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Why Gilly is even more important to Game of Thrones than we realized

Gilly has had a complex journey on Game of Thrones. From her debut as the unfortunate daughter-wife of the repugnant Craster, her flight from the North and the White Walkers, her time at the Wall as an unlikely Wildling guest, her journey to the Citadel alongside Sam, and now, to her place supporting the King in the North at Winterfell, nothing about her could have been predicted. Who would have thought the Wildling girl escaping the Walkers would uncover the secret of Jon Snow's birth? Who might have guessed she'd learn to read at all? Gilly has been surprising us from her first episode, and as the Game of Thrones finale and all the battle and bloodshed it brings with it crests the horizon, she's not likely to stop anytime soon. How might the young woman from Craster's Keep turn the tide of battle? Read on as carefully as she would, and you'll discover why Gilly is even more important to Game of Thrones than we realized.

A daughter of the north

There are a lot of things that set Gilly apart from the rest of the cast. She's a born Northerner, for one: it's easy to get caught up in the ocean voyages, long, horse-bound campaigns and exotic vistas from the Wall to the Citadel, but take the time to recall that the vast majority of her life was lived in a little house in the snow-blanketed woods. She knows the lands beyond the wall like only someone born to them can, and she holds no illusions about how desperate life there can be, or what it makes a man capable of. Though season 7 ended with the Walkers shattering the Wall in a spectacular burst of blue dragonfire, it seems likely that at least some part of the final season should take place beyond what was once the Wall — and Gilly could prove a unique guide to those frozen and forbidding lands.

Moreover, unlike most of Game of Thrones' central players, Gilly grew up with the Walkers as an absolute certainty. She didn't have to be persuaded of their existence, their terrifying nature, or their relentless hunger for warm-blooded life: those were the rules she grew up playing by. As one of Craster's daughter-wives, the Walkers' appetites defined her life and she understands them as few can. Perhaps most crucially, Gilly grasps that the Walkers, while horrifying, are capable of being bargained with. Could this lead to an unlikely ending? It's possible, but hopefully won't require the sacrifice of any more unfortunate male newborns.

Holder of the key

Fans have been theorizing for years as to Jon Snow's true parentage. Hints came as early as the first season, when Ned Stark was goaded into revealing his alleged mother — a common woman, he claimed, and an indiscretion he'd rather forget. But that didn't convince much of anyone, and debate continued to rage. Finally, in the season 7 finale, one of the most popular and persuasive fan theories was confirmed once and for all by Bran Stark and his psychic, time-spanning visions. It turns out that Jon Snow isn't a bastard at all, but the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Which means, of course, that Daenerys isn't the last Targaryen, that Robert's Rebellion was, as Bran put it, "built on a lie" — and, most crucially of all, that Jon is the true heir to the Iron Throne.

But before Bran peeled back the layers of time and space to behold this fact and before he and Sam brought their knowledge together to create a portrait of the truth, there was Gilly, discovering it in a forgotten journal, buried in the bowels of the Citadel. In the season 7 episode "Eastwatch," as she and Sam pore over the spoils of the Citadel's library, she finds a description of an annulment granted to, as she mispronounces, a "Prince Ragger" to facilitate a second marriage in Dorne. Not only was she the first person to stumble onto this explosive fact, she is now one of the few people who knows it at all. Will she conceal this truth? Will she confront Jon with it? Will she tell a few, carefully chosen people? Whatever she chooses, this knowledge is powerful to hold — even potentially dangerous.

The power of dragonglass

Gilly is unique for a lot of reasons. Some of these are traumatic, some are mysterious, some are merely interesting, but one of them is tremendously rare: Gilly has seen a White Walker die. In the season 3 episode "Second Sons," Gilly and Sam, newborn baby in tow, flee a White Walker until, cornered, Sam recalls he has a dragonglass dagger and manages to bury it in the Walker's back. The Walker shatters, marking one of the few times we've seen a Walker die, the discovery of dragonglass as a formidable weapon against the Walkers, and making Sam and Gilly both repositories of this unique knowledge.

Many seasons on, more people know — a tremendous mining operation is underway beneath Dragonstone, digging up as much dragonglass as possible to prepare for the coming onslaught — but when compared to the number of people who will be affected by the war to come, it's still a paltry number. Gilly remains one of the few people to know dragonglass' use as a certainty, and to have seen it in action. This is useful knowledge on its own, but it's also not knowledge anyone would guess her to have, which could prove handy if she needs to pull off a little subterfuge or if she's called upon to disseminate information. Gilly could be quite the secret weapon, traveling from place to place, letting the people know of the means with which to fight back and having the firsthand experience to attest to it.

Painful sacrifices

Cast your memory back to the earlier seasons, when Gilly was just one of a horde of unfortunate girls and women holed up in Craster's Keep. It was a lonely life, ruled by the appetites of others: her father's, the babies, the needs of the men of the Watch, whenever they'd find themselves ranging and in need of a bed and a bite to eat. But there were others who called upon Gilly and her sisters — others they did not see, but demanded things of them nonetheless. Specifically, babies: male babies, set out in the woods to await their new masters, the White Walkers.

In the season 4 episode "Oathkeeper," we saw one of these babies taken by a Walker on a horse to what appeared to be something of a permanent settlement built by and for the Walkers — a place in an area the books describe as the Lands of Always Winter. There, they placed the baby on an altar made of ice, and what seemed to be a sort of Walker authority turned the baby into a Walker himself. This appears to be the way new Walkers are made, and Gilly is one of an incredibly scant handful of characters who know the Walkers seek out human babies at all; even though she never knew to what purpose, what she does know is explosive. It exposes a need in the Walkers' seemingly unstoppable machine of death, and a character with enough knowledge and imagination could likely string together how it's tied to the continuation of the Walker race. Hopefully Gilly ends up in the right room with the right people to divulge this little secret.

A cold family connection

Baby Sam, the son of Gilly and Craster, has grown from an ill-fated infant to a giggly toddler. This is honestly a miracle, given the White Walkers that pursued him, the vows Sam appears to be breaking by claiming to be his father, and the general bloodshed that tends to proliferate across Westeros as it gears up for a once-in-a-millenia war. It seems likely that baby Sam, and his unlikely heroine, scholar, and journeywoman of a mother, will figure in the final battle.

Perhaps this will happen because of baby Sam's unlikely family. Sam is, to the audience's knowledge, the only one of Craster's sons that escaped sacrifice. Each and every one of his brothers was left in the woods, taken by the White Walkers to their mysterious stronghold, turned into a Walker themselves and set loose upon the world. This is terrifying, yes, but it reveals an intriguing possibility: could the Walkers to recognize baby Sam as family? Could they possibly seek to spare him? Given that he's too young to do much of anything by himself, Gilly would need to be instrumental in making anything like this happen — in no small part additionally because she's one of the only people who knows about Sam's errant brothers. The White Walkers seem inhuman… but perhaps there's enough humanity left to make baby Sam of use.

Lady in waiting

Sam was never going to be the heir to Horn Hill many wanted him to be. He was a soft, scholarly sort from birth — quite a distance from the strapping warrior his father sought and the culture of Westerosi nobility demands. His brother Dickon played that role very well, luckily enough, until he and their father Randyll were executed by Daenerys for refusing to bend the knee. Sam is, technically, no longer part of House Tarly, having forsworn his claim for the Night's Watch and having been excommunicated by his tyrant of a father. According to the letter of the law, his sister is now the heir and the Lady of Horn Hill.

But let's be honest: the letter of the law doesn't count for much in Westeros at this point. What matters is who shows up, who fights the hardest, and who has something to show for it. Sam — quiet, book-browsing Sam — has killed a White Walker, smuggled royals across Kingdom lines, sworn to protect Gilly and her child, and helped uncover a decades-old secret. Randyll's dead, Dickon's dead, and Sam's sisters and mother seemed to have no quarrel with him: he absolutely could end up as the Lord of Horn Hill. This would make Gilly his Lady, and baby Sam the heir. Horn Hill, as we've seen, is fabulous even by the standards of noble houses, and has been cozy with other families of the Reach for decades. This wouldn't just be an incredible place of power for an abused Wildling girl to end up, but an incredible place of power, period. And as more and more of the old ways crumble, it seems more and more like a real possibility.

Reading is fundamental

Gilly lived an unlettered life before Sam walked into it. She tended animals, midwifed her sisters' babies, lived under the thumb of her father, and tried not to think too much about the newborns left for the Walkers to claim. She was, in fact, so impressed by even the most basic knowledge that she jumped to assuming Sam was "a wizard" before she understood his background. She was ignorant — through no fault of her own, but ignorant nonetheless.

No longer, however — Gilly can read, and she's doing as much of it as she can. This makes her important in general, as Westeros is likely largely comprised of illiterate people, but especially in the show's context: reading tends to herald big things on Game of Thrones. Recall Davos learning to read and how it foreshadowed both the tragic end of his relationship with Shireen and his newfound ability to convey messages to people like Daenerys. Reading is power in Westeros, and Sam bringing attention to it, as he did when he remarked that Gilly will be able to teach baby Sam read now that she can as well, highlights it all the more.

Sights unseen

The Citadel is the stronghold of knowledge in Westeros, the font from which all scholarship flows, and the only place where certain crucial things, like Rhaegar's annulment and subsequent marriage to Lyanna, are recorded. Even before the audience had seen it, the Citadel loomed over the events of the series, pumping out maesters and sending flocks of ravens here and there. Even the great map and spinning bands of gold from the opening theme are, as we learned in the season 6 finale "The Winds of Winter," from the Citadel's library.

It is also a place without women — except Gilly, for the past season. Though she's not read as much as Sam, Gilly has learned more about Westerosi history among the stacks than the vast majority of people across the Seven Kingdoms likely ever do, and she knows the inner workings of the Citadel as few ever have. She isn't just literate anymore — she is positively and impressively learned. This is crucial in and of itself, but it's also something absolutely nobody will expect of her. Even in finery, Gilly has the manners and accent of a Wildling girl who no one would expect to be able to read, let alone to have visited the most impressive library in the world. This could make her a tremendous spy — she will be allowed places others are not and seen as the unlikeliest possible threat to anyone in power. No one would guess what's in that head of hers, and that's what could turn the tide.

Surprising connections

Few Game of Thrones characters have ranged as far as Gilly. She began in an exotic land unto itself, the fearsome place beyond the Wall — so remote and foresworn that even northern children growing up beside it believe it's home to fearsome creatures of myth and legend. Then she spent time at the Wall, where she made a home among her enemies. Upon falling in love with Sam, they journeyed south, and now Gilly has feasted in the opulent halls of Horn Hill, learned to read in the legendary Citadel's library at Oldtown, and is now in residence at Winterfell, alongside the reunited remnants of the Stark family. She's been to nearly every major region of the Seven Kingdoms before she's probably even 25, and odds are good she'll travel even further.

Very few other characters — especially commoners — have this level of connectivity. There are people who know her with hundreds upon hundreds of miles between them at every level of society, and a very particular someone with allegiances in the Watch, Oldtown, Winterfell, and the Reach loves her. Gilly and Sam have connections to the common folk of Westeros, the greatest noble houses, and, given the reveal of Jon Snow's parentage and his newly-forged relationship with Daenerys, outright royalty. Gilly is a simple Wildling girl, but she also unites the Starks, the Wildlings, the Reach, and — if you count her Walker half-brothers — the White Walkers themselves. Gilly is the maypole around which multiple ribbons of plot and character are wound, and the last season will reveal which tugs the strongest.