Reading Between the Lines: How the dialogue in season 7 could foreshadow the show’s ending


Like any well-plotted narrative, Game of Thrones is awash with callbacks and foreshadowing. Such storytelling tools enrich both plot and character, as well as leave hints about how the story might develop and even conclude.

Enter me, a person whose study of the English language and literature might as well be put to use somehow, so why not use it to craft tinfoil theories about Game of Thrones? Season 7 has certainly given us plenty to think about already. As ever, the dialogue is richly multilayered — let’s take a harder look at it and see if we can suss out what the characters are saying beyond the superficial means of the words, looking at the first three episodes specifically.

Helen Sloan – HBO

The Northern Fool

"You all crowned me your king. I never wanted it. I never asked for it. But I accepted it, because the North is my home. It’s part of me, and I will never stop fighting for it, no matter the odds.—JON SNOW"

Although Jon can’t boast the name, the first three episodes of the season affirm his identity as a Stark, official niceties notwithstanding. We can see it not only in his Ned Stark-inspired half-ponytail, or in his insistence in wearing a fur cloak in a climate not suited to it. As telling as Jon’s wardrobe choices are, his allegiance to the North is weaved into the narrative in other ways as well.

First and foremost, the mistakes of the past must be acknowledged if they are to be avoided in future. Sansa is the first to point this out in “Dragonstone.” “You have to be smarter than Father,” she tells him. “You need to be smarter than Robb. I loved them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes and they both lost their heads for it.” Jon echoes her sentiments later in “The Queen’s Justice”:

"JON: “I need to help prepare my people for what’s coming. I can’t help them from here. I’d like to leave.”TYRION: “It seems unlikely that you became King in the North by giving up that easily.”JON: “Everyone told me to learn from my father’s mistakes. Don’t go south. Don’t answer a summons from the Mad King’s daughter, a foreign invader. And here I am. A Northern fool.”"

Clearly, the sooner Jon learns to listen to Sansa, the better. But for now, he’s stranded on an island and will have to take the advice he can get while there. Enter the ever-clever Tyrion Lannister. Earlier in “The Queen’s Justice,” there’s another exchange that serves largely the same purpose:

"TYRION: “General rule of thumb: Stark men don’t fare well when they travel South.”JON: “True. But I’m not a Stark.”"

At this point, the audience is aware of Jon’s Targaryen parentage, even though the character himself is not. While Jon is a Stark on his mother’s side, he is half-Targaryen by blood, if not behavior. Thus, the dialogue suggests that Jon won’t fall victim to Ned and Robb’s shortcomings; that is to say, Ned’s penchant to trust the wrong people and Robb’s distractibility. It’s just as Lord Glover says to Jon before Jon leaves for Dragonstone: “We called your brother king. Then he rode South, and lost his kingdom.”

As much of a hero as Robb was, his mistakes cannot be denied. He followed his heart rather than keep his oath to House Frey, which resulted in his death and set his sisters up to avenge him — Sansa by spearheading the Battle of the Bastards and Arya by eliminating the Freys. Now, Jon has sworn an oath to the men who declared him King, and to the home he’s always known. This is not a vow Jon takes lightly; as willing as he is to do what it takes to defeat the White Walkers, he makes his stance clear when he talks to Daenerys.

"As far as I can tell, your claim to the throne rests entirely on your father’s name, and my own father fought to overthrow the Mad King. The Lords of the North place their trust in me to lead them, and I will continue to do so as well as I can."

With four episodes left before the end of the season, it’s possible that Jon will yield some territory, values-wise, if it means obliterating the White Walkers. He’s been honed in on this objective for so long that, at some point, tunnel vision may very well overcome his sense of duty. And indeed, what is his duty if not to protect his people from certain death? Jon’s staunch sense of honor means nothing if the White Walkers win out — as far as he’s concerned, Westerosi politics and power plays can wait.

Still, when there’s such a significant power struggle happening in their midst, Jon doesn’t have a choice but to deal with it. That’s the trouble with ancient, warring families, isn’t it? You can never quite shake the feuds.

"DAENERYS: “You’ve traveled all this way to break faith with House Targaryen?”JON: “Break faith? Your father burned my grandfather alive. He burned my uncle alive. He would have burned the Seven Kingdoms—”DAENERYS: “My father was an evil man. On behalf of House Targaryen, I ask your forgiveness for the crimes he committed against your family. And I ask you not to judge a daughter by the sins of her father.”"

If nothing else, the season premiere proved that Jon — who pardoned Ned Umber and Alys Karstark — would not hold surviving family members accountable for their fathers’ transgressions. This does, of course, raise the issue of Daenerys’ eagerness to sweep her family’s crimes under the rug whilst she benefits from their claim to the Iron Throne, but we’ll get to that later.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen. Photo: HBO.

Even if, eventually, Jon is willing to overlook the Targaryens’ history of brutality, the North may be as amendable. Daenerys talks a big game about the peace and prosperity a Stark/Targaryen alliance would bring, but her conversation with Olenna Tyrell in the previous episode suggests otherwise:

"DAENERYS: “We will bring peace back to Westeros.”OLENNA: “Peace? Do you think that’s what we had under your father? Or his father? Or his? Peace never lasts, my dear.”"

So while an alliance between Jon and Dany seems inevitable, whatever agreement is reached will be tenuous at best. In fact, if “peace never lasts,” can we expect to see any partnership fall apart in the final 10 episodes of the series? We could entertain the notion that the threat of the White Walkers is too great to be sundered by the same political concerns that have reigned since the beginning of the series. However, the same old game is still being played; it’s been ongoing for so long that some players may not know how to stop it, even with the army of the dead on the march.

With this in mind, the audience must remember the oft-repeated phrase: “The North remembers.” They remember what life was like under the Mad King, and they may find themselves dwelling on that particular memory if Daenerys continues to demand their fealty. Even Lord Yohn Royce of the Vale, who lives North-adjacent, raised his objections about a Targaryen alliance to Jon at Winterfell, alongside the Northern lords:

"LORD ROYCE: “A Targaryen cannot be trusted.”LYANNA MORMONT: “Winter is here, Your Grace. We need the King in the North, in the North.”SANSA: “Have you forgotten what happened to our grandfather? The Mad King invited him to King’s Landing and roasted him alive. […] [Daenerys] is here to reclaim the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms. The North is one of those Seven Kingdoms. This isn’t an invitation. It’s a trap.”"

Despite Daenerys’ claims that the Seven Kingdoms prospered under Targaryen rule, the North and its allies clearly remember it differently.

Even if we assume that Jon and Daenerys will compromise in order to save the realm, their leadership styles clash too much for the pair to see eye-to-eye when it comes to the intricacies of ruling. These differences are succinctly highlighted in season 7:

"JON [to Ned Umber and Alys Karstark, in “Dragonstone”]: “Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore.”DAENERYS [to Varys, in “Stormborn”]: “If you ever betray me, I’ll burn you alive.”"

Varys served Robert Baratheon just enough to keep Viserys one step ahead of his assassins, and is now free to follow his conscience. But for Jon’s decision, Ned and Alys would receive punishments meant for their fathers. To Jon, allies are allies, and in times of war, you can only pick and choose so many before you run out. This is made clear by the end of “The Queen’s Justice,” by which point Daenerys has lost the Greyjoys, Martells, Tyrells, and the Unsullied—in other words, the majority of her forces.

For necessity’s sake, it would appear that Daenerys will have to play nice with the North. Happily, Tyrion is there to mediate any disputes they have.

"TYRION [to Jon]: “[Daenerys is] not about to head North to fight an enemy she’s never seen, on the word of a man she doesn’t know, after a single meeting. It’s not a reasonable thing to ask.”TYRION [to Daenerys]: “You don’t have to believe [Jon]. Let him mine the dragonglass. If he’s wrong, it’s worthless. You didn’t even know it was here; it’s nothing to you. Give him something by giving him nothing. Take a step toward a more productive relationship with a possible ally. Keep him occupied while we focus on the task at hand: Casterly Rock.”"

The gist of Tyrion’s persuasion is “Use each other to get what you want.” Jon needs armies, dragons, and dragonglass to defeat the White Walkers, and Daenerys needs allies in her quest for the Iron Throne. Neither of them are particularly keen on the other’s ambitions, but they’re both willing to go to any lengths to achieve their own.

This theme has played a large role in each of respective storylines, and it’s just going to dissipate. As such, whatever alliance is struck, I’d be willing to bet money that it doesn’t last. It all harkens back to Tormund’s observation about Jon in the season 4 finale, “The Children”:

"“You’ve spent too much time with us, Jon Snow. You can never be a kneeler again.”"

Jon has played the double agent in defense of his vows before, when he infiltrated the wildlings for the sake of the Night’s Watch. Will he take a similar tack in order to secure Daenerys’ allegiance—for the good of the North, and for mankind as a whole?

The Three Queens

"They won’t obey you unless they fear you.—OLENNA TYRELL"

You’ve heard of the War of the Five Kings, but the kings themselves—Joffrey, Stannis, Renly (Baratheon, all), Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy—all bit the dust in relatively quick succession. Now, the three queens reign, and yet one is being counted out. As a Sansa Stark devotee, I can’t say that this surprises me, but it does beggar discussion.

Within the scope of the narrative, only Cersei has acknowledged Sansa’s role in the race for the Iron Throne. “Ned Stark’s bastard has been named King in the North, and that murderous whore Sansa stands beside him,” she says. To be fair to Daenerys, it seems that she has yet to learn of Sansa’s existence, let alone her position of power in the North. Sansa’s place in the greater game is, however, recognized by Tyrion (who never doubted her resilience) and Jon (who has slowly but surely taken to her counsel):

"TYRION: “She’s smarter than she lets on.”JON: “She’s starting to let on.”TYRION: “Good.”"

Living under the umbrella of Westeros’ patriarchy, these women have suffered in similar ways. Daenerys speech in “The Queen’s Justice” rings true — in the abstract sense — for all of them.

"DAENERYS: “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I have been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself.”"

Daenerys, Cersei, and Sansa have all been mishandled, abused, and underestimated by the men who have tried to use them, and they have by and large outlived or outsmarted those men. Now, all three are holding court over their own slice of the Seven Kingdoms, but how they wield that power is exceedingly different. The different ways in which they’ve thrived set them apart, and indicates possible futures for them.

Cersei and Daenerys have both taken Olenna’s words about fear to heart. Cersei uses fear — of herself and of Daenerys’ foreign armies — to inspire loyalty. Daenerys uses threats and ancient oaths, as well as personal agendas (in the form of the Greyjoys, Martells, and Olenna) in her favor. Meanwhile, for all the rumors and think pieces regarding Sansa’s “power grab” in the North, she has demonstrated nothing but thoughtfulness and competence in her role as de facto queen.

"CERSEI: “I am the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. I’ll do as I please.”DAENERYS: “I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”SANSA: “Whichever direction the threat comes from, [Winterfell] is the best place to be. We need to start building up our grain stores with regular shipments from every keep in the North. If we don’t use it by winter’s end, we’ll give it back to them. But if the entire North has to flee to Winterfell, they won’t have time to bring wagon loads of grain with them.”"

As it stands now, Cersei and Daenerys are embroiled in their desire to lay claim to Westeros. Sansa has expressed her distrust of the Targaryen invader, acknowledges Cersei as a threat, and is preparing her people for war, no matter from which direction that war originates. Sansa doesn’t encourage loyalty through fear, but with humility, tactfulness, and care for the people. She’s earning respect by giving it, not demanding it. While Sansa prepares for the wars to come, whatever shape they might take, Cersei and Daenerys are as preoccupied with the Iron Throne as the men who came before them:

"CERSEI: “You all remember the Mad King. You remember the horrors he inflicted upon his people. His daughter is no different. In Essos, her brutality is already legendary. She crucified hundreds of noblemen in Slaver’s Bay, and when she grew bored of that, she fed them to her dragons.”DAENERYS: “I could have sworn I read the last King in the North was Torrhen Stark, who bent the knee to my ancestor Aegon Targaryen. In exchange for his life and the lives of the Northmen, Torrhen Stark swore fealty to House Targaryen in perpetuity.”"

They’re using scare tactics to paint themselves as the best chance Westeros has for survival. Neither of them consider that there might be another option.

Nevertheless, the show itself seems to side with Daenerys, and uses other characters to paint her as the lesser of two evils:

"JON: “But you haven’t stormed King’s Landing. Why not? The only reason I can see is that you don’t want to kill thousands of innocent people. It’s the fastest way to win the war but you won’t do it, which means, at the very least, you’re better than Cersei.”VARYS: “I know the people have no better chance than you.”"

Daenerys might well earn the popular vote over Cersei, despite the fact that they both went full arsonist when they destroyed sacred houses of worship. But that’s a whole other can of worms. As far as Westeros is concerned, such discussions are unimportant. Perhaps Euron Greyjoy was right when he said that the people just love to see heads on spikes, so they’ll follow whoever gives them the greatest number of human Tootsie Roll Pops. Medieval politics are a minefield.

The debate continues when Tyrion says that “If the great houses support [Daenerys’] claim against Cersei, the game is won.” But which great houses are left standing by the end of “The Queen’s Justice”? The Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens—in other words, the houses of the three queens. Cersei isn’t about to play nice with them, either, and a potential Northern alliance with Daenerys is questionable at best. Not to mention, the alliances these queens have made are far from foolproof: Cersei’s hold on Euron Greyjoy is dependent upon his personal interests, and Varys’ true loyalty lies with what’s best for the people, something he wasn’t afraid to tell Dany in “Stormborn”:

"Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes, I’ll use them."

Cersei has a loose grip on three of the seven kingdoms, and Daenerys has lost a considerable chunk of her army, all in the name of taking the Iron Throne. One of them will have to come out on top eventually; but when the victor emerges, they’ll still have Sansa Stark to contend with. She’s survived this long; count her out at your peril.

The Starks Endure

"When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.—SANSA STARK"

One of the running themes in Game of Thrones is the impact of family. At this point in the series, Daenerys is (seemingly) the last of the Targaryens, the Lannisters are fighting on opposing sides, and the Starks are stitching their family back together.

Although Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran have been on very different journeys, their paths are bringing them back to their beginnings: In the North, at Winterfell, where they belong. Jon may be at Dragonstone, Bran consumed by his visions, and Arya not yet home, but they’re all fighting for the same future, one in which the Starks thrive. Winter is here, and the Starks’ return to glory has arrived with it. This is a point of focus for season 7 right from the beginning, when Arya gets her revenge on House Frey.

"You didn’t slaughter every one of the Starks. No, no. That was the mistake. You should have ripped them all out, root and stem. Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe."

With the elimination of the Boltons and Freys, the Starks have served justice where it is due. But one such enemy remains: Petyr Baelish. However, with Bran’s return, Littlefinger’s comeuppance appears to be imminent. The man himself foreshadows his own downfall during his rather cryptic speech to Sansa:

"Don’t fight in the North, or the South. Fight every battle, everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way, and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before."

Enter Bran—who, incidentally, has the power to see “every possible series of events,” everything that’s been and will be. Littlefinger has quite a few secrets that he’s been keeping from the Starks. As strange as his advice to Sansa is, it seems to operate as more of a narrative device than as contextual dialogue.

Of course, Bran isn’t the only one who should worry Littlefinger. The Stark sisters are well-versed in exacting justice for their family, and have done so coldly and mercilessly; once Arya arrives home, the Starks will be a formidable force. I’m not denying the possibility of tension between the siblings—that was well-demonstrated in Sansa and Bran’s reunion—but, as the saying goes, “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Whatever hurdles the Starks must face, at the end of the day they’re a unit that functions best together, damn anyone who might try to keep them apart.

For all his efforts, Littlefinger couldn’t even manage to drive a wedge between Jon and Sansa, whose sibling bond was probably the weakest of anyone in the family. And yet it’s not Littlefinger’s comments about Ned and Catelyn, nor his insistence that he deserves Jon’s gratitude for his role in the Battle of the Bastards, that results in Jon throttling him in “Stormborn”—rather, it’s his claim to love Sansa that snaps Jon’s resolve.

"LITTLEFINGER: “I love Sansa… as I loved her mother.”JON: “Touch my sister, and I’ll kill you myself.”"

Considering the romantic and sexual connotations of the word “touch,” the word choice here is interesting. It’s not a particularly brotherly way to phrase such a threat, while the platonic alternative would read more like “Stay away from my sister.” Just to double-check, I asked one of my own overprotective brothers (who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones) how he would respond in such a situation, to which he said: “I’d ask why he thinks he loves you, then talk to you about how you feel. Or if it was like a stalker situation, I’d just threaten him.”

Now, my brother isn’t the end-all, be-all of sibling opinion, but it does seem that Jon’s reaction isn’t strictly fraternal, especially when we consider these exchanges:

"RAMSAY [to Jon in season 6]: “She’s a fine woman, your sister. I look forward to having her back in my bed.”TYRION [in season 7]: “[Sansa and I had] a sham marriage, and unconsummated.”JON [to Sansa]: “Do you think I’m Joffrey?”"

The showrunners seem to be bringing up every one of Sansa’s “romantic interests” (for want of a better term) so we can see how Jon reacts to them. Why do this? If you ask me, this isn’t a platonic trope; it’s a romantic one. It doesn’t make an eventual Jon/Sansa endgame inevitable, but giving us a retrospective on Sansa’s romantic life (again, for want of a better word) does help lay a foundation.

Even with Jon absent from Winterfell, the bond he’s established with Sansa—however you interpret their relationship—is ever-present. She features in his conversation with Tyrion, and is alluded to when Jon contemplates his mistake in coming to Dragonstone (see “The Northern Fool” above), and she wishes for his return home while in the godswood with Bran. This goes to show that, regardless of distance, the Starks remain a pack that refuses to be separated, even when they’re hundreds of miles apart. Wherever they are, their hearts remain at Winterfell.

“[The North] is part of me,” Jon says, and that sentiment is reflected in Sansa, Bran, and Arya as well. I think that, ultimately, once the last of their family has been restored to their Northern seat, this is a strong indication that the Starks will survive the Long Night, and that they’ll restore the North afterwards.

As much as that sounds like a happily-ever-after ending when we’ve been promised a bittersweet one, I would argue that the Starks have suffered enough bitterness already. Perhaps a soft epilogue is just the dash of sweetness they’ve earned.

Next: The next episode of Game of Thrones, “The Spoils of War,” leaks online

Stay tuned throughout the remainder of the season for our dialogue analyses of episodes 4-5, and 6-7!

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