Well, that was fantastic television.
Coronation, revelation, vengeance, and wonder; the season six finale "The Winds of Winter" represents a new level of achievement for Game of Thrones. Not only was it heart wrenching and cathartic, but it was an assault on the senses in the best possible way. Miguel Sapochnik’s direction and Ramin Djawadi’s score are at their apex, and the entire cast gets to flex their acting prowess in heavy, meaningful scenes that turn the page to the final act of our fantasy epic.
This week’s episode was a culmination of sorts, the last breath before ice descends from the north and fire reigns in the south.
It is then exceedingly appropriate that winter finally arrives, here in our 60th hour. Throughout, the episode is laden with all the motifs that have made this show so rich and immersive; questions on power, justice, and revenge have always been at the heart of Game of Thrones, and all played their part in the season’s ultimate chapter.
Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow ended the fifth season at their lowest points: shamed, lost, and murdered, respectively. For several seasons, each had tried to forge their own way through this treacherous political landscape, and each had fallen to ruin.
Having been humbled, these leaders have become more wary of the titular game of thrones. Now, they establish small councils, put ruling structures in place, and in dramatic fashion, cast down their enemies as they ascend to the throne.
The episode opens in King’s Landing with what amounts to a 20-minute short film depicting the trials of Loras and Cersei. Impressive camera and lighting techniques are coupled with "The Light of the Seven," a chilling piano-and-string arrangement that slowly builds dread as the inevitable climax of the scene becomes clear: the heavily-foreshadowed wildfire buried under the Great Sept of Baelor becomes the tinder upon which Cersei Lannister’s enemies burn.
At first, Cersei appears to be dressing herself for the trial just as Tommen, Loras, and Margaery are. But as Loras’s trial gets underway, Cersei has still not departed from the Red Keep. Even more strangely, King Tommen is not in attendance for the trial of his good-brother. The oddity does not go unnoticed by Queen Margaery, though her primary concern still lies with her brother. When the King finally decides to head towards the Sept, he is confronted by the Mountain, a silent sentinel preventing the King from joining his wife.
It is at this moment that it becomes clear that the Lady of Casterly Rock was never dressing for a trial; clad in an armored black dress, Cersei Lannister was preparing for a coronation. While the Faith and Tyrells seek justice and mercy in the eyes of gods and men, Cersei’s eyes burn only with vengeance. With her enemies all neatly gathered, Cersei springs her plan into action and Qyburn’s little birds are used to masterful effect, as they slay Grand Maester Pycelle in the Red Keep and light candles among the wildfire caches buried beneath the city.
As soon as Margaery discovers Cersei and Tommen have not yet left the Red Keep, she realizes Cersei has caught them. She begs desperately for the High Sparrow to end the trial and evacuate, but he remains obstinate in having Cersei’s trial continue that day. The High Sparrow cannot quell the commotion in the sept, however, and throngs of onlookers try to make for the exits, blocked by the sparrows from leaving.
Cersei channels her inner Mad King, roasting her enemies alive as the wildfire beneath the Sept goes off. Not only did she rid herself of the Faith and Tyrells, but she also eliminated her uncle Kevan, who had usurped her role as the ruling force in King’s Landing, and Lancel, the cousin she had taken to bed when Jaime had been captured by Robb Stark. Lancel was one of the few who knew of Cersei’s affair, and now only Tyrion and Varys remain alive to tell Jaime that his sister was unfaithful.
Cersei Lannister’s revenge tour doesn’t end there, however. Amidst all the madness, her men had also taken Unella captive, the septa who was the bane of Cersei’s imprisonment. While the burning of the Sept was every bit a political power play, the torture of Septa Unella was personal, vengeful joy for the Queen Mother.
There was no information to glean, no power to wrest away, only pain to extract. Cersei promised Unella hers would be the last face she sees before she dies, though Cersei pays that debt in a slower, crueler way than expected. Rather than granting her the Mother’s Mercy, Cersei instead hands over her over to Gregor Clegane. The Mountain slowly begins to tear the septa apart as Cersei exits the room, chanting "shame" all the while.
In typical Thrones fashion, revenge does not come without cost.
King Tommen Baratheon ends his own reign, leaping from an open window into his doom. The visual framing here is eerily powerful; a still camera keeps focus on the center window, with the Great Sept burning in the background. Tommen removes his crown and exits the frame, returning to the frame only to defenestrate himself.
Knowing Maggy the Frog’s prophecy, Cersei Lannister knew her son was doomed. She did everything possible to combat this destiny, but in adhering to mythical tropes, her attempts to change her fate only hastened its coming.
Though Tommen erred often as king, he was still another victim, a pawn who was killed as others played the game of thrones. Tommen tried to do right by everyone, wedding the Faith and the Crown in an attempt to bring peace to King's Landing and its people. He ultimately could not control his fate (i.e. mother), who brought the Faith crashing down in one fell swoop.
This forms a symbolic parallel with Tommen's suicide here, as he himself removes his crown he goes crashing down himself.
With King’s Landing effectively emptied of enemies, Cersei Lannister finally takes her place on the Iron Throne. Though she had ruled by proxy before, she now stands as the first undispited Queen of Westeros, with Qyburn (freshly anointed as Hand) and the Mountain at her sides.
This seems to be unequivocal victory for the lioness, though her brother arrives to see the ruin his twin has wrought on the capital. Jaime Lannister already once killed a mad ruler who burned his enemies; now his sister-lover holds that very position.
And so it appears that Cersei Lannister will sit the Iron Throne when Daenerys Stormborn, the last scion of House Targaryen, finally lands in Westeros.
The Mother of Dragons not only sets sail for Westeros, but she also leaves Daario Naharis in command of Meereen to keep the peace while the "Bay of Dragons" transitions to a government by its own people. This move is savvy on several fronts; as Dany says herself, she needs to open to a political marriage in the Seven Kingdoms, and having a paramour alongside would bring scorn upon her from the feigned puritanism of the Westerosi nobility.
Secondly, sellswords are notoriously fickle, beholden to gold and quick to change allegiances. In fact, part of Stannis Baratheon’s downfall was the sellsword company Storm Crows abandoning his cause just before he faced off with Ramsay.
With thousands of loyal Unsullied and Dothraki, who can’t be won over by the highest bidder, the Second Sons would be superfluous and added human cargo as she sets sail west. And lastly, having been a former fighter in the Meereenese pits, Daario understands this culture better than any of Dany’s other counselors.
The machinations don’t stop with Daario, however. After a brief pep talk with Tyrion Lannister, she names him the Hand to the Queen as they depart Meereen. Tyrion has shown Queen Daenerys a different path than simply burning everyone; coupling her strength with politic, Tyrion had helped Daenerys bring some peace to Meeren and end the reign of the Harpy. Combined with his knowledge of Westeros, Tyrion becomes a clear choice for her right hand.
All the while, Varys forges an alliance of fire and blood with the Martells and Tyrells, two houses who have effectively been ruined by the Lannisters. Daenerys needs the lords and ladies of Westeros to rally to her cause, and Varys is ensuring that is the case.
With the Dornish, Dany now has a kingdom in the south that is difficult to penetrate due to the desert conditions; additionally, the Dornish are one of the few armies that did not take part in the War of the Five Kings, meaning their army and fleet should be at full strength.
For Lady Olenna, the legacy of her house is no longer an issue; vengeance against the Queen is all she seeks. Cersei ended the main Tyrell line, leaving no heirs for Highgarden after her death, but on the whole, Highgarden still commands the richest lands and the most soldiers in Westeros, which makes it a powerful ally to Daenerys Targaryen.
There’s also a historical component here: when Aegon the Conqueror landed in Westeros 300 years ago, House Gardener ruled the Reach. The Gardener King opposed this new dragon king, and for his efforts was burned on the Field of Fire. The Lord Tyrell, who was steward of Highgarden at the time, turned the castle over to Aegon and bent the knee, for which Aegon raised Lord Tyrell up as the new Lord of Highgarden.
So it was the Targaryens that initially raised the Tyrells up to power, and now it will be the Targaryens who allow the last Tyrell a chance for vengeance.
With Meereen behind her and political allies and advisors in place, Daenerys closes out the sixth season sailing for Westeros.
The last images are long awaited, as Dany’s return home has been a shoe waiting to drop for six seasons now. Again, Djawadi’s music soars as dragons, ships, and soldiers paint the horizon.
A giant dragon prow cuts its way through the narrow scene as Greyjoy, Martell, Tyrell, and Targaryen banners blow in the wind. It’s an extremely cathartic, satisfying moment for several characters that had been waiting for this moment for years.
And while queens reign in the south, a king comes forth in the North.
With the Boltons defeated, House Stark must reunite the North before the White Walkers descend on the Seven Kingdoms.
First, Jon and Sansa address the fallout of the previous episode’s battle. Their discussion of who should take Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn’s old bedchamber is a proxy for who should rule: the "bastard" of Winterfell or the eldest daughter, who has already been wed to a Lannister and a Bolton.
Sansa knows hiding the Knights of the Vale was a mistake, and apologizes thusly. Jon reminds her that they must trust each other to succeed. The Starks have been torn apart by interlopers before; they cannot afford to do it themselves. Their conversation ends on an ironically warm note: a white raven has arrived, heralding winter’s arrival. Their father is proven right, Jon says, as they share a brief smile in the harsh cold.
Gathered in the Great Hall of Winterfell, the lords of the North and the Vale must decide the best way forward. The Night King remains the clear threat, and the White Walkers will have the upper hand so long as humans are too busy feuding and warring with each other. Worse yet, with news of Sansa and Littlefinger holding court in the North, Winterfell once again may become a target for Cersei.
Lady Lyanna Mormont steps up, and declares Jon Snow to be the leader the North should follow. Though a "bastard," she believes Jon has proven himself a capable leader. He has served as Lord Commander of the Wall, has fought and survived battles with humans and White Walkers alike, and has shown he is willing to do the right thing in the face of opposition. After her impassioned speech, the other lords take up Lady Lyanna’s call, hailing the White Wolf as the new King in the North.
Davos Seaworth joins in, and even Sansa flashes Jon a smile, albeit not without a hint of disappointment. Sansa too has an argument to be Queen in the North, but patriarchal ways die hard, just as Littlefinger had told her they would in the godswood.
While she will support Jon going forward, there appears to be some friction between the siblings, and surely Littlefinger will find his way between the two. (Sansa’s askance looks at Jon nicely mirrors Jaime looking on as Cersei sits the Iron Throne).
But Jon’s coronation is not even the most important turn for his character.
Instead, Bran Stark takes us back to the Tower of Joy, which we visited in the season’s third episode. This time, Bran gets to follow his father up the stairs, where Ned finds his sister laying in a pool of blood and tears. In her dying moments, Lyanna whispers to Ned, saying Robert can never know what happened here, and asking him to fulfill a promise for her. "Promise me Ned," she repeats as life slips away.
As the young Eddard Stark turns around, he is handed a dark-haired baby boy, a newborn Jon Snow. And with that, the veil shrouding Game of Thrones most important mystery is lifted.
Jon Snow is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, a child of ice and fire. Ned, as a promise to his dying sister, chose to conceal Jon by claiming him as his own son, a bastard he supposedly begot during Robert’s Rebellion.
If Robert Baratheon knew a trueborn Targaryen son existed, he would surely have it murdered much like he wished it for Daenerys and Viserys earlier in the series. Knowing Robert’s rage, Ned could not afford to let anyone else in on his secret, keeping it from even his wife. Even if Robert never found the boy in his lifetime, Jon would be a claimant to the Iron Throne, and thus an enemy to whoever sat upon it.
Ned Stark is honorable to a fault, it is said, and that is what led to his demise very early on. Though that lone wolf died, his pack has survived, and the honor and mercy he instilled in his children endures to this day (evidenced by Jon letting Melisandre leave Winterfell with her head attached). And by protecting Jon throughout his childhood, Ned Stark ensured that the Last Hero of Westeros survived to take on the oncoming apocalypse.
Game of Thrones season six was the first season to surpass the source text on all fronts, and unburdened from the text, the show has soared like a white raven. Despite a few weaker moments and episodes here and there, the season delivered incredible high points (both technically and narratively) peppered with revelations from Jon’s true parentage to the origins of Hodor. And it saw the return of several old faces, from the Hound to the Brotherhood to Benjen Stark to the Tully's.
But for all those, no returns mattered more than those of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Cersei Lannister.
From the beginning, these characters have struggled to find their place in a world that shuns bastards and women alike. Having suffered through loss, wars, and even death, these three have ascended back into power, this time with capable advisors and armies at their commands.
As the story pivots into its final seasons, one question remains: will these queens and kings continue to play the game of thrones, leaving the country bloodied and ripe for the White Walkers? Or can the realms of men unite to beat back the oncoming apocalypse?
Much like Jon’s parentage and Dany’s return to Westeros, this question was asked very early on, and looks to be answered in the epic’s final hours.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Arya Stark makes an unexpected return in the finale, after seemingly finishing her season arc in Braavos. Posing as a servant girl, Arya is able to infiltrate the Twins and kill Black Walder and Lame Lothar, whom she ends up baking into a pie and serving to the Lord of the Crossing. Arya allows him to savor a few bites before revealing the pie, and her face, to the lecherous Walder. She declares herself a Stark, a fact he needed to know, before she ends his life for good.
Aside from the neat reveal and revenge for the Red Wedding, there are two fun points to get at here.
First, the disguised Arya uses the phrase "my lord," which Tywin Lannister had instructed her is a tell that she is noble, not commonborn. So that was a nice hint at the reveal, while calling back to several seasons ago.
Secondly, the whole notion of "Frey pies" actually originates from the text. In the latest ASOIAF book, Wyman Manderly (seen in the last scene at Winterfell) killed several Freys as justice for his son being killed at the Red Wedding. He then served them as pies to the Boltons and Freys who were holding Winterfell at the time. It was a great nod to book readers.
- Lastly, Gilly and Sam finally arrive in Oldtown. Located on the southwestern-most tip of the Seven Kingdoms, Oldtown is a center of commerce and education. At its center lay the Hightower, home to House Hightower, which doubles as a beacon for incoming ships with its flame atop burning in perpetuity. One Hightower has graced the show itself; Ser Gerold Hightower, the White Bull and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, was one of the two Kingsguard who fought off a young Ned Stark in our first flashback to the Tower of Joy.
The Hightower, however, is not Samwell’s destination. Instead, he is bound for the Citadel, where men train to become maesters before being set forth into the world. While this scene mostly acts as set up for the next season, the imagery inside the library is breathtaking, and somewhere therein likely lies scrolls on the White Walkers and the Long Night. The show could easily have pushed this to the next season premiere, but giving us a new location that creates a new sense of wonder (the same wonder that Sam has in his own eyes) is a great gift for fans.
- And with that, my recaps for the sixth season of Game of Thrones are at an end. Once again, thanks to everyone here at DRaysBay who supports and engages this non-baseball material, and thanks to all friends and readers on Twitter and Facebook who read these as well. Not everyone gets the time and opportunity to write about their passions, so I am forever grateful that I get to do so, and that people appreciate that labor of love. And lastly, thanks to Danny Russell who brought me on board and allows me to continue with these. Thanks to all!