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.