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Game of Thrones has been off the air for well over a year now, but the end of hiatus is finally nigh thanks to the April premiere. HBO has kept a pretty tight lid on what's in store, and the showrunners even spoke out about not liking to release trailers and reveal any of what's to come. What has been known for a while is that a huge battle is in store at Winterfell, and it promises to be the biggest the series has done to date.

Given the scale of scenes like in "Battle of the Bastards" and "Beyond the Wall," it's safe to say that the next battle at Winterfell will be something truly cinematic and awe-inspiring. Also, probably with a high body count, as this is Game of Thrones we're talking about. What we don't know about the battle is when in the six-episode final season it will happen.

Now, the estimated running times for the last six episodes have been released by HBO, and they lead me to speculate that the battle at Winterfell could mean different things than fans have reason to expect. The episodes with the biggest battles and most game-changing scenes tend to be the penultimate episode of each season, starting way back in Season 1 when poor Ned lost his head at the end of Episode 9.

Based on the run times for the episodes, I have to wonder if the big battle will go down much earlier than the penultimate episode. Let's start with the rundown of how long each installment will be:

Season 8, Episode 1 - 0:54
Season 8, Episode 2 - 0:58
Season 8, Episode 3 - 1:22
Season 8, Episode 4 - 1:18
Season 8, Episode 5 - 1:20
Season 8, Episode 6 - 1:20

The run time of each of the final episodes jumps drastically from Episode 2 to Episode 3, which gives the impression that something huge is going to go down in Episode 3. The jump could indicate that the battle at Winterfell happens much earlier than the second-to-last episode.

Why The Battle Could Be Earlier Than We Thought

In the past two seasons, the longest episode other than the finale was the one featuring the big battle. Admittedly, Season 7 featured more than one significant battle, especially considering the scale of when Dany finally unleashed her dragons on the Lannister army.

Still, can anyone argue that Jon and Co.'s showdown with the White Walkers and wights beyond The Wall wasn't the biggest and most game-changing conflict of that season? And doesn't it set a precedent for the first longest episode of the upcoming season to feature something huge? Could the battle at Winterfell happen as early as Episode 3?

It's honestly not as wild as you might think, despite the history of penultimate episodes as the time for the climactic battles. HBO has kept a tight lid on spoilers and released only small bits of footage. Of that footage (and the images), almost everything we've seen has been set in the North and almost certainly at Winterfell. The obvious exceptions are the scenes featuring Cersei in King's Landing and the ships at sea.

Would Game of Thrones give so much as a glimpse of the climactic battle of the whole series so far ahead of time, if it was being held until the fifth episode of a six-episode season? Even though the fact that the battle is happening was spoiled long ago due to people in the area where it was being filmed, the show didn't have to release footage of fights going down at Winterfell, or almost all the major characters located there.

There's also the point that we already know that Season 8 will begin at Winterfell, and unlike some of the crazy fast-pacing of Season 7, it will make sense for Game of Thrones to plow through the plot at a quick pace in Season 8. Season 7 ended with the fall of The Wall and the Night King leading his army down into the North of the Seven Kingdoms.

The Night King's army is comprised of wights that don't tire, other White Walkers who don't exactly seem to need naps, and a resurrected dragon. Doesn't it stand to reason that the army would make quick progress south? Besides, Dany's arrival at Winterfell means the arrival of her army, along with major characters like Jaime. If the battle doesn't happen sooner rather than later, then Game of Thrones might have the majority of the leads just hanging out at Winterfell.

Besides, the battle against the Night King isn't the only conflict that needs to happen in Season 8. The fight for the Iron Throne still needs to go down, and surely Game of Thrones won't rush through those two events in the last two installments of the entire series, even if they are among the longest episodes of the series.

game of thrones season 8 arya winterfell hbo

What An Early Winterfell Battle Could Mean

If the gigantic battle at Winterfell does happen in Episode 3 or 4, then it would stand to reason that another huge confrontation will go down. I'm not suggesting a second massive battle, as even Game of Thrones and its incredible security measures couldn't keep a lid on another sequence rivaling what will go down at Winterfell.

No, the next and possibly climactic confrontation could be rather small in scale but huge in significance. And perhaps involve Cersei, who doesn't seem inclined to travel North! It would also raise the stakes, no matter who won. If the Night King and his army prevails, then Dany, Jon, and the others might have to go on the run to the south. It's not like everything would immediately be peaceful after a defeat of the Night King, should that happen early.

If the good guys prevail over the Night King, then the conflict over who will take the Iron Throne could be the culmination of the season and therefore the series. It's called Game of Thrones, not Game of Winterfell, after all! I still suspect -- or at least hope -- that the show will end with the characters inventing a form of democracy after all the death and bloodshed over the Iron Throne, but who knows at this point?

I also have a theory that Winterfell will be overrun with wights and White Walkers, motivating Dany to roast the ancestral home of House Stark in an effort to end the war against the dead. If that happens, I don't imagine the Stark women taking it well, even if Jon does. If Winterfell is destroyed in the battle -- by Dany or the dead or any other force -- then it could certainly advance the plot (and the heroes) south.

An early battle at Winterfell could also raise the stakes by killing off some important characters. The major players don't have to bite the dust early in the season, but some of the middling characters could meet their end. Varys, for instance, doesn't look too confident in the trailer footage of him in Winterfell, and more of the crew Jon took beyond The Wall could be candidates for death.

I don't want Gendry to die -- or at least, die before finally reuniting with Arya -- but he could be another fitting candidate. Although he's not a huge character, he is the sole survivor with Baratheon blood, even if he is a bastard. Frankly, as long as the Starks survive, I can probably deal with whatever happens.

Unfortunately, we can only speculate for the next month and a half or so. Episode 3 -- which may or may not feature the Winterfell battle -- doesn't air until Sunday, April 28, and Episode 4 not until May 5. The good news is that we're finally less than a month out from Game of Thrones returning.

The eighth and final season will debut on Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. For the next few weeks, you can always go with some other viewing options to pass the time.

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