Disclaimer: This is a show theory and thus will primarily rely on evidence from the show. But since it’s regarding such a big important moment, I expect to see this play out in the books as well, albeit slightly differently.
“Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
– Richard III
Ever since the post Hold the Door visions Bran experiences upon becoming one with the Three Eyed Raven, there has been a prominent fan theory that King Aerys’ madness was somehow the result of a time traveling Bran. While I’m neither here to support nor detract from this theory, I think the truth about why the Mad King’s wildfire plot and the phrase “Burn Them All!” is repeated in Bran’s visions is neither to setup a time loop, nor as mere foreshadowing Cersei’s burning of the Sept. in the season 6 finale.
Rather, I believe Bran himself will be the one to burn down King’s Landing.
The city that ends in Ice and Fire
It’s been foreshadowed by the show as early as the season 2 finale in which Daenerys walks through a ruined, snowy Red Keep in the House of the Undying, it appears several times in Bran’s visions, and in the books it’s the entire thematic underpinning of King’s Landing as a location. It serves as the corrupt, dysfunctional cradle of Westerosi government, and as the volatile embodiment of the Targaryen dynasty. For a while now people have wondered whether it would be Cersei who will fulfill this vision as the Mad King reborn, or Daenerys who would burn down the city in some Dance of the Dragons accident. But as far as the show is concerned, the time for Cersei or Daenerys to burn the city is over. Cersei has already expressed a desire to flee the city if things get truly bad, and Daenerys’ invasion on the show has come to an end, and still the city stands. Meanwhile the context of the visions are very specifically setting up the existence of wildfire within the context of the threat posed by the Others.
Though the wildfire beneath King’s Landing is heavily emphasized in Bran’s season 6 vision overload, there is something huge that comes up when Bran touches a Weirwood in season 4’s ‘The Lion and the Rose’ (an episode written by George R.R. Martin himself.) In the S4Ep2 inside the episode, D&D specify that the visions which Bran sees upon touching the Weirwood Tree will all pertain to the destiny laid out for him specifically when he masters the abilities of the Three Eyed Raven. They state that of all of these visions, the most crucial shot is of shadow of a dragon flying over King’s Landing. This shot is seemingly from the perspective of a dragon, and Benioff poses the question; “is this shot from the past, or is it from the future?” He says we will have to find out, which in this context almost certainly means it pertains to Bran’s future.
And yes, literally ALL of the S4Ep2 visions pertain to Bran. Ned Stark is Bran’s father, him cleaning Ice is done before of a Heart Tree and represents the “pass the sentence” lesson from the first chapter/episode, Ned in the dungeons of KL is staring at a fire, the flock of ravens shows Bran’s eventual ability to learn to warg flocks of ravens, the wight and the undead mount represent the undead who eventually come for Bran in the cave, the Night King eventually sees/touches/attacks Bran and becomes his nemesis, Cersei yelling “he saw us” is a reference to the NK seeing Bran, and is also literally in reference to Bran, this is directly followed by Bran falling from the tower. The voice is the Three Eyed Raven telling Bran to go North, the northern landscape is what Bran traverses, the tree is where Bran eventually goes, the roots are what Bran uses to learn to see, and the Three Eyed Raven is what Bran becomes.
This only leaves the ruined King’s Landing and the dragon flying over King’s Landing.
So let’s put this together!
- All of the S4Ep2 visions specifically relate to Bran’s destiny upon mastering the powers of the Three Eyed Raven.
- The showrunners state that the most crucial of Bran’s visions is a dragon’s eye view over King’s Landing.
- Bran can skinchange things at long range.
- In Bran’s S6Ep6 visions, wildfire, along with the phrase “Burn them all!” is repeatedly accompanied by visions of the Others.
- According to Jojen and UnBenjen, Bran’s purpose has always been stopping the Night King and the army of the dead.
- Both Bran and Daenerys have seen visions of a snowy, ruined Red Keep.
- In the season 7 finale, Jon brings up the population of King’s Landing.
- In the season 7 finale, Cersei has expresses a willingness to abandon King’s Landing if the dead come.
- Despite Dany’s war with Cersei, King’s Landing still hasn’t burned down yet.
Alright everyone, put away your “Jaime strangles Mad Queen Cersei to stop her from setting off the Wildfire” theories, because that’s not what the story is setting up anymore. But here is what the story is setting up.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
– Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost
At a certain point in season 8 (I’m guessing episode 3), a part of the army of the dead will break off and close in on King’s Landing. This will be after the largest battle sequence of the series has already taken place, and the army of the dead has been greatly diminished, and will thus be seeking out populations to rebuild their forces. Due to Cersei’s refusal to form a truce or aide in the Great War, King’s Landing will not be prepared for the dead. They won’t be armed with dragonglass weapons, they won’t be prepared for a siege by wights, and Cersei may by this point have even sent away part of her forces to retake Casterly Rock. Hell, given Cersei’s single minded fixation to fight off her many enemies, and given her deep hatred for the people of her city, she will likely have totally neglected to prepare King’s Landing with provisions for the harsh winter. We see Sansa taking care of this in season 7, but it’s unlikely that Cersei is putting any of her attention into feeding and warming the people she so literally despises.
In fact, given her dialogue in the season 7 finale about Euron Greyjoy being right and finding a secluded spot to hide away with those that matter, I suspect that by the time the dead close in, Queen Cersei will have fled the city for Casterly Rock (book Cersei is totally headed for Casterly Rock at the end of Winds).
After all, “hang the world” right?
In the dead of winter, as the icy Others and their legions of the dead reach King’s Landing, it will become clear that there is nothing to stop them from infesting the densely populated city and multiplying their army. Given their lack of care for the people they’d be tasked with protecting and their basic lack of dragonglass to even fight the dead, the show!Golden Company will either turn tail and run or simply be devastated and added to the army of the dead.
The season finale foreshadows King’s Landing coming into play when Jon questions Tyrion about the population of the city, emphasizing how the compact city is more populous than the entire North (in the books there are approximately 500,000 people living in King’s Landing, but the show bumps this number up to approximately one million). By taking King’s Landing, the dead will be able to quickly regain any numbers they might have lost against the armies of Westeros, increasing their force to greater than five times what they started with. It would be a death sentence for all of Westeros.
This is where the Lord of Light comes in (and yes, Bran is the Last Hero is the Three Eyed Raven is the Old Gods is the Lord of Light).
To save humanity, Bran will warg into Rhaegal (or Drogon maybe?), and fly over King’s Landing up to the Red Keep and set off the wildfire beneath the city. Bran will thus sentence 500,000 people to death (a million on the show), and in doing so exercise the moral authority of a god. There is a Robert Frost poem that Martin loves that goes on about how some say the world will end in fire, and some say ice. As for King’s Landing, it will end in both. The city will fall to ice and then to fire.
First it will freeze, then it will burn.
While I’ve seen good cases for the burning of King’s Landing being the work of Cersei or Daenerys, I believe it makes the most narrative sense for Bran to be the one to do it. Though both are possible, Cersei destroying King’s Landing has always felt a little underwhelming because no one actually doubts that a psychopath like her would be capable of such a thing. On the other hand Daenerys accidentally setting off the wildfire while she is at war with fAegon feels like a reductive way to depict the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Bran on the other hand is the perfect POV character to bear the burden because how he would handle such a choice has been set up for him from the very first chapter.
If you would take a life
“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.” (Bran I, AGOT)
Bran I is the first point of view chapter of the series, and is also the genesis of Martin writing ASOIAF. He literally conceived of the entire story from just writing an early draft of this one chapter. It opens with Bran and his brothers going to witness their father carry out the King’s justice. The central theme of this chapter which not only opens Bran’s story, but begins A Song of Ice and Fire, is regarding the nature of justice and the moral weight of taking a life. In keeping with the Norther tradition, Lord Eddard Stark personally executes every person that he sentences to death, ensuring that he hear out each person before he carry out the sentence so that he never lose sight of the what death really is. In that first chapter Lord Stark must take a life, and for the very first time Bran Stark has to see. From the execution of Gared to the choice to spare and adopt for the orphaned direwolf pups, the chapter explores the responsibility in both taking and sparing a life, and it explores the entangled nature of both fear and courage.
“Yet our way is the older way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” Eddard (Bran I, AGOT)
“One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.” – Eddard (Bran I, AGOT)
That his father’s lesson would come back up for him is promised right there in the first chapter. Just as Bran’s story opens with him witnessing a beheading and learning from his Lord father about the moral responsibility of taking a life, Bran’s story will culminate in the decision to act as a god and take the lives of thousands upon thousands of people. Ned Stark’s advice to Bran was that if he is to pass the sentence, then he must swing the sword. Though being warged into a dragon and burning down the city himself covers that aspect of his fathers lesson, the other part gets a bit more complicated. Bran is also taught that if he is to take a life, he must look a man in the eye and hear their last words, and if he cannot do that, then that person perhaps does not deserve to die. Whether the execution is by Ice or fire, he must not look away, and even in that first chapter, as a boy of seven Bran did not look away. So even though the action will ultimately be to prevent the dead from overcoming the Seven Kingdoms, he is still bound by the traditions of his father to hear out every single person who’s life he would take.
And this is where it gets a little out there…
I propose that as Bran chooses to sacrifice a dragon to light the wildfire beneath King’s Landing and burn the capital to the ground, he will (in the books) use the full extent of his powers and the power of the weirwoods to warg into every single person in King’s Landing. In a single moment, Bran will telepathically connect to and become every single one of the over 500,000 people that he is sentencing to death. He will know who each of them are, he will have the courage to experience their fear, and he will hear each of their final thoughts. Though he will be hundreds of miles away, Brandon Stark as the Winged Wolf will know each life and death individually and simultaneously.
In essence Bran will create a momentary collective consciousness of every person in King’s Landing. A song of ice and fire. In a mythological sense, this will parallel the bound warg Fenrir devouring the sun during Ragnarok. Though the show has Bran cease to be himself anymore when he becomes the Three Eyed Raven, in the books I propose this will be in this moment that Bran truly becomes a god.
I realize this all sounds a bit weird, but this is very very much the sort of thing that George R.R. Martin writes. Collective consciousness is a reoccurring theme in Martin’s work, from ‘A Song For Lya’ to ‘And Seven Times Never Kill Man’ to ‘The Armageddon Rag.’ The concept is presented throughout Ice & Fire, and is deeply embedded into Bran’s story.
Godlike intervention, is also prominent…
“the nature of the crisis on S’uthlam was such that it admitted to a solution only by godlike intervention.” – Tuf, Manna From Heaven
What I propose here is actually not unlike how GRRM decided to end his Tuf Voyaging series in Manna from Heaven. In Manna From Heaven, Tuf returns to S’uthlam, a planet now at war with seven other worlds, which is also facing a population crisis, and thus mass starvation. Tuf states that the crisis facing S’uthlam is so terrible that should he approach the problem like a mortal man, he would fail. The planet’s salvation requires cruel but necessary divine intervention, and in Manna From Heaven this takes on the form of the forced mass sterilization of the S’uthlamese.
The crisis facing Westeros in the final book/season will be comparable in magnitude to the one on S’uthlam, and nowhere is this crisis more clearly reflected than King’s Landing (though the Riverlands are certainly up there). Though the problems facing Westeros are spread out, they concentrate and multiply in the capital city. From the beginning, we’ve seen King’s Landing to be deeply corrupt, overpopulated, impoverish, and even smells like shit. The city is rotten, and like the surrounding continent, over the course of the story it’s ravaged by war, riots, scandal, succession disputes, divestment of faith from institutions, poverty, religious extremism, and eventually with Aegon VI and Jon Connington taking the city we will likely see the a greyscale infection begin to spread throughout the city (though that part is book only). Finally, when winter descends upon the city, the Others and their legions of wights will create a tipping point where the situation in King’s Landing becomes completely unsolvable, and the city must be wiped out else it take the world down with it.
“Now I propose to succeed as the god that S’uthlam requires. Should I approach the problem as a human a third time, I would assuredly fail a third time, and then your difficulties would be resolved by gods crueler than myself, by the four mammal-riders of ancient legend who are known as pestilence, famine, war, and death. Therefore, I must set aside my humanity, and act as god.” – Tuf, Manna From heaven
Though I would certainly not cite the ending of Tuf Voyaging is proof that the same will happen in Ice & Fire, the buildup is already there, and the show has certainly given us major clues that this is where the narrative is headed. As was the case on S’uthlam, if King’s Landing is not destroyed then the crisis in Westeros would be resolved by crueler gods. I would be resolved by the Others, who would add the entire population of the city to their army and proceed to quickly sweep over the entire continent. Hence we are being presented with a very similar moral dilemma, and thus the son of Stark must act as the Lord of Light.
That said, I do not believe that the burning of King’s Landing will end the Long Night, nor do I believe it will actually end the war against the Others. The Others will still need to be dealt with after this, but this will require a whole different sacrifice. I’m only proposing that this will be a major cataclysmic moment in the war. Also that it will serve as the ultimate realization of the lesson Bran learns in his first chapter about the responsibility of taking a life, and it will finalize his ascent into godhood.
“The bleeding star bespoke the end,” he said to Aeron. “These are the last days, when the world shall be broken and remade. A new god shall be born from the graves and charnel pits.” – Euron (The Forsaken, TWOW)
In a way Euron was right, he was just wrong about the identity of the new god. It’s not Euron, it’s Bran. While Euron sees godhood as a way to feed into his own ego, for Bran it will be attained through empathy, responsibility, and sacrifice. Euron’s show of narcissism and opportunism will be undone by Bran’s bravery and conscience. As we have seen in the show, the cost of Bran taking in all of that collective memory is the loss of himself and his individuality. Meera was right. Though he did not physically die when he became the Three Eyed Raven, the boy he had been indeed died in the cave. Bran ceased to be himself when he was overwhelmed by the godhood and became one with the Three Eyed Raven.
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.” – Frodo, The Return of the King
Though Bran in the books will be far, far away from the fiery winter graveyard that is King’s Landing, in the books he will never be the same after this moment (in the show Bran has already reached this point of no return). Like Frodo was too deeply hurt to return to the Shire after carrying the Ring to Mount Doom, Bran will be too deeply hurt, his soul too overcome by the pain of the lives he has taken to return to himself or his boyhood. For the rest of the story and the rest of his life he will be an otherworldly entity akin to the Ghost of High Heart or Patchface. For example, though the clever lad that Steffon Baratheon freed in Volantis may be there somewhere inside of Patchface, he has become overwhelmed by the breadth of something much greater. The individual he was has become mostly lost in channeling a greater force. Bran will face a similar fate.
It’s sad. He was such a good kid too.
From here the certain doom of Westeros will have been averted, Bran’s mind will fully disperse and ascend to the astral plane. Then will commence the final act of actually putting an end to the Long Night. A mission in which Bran will act as the ghost in the machine. The force guiding our heroes to the resolution.