Note: this piece contains multiple spoilers concerning the plot of Game of Thrones seasons 1-8
While they were merely alluded to by a persistently scheming Cersei at the end of season 7, the expensive 'company' of sellswords were first seen sailing towards King's Landing in the season 8 trailer, and their safe arrival in King's Landing allowed Euron Greyjoy to become rather friendlier with Cersei than she'd let him get before.
As an army with the power to overthrow Jon and Daenerys' own, at least by reputation, their arrival could not only spell disaster for the fantasy epic's protagonists but change the race towards the Throne altogether.
Here is your need-to-know guide on the (potentially very important) new arrivals:
Who are the Golden Company?
The Golden Company is a company of sellswords famous both for its size (at 10,000 men it’s the largest group of mercenaries in the Free Cities) and its reputation for having never broken a contract. They really lean into the “gold” part of their name: as well as their golden armour, the high officers like to wear silk, jewellery and embellished armour and their swords are decorated with jewels. Many of them will wear a golden band on their arm for every year they’ve spent with the Golden Company. The captain-general sleeps in a tent made with gold cloth, which is surrounded by pikes with the skulls of previous captain generals on top. Those skulls, by the way, are made by boiling the flesh away and dipping the remaining bone in molten gold. As memorials go, it's certain unique.
Probably to pay for all this, the Golden Company are wildly expensive – but by all accounts, they’re worth the money. Their war cry is “Beneath the gold, the bitter steel”, partially to pay homage to their founder, Bittersteel (more on him later) and partially to remind people that although they may look flashy, they are still utterly deadly.
Contained within that 10,000 men are 500 knights, 500 squires and 1000 archers, who shoot using a variety of types of bow so that they can shoot your enemies through the head no matter what the situation calls for.
The men themselves are also not your average sellswords. They’re made up of exiles and their sons, and were described by Jon Connington (who in the books was Hand of the King for Aerys II Targaryen for a bit) as “Ghosts and liars… Revenants from forgotten wars, lost causes, failed rebellions, a brotherhood of the failed and the fallen, the disgraced and the disinherited.” Not the kind of people who are likely to play fair when it comes to fighting.
Bittersteel was said to have drummed discipline into them when he founded the Golden Company, and you can see that in how they fight: they are quick to organise, quick to march and quick to start killing people. They’re also unafraid of getting blood on those shiny gold shields; fighting over the leadership of the Golden Company includes the aptly named Maelys the Monstrous twisting the head right off his own cousin’s shoulders.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, they’ve got elephants. War elephants. You can understand why Cersei was so disappointed that they were left behind - having a war elephant on your side would be cool.
Why are they important for series eight?
The Golden Company’s appearance in Westeros could throw a spanner into the future of Daenerys and Jon in two ways.
Firstly, they could be the end of their armies. Towards the end of the last series, Cersei promised Daenerys and Jon that the Lannister armies would march north and fight the White Walkers alongside them. However, she later told Jamie that she doesn’t intend to keep that promise: instead, Euron was recruiting the Golden Company for her so she could destroy what was left of the Stark/Targaryen armies once the White Walker threat was eliminated.
Jamie was so horrified by Cersei’s plan that he left her to join Daenerys and Jon and “fight for the living”, but there’s no guarantee he’s going to tell them about what Cersei’s planning to do – after all, he still loves her and he’s still a Lannister.
But even if he did, all he can offer is a warning: they still have to fight an army of the undead and then use whatever they have left to deal with 10,000 highly trained and bloodthirsty killers. Even with a couple of dragons on side, that’s not going to be an easy fight. At least they left the elephants at home.
Who is leader of the Golden Company?
In the books, there are three leaders mentioned as the leader of the Golden Company: Harry Strickland, Bittersteel, or Young Griff.
Harry Strickland is a fourth-generation member of the Golden Company and their current captain-general of the Golden Company. Bittersteel, real name Aegor Rivers, is the founder of the Golden Company and one of the Great Bastards of Aegon IV Targaryen – aka, illegitimate children he had with noblewomen that he legitimised on his deathbed. Young Griff, meanwhile, claims to actually be Aegon Targaryen, the last living son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell who Varys smuggled to safety during the sacking of Kings Landing and who, in the books, convinces the Golden Company to sail to Westeros to help take back his throne.
The big reveal at the end of series seven was that Jon Snow wasn’t the bastard son of Ned Stark but the legitimised son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. We don’t know how Dany is going to react to the news that her new boyfriend has more of a claim to the throne than she does, but if there are more rightful Targaryen heirs on their way, this is going to cause all sorts of practical and emotional issues for them.
Could the Golden Company leader end up on the Iron Throne?
A Targaryen with influence in the Golden Company is very likely to betray Cersei, take the throne and then go after their cousins in the north – whether for marriage (Young Griff states he wants to marry Daenerys and rule Westeros with her) or murder (sorry, Jon). And with the White Walkers presumably defeated and at least three Targaryens with claims to the throne fighting to be crowned, it’ll be very interesting to see who the other houses support.
We now know that in the series, Harry Strickland (played by Marc Rissman, last seen in The Man In The High Castle) is the leader of the Golden Company, but the show could still go down the route of the books and have Young Griff travelling as part of the Golden Company rather than leading them. To be honest, it seems unlikely – there are only five episodes left, there's already a lot to fit in without having to explain the history of a whole new character, and Harry seems like a fairly normal soldier rather than someone scheming to help someone else claim the throne.
And it's not like we need that added spanner thrown into the works – even without the added complications of a new Targaryen heir, it’s evident that the Golden Company are going to make things very, very difficult for our heroes.