The longest episode in series history has it all: explosions, revenge, catharsis, reveals, and the Sand Snakes getting insulted.
This came together rather well!
I began the conversation last week, but tonight really settled it: this story has turned the corner. We are racing to the end now faster than Varys across the Narrow Sea, and it’s time to start delivering on promises the show made long ago (DANY ON A BOAT!) answering some mysteries (TOWER OF JOY, SON) and clearing off extraneous pieces for the series’s endgame (KA-BLOOMERS). And boy, did “The Winds of Winter” deliver on all of those levels. Game of Thrones has rarely — actually, let’s say never — been so satisfying in multiple arcs at the same time. Like much of prestige TV, we can usually count on 90% of a given episode’s events to be Bad, with maybe one or two Good Things that just haven’t turned Bad yet.
Season 6, and especially tonight, has almost gone out of its way to balance the scales. And not just in the raw plotting, either — Westeros is now a woman’s world, as nearly every scene, every bit of forward motion, was driven by the Ladies. Cersei, sitting smugly on the Iron Throne, all her enemies destroyed in a fit of calculated rage. Daenerys, flying west to take it from her. Arya, teleporting to the Riverlands for vengeance. The unstoppable Lyanna Mormont, nominating Jon for King in the North and brutally shaming the other lords who didn’t stand behind him before. And her namesake — and Jon’s true mother — Lyanna Stark, making her brother promise her to keep a dreadful secret.
Yes. The shadowcat is finally, FINALLY out of the bag: given his first chance in a while to plug into a weirwood tree, Bran heads directly toward the Tower of Joy, following his young father up the stairs to discover Lyanna, dying, but having delivered a son. Rhaegar Targaryen’s son. (At least, we assume, barring another twist.) The half-lidded eyes and pouty lips are a giveaway, and the hard cut seals it: Jon is the Blood of the Dragon. All long-held theories are confirmed. He is Ice AND Fire. And now he has the entire North behind him, and a killer new nickname: “The White Wolf.” The Mormonts, Glovers, and Manderlys don’t care that he’s a bastard, only that he’s a Stark (half-true!), and that he will lead them in the only battle worth fighting against the White Walkers. But will their fervor abate if they learn what he really is?
Of course, even Jon doesn’t know. Only Bran knows. And Sansa, after shunning Littlefinger’s awkward advances, stands down as the cries of “KING IN DA NORF” resound in Winterfell’s hall. She didn’t want to take her parents’ old chambers over Jon, and she doesn’t want his title now. But Littlefinger isn’t going away — likely imagining a makeout sesh with the lookalike daughter (shudder) of his True Love, Catelyn, as fitting payment for saving the day, he reveals that everything he has done has been to fulfill a simple “picture” in his mind: himself on the throne, with Sansa beside him. I always assumed he preferred to be the guy behind the guy, so this is a change, but we can’t trust anything he says, can we? For now, at least, he’s on their side.
Unfortunately for Jonny T, his new army is dwarfed by both the Night King’s and by his aunt’s. (She’s his aunt! Imagine that!) By the end of the hour, she has entered “the great game” with not only the Unsullied, the Second Sons, the Dothraki, and the Ironborn, but the navies of Dorne and the Reach as well. Not Daario, however — her bearded paramour gets sidelined (ask Ser Jorah how that feels, Daario) because she needs an ally in the Bay of Dragons, and even Daario can’t argue with that logic. But he loves her, and she knows it, and maybe she once loved him too but now she doesn’t seem to be feeling much of anything. “I pity the lords of Westeros,” he says, taking the rejection surprisingly well. “They have no idea what’s coming for them.”
Tyrion, clearly an INFJ, senses that Dany could use a confidence boost: “Everyone’s always asking me to believe in things, but I saw what it got them.” He’s been a cynic his whole life, Tyrion tells her, until now: “I believe in you.” Aww. In return, Dany gives him a
BFF bracelet Hand of the Queen badge. (Double Aww!) And this is a real one, not some cheap interim title like back in Season 2. He kneels before her in gratitude, but I think we just all want them to hug.
As for Dany’s swelling forces, she has Varys to thank for the recent additions, allying Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell with three simple words: “Fire and Blood.” (Dorne relevant again! Olenna trashing the Sand Snakes! It’s Christmas!) It’s also Varys who best exemplifies this season’s insane compression of time by hopping from Sunspear to Meereen in the space of a single scene. I’m not really complaining, however. It’s amusing, and likely confusing to people who obsess over timelines and such, but ships don’t get provisioned and re-painted overnight, you know? With so few of these characters crossing paths, we have no way of really knowing when events happen in relation to each other.**
**You mean to tell me the eunuch can take a round trip across the sea, but Brienne can’t get back to Winterfell to give us one more GIF-worthy moment with Tormund? Whenever someone complains about this episode being too much “fan service,” this is the only point you need to counter with.
Take Arya, for example, who magically appears at the Twins (in the guise of a serving girl too confident to be a Frey) to serve old Walder’s sons to him as a pie before slitting his throat. Our first thought, when she removed the mask: HOLY CRAP, IT’S ARYA! But if your second thought was How did she get there so fast, you probably should let that go. Say she used the TARDIS, if it helps. I hope we can just focus on what’s important, here: that for a second consecutive week, a wretched, horrible man who deserved to get murked seasons ago finally got murked. “The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark staring down at you as you die,” she says, before going full Sweeney Todd on him. That’s something we can all get behind.
And now that we know that Arya is at large in Westeros with a duffel bag of faces, that opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities — continue striking off her hit list in King’s Landing, sure, but there’s also a certain Hound roaming the North once again, and a tantalizing B&B business opportunity with Hot Pie. (One of those is definitely more likely than the other, but I won’t say which.)
She is probably most likely to cross paths with Melisandre, who foretold several seasons ago that they would meet again (after also remarking on the “darkness” and different colored eyes she saw within her, because that’s how you make a friend). The Red Woman finds herself kicked out of the North entirely after Davos, who had politely waited until after the castle had been reclaimed, confronts her about Shireen. And, I mean, we all saw that coming. But it’s a terrific scene for Liam Cunningham, who really lets Mel have it: “How many people died because you were wrong?” he bellows. If she was acting on her Lord’s orders, her lord is evil. Either way, how can she be trusted? But rather than sentence death on the woman who brought him back to life, Jon simply exiles her instead. Hopefully he doesn’t, uh, need her again.
We also answer what was probably the biggest question of “Battle of the Bastards”: why didn’t Sansa tell Jon about the Vale army? Actually, scratch that. We don’t really answer that question. She apologizes, and tells Jon she still doesn’t trust Baelish at all (and this is even before he tries to smooch her under the weirwood), but never actually says why she didn’t tell Jon. And Jon doesn’t press the issue, simply saying “we have to trust each other” before kissing her on the forehead, setting off flares for all the Jon+Sansa shippers out there. (Yep, they’re out there. But at least these two are “just” cousins, and not half-siblings?)
Also, it’s important to note, considering the episode title, that Winter is finally here. The Maesters of Oldtown have sent out white ravens across the realm, so now every petty lord from the Wall to Dorne knows that the Starks are, once again, right. “Father always promised, didn’t he?” Jon jokes, and I can call that a joke because I did indeed laugh. Kit Harington’s got jokes!
Speaking of the Maesters of Oldtown, Sam! Remember Sam? Well, he got where he was going, which was the massive, Hogwarts-esque library of the Citadel. He greets the bookkeeper at the desk like a chipper Book of Mormon character (“Hello!”) but gets only a stern look in return. Their records are, let’s say, a bit outdated. They still think Jeor Mormont is Lord Commender. “He died,” offers Sam. He does not tell the man that his replacement died as well, I suppose because Sam actually doesn’t know that yet. And Maester Aemon died too, which is why he’s here. “This is irregular,” huffs the man behind the desk. “Well, I suppose life is irregular!” Sam replies. Boy, his confidence has shot through the roof since he snuck out of his parents’ house! I like this new Sam!
The Man Behind the Desk insists on Gilly and Lil’ Sam staying behind, of course, but within minutes Sam has already replaced them in his heart. As he stands, gawking, under the domed roof of the library, the lush strings on Ramin Djawadi’s score say “romance,” and I believe it. By the time we see him again, and at the rate we’re moving, he’ll probably have forged half his chains. Maybe all of his chains, and Gilly will still be sitting in the lobby, and Lil’ Sam will have a beard.
Okay — I’m sorry. I’ve written 1600 words and still haven’t really discussed the literally earth-shaking events at King’s Landing, because I’ve been so distracted with R+L=J confirmations and the Wall’s ancient magicks (see ya later, Uncle Benjen) and Arya the Assassin and everything else that happened in these 69 minutes. As I’ve said, this was an incredible, frequently gorgeous, precisely written season finale, but a large chunk of the credit belongs to one man: The God, Miguel Sapochnik. Turns out he’s not just good for massive battles.
The first 25 minutes of the episode was shocking for multiple reasons, but I first want to talk about form. In fact, Thrones usually doesn’t play with it at all. A given episode is pretty straightforward in structure; we move from location to location, there are establishing shots, people have conversations, occasionally there’s fighting; it’s not really a series you talk about being “directed” as much as “executed.” Sapochnik, however, begins “The Winds of Winter” with wordless, highly cinematic cross-cutting that calls attention to itself in a way very rare to Thrones, and the episode is much better for it. We see how the King’s Landing characters — Cersei, Marg, Tommen, the High Sparrow, even Pycelle — are tightly intertwined, twisting the tension of each successive scene as Cersei’s villainous plan is revealed one piece at a time. And over it all, Djawadi’s score features a striking piano elegy, his finest moment in several seasons.
There’s a clockwork unity to this sequence that is every bit as powerful as Sapochnik’s work in “Battle of the Bastards,” and though it disposes of a half dozen main characters in brutal fashion, each moment is played as its own Shakespearean tragedy. Loras Tyrell’s weeping confession, and his induction into the Faith Militant (leaving the Tyrells without an heir) is for nothing. So is the sacrifice of his sister, Margaery, who has been so strong and so clever (and so winningly played by Natalie Dormer) that it’s all the more frustrating that we’ll never know what her real plan was. Her newfound piety falls away in her final moments, as she tries in vain to get the High Sparrow to take her instinct seriously. Him we watch evaporate almost in slow motion, paying for underestimating the depths of Cersei’s evil. Kevan and Mace…well, they were never really a factor. Lancel, bleeding as he crawls in a corridor beneath the sept, is the first to see their doom, and the first to receive it. Pycelle, betrayed by Qyburn and his “little birds,” dies as he lived: wishing he had stayed in bed with his whore.
And Tommen, sweet, cat-loving, people-pleasing, blessed Tommen, responds to the rising smoke (and incineration of his wife, at his mother’s word) by making a decision for himself: to leap out the window. In setpiece full of shocks, this was the capper. And how does that mother respond? She drinks, too triumphant even to grieve the loss of the son — her last remaining child — she sacrificed everything to protect. “Burn him, and bury his ashes where the sept once stood,” she tells Qyburn. Perhaps it was last week, when he outlawed trial by combat and effectively doomed her, that she decided she could never get him back, and no longer cared what happened to him. But whether she orchestrated Tommen’s suicide, would have had the Mountain finish the job, or — more likely — once again failed to think things all the way through, no one loses by winning like Cersei Lannister. Good thing she was already wearing black.
When Jamie sees the smoke on the horizon he fears the worst (I leave you alone for three episodes, and…), but it’s somehow even worse than that. He had just come from the Twins, a scene seemingly included just to set up the Arya reveal, but that gives us one key line of dialogue that could inform Jamie’s choices going forward: “Here we are, two Kingslayers,” Walder Frey joked with him. “We know what it’s like to have them grovel to our faces and snigger behind our backs.” But Walder isn’t someone you want as a kindred spirit; coming on the heels of his parlays with both Brienne and Edmure Tully, Jamie finds himself more and more not just having to defend his actions, but his own identity. We’ve seen that while he has made bad choices and committed heinous deeds, it has all been for Cersei. And now, he doesn’t even recognize the woman sitting on the Iron Throne. There’s no love in the look she gives him, either. Hasn’t he seen this tableau before? Didn’t he kill Aerys to prevent what Cersei just did?
Forget Dany — it’s Cersei who is the true Mad Queen. Now she has everything she wants: the title AND the power, the worship of her sycophants, the fear of the masses, and the robotic loyalty of The Mountain. She has Septa Unella, slowly dying in a cage somewhere below the Red Keep. Even scarier, she has all those things in absence of any personal affection toward anyone. Her children are gone. Her only real allies are Qyburn and his monster. She has no one to protect except herself. She is the immovable object against Dany’s unstoppable force, and while Jon vs. Ramsey was fun, this is the battle we really want to see.
But that’s next season. This season, Game of Thrones has much to celebrate, coming out of the darkness to solidify its place at the top of the zeitgeist. For those of us who had stuck with it through the thinkpieces and the controversies, it’s validating. For everyone else…if you’re back on board now, the gods’ justice is fierce, but also fair.
And now, 20000+ words later, I rest.
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