It’s a big day for Game of Thrones fans and, no, not just because Richard Madden (the original King in the North) unfurled the full force of his Scottish brogue in the new Rocketman trailer. For months now, Thrones cast members have both been teasing a no-holds-barred ending for the show, and trying to temper fan expectations. “It fucked me up,” Emilia Clarke told Vanity Fair earlier this year. Sophie Turner told IGN: “I think a lot of fans will be disappointed, and a lot of fans will be over the moon.”
At least now we know that there is at least one way Thrones won’t disappoint its most loyal fans. The much beloved and long-absent character of Jon Snow’s albino direwolf, Ghost, is officially returning for the end of this story—which could mean an old Thrones fan theory will actually come true.
According to Game of Thrones producer Bryan Cogman, the show actually filmed a scene with Ghost for Season 7, but likely had to cut it for budgetary reasons. (The direwolf effects are incredibly expensive, and in recent seasons, the show has been bumping off and sidelining the Stark family pups to make room for other fantastic beasts, like dragons and giants.) But with the final-season budget ballooning to a reported $15 million per episode, visual-effects supervisor Joe Bauer tells the Huffington Post that there’s money enough now for dragons and giants and direwolves . . . oh my.
Yes, Ghost will return—and not just for a tiny cameo. “Oh, you’ll see him again. He has a fair amount of screen time in Season 8,” Bauer said. “He does show up. . . . He’s very present and does some pretty cool things.” Bauer also noted that in addition to budgetary concerns, the show has sidestepped the wolves because it can be difficult to make supersized wolves look natural and non-cartoonish: “The direwolves are tough, because you don’t want to get them wrong. So we end up always shooting real wolves and doing a scaling trick with them. But the real wolves only behave in certain ways. I think that has something to do with why the direwolves are in the show, but they’re not maybe as integral as they are in the books.” Basically, this has been the Thrones approach to direwolves for the past few seasons.
Series show-runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have said something similar in the past about the challenges of direwolf filming: “We did some testing, and at a certain point they look unreal. We reached a nice balance with them. And frankly, no matter how much money you spend on C.G. wolves—and we’ve seen the best that’s out there, state of the art, and some of it looks great—it still doesn’t look, move, and feel like a real animal. With dragons, you get some leeway. You can’t say, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like a real dragon.’”
So this, alas, is why Jon kept leaving Ghost behind when he needed him most—like, say, during the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6, or during his harrowing jaunt north of the Wall in Season 7. Ghost would have ripped some ice zombies up if they tried to touch one curly hair on Jon Snow’s head.
But now that Ghost is back and has some “cool things” to do, what does that mean for the endgame? Well, it’s useful to remember that Ghost isn’t the only surviving direwolf on the show. Arya’s pup Nymeria briefly showed up in Season 7, albeit in a feral fashion.
But many fans suspect Nymeria’s cameo was setting the stage for something bigger. In the books, author George R.R. Martin keeps the missing Nymeria and her wolf pack very much on the minds of readers via Arya’s dreams, and news of a vast pack led by Nymeria attacking Stark enemies deep in Frey territory. In a 2014 interview with Mashable, Martin teased Nymeria’s “important” role in the final two books. “You know, I don’t like to give things away,” he told the reporter with a grin. But making reference to Anton Chekhov’s famous statement, Martin added: “You don’t hang a giant wolf pack on the wall unless you intend to use it.”
The HBO series isn’t exactly shy about deviating from Martin’s plans, but both the author and the HBO series are awfully fond of the deus ex machina approach to resolving battles—be they in the shape of Vale knights, Tywin Lannister, Stannis Baratheon, or Daenerys on her dragon.
What’s good for the Targaryen is good for the Stark—and it’s about time the direwolves started helping win battles for the good guys again. So if Arya survives to the final Season 8 battle between the realms of men and White Walkers, and things start to look, well, dire for the Stark girl and her team, we shouldn’t be surprised if Nymeria and her pack arrive out of nowhere to save the day and turn the tide. Wouldn’t it be nice if Ghost also got to fight by his wolf sister’s side—just as Jon will likely wind up fighting alongside Ayra? They haven’t been together for a long, long time.
Bauer’s assurance that Ghost has a significant role in the final season shores up the theory that Nymeria has a big role to play as well. Perhaps this story ends with Ghost joining his sister and running wild in Westeros. Oh, who are we kidding; both of them are dying heroically in battle, aren’t they? Then again, the “cool things” Ghost has to do may not be related to war at all. Remember, Jaime Lannister is headed to Winterfell as well, and the direwolves never met a Lannister they didn’t like to menace.
But Ghost’s relationship with Jon Snow is more important than snacking on Lannisters, zombies, or wights. The reason fans have been missing the direwolves isn’t just because they look cool: it’s because in the books, the emotional connection between the Stark kids and their pets is woven into the fabric of the whole saga. “These wolves are more than wolves, Robb,” Catelyn reminds her son in the books. “You must know that. I think perhaps the gods sent them to us. Your father’s gods, the old gods of the north. Five wolf pups, Robb, five for five Stark children.” (Robb helpfully reminds her there was a sixth for Jon.) The curly haired King in the North has honestly felt a bit empty without his shadow self, even if he’s now making friends with dragons.
We may have learned that Jon Snow has Targaryen dragon blood in the Season 7 finale, but his mother Lyanna still makes him half-Stark—half-wolf. You can’t have the dragon without the wolf, the fire without the ice.