I’m glad I hesitated to call last week’s episode “Battle of the Bastards” the greatest in series history, because tonight’s season finale, “Winds of Winter,” tops it in every way. Accomplishing moving character moments, brutal machinations, and the most significant escalation of story since season 3’s infamous Red Wedding, the sixth season is a triumph that left my mouth agape as the final shot faded to black. Despite significant successes, chaos is once again at the reins of the seven kingdom. Once again Miguel Sapochnik, who directed this as well as last week’s “Bastards” demonstrates a particular gift with the material and shows beyond doubt he is the best director this series has yet hired.
Written by series creators David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, “Winter” isn’t the stunning actioner that “Bastards” was. But it’s just as intense, thrilling, painful, and beautifully shot, substituting epic battles for machiavellian intrigue that inevitably calls to mind The Godfather. Beginning with a massive act of destruction and numerous major deaths that effects the complete reorganization of the political and military status quo, continuing to the reveal – finally – of the truth behind Jon Snow’s parentage – and ending with a series of moments that feel almost like an attempt to pack as many series-best highlights as possible, if Game of Thrones were cancelled tomorrow “Winter” could easily serve as a series finale.
Fortunately, that’s not the case, as it also swept the board almost clean, finally setting in motion what looks to be the show’s eventual endgame.
It should go without saying that from here on out there are major spoilers from “Winds of Winter”.
The biggest take away for fans of the books will, of course, be the fact that “R + L = J” was finally confirmed. But we’ll get to that below. First however…
In the wake of their daughter’s murder in the first episode of the now-concluded season, Cersei and Jaime Lannister proclaimed “f*ck everyone who isn’t us”. That vow hasn’t been revisited in the episodes since, as both of them were caught up in various schemes that kept them apart more than together. But in the wake of tonight’s episode, it’s clearly the only thing Cersei will have left to motivate her. The Queen Mother finally brought about her masterstroke, eliminating her enemies and, after inadvertently bringing about the death of her son, King Tommen, established herself as the ruler of Westeros.
We’ll cut right to the chase: Cersei blew up the Sept, headquarters of the Faith of the Seven, while the leaders of the faith and nearly every significant person in the city were in attendance. Gone are Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones, who leaves Game of Thrones to star in Netflix’s Marvel series Iron Fist). Gone is their impotent father. Gone is the High Sparrow (Jonatha Pryce) and his minions. Gone is nearly every significant institution in Westeros, aside from the monarchy itself, all evaporated in a fiery green explosion.
Meanwhile, juxtaposed to the lead up to that expertly pulled off mass murder, Cersei’s right hand Qyburn sent his agents around the city to eliminate several of her other enemies, among them Maester Pycell and several of the faith militants.
Her triumph nearly total, Cersei unfortunately failed to keep watch on Tommen. Assigning The Mountain to keep him from leaving his room, Tommen was forced to watch the massacre from afar. Alas, she recalls The Mountain from this duty so he can begin torturing the sole enemy she’s decided to keep alive in order to inflict a prolonged punishment. Now alone, once Tommen realized that with the destruction of the Sept, his wife – Margaery – had also perished, he took off his crown and leapt out of his window to his death. With him so went the last of Cersei’s remaining humanity, and so it is that she seizes the throne for herself, dressed in a gorgeous black dress adorned with metal epaulettes signifying her new role as lord of the seven kingdoms, assuming, of course she can keep it.
What’s magnificent about the sequence, which takes up the first 25 minutes or so of the episode, is how Sapochnik balances several different threads without breaking the tension in any of them, keeping everything coiled like a spring and leading the viewer to genuinely hope the horrible people Cersei is about to destroy somehow make it out alive. Margaery figures out rather quickly that something is amiss, but when she tries to convince the sparrow that the Sept should be evacuated, he reveals himself to be every bit the power mad fundamentalist he appeared. Incapable of allowing anything to undermine the authority of the faith, he orders the Faith Militants to keep anyone from leaving. He’s given several seconds in which doubt finally crawls over his face, but it’s too late and he’s incinerated along with everyone else.
Enhancing the gravity of the sequence is a minimalist score composed of small strings and piano that defies the show’s default musical aesthetic. The emotional payoff of Cersei’s successful terrorist attack is then drawn not from bombastic music but from uncertainty leading to the final, horrible payoff. And when Jaime, who stopped first to have dinner with Walder Frey, arrives in the city just in time to witness Cersei’s coronation, the look they share as she sits upon the Iron Throne suggests the bond between them may have been broken irrevocably by her actions.
Meanwhile, in the North, Jon Snow and Sansa are still trying to figure out what to do now that they’ve reclaimed their ancestral home of Winterfell. After the mayhem of the previous episode, when Jon’s armies were saved only with the help of Petry Baelish (AKA Littlefinger), it would appear there might be conflict but Jon immediately forgives her for not telling him, and vows that they should trust one another now more than ever. All seems well at first – Jon’s biggest concern is deciding what to do about the fact that the Red Woman sacrificed a little girl to The Lord of Light. Jon opts to exile instead of execute her, presumably because she might prove useful against the White Walkers, but it’s enough to secure the loyalty of Davos, who brought the matter to his attention. But soon after, Littlefinger sows the seeds of discord, revealing to Sansa that his plan is to see himself on the Iron Throne with her as his Queen. She rebuffs him, but he tells her it would be better she rule than to see her bastard brother proclaimed King in the North.
That, by the way, is precisely what happens. The Starks host a conclave of lords from the region, some of whom fought with them, some who rebuked them. After being shamed by young Lyanna Mormont, who then declares that Jon is rightful King in the North, the other lords follow in submission to a bewildered Jon Snow in a riveting scene that eerily recalls the moment from the end of season one when Jon’s brother Robb Stark was similarly proclaimed king. Sansa looks inwardly happy at this turn of events but as she looks around, her eyes meet Littlefinger’s and a look of uncertainty creeps in. Hopefully this doesn’t portend a war between the siblings in the show’s future.
That may be inevitable, however, as the show took a few moments to finally – finally – settle the question of Jon’s Parentage once and for all, the persistent “R+L=J” equation. For those of you who aren’t obsessive followers of the books, the idea is that Jon isn’t Ned Stark’s bastard, but is in fact the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister. That, as it turns out, is true, and Jon Stark is actually Jon Targaryen. In another trip into the past, Bran Stark sees his father Ned finally reaching the Tower of Joy where his sister was ostensibly held hostage by Rhaegar. As it turns out, she’d just given birth to their son, Jon. Knowing Robert Baratheon would kill Jon, as any living Targaryen would have been a threat to his newly established reign, Ned claimed him as a bastard in order to save his life.
Only Bran knows this for now, of course, but suffice to say that information is going to be very, very important in coming seasons, particularly once Daenerys returns to Westeros. Which, by the way, she is in the process of doing in the episode’s final, stirring scene. A brief trip to Dorne precedes this, where Oberyn Martell’s Widow and daughters, now firmly in charge, are meeting with Olenna Tyrell, who is justifiably outraged by the deaths of her son and grandchildren and with them the future of the Tyrell family. Olenna is offered a chance at revenge by Varys, who promises it will come in “fire and blood,” by which he means Daenerys’ dragons.
By episode’s end, Daenerys is done making preparations and is ready to lead the invasion of Westeros with her Dothraki and Unsullied forces aboard her newly acquired fleet. After giving poor Daario the “let’s just be friends” treatment and leaving him and his forces in charge of Mereen where, she says, he is to ensure the citizens peacefully vote for the governments of their choice, she names Tyrion her official hand of the Queen, after which they board ship and head out. In the final moments of the episode, the fleet heads west with Daenerys’ dragons flying overhead as the sun sets, portending terrifying events to come. It’s a stunner of a moment in a season full of them.
One last loose end: Arya Stark. She’s on her way back to Winterfell but, as expected, passed through the Riverlands on her way there. Demonstrating she did in fact learn many things from the Faceless men, Arya disguises herself as a servant girl, infiltrates the Frey castle, and murders Walder’s two sons, baking their corpses into a meat pie which she serves to Walder himself before dispatching him. Joyfully telling him the last thing he’ll see as he dies is a Stark smiling down at him, she slashes his throat and looks into the distance with a crazed, almost serial killer-esque expression on her face. Whatever else she’s become, she’s never going to be normal again.
Again, I don’t want to risk future humiliation by calling this the series’ best episode, but it’s the crowning moment of a season defined by them. Whatever else happens, Game of Thrones has set a new high water mark for itself. Here’s hoping Sapochnik is back to help make it happen when the show returns in April, 2017.