(Here be Game of Thrones spoilers! Also wild speculation, but if any of my guesses happen to hit the nail on the head, I take no responsibility for spoiling the future.)
As the Faceless Men remind us, all men must die, and in Westeros they die with alarming frequency–so much so that viewers have been known to make a game out of predicting whose number will come up next. Earlier today, I watched a video suggesting that we were about due for it to be a Stark.
On one hand, they have a point. We all know how Westeros works by now: anyone too uncomplicatedly good and honorable is going to die. And while Sansa and Arya, in particular, have become more willing to embrace moral grayness, by and large the Starks are the good-guy-heroes we can wholeheartedly root for, in a way that we can’t really root for, say, Cersei. And if you need a reminder of how far being a good-guy-hero gets you in Westeros, think back to what happened to their dad.
On the other hand… I don’t think the rules of narrative are going to let any of them die just now. Granted, Martin isn’t playing by the usual rules of high fantasy (again, see: fate of Ned Stark). But there are still rules. For example, if you invest a lot of time in a subplot, there had better be some point to it.
Take Arya. Imagine if they killed her off now. Then what the hell was the point of all that time in Braavos? She spent two seasons at assassin school on another continent, having no interaction with any other major players, just to get killed off almost immediately afterwards? No, Arya’s story is clearly building to something, and we haven’t had the payoff yet. The great thing about her decision in “Stormborn” is that no matter whether she turns north or south, she’s going towards the plot. Yes, we can all cheer her going to Winterfell to reunite with Jon and Sansa… but if she had gone to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, that would still have worked as a narrative decision. Either way, she’s got something more to do before the show is done with her.
The same goes for Bran, the other Stark who’s wandered off on a side quest. If he dies now, then why should we care about any of the time he spent learning to be a greenseer? It would retroactively make everything he’s done since season 3 feel completely pointless. Plus, now that R + L = J has been confirmed, Bran is pretty much the only character left who knows about it, unless the show wants to introduce Howland Reed at this late date. So Bran is also safe until he’s fulfilled his purpose.
What about Sansa? This season has been setting up conflict between her and Jon. She’s clearly chafing at some of his decisions, and now she’s finally getting a chance to be in charge at Winterfell and do things her way. Even once Jon comes back and re-takes the reins, Sansa’s taste of power is only going to deepen the cracks in their relationship the next time he does something she doesn’t agree with. So at the least, Sansa has to live until Jon gets back for that to pay off. And in the longer term, Sansa has spent a long time being powerless and quietly learning from people like Cersei and Littlefinger; now it’s time to find out how she applies those lessons when she’s the one in power. There, I’ve managed to phrase “I don’t want Sansa to die before she gets to be awesome” in a way that justifies it with narrative logic.
And then there’s Jon. The show has already killed him off once before; doing it twice would just be repeating themselves. Especially if he comes back again, which would nullify the impact of his death. Plus, there’s the R + L = J reveal coming up at some point, which loses a lot without Jon in the picture. And the various prophecies that might refer to him…
I would really like to see a work of fiction reveal that the prophecy everyone believes in is bunk, or that some unscrupulous person made it up for their own ends, without an “…or IS it fake?” tacked on at the end. (It drives me up the wall when a show like NUMB3RS or Castle, which otherwise takes place in the mundane world, does an episode with a psychic who might really be psychic after all.) But barring that sort of deliberate subversion, Martin has to play by the rules here as well, and we’ve already had prophecies come true or partially true, establishing the rule that this is a world where prophecy is real. And in narrative terms, prophecy is just another word for foreshadowing. So by the end of the story, we can expect all the prophecies to have played out in full, even if they turn out to mean something different than expected. Therefore, we’re going to know the identity of the prince who was promised, the new incarnation of Azor Ahai, all three heads of the dragon, etc. And they’re all going to be characters we know–that’s just playing fair–and probably major characters. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jon Snow is the star of any of these prophecies… but as he’s a leading candidate for all of them, the odds are pretty good that it’s him at least once.
So now we’re out of Starks to kill off. Maybe they’ll band together and all make it? There’s Sansa’s line in the trailer about how the lone wolf dies in the winter but the pack survives. But wait, this is still Westeros; what happened to all the good guys dying? I think there’s a middle ground: the Starks are all safe for now, but they’re going to have to compromise their principles to survive. Moral grayness equilibrium restored.
Of course, even if the Starks make it in the short term, the White Walkers might just sweep down from the Wall and kill everyone in Westeros. A bleak, nihilistic ending to a frequently bleak series. But that would be Bran and Arya’s side quests on an even greater scale: what was the point of this entire seven-book series (or eight seasons of television) if the ending was always going to be “ice zombies fall, everyone dies”?
Unless the White Walkers just kill the Starks, who are first in their path and the characters whose deaths would have the most emotional impact, and then get stopped before they make it all the way down the continent, leaving some characters alive to tell the tale. But that would be… that can’t happen because…
Crap, now I’m worried that that’s exactly what’s going to happen. But this is all just speculation. It’s not like I can predict the future. Or CAN I?
No. I definitely can’t. (I did mention that trope drives me up the wall.)