Bring on Beyoncé and Bruno Mars singing “The Rains of Castamere”: This year’s run of Game of Thrones is halfway over, and it’s time to sit back and take stock of Season Six’s stats. As of last night’s blistering climax, over a dozen major players have died; some of the biggest bastards in the Seven Kingdoms have seized power; and the White Walkers are advancing ever closer on the Wall and all that lies beyond. But it’s not all bad news for the home team: Jon Snow lives, Daenerys Targaryen rides, and Bran Stark’s third eye is wide open.
So where are we headed in the second half? With five episodes down and five to go, we’ve got the scorecard you need to keep track of every major character’s status: living and dead, prisoner and free agent. And we’ve got analysis to help sort out not just what happened, but why, and what it means for the future of the story. Crack open a cold bottle of premium Westeros Reserve mead and read on.
The first bodies fell before the season even began, and by the end credits of the first episode, we received confirmation of a pair of high-profile killings. For starters: Stannis Baratheon was indeed executed by Brienne of Tarth for the magical murder of his brother Renly way back in Season Two. And yes, his ersatz niece Myrcella was fatally poisoned by a vengeful Ellaria Sand as payback for the death of her husband Oberyn — and his sister and her children, back during Robert’s Rebellion — by Lannister enforcer/resident Walking Dead extra Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.
From there, the carnage continued. In the North, Ramsay Bolton consolidated his hold on Winterfell and his leadership aspirations by stabbing his father Roose and feeding his stepmother Walda Frey and her newborn son to his hounds. He added the wildling woman Osha to the pile when she attempted to seduce and assassinate him in order to free his new prisoner, young Rickon Stark.
Similar coups d’état went down across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Unsated by one dead Lannister daughter, Ellaria and her commando offspring (known as the Sand Snakes) took out Prince Doran Martell, his bodyguard, and his son/heir Prince Trystane Martell to seize control of Dorne. In the Iron Islands, Balon Greyjoy — the last original monarch standing from the War of the Five Kings — met his demise at the hands of his crazy-talking pirate brother Euron, who tossed him off a bridge. (It’s all part of a power play to claim control of the seafaring Ironborn and their formidable fleet.) And far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen not only escaped captivity by the Dothraki, but became their new leader by burning Khal Moro and all his fellow horselords alive around her.
Up at Castle Black, the resurrected Jon Snow cemented his victory with a hanging, swinging the sword that hoisted his rival Ser Alliser Thorne, his young steward Olly, and the other mutineers to their deaths. And beyond the Wall, the Night King made his move, breaching the safety of Bran Stark’s cave hideaway to slaughter the psychic Three-Eyed Raven, the spokeswoman for elf-like Children of the Forest known as Leaf, and — saddest of all — his simple-minded assistant Hodor, who died to “hold the door” he’d been telepathically fixated on for decades in order to effect Stark’s escape.
Kit Harrington as the recently returned (and ressurected) Jon Snow. Helen Sloan/HBO
Jon Snow, that’s who. Thanks to the supernatural intervention of Melisandre, the Lord Commander lives again. However, he’s taking the legalistic loophole approach to his Night’s Watch vows, noting that his death frees him from his obligation to his brothers in black. He’s also making plans to reclaim his ancestral home from Ramsay and his fellow usurpers with the help of a motley crew of warriors: his friends on the Watch; his trusty direwolf Ghost; new Lord Commander “Dolorous” Edd Tollett; the aforementioned Red Priestess and her one-time rival Ser Davos Seaworth; Tormund Giantsbane and his fellow wildlings; and Brienne and her new liege, Snow’s half-sister Sansa Stark — who, along with Theon Greyjoy, survived the precarious plunge from the walls of Winterfell. A Wall attacked by White Walkers from the north and Boltons from the south cannot stand; only by rallying their father’s bannermen and taking back his home can Lord Snow and Lady Stark ensure a successful defense against the great war to come.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
There’s new blood ruling many of the regions in this world of ice and fire, and most of it is bad. We’ve already noted the vicious new rulers of Dorne, the North, and the Iron Islands. You can add Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish to that number, as the schemer is using his hold on the emotionally unstable young Lord of the Vale Robyn Arryn to force a previously untouched army to follow his lead. But there are decent sorts among the newly minted leaders: The Stark siblings’ hardcore uncle, Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully, has retaken the family fortress Riverrun (if Littlefinger’s report is to believed), while the Night’s Watch is now helmed by Lord Commander “Dolorous” Edd Tollett, however out of his depth he may be.
The capital of the Seven Kingdoms is a trickier thing to get a handle on. Right now it’s more or less evenly balanced between the fanatical Faith Militant, who run the town under the command of the High Sparrow, and the remnants of House Lannister. The lions are nominally headed by King Tommen Baratheon, but it’s Cersei who’s still calling the shots. Despite her imprisonment, humiliation, and upcoming trial, the Queen Mother has gathered a group of loyalists that includes her reunited brother Jaime, her mad-scientist spymaster Qyburn, and the zombiefied Mountain. Now she’s hoping the affection that her son and his grandmother-in-law Olenna Tyrell share for Queen Margaery will spur them to join forces with her people, spring the imprisoned royals, and put an end to the religious zealotry.
Over in Essos, the situation is marginally more stable. Abandoned by its Dragon Queen, Meereen is governed by a ruling council of Tyrion Lannister, his intelligence director Varys, the Unsullied commander Grey Worm, and ex-slave translator Missandei. Acting largely on his own discretion, the Imp has made deals with several neighboring slave masters to stop their support of the Sons of the Harpy insurgency, and with the High Priestess of the Lord of Light to convert her religion into the First Church of Daenerys. Either of these could turn out to be devil’s bargains — and they’ve still got the arrival and alliance offer of Euron Greyjoy and his fleet full of reavers to look forward to. If and when Daenerys returns with the entire Dothraki people in tow, things could get complicated. Very complicated.
WHO’S LOCKED UP, ON THE MOVE, AND ON THE RUN
A whole lot of high-value hostages are currently in chains all around the world. In King’s Landing, no less than the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Margaery Tyrell, and her beloved brother Loras linger under the High Sparrow’s lock and key. Rickon Stark is an involuntary guest at Ramsay Bolton’s house of hospitality in Winterfell. And though Tyrion unlocked their chains, two of Dany’s dragons are still trapped beneath the Great Pyramid of Meereen. (The whereabouts of the third dragon are currently unknown.)
But ideology can exert just as strong a hold as prison bars. In Braavos, Arya Stark continues studying to become “no one” under the cruel tutelage of the Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar; she’ll soon choose between making her first kill or sticking to the Stark name. And in addition to the Tyrells, the High Sparrow also has a hold on Lancel Lannister — Cersei’s cousin and ex-lover, and a key ingredient in rallying the Hand to the cause of overthrowing the fanatic’s regime.
Other characters, by contrast, are on the go. Samwell Tarly is sailing south to become a maester at the Citadel; he’s planning to drop his wildling girlfriend Gilly and “their” son off with his dictatorial father Lord Randyll. While Jon and Sansa attempt to raise a Northern army against House Bolton, Brienne and her sidekick Podrick are headed south to broker an alliance with the Blackfish and House Tully on Lady Stark’s behalf. And after a tearful goodbye from his Khaleesi, Jorah is off to seek a cure for his greyscale infection, or die trying.
While those folks pursue their quests, several key players in the game are being pursued themselves. When her attempt to claim the Salt Throne is outvoted in favor of her uncle Euron, Yara Greyjoy and her repentant brother Theon take half the fleet and flee, one step ahead of their mad relative’s murderous intentions. Bran Stark and his sole surviving companion Meera Reed are in even more dire straits, hightailing it through the snow with the White Walkers and their zombies hot on their heels following the destruction of the Three-Eyed Raven’s underground hideout.
WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE
In a word: Magic. Game of Thrones may have made its initial impression as an epic fantasy without much fantasy, saving its dragon hatchlings for the final shot of its first season. But it’s always been about both the public power plays and the game behind the Game — specifically, that all this scheming and warring is a tragic distraction from humanity’s real rip-it-up-and-start-again foe, the White Walkers. Jon Snow’s revival, Daenerys’s fireproof triumph, and Bran Stark’s increasingly powerful visions are a surefire sign that the endgame is approaching, and that certain characters may have a literally messianic role to play.
So it’s no coincidence at all that if and when the Walkers breach the Wall or Daenerys takes wing to Westeros, they’ll find conditions incredibly grim. Bloodthirsty killers control three of the Seven Kingdoms. Self-interested sociopath Littlefinger has command of the continent’s single largest intact army. The Riverlands appear poised for battle between the Red Wedding planners in House Frey and the Blackfish, saved from the massacre by a fortuitously timed bathroom break. King’s Landing is on the brink of full-scale civil war in the streets. Winter is coming, but good old-fashioned human cruelty and greed has set the thermostat close to zero already.
Yet the other big theme of the season so far has been reunions. Brienne and Sansa, Theon and Yara, Dany and Jorah, and especially Sansa and Jon: Each of these long awaited meetings sends the message to the audience that sometimes hope is rewarded, and good things happen to people who deserve them. Nowhere is this clearer than in its supernatural form: Bran’s visions may well get him the informational ammo he needs, particularly concerning Jon Snow’s true parents, to destroy the White Walkers for good. In other words, armies and dragons be damned: Human connections are humanity’s flame against the coming cold. Ice, meet fire.