If we know anything about the upcoming season of Game of Thrones, it’s that all the warring factions up and down the continent of Westeros will finally come to a head in at least one massive battle—and, possibly, an even greater war. This is an event that has been prophesied and hinted at on this series since day one: the Great War to Come, a.k.a. the Battle Between the Living and the Dead. But who has the best chance of winning?
Answers like this are always hard to predict in the chaotic and morally uncertain world author George R.R. Martin created decades ago, when he first lopped off Ned Stark’s head in A Song of Ice and Fire. On Game of Thrones, we not only can’t rely on the good guys winning—we also can’t even necessarily bet on the person with the most weaponry or biggest army. Remember that Tyrion (and his dad) defeated Stannis Baratheon at the Battle of the Blackwater in Season 2, despite being completely outmatched. Hell, Daenerys Targaryen arrived in Westeros last season with three dragons, a massive army, and a can-do attitude—only to somehow be outmaneuvered at almost every turn by Lannister cunning. To borrow a phrase from another famous genre saga, when it comes to Game of Thrones: “Never tell me the odds.”
Just the same, if you’re worried about your favorite characters surviving the series, perhaps it will comfort you to take stock in which side looks to be the most prepared for battle as Season 8 begins. Shifting loyalties aside, there are three major factions at play here: Team Dany and Jon, Team Cersei, and Team Night King. (Listen: if you’re rooting for the Night King, I can only admire your commitment to chaos.) So here, for reference if nothing else, is the list of armies, weapons, and resources each side has in the Great War to Come.
The Army of the Dead: It’s useful to kick this off with a quick refresher on the difference between “wights” and “White Walkers.” Wights are mindless (ish), mouldering, reanimated corpses. A wight’s goal seems to be . . . killing the living? We learned in Season 7 that the wights have some kind of rudimentary way of communicating—or at least screaming. The White Walkers are their far more elegant, icy, cat-faced, and armor-wearing bosses. The Night King is the boss of them all, and made the White Walkers from some human babies he stole. Wights are made (or, if you prefer vampire fiction terminology, “sired”) by the White Walkers.
It’s important to remember that every human that dies this season has the potential to join the side of the army of the undead. That means we’ll likely be treated to the sight of some of our beloved heroes transformed into blue-eyed zombies. Think of your favorite character on Game of Thrones; now imagine them as a zombie. Good—you are now emotionally prepared for the worst.
One of the nuttiest things we learned last season is that if you kill a White Walker, you kill all the wights it sired as well. That’s huge. Now, instead of a fight against a massive army, the big battle of this season will be a fight to kill the Night King, who made all the White Walkers and wights who serve him. O.K., great. How are we going to do that?
Dragonsteel, a.k.a. Valyrian Steel: We learned way back in Season 5 that while regular steel will break on impact, Valyrian steel swords can shatter a White Walker into tiny Walker shards. That’s good news for Jon Snow, who has been carrying “Longclaw”—with its unmistakable wolf’s head pommel—by his side since Season 1. It’s not as good news for everyone else, since Valyrian steel (or dragonsteel, as it’s referred to in the books) is very rare, and the magical art of forging it was lost when Valyria fell.
But Jon isn’t the only heroic type to be carrying around one of these very useful blades. Brienne has “Oathkeeper,” which was melted down from Ned Stark’s old sword, “Ice,” and Jaime is now carrying the other half of that sword: “Widow’s Wail.” (Yes, Jaime and Brienne have matching swords. It’s like the Westerosi answer to Best Friend necklaces.) House Tarly has a Valyrian blade called “Heartsbane,” which Samwell and Gilly stole in the dead of night in Season 6. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed that Jorah Mormont seems to be wearing Heartsbane in the Season 8 trailer.
Meanwhile, Arya picked up a nice bit of Valyrian steel all her own last season, when Littlefinger gave the Starks the dagger that was used to try to assassinate Bran way back in Season 1. She wasted no time in putting it to good use.
O.K., so that’s Arya, Jaime, Brienne, Jorah, and Jon covered. But what about everyone else? Well, don’t worry, because we also have . . .
There’s a reason Jon Snow spent much of Season 7 trying to convince Daenerys Targaryen to let him mine her caves for dragonglass. (Mind out of the gutter, please.) This obsidian-like substance is what the Children of the Forest used to create the White Walkers in the first place.
It can kill both White Walkers and wights, and in the Season 7 episode “Beyond the Wall,” we saw heroes like Jorah, Tormund, and more wielding dragonglass axes, daggers, and dragonglass-tipped spears. Imagine the damage Daenerys’s fighting Unsullied could do with those.
Dragonfire: Unfortunately, dragonfire can’t roast the White Walkers. We saw the Night King walk right through a blast from Drogon last season. But fire does take care of wights very nicely, as does any fire, really.
The Dragons: Daenerys has two living ones—Rhaegal and Drogon—and the Night King has an undead one—Viserion. We suspect that Jon Snow will wind up riding Rhaegal, who was named for his father, Rhaegar.
Flaming Swords: How does Beric Dondarrion’s cool flaming sword work, and why doesn’t everyone have one? Great question. In the books, Thoros of Myr lights his sword with wildfire, while Beric uses his own blood (and some magic) to light the flame. That’s how the show version of the character seemed to do it when he fought the Hound back in Season 3. There was a whole ritual and everything. So that explains why they were so rare back then. But last season, the flaming swords just seemed to turn on whenever Thoros and Beric wanted them to. Handy! We’ve already seen Beric’s in action in a Season 8 teaser, but maybe it’s time for Beric to make sure some of his friends can have some flaming swords of their own this year.
The Wolves: Though we haven’t seen much of them lately, the two surviving Stark direwolves, Ghost and Nymeria, will have something to do in the final season. In fact, some fans think they spotted furry legs among the thundering horse hooves in the Season 8 trailer. There are a lot of reasons to suspect that not only Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, but also Arya’s direwolf, Nymeria—and her entire wolf pack—will swoop in at a crucial moment to turn the tide. Or maybe not. C.G.I. direwolves are expensive, you know! Still, I feel certain we’ve not seen the last of them.
Arya’s Bag of Faces: For a full rundown on the history and meanings behind Faceless Man technology, you can go here. But suffice it to say that it would be nuts to have Arya train in the art of changing your face (and body, and voice, and hair, and whatever) to impersonate someone else if she’s not going to use it at least one more time in this final season. To be honest, the show has been a little lax with the rules on this one—but a sticking point seems to be that the person has to be dead before Arya can use their face. (This is why I’m holding out hope for one last Littlefinger cameo.) It’s a narrative trick best used sparingly—we don’t want to spend all season wondering “wait, is that Arya?!”—and probably best deployed against the Stark’s living enemies, not the dead.
The Army of Living: That’s as good an excuse as any to take a break from the zombies and the face-swapping magic to focus back on the human conflicts that have made George R.R. Martin’s story so famous. We know who is on Team Jon/Dany: they have the Northerners, the Knights of the Vale, the surviving Unsullied, the surviving Dothraki, and any other ragtag heroes, knights, advisers, and squires Jon and Dany have collected along the way. Jaime Lannister is headed up North to assist them as well, and there are a few people in the Riverlands—like the surviving Tullys, say?—who might be convinced to help out. There may be a little friction unifying that force at first, but that’s what Winterfell has going for it.
They can probably also count Theon and Yara in if those two crazy Greyjoy kids manage to find each other and escape their uncle, Euron, in time.
Speaking of Euron: he’s one of the only recognizably human allies left on Cersei’s side. (We won’t count ghouls like Qyburn and the Mountain, shall we?) He’s been sent off on an errand to fetch the queen an army of mercenaries with which to attack Daenerys. But here’s where book readers might have a little bit of insider information. In Martin’s novels, the Golden Company is an elite fighting squad that has never broken a vow—until the latest book. In it, they abandoned one job in order to back whichever Targaryen heir they could find.
The Golden Company was founded by a Blackfyre (a family line that springs from a Targaryen bastard); in the books, the members of the Golden Company (made up of Westerosi exiles) long more than anything to come home. “A brotherhood of exiles and the sons of exiles, united by the dream of Bittersteel. It’s home they want, as much as gold,” one character says. And their Blackfyre/Targaryen family pride is a huge story point: “Some contracts are writ in ink, and some in blood. I say no more,” Magister Illyrio tells Tyrion of his ability to convince the Golden Company to fall in with the Targaryen cause.
With just six episodes left, is the HBO series really likely to go deep on the history and loyalties of a mercenary company that show-watchers have barely heard of? No. But there is the tantalizing possibility (floated by some) that Dany’s old mercenary friend stranded in Meereen, Daario Naharis, will return in order to lead the Golden Company and orchestrate a last-minute betrayal of Cersei. In other words, Cersei plans to buy the Company and ferry them home—but it might be Daenerys or Jon who gets their loyalty in the end.
Scorpions: No, we’re not talking about the fun kind the Dornish used to assassinate people in the books. A scorpion is another name for that giant crossbow (or ballista) that Bronn used to clip Drogon in Season 7. If Cersei really wants to take down Daenerys, she better keep Qyburn busy on the anti-dragon weaponry front. In fact, now that the Night King has a dragon of his own, everyone should be hard at work building as many Scorpions as they can. It’s either that, or make a bunch of ice javelins and get some perfect aim.
Wildfire: What, you thought the show would just use this fun green menace twice and call it a day? The glowing substance that made such an explosive impact in both the Season 2 Battle of the Blackwater and the Season 6 finale—you remember; R.I.P. Margaery, Tommen, Loras, Lancel, Pycelle, etc.?—is still on the table. Cersei used up a lot of it, sure. But the Mad King Aerys hid caches of it all over the city, according to Jaime. So keep an eye on Cersei or any other spark-happy leader with an eye on wide-spread destruction.
The Holy R’hllors: When she left Westeros last season, Melisandre said she’d be back—to die. But we imagine she’ll do a bit more before that happens, no? She said she was off to Volantis before explaining: “I’ve done my part. I’ve brought ice and fire together. . . . My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end. . . . Neither of us is common folk anymore. . . . Oh, I will return dear, Spider. One last time. I have to die in this strange country, just like you.” So, what’s she up to in Volantis?
That’s the home of the Temple of the Lord of Light, and the headquarters for the red priests and priestesses spreading the word of Daenerys-as-messiah throughout Essos. “He has sent you a savior,” Varys and Tyrion heard one red priestess preach on the long bridge of Volantis. “From the fire, he was reborn to save the world.” The fact that there’s an entire religious order proselytizing in Daenerys’s name is a Season 5 and 6 thread that the show has left dangling. Why introduce Kinvara et. al. and have them drum up support for the Dragon Queen abroad if Daenerys is never going back to Essos? Why, so they can show up in force, fire magic a-blazing, to help her in the great war that’s going to rage, of course! In the Martin novel A Clash of Kings, Daenerys sees some fire mages conjuring ladders of flame out of the thin air. We also know some of them—like Melisandre and Thoros—can raise the dead. That would come in handy right about now.
The Three-Eyed Raven, Plus Sam: Bran will have a lot to say in Season 8, and maybe even a lot to do. Will that involve taking control of Viserion, like he used to do to Hodor? Maybe. But more likely, Bran will be deployed to be the occasional “information bomb,” as D.B. Weiss termed it in a behind-the-scenes video from Season 7. Frustratingly, Bran both knowing everything and not really knowing what he knows means that there might be little consistency to the way his information funnels into the show itself. Basically, he’s an exposition tool. But if some of that exposition involves some ancient info on how the living can defeat the dead—then, well, it will be a good thing Sam’s around to translate that all into human speak for Bran’s siblings.
The Prince/Princess That Was Promised: This is a big one. Melisandre seems to believe both Jon and Daenerys might, in some way, be the Prince Who Was Promised—since, clearly, her original favorite didn’t pan out. (R.I.P., Stannis.) If you have 16 minutes to spare and need a refresher on the Prince Who Was Promised/Azor Ahai myth, you can watch this fantastic, in-depth video explaining it all. If you want a shorter version: thousands and thousands of years ago, there was something called the Long Night, a winter in which the Others (a.k.a. White Walkers) laid waste to the realms of men.
According to legend, there was a hero who put a stop to the Long Night, one called by many names throughout the fictional lands of Westeros, Essos, and beyond: the Prince That Was Promised, the Last Hero, the Stallion Who Mounts the World, Azor Ahai, etc. These are probably all the same savior figure—and, according to a widespread prophecy, he’s destined to be reborn and save the world once more. Melisandre was once operating under the assumption that Stannis Baratheon was that chosen one, born of smoke and salt. But maybe she should have studied her non-gendered nouns a little closer. For a more detailed examination of what this means for A Song of Ice and Fire and the “Chosen One” narrative, you can go here.