This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 10
The snow is piling as they stand atop the battlements. Hard fought for and hard won, two Stark siblings (who are now officially not siblings) consider all the lies, all the death, and all the treachery that has led to them being together in this exhausted, yet inexplicably peaceful, moment. In the wars to come, including the great war, they will have to become closer still if they hope to survive. But in this ephemeral instant, one sentence can sum up all the bitterly earned knowledge that they—and we viewers—have gained over six years.
“Winter is here,” Sansa says. And after a beat, the bastard who would be king cannot stifle his laugh. “Well father always promised, didn’t he?”
That he did, Jon. That he did. Still, now that we are finally here, and “A Song of Ice and Fire” appears to be reaching its mournful crescendo, the pain, horror, and even echoes of occasional triumph can be heard in the silent, relentless snow sliding down our screen.
The tenth episode of Game of Thrones season 6, “The Winds of Winter,” feels like the final turning point in the series before we enter the fabled endgame. More than just an indication of the weather, the series is making good on a promise first whispered of in the season 1 teasers and posters. And just as winter is finally here, so are the final revelations—it would seem—of each character’s destiny: queens and kings, conquerors and killers, it all came to the fore tonight, and it was ever so stunningly satisfying.
Seven Hells, they even made Dorne interesting.
But before we get into that, let’s begin with what might be the tensest and most stunning 22 minutes of television this year. More than any battle with predictable endings or questionable tactics, that extended and deliriously horrifying opening salvo of Cersei’s revenge was a fiery delight. This isn’t what I necessarily wanted to happen in King’s Landing, but it’s what we deserved.
Our first homage must be paid to Ramin Djawadi, whose unnerving accompaniment of piano and cello far exceeded any expectation. The union of Djawadi’s extended Concerto of Death and Miguel Sapochnik’s direction, which may have viscerally surpassed his work last week, brought to mind how Bernard Herrmann could sharply tighten Hitch’s garrote in any given scene.
Admittedly, I had heard theories about Cersei planning to blow up the Great Sept of Baelor before tonight—which honestly, I had not predicted myself—but the queasy suspense that built and built to that eventually inevitable outcome was better than any unexpected act of sudden violence. Nay, that came moments later as King Tommen surveyed the fruits of his staggering ineptitude.
But before the wildfire consumed the Sept, the contrast of two queens in this sequence was chilling. Margaery, unlike her mother-in-law, has the makings of true, noble ruler. While I suspect she was entirely honest when she confessed to the High Sparrow that she only pitied the poor to feed her own vanity and popularity, she nevertheless had the capability of compassion, as well as empathy. Margaery loved her brother more than Cersei does her own, even if the elder keeps her sibling’s company in the marriage bed. But that is also why Margaery was tragically tied to the High Sparrow.
Having played the fanatic priest like the violin, Margaery had not only won her freedom without a single hair being cut from her head, but she had tricked the septon into allowing her back into Tommen’s bed chambers, which may as well have come with the keys of the kingdom. The only reason that she could not immediately be orchestrating the High Sparrow’s downfall is her love for her brother forced her to continue to allow the Church to play its games, which in the case of poor Loras Tyrell came in the form of rampant homophobia and utter destruction of the soul.
Unlike Margaery, Loras really did crack under the Sparrow’s pressure and surrendered his life and sanity to the pious demon who acts the carpenter but demands the fealty of a king. Carving a seven-pointed star in Loras’ head just isn’t mutilating him on a sick whim; it is the same as a monarch knighting a warrior. Loras was one of the best swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms. Aye, he even saved every man, woman, and child in that cathedral during a knight of terror in season 2. But like Tyrion Lannister before him, despite his heroism in Blackwater Bay, these fair weather courtiers were ready to murder him because of his differences—or at least see the slaughter of his spirit, as he renounced his family, title, and accepted his new role as the High Sparrow’s sword.
By wanting to keep Loras alive, Margaery’s deal with the Sparrow made her frenemy harder to kill since now he had a new bodyguard and perpetual hostage. However, the point became moot when they all were consumed by a bright emerald light. One wonders if the High Sparrow thought it was the Father taking him home?
The actual destruction of the Great Sept is a crackerjack of a visual that many viewers likely anticipated from the moment they saw Cersei overlook the great church from her bedroom. Nonetheless, this moment is akin to the King (or Queen) of France choosing to blow up the Vatican because of a crude Pope they despised. Many years ago, Cersei’s brother slayed a Mad King to prevent such an atrocity from occurring, and now the only woman he has ever loved proved herself to be touched by the same lunacy.
To destroy all her enemies, she would burn down a millennium of history and heritage that spanned from Baelor himself to Ned Stark’s demise. She seeks to erase the past, which in itself is almost as heinous as the fact that she likely killed thousands. Yes, of course the High Sparrow finally got his just reward; Kevin Lannister can smirk his way to Hell; Margaery, Loras, and Mace Tyrell also were expunged from this world; and even that nasty little cuss Lancel got a front row seat to the death of his entire religion.
But in the process, Cersei proved herself to be as cruel as the Mad King and far more deadly since she incinerated thousands. As we’ll get to in a moment, it paved the way to Cersei’s coronation, but Margaery is the queen that could actually rule the Seven Kingdoms in a time of peace and tranquility. An expert politician and a brilliant courtier, she has the grace and wit to lead a fair, compassionate realm, the likes of which has not been seen in generations. Alas, this world does not recognize queens. So while Daenerys threatens to change that by force, Cersei beat her to it in the most repugnant way possible, because the truth is, Cersei doesn’t care about her children, not really.
Consider that Cersei does not care about her son enough to realize that by murdering Margaery, she is in fact crushing what little bit of a center he has, and then know that she likewise is ultimately unaffected by his death. All the series’ life, we have heard almost as often as “Winter is Coming” and “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts” that “Cersei Loves Her Children.” It is, indeed, her one redeemable quality, as per Tyrion Lannister’s judgment. But Cersei loves herself more, and her revenge best of all.
I am sure some viewers might quibble with this since the Sparrows humiliated her last season in the vilest, most grotesque, and irrefutably misogynistic way possible (one imagines that the High Sparrow would support MRM). And that is true, yet this was a threat Cersei created of her own hand by arming the Sparrows simply to try to murder Margaery and Loras. She wanted the Sparrows to shatter Loras’ psyche if it might mean the queen who is a better game player than her lost her head.
Unfortunately, when it became obvious once again that Cersei sucks at the Game of Thrones she nicknamed, she decided to knock the whole board over and take her pieces while going home. That isn’t cool when you’re a child and it isn’t much better now as Cersei reveals she has still the anger and viciousness of a belligerent toddler, such as when she sics the Mountain on Septa Unella. You thought Unella shaming Cersei was awful? The definition of cruelty amongst women? Well, just in case you forgot Cersei is the worst, here’s a scene of her letting a zombiefied rapist have his way with another woman for all the days to come.
Cersei is evil. Just as much as Joffrey in the end. That’s probably why Tommen kills himself. Realizing your mother is whatever the Westerosi equivalent of Satan might be should have that effect. And it makes sense, because Joffrey was, after all, the Anti-Christ.
With that said, while we all probably saw the green flames coming right before the High Septon’s disquieting realization, I doubt many saw Tommen going out that window, though he honestly deserved it. Of course, Tommen himself is not a bad kid, and even probably wanted to be a good king. Yet, he ultimately was just as awful a ruler as Joffrey. Joff was sadistic and stupid, and propagated a small war into a generational conflict when he beheaded Ned Stark on the Steps of Baelor. Nevertheless, Tommen’s weakness and gullibility made him even more dangerous to the kingdom. He let a veiled Civil War be conducted between his Church and his mother that consumed thousands of his subjects in a flood of murderous light. He also ceded all power to the High Sparrow before this moment, including giving him the A-OK for humiliating his mother in the streets before trying to execute her later for a capital offense.
The smoking embers above his city is the legacy of his rule. If he doesn’t have the ability to order Cersei’s execution after all this, he might as well go out that window and spare us all the trouble of watching Dany feed him to a dragon next season.
Still, Cersei ascending to the Iron Throne as a result is the stuff of nightmares. And by the looks of it, Jaime Lannister would agree. It is unclear given the fast tap-dancing around the timeline if he knew about the Sept’s immolation or his last son’s death, but he is back just in time to find not a grieving mother whose worst fears have come true. Instead, he sees Cersei satisfied with what she always wanted: power. The last time she had it, she let the Sparrows rot away the foundations of her capital and poison her son against her. Now, she’ll likely prove herself just as mad and bloodthirsty as any of the worst Targaryens.
And to hint my theories for next season (which will be an article unto itself), I think it’s safe to say Jaime knows this too. One day soon, a Targaryen with his brother’s counsel will be at the gates, and Jaime will find himself in a hellish déjà vu. History will likewise repeat itself when he slays a murderous monarch, albeit this time it will be far, far worse since it is his ladylove. And his thanks will probably be found in the gullet of Drogon’s throat.
By then, it’ll probably be a mercy.
Still, Jaime had some nice moments before then since viewers had the red carpet of catharsis rolled out in another location. Far to the north of King’s Landing, Jaime began “The Winds of Winter” dining with the Freys, which any Stark can tell you is a dicey proposition. And Jaime was skirting pretty close to winding up with a crossbow bolt for dessert when he insulted Walder Frey to his face, not that we can blame him.
Jaime murdered a king to save a city while Walder Frey murdered his monarch to avenge a petty debt that should’ve already been settled with Edmure Tully’s marriage to his daughter. And already, the wheels were turning in the old lecher’s mind when he bemoaned the fact that Jaime is apparently keeping his bargain to Edmure by letting the former Lord of Riverrun raise his family in luxury (and shame) at Casterly Rock. Walder likely expected his sons to kill Edmure in the process of taking Riverrun, either because the Blackfish wouldn’t comply or after the fact. Maybe he’d “hang himself?” But now that his son-in-law lives married to one of Walder’s most attractive daughters. He can neither marry her to a better prospect or kill his blood relation. It would be bad form, wouldn’t it?
Then again, so would be decapitating your king and replacing his skull with a direwolf’s crown. So, it’s probably best the episode went the way it did in Edmure’s case.
After thoroughly insulting and demeaning Jaime, who clearly takes offense to being called a coward or a weasel behind his back (or being lumped in with this sad disgrace), Walder is then deliciously treated to a reenactment of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus… but with a wolfish twist.
For those who have not read one of the Bard’s most wicked plays, a tyrannical Roman general is fed the remains of his beloved children in a pie, and so too is Walder forced to enjoy the fruits of his loin. Personally, I knew immediately upon Walder remarking that he’d never seen this serving girl before that it was Arya Stark. And that only made the reveal better. The fact she had to slowly explain that his sons—the two who personally murdered Talisa Stark (plus her unborn child) and Catelyn Stark—were in this pie might be the first and last moment I’ll ever see a room cheer at the confirmation of cannibalism. In that moment, Game of Thrones did what Stephen Sondheim made a delight with “The Worst Pies of London.”
Arya allows the information that she is a Stark sink into the old goat’s mind, and the viewers’ happy glands. The only thing that could’ve possibly been icing on the juicy meat is if she said while slicing the throat that “the Starks send their regards.” But why gild the lily when we can watch Walder’s flesh slide open in the same red gush that poured from Cat’s neck?
Still, I would temper any amount of enjoyment that we all had at that sight with a small warning: the look on Arya’s face was not just that of a girl who crossed another name off her list. Nay, this was more than revenge for her; it was ecstasy. Previously, it was heartbreaking to watch her grow cold as she murdered Rorge or Polliver in season 4. Yet, it is almost more disturbing now that it is her mind’s happy place to watch men bleed out.
This also raises a curious question: now what? Up until this point, I would describe Arya killing Walder Frey as the one absolute that we could all hope for. If there is a single name she deserves to cross off her list, it is his. But even before his body turns cold, what is left for her? She still has Cersei’s name, but I suspect the new ruling queen will die at another’s golden hand. And even if Arya does end Cersei, she still is someone who is happily cutting off strangers’ faces for her revenge. For there is even a tinge of horror at the gnawing suspicion about where did Arya get the face she used at the Twins since she was not allowed to take any masks from the House of Black and White. I am not sure we can just assume that the face she wore came from an awful person or one whose death was natural.
It is a dark future waiting for my favorite Stark, and one that is the most shrouded in bleak mystery.
What seems less mysterious is the parentage of Jon Snow, which was confirmed tonight for anyone who’s been paying attention these past six years. Of course, not all the pieces were given. Bran Stark reached the Wall whereupon Benjen Stark revealed he cannot cross since he is marked with White Walker magic. If only Benjen knew that Bran was similarly touched, he might not be so quick to leave… or let Bran ever see the civilized side of Westeros again. But the destruction of the Wall via Bran’s cursed arm is a story for another season.
In this moment, Bran instead finds, ever so helpfully, a Heart Tree to hook up his Three-Eyed wi-fi. And thus we’re treated to the end of the Tower of Joy sequence.
If there is one viewer out there that did not know Jon Snow is the child of Lyanna Stark, I want to congratulate you right now for staying so blissfully free of “R+L=J.” And tonight confirmed two of the integers in that question as “R+Lyanna=Jon.” Who is the R, you might ask?
Well, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you if you haven’t figured it out yet, but at least consider all the men in the older generation who might have known Lyanna—as well as why Ned Stark would have to pass off his sister’s bastard as his own for the child’s safety. It is all hinted as Lyanna pleads for Ned to promise her that he’ll protect the babe and name the child his. And it is made explicit who the child is since we get a beautiful cross-cut from the kid’s face to adult Jon Snow in Winterfell.
Speaking of beauties, the Winterfell plotline as a whole was a vision to behold. For the first time since season 2, a Stark stood by the home’s great hearth. And finally, after a considerable age of misery, it would appear that a center of gravity informed by Stark goodness again exists on the show, as opposed to Lannister scheming.
Just Jon studying his father’s chair is enough. And before he is even crowned, he is allowed to wield that power in a surprisingly fair fashion. If you asked me a year ago, I would tell you that I wanted Melisandre’s blood for murdering Shireen. I still do. Bringing Jon back from the dead is nice and all, but your narrative arc is done and you must pay for marshmallow-ing one of the sweetest characters on the show.
Still, I am sure some readers even now have forgiven the Red Woman since she brought Jon Snow back from the grave. Presented with his first deliberation as Warden of the North, Jon proved to be a far better judicious mediator than he was a war tactician last week. Banishment for Melisandre is an appropriate punishment since Melisandre desires nothing more than to serve Jon Snow, her supposed messiah. She also wants to play a crucial role in the war to come with the Night’s King—one that might yet prove pivotal. Nevertheless, the suffering of innocence should not be tolerated, even if she did resurrect Jon. So, Jon Snow proved he is worthy of the Winterfell seat by correctly splitting the difference through exile, thereby showing mercy to someone he literally owes his life too. And now that he has been “reborn” in the Battle of the Bastards, he at last looks determined to keep it.
Also relieving to many fans is the peace finally found between Sansa and Jon. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss apparently are going to keep it gray exactly when and where Sansa knew about Littlefinger’s army arriving (the later the better for her character’s sake), but the show both has Jon credit Sansa for the victory while also tut-tutting her distrusting her brother.
Whatever the case might be, and even before Littlefinger makes his moves on Sansa, her allegiance was settled tonight as far as I’m concerned. If she wanted to make a play for Winterfell and declare herself Wardeness (or Queen) in the North, this was her moment. Jon Snow even offered it to her by pointing out that on top of him being a bastard, Sansa’s deal-making with Littlefinger ensured the victory. If Jon bent the knee to Sansa, so would the rest of the North. Instead, she said she cares not if he is a bastard; she sees him as his full brother. Forget titles, she is willing to give Jon the master bedroom! Oh, somewhere Catelyn Stark is rolling over in her watery grave.
Sansa relinquished the ability to name herself more than Lady of Winterfell, and she was happy to do it. Whatever ambitions and barriers between her and Jon that exist, they may as well have crumbled like a snow mound when they shared a laugh and a memory of their father droning on about winter. This is Sansa’s first real cold season, and Jon likely was too young to remember his last one. All their life Ned Stark prepared them for this moment, if little else, and that incongruity between childhood naivety and hard-won knowledge as adults can be felt within the weather. More than even blood, that shared world-weariness will be what keeps these siblings together.
It also is what makes Littlefinger’s power play by the Heart Tree so miscalculated. He obviously was going to propose marriage, and Sansa would be smart to continue dodging that question while offering the snake some choice land for his services. The Vale deserves a little something for the effort, but last I checked the Dreadfort is in need of a new liege lord. I imagine the Umbers’ Last Hearth and Karstarks’ Karhold are also on the market for the first time in a few centuries too. The only downside to giving Littlefinger any or all of these castles is that it gives him even more reason to stick around, which is most unwelcome.
Indeed, Sansa even momentarily would appear to entertain Petyr Baelish’s sweet whisperings of ambition until he mentioned the Iron Throne. At that moment, he might as well have been offering Sansa a nice little spot Beyond the Wall called Craster’s Keep, because King’s Landing is the last place Sansa wants to go. The Red Keep, the Iron Throne, and all the people who revolve around it ruined her life and destroyed her childhood. The idea that she’d yearn to go back there is about as preposterous as Arya returning to the House of Black and White for a second go-round at this whole Faceless Man thing.
Still, Littlefinger is there when Jon Snow ascends to the seat that his brother Robb so briefly held. Baelish also continues to make eyes at Sansa. But just as she seemed genuinely happy before that moment for her brother—having already said she thinks he is a Stark—this potential for discord would appear a red herring. Littlefinger apparently is keen to stick around hope that Sansa will change her mind, but the more he tries to push the Starks apart, the more he will hasten his demise in season 7. Television drama ambiguity be damned.
But in the here and now, it is a glory to behold as Jon Snow goes from just a bastard, belonging to the frozen tundra outside, to King in the North. The scene itself is unexpectedly therapeutic since most of these lords turned out not to only remember anything resembling an oath. Jon’s acceptance of their scorn and apathy with the threat of White Walkers thus felt strangely heartwarming and even optimistic, as did little Lady Mormont proving she is again everyone’s favorite character this season.
In a room filled with hardened men, and miserly lords played by veteran character actors, this 10-year-old girl speaks with more fire than any dragon and puts all their cowardice to shame. In actuality, it is Lyanna Mormont’s words that get them to bend the knee to Jon more than anything else. And just as it was a poignant moment for Robb, it is also one for Jon tonight. I hope his rule to be a better one than his brother’s, and since the Lannisters no longer have Tywin running things (and may soon be dragon meat within the next seven episodes), it has a pretty decent shot at being one.
Also, can we start calling him Jon Stark now? If we’re all going to treat him like a Stark and name him King in the North, how about, y’know, a little respect? Maybe next year.
Yet, the other storyline beyond King’s Landing that is sure to have fans aflutter for season 7 occurred in Meereen. And rarely is Meereen ever an exciting place to go, but this time it is special, because we’re leaving it behind in the narrative dust bin!
I am not sure why Dany would pick Daario to rule Meereen and Dragon’s Bay. He is not a local nor does he show a knack of any kind for stewardship. A much better choice would clearly be Missandei and Grey Worm. However, we as viewers like Missandei and Grey Worm, and no matter who is playing him, Daario will always be that piece of man-meat on the side. Besides, Daenerys has shown an aptitude for making plenty of questionable decisions in the past with regard to Meereen, so one more head-scratcher is hardly unwelcome. It also made for a sweet kiss-off as Dany disposed of Daario from her life with all the complacency of dropping off her dry-cleaning.
She even admits as much to Tyrion in the following scene. I am sure that for some viewers, this is fodder for the Yara-Daenerys shipping that has undoubtedly sprouted up in the last week. But more to the point, it marks a turning point where things that have held the Mother of Dragon back—like Meereen unto itself—are being left behind. She gives Tyrion the overdue title of Hand of the Queen, which he has more than earned, and sets sail for Westeros.
There is not much to be said about the final scene other than it is breathtaking to witness the dragons, Unsullied, and Dothraki all head for a homeland the Stormborn Targaryen has never stepped foot upon. Yet, it feels less like a moment of triumph than one of “it’s about damn time.” Maybe if it happened two seasons ago, I’d be fist-pumping? But it is definitely the final page being turned as we charge forward into the frosty unknown.
As established earlier tonight in the first Dorne scene ever that did not suck, Daenerys is now in league with the Martells and whatever is left of the Tyrell House in Highgarden, compliments of Lady Olenna. Like many others, I expected Varys to have been headed to Dorne (the Martells were always close with the Targaryens, including with the Dornish sister of Oberyn who married Dany’s oldest brother, Rhaegar). But I had not predicted a bitter but still acid-tongued Olenna would also show up. Between the support of the Martells, the last Tyrell, and the only Greyjoys who are soon going to matter after Daenerys reaches Pyke, all that’s left in Daenerys’ path are the Starks and the Lannisters.
As Tyrion said, the great game is going to begin for her. But for the viewers, it is coming to a bloody close.
And so too does season 6. I cannot say with certainty if it’s been the best season. I think it’s been the most action-packed year of Game of Thrones, but since leaving George R.R. Martin’s books in the rearview, I have noticed a certain looseness in the plotting that was not present in the Valyrian-sharp structure of the first four seasons. Yet be that as it may, “The Winds of Winter” is without a doubt the best season finale to date the series has had and one that leaves us in a moment of exhilaration and apprehension.
Everything is now changing. After six years, we are no longer watching the impossibly great fantasy series that could defy all expectations on HBO, but rather the unquestionably best television series on the air, with an unprecedented budget, line up its position for back-to-back Emmy wins for Outstanding Drama. It’s gone from “an honor to be nominated” to the president’s favorite TV show that he reads reviews for during his lunch break—which again, Mr. President, if you are reading this, I would love to discuss Westeros with you in-person or otherwise!—but just as that administration is coming to a close, so too is Game of Thrones’ domination.
The game board is narrowing, and only three major families remain on the table; an Army of the Dead is almost certain to breach the wall next year; and we are likely to only get seven episodes in the seventh season.
For a show that changed the world of television, the sun is now lowering in the sky over its own onscreen landscape. But if its final episodes are anything like this one, then we are entering an hour that is truly magical.
You can also continue the magic of Game of Thrones with this Lord Commander Crow on Twitter @DCrowsNest.