Game of Thrones’ season eight premiere, “Winterfell,” was primarily setup for the inevitable war to come.
The episode showed us where things stood in Westeros after season seven, reunited some long-lost family members (Jon and Arya, aw), and set up some sources of tension between main characters like Sansa and Daenerys. Most fundamentally, though, it put the pieces in place a for a season-defining three-way conflict between the good guy alliance led by Jon and Daenerys (or should I say Aegon and Daenerys?), Cersei Lannister, and the White Walkers. The core issue, at least as the season begins, is which of these three warring factions is likely to remain standing after the inevitable battle to come?
So who is it most likely to be?
To try to answer that question, I consulted science — specifically, political science. The subfield of international relations has spent decades accumulating knowledge on what causes different countries to rise and fall, to succeed at getting what they want or to fail miserably. A lot of this work applies just as well to Westeros, with a little bit of tweaking, as it does to Earth.
So now that the final season has officially begun, here are our early rankings of where each faction stands in the Game of Thrones, based on my purely objective and indisputably correct reading of selected scholarship in international relations. Let’s start with who’s least likely to win...
3) Cersei and House Lannister
Cersei did a masterful job last season playing a weak hand. She crushed allies of her chief enemies (RIP Olenna Tyrell), acquired a massive military force (the Golden Company that shows up in the season eight premiere) and even got herself a navy (arrogant Euron Greyjoy’s fleet).
It’s not enough. It’s not even close to enough.
Cersei’s strategy in season eight is to sit out the brewing conflict at Winterfell, let her enemies fight, and take on whoever wins after they’ve been bloodied. It’s why she says “good” when she’s informed that the Army of the Dead has broken through the Wall.
The problem, though, is that she lacks the technology to defeat either of her far stronger opponents. She may have a significant ground army, but she doesn’t have any weapon that can reliably stop a dragon from burning it where it stands. She has no dragonglass stores that we know of, and thus can’t make weapons that could kill the White Walkers in a ground engagement — let alone a plan to deal with an undead dragon.
But her problems run deeper than that. The core of what strength she has stems from her alliance with Euron Greyjoy, who provides what seems to be her entire navy and thus her link to Essos mercenaries. Yet Euron is not a reliable ally: When his captive niece Yara tells him he’s picked the losing side, he admits that he’ll abandon Cersei if things look too dire. Euron is only hanging around to “fuck the queen,” as he colorfully puts it. Euron only wants one thing — to have sex with Cersei and then be told he’s better at it than Jaime — and it’s disgusting.
This is an almost too-on-the-nose dramatization of a point that feminist international relations scholar J. Ann Tickner made in her 1992 book, Gender and International Relations.
In the book, Tickner argues that the world of politics is a man’s world: a space defined by highly gendered ideas about what leaders should want and how they should act. The first chapter runs through several examples of high-level female foreign policy officials with diverse styles and goals, each of whom faced the same set of barriers and difficulties due to their gender.
“I believe these gender-related difficulties are symptomatic of a much deeper issue ... the extent to which international politics is such a thoroughly masculinized sphere of activity that women’s voices are deemed inauthentic,” Tickner writes.
Cersei picked up all of the masculine “virtues” of toughness, ruthlessness, and the prioritization of the pursuit of power above all else. But she cannot escape being a woman, and being treated as less an important military ally and more a potential sexual context by another head of state.
Daenerys has faced similar barriers, ranging from being forced into an arranged marriage to Khal Drogo in season one all the way to her title being called into question because of Jon’s male birthright this episode. But right now, her military situation is so much stronger that the fundamentally gendered system is less of a problem for her than it is for Cersei.
Westeros is so “thoroughly masculinized” that Cersei’s chief alliance-building outreach, the move that gave her even a hope and a prayer of triumphing against superior forces, is fundamentally shaky.
2) The Night King and the White Walkers
If we were ranking these factions by who has the most flair for the dramatic, the Night King would take the cake. The screaming Umber boy-zombie, surrounded by dismembered arms in a creepy swirl pattern, is easily the most memorable image of the season eight premiere.
In purely military terms, the Army of the Dead is in good shape. It has a massive number of wights, powerful magic that can turn every enemy casualty into a recruit, and an ice dragon. A goddamn ice dragon!
But still, the Night King is not actually in the best position to win the war.
First, the zombie army is a lot weaker than it seems. If you recall back in season seven, we learned that killing a White Walker also results in the death of every wight it reanimated. If you kill the Night King and the rest of his leadership cadre, their seemingly endless army disappears. This makes the defense of Winterfell a lot easier than it seems.
Second, the Night King has never fought a large and prepared army before. The Stark-Targaryen forces at Winterfell have smiths like Gendry hard at work making dragonglass weapons. They have an entrenched defensive position and two dragons to the Army of the Dead’s one. Winterfell’s defenders know about the Night King’s key vulnerability — kill him and most or all of his army dies — and they have their own sources of magic (Bran and the followers of the Lord of Light). This is a battle unlike any the White Walkers have faced before, and it’s not clear if they’re ready for it.
This, to my mind, represents a failure by the Night King to understand what international relations scholars call the “offense/defense” balance.
The basic idea behind the concept, originally developed by Columbia’s Robert Jervis, is that the nature of military technology at any given time can either favor attackers, providing incentives to start wars and try to end them quickly, or defenders, creating an incentive to avoid starting wars and focus on defending your own territory. The classic example of defense being favored is World War I, where technologies like machine guns made it quite difficult to advance on enemy positions and seize territory.
The Night King seems to have made an error in assessing the Westerosi offense/defense balance.
He seems to have assumed that his undead dragon and zombie army will make it easy for him to take territory swiftly, rendering defensive fortifications irrelevant. But a dragon can’t knock down walls when it’s busy fighting two other dragons, and an army can’t simply swarm over the enemy’s walls when the defenders have technology designed to counter their advance. Most fundamentally, the rickety nature of the Night King’s army — if its generals die, its troops die — means that advancing into enemy territory without significant scouting and reconnaissance means that the Night King has exposed himself to total defeat if Winterfell’s defenders can properly exploit their defensive position.
I’m not saying the Army of the Dead’s weaknesses signal a slam dunk for the Stark-Targaryen alliance. My guess is that, in the coming battle, the forces at Winterfell will come extremely close to defeat before pulling out a narrow victory over the White Walkers. But even if Winterfell falls, there’s a lot of Westeros to retreat to — lots of places where they can stage a defensive stand or use as a launching pad for a raid to destroy the White Walkers and thus the entire army.
The Night King would have benefitted from more patience, and a better understanding of his opponents’ capabilities, before committing to this kind of all-out assault.
1) The Targaryen-Stark alliance
There is little doubt in my mind that Daenerys and Jon’s side will come out on top of the coming war. And not just for reasons of narrative convenience; they actually are the strongest faction.
The reasons are clear: Two dragons, a large ground army made up of top-notch infantry and cavalry, weaponry that can counter both human and undead opponents, highly skilled special forces operatives like Arya, nearly all of the continent’s brightest strategic and political minds, and have I mentioned the dragons? Two dragons are better than one dragon, let alone no dragons.
That makes the much more interesting question when it comes to this faction not whether they’re likely to win the coming war, but what happens once they’ve won.
At times during the season eight premiere, I felt like Sansa was the only person with any sense. She raised vitally important questions like “How are we going to feed this massive army?” and “What happens for the rest of winter if we use up our supplies too quickly?” and “Why do you expect Cersei to actually help you fight the White Walkers?” and “Why do you expect Northern lords to follow a Targaryen, anyway?” These are vitally important questions that the alliance’s putative leader, Daenerys, seems less interested in than taking a weird dragon ride with Jon.
Yet answering tough questions like this, figuring out the practical realities of a world dominated by the Northern-Targaryen alliance, is crucial to making their side’s likely victory count.
In After Victory, Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry argues that the aftermath of major wars gives victorious powers a unique position to reshape the nature of global politics. In Ikenberry’s view, the most stable arrangements are ones oriented less around domination than consent, “constitutional” orders in which leading powers agree to constrain themselves and grant autonomy to weaker states in exchange for voluntary support for the political status quo.
Daenerys is not interested in this kind of arrangement. She sees herself as the rightful queen and has little interest in details like what the North wants or how to feed her gigantic dragons (when Sansa asks what they eat, Daenerys simply says “whatever they want”). She is not the kind of mind who will set up a stable, prosperous long-term political order on her own.
Either she will have to listen to her advisers who want her to marry Jon, who now knows that he’s her nephew, or come up with some other kind of power-sharing arrangement that satisfies Northern interests and lays the foundations for survival in the coming winter. If she doesn’t, and insists on her sole right to rule and unquestioned power over all of those around her, her alliance may fall under the weight of its own internal tensions — turning what seems like an inevitable victory into yet another source of conflict.
The alliance in the North will almost certainly win its dual war; especially considering that all of Game of Thrones’ fan-favorite characters are part of it. But in some ways, the struggle between the leading figures inside this alliance could end up being even more consequential than their battles with their enemies.