Game of Thrones is a confounding show to watch. It’s confounding because it is based on an interminable series of novels in which people are regularly burned alive or skinned or drowned in service to one god or the next, often for reasons like “calling in a warm front to melt some snow,” but also because after five novels and as many seasons of TV, many of the plot threads are still very far removed from one another. There’s an Iron Throne and a war of succession, a newly raised army of religious zealots, a family of dog-lovers, a cult of magic assassins, a lady going around burning cute children on stakes, a young man going around skinning everyone else, a sexy desert, some mostly boring dragons, and, of course, an unstoppable army of snow zombies. Also Bran is hiding in a tree somewhere. The point is, with all the obvious loss of forward thrust in the series right now, the overarching plot—the song of ice and fire—is what binds everything together, the reason why you’d possibly care about a little girl poisoning a dockside bookie thousands of miles from either the throne or a zombie, and to this point at least, hasn’t quite been laid out. Here’s one theory that pulls them back together.
On TV, the series functions as a House of Cards chassis with a high-fantasy paint job. Many of the false starts, dead ends, and deep-in-the-weeds lore are written out for time and sanity. This is a fair tradeoff in that it kept the politicking and action churning for the first few seasons, and for the most part still keeps the show from playing like a live-action adaptation of The Complete Guide to Middle-Westeros. But as the series moves into its final acts, many of the more tedious or arcane bits of backstory that have been dropped from the show would have been the groundwork necessary to make the jump from a show about politics and incest to one about dragons, zombies, and witches something that makes sense.
Fans have been churning away at making sense of the broader story for years, and several competing theories have sprung up and been refined after the release of each novel. With this last season of the show leaping ahead of the books in some telling ways, though, some of these theories have become more compelling. This one is my personal favorite, because it brings a bunch of disparate threads together into something that makes sense for a top-level plot that involves immortal ice gods and fire witches. Ready? Here it is:
The Faceless Men are a death cult that is aligned, knowingly or otherwise, with the White Walkers.
There are a few versions of this theory written out in greater detail; you can read those at the Forum of Ice and Fire message board or Reddit. But here’s a straightforward rundown on why this makes sense.
1. The Faceless Men are a death cult. This is the given here. They worship the “Many-Faced God,” who is just an amalgamation of every culture’s death deity. But they don’t just worship death, they administer it, through both paid assassinations and mercy killings. This season we saw Arya tell a sick, dying girl that her salvation would come from drinking a cup of poison. I don’t know how the Kevorkian ethics are supposed to play, exactly (the actors seemed to buy it more than the script did), but the Faceless Men are obviously down with it. Now, look at the state of the world in general. It’s a god damned disaster. On a macro scale, giving “the gift” of death to everyone on the planet makes a lot of sense.
(Evidence against: The FM are finicky about debts to the god of death being paid with exact change, and their reverential treatment of corpses is not exactly in line with mass zombie invasion.)
1b. Their catchphrase, Valar morghulis, means “All men must die.” Which, you know.
2. There are a few basic kinds of magic in the GOT world: fire/blood magic and ice/death magic. It’s unclear if the other magic is distinct, but most of what we’ve seen involves some combination of blood (Bran in the tree, Cersei and the old magi lady) and death (Faceless Man faces, zombie army, House of the Undying). The Faceless Men were originally slaves in Valyria, where blood and fire magic was predominant. It would make sense for them to choose an opposing strain of magic to fight off their dickhead masters and blow up their city.
3. The series is dedicating SO MUCH time and space to the Faceless Men. They’re the most compelling faction on the show, but spent the last season walking around in robes, killing sick children, and threatening to off some bookies. This doesn’t seem like a wise investment of attention when there is an apocalypse ice army wrecking shit, and you’re filming better zombie fights than any movie has in like 20 years. With this much setup, they should have some significant role in the endgame, which, again, is about giant dragons who chow down on middle schools and ice zombies.
4. The Faceless Men probably have a dragon egg. (Long story short, Theon’s magic pirate Uncle Euron used to have a dragon egg, but he claims he got mad and threw it off of a boat; in a plot line that is completely unrelated to this very valuable object in Euron’s possession, a Faceless Man, it is heavily implied, shows up to kill Theon’s dad, and Euron shows up just in time to try to get the throne.) Anyway, a dragon egg is a pretty big thing to leave unaccounted for, and this is important because ….
5. Dragons are probably what brings down the Wall. We think this because there are, uh, two magic horns floating around. No, really! One is called Dragonbinder, and is supposed to make dragons do what you tell them to, and another is called the Horn of Winter/Joramun, and is supposed to bust a hole in the Wall. It’s possible they’re the same horn, or that they’re just similar, but Sam has one and Euron has the other, and both characters have or are about to run into some Faceless Men.
6. The Faceless Men kill powerful people for lots of loot, like Dragon Eggs. Royal blood is demonstrably powerful in this world, so you burn cute princesses alive and use leeches to get boner blood from a king’s bastard. It stands to reason that the “powerful/royal person” power extends to death-magic dudes, too, and the Faceless Man business plan is killing powerful people.
7. In the books, a man who looks exactly like Jaqen is described to have infiltrated the Citadel in Oldtown. Who the hell knows why he’s in there, but the Citadel is most known for having every book in the world, and the operating theories are that he’s either trying to get information about how to hatch the FM’s dragon egg, or covering up old magic books about the Others. Meanwhile, the show postponed Sam’s trip to the Citadel for a season so that he’ll presumably get there at the same time as the Faceless Men and die in some horrible way that makes you want to stop watching this hell show.
8. Arya continues to hold onto Needle, which Jon gave her, even though she’s supposed to be “no one.” So when the Faceless Dudes saddle up, she’s going to have to decide if she is Arya or no one, and what she wants to say to the god of death.
Anyway, if the series abides by any traditional laws of narrative and plot arc, the Faceless Men are up to some shit—and I’d bet money that folds it’s something along these lines. There are other pieces to different versions of the Faceless Men theories, like their involvement in unsettling various governments so that they are less prepared to rally a defense against the Others, or that they are trying to set off a volcano at Dragonstone to kill everyone, but these are less centered around getting everyone in one damn place to end this godforsaken story already.
Is it possible that none of these threads actually wrap up neatly and nest within each other? Of course it is. We just watched Stannis end a four-year walkabout by taking one to the dome in the woods. This show has the morbid sensibilities to have the Faceless Men up and say, “Hmm, we really can’t figure this one out; guess we’re going to sit out this apocalypse battle and hang out in our temple.” Presuming we aren’t all engaging with the most ambitiously trollish waste of popular culture’s time on record, though, it’s this theory or one a lot like it.