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So, Who Is the Prince(ss) Who Was Promised?

‘Game of Thrones’ appeared to turn its back on the Azor Ahai prophecy in Sunday’s episode. Does it matter for the end of the series?

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Spoiler alert

On Sunday, amid a murky, long night of compressed cable signals and miscalibrated screens, Arya Stark killed the Night King. Her successful stealth attack, which neither the Night King nor many spectators (irrespective of screen darkness) saw coming, was great news for the North, terrible news for nihilists and, frankly, confusing news for Game of Thrones theorizers.

With one dagger to the gut, Arya shattered not only the Night King, but widespread expectations for the rest of the season, creating new questions about both the arc of the final three episodes and where we stand with one of the series’ most prominent unresolved threads: the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. Does rescuing humanity from the White Walker menace make the younger Stark sister the Prince(ss) by default? If Arya isn’t the prophesied savior, who is, and what would it mean to be a prophesied savior in a world that suddenly seems devoid of an existential threat? Are any surviving characters capable of interpreting the will of the Lord of Light? And if the plot point that was promised is still unaddressed when our watch is ended, should show watchers shrug or riot about the wasted speculation?

Let’s quickly recap what we know about the Prince Who Was Promised, a.k.a. Azor Ahai, with the caveat that it’s understandably difficult to discern whatever truth underpins a thousands-year-old prophecy whose origins are lost to time. As Melisandre lays it out in A Storm of Swords, “When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt.” Maester Aemon and others cite the same supposed omens of the Prince’s arrival: smoke, salt, and bleeding star.

Melisandre believes the Prince is the reincarnation of legendary hero Azor Ahai, who forged and wielded a burning sword dubbed Lightbringer and used it to drive away a darkness that fell upon the world. (In the books, Azor Ahai may be another name for the “last hero,” an even more hazily defined figure of Westerosi legend who reputedly defeated the White Walkers and ended the Long Night.) The Prince is supposedly destined to stand against “the Other” and deliver the world from “the cold breath of darkness,” winning “a war for life itself.” Sounds like someone we know!

Most of those elements also appear in the show, albeit with fewer references and a little less detail. Put it all together, and the prophecy seems as clear as a cryptic prophecy can: The Prince Who Was Promised is going to kill the Night King. If the Prince is fated to kill the Night King, and Arya did kill the Night King, then the transitive property tells us Arya is the Prince—or, rather, the Princess. As Maester Aemon observes in the books and Missandei mentions on the show, the High Valyrian word typically translated as prince isn’t gender-specific, which means that either prince or princess applies.

The prophecy fits so far. Except, that is, for the small matters of the smoke, salt, and bleeding star. For all we know, the next episode will start with Bran confiding that he took a trip back in time and conveniently noticed that Arya was born amid all of those things, but barring that, Arya is far from a perfect fit. In 2017, we considered several contenders for the title of Prince Who Was Promised, up to and including Hot Pie, and Arya wasn’t one of them (not that Redditors didn’t try). This spring, when we exhaustively considered the qualifications of the leading candidates in two separate pieces, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Jon or Dany.

So, it seemed, did Melisandre, who grew out of her “Stannis is Azor Ahai” phase when Stannis was (presumably) beheaded by Brienne after an earlier Battle of Winterfell. “Stannis was not the Prince Who Was Promised, but someone has to be,” Melisandre says in the Season 6 episode “Oathbreaker,” right after reviving Jon. Someone, but not necessarily Jon. And in the Season 7 episode “Stormborn,” when Dany asks Melisandre whether she thinks the prophecy applies to her, Melisandre says, “I believe you have a role to play. As does another: the King in the North, Jon Snow.” Again, Melisandre stops short of pronouncing that either of them is the subject of the prophecy. Maybe she’s just exercising some caution, having been burned (so to speak) by her big miss on Stannis, but maybe she’s already identified Arya as the real fateful figure, as the showrunners had.

By that point, Mel has become a matchmaker. “I’ve done my part,” she says after shipping the two Targaryens. “I’ve brought ice and fire together.” Her goal, perhaps, is merely to create the conditions that lead to the Night King’s demise: Arya in the godswood with the dagger. It was Arya who draws Melisandre’s lingering gaze early in “The Long Night,” and it was Arya who received the pep talk from Mel that hearkened back to another prophecy by the Red Woman in Season 3, when she told Arya about “brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes—eyes you’ll shut forever” and announced that they would meet again. By Season 7, it seems, Mel knew what was up. She also knew exactly when to wander back to Winterfell. And she knew where and when she would die: in Westeros, at the dawn promised by the prophecy.

And the salt, the smoke, and the bleeding star? Well, whatever. “Prophecy is like a half-trained mule,” Tyrion says in A Dance With Dragons. “It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.” Some prophecies pan out; others are misheard, mistranslated, or misinterpreted. As another red priestess, Kinvara, says in Season 6, “Everything is the Lord’s will, but men and women make mistakes.” Kinvara may have made one when she declared Dany the prophesied figure. And Mel’s certainty about Stannis—and Shireen—is another illusion, much like her seemingly smooth skin.

On the surface, that sounds unsatisfying, but it could have been OK. If Melisandre had alluded to the prophecy before she let herself succumb to natural causes, the message might have even been inspiring. Even a “My bad about the smoke and salt, but hey, R’hllor works in mysterious ways” would have done the trick. That resolution still would have been divisive, but for some fans, at least, it would have been welcome in the way that Rian Johnson’s reworking of Rey was in The Last Jedi. Not every hero has to have Skywalker blood, and not every Prince(ss) has to be heralded by long-expected signs. Sometimes the savior turns out to be a No One. Forget about the salt, smoke, and bleeding star; omens matter, but actions and choices matter more.

“We hoped to kind of avoid the expected,” David Benioff explained in the episode’s behind-the-scenes supplement. “Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one who’s been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right to us for this moment.” Having Jon yell at an undead dragon instead may have been a bit too far in the other direction, but in principle, that impulse is sound. We want to be surprised by what happens on Thrones, and we want the story to stray from fantasy tropes like perfect prophecies and idealized leaders. After the years it took to get here, we just don’t want to feel that a promise was broken, or that the show is shying away from an important part of its nature.

It’s been painfully apparent for some time that the HBO adaptation doesn’t delight in the supernatural elements of George R.R. Martin’s creation to the degree that his books do. On the one hand, “The Long Night” reminded us that magic and supernatural forces still exert a powerful influence on the fate of this fictional world. The Night King performed his trademark trick of raising the dead, and the Lord of Light—via Melisandre and the oft-resurrected Beric, respectively—ignited the arakhs, lit the trenches, and bought Arya enough time to survive her close call with the wights.

On the other hand, the episode also removed much of that magic, abruptly wiping away the White Walkers, dispensing with Melisandre and Beric, and appearing to set course for a more mundane showdown between beings that can be killed by conventional weapons. Without Thoros, Mel, and Beric on the board, we’re running really low on card-carrying members of the Red God’s congregation. It isn’t likely that Kinvara’s coming back, so barring a Bran vision or Sam stumbling across another crucial piece of parchment, the adaptation’s treatment of the Prince Who Was Promised may have ended with one decisive stab.

For now—and, perhaps, forever—the show has left viewers to retcon and reconcile as they see fit. Maybe Arya’s dagger was formed from a fragment of the last hero’s blade. Maybe renouncing her name and her face was the equivalent of Azor Ahai sacrificing Nissa Nissa. Or maybe fulfilling the prophecy was just a team effort. The Lord of Light resurrected Jon so he could lure Dany north and brought back Beric to protect Arya. A vision in the fire convinced the Hound to turn north and become Beric’s backup. Arya returned to Winterfell because Jon was still alive. Dany … well, she contributed dragons, one of which enabled the Night King to get through the Wall. And Melisandre’s faith ultimately made much of that happen, with a few unfortunate detours.

Ultimately, the messy way in which one of the series’ central prophecies wrapped up will matter more to book readers than those who’ve only seen the show. In the really long run, that might not be a bad thing. Although Martin has hinted that the ending he has planned for A Song of Ice and Fire won’t differ dramatically from the show’s, there’s time for that to change, and he’s sure to give greater attention to intricate lore that’s been long in the making—assuming, of course, that he does complete the books. In December, Martin vowed to finish the series. If the Pages That Were Promised materialize, the prince part will probably take care of itself.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.