Winter finally struck Westeros at the end of Game of Thrones’ sixth season, as Jon Snow returned home to recruit soldiers in the fight against the white walkers, Arya Stark fed Walder Frey his children in meat-pie form, and Cersei Lannister ascended the throne after massacring a sizable fraction of King’s Landing, including her daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell, which led to the suicide of the blond matriarch’s last living child, Tommen Baratheon.
Winter came in many forms in the Season 6 finale: the Night King and his zombie army; the mighty, and long, memory of the Starks (here, revenge is a dish served hot); and as a spreading general misfortune. But in its literal form, the winter that Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon worried about in the first season—the harsh, extra-long cold season that would follow, per the rules of Westeros’ climate, the near-decade of summer they’d just enjoyed—has been all but forgotten by the TV adaptation. It’s a decision that, while perhaps necessary, tops the list of the show’s payoff-less setups and plays into one of the series’ most frustrating aspects.
The variable seasons in George R.R. Martin’s books, which can last anywhere from a few months to a few decades, are one of the series’ most novel sources of conflict as well as one of the most concrete ways—other than the dragons, of course—that Westeros differs from our own universe. The long winters were noteworthy enough that numerous critics mentioned them in their initial reviews of the show, and many commentators since have attempted science-based explanations for how such irregular seasons might work, astronomically or ecologically. Martin, for his part, has pooh-poohed such efforts, stating that the reason is magical in origin and that it will eventually be revealed. (Sure, George.) But this fascinating feat of imagination now feels like a mere factoid, as insubstantial as the life of Rickon Stark.
In the Song of Ice and Fire books, lengthy winters are feared in part for their association with supernatural threats. According to Westerosi legend, the white walkers first appeared 8,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones, during the Long Night—an icy season so severe it shut out daylight and stretched on for a generation. That’s cool. But unpredictable weather is more interesting as a factor for what it can illustrate about the characters we’re already invested in, and how it might affect the melee for the crown.
Westeros’ changeable climate is a particularly intriguing lens through which to view the strengths and weaknesses of the nobles and pretenders. But years-long winters suggest a theme that Game of Thrones, a series rather obsessed with power-through-violence and too indifferent toward governance, tackles with a lot less finesse than its source material: the responsibility of leaders to their peoples. (Winter could hit the powerful and wealthy hard, but it always hits the common folk harder.)
As the lord of a region affected much more harshly by winter, the books’ Ned Stark was preoccupied with preparing for the inevitable cold and famine, especially compared to the ne’er-do-well King Robert Baratheon and his mutually unhappy relations, the Southern-dwelling Lannisters, whose more Mediterranean homeland necessitated less preparation and therefore less concern for their citizenry’s needs. Daenerys’ continent-spanning abolitionist movement is the closest we come to any of the surviving contenders caring about how a ruler should rule, but, as the Season 8 premiere demonstrated, her colonial ambitions and rule-by-fire tactics have her poised perfectly for a fall. In the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings, with the Iron Throne heavily in debt and a grain store probably nowhere where it should be, Cersei’s defeat should be a foregone conclusion.
No screen adaptation could rival Martin’s books in their detail and complexity, but as the final season contracts to focus on the boldface winners and losers, it seems increasingly less likely that we’ll get a firm sense of how the next (or current) occupier of the Iron Throne will influence the lives of the masses, who must see even the most necessary wars as calamities they have little to no control over. A stronger grasp of how much each house has stored, and how various lords consider their people’s immediate needs (in the wars against the white walkers, or fellow Westerosi) versus future uncertainties would provide a much-needed grounded-ness to battles that take increasingly in the sky, while developing themes introduced in the first season. (Thus far, Sansa Stark is the only one to raise the issue of what exactly the largest army the world has ever known is supposed to eat.)
Instead, we’re left to debate which among the brittle claims to the throne are most legitimate, and witness how military chieftains gather and distribute force. From its title onward, Game of Thrones has made plain its near-exclusive interest in the governors, rather than the governed. But it seems well on its way to miss an opportunity to make us fully understand what a truly great leader, or a terrifying tyrant, would mean for the unseen people who make up most of Westeros.