More than dragons or White Walkers, Game of Thrones is really all about money.
When the HBO series begins, the Iron Throne—that thing all the characters will kill each other to sit upon—is already 6 million Gold Dragons (roughly $70 billion according to one conversion) in debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos, the largest and most powerful financial institution in the fictional Seven Kingdoms. The Iron Bank is like each of China’s and America’s “Big Four” banks combined, and in the world of Game of Thrones, it’s not to be trifled with.
That massive debt becomes the problem of House Lannister, which takes power toward the end of the first season through its young and sadistic puppet king, Joffrey Baratheon. As the penultimate season of Game of Thrones wrapped up Sunday night, the Lannisters have managed to stay on the throne despite the odds—partly by keeping the Iron Bank at bay.
And now, at the end of season seven, with the debt finally repaid, the bank is ready to reinvest in the crown—perhaps to provide the war chest that will turn the tide of the game of thrones.
Here’s the winding financial path that got us here:
Since the moment that Ned Stark discovered the crown’s enormous debt problem, shortly before his demise in season one, it has loomed over the Lannisters, informing every alliance they’ve made and every back they’ve stabbed. Not only do they want to remain in power, but they have a reputation to uphold: “A Lannister always pays his debts” is the famously rich house’s motto.
But the Lannister gold mines quickly ran dry, and the once-wealthy house found itself completely broke and unable to pay back their loans, which increased exponentially as the Lannisters waged war against the Starks and various other foes. (In Westeros, there is no debt ceiling.)
Cersei Lannister badly damaged her relationship with the Iron Bank, forcing the financial institution to freeze all loans to her kingdom and prop up her rival Stannis Baratheon instead.
Fortunately for Cersei and her family, Stannis and his army was defeated, leaving the bank without a house to support. The Lannisters align with House Tyrell—another of the show’s affluent families—before Cersei orchestrates their demise, killing every last influential Tyrell, sacking their castle of Highgarden, and using the stolen gold to pay off the outstanding debts to the Iron Bank.
In Sunday night’s season finale, it was revealed that the Iron Bank is so pleased with Cersei’s repayment that it has agreed to give her a new loan to hire the Golden Company, a legendary mercenary army that could help her defeat Daenerys Targaryen and reclaim the Seven Kingdoms.
But some fans have theorized that the Lannisters will ultimately be undone by repaying the debt in full. The theory goes that Tywin Lannister, Cersei’s father (killed at the end of the fourth season), intentionally failed to pay back the full debt to the Iron Bank, knowing that he’d have its support as long as the bank still had money tied up in the Lannisters’ success. By making good on her debts, then, Cersei just gave up the only financial leverage she had left.
The theory doesn’t account for the revelation that the bank reinvested in the crown, but perhaps Euron Greyjoy, the ally that Cersei sent to retrieve the Golden Company, won’t be as loyal to her as she assumes. Earlier in the season, an emissary from the bank hinted to Cersei that Euron’s allegiance may only be temporary.
No matter what happens with the Golden Company, the Lannisters will once again be indebted to the Iron Bank when the show’s eighth and final season debuts in 2018 or 2019. If Cersei’s gambit is unsuccessful, it’s unclear how she’ll pay back the bank this time around.
Viewers haven’t yet seen the Iron Bank’s fabled wrath, but it was strong enough to scare Tywin into obsessing over the kingdom’s finances. Fans have speculated that the bank is in cahoots with the Faceless Men, a mysterious assassin organization whose headquarters are also in Braavos, steps from the Iron Bank.
If, blinded by revenge, Cersei mismanages yet another debt crisis, she could find herself at the sharp end of an assassin’s blade. Just as famous as the Lannister motto is the bank’s notorious creed: “The Iron Bank will have its due.”