Now is the winter of our (shareable) content. Yes, it's midsummer for most of us, but for Game of Thrones's stalwart viewership—who, if they were a country, would be the 57th most populous worldwide—July 16 means the end of a long thaw, as the seventh season finally premieres on HBO and non-fans watch bemused as their social media is engulfed in a dragon-shaped cloud of hype and spoiler alerts.
At this point, Game of Thrones reigns unquestioned as the myth cycle du jour, a contemporary Iliad or Gilgamesh that partakes of as much pitch-black political consciousness as it does sordid European history. This penultimate season also serves up the answer to the single greatest logical constraint of our times: How do you finish off an epic story when most of its characters are dead?
With a cast that currently consists of just five surviving stars—along with supporting characters portrayed by actors who were largely children when the series began in 2011—one answer is to make the season seven episodes long, with the eighth and final season projected to last only six, possibly-feature-length installments. It also helps that all parties are converging on a few central locations, with most of the principal characters presumably sharing the same scenes for the first time (which is a weird thing to think about—imagine if it took seven seasons of Cheers for Diane to cross the Narrow Sea and meet Sam).
But we're not out of the weirwood yet. Before we close the book on Westeros—and while George R.R. Martin is still in the midst of actually writing the books the show is based on—we have to wrest power from the newly crowned Cersei Lannister, cure Jorah Mormont of the greyscale he picked up in Valyria, and unite Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen against the undead menace North of the Wall. Will any of this be resolved in the coming season? Probably not! But after six seasons of moving pieces around the board, something's got to come unglued and this cheat sheet with predictions will help keep you from mixing up your Tyrells with your Martells as we prepare for what is sure to be the most blood-splattered seven hours in television history. This is the Great VICE Game of Thrones Preview 2017 and, as always, valar morghulis, bitches.
The short version: After Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) rose from the dead, Ned Stark's brood have re-established their ancestral home of Winterfell and are united against threats from above (ice-zombies) and below (the Lannisters).
Season Six: As Flannery O'Connor observed in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," resurrection is dirty pool. But Season Six came, brought Jon Snow back to life, and now we all have to deal with it. For a while, it was easy to forget that the Starks were the stars of the show, given the indignities its various sons and daughters have had to suffer throughout.
But now, with bastard Jon Snow all but legitimized following a revelation (to the audience, anyway) of his highborn parentage, the Starks are back in control of Winterfell and, by extension, the North. Jon has the backing of the Night's Watch and the Wildlings, his sister Sansa has taken canine revenge on her rapist, pretender Ramsey Bolton, and Bran—the youngest surviving Stark after Ramsey arrow'd little Rickon last season—has completed his Jedi training and journeyed back to Castle Black to be reunited with his siblings.
Unaccounted for is Arya Stark, last seen exacting vengeance on Walder Frey for the murder of her mother and brother by feeding him his own children and slitting his throat. Erstwhile allies Brienne of Tarth, Tormund Giantsbane, Davos Seaworth, and The Hound (also newly resuscitated) saw their outstanding former alliances more or less suspended last season, leaving them plot-handy.
What to Expect: It's a small miracle that there are enough Starks left for two subplots, but here we go: (1) Jon Snow is now king in the North, but is less concerned with ruling than with the White Walkers steadily marching toward Winterfell. He will likely sue for peace with Daenerys (who is, unbeknownst to both, his aunt) in an attempt to turn her attentions from the siege of King's Landing to the defense of the Wall, leaving the other Starks in charge of Winterfell. This will likely (2) put them into conflict with Petyr Baelish, who we've seen testing his control over Sansa, and generally lurking around like a sketchball, at the conclusion of last season.
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will likely hold audiences responsible for consistently underestimating Sansa, though Arya is a wild card—especially if, like me, you are of the unpopular opinion that our Arya died in episode 8 of season 6 and has since been replaced by her face-stealing rival the Waif.
The Short Version: Incestuous siblings Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have taken control of the Seven Kingdoms from their enemies, while their misfit brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is supervising Daenerys's challenge to their reign.
Season Six: Notwithstanding the suicide of their easily led son Tommen, the Lannisters had a great season. After being exiled from King's Landing by the High Sparrow's newly minted theocracy, Jaime scuttled a rebellion at Riverrun while Cersei decimated the Tyrells and Sparrows and crowned herself queen. Tyrion, meanwhile, became Hand to the Queen even though he nearly ran Daenerys's interests into the ground while she was a Dothraki captive by trying to negotiate with slavers. Never negotiate with slavers! (There were also jokes about honeycombs and jackasses.) Anyway, Tyrion looks to be leading the combined Tyrell/Martell/Dothraki/Unsullied armada, meaning a clash with his siblings is inevitable.
What to Expect: Time was Peter Dinklage's endlessly charismatic Tyrion Lannister ruled the show, but later seasons have seen him reduced to Daenerys's majordomo. Hard to say if that will change this season, but his return to the mainland means he'll get to verbally spar with brother Jaime again (it will also be interesting to see what has become of the polite respect the two have always held for each other in the aftermath of Tyrion's murder of their father).
But the real chemistry will be between Cersei and Jaime, as, with all three of their children dead, Jaime questions how far he can follow his sister into "mad queen" territory. Cersei is now so much more than a villain, and though her tactics are sure to be draconian—I'm anticipating an alliance with the equally sadistic Euron Greyjoy—it's hard not to revel in her rise to power just a little, given what we've seen her put through. Jaime, meanwhile, grudgingly admires Brienne, his opposite number in the enemy camp, and despises his allies the Freys. The Kingslayer's redemption arc has been the series' slowest burn, and my hope is that season seven will put his ethical crisis back on the radar after two seasons as Cersei's naysayer and hatchet man.
The Short Version: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) has re-established her house as the ruling power of Mereen and is leading an invasion—six seasons in the making—on Westeros.
Season Six: We killed time with a do-over of Daenerys's season one plot, as she won the admiration of the Dothraki horse lords and came (back) to power with promises of western conquest. Given the inevitability of her plot—she's the "Fire" in A Song of Ice and Fire—Daenerys's story probably looks rather clinical on paper, but Emilia Clarke has grown snugly into the role (even if the actress appears to be looking for the Hodor at present) and her interactions with supporting players like Iain Glen as lovelorn and terminal Jorah Mormont, Michiel Huisman as sellsword booty call Daario Naharis, or Nathalie Emmanuel as court translator Missandei have enjoyed a certain relaxed dramaturgy, being largely free of pressure to move things along.
We've also spent three seasons exploring the ins and outs of running a city, which was unusually comprehensive for action-heavy prestige television. But enough is enough; it's time to see Daenerys as the warlord she was always fated to become and for large-scale action scenes to dominate the skullduggery, pining, and realpolitik that have dominated the desert scenes for-fucking-ever. Fire and blood.
What to Expect: If Daenerys's attack on Westeros was immediately successful, it'd be a short show, right? So expect setbacks galore, as Daenerys learns that taking power from an existing, militarily viable empire is much more difficult than posing as the Dothraki messiah. The new season is very likely to introduce her to Jon Snow, but beyond that, it's hard to guess. We've previewed the Khaleesi's attack on King's Landing as the main event for the duration of the show, and now that it's here, it feels a little like the end of The Graduate.
I do dread the shipping of Jon Snow and Daenerys, which at this late stage, after both have loved and lost their true paramours, would be a lazy prospect; but, on the other hand, a power-coupling between ambitious equals would be a novel depiction of marriage as means with much more historical precedent than the "love at first sight" that I worry the show will try to sell us on. It would also be incest, and we know how well that worked out for Viserys, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Quentin Compson.
Houses Greyjoy, Tyrell, and Martell
The Short Version: The assorted leftovers of Westeros's other great houses have no choice but to form desperate alliances with the others, with Theon and Yara Greyjoy, Olenna Tyrell, and the Sand Snakes throwing in their lot with Daenerys.
Season Six: It was an eventful, if deleterious, season for the lords of Dorne and Highgarden: The ruling powers of the former were slaughtered in the premiere, and the ruling powers of the latter were exploded in the finale. This leaves us without a lot to work with. After the deaths of Loras, Margaery, and Mace "I'm doing my best" Tyrell, House Tyrell now means Lady Olenna (septuagenarian sex-bomb Diana Rigg in the show's best performance) and Samwell Tarly's folks (remember them?). The Martells are only slightly better off, consisting of the Sand Snakes (fandom's favorite bête-noires since Wesley Crusher and Jar Jar Binks) and Ellaria, whose style of rule has so far consisted of pointing at things with her chin. Convinced by Lord Varys to throw in with Daenerys, they are joined by Theon and Yara Greyjoy; Theon is on the fast-track to redemption, having swallowed his pride, saved Sansa Stark from Ramsey's clutches, and supported his sister's claim to the Salt Throne, while the always-formidable Yara was last seen making eyes at Daenerys. On their tail is their loathsome uncle Euron, who the show seems dead-set on making their final stage mini-boss. But he'll have to find some way of upping the show's ante on depravity if he's going to come close to filling the void left by the Boltons and Freys. Finally, remember House Baratheon? The once-ruling house of Westeros is now completely wasted, even if it was illegitimate, while the lone surviving son of Robert Baratheon, Gendry the merry blacksmith, hasn't been seen in three seasons.
What to expect: The death of all of these characters, basically. The Tyrells and Martells have nothing more to offer the story but a gruesome death that will build up Euron as the threat Weiss and Benioff want him to be. It would be hard to see Olenna and Yara go, however, so I hope they at least expire with a suitably withering monologue. Theon, however, may be the show's most complex and relatable character, a foiled opportunist and traitor forced into heroism only by accident and after exploring every other option (and being castrated and having his penis mailed to his father). What part Theon has left to play is unknown, but he and Jon Snow will doubtless have a lot to say to each other should their paths converge under Daenerys's chaperonage.
Further Predictions: Boiled down to its densest bouillon cube, Game of Thrones is a story about pragmatism versus ideals, the reality versus the desire—that is, it is about irony, by any other name. Lord Varys and Littlefinger have always been the living incarnations of these two currents, and Littlefinger, relying on people's worst instincts and gullibility, has always had the edge. But this season, you can expect the balance to shift back to the dream of something better, as the closest thing the show has to heroes—Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Lord Varys—endorse Daenerys as the fulfillment of their best chance for an equitable realm.
We can also expect some action North of the Wall, where the shortened season is sure to pay off in terms of an expanded budget for battles with the White Walkers (but what's the Hound doing there?). Both trailers suggested a season much more concerned with internecine warfare than character building (excepting only the always-talky Samwell and Gilly scenes), which is fine; by this penultimate season, the characters are built. But what's on the line in these epic, expensive, cast-of-thousands set pieces is no less human: whether the kind of goodness that Ned Stark embodied and instilled in his children can have any place in a world shaped by injustice, cruelty, and opportunism. The question may be a lot to ask of a television show about dragons, pirates, and zombie popsicles, but for an audience in 2017, suddenly, it's no game.