Winter is here, dragons are coming, and the Game of Thrones endgame has begun.
The “Winds of Winter,” the Season 6 finale named for the still-unreleased George R.R. Martin book, mercilessly cleared the board of all but the final players in the fight for control over Westeros. The Freys are now but a musty and dimly lit memory. House Tyrell was nearly crushed out of existence. And the High Sparrow, his fanatics, and the aristocrats of King’s Landing exploded into unholy flames in the most staggering display of ruthlessness all season.
Mad Queen Cersei detonated the dozens of barrels of wildfire that Aerys Targaryen once kept squirreled away under the Red Keep. In one precisely orchestrated coup, she rid herself of all her enemies, viciously exacted her revenge on those who dared humiliate her (RIP Septa Unella), and forcibly took back power after two seasons of surrendering it.
Not even she could have known this would end with her sitting on the Iron Throne, though. Cersei is one of the show’s most fascinating characters: a squandered intellect, a fierce mother, and a selfish, proud, and petty woman, unabashedly attuned to her own desires. She’s chafed at the limits of her station and her gender for most of her life; much of Cersei’s early characterization focused on her frustration at her father for refusing to teach her how to rule along with her brothers.
So watching those limits suddenly be lifted, watching her don a crown and sit on the throne at the same time that she’s just lost her last child (Tommen walks out a window with the gravitas of a Bugs Bunny cartoon strolling off a cliff), is to watch an unknown entity assume the highest position of power in the Seven Kingdoms. She’s no longer a king's wife, no longer the Queen Mother. She’s an unmarried queen—likely the first in Westeros history.
Of course, Cersei isn’t likely to rule for long. The prophecy that Maggy the witch foretold for her, the one that predicted the deaths of her children, also said Cersei would rule one day, but only until “there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.” (Sound like any dragon queens you know?) After that, the prophecy predicts Cersei’s demise: “When your tears have drowned you, the Valonquar shall wrap his hands around your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”
“Valonquar” is Valyrian for “little brother.” Tyrion, newly appointed Hand of the Queen, is en route back to King’s Landing with Daenerys—though it would be the ultimate test of (technically younger twin) Jaime’s honor if he again had to kill his ruler to save the city of King’s Landing. Or maybe in this case, all of Westeros.
Cersei’s revenge on the elite of King’s Landing is also likely to go down as the show’s greatest-ever feat of prolonged suspense and one of its most stunningly crafted sequences, period. Director Miguel Sapochnik (“Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards”) makes the best of the episode’s extended 80-minute running time by dwelling on small, meditative moments at first—the High Sparrow, Margaery, Cersei, and Tommen each preparing for the trial—then escalating into moments of unease, then abject horror, then jaw-dropping shock and spectacle.
Much is owed to composer Ramin Djawadi’s flawless musical direction, peppered with soft pianos that add unease to dazzling visuals: from the debut of Cersei’s war-like new gown—black embroidery, high neck, silver chains—to the chilling sight of a dozen of Varys’s “little birds” turning on Maester Pycelle, to the agonizing moments before the explosion itself as Margaery desperately tries to convince the High Sparrow to evacuate.
Seeing as sharp a mind as Margaery done in by the High Sparrow’s patronizing arrogance (he underestimated Cersei; she would not have but she was entrapped by her own double-agent plans, sigh) is a blow more severe than the show has been willing to deal all season. It’s been a relatively bloodless 10 weeks in terms of main character deaths, and none all season have redefined the parameters of the game the way Margaery’s (and Tommen’s) have.
Cersei now sits on the Iron Throne with nothing to lose and newly-allied enemies (Olenna and the Sand Snakes, aided by Varys and his new teleportation powers) plotting her death in the south. Daenerys, also now free of emotional strings, finally set sail toward Westeros in the perfect farewell shot of the season: dragons soaring over the fleet we waited five years for, thousands strong and bearing the Targaryen crest, the newly re-named “Bay of Dragons” left behind. (Dragons on the ships, dragons in the air, “Bay of Dragons,” Dany is never not on brand.)
Jon Snow is now King in the North—at least for as long as Littlefinger bides his time, futilely trying to turn Sansa against him. (There is every reason for Sansa not to trust Littlefinger over the brother she only just got back from the dead. Please do not let this happen, show.) Jon admits that Sansa’s claim to Winterfell is strongest but accepts the impromptu coronation anyway. Which is understandable. Lyanna Mormont is a very persuasive speaker.
Crucially, Sansa also admits she was wrong not to tell Jon about her alliance with Littlefinger. Just mentioning the possibility that the Knights of the Vale might have been coming to assist in the Battle of the Bastards could have saved us a giant and hundreds of lives. That she didn’t was one of the most frustrating and inexplicable aspects of last week’s episode. As she tells Jon here, it was simply because she didn’t “trust” him enough.
A number of other years-long plots also finally hit their crescendos in “Winds of Winter.” The identity of Jon Snow’s mother, Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna, was explicitly confirmed onscreen for the first time through the eyes of our new Three-Eyed Raven, Bran. It all but established Jon as the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, the prince who fell in love with and “kidnapped” Lyanna. Jon’s half-Targaryen lineage is the reason Lyanna begged Ned to take the boy (“Promise me, Ned”) and raise him as his own, keeping his true heritage hidden from the Targaryen-despising King Robert.
Arya also exacted her revenge for the deaths of Robb and Catelyn Stark by murdering Walder Frey’s sons and serving their carved-up remains to him in a meat pie, then slitting his throat the way he once had someone slit Catelyn’s. Arya uses a face from the House of Black and White when pulling off the deed, which seemingly promises no more of her mind-bogglingly ill-advised appearances as herself in public. We saw how badly that turned out when she tried hiring a ship barefaced in Braavos.
Sam, Gilly, and Sam Jr. are finally at the Citadel in Oldtown, home of the most spellbinding book porn this side of Beauty and the Beast. And Davos was finally allowed to rage at Melisandre for Shireen’s death, a moment all the more affecting for how belated in the season it was and how fantastically Liam Cunningham plays Davos’s heartbreak: “She was good and she was kind and you killed her.”
Davos’s words serve as reminder of how little room there is now for anyone good or kind in the game. (Are Sam and Gilly the only ones left?) Arya was once good, Sansa was once kind, but both sisters’ serene Mona Lisa smirks at the deaths of their respective enemies felt troubling, even alienating once the satisfactory rush of revenge subsided.
Cersei says, “Sometimes before we can usher in the new, the old must be put to rest.” And true, a new status quo has taken hold: Daenerys, Cersei, and Jon Snow are now the main forces to be reckoned with in Westeros, give or take a Euron Greyjoy or two. But while Dany and Cersei may be more ruthless than ever, it’s still hard to see over the course of this past season what the major changes in Jon Snow have been, or why he had to die to come back as King of the North.
Still, Season 6 has seen both creative highs (“Hold the Door”) and head-scratching feats of deus ex machina (see: Arya’s Waif-slaying and every single Stark action in “Battle of the Bastards”). In its slowest lulls, it could feel like it was reneging on the promise of trope-defying unpredictability established when Ned Stark was beheaded.
But “Winds of Winter” was Game of Thrones at its merciless, shocking best. Not simply because it dared to kill one of its most complex, beloved characters in Margaery, but because it was riveting, dynamic storytelling from beginning to end. These are the kinds of episodes at the heart of the relationship between the show and its viewers, ones that challenge us and the show’s own status quo. And now we have to go another 10 months without them.
But we know all about waiting. We waited years for winter to come and for Daenerys to set sail to Westeros. Cersei waited her whole life to sit on the throne. What’s another 10 months on top of all that?