Game of Thrones is back, and we’re going to watch it together.
First up is our watchthrough, where we travel through the episode scene-by-scene. Then we’ll follow that with the Master’s Research section, where we dive deeper into the most intriguing parts of the episode.
Get out your magnifying glasses and follow us on a minutiae-filled exploration of this episode.
The clockwork title sequence does many new things in season 8, so let’s talk about them and their significance.
We begin at the broken wall. We head south, and the first thing we see is new: Last Hearth. That’ll be important later.
We continue south, passing Winterfell, the ancestral home of House Stark. We get close to the red-leaved Weirwood tree. That’ll be important later, too.
We enter Winterfell, descending into the catacombs. Believe it or not, that’ll be important later, as well. It’s almost like they planned this out!
Next up: King’s Landing, which we travel through until we reach the Iron Throne.
The great northern procession
A boy runs through snowy woods, into town, and then pushes his way near the front of a crowd. He can’t get to the front, so he runs off.
We see Arya Stark standing at the front of the crowd.
The boy runs off and climbs a tree to get a vantage point on tens of thousands of Unsullied soldiers marching north toward Winterfell.
We see Jon Snow and Daenerys (Dany) Targaryen. He looks somber and worried. She looks triumphant. Behind them, Dothraki ride on horseback.
Arya sees them and nearly calls out as they pass. They don’t see her, and Arya’s excitement wanes.
Inside a caravan, we find Tyrion Lannister and Varys.
“You should consider yourself lucky,” Tyrion says. “At least your balls won’t freeze off.”
“You take great offense at dwarf jokes but love telling eunuch jokes,” Varys says. “Why is that?”
“Because I have balls, and you don’t.”
We see Grey Worm and Missandei, riding side-by-side. They give each other a look. The crowd gives them a look. The crowd gives everyone a look.
“I warned you,” Jon says to Dany. “Northerners don’t much trust outsiders.”
Dany’s two dragons, Rhaegal and Drogon, fly past the procession and over Winterfell.
Standing at a parapet looking south, Sansa Stark sees the dragons in wonder and concern.
Arrival at Winterfell
The procession reaches Winterfell, and in an echo of the first episode of the series, a crowd of Winterfell’s most important people are assembled in the courtyard awaiting the arrival of royalty.
Among the assembled, we see the wheelchair user Brandon Stark, who began Game of Thrones as a child actor and is now approximately 47.
Jon rides in, hops off his horse, and embraces Bran. Jon says he’s now a man. Bran says not quite yet. Jon embraces Sansa next and asks where Arya is. Lurking somewhere, Sansa says.
Dany steps forward to greet Sansa. Jon introduces them.
“Thank you for inviting us into your home, Lady Stark,” Dany says. “The North is as beautiful as your brother claimed — as are you.”
Sansa looks her up and down, takes a break, and says, “Winterfell is yours, Your Grace,” with as much sincerity as she can muster.
“We don’t have time for all this,” Bran says to Dany. “The Night King has your dragon. He’s one of them now. The Wall has fallen. The dead march south.”
A tense meeting
Sansa explains the situation to those assembled.
“As soon as we heard about the Wall, I called all our banners to retreat to Winterfell. Lord Umber, when can we expect your people to arrive?”
A boy, maybe 10 years old, pops out from a crowd of grizzly, bearded men.
“We need more horses and wagons, if it please my lady,” he says. “And my lord. And my queen. Sorry.”
“You’ll have as many as we can spare. Hurry back to Last Hearth, and bring your people here.”
Last Hearth was the first, newest, and northernmost city that we saw in the title sequence.
“We need to send ravens to the Night’s Watch as well,” Jon says. “There’s no sense in manning the castles anymore. We make our stand here.”
“At once, Your Grace,” a man says, bows, and leaves to carry out John’s orders.
“Your Grace,” says Lyanna Mormont. “But you’re not. Are you? You left Winterfell a king and came back a — I’m not sure what you are now. A lord? Nothing at all?”
“It’s not important,” Jon says.
“Not important? We named you King in the North.” The crowd agrees with gusto.
“You did, my lady. It was the honor of my life. I’ll always be grateful for your faith. But when I left Winterfell, I told you we need allies or we will die. I have brought those allies home to fight alongside us. I had a choice: Keep my crown or protect the North. I chose the North.”
The crowd murmurs, clearly not buying what Jon’s selling. Reading the uneasy room, Tyrion steps in on Jon’s behalf.
“If anyone survives the war to come, we’ll have Jon Snow to thank,” he says. “He risked his life to show us the threat is real. Thanks to his courage, we have brought with us the greatest army the world has ever seen. We have brought two full-grown dragons. And soon, the Lannister army will ride north to join our cause.”
That last part doesn’t go over well.
“I know, I know, our people haven’t been friends in the past,” he says. “But we must fight together now … or die.”
Sansa changes the subject.
“May I ask, how are we meant to feed the greatest army the world has ever seen? While I ensured our stores would last through winter, I didn’t account for Dothraki, Unsullied, and two full-grown dragons. What do dragons eat, anyway?”
“Whatever they want,” Dany says without a smile.
Gendry and the dragonglass
Men unload carts full of dragonglass, which looks a lot like coal.
Gendry — a blacksmith from King’s Landing and the bastard son of King Robert Baratheon — grabs a piece that nearly falls to the ground. Echoing the tenuous provisions that Sansa spoke about in the previous scene, he warns the men to be careful.
He climbs on top of the cart, asking if this is the last of it. Over his shoulder, we see Tyrion looking down from above.
Sansa and Tyrion at Winterfell
Above the men unloading provisions, Tyrion approaches Sansa.
“Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding,” Tyrion says. “Miserable affair.”
“It had its moments,” Sansa says, alluding to the exerable Joffrey’s death. She takes a moment to think about what to say next. “Apologies for leaving like that.”
“Yes, it was a bit hard to explain why my wife fled moments after the king’s murder.”
“We both survived.”
“Many underestimated you. Most of them are dead now. I’m sure you weren’t thrilled to hear the Lannister army’s marching north. You have every right to be fearful of my sister. No one fears her more than I do. But I promise, you’ll be safe.”
“Cersei told you her army was coming north to fight for you?”
“And you believed her?”
“She has something to live for now. I believe she wants to survive.”
“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” Sansa says. Used to, as in past tense. As in anyone who believes Cersei Lannister’s promises can’t possibly be clever.
She walks away.
Tyrion looks down into the courtyard and sees Bran looking up at him.
Jon and Arya at the Weirwood tree
Jon stands at the Weirwood tree, staring at the face carved in the tree as the face stares back. He’s troubled. Sad, even.
“You used to be taller,” Arya says. Jon turns around, startled.
“How did you sneak up on me?” he asks.
“How did you survive a knife through the heart?” she asks, dodging Jon’s question.
“I didn’t,” he says.
He notices her sword, Needle, which he gave to her at the beginning of season 1, before he left to join the Night’s Watch. She may have outgrown it, but she still carries it. He asks if she’s ever used it. Her answer is the understatement of the age.
They compare swords, noting that his is made of Valyrian steel. Though they don’t say it, Jon’s sword is called Longclaw. Way back in season 1, Lord Jeor “The Old Bear” Mormont, who was then in charge of the Night’s Watch, gave Longclaw to Jon as thanks for saving his life.
Jon says he could have used her help with Sansa — that Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone. Arya thinks Sansa’s the smartest person she’s ever met. Jon’s taken aback, but Arya says she’s defending not just Sansa, but their family — and implying that she’s and Sansa aren’t entirely onboard with backing Dany.
“I’m her family, too,” Jon says.
“Don’t forget that,” Arya says.
Cersei and Qyburn at King’s Landing
We travel south to King’s Landing. Qyburn, the disgraced former maester and current Hand of the Queen, approaches Queen CerSei Lannister.
“Your Grace, I’m afraid I bring terrible news,” he says. “The dead have broken through the Wall.”
“Good,” Cersei says with a smile and walks away.
Shockingly, it seems that Tyrion’s decision to trust his sister Cersei was a bad move.
As she walks away, Qyburn looks off the coast, where he sees dozens of warships.
Yara Greyjoy and Euron Greyjoy on a warship off the coast of King’s Landing
Yara Greyjoy and her uncle Euron are in the bowels of a boat. She’s tied to a post. He’s lurking.
“Why don’t you just get it over with and kill me?” Yara asks.
“But we’re family,” the exerable Euron says. “The last Greyjoys left in the world. The last ones with balls anyway. If I kill you, who can I talk to? Hmm? I’ve got a crew full of mutes. It gets lonely at sea.”
“Are we in King’s Landing?” she asks.
“You picked the losing side.”
“Then I’ll sail the Iron Fleet somewhere else. But first I’m gonna fuck the queen.”
Super cool guy, that Urine Euron.
Euron, Cersei, and Captain Harry Strickland at the Iron Throne
Euron Greyjoy and Harry Strickland stand before the queen. Strickland is the captain of the Golden Company, a group of sellswords that Euron recruited. They’re here to update the queen about what they’ve brought her.
“Twenty thousand men, is it?” Cersei asks.
“Yes, Your Grace.” Strickland says. “A few died in transit.
“They cheated at dice,” Euron says. “Or maybe I cheated. Someone cheated. They weren’t good fighters. You won’t miss them.”
“Two thousand,” Strickland says.
“Uh, no elephants, Your Grace,” Strickland says.
“That’s disappointing,” Cersei says. “I was told the Golden Company had elephants.”
“They are excellent beasts, Your Grace, but not well-suited to long sea voyages,” Harry says.
“In any event, you are most welcome here in King’s Landing, Captain Strickland.”
“We look forward to fighting on your behalf, Your Grace,” Strickland says and leaves.
“As a true friend and an honored guest, I was hoping we could talk in private,” he says. He’s not talking about talking.
“After the war,” Cersei says. “That was our agreement.”
“Wars sometimes last years.”
“You want a whore, buy one. You want a queen, earn her.”
“I’ve given her justice, an army and the Iron Fleet, yet she gives me no sign of affection. My heart is nearly broken.”
“You’re insolent. I’ve executed men for less.”
“They were lesser men.”
She walks away, pauses, looks back. He smiles and follows her. They deserve each other.
Bronn, super naked whores, and Qyburn at King’s Landing
Bronn wants some lovin’, but the ladies he’s brought to his room sure want to talk about dragons.
Qyburn walks in and interrupts. Bronn pulls his pants up and grabs a drink as the ladies leave.
“The queen’s brothers made promises to you and broke them,” Qyburn says. “Her Grace wants to rectify their mistake.”
“She once gave me a castle and a wife, then rectified me right out of them,” Bronn says.
“That was Ser Jaime’s doing, not hers. When Queen Cersei wants something, she pays in advance and in gold. Several chests of it, in fact. Waiting for you in a wagon just outside.”
“So she wants to murder someone, but she can’t send her soldiers. If it’s the Dragon Queen she’s after — ”
“She has other plans for the Targaryen girl.”
“Yeah, well, good luck with that.”
“Our queen’s brothers are unlikely to survive their Northern adventures. But in the event that they do, she has a keen sense of poetic justice.”
Qyburn shows Bronn a crossbow — the same one that Tyrion used to kill his own father, who was also Cersei and Jaime’s father.
“That fucking family,” Bronn says.
“When the Citadel expelled me, I thought I would die poor and alone, but in exchange for my service, Queen Cersei made me her Hand. What would she do for the man who rids her of her treasonous brothers?”
Cersei and Euron in the royal bedroom
After doing their thing, Cersei and Euron talk. The queen laments Strickland’s lack of elephants. Euron wants to know how his performance stacked up to her late husband’s. Better, turns out.
“I want to be alone,” Cersei says.
“I’m going to put a prince in your belly,” Euron says and leaves.
Yara and Theon Greyjoy on the boat
Yara’s brother Theon and a group of men kill everyone on the boat and free her. In thanks, she headbutts him, then helps him to his feet.
They sail three ships away from King’s Landing.
“Euron can’t defend the Iron Islands, not if he’s in King’s Landing with all his men and his ships,” Yara says. “We can take our home back.”
“Daenerys went north,” Theon says.
“Daenerys will need somewhere to retreat if they can’t hold the North. Somewhere the dead can’t go.”
“You’re my queen. I go where you command.”
“You want to go to Winterfell. To fight for the Starks. Go. What is dead may never die.”
“What is dead may never die.”
“But kill the bastards anyway,” Yara says.
Tyrion, Varys, and Davos “Onion Knight” Seaworth at Winterfell
The Karstarks arrive at Winterfell, as Tyrion, Varys, and the Onion Knight talk.
“Not so long ago, the Starks and the Karstarks were slaughtering each other on the battlefield. Jon Snow brought peace to the houses,” the Onion Knight says.
“And our queen is grateful,” Tyrion says.
“Her gratitude is lovely, but that’s not my point,” the Onion Knight says. “The Northmen are loyal to Jon Snow, not to her. They don’t know her. The Free Folk don’t know her. I’ve been up here a while, and I’m telling you, they’re stubborn as goats. You want their loyalty, you have to earn it.”
“I sense that you’re leading to a proposal,” Tyrion says.
“A proposal is what I’m proposing,” the Onion Knight says. “On the off chance that we survive the Night King, what if the Seven Kingdoms, for once in their whole shit history, were ruled by a just woman and an honorable man?”
“They do make a handsome couple,” Tyrion says.
“You overestimate our influence,” Varys says. “Jon and Daenerys don’t want to listen to lonely old men.”
“I’m not that old. Not as old as him,” Tyrion says, motioning to the Onion Knight. “Our queen respects the wisdom of age.”
“Of course she does,” Varys says. “Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth.”
“What is that?” Tyrion asks.
“Nothing lasts,” Varys says.
The three look down at Jon and Dany.
Jon and Dany and dragons in Winterfell
Jon and Dany walk the grounds of Winterfell. All around them, men prepare for war.
Dany knows that Sansa doesn’t much like her. Jon says it’s because she doesn’t know her. That’s not not wrong.
A Dothraki soldier approaches on a horse. The dragons aren’t eating enough. Jon and Dany go to see the monsters. They don’t like the north, Dany says, and climbs onto Drogon. She urges Jon to hop up onto the other dragon, Rhaegal.
“I don’t know how to ride a dragon,” Jon says.
“Nobody does. Until they ride a dragon.”
“What if he doesn’t want me to?”
“Then I’ve enjoyed your company, Jon Snow.”
They ride dragons. Jon nearly has a heart attack. They land. They dismount. They flirt. They kiss.
The dragons watch.
Gendry, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, and Arya in the Winterfell forge
Gendry pours blue liquid metal. Men around him forge weapons.
“It isn’t easy making a blade that big with dragonglass,” Gendry says, handing the Hound a weapon.
That seems important.
“You’re saying you’re good, is that it?” the Hound says.
“I’m just saying it’s a tricky material to —”
“You know who makes weapons for the wildlings? Cripples and cocksuckers. Which one are you?”
“Leave him be,” Arya says from the shadows. They turn, startled. Again, she’s snuck up on people.
“I heard you were here,” the Hound says as he approaches Arya. “You left me to die.”
“First I robbed you,” Arya says.
“You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” The Hound walks away.
“That was a nice ax you made for him,” Arya says to Gendry. “You’ve gotten better.”
“Yeah, thanks. So have you. I mean, you look good.“
“Thanks. So do you.”
“It’s not a bad place to grow up, if it wasn’t so cold.”
“Stay close to that forge, then.”
“Is that a command, Lady Stark?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“As you wish, m’lady.”
“Here’s my wish,” she says and hands him a blueprint for a weapon with a detachable dragonglass tip. “Can you make it?” That seems important, too.
“What do you need something like this for?”
“Can you make it or not?”
“You already have a sword. What’s that? It’s Valyrian steel. I always knew you were just another rich girl.”
“You don’t know any other rich girls,” she says and walks away with a smile.
Sansa and Jon in Winterfell
Jon enters Sansa’s room, and the conversation turns awkward quickly. Lord Glover (whoever he is) says that he’s not joining the assembled army. He pledged to follow Jon Snow, the King in the North, not Dany.
It’s the pressure that’s been building this whole episode.
“I told you we needed allies,” Jon says.
“You didn’t tell me you were going to abandon your crown,” Sansa says.
“I never wanted a crown. All I wanted was to protect the North. I brought two armies home with me, two dragons.”
“And a Targaryen queen.”
“Do you think we can beat the army of the dead without her? I fought them, Sansa. Twice. You want to worry about who holds what title; I’m telling you it doesn’t matter. Without her, we don’t stand a chance. Do you have any faith in me at all?”
“You know I do. “
“She’ll be a good queen. For all of us. She’s not her father.”
“No, she’s much prettier. Did you bend the knee to save the North, or because you love her?”
Jon doesn’t answer.
Dany, Jorah, and Sam in Winterfell
Dany and Jorah meet Sam, to thank him for curing Jorah, and it goes bad quickly. Sam says he could use a pardon. He mentions the sword he stole from his father.
“It’s been in House Tarly for generations,” Sam says. “It would’ve been mine anyway, eventually, but my father had other ideas.”
“Not Randyll Tarly?” Dany says.
“You know him?” Sam asks.
“I offered to let him retain his lands and titles if he bent the knee. He refused.”
“Well … at least I’ll be allowed home again, now that my brother’s the lord.”
“Your brother stood with your father.”
Sam swallowed the death of his father admirably. After all, his dad was the worst to him. The news of his brother’s death hits him quite a bit harder. He asks to be excused and shuffles out of the room in tears.
Sam and Bran in the Winterfell courtyard
Sam runs into the Winterfell courtyard, where he sees and approaches Bran.
“What are you doing out here?” Sam asks.
“Waiting, for an old friend,” Bran says. “It’s time to tell Jon the truth.”
“No, no. You’re his brother. Shouldn’t you tell him?”
“I’m not his brother. He trusts you more than anyone. Now’s the time.”
Sam and Jon in the Winterfell crypt
Jon lights a candle in the crypt beneath Winterfell, where members of House Stark are buried. He approaches a statue of his father, the late and beloved Ned Stark.
Sam stumbles his way into the crypt and apologizes for coming down there. Jon hugs him in response — he didn’t know Sam was in Winterfell, too. After some pleasantries, Sam gets direct.
“Don’t you know?” Sam asks.
“Know what?” Jon asks.
“Daenerys … she executed my father and brother. They were her prisoners. She didn’t tell you.”
“I’m so sorry. We need to end this war.”
“Would you have done it?”
“Well, I’ve executed men who disobeyed me.”
“You’ve also spared men. Thousands of wildlings when they refused to kneel.”
“I wasn’t a king.”
“But you were. You’ve always been.”
“I gave up my crown, Sam. I bent the knee. I’m not King in the North anymore,” Jon says and walks away.
“I’m not talking about the King in the North,” Sam calls after John. “I’m talking about the King of the bloody Seven Kingdoms. Bran and I worked it out. I had a High Septon’s diary. Bran had … whatever Bran has.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your mother was Lyanna Stark. And your father — your real father — was Rhaegar Targaryen. You’ve never been a bastard. You’re Aegon Targaryen, true heir to the Iron Throne. I’m sorry, I know it’s a lot to take in.”
“My father was the most honorable man I ever met. You’re saying he lied to me all my life.”
“No. Your father — Ned Stark — he promised your mother he’d always protect you. And he did. Robert would have murdered you if he knew. You’re the true king. Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, Protector of the Realm, all of it.”
“Daenerys is our queen.”
“She shouldn’t be.”
“It’s the truth. You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”
Eddison Tollett, Beric Dondarrion, and others at Last Hearth
Through windy dark, a group of men make their way to Last Hearth — the northernmost place we saw during the title sequence, and the home of the boy, Lord Umber, who requested more horses at Winterfell. Last we saw him, he was headed home to gather his people and bring them to Winterfell.
Inside, it’s snow-covered and in ruins. It looks like it’s been deserted for years.
Two groups of mostly indistinguishable bearded men meet, scaring each other. One of them lights a sword on fire, which is rad. They search Last Hearth. They find a child pinned to a wall, with severed body parts nailed to the wall around him.
“The Umber boy,” Edd says.
“It’s a message,” Beric says. “From the Night King. His army’s between us and Winterfell. We’re on foot. We rode down from Castle Black. We can double up on the horses. If the horses last, we’ll get there before the dead. We just have to hope the Night King doesn’t come first.”
The Umber boy wakes up, screaming. They light him on fire. As he screams, the dead bodies in a strange pattern nailed to the wall around him burn, too.
A cloaked man and Bran in Winterfell
A man on horseback wearing a black cloak rides into Winterfell. He dismounts his horse, removes his hood, and looks around. It is Jaime Lannister.
The last time he was here, he shoved a (much) younger Bran Stark out of a window, paralyzing him.
Across the courtyard, Jaime sees Bran.
The two lock eyes.
Cut to black.
We’ve looked at “Winterfell” in hyper-scrutinizing detail. Now let’s talk about the episode.
Putting the pieces on the board
“Winterfell” is an episode about reunions — or, if you want to be snarky, a series of meetings. It’s also about putting the pieces on the board.
Think about how far we’ve come: When Game of Thrones premiered, characters were as far as anyone’s ever been from each other, from a party of the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall in the far north to Dany and her brother Viserys Targaryen in Pentos, across the sea, south of King’s Landing.
This week’s episode simplifies the geography. We had Winterfell, we had King’s Landing (and the waters just offshore), and we (briefly) had Last Hearth. It makes things easier to grasp, and it only took eight years to get here.
We, as the audience, know infinitely more than any of the characters in Game of Thrones do, which makes this episode’s reunions much more interesting.
Take Jaime Lannister. We’ve seen Jaime’s, well, if not redemption over the last several years, then his evolution into something quite a bit less awful than he was at the beginning of the series. When he arrives at Winterfell, we know that he’s a (somewhat) changed man.
But doing better in the present doesn’t change the past. When Jaime sees Brandon Stark, we’re reminded of his awful past. When Bran was a little boy, Jaime pushed him out of a window for happening to see Jaime and his twin sister Cersei, you know, exchanging the littlefinger.
So it’s not just Bran who’d have a beef with Jaime. It’s all of the Starks — and why not take everyone in the North along for the ride?
That’s bad enough. It’s only going to get worse.
Jaime’s nickname is the Kingslayer, and he earned it for killing the king, Aerys Targaryen, also known as the Mad King. Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King, was Dany’s father. So she’s got a bit of a beef with Jaime, too.
Jaime, of the Kingsguard, murdered the person he was supposed to protect. It may well be that he did the right thing. But he’s still the Kingslayer.
The war for control of the crown, Robert’s Rebellion, was over. Robert Baratheon assumed the throne. Jaime’s sister married the king.
But wait — there’s more! In this episode, the Hand of the Queen, Qyburn, shows Bronn a crossbow — the same one that Tyrion used to kill his own father, Tywin. Bronn’s mission: Find and kill Tyrion and Jaime.
Jaime’s got to pay the piper, friends and neighbors.
The game of thrones continues
“Winterfell” reminds us that the show’s name remains relevant.
Yes, there’s a war coming. Yes, banding together to defeat the White Walkers is the most important thing for humanity right now. But it’s not the final thing to do. Assuming that good triumphs over evil, there’s still a game of thrones to play. And a lot of “Winterfell” was about the continuing that game, asking who will rule.
The obvious answer is Dany. At least through the prism of a dynasty, her hereditary claim to the throne works.
Her father, Aerys Targaryen the Mad King, got murdered off of the throne. There was a civil war that disrupted the natural order. As his only surviving child (as far as effectively everyone knows), Dany is the rightful heir to the throne — a way to make the aberration right.
Except that she isn’t the rightful heir, and almost nobody knows that.
Let’s clear it up, mostly chronologically, so we can trace our way back to where this whole thing started (and where it might go).
Aerys Targaryen (the Mad King) has three children
Aerys and his sister-wife’s children were born in this order:
Rhaegar is firstborn and heir to the throne. If Aerys dies, Rhaegar becomes king. Easy peasy, miss Khaleesi.
Rhaegar marries Elia Martell
If you read that last part and thought, “Hey, don’t Targaryens marry their siblings? What about Daenerys? Why didn’t she marry her older brother, like her father married his sister?” Well, good question. You’re a thinker. Go to the head of the class. The answer: Dany is way, way younger than Rhaegar. He’d been married twice, fathered three children, and also probably died before Dany was born.
Aerys and his sister-wife don’t have a girl, so Rhaegar marries Elia Martell. Things are going just fine. Business as usual.
Rhaegar and Elia have two children (whose names don’t matter), the firstborn of whom is heir to the throne after Rhaegar.
So the line of succession looks like this: Aerys > Rhaegar > Rhaegar’s kid. Still pretty simple, for now.
Lyanna Stark is engaged to Robert Baratheon
Meanwhile, Lyanna Stark (Ned Stark’s sister) becomes engaged to Robert Baratheon. That would seem unimportant and tangential, except for what happens next.
Rhaegar marries Lyanna Stark
News flash: What’s great for these two crazy kids who fall in love is bad for the kingdom. Here’s how it goes down:
- Rumor spreads that Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna, and people like Robert Baratheon and the Starks get super pissed off.
- A High Septon annuls Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia and weds Rhaegar and Lyanna in a secret ceremony. (We know this because Sam’s wife, Gilly, read this in a diary when they were at the Citadel, as he tells Bran in the season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”)
- Not being fools, Rhaegar and Lyanna hide away in Dorne, about as far south in Westeros as you can get from King’s Landing and Winterfell (where her family is from).
This is bad.
A civil war called Robert’s Rebellion deposes the Targaryens
In response to Rhaegar “kidnapping” Lyanna, Robert Baratheon incites Robert’s Rebellion, a bloody civil war in which several houses unite to oppose the Targaryens.
Thing is, Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie, as Bran says in “The Dragon and the Wolf.” There was no kidnapping. There was no rape. Rhaegar and Lyanna eloped.
The result of Robert’s Rebellion:
- Robert Baratheon kills Rhaegar Targaryen on the battlefield.
- Jaime Lannister, the head of the Kingsguard, kills the Mad King in King’s Landing. (To be fair, the Mad King was going to burn the city to the ground.)
- Rhaegar’s first wife, Elia, and their two children die during the siege of King’s Landing.
- The Targaryen dynasty ends.
- The two surviving Targaryen children — Viserys and Daenerys — are spirited away across the Narrow Sea, to live in exile in Essos.
- Robert ascends to the throne and marries Cersei Lannister.
This is bad.
A (secret) child is born
At or near the end of Robert’s Rebellion, a wrinkle:
- Rhaegar and Lyanna have a child in secret: Aegon Targaryen.
- Lyanna dies just after giving birth.
- Ned Stark, who was there with his dying sister, takes her child (his nephew) to Winterfell, calling him his illegitimate son conceived during Robert’s Rebellion. He calls him “Jon Snow” to protect the child — the rightful Targaryen heir — from Robert Baratheon, who’d for sure want to kill him.
This is bad, but also kind of sweet. That’s Ned for you. He’s good people.
Putting it all together
So the true Targaryen line of succession looks like this: Aerys > Rhaegar > Aegon. That would be simple, except that effectively nobody knows about the secret child (who we know as Jon Snow). As Game of Thrones begins, as far as everybody knows, the only two people who have a claim to the throne (outside of the Baratheons) are Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. The world thought for decades that Viserys and Daenerys were all who remained of the Targaryen dynasty. Viserys is dead, so everybody thinks that Dany is the sole heir.
So who wins the game of thrones? And how? Keep in mind that there are two ways to take throne:
- Succession. Your parent is a king or queen. You get born first. Or everybody else dies. You get the throne.
- Conquest. You kill the monarch and take the throne for yourself.
We’ve seen both. We may see them again.
Way back at the beginning of Game of Thrones, Viserys, the older brother, plans to wed his sister to Khal Drogo, command a Dothraki army, use them to overthrow Robert Baratheon, and take the throne for himself (and the Targaryens).
It doesn’t so much work out for Viserys, which leaves Dany as the only (as far as anybody knows) other person with a Targaryen claim to the throne. She spends the rest of the series amassing armies to take back the throne, under the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that she’s the rightful Targaryen heir.
But — and this is the whole point of all of this — someone else has a better claim to the throne: Jon Snow, aka Aegon Targaryen.
Why? Because when Rhaegar died, his child (Aegon) became next in line to the throne. Therefore, Aegon Targaryen, who we know as Jon Snow, is the rightful heir to the throne.
The true line of Targaryen succession is:
- Aerys the Mad King
- Rhaegar, Aerys’ firstborn son
- Aegon, Rhaegar’s only surviving offspring, who we know as Jon Snow
Royalty and succession are dumb. But that’s how it works.
Will Jon choose to rule at all? And if so, by himself or alongside his aunt Dany? Or another Stark? Or … Gendry, a bastard son of Robert Baratheon?