Bran Them All: The Fate of King’s Landing

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

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All behold the God of Flame and Shadow!

First of all, King’s Landing definitely burns down.

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!

  1. All of the S4Ep2 visions specifically relate to Bran’s destiny upon mastering the powers of the Three Eyed Raven.
  2. The showrunners state that the most crucial of Bran’s visions is a dragon’s eye view over King’s Landing.
  3. Bran can skinchange things at long range.
  4. In Bran’s S6Ep6 visions, wildfire, along with the phrase “Burn them all!” is repeatedly accompanied by visions of the Others.
  5. According to Jojen and UnBenjen, Bran’s purpose has always been stopping the Night King and the army of the dead.
  6. Both Bran and Daenerys have seen visions of a snowy, ruined Red Keep.
  7. In the season 7 finale, Jon brings up the population of King’s Landing.
  8. In the season 7 finale, Cersei has expresses a willingness to abandon King’s Landing if the dead come.
  9. 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?

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God I fucking love Cersei…

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.

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This is happening people.

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

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This is the face you make when you watch a man die.

“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.

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art by Valentina Mustajarvi

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.

 

God-On-Earth

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This is the face you make when you watch a million people die.

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.

For more on Tuf Voyaging and Manna From Heaven, our boy Preston does a great analysis on it.

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.

 

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Why Winterfell must not fall

From a discussion I had yesterday, I am beginning to see that some people believe that season 8 will begin with the Army of the Dead arriving at Winterfell  before Dany and Co. and the Army of the Dead completely massacring the entire Northern, Vale, and Wildling force, with a few main characters escaping while the castle falls.

First, let’s get this out of the way; The show’s inconsistent portrayal of time and distance makes it impossible to logically determine whether the Army of the Dead should or should not beat Daenerys’ army’s estimated two week ETA. All we know is that the falling of the Wall is the last thing that occurs in the episode, but we can’t say how far in the future from the previous scene it is.

Regardless, let me get into why this probably won’t happen, and also what it would mean if it did.

What is Winterfell?

Let’s think about what Winterfell is really. It’s more than just a castle. It’s more than just someone’s home. It’s a seat of power. It’s a physical manifestation of House Stark as a Northern institution. As a family which has presided over and protected the North for countless generations. Winterfell stands at the center of the North and is the central o the lives of the Stark children, and each of them feels connected to it. Each are drawn to it. Nowhere is this made more clear than Bran’s final chapter in Clash, which is one of the most powerful, uplifting, and poetic chapters in the series. The chapter is so good that GRRM chooses to end a book on it.

The ending is just wonderful:

At the edge of the wolfswood, Bran turned in his basket for one last glimpse of the castle that had been his life. Wisps of smoke still rose into the grey sky, but no more than might have risen from Winterfell’s chimneys on a cold autumn afternoon. Soot stains marked some of the arrow loops, and here and there a crack or a missing merlon could be seen in the curtain wall, but it seemed little enough from this distance. Beyond, the tops of the keeps and towers still stood as they had for hundreds of years, and it was hard to tell that the castle had been sacked and burned at all. The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep, and under the ground the Kings of Winter sit their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m not dead either.- (Bran VII, ACOK)

In the closing words of A Clash of Kings, Bran himself finds the connection between Winterfell and himself, and in doing so sets up the larger connection between Winterfell and all of the Starks. Just as Winterfell is brought down by the betrayal of Theon (and then Ramsay), the Northern/Stark cause led by Robb is brought down by the betrayal of the Freys and Boltons at the Red Wedding. So it’s quite fitting that in this chapter Maester Luwin with his parting words reminds Bran that he is his father’s son. The castle is Ned Stark’s legacy. The castle is Bran. The castle is broken, but not dead. Just like that legacy. Just like Bran.

While many suspect that the phrase “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” holds some kind of magical hidden meaning, I’d like to set aside any speculation on ice dragons, active volcanos, a Night’s Queen sealed in the crypts, zombie greenseer Lyanna, magic ice sword in the Black pool of the Godswood, etc. There is political, cultural, and historical significance to having a Stark holding Winterfell. A sense of safety and confidence in a long standing tradition is being upheld.

When the Starks do not hold Winterfell it’s almost like there is a disturbance in the Force. Not necessarily a literal magical disturbance, but a sense of discord in the collective conscious of the North. We literally see this discord in the way Winterfell chapters are written in ADWD. It’s in the tone. While the Boltons rule Winterfell, there is this underlying gloom and misery.

So, when the Starks hold Winterfell once more, whether that Stark is Sansa or Jon or both, that fucking means something. It represents a restoration of confidence in an age old tradition.

Which brings me to the endgame, both in the show and in the books.

The Purpose of House Stark

If the Others come and the Starks hold Winterfell, and then the castle falls… then that means Winterfell fails. This is a bigger deal than most people realize. It wouldn’t just mean that the castle has failed again. The way things are in the show, this would mean that the entire Northern army, the entire Vale army, and the entire Wildling army, are all added to the Army of the Dead (and yes, all of them would be there, Bran knows the Night King is coming and will alert Sansa and have her call the banners if they aren’t already there). It would mean that the people of the North, the people of Wintertown, the people under the protection of House Stark who are taking refuge in the castle.. all those men, women, and children would die. This would go beyond fodder to make the Long Night seem more cataclysmic. This would mean that House Stark has utterly failed as an institution.

If the family who’s words are “Winter is Coming” fails to protect their people when tha promised supernatural winter comes, then House Stark becomes irrelevant.

The idea that even if the castle falls and the North is totally decimated House Stark could still live on if Bran and Arya escape to join up with Jon… totally misses the entire in-world point of House Stark. House Stark are the *protectors of the North.* Even though we as an audience care primarily about the main characters, House Stark protecting their people *fucking matters.* In fact it’s the entire point of House Stark as an institution. The way I see it, the story being set up right now is that Winterfell fell to betrayal, and the Starks fell to betrayal, but both lived on and the legacy was carried forward through the remaining children of Ned Stark (+ Jon). But the reason it matters that the Starks lived on has always been so that when push comes to shove… when winter comes and the dead rise, Winterfell must stand.

The Starks of Winterfell must stand.

And when I say “stand”, I don’t just mean that castle can’t be destroyed. I don’t just mean the Stark children must survive. I mean they must stand for their people. Both Winterfell and the Starks have to be there to stand against the Others and protect the North. To protect the people sworn to them. To uphold their duty as the ruling family in the North. I can’t stress enough how important this is.

Because otherwise it should be the end of House Stark forever. If Winterfell fails every time... If House Stark fails to protect the North when it really counts and winter comes… then what is the point of Winterfell? What is the point of House Stark? If Winterfell falls and the Starks fail to protect the people of the North, then it wouldn’t even matter if a couple Starks survive the apocalypse and come back to retake and rebuild their seat. House Starks wouldn’t actually deserve their seat. If they fail to protect their people when it actually matters then the retaking of their home is an empty, undeserved victory. House Stark would have utterly failed as an institution.

Fortunately, I don’t think this will happen.

“Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm. Septa Mordane is a good woman, and Sansa … Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you … and I need both of you, gods help me.” – (Arya II, AGOT)

Like I mentioned above, Winterfell represents House Stark, which currently lives on through Ned Starks children. The castle will stand and protect the North when Winter finally comes, and this will be the ultimate realization of Ned Stark’s legacy. In the West, Tyrion and Cersei’s petty, hate filled conflict over the empty (I realize this is a show thing, but I think it will come to pass in the books) Casterly Rock will serve as a symbol of Tywin’s legacy. It’s the same in King’s Landing. The wildfire buried beneath the city, about to go off and burn hundreds of thousands of people will serve as a representation of the fiery, volatile, (maybe sacrificial) and likely soon to be ruined legacy of House Targaryen.

But with Winterfell, I expect the legacy will promise to be a much more positive one. In the end the wolves of house Stark standing together, doing their duty, and protecting the North from harm in the dead of winter will ultimately be the realization of Ned Stark’s legacy, both as a lord and as a father.

 

tldr; If season 8 begins with the Night King and his army arriving at Winterfell ahead of Jon and Dany & Co. and then completely massacring the entire Northern army, along with the Vale and Wildling force, then even if a couple Starks survive, Winterfell becomes utterly pointless and House Stark will have totally failed as a Northern institution. After this any return or restoration of House Stark would be completely empty and undeserved.