Warning: major Game of Thrones spoilers below.
“Winter is Coming”, promised the title of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. None of that “Pilot” nonsense other programs give you, this show had things that needed to be said too early for that sort of laziness. And now, sixty episodes later, winter has finally come. As Maester Aemon said long ago, the Starks are always right in the end. Or, as Jon notes, “Father always promised”.
Given that winter in Westeros is a bad time in general and is going to be a godsawful nightmare this time around, it’s interesting that this is an episode mainly about people improving their situation. Today is a good day to be a Stark, it seems, for reasons beyond the vindication of a pessimism born of being able to read a calendar. Well, it still sucks to be Rickon – and look at that; the show really did decide the man who got hundreds killed over his rage at the kid’s death wouldn’t think to ask whether the sorceress he lives with could resurrect him too – but otherwise the Starks are in the ascendancy. Jon is now king. Sansa is safe and well-placed to be Jon’s advisor, or make a bid for Queen of the Seven Kingdoms should she decide she could bear to marry Littlefinger. Bran and Arya are both within striking distance of their ancestral homeland; in fact Arya could probably have been there already had she not taken a detour to murder up some Freys. Even Uncle Benjen gets to go back to the heroic fight against evil that must have been in the back of his mind as the best-case scenario when he joined the Night’s Watch. Yes, he probably imagined being alive whilst he was doing it, but let’s not quibble about particulars. The point is that, even with the show having killed a Stark during off-season, there’s never been a year of the show that has ended so well for them.
The previous candidate for best season finale from the Stark perspective was in the show’s first year. Which is a strange thing to realise, considering at that point Ned’s body is still warm, Sansa’s a prisoner and Arya’s a fugitive, and Bran and Rickon have been left in Winterfell to stew. But it did work out kind of well for Robb. Sure, he looked a bit uncomfortable as his father’s bannermen declared him “King in the North”, but a lot of people can find it difficult to get used to a promotion. Five years on, I’m not sure Jon will find it any easier. Hell, Lord Commander turned out to be too much of a headache for him, though at least no-one in Winterfell’s grand hall looks like they’re about to stab him to death.
(Speaking of the grand hall, Melisandre’s puncturing of Jon’s self-pity about being well-fed and protected by a massively powerful family who weren’t as nice to him as he would have liked is absolutely delightful.)
The parallels between Robb’s coronation and Jon’s are interesting, because they slot so well into this episode’s, and indeed this season’s, running theme of direct and inverted reflections of the show’s very first year (AKA the seasons Benjen shows up for). Just the titles alone demonstrate how deliberate this approach has been: season one begins with a reference to winter and ends with a reference to fire, and season six essentially does the exact opposite. In terms of plot beats here, you have Tyrion once more being named Hand, Daenerys stood surrounded by her devoted followers as new and powerful allies are revealed, and Cersei… well, we should probably consider Cersei in more detail, shouldn’t we? After all, this extra-long episode decided to spend fully a third of its run-time in King’s Landing before it even considered events elsewhere, and then returned to the capital twice more before the credits rolled. We spend longer on Cersei’s plot and subsequent coronation than we did at the Battle of the Bastards.
In terms of the parallels I’m setting up above, the quick description of Cersei’s contribution is obvious: just as in “Fire and Blood”, Cersei ends this episode with the greatest amount of personal power she has enjoyed to date, but she does it against a national backdrop that has never been more dangerous to her and her family. Her plot to kill Robert and neutralise Eddard Stark got Cersei the job of Queen Mother in a (temporarily) quiet capital, but in the process she caused one of the Seven Kingdoms to rebel at a time in which the Riverlands were already engaged in open war with the Lannister army. This time the surrounding situation was even worse; the episode begins with the Seven Kingdoms in uproar. Dorne and the Iron Islands are in open rebellion, the Riverlands uprising is quite possibly still ongoing, and with Qyburn having acquired Varys’ spy network Cersei must have at least some inkling of the fact that the North is in the middle of a civil war, and the entirety of the Vale’s nobility has mobilised. That’s two kingdoms in direct opposition to the Iron Throne, another two at least potentially about to rebel, and the Riverlands still struggling to be rid of its new rulers who’ve shown themselves to be dangerously incompetent at keeping order.
So obviously Cersei decides the best thing to do is turn the entire Reach against her.
It’s quite astonishing just how utterly terrible the board looks for the Lannisters as this episode ends. The North, the Vale, the Reach, Dorne, and both sides of the Greyjoy split are declaring independence at best and war at worst, with the Riverlands almost certain to follow now the tattered remnants of the Westerland army is back in King’s Landing and the three most powerful Freys are dead. Aside from what’s left of her father’s forces (some of whom are liable to look askance at their former commander and his only son both having been burned alive), Cersei only has one kingdom left to call on. Unfortunately, that’s the Stormlands, loyal to the Stannis Baratheon and thus a) her enemies and b) mainly dead and forgotten outside King’s Landing or Winterfell. The degree to which Cersei has obviously and utterly screwed herself with her long-standing obsession of tactics over strategy (or more precisely, failing to understand the difference) is so heavily underlined here that we get a direct causal link between Cersei detonating her bomb and her last child committing suicide. If the gods are real, they are done with subtweeting, and yet Cersei still decides it’s time for her to be queen now. To become a ruler who burns thousands of innocents whenever she feels like it, and who murders Lords Paramount whenever it’s convenient (Mace and Loras Tyrell are the new Rickard and Brandon Stark). A ruler who controls exclusively through fear, and who smirks whilst they’re doing it. And a ruler who has Jaime Lannister as their protector. This, we can assume, is not going to go well. A dignified retreat to Casterly Rock is almost certainly her only realistic chance of surviving to the end of season seven. But that wouldn’t be Cersei.
Speaking of which, I appreciated the opportunity to gain new insight into why that wouldn’t be Cersei. Tyrion and I have both raised before her inability to plan in anything but the shortest of terms, and Cersei essentially confesses to Septon Unella that this is indeed the case. Her approach is so short-sighted because her motivating factor is simply what makes her happy at the time. This is probably what got Pycelle killed actually. I can’t see how he was an obstacle to power; it was a murder of spite. Cersei is completely unable to understand the advantages of pleasure deferred (something else she shares with her dead husband). It’s an excellent, creepy scene that humanises Cersei at exactly the same moment as she is being raised to supervillain status. As others have pointed out already, it’s not been since the first season that Cersei has so unambiguously been in the “villain” column. One more nod to how this all first shook out.
(Shame the Mountain’s new face is such a disappointment, though. Especially since the show has been teasing us with it for two years.)
As inadvisable as it may prove to be for Cersei personally, though, the opening sequence was certainly an utter triumph for the show. It’s a demonstration of how much Game of Thrones has to get through this week that a series of scenes that would usually be at the end of an episode are deployed as the start of one instead. Choosing to open with it requires a very different approach to closing with it, of course, and everyone involved demonstrates very clearly how well they understand that. The long build-up, almost silent save for some truly excellent music (Djawadi absolutely nails things here) is brilliant enough, but you also have the fabulous – if deeply uncomfortable – feint of Loras’ confession and subsequent mutilation. Because the after-effects of Loras’ punishment on both his own life and Margaery’s attempts to play the role of bashful woman of the gods seem like something the show could do something with next season. It reads clearly as set-up. And that’s all a lie. Literally nothing that happens in the Great Sept before Margaery has her revelation actually matters in the slightest going forward. Mace’s breakdown, Loras’ scarification, the High Sparrow’s smug dismissal of Margaery’s outrage; you don’t need any of that, because the whole place is about to be swept off the board in a blossom of green flame. This stuff could have been removed, or at least truncated, and the episode could have come in at a standard length.
Instead the episode runs for a full sixteen minutes before the candles run down (another truly inspired touch) to allow the sense of unease to spread. To allow those in the Great Sept to gradually realise that none of what they’re doing matters. Not just them either. The High Sparrow has his audience, and the show has its own: us. Sitting there working through the implications of the cuts between the unfolding bloody theatre inside the Sept and Cersei, all superior smirk, watching the same building we are and refusing to recognise that it matters. It’s a race to see who works out the horrific implications first, which isn’t easy when you have sinister ragged children running around (“and in their hands, the daggers”) obviously leading characters to an unpleasant end. It’s all expertly paced.
It also has a smaller tragedy buried inside it – that at the last, after five seasons of savvy social climbing, after escaping marrying a traitor and then marrying a sadist and then marrying a king so weak he couldn’t even keep her from a dungeon and then essentially marrying the gods to escape that, Margaery dies simply because no-one thinks a woman like her is worth listening to. That said, it seems to me quite perfect that it’s ultimately the man-of-the-people-honest High Sparrow’s towering arrogance that gets everyone killed, with his smug certainty mirrored in Lancel’s stern pronouncement that “The longer you wait, the worse it will be for you”. As though it’s the Sparrows’ enemies who are running out of time.
The result is an explosion that comes at exactly the right moment. It’s a tremendously impressive pyrotechnic spectacle that the show has absolutely earned, as well as a nice reminder that Cersei is her brother’s sister, however much that fact must chafe at her. Even the poor bloke caught outside during an unexpected light shower of giant ****ing bells serves a greater purpose beyond violence-porn (which frankly makes a change) by reminding us that no matter how compromised those within the Great Sept of Baelor might have been, Cersei’s plan absolutely guaranteed civilian casualties. That the game of thrones has always been anything but.
Whilst King’s Landing is the location we linger in longest this week, though, it’s also something of a contrast to the rest of the episode, it being almost the only place visited where the show’s more sympathetic characters aren’t in the ascendancy. This happens on scales both large and small. In the latter column we have Sam and Tyrion. It’s true that Sam and Gilly have been so chronically under-utilised in this season that the suggestions they should have been left fallow for a year have some justification. Even if that approach wouldn’t have cost us the rather affecting scenes at Horn Hill, though, there was wisdom in checking in with them here, because it gives us one more nod back to the first season. Sam has travelled from the far north to the populous south this season. Five years earlier he did the exact opposite. We didn’t actually see any of that journey, of course; the person we did check in with on a trek from the Westerosi heartlands to the edge of the world was Tyrion. And this is who Sam reminds me of here. “I have my mind”, the Imp once said, so long ago that it might as well have been another life, “And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone”. With one brief scene in the Citadel’s gigantic library Sam makes it clear that he gets this entirely, despite the fact he’s literally carrying a magical sword. The library will beat out the armoury, always, if in fact there was ever any meaningful difference to begin with.
Whilst Sam is busy becoming season one Tyrion, season six Tyrion is doing exactly the same. Once again he’s found himself the de facto ruler of King’s Landing – if only through job-title precedent – just so long as he can make his way through a war to get there. It’s a rather nice scene all told, actually, and combined with Dany letting Daario know she’s going to have to dump him so she can concentrate on her career, it leaves the Mother of Dragons looking more sympathetic than she has all season (it doesn’t hurt that she’s right, either; Tyrion is worse at consolation than he is at sobriety). Indeed at present you could even make the case that her allies are going to be a bigger drag on the Westerosi “liberation” than her recent dalliances with the
Chicago Targaryen way might prove. But we’ll return to the alliance of rose and sunburst later.
Moving on to the “major result” column, we’ll kick off with Lyanna Stark’s only offspring being declared King in the North by a bunch of profoundly guilt-ridden Jonos-come-lately’s (BOOK JOKE). There is something profoundly ironic in the fact that Jon’s coronation comes in the very same episode we learn he should’ve been king all along and in which the last “Baratheon” claimant to the throne dies. It’s almost as ironic as naming Jon “The White Wolf” in a season Ghost has barely been in, in fact. But as fun as it is to watch grown men scuttling to swear fealty to Jon basically to avoid more shade from Bella Ramsay (I can’t wait until Lady Mormont grows up and becomes Susan Ivanova) is the new king’s reaction to what just happened. If anything, Jon looks even less enthused than Robb did five years earlier. And it isn’t hard to see why, even beyond Jon’s general malaise this year. Robb took control of a furious, invigorated region, one that had just handed the richest, most ruthless house in the entire Seven Kingdoms a stinging defeat, complete with capturing a vital hostage. The north Jon has been handed is exhausted, short on manpower, riven by internal conflicts (just because the show can’t be bothered explaining what Karhold, Last Hearth and the Dreadfort are up to with Ramsay dead doesn’t mean it isn’t a concern) and facing invasion by an army of zombies to acting as the entree for an army of necromantic ice demons. Plus his saviours from the Vale are flat-out racist dicks. This cup isn’t so much poisoned as woven from enraged cobras. Jon’s kingdom is a far less enticing prospect than Robb’s ever was, and the Young Wolf’s face when he had a crown shoved into it looked would have been more appropriate for being given the “Hardest Trier” certificate after falling over five seconds into the Winterfell Comprehensive’s annual Deserter’s Head and Soup Ladle Race.
Just how long can Jon possibly expect to keep everything together? Robb never lost a battle and still had first the Karstarks and then the Boltons and Freys rebel. Jon’s already lost one battle, and needed bailing out by the Vale in a second. Where Robb was a tactical genius, Jon can’t even remember his own plans from the night before. His position is more precarious in every way imaginable than that of his younger half-brother/cousin. And whatever he lacks in battlefield smarts, Jon knows that history repeats itself the same way the seasons do. Winter is always coming, except when it’s here.
Actually, I think it’s this awareness of how the same beats endlessly repeat themselves that saves Melisandre’s life. Any thought of executing her surely must have left Jon’s head the instant Davos overplayed his hand. “How many died, because you were wrong?” he demands, and it’s a fair question. Crucially though, it’s a fair question that could just as easily be levelled at Jon. How many Free Folk and Northerners died outside Winterfell because of a single reckless charge he knew would be disastrous? War makes you do exactly the opposite of what you know you’re supposed to. Burning a child at the stake is a very different crime to allowing a soldier to throw away his life for no reason, obviously, but just how many dead and dying men have to form a wall of bodies before Jon’s crime becomes worse than the Red Woman’s?
Don’t worry; that’s a trick question. The only way to get the answer wrong is to try and answer at all. And Jon knows that. So he lets the Lady Melisandre go.
(One last aside before we head south, as far south as south goes. Obviously Davos is right that what Melisandre did is utterly messed up and unforgivable, But his question about the price of a mistake can be turned not just against Jon, but against himself. Davos seems to have rather conveniently forgotten that it was he, not Melisandre, who persuaded Salladhor Saan to attach his ships to the fleet now rotting at the bottom of Blackwater Bay, That it was he, not Melisandre, who then persuaded Salladhor to commit what ships he had left to an expedition that froze its nipples off for a season and then all got murdered. Sure, Davos didn’t claim to have visions from the Red God, but those he cajoled into declaring for Stannis are no less dead for that.)
From Winterfell to Dorne now, in a single bound. Littlefinger and Carys have nothing on me. Aside from Cersei’s plot in the capital, this is the only story-line here that doesn’t seem to about a victory of a clearly sympathetic character. It’s an open question as to how much sympathy we should have for Olenna Tyrell, On the one hand, she conspired with Baelish to murder her son-in-law on the day of his wedding, she spent a massive amount of money propping up a fairly unpleasant regime, she’s awful to her servants; on the other hand she just lose her entire family to an incendiary device detonated by a green tire-fire of a person. But in any case it doesn’t matter, since as she says, House Tyrell is in such horrifically dire straits even staying alive doesn’t count as a victory. Winning is now out of the question; she can only aim to lose with the maximum amount of collateral damage possible.
Which is exactly what Varys offers.
The scene in the Water Gardens therefore becomes an extension of Daenerys’ successes. That naturally brings us right back to the wider approach, but before we move onto that I want to get in one last round of savage kicking to the smoking ruin of an overstuffed septic tank set aflame by idiots that has been every last second of the Dornish scenes since their introduction. Absolutely the only potentially positive thing to come out of the nonsensical coup plot in “The Red Woman” – aside from the son-spear gag – was the idea that Dorne could move beyond being a busman’s holiday destination for a gurning Jaime and Bronn. That we might see the land and people Oberyn Martell spoke of so passionately. That the writers would understand that a country and its capital city are not in fact the same thing. Sure, I would have preferred that happen by making Prince Doran actually work rather than shove him unceremoniously offside (has any talented actor been less-well served by this show than Alexander Siddig?), but as a lead-in to a larger plot setting Sunspear directly against King’s Landing, it might have been something that at least approached defensible. Especially since Westeros would have no idea how to deal with four women in charge of a kingdom dedicated to regime change. Sisters are doing it for themselves, where “it” here refers to the brutal stabbing of all their enemies.
Instead what we got was Dorne sitting on its metaphorical hands for the entire season waiting for Varys to show up to give them something to do. Which is unsatisfying on multiple levels, just one of which is how it demonstrates the total cynicism that underlay slaughtering Doran and Trystane. Why couldn’t either of them have been the one to accept Dany’s offer? Is there any reason to believe they wouldn’t have? How much more satisfying would it have been for the show to follow the books in revealing Doran had been in league with Varys and Illyrio for two decades, instead of calling for Ellaria to simply sit out eight episodes whilst she waited for a man to show up to tell her what to do next? Imagine Doran unleashing a revelation that would have seen he and Ellaria reconcile under a new plan for the total destruction of their mutual enemies – possibly after a civil war to allow Ellaria some stronger material and for the Sand Snakes to revel in all those bad-ass action scenes the show decided not to bother with so that Bronn could look cocky a bit more? How badly do you have to misread the source material to take someone faking passivity so he can plot in secret and decide what would be better if there was no plotting at all?
Burn this plot-line to the ground and salt the earth.
OK, I feel better now. Don’t you feel better? I feel better. Let’s move on to the real purpose of the Water Gardens scene, which is to add more vessels to Dany’s absolutely gorgeous invasion fleet. I mean that not just in terms of technical proficiency (though that’s far from nothing in itself), but in terms of visual rhetoric as well. My favourite image is the first one; a snapping kraken pennant that unfolds fully to stream beside a sun that burns in a sky full of dragons. The sigils of Greyjoy, Martell, and Targaryen, all alive in the same sky. It’s dawn, too, the sun rising from the east to fill the Bay of Dragons with light as Dany’s fleet sets sail. The beginning of a new age. And yes, the fact we’re in the early hours of the morning means that the Tyrell roses are pointing the wrong way; left in shadow to wilt even as their sailors use the crops that would once have gone to King’s Landing to feed a hundred thousand hungry horses and their nervous riders. But it will be sunset soon enough. The Tyrell’s flowers will drink up the sunlight once the sun begins to slide down the sky. The Tyrells are most certainly a house at sunset now, but that still affords them enough light to grow some thorns.
Everything now is krakens and sunbursts and dragons and roses. The ancient rulers of three of the Seven Kingdoms plus the continent in its entirety. Plus a lion, obviously. Just one lion for now, but that’s OK; there’ll be blood and gold to spare once Dany reaches Westeros. All she needs right now is one little Lannister, who has a debt to pay.
So it seems as though everything has shaken out very well indeed for Daenerys Stormborn. Thousands of Unsullied, tens of thousands of Screamers, the endless armoured columns of the Reach, and the hardened guerilla fighters of Dorne, all of whom can just stand back and watch the dragons burn any army that’s arrayed against them in any case. But as with Jon’s ascent to the throne, there’s reason to think that Dany’s latest upgrade is rather less impressive than those she’s enjoyed before. Again, what if this situation is an echo of the conclusion to season one? In “Fire and Blood”, Dany started the episode with nothing but the pathetic, tattered remnants of a khalassar, and ended it with the first three dragons the world had seen in a century. This time she started with a lot of ships, and ended up with a few more ships, which were sent by two families who hate each other and have no obvious reason to support her claim from exactly two seconds after a dragon eats Cersei Lannister. I can’t imagine the Tyrells have any love for the Greyjoys, either, actually, considering the entirety of the Reach’s coastline lies within range of reavers from the Iron Islands. And all that’s holding it all together beyond Dany’s force of personality (which I grant is inconsiderable, and not to be underestimated) is a eunuch no-one trusts, and a dwarf from a family everyone loathes. Dany’s invasion just got easier, I’m sure, but keeping control of her own forces just got a lot harder. Dany and Jon both level up here, but each in ways less impressive than we’ve seen before, whilst at the same time Cersei takes a gigantic, unambiguous stride forward into barbarous despotism. Whilst on the surface this episode has mainly a triumph for those we most want to triumph (or at least, those whose opponents we most want to see defeated), every actual step here has been problematic, an example of diminishing returns, or flat-out terrifying.
Which brings us to the Twins. We start off there with something rather low-key for this episode; a bit of standard Jaime/Bronn banter that’s these later season’s equivalent of an autopilot light. Then we’re offered one more reflection as Jaime learns to his horror that not only does Walder Frey still think of him as season one Jaime, but that he considers them kindred spirits. By the Many-Faced God, that has to sting, but as bad days at the Twins go, Jaime’s is a pretty long way down the list. Indeed, if Lord Frey insisting on some kind of profound bond between himself and Jaime made the Kingslayer leave early in disgust, it’s entirely possible that his revulsion saved his life.
Because Arya is back. Last time she was here the Freys were celebrating their renewed alliance with the Starks and Tullys. This time they’ve held a feast in honour of their friendship with the Lannisters. Both times people die.
There’s no getting away from it; Arya’s vengeance here is absolutely chilling, far more disturbing even than her torture and murder of Ser Meryn Trant. And I don’t want to undersell how messed up that kill was. Back in Braavos she disguised herself as a child prostitute just to get close to her target, and the poetic nature of her revenge suggests she’d planned out at least in part the various terrible acts she subjected him to. Still though, last year it was possible to believe that at least some of the viciousness and bloodthirstiness of her actions was born of a lack of self-control, brought about by suddenly encountering Trant somewhere she wasn’t expecting. Here, though, Arya chose to seek out the Freys by coming to their castle. She killed two men in cold blood and then minced them, before taking their remains and putting it in a pie base (I guess some of Hot Pie’s lectures about decent pastry stuck after all) which she then cooked, presumably in the kitchens of the father of the men she’d murdered. All of which she did whilst wearing another girl’s face, and I don’t even want to think about where she came across that. Cooking people? Wearing their faces? Arya isn’t the plucky underdog any more. She’s Hannibal Lecter.
What saves all this is that the show knows how concerning Arya’s behaviour is here. From William’s distant smile, to the terror on Frey’s face as we watch him bleed out, to the slasher-fic score that breaks out as the deed is done, everything here is screaming just how utterly horrific Arya’s actions are here. Every time Arya kills someone for any reason beyond self-defence, it becomes more brutal, more complex, and more performative. Lady Crane was right about her being suited to the pursuits theatrical, it’s just that Arya has no interest in leaving her audiences alive. Which is one more reason for us to fear what she has become, I guess. In an episode where our heroes get ahead through forging new alliances and forgiving past mistakes, and where the only really established human villain left standing wins out through the massacre of her political opponents, we should be profoundly concerned about where Arya’s story will take her next year. It’s not that she’s becoming like Cersei. It’s that she’s becoming someone Cersei might envy.
Which is where we’ll leave things. “The Winds of Winter” is an absolutely stunning end to a fairly mid-range Game of Thrones season; the worst I can say about the finale is that it drops some ideas and undermines others, so that certain episodes will be a little more frustrating on a re-watch than they were first time around. If, like me, you can find ways to make “The Battle of the Bastards” work in your own head, then the season works quite well when split down the middle, with three episodes of build-up followed by two massive game-changers in each half. That, I think, will do. Certainly the fear that the series would tread water waiting for further direction from Martin has proved unfounded, and with Benioff and Weiss quite happy to barrel through his increasingly lumbering side-plots to actually get to a point there’s even a chance the show’s ending will end up more well-regarded than that of the books they’re based on (if we ever see them at all). That would have been a ludicrous suggestion at the end of last year’s alternately lacklustre and appallingly offensive season, and as a result the wait for next year’s episodes will surely feel much longer than the last one.
Which I guess is the most Martin-like move of all…
Reviewer: Ric Crossman