After building up the existential terror of the White Walkers for the better part of seven seasons, Game of Thrones has made the ambitious and somewhat maddening pivot back to geopolitical squabbling. Arya Stark, who used her years of training to kill the Night King, has returned Thrones to its status quo. Whether the army of the dead has changed the way our protagonists view Westeros, humanity, and themselves remains to be seen, but before Daenerys Targaryen can even consider her feelings about her mopey nephew-lover Jon Snow’s having a stronger claim to the Iron Throne, Cersei Lannister must be removed from it. She is, as Dany puts it in the teaser for the fourth episode, the one who must be vanquished in “the Last War.”
But more specifically, it’s the Golden Company and pirate memelord Euron Greyjoy’s armada that stand on the other side of the Last War. (The most Cersei can do in a purely physical sense is throw a chalice of Dornish red in your direction.) We don’t know what remains of Dany and Jon’s combined forces—it seems that the Dothraki have more or less been vaporized, while Grey Worm may have even more time to consider his Naath retirement plans without a proper Unsullied army to lead. At this point, it’s safe to surmise that the Golden Company have the upper hand heading into the back half of the final season, at least from a numbers standpoint. And while the thrilling and awfully named Loot Train Attack sequence from last season proved how much a dragon can shift the tides of a battle, both Drogon and Rhaegal have injuries from the Battle of Winterfell that could leave them vulnerable—to say nothing of the fact that Dany and Jon still don’t know how to employ them properly.
While Cersei (and frankly, the viewing public) has been deprived of the sellsword army’s notorious war elephants on their voyage to King’s Landing, the Golden Company—the finest army Essos can claim—is 20,000 strong. In George R.R. Martin’s novels, the mere mention of the Golden Company’s hire can end conflicts before they even begin. And while sellswords generally have a surly reputation for questionable allegiances when opportunity—read: more gold—presents itself, the Golden Company have famously never broken a contract. They are an apparent antithesis to the “no honor among thieves” mantra, though as our resident maester Jason Concepcion noted last month, the repeated mention of their surprising dependability feels like the show setting up Chekhov’s contract.
And yet, with just three episodes remaining, we’ve heard more about the Golden Company than we’ve actually seen them. The only speaking character we’ve met is Harry Strickland—a portly man in the books transformed into a chiseled normcore general, played by Marc Rissmann—and his involvement in the season premiere boiled down to breaking the bad news to Cersei about their lack of war elephants. (Elephants don’t travel well on long sea voyages, which, you have to give it to them, is a pretty solid excuse.) Is there more to the Golden Company than meets the eye—and is there even any time to flesh out Harry and his men outside of their apparent fighting prowess?
There is some precedence in the books for the Golden Company potentially having ulterior motives in Westeros. Some of the sellswords are descendants of fighters in the Blackfyre Rebellion—basically, a Targaryen civil war—who have the intention to one day return to Westeros and claim the land that was stripped from their forebears. Cersei’s sending them to Westeros to fight on her behalf presents the Golden Company with that opportunity. Will they have motivations beyond fulfilling their contract, and does the show version of the Golden Company even have the same Blackfyre lineage among them? Considering the Golden Company of the books are part of a still-TBD plot to place a character called Young Griff—who claims to be Aegon Targaryen, thought to be murdered by the Mountain along with Elia Martell in King’s Landing—it does seem like a last-minute Blackfyre-related audible would be too byzantine for late-era Thrones. This is the time when the show is shedding its story lines, not adding convoluted subplots for barely fleshed-out characters.
But the sheer number of Golden Company fighters compared with Jon and Dany’s severely weakened troops—not to mention that both dragons got pretty beat up fighting the White Walkers—feels like a seemingly insurmountable obstacle just screaming for a twist. Maybe Euron is back-channeling some kind of deal with the Golden Company and/or the Iron Bank, in an effort to support his own aspirations for the throne. (In the episode preview, Cersei seems to have grown curiously fond of Euron’s fuccboi antics, which is a disaster waiting to happen, regardless of which party does the betraying.) Perhaps the Golden Company will decide they want the Iron Throne for themselves because, as Cersei once so eloquently said, “power is power.” Or they could very well be a legion of 20,000 MacGuffins, characters intended to do nothing beyond providing Cersei the numbers in the climactic battle that precedes the end of the series. If the Dorne story line in Season 5 proved anything, it’s that Thrones doesn’t always have the best grip on what to do with characters who are only tangentially related to the plot.
In any case, it would behoove Thrones to show us what the Golden Company is like in battle. They’re a big, cool army; in the words of that dude from Godzilla, “Let them fight.” The series loves to subvert audience expectations—sometimes to a questionable degree, as Sunday night’s Battle of Winterfell demonstrated—but all signs point to the Golden Company’s utility in the field being a primary source of tension moving forward. After all, why cast Rissmann—a dude most recently seen playing a warrior on BBC’s The Last Kingdom, with a whiff of Khal Drogo to him—if they were just going to have him deliver logistical updates from dimly lit throne rooms?
The nature of the Golden Company’s purpose in the series might still be up for debate, but as Thrones reaches its rapidly approaching endgame—it’s still so weird to think we have only three weeks left with the biggest show on the planet—they have been on the sideline long enough. War elephants or not, they are the premiere military force remaining in Westeros. It’s about time we find out if they live up to their sterling reputation.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.