Last summer it was revealed that the upcoming third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones will only depict the first half of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Fans of the books could readily see why: a lot happens in A Storm of Swords, even if you don’t count the shocking game-changer that appears about three-fourths of the way through.
Now that the third season premiere is nearing (and we have our first trailer) I sat down with the book to puzzle out what we’ll see and what will wait for Game of Thrones season 4.
Complete spoilers for Game of Thrones and ALL Song of Ice and Fire books ahead. Seriously, turn back now if you want to be at all surprised.
Robb and Catelyn Stark
How Robb's story will be depicted was one of the first items leaked about Game of Thrones season 3. RW is coming, and because it is that means this is Robb Stark’s season to shine. With Renly dead, Stannis defeated, and Balon seemingly content to ravage the north, that leaves the war down to a heads-up between the Starks and Lannisters. That war will be finished by the end of this season, which means Robb will have to be prominent all throughout the season if his decisive actions are to have any dramatic impact.
Why stop there?: It’s been quietly hinted that the climax to Robb’s storyline occurs in episode 7, which is titled “Chains” and is being penned by George R. R. Martin. Although the show typically saves Westeros-related climaxes until episode 9, and it would be weird if this didn't follow suit.
Thematic resonances: This storyline is the spine that many of the other storylines branch out from. Even Daenerys’ serves as a parallel to it.
Daenerys buys a ship and sets sail for Astapor, where she trades her dragon Drogon for the entire Unsullied army, only to then order Drogon to burn the army leaders to a crisp. In the books, she then travels to Yunkai and lays siege to the city until all its slaves are freed. She travels further to Meereen, conquers that city through force of reputation, links up with the Stormcrows, discovers that Jorah Mormont has been spying on her, and that Targaryen-loyalist knight Barristan Selmy has been tailing her. She decides to halt her advance and rule in Meereen.
Why stop there?: It’s possible that we’ll only see Daenerys burn Astapor and take control of the Unsullied this season, although that would result in a small screen presence from Dany in season 3, which seems unwise after her diminished presence in season 2. After posturing for a season, we need to see the Khaleesi actually take what is hers by fire and blood. But since the Stormcrows have been cast, it also seems likely we'll get Dany's full advance to Meereen.
It’s very possible Yunkai will be snipped out of Dany’s storyline and the events there combined with her taking of Meereen. This doesn’t leave her character any Storm of Swords storyline for Game of Thrones season 4, but there’s plenty of material in the latter books that can be moved up and stretched over later seasons of the show.
Thematic resonances: The more movement Daenerys’ storyline has, the better it will align with events in Westeros and events beyond the Wall. If all three stories are moving at the same pace then it will really feel like a song of ice and fire.
Jon Snow, The King Beyond The Wall, Ygritte, and the advancing Wildlings
Jon Snow meets with Mance Rayder, becomes a wildling, and has basically the time of his life with Ygritte as the entire army advances to the Wall. Before the wildlings reach the Wall, Jon Snow defects back to the Night’s Watch and they set up for a protracted battle. The wildlings reach the Wall and begin scaling it, eventually clashing with the Watch. Ygritte is killed and the Night’s Watch is losing, until….
Why stop there?: This one’s a bit up in the air. We’ve seen wildlings scaling the Wall in the trailer, so the battle is definitely met between them and the Night’s Watch, but this storyline might end up as a cliffhanger, with Stannis showing up as the saving throw at the beginning of season 4. Or season 3 might end with Stannis showing up at the Wall and routing the wildlings.
Regardless, Ygritte’s going to die by the end of the season. No one makes a Stark feel good about their choices in life without paying the ultimate price.
Update: I got the wildlings scaling the Wall conflated with their battle with the Night's Watch. See the comments below for clarification! It seems very likely that we'll see them reach the Wall but not the latter battle with Stannis and co.
It could get weirder, though. As of the end of season 2, we have a host of Others and their wights advancing south. We might see the wildlings and Night’s Watch clash, with the Night’s Watch winning on their own but too weakened to take on the Others, setting up a cliffhanger or last second save by Stannis and Melisandre.
Jon might even have to kill a wight Ygritte. Because this knife? It twists so wonderfully.
Thematic resonances: Jon’s breaking of vows aligns perfectly with Robb’s doing of same, and they have parallel outcomes. And, as mentioned before, this storyline is the song of ice to match Daenerys’ song of fire.
It seems likely that Stannis and Melisandre will have some role to play here, since they’re both too engaging to be shut within Dragonstone or shuffled away for a whole season. It’s hard to say what that might be, however.
Jaime and Brienne
The two of them travel through the countryside, dodging danger and dropping boulders on pursuing ships (seriously, that’s one of the first things Brienne does in A Storm of Swords) but are eventually captured by the Brave Companions and taken to Harrenhal. Jaime convinces them to keep Brienne as a prisoner to ransom, but they chop off his sword hand. The Red Wedding occurs and Brienne is kept as sport while Jaime is sent on to King’s Landing. Jaime has possibly his first ever crisis of conscience and returns to rescue Brienne. (While she’s fighting a bear.)
Why stop there?: The rest of Jaime and Brienne’s adventures take place in King’s Landing after the Red Wedding, and have to do with Lannister politicking and Jaime taking on legitimate responsibility. Brienne doesn’t really factor into it, so it makes sense to segment season 3 as their buddy story and season 4 showing how Jaime has changed as a result. Plus, Jaime coming back to rescue Brienne after an entire season of them being awesome—they’re probably the greatest knights in the realm and are intentionally and unintentionally hilarious—is a potent emotional scene to close a season out with.
Thematic resonances: Jaime and Brienne’s journey in A Storm of Swords provides a good deal of backstory in regards to the final days of Targaryen rule, which would serve as excellent commentary on Daenerys’ actions in season 3. In the book, Jaime also relates to Brienne the events of Robert Baratheon’s rise to power and Ned Stark’s unyielding honor, which would further cement Brienne’s admiration of Catelyn and Robb, and remind us how that honor will once again come to devastate the Starks at the Red Wedding.
While it appears that Vargo Hoat, the leader of the Brave Companions, has been cast as Jaime and Brienne's captor, there are rumors that this storyline will also involve the Boltons. Introducing Roose Bolton's torture-happy bastard son Ramsay Snow (rumored to be played by Iwan Rheon, who's character is only listed as “Boy”) is also key to allowing another character to have a presence in season 3.
Tyrion, Sansa, Joffrey, the Tyrells, Tywin, Littlefinger, Cersei, and King’s Landing
Tywin rules as Hand of the King and tells Tyrion that he has shamed the Lannister name for the last time and strips him of his inheritance, but raises him to Master of Coin for the realm. Sansa is grilled by the Tyrells about Joffrey’s true nature and float the notion of her being spirited to Highgarden while Littlefinger works his own angle in regards to getting Sansa out of King’s Landing. Tywin continues to manipulate the players in the war, which includes wedding Sansa to Tyrion in the most awkward way possible.
Why stop there?: Imagine scenes of Tyrion and Sansa’s awful wedding set side by side with scenes from the Red Wedding. YEAH. My heart crumples just typing that. Sansa would be an effective primary viewpoint throughout all of these events, since she is being manipulated by all of the main characters in King’s Landing.
Giving Sansa hope and allies throughout the entirety of season 3, only to have it snatched away by her wedding to Tyrion at the end, seems like exactly the thing Game of Thrones would do. Sansa’s about to disappear from the story for a while, as well, so the showrunners might want to give the actress a more central role before that happens.
Joffrey’s own wedding takes place after the Red Wedding and Tyrion and Sansa’s, and it seems likely that it will kick off season 4, since it would overshadow the shocking events of the Red Wedding. (Plus, it would be one hell of an opener to season 4. God, you’d have to broadcast it in stadiums just to fulfill the worldwide demand to see Joffrey finally get it.) Joffrey’s wedding also kicks off Tyrion’s descent, and it makes more sense to focus on that in season 4, when Cersei, Jaime, and Tywin are all back together.
The Martells of Dorne also don’t really show up until Joffrey’s wedding, and Oberyn doesn’t seem to have been cast in season 3. It makes more sense to have him show up at the beginning of a season, anyhow, since the Martells play a much larger role going forward.
Thematic resonances: If we view the events of King’s Landing through Sansa’s perspective, then we get a much more black and white telling of the events there, which would juxtapose better with Robb’s storyline and the approach of his armies. Rumor is that Ser Dontos’ role in befriending Sansa has been given to Littlefinger, which plays into what we’ll see during Catelyn’s scenes at Riverrun early on in season 3 and gives Littlefinger’s aid to Sansa a creepy, devious tinge.
Sansa’s presence will also prevent viewers from seeing Tywin’s full plan while still presenting every clue from it, making the Red Wedding the surprise for viewers that it was for first-time readers of A Storm of Swords.
The presence of Tywin will hasten Cersei’s long downward spiral and begin Tyrion’s, which will give the two characters more to play against each other and continue their enthralling hate/slightly-less-hate dynamic from season 2, a dynamic that ultimately sets up the events from Joffrey's wedding and onward.
Arya, Sandor Clegane, and the Brotherhood
The end of Arya’s storyline is tied to the Red Wedding, since Clegane takes her there to ransom her back to her family. Naturally, along the way Arya and Clegane run into and then away from Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and the Brotherhood Without Banners.
Why stop there?: The Red Wedding provides a natural stopping point for Arya in season 3.
Thematic resonances: In the books, Arya and Clegane are well outside the wedding hall, but how much do you want to bet that the show will have Catelyn and Arya see each other just as Catelyn is killed? Hate-fuck, thy name is Game of Thrones.
Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos
This is a weird one. Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos basically spend A Storm of Swords being, respectively, mopey and desperate. Davos lives but gets jailed for plotting against Melisandre and Melisandre wanders around trying to get Stannis to sacrifice Robert Baratheon's bastard son
his daughter (corrected, thanks to the commenters below!) although that danger is being passed to Stannis' daughter in the show, to bring the stone dragon in the castle to life. Davos succeeds in spiriting her away and gets Stannis to divert his attention to the battle at the Wall. They’ll probably disappear for a good portion of the season until (maybe?) showing up (surprise surprise!) at the Wall.
Why stop there?: Melisandre, Stannis, and Davos have a pretty natural stopping point. If they do show up at the Wall at the end of the season, they might not even be in the majority of season 3, since their presence at the Wall comes as a surprise. Although this is a good opportunity to manufacture new scenes for Melisandre, whose origins and power remain mysterious.
Thematic resonances: Melisandre is trying so hard to ensure that Stannis has a role to play in the larger struggle for the world, but not much happens in their story otherwise. One wonders if scenes with Melisandre will be paired against scenes with Thoros of Myr, to underscore how the Red Priests' monotheistic religion from Essos is spreading into Westeros.
Samwell heads back to Craster’s Keep, the Others nipping at his heels. He discovers that dragonglass (obsidian) melts an Other. He arrives at Craster’s Keep and a rebellion at the Keep results in Craster’s death and Gilly coming with Sam. They are chased back to the Wall but trapped at an abandoned village by wights. Benjen “Coldhands” Stark shows up and rescues them and tells them to go to Nightfort, where they run into Bran.
Why stop there?: Sam and Gilly make it back to the Wall before the Wildling attack in the books, but they don’t have to, and Sam is the only viewpoint we have in the show of the Others and their army. It’s debatable as to whether Coldhands will be included, since he’s not entirely necessary until Bran and company pass through the Wall in later books.
It's debatable as to whether Samwell is even in season 3, as Jon could be given the dragonglass scene and we could keep tabs on the Others army by having the wildlings skirt around the army of Others. The third episode, titled “Walk of Punishment” looks like a reference to Sam, though, since he's basically chased non-stop by the Others while trying to get back to the Wall.
Thematic resonances: Honestly, there’s not much here. Having Sam run into Bran is very sweet, though, since they’re both abandoned characters.
Bran, Rickon, Hodor, the Reeds, and Osha
Bran, Hodor, Rickon, and Osha meet Meera and Jojen Reed and Bran learns about his powers as a skinwalker. As a result, Bran decides to have them make their way to the Wall and go north to find the three-eyed raven. They meet Sam and Gilly at the wall.
Why stop there?: Bran doesn’t get much to do for the next few books and could easily sit out season 4 until his story begins again. He’s been seen in the trailer, and the Reeds have been cast in season 3, so we’re definitely seeing some adventures with Bran and company.
Thematic resonances: Bran learning about his powers would also provide much needed context for the looming supernatural war about to occur between the Others and the rest of the world. He could also provide a contrast to Melisandre’s viewpoint of the same conflict.
Theon and the Greyjoys
(How awesome a band name would that be? Anyhow.) Theon isn’t even in the next few books, but considering how engaging actor Alfie Allen was as the character in season 2, it’s hard to imagine the showrunners having him sit out the next couple years. Will we see Theon be turned to Reek? Will we see him react to the Red Wedding? We never saw this happen in the books, leaving it open for the show to interpret.
The only clue we’ve been given so far is a hooded figure in the trailer, seen above.
There’s also a lot of offscreen intrigue to be found by following Balon Greyjoy’s abruptly negated claim as King of the Iron Islands, which would bring in the larger Greyjoy family, all of whom have roles to play in the ensuing seasons. This is something that could easily be kept until season 4, however.
Why stop there?: Why start there?
Thematic resonances: Theon’s redemption arc in the latest Song of Ice and Fire book was one of the more interesting threads to follow, and gives us the first taste of what may happen to others that have wronged the Starks. When the show is seen as a larger whole, Theon’s scenes could serve as a grateful reminder that these threads will come back together at some point.
All of this is speculation based on my read of the book, leaked and official photos and news for season 3, and my own sense of what would be more “dramatically fitting” to have in season 3 as opposed to season 4. It doesn’t take into account how much the show will change the events of the book, or how much from future books that it may show in this season!
But we’ve got a framework here. Only a few weeks left until we see how it all plays out!
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and almost split this post in two, but decided you couldn’t wait another year or five for the next half.