The final season of Game of Thrones is almost, finally, upon us. A lot has changed in Westeros since the series began. Kings have died, great houses have fallen, surprising new power players have emerged, and dragons have returned.
So much has happened over the course of seven seasons that it’s helpful to remember where all the main characters are coming from. By that, we don’t mean a recap of everything they did and everywhere they went in the past seasons. No, it’s important to look back at where the characters are coming from emotionally.
The eight major characters who have been around since Season 1 have all changed dramatically in the years that followed. Take Sansa Stark, for instance. In the first season, she was a naive wanna-be princess with no conception of how ugly the world could be. By the Season 7 finale, she’s a wary and brutally realistic leader. That evolution didn’t happen overnight, and her experiences have shaped who she is and will influence what she does in Season 8.
Here’s a look at the emotional and character arcs that are just as important to the events of the upcoming final season as any major geopolitical developments in the Game of Thrones.
When we first meet Jon Snow in the series premiere, he doesn't know who he is. That’s still technically true going into Season 8, as he doesn’t yet know that he’s secretly a Targaryen and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, but he’s become confident in a way that he couldn’t have imagined back when this all started.
Season 1 Jon Snow was unsure of his place in the world. He wasn’t a Stark, as Catelyn kept cruelly reminding him, and his “father” Ned wouldn’t tell him anything about his real mother. Seeking a place where he would find a role for himself, Jon joined the Night’s Watch, only to find that it was hardly the glamorous job he thought it was.
However, Jon eventually embraced being a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch. Although he initially tried to flee south to assist Robb after Ned’s execution, his brothers convince him that his role is to be a Watcher on the Wall. For the first time, Jon has a purpose, especially since Lord Commander Mormont is grooming him to be an officer.
It’s not long after Jon commits himself to the Night’s Watch, though he’s once again forced to wonder what his role is. Upon meeting Ygritte, Jon falls in with the Wildlings. Though he ultimately stays loyal to the Watch, as evidenced by his actions at the Battle of Castle Black, he was earnestly in love with Ygritte and sympathetic to the Wildlings' cause. This sewed the seeds both for his eventual dissolution with the Night’s Watch, and his association with the Wildlings. The Night’s Watch might have briefly been a clear identity for Jon, but his experiences north of the Wall taught him that such hard lines are difficult to draw.
Upon being elected Lord Commander of the Watch, Jon continues to do what he thinks is best, much to the dismay of some of his more mutinous brothers. Jon’s developing sense of self-identity and understanding that doing the right thing sometimes requires breaking the mold sends him to Hardhome to rescue the Wildlings. And, that’s what gets him betrayed and killed.
When Jon comes back to life, he once again has no idea who he is. His watch has ended, that’s for sure, and he's initially unenthused at the idea of helping Sansa retake Winterfell. He’s not a brother of the Night’s Watch anymore, and he’s still not a Stark. Still, because it seems like the right thing to do, Jon relents, fighting in the Battle of the Bastards and retaking Winterfell.
After the battle, Jon’s named the King of the North. As with his election to Lord Commander, this isn’t a leadership role that Jon sought on his own. He doesn’t refuse the crown, though, and he certainly wasn’t upset about having a firm identity and a clear role for himself. Once again, though, doubt sets in upon meeting Daenerys Targaryen. By the end of Season 7, Jon swears fealty to the Dragon Queen, once again upending his newfound identity.
Developing underneath all these changing titles and roles is the real truth of Jon’s identity. His time beyond the wall, especially at Hardhome and the mountain shaped like an arrowhead, have taught him that the only unequivocal identity is that of the living, as opposed to that of the dead. Jon’s recent acceptance of leadership roles haven’t been out of a drive to find a place for himself in the world, but as a means to aid his core belief — that the living must defeat the Night King’s army.
With Season 8 will come the inevitable reveal that Jon Snow is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and not, as he thought his whole life, Ned Stark’s bastard son. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as his fight against the dead grows more consuming considering Jon has not been one to covet power. Will the ultimate, final reveal of his identity throw Jon into a tailspin, or will he remain firm on the main thing he’s grown to believe matters: the protection of the living.
Sansa in Season 1 is perhaps the platonic ideal of a sweet summer child. She wants to grow up to be Joffrey Baratheon’s queen and “have his babies.” She has no idea that things can go wrong, horribly, in the real world.
She first gets a taste of the cruelty of Westerosi life when Cersei orders the execution of Lady, her direwolf. Things get much, much worse from there. Joffrey reveals his true cruelty and executes Ned in front of Sansa in the first season’s penultimate episode, and then spends all of Season 2 tormenting his betrothed. It’s during this time that Sansa starts learning how to play the Game of Thrones — not to win, at first, but just to protect herself.
As she learns about what it takes to survive amidst the cold realities of the world, she’s also learning another lesson: The only person she can depend on is herself. The Tyrells' scheme to get her out of King’s Landing fails and Littlefinger rescues her from King’s Landing, only to turn around and sell her to Ramsay Bolton. (Sansa’s horrible experience with Ramsay understandably strengthens her beliefs that the world is cruel and help isn’t forthcoming).
Sansa comes out of all this as a remarkably strong and self-sufficient woman. She understands hard truths, as seen when she tells Jon that Rickon might as well already be dead ahead of the Battle of the Bastards. She’s right, of course, and that brutal clarity is necessary in the wars to come.
And, yet, the side effect of all this is that Sansa isn’t trusting. She initially refused Brienne of Tarth’s help, she doesn’t tell Jon about the knights of the Vale, and she nearly turns against Arya. It’s only at the end of Season 7 that Sansa appears to be able to better trust those around her. For so long, she’s been on her own, and it’s hard for her to open back up, even to her family. She’s wise enough in the ways of the world that she usually knows what needs to be done, and she’s beginning to remember that she needs friends to help her.
Season 8 threatens to set Sansa back, though. Jon Snow left Winterfell against her counsel, only to return to the North having bent the knee to Daenerys, a foreign invader. It will be interesting to see how this latest betrayal upsets Sansa’s newfound willingness to open up again.
Arya knew what she wasn’t back in Season 1, as she corrected Ned’s visions of her one day marrying a lord and wearing a frilly dress. But it took a very long time for Arya to realize who she was — not unlike Jon Snow, the Stark Arya was always closest to.
Arya spends most of Seasons 2 and 3 explicitly pretending to be anybody other than Arya Stark in order to save her life. She pretends to be a boy en route to the Wall, and successfully hides her identity from Tywin Lannister. After two close calls where she almost reunited with her family — reunions that were ruined by the Red Wedding and Littlefinger’s murder of Lysa Arryn — Arya turns her back on Westeros.
In Braavos, Arya almost totally abandons her identity, learning the ways of the Faceless Men and becoming “No One.” She makes a lot of progress, but she can’t help but feel connected to Arya Stark. She still has Arya’s sentimentality (her feelings upon seeing the play), Arya’s memories (her refusal to give up Needle), and Arya’s grudges (her murder of Meryn Trant).
Arya opts not to finish her Faceless Men training, boldly proclaiming that “a girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.” But, then there’s another question for her: Who is Arya Stark?
When she first returns to Westeros, Arya is all vengeance. She kills all the Freys for their role in the Red Wedding, and she intends on going to King’s Landing to kill Cersei. Even Hot Pie’s familiar face isn’t enough to dissuade her from her quest for vengeance. It’s only upon seeing her old direwolf Nymeria, now leading a massive pack of wild wolves, that she’s snapped out of it. Nymeria couldn’t be her pet again — that wasn’t her. It’s this moment that reminds Arya who she is. Arya Stark isn’t a princess in a frilly dress, but she’s also much more than an assassin who thinks only of vengeance.
At the start of Season 8, Arya has returned to Winterfell, and after some sparring with Sansa, settled into being a person again — albeit one with supernatural assassination powers. It remains to be seen how she will use her abilities, but it appears that she will use them as Arya Stark, with all that the last name entails.
The sad truth about Bran Stark is that he doesn’t have a personality anymore. Back in Season 1, he was just a little kid. Bran wanted to climb, he pouted when he didn’t get his own way, and he generally had emotions, empathy, hopes, and aspirations.
His quest to find (and later become) the Three-Eyed Raven eventually consumed him. Even before he became the seemingly empty shell of a person we saw in Season 7, Bran’s quest beyond the wall gradually stripped him of his humanity. He spent less time in his paralyzed body and more time warging into his direwolf. He grew increasingly cold to his traveling companions, and he opted not to reunite with Jon Snow during their two near-meetings. The mission of the Three-Eyed Raven was more important.
Now that Bran, by his own admission, isn’t really Bran anymore, it’s hard to say he’s had a character arc so much as he has had character erasure. Bran exists now as a rolling receptacle of knowledge; a supernatural database. Unless the old Bran reasserts himself, it seems unlikely that his wants and desires will impact Season 8 at all. The Three-Eyed Raven has the answers, it would seem, but Bran’s humanity is so far gone that he doesn’t even have the questions.
Never forget that we first meet Tyrion in Season 1 while he’s drinking ale and receiving a blowjob. Tyrion, at the start of the show, is a lush. His family’s wealth has allowed him not to have any responsibilities, so instead, he indulges. Sometimes (well, oftentimes) that means getting drunk at a whorehouse, but other times it means learning for the sake of learning, and pissing off the Wall.
Season 2 changes that. When Tywin Lannister sends Tyrion to King’s Landing to serve as Joffrey’s acting Hand of the King, Tyrion suddenly finds himself saddled with responsibility. What’s more, he’s good at it. He manages the city and the realm well despite Joffrey’s worst efforts, and he successfully orchestrates the defense of King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater.
Tyrion has much of this power stripped away from him in Season 3, but he wants it back. However, as Seasons 3 and 4 progress, he increasingly realizes that he’s not using his abilities for a good cause — especially when his family, which has always hated him, tries to have him executed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Tyrion kills his father and escapes to Essos, where he’s forced to live as a slave for a while. It’s the least powerful he’s ever been, but it leads him to Daenerys Targaryen's court. In her, Tyrion finally sees a leader worthy of his talents, and he pledges himself to her as Hand of the Queen, promising to help her take Westeros and rule it well.
However, as Season 7 revealed, he has his misgivings. He supports Daenerys but is wise enough to be wary of some of her more violent tendencies. And he still has conflicted feelings about the rest of the Lannisters. He still loves Jaime, and even with Cersei, there’s some sort of bond he just can’t shake.
In Season 8, Tyrion looks poised to continue taking on responsibility and using his talents to fight for something he believes in. Hopefully, what that something is won’t change.
Cersei Lannister started out as queen to Robert Baratheon, and she ended up as the ruling Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. A lot happened in between.
Back when she was married to Robert, Cersei was oppressed. She has always been conniving and power-hungry, but there was only so much she could do under Robert. So, her main goals were to keep her three children safe and keep her relationship with Jaime a secret (the latter goal also being essential to the former).
When Robert dies, though, Cersei still can’t come into her own. Now serving as the queen regent, Joffrey won’t listen to her, and her father Tywin Lannister won’t respect her. It’s only after both die that Cersei can truly come into her own as the ruler she thinks she’s been destined to be. Tommen is young and malleable, and once Cersei gets the Tyrells out of the way, she and her surviving children will be safe — or so she thinks.
It’s Cersei’s own hubris that leads to the rise of the High Sparrow, and Cersei’s imprisonment. The torture and humiliation that Cersei endures at the Sparrows’ hands deeply scar her, as does the horrific walk of atonement. If Cersei was ruthless before, being brought to her lowest point hardened Cersei’s hatred into diamond.
The smoke is still rising from the ashes of the Sept of Baelor when Tommen, then Cersei’s only surviving child, leaps out the window to his death. Cersei had always been driven by her lust for power and love of her children, and now that she’s won the Iron Throne at the cost of her babies, there’s nothing holding Cersei back. All she has is power and ego, fueled by the burning resentment and fear instilled in her by the Sparrows. The world is her enemy.
Faced with the onslaught of the army of the dead in Season 8, can Cersei be selfless for anyone, or did her limited capacity to think of others die alongside her children? Season 7 revealed that Cersei has gotten pregnant again, but one can’t help but wonder how much this unborn child really matters to Cersei. Has her destructive (and often self-destructive) love of power surpassed her love of her children, perhaps her only redeeming quality?
It was easy to see Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister as a villain in Season 1. After all, that’s how Jaime really saw himself. He’d broken his oath as a member of Aerys’ Kingsguard, pushed a child out of a window, and didn’t hesitate to murder his cousin in Season 2 thinking it would help him escape capture.
Jaime has done some reprehensible things, but his character arc over the course of Game of Thrones’ first seven seasons has largely been Jaime realizing that he isn’t a bad guy. We see shades of this when he attempts to prevent Brienne of Tarth from getting raped and loses his hand for it. Then, when the two are bathing together in what’s possibly the best scene in the entire show, we learn a lot more about how Jaime ticks.
When he killed the Mad King, he did it because Aerys had ordered Jaime to kill his father, and was then planning on using wildfire to blow up the entirety of King’s Landing. Jaime broke his oath, but he did it in order to prevent a tragedy. It was a heroic act that the realm painted as a villainous one, and Jaime leaned into this persona rather than fight against it.
It worked, for a time, but subsequent seasons would see Jaime gradually realize that there was more good in him than he’d allowed himself to believe. His bond with Brienne was a big part of this, as were his steps towards accepting himself as Myrcella and Tommen’s real father. All the while, he grew increasingly wary of Cersei as she went further off the deep end.
Jaime’s turn toward the heroic culminated in the Season 7 finale when he found himself disgusted by Cersei’s plan to double-cross Jon Snow and Daenerys. This betrayal was too much for Jaime. “I promised to fight for the living,” he says in the Season 8 trailer. “I intend to keep that promise.”
The final season looks poised to make Jaime fully embrace the hero that was inside him all along. But, if Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that old habits die hard.
Finally, we come to Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons. Back when we first met Dany, she only had the first of those titles, and she had no hope or expectation of gaining any more.
Daenerys was weak in the Season 1 premiere. Her brother Viserys abused her, and she was sold to Khal Drogo in an effort to aid Viserys’ would-be conquest of Westeros. For her entire childhood, Viserys was the dragon, and Dany was just a pawn.
That, of course, changed, first when she gained confidence and power as Khal Drogo’s Khaleesi, and then in a huge way when her three dragon eggs hatched. Dany now had a power that nobody else in Westeros or Essos had, and she inherited Viserys’ aspiration to retake the Iron Throne. However, she had something that Viserys never had: empathy.
In part because of her abusive and powerless past, Dany cares deeply about the little guy. She objects to the Dothraki practice of raping and slave-taking, and she embarks on a righteous crusade against slavery in Slaver’s Bay.
All the while, her ambitions grow. Although there are several setbacks, Dany enjoys a pretty meteoric rise to power, especially as her dragons grow bigger. It’s really only her desire to do right by the people in need — and a desire to “break the wheel” — that hold her conquering ambitions back.
Those two facets of Dany’s personality, the conquering queen and breaker of chains, have always been in conflict, a clash that’s potentially made worse by the pyromaniac madness that’s latent in the Targaryen bloodline. Season 7 brought Dany to Westeros, finally, and tempted her with the prospect of finally claiming the Iron Throne. At the same time, Jon Snow brought her the ultimate cause to fight for: The protection of all the living from the Night King’s army of the dead.
Dany decided that protecting the people of the realm from the Night King is more important than ruling it, and it appears she’ll be fighting the good fight up in Winterfell in Season 8.
At the same time, remember that Dany still required that Jon bend the knee, and she still has aspirations to fulfill the destiny she found for herself and become queen. Will Jon’s true identity as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne disrupt Dany’s delicate balance between sovereign and selfless? Can Dany’s sense of self take a loss, especially since she has always ended up more powerful than when she started? So many titles, but what identity will Dany ultimately choose for herself?