team Drogon for the simple reason that Season 7 is, perhaps more so than any season before it, being positioned as the War Season: the final, maybe definitive human scuffles before we settle in for Season 8’s presumptive war on/with/against Winter. Season 7’s trailers have dragons. Smarter people than me have been predicting a Field of Fire redux. Drogon, again, is big, mad, and mean. In other words: We will almost certainly see some DRACARYS action, and it is going to be dope.
George R.R. Martin
Jason Concepcion: He wrote the books. He may never finish them. But just creating a world with a rich history, spanning 12,000 fictional years, is an achievement in itself.
Megan Schuster: At this point in the series, Daenerys Targaryen is to Thrones as Aaron Judge is to home run derbies — everyone else is playing for second. When we last saw our girl, she was outplaying the masters in Slaver’s Bay, making Tyrion her official Hand, and setting sail to Westeros (shout-out to Daario Naharis, who is definitely still stuck on Dany’s hook back in Meereen). She’s got the dragons, the loyal followers, the Dothraki, the Unsullied, the ships, and the master manipulators in Varys and Tyrion. She’s about to land in the Seven Kingdoms, and no one is ready for her. Make your case for everyone else, that’s fine — but it’s really not close. Dany has built her own superteam, and they’re not blowing this lead.
Rob Harvilla: Real quick, let’s define the word win, in Game of Thrones parlance. It does not mean triumph or conquer or even survive: On this show, there are outcomes far more desirable than getting what you want, and definitely fates worse than death. The Hound is not about to sit on the Iron Throne, or evolve into an unambiguous Good Guy, or even crack a smile. What you can count on, however, is that this season he will beat some serious ass, and drop some righteous Westeros Yearbook quotables on the order of “fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the city, fuck the king,” and perhaps reunite in some fashion with Arya (could be violent) or Brienne (definitely violent). He will scowl and grunt and curse and slash his way through this show’s endgame with delightfully joyless aplomb. Nobody on this show has a lousier attitude or, given the circumstances, a more appropriate one. His insensitivity is invaluable.
Also: The Cleganebowl is still in play. Don’t bet on it, of course, and if it does happen, don’t bet on him. Fear not: He won’t be offended. He’d applaud your cold-eyed realism, if he applauded anyone, ever.
Michael Baumann: Littlefinger is so dangerous that we’re taking him seriously despite his ridiculous sobriquet and even though he long ago annihilated the record for Most Words Spoken By A Character On A Major TV Drama Without Actually Opening Their Mouth (previously held by Dr. Erica Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy). Littlefinger is back on his home court: Not in power, but close to power, whispering into the ear of a naive puppet who actually could be manipulated into creating the kind of chaos Lord Baelish famously likes to climb. It’s been pretty well telegraphed that Littlefinger is going to try to drive a wedge between Jon and Sansa this season, potentially to the peril of Jon’s new Northern alliance.
So how do I know it’s going to work? Well, because we’re amping up to the midseason finale of a show’s final season, and I’ve seen enough Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad to know that the last midseason finale often ends on a crushing low point that clears the decks for the final sprint to the finish. And because this is Game of Thrones, and by this point we all ought to know better than to bet against a creepy old man horning in on a teenager, particularly when doing so will enrage viewers and complicate the plot.
Riley McAtee: How can you argue she isn’t the brightest spot in the series at this point? The daggers she stared at Ramsay were more satisfying than watching him be eaten by his own dogs. No one can put another character in their place with more force and wit than this tween.
Fingers crossed she runs into Olenna Tyrell at some point.
Zach Kram: If the last two seasons of Thrones have seen a slight dip in quality — our episode rankings suggest as much — its villain problem is a chief culprit. Season 4 killed off two of the show’s preeminent baddies, and Ramsay’s screen presence bred discomfort and revulsion, rather than Joffrey’s love-to-hate-him smarm and Tywin’s harsh but begrudgingly impressive maneuvering. Now Ramsay’s gone, too, so who’s left to root against? Euron hasn’t done much, Littlefinger’s schtick is less interesting outside King’s Landing, and the Night King is, to this point, a bland tabula rasa of a villain, as we know little about his background, ambitions, and personality.
That leaves Cersei, who made an explosive reentrance to the field of villainy in Season 6’s finale. With her three children now all gold-shrouded, Cersei’s motivation is unclear, but she sure looks imposing on the Iron Throne. Thrones became a phenomenon more for its internecine human struggles than its magic, and the show still needs a manipulative, power-hungry, three-dimensional character to oppose Dany’s westward campaign. Let’s enjoy one final occasion of human-on-human violence before the humans-versus-Walkers battle engulfs the plot.
Danny Kelly: Remember back in Season 2 when Littlefinger oh-so-very-smugly tried to tell Cersei that “knowledge is power”? Naturally, Cersei clapped back — she had her kingsguard men seize Littlefinger, ordered them to cut his throat, then stopped them at the last second — adding an epic, mic-drop of a retort: “no, power is power.” And look, she was kind of right — a higher station, better positioning, strength in numbers, superior weaponry, or a number of other military or political advantages can often be enough to defeat enemies and/or win wars. But while Cersei came out of that exchange as the clear winner, Littlefinger definitely had a point, too. In Season 7’s case, that sweet, sweet knowledge is what could stem the tide of the looming White Walker invasion.
Pretty soon, all the various power players squabbling for control of the Seven Kingdoms are going to have to put aside their differences and confront the real threat. But, uh, here’s the problem … no one really knows how to beat this “indefatigable zombie army,” as Ringer Maester Jason Concepcion put it on Binge Mode. A few Westerosi are aware that Valyrian steel and dragonglass can kill the White Walkers, but it’s been so long since anyone’s had to deal with this supernatural threat that any other possible strategy to defeat them is buried somewhere within the pages of ancient texts. Insert Samwell Tarly and his lust for books — and what I hope will be the only montage that could be more badass than that of Ben Affleck doing accounting in The Accountant: A montage of Sam reading at the Citadel library. All kinds of reading: big books. Small books. Tattered books. Blowing dust off of covers. Turning pages. Stacking books he’s finished. This awesome montage will end with Sam looking up from his book in bewildered excitement, having just uncovered the way to save every living thing in Westeros.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Sam also stole one of the very few Valyrian steel swords in the Seven Kingdoms from the Tarly family mantel. Just watch: Sam’s going to use Heartsbane to kill the Night King.
Kate Knibbs: I define “winning” the Game of Thrones a little differently than most of the power-grabby characters on the show seem to. Actually ascending to the treacherous height of power in Westeros isn’t a win as much as it is a premature loss, since whoever sits on the Iron Throne is in perpetual danger, completely stressed out, and in possession of the least-comfortable-looking chair in the whole kingdom. Hard hard hard pass.
The best way to “win” the Game of Thrones in my eyes is to not die, to be warm, and to find love, and the leading contender in all three of these categories is my girl, the future lady maester who came outta Craster, the mother not of dragons or kings but of a normal-ass baby, and the only woman with a lick of common sense in choosing a romantic partner: GILLY. While everyone else is duking it out for political power, Gilly will thrive as a mom, a scholar, and a lover, all from the temperate climes of Oldtown. I can’t wait.
Ben Lindbergh: Full disclosure: By the time I saw the “Thrones MVP” thread, most of the cool characters had been claimed. Rather than resign myself to Sansa, I’m going with an unconventional MVP pick that could receive some serious screen time this season: greyscale, the horrific, usually incurable contagion that’s slowly turning Jorah Mormont into one of the Stone Men who touched him two seasons ago.
Mormont went missing from the series in the second half of Season 6 after Dany sent him away to find a fix for the disease. But just when it looked like he might be the latest of the saga’s loose ends — send us a raven sometime, Hot Pie — his absence is over, with actor Iain Glen credited for an appearance in the Season 7 premiere, “Dragonstone.” According to Glen, Jorah’s arc this season “is all about whether he will survive this horrendous sickness he’s contracted,” which indicates that the upcoming episodes could be the biggest break for a skin condition in an HBO show since psoriasis starred in The Night Of.
In the worst case, greyscale could be the new flaying of Theon, causing scenes so hard to watch that they make every other plot line look better by comparison. In the best case, Jorah’s affliction could be a key to the endgame, as Dany said she’d need Jorah by her side when she took the Seven Kingdoms. Because it gets so many mentions in the series, greyscale has inspired many a fan theory, not only about who or what will cure Jorah — hey, something worked for Shireen — but about whether the illness could itself serve as a weapon against the White Walkers, since stone skin might make one immune to their touch. So bring me the best tinctures and creams in the Westerosi skin-care aisle: I’m all in on Jorah’s search for Neosporin, if only because it’s been way too long since we saw the series’ most hard-luck, lovelorn exile smile.
Alison Herman: Even if our girl doesn’t make MVP, Arya is, at the very least, a lock for Most Improved. Since Season 5, the Stark clan’s resident tomboy has been marooned at the House of Black and White, separated from the rest of the cast by either an ocean or a continent and wasting time in a training program she was obviously not going to complete. Becoming a Faceless Man would mean giving up the identity, personality, and motivation (revenge, revenge, and more revenge) that made Arya so fun to watch, a move the show would never make and Arya herself wasn’t prepared to. Delaying that realization served little purpose beyond hitting pause on a plot progressing just a tad too quickly — and significantly upping Arya’s capacity to strike some names off that kill list.
Speaking of! The last we saw Arya, she was using the Faceless Men’s arsenal of disguises to do everything they told her not to do: settle a personal score in highly sadistic fashion, this one against the eminently deserving Walder Frey. That’s right: Arya’s back in Westeros, baby, and this time she’s armed with considerably more than a kiddie sword. Watch your back, Cersei.
Andrew Gruttadaro: For six seasons, Jaime Lannister has been Game of Thrones’ most charismatic, watchable character — whether he’s murdering a Karstark with his bare hands; showing a humbled, more complicated side in the baths of Harrenhal; being one half of the best knight duo in Westeros; or threatening to launch a baby from a catapult. He’s a character I can’t help but root for, a man who desperately aspires to be good and dignified but is doomed by a fatal, incestuous tie to his sister, Cersei.
Those two poles of Jaime Lannister will go to war once and for all in this seventh season of Thrones. With King’s Landing in ashes, Tommen’s body cold, and Cersei more unrelenting than ever, Jaime will be forced to reconsider what he once told her: that she is the only thing that matters to him. As Cersei — in her all-black, yes-I-blew-everyone-up-deal-with-it gown — took the Iron Throne as queen at the end of the sixth season, you could see Jaime in the periphery, questioning. Does the utter defeat of their enemies mean anything if they’re alone, soulless and bankrupt, when the smoke clears?
This plays out one of two ways for Jaime this season. One, after much tortured contemplation, he lets his honorable traits outweigh his negative ones and kills Cersei before joining up in the impending fight against the White Walkers. (Note: It wouldn’t be the first time Jaime slayed a sitting monarch who was hellbent on the destruction of others.) Or two, he sticks to his word and ties his fate to his sister, and dies like so many others on this show have: by refusing to adapt his code to changing circumstances. It’s going to take all season to find out which way Jaime goes — but his story is one of the main reasons to watch this year.
The Night King
Shaker Samman: Save for a few key scenes, the majority of the first six seasons of Game of Thrones has been a masterclass in misdirection. For years, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s adaptation left us obsessed with petty squabbles in the Riverlands, or war games in the North. As fans debated the chances of disaster in King’s Landing, the true evil gained power, far outside the reach of feudalism and the drama it begets.
When the Night King stood on the edge of the dock at Hardhome, stared down his possible kin, Jon Snow, and resurrected thousands of wights with a gesture, it symbolized a shift in the series. No one south of the Wall — not the Lannisters, the Boltons, the Freys, or any other house — were the true enemy. No, that evil lay north, with legions of bone and swords of ice. The true war is here. Winter has come.
I’m an optimist. I believe that when the war ends, and the fighting stops, the living will have vanquished the army of the damned. But to set up the final season we deserve, Thrones has to finish with our heroes down and defeated, without hope as the brewing threat of a Walker sweep is realized. The Night King wins this season because he’s the ultimate evil, and if this show has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not afraid to put our favorite characters in a bind.
Danny Heifetz: As another classic HBO drama warned us, “no one wins.” Survival in Westeros often depends on how powerful your friends are, and Melisandre has the best ally you could ask for during the apocalypse: God. The White Walkers are descending south for an icy genocide, and 90 percent of the characters are still fighting over a chair, so I feel pretty good about rolling the dice with the woman who just resurrected the messiah.
Admittedly, Melisandre is one of the least likable characters on the show. But now she’s tasted her humble pie (not the kind Arya makes) and is ready for deity-fueled redemption.
Yes, Melisandre burned Shireen alive at the stake. Watching a small girl become engulfed in flames is possibly the single most horrible thing I’ve ever seen on television. And yet how many characters who were awful in the first few seasons of Thrones do you root for now? Try going back in time and explaining to the 2011 version of yourself that we should really consider things from Jaime Lannister’s perspective after he pushed Bran out a window. If the Lord of Light forgave Melisandre, so can I. Winter is here, and I want the fire priestess on my side in the wars to come.
Katie Baker: With her face-framing layers and her stately acerbicness, Olenna Tyrell was already part Miranda Priestly and part Maggie Smith — and that was during the relative good times for the Tyrell fam. Now, with her son Mace, her grandson Loras, and her whip-smart, chip-off-the-old-broad granddaughter Margaery all murdered by Cersei, effectively ending the storied Tyrell bloodline, Olenna has a new motivation that goes far beyond her usual power-struggle schemes: pure, unfiltered revenge, a dish best served alongside lemon cakes. Red wine, meet Redwyne.
As a young thing — and oh, what a young thing she must have been! — Olenna was meant to wind up marrying “some Targaryen or other” but couldn’t bear the thought of spending her life alongside a man with such “ludicrous silver hair.” (She seduced her sister’s suitor, a Tyrell, instead, in a move that would make even House Kushner proud.) Now, though, she will be allying with a Targaryen in an ostensibly more satisfying way.
After showing up in Dorne last season and sonning the late Oberyn Martell’s daughters one by one by one, Olenna was pitched succinctly by Ellaria and Varys on a clear path to justice: via “fire and blood.” By joining an alliance that includes the Unsullied, Theon and Yara, the imp, the Dothraki, the Dornish, the dragons, and their mother-of, Olenna is giving herself the very best chance to watch Cersei suffer. And hey, Daenerys really could use a grandmotherly figure in her life, particularly one so well versed in Westerosi wheeling and dealing.
May Olenna somehow ride a dragon at some point! May Olenna and Tyrion buddy-comedy it up! And may the Queen of Thorns win the damn Game of Thrones. Long may she reign.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.