It's taken six seasons, but Ned Stark has finally been proven right: Winter has come, and with it, the beginning of the end of Game of Thrones. As such, the show needed to start paring down its various storylines and plot threads, which it did last night with brutal efficiency. For those few players that remain, the time for games is over. Here's what I think is most astonishing about "The Winds of Winter" -- the fact that so much happened, that so many characters died, that so many stories got resolved, that everyone and everything pivoted to look forward to the series' final act -- and yet it never felt rushed or unsatisfying. Oh, it was absolutely relentless in how much story it gave us, but these conclusions felt earned, just as it did back when it was following George R.R. Martin's stories to the letter.
For instance, only a show with supreme confidence in where it's headed could begin with its most epic set piece, namely with the long-awaited trial of Cersei and Loras Tyrell. It starts with the players getting dressed for the dreaded/long-awaited day, with the music alone presenting the urgency of the event, which will decide the fates of Cersei, Margaery, Loras and many more. Held at the Sept of Baelor, the High Sparrow (at maximum holier-than-thou smugness) listens to the broken Loras confess his sins, then agree to renounce his title to devote himself to the Faith. The Sparrow's head fanatic Lancel begins carving the seven-pointed star in Loras' forehead, but the pain seems like it's very little to what he's already endured. Margaery is furious at the Sparrow, who insinuated Loras would be unharmed, but she's powerless to stop it.
When it comes time for Cersei's trial, the Queen Mother has not arrived -- nor has King Tommen, who has been prevented from leaving his chamber by the hulking Ser Gregor Clegane. The High Sparrow sends Lancel and his minions to fetch the Queen, but upon exiting the Sept Lancel spies a small child acting very strangely, then running away. Perplexed, Lancel follows them into the tunnels below King's Landing... where the child stabs him in the back and runs off. Bleeding, Lancel crawls toward a light, which he discovers is a slow-melting candle in a sea of dragonfire, the green napalm that Tyrion used to defend the city at the battle of Blackwater, in a tunnel filled with barrel after barrel of the stuff.
In the Sept, Margaery realises that Cersei and Tommen's absence means something horrible, and tries to convince the High Sparrow and everyone else to leave. Seconds after she realises that the guards are refusing to let anyone leave, the floor breaks open and the High Sparrow disintegrates in green fire. And then the Sept explodes.
Margaery. Loras. Mace Tyrell. Kevan Lannister, Cersei's uncle and the Hand of the King. The High Sparrow and practically all his Faith Militant. All dead, burned in the green fire that the show so carefully presented to us back in season two. (Grand Maester Pycelle also dies, although he gets stabbed by Master of Whisperers Qyburn's army of knife-wielding "little birds", which is hella creepy.)
King Tommen stares at the smoking crater where the Sept was, knowing that his mother has done the unspeakable, killing his wife, her own uncle and hundreds of innocent people. And the boy king, who though he wore the crown was the mercy of practically everyone in his short life, does the one thing that's truly within his power: He takes off his crown and walks out the window of his royal tower, falling to his death. When Cersei sees her last child's broken body, she can't even cry. Tommen may have killed himself, but Cersei is just as dead inside.
This is an epic conclusion to everything that's been happening in King's Landing since... well, since Margaery Tyrell arrived and stole Cersei's power over her sons. But it feels right, at least narratively. Cersei has spent the last several seasons not just losing her power, but losing respect -- the respect that she's always fought so damn hard to acquire for her father, from Robert Baratheon, from the world. We may not approve that Cersei literally murdered hundreds of people to get her revenge on the queen who usurped her, the uncle who dismissed her and the holy man who shamed her in front of the entire city, but it's understandable that she would go that far for revenge and (even more importantly) her self-respect. But as with all things Game of Thrones, violence begets violence, and death begets death; she got her vengeance, but she had to pay yet another price for it: Poor, sweet, innocent Tommen.
When Jaime finally returns from the Riverlands, he sees the destroyed Sept and rushes to the palace just in time to see the crown put on Cersei's head. It's the position she's always coveted, but it brings her no joy, no solace whatsoever.
Here's something interesting to consider. Cersei has actually done what Jaime murdered mad King Aerys to prevent -- the wilful destruction of King's Landing and the death of its inhabitants by wildfire. Yes, Aerys was going to destroy the entire city, and Cersei limited herself to the Sept, but it's the same act of unthinkable cruelty and destruction. It's exactly what Jaime threw away his honour and his reputation to prevent.
And Cersei did this before she lost her last child Tommen, the one thing that connected her to her humanity. As many people have noted, whatever Cersei's faults, she truly loved her children -- but they're gone now. She has nothing holding her back, no reason to curb her worst instincts and desires at all. When Jaime stares at the dead-eyed Cersei on the Iron Throne, I don't think he sees his sister. He sees a mad queen.
Up north, things are almost as busy, if not quite as violent. Now that Winterfell has returned to Stark hands, it's time to deal with matters that have been pushed aside -- first and foremost Davos, who tosses Princess Shireen's burned stag toy at Melisandre, demanding to know what happened to her. The Red Priestess explains that she was burned at the stake to help Stannis win his battle; the fact that it didn't help at all makes Davos sputter with rage. He asks Jon permission to kill her, but Melisandre argues that she can help in the war to come. Without any doubt Jon knows this to be true. But he tells her to ride south, and if she ever returns north she'll be hanged as a murderer.
It seems straightforward, but this is actually an interesting continuation of the conundrum posed by last week's episode. Again, there is no way Jon doesn't realise Melisandre would be an asset against the White Walkers; she literally brought him back to life. But Jon refuses to compromise his morals, regardless of what difficulties it may bring him in the future.
It's obviously noble, but here's the thing: This is what Jon effectively did last week, and it nearly got him and his men killed. It was only because Sansa made a deal with Westeros' devilish Littlefinger -- a deal Jon never would have made -- that they have Winterfell back, or are even alive. Jon even thanks her for going behind his back to bring the troops of the Eyrie. So is Jon's moral code about to doom him again? Is Jon only able to maintain his morality because Sansa is doing the dirty work for him, so to speak? Is there a correct choice between refusing to compromise your honour, and recognising that achieving certain ends requires that the means can't always be good?
This is the fascinating question at the heart of this new bond between Jon and Sansa (who both, incidentally, try to convince the other to rule Winterfell). Jon is the hero who can inspire other men to follow him, to fight a war against an unspeakable evil that they scarcely even believe exists. During a meeting of the various lords of the North, he's the one they declare to be king (with pushing from Lady Lyanna Mormont, who not only continues to prove herself a tiny badarse, but utterly shames these grown men for failing to help the Starks in their time of need. It's awesome).
But Sansa is the one who has to deal with reality and with Littlefinger, the living embodiment of politics and scheming and the Great Game itself. He has the army Jon still needs. She has one of the two things he wants -- herself (the other being the Iron Throne). She may deny him the kiss he leans in for, but she knows what Jon Snow refuses to acknowledge -- or maybe he can't acknowledge it. Jon may have fought actual monsters, but Sansa has dealt with men who have a capacity for evil that the White Walkers can't match.
For now, at least, they have each other. They have someone they can completely trust, which is a luxury few people get to enjoy in Game of Thrones. Together, they actually get to be happy a little, whether it's Sansa's proud smile when the Lords of the North declare Jon their king because bastard-born or not, he has Ned Stark's blood; or when Sansa tells Jon about the white raven the Citadel has sent them, announcing that winter has finally come, and Jon just laughs. "Father always promised, didn't he?"
However, while Sansa's father promised them all that winter was coming, Jon's father did nothing of the sort. Because we finally return to Bran and Meera who get dropped off near a weirwood tree by Partially Dead Uncle Benjen after he reveals that he can't cross the Wall, which has magic bound in its ice that prevents certain entities from crossing. Benjen is gone for about half a second before Bran touches the weirwood tree and returns to the Tower of Joy, the vision of the past where his father Ned tried to rescue his sister Lyanna after she was kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen.
In a scene fans have been waiting for since A Game of Thrones was first published in 1991, Bran sees his father ascend to the top of the Tower, only for Ned to find his sister covered in blood, dying. We still don't hear much of what she whispers to Ned in her last moments, but we do hear her final words: "You have to protect him, Ned. Promise me." And a midwife puts a small baby in Ned's arms. He looks at it in disbelief, maybe even a little horror.
A cut from the baby to Jon Snow's enigmatic face is all the proof we need to know that he is not Ned's son, but the child of Lyanna Stark... and presumably her abductor Rhaegar. There are still details we're missing, but we know now that Ned pretended Jon was his bastard son to hide Jon' identity as a half-Targaryen -- because at that point Robert Baratheon was on a mission to kill every Targaryen in the world (which at that point absolutely included babies). He was even willing to mar his marriage with Catelyn, letting her think he cheated on her, just to protect Jon's identity. Thus the show has finally answered the series' most famous mystery, confirming its most prevalent theory -- that R(haegar) + L(yanna) = J(on). He is a Stark and a Targaryen; he has the blood of dragons in his veins, as well as the cold of winter. He is a child of fire and ice, and the fate of humanity rests in his hands.
And yet this episode still isn't done. Because we finally return to Dorne after Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes murdered Prince Doran Martell and apparently took over the kingdom back in the premiere. However, now Olenna Tyrell is there, wearing black in mourning for the entirety of the Tyrell line. She has absolutely no patience for anything other than avenging her family by destroying the remaining Lannisters, a goal she shares with Ellaria, who still seeks vengeance for Oberyn Martell. But Olenna doesn't see how these hot-blooded, violent women can help her -- until they introduce her to Varys.
As he stated when he left Meereen a few episodes ago, Varys has returned to Westeros to drum up support for Daenerys' arrival -- and what better support than two whole kingdoms, led by two women who want nothing more than the Lannisters off the Iron Throne? We don't even need to see Varys campaign for Daenerys. He promises them "fire and blood", and we know for certain that the Mother of Dragons has two powerful new allies on the mainland.
Yet she may not even need them. The episode ends with a scene that may have even been more anticipated than what happened in the Tower of Joy -- namely Daenerys Targaryen finally sailing home to Westeros, to reclaim a throne she never saw. Her fleet, augmented by the ships of Yara and Theon Grayjoy, fill the sea. They carry the Unsullied and the Dothraki with them. And then there are her dragons, which stopped the entire fleet of the Masters by themselves in about five minutes.
When Daenerys arrives in Westeros -- and holy crap that makes me excited to even just type -- she'll also add the forces of Dorne and Highgarden to her side, because they aren't looking for the Iron Throne; they want revenge. In Winterfell, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark are getting ready to fight an infinitely more important battle than one to decide who gets to rule in King's Landing. Yara Greyjoy is looking to take the Iron Islands, nothing more. With Walder Frey dead, Riverrun is likely in chaos. I don't even know who rules the Stormlands anymore now that all the Baratheons are dead.
Her only two competitors for the throne are Littlefinger, who commands the army of the Eyrie, and Cersei, who rules King's Landing but literally just murdered several hundred people and likely terrified nobles and commonfolk alike. I doubt her reign is going to be that secure. Even if Littlefinger and Cersei joined forces, which would never happen, it's hard to imagine how they'd possibly hold up against Daenerys' immense army.
But as we all know, this is just the game of thrones. Daenerys doesn't know it yet, but even if/when she takes the throne, the real war will have not yet begun. Her army -- which she amassed through her ruthlessness, which came about because of her desire for the power she believes she was owed by right -- is what will likely prevent the White Walkers from killing all of humanity. Her desire for power may be accompanied by more compassion than most of the others who seek the same, but it's a desire for power nonetheless. Tyrion has already had to remind her once that mercy can be a far more effective determent than violence.
Jon Snow may be the hero Westeros needs, and Danaerys will likely be the ruler. But it will likely be Sansa Stark who makes Jon's heroism possible, and Tyrion Lannister who keeps Danaerys' power in check. When Game of Thrones is over and this winter has ended, it might not be their names that get added to the books in the massive library of the Citadel. But if there's anything approaching a happy ending for the people of Westeros, it may be Sansa and Tyrion who make it happen.
• Here's how much happened in this episode, guys: Arya Stark returned to Westeros, killed two of Walder Frey's eldest kids, baked them in a pie (poorly!), fed them to him and then slit his throat, and it still had to go in "Assorted Musings".
• Also, apparently Arya did learn magic face-changing at the Magic Assassin Face-Changing School! She disguises herself as a serving girl, then pulls her face off so Walder Frey knows exactly who's killing him and why. I find it completely bizarre that Arya apparently has such a major, major character development off-screen. Also, her expression when she slits Frey's throat and holds his head is really weird. That said, I'm still not buying any "Arya is not Arya" theories.
• Fun fact: The three major deaths of the Red Wedding were, in order: 1) Robb's direwolf Grey Wind, shot by crossbows; 2) Robb, stabbed in the gut by Roose Bolton; and 3) Catelyn, whose throat was slit by a Frey. The three major instigators of the Red Wedding were Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton and Walder Frey, who died in consecutive order by crossbow bolts, a knife to the gut and a slit throat.
• Cersei saves the cruelest punishment for the Septa who tortured her in the High Sparrow's cells and took such great joy ringing the bell during her walk of shame. But her punishment is to give her to Ser Gregor, who, before he turned into a zombie, was a monster that could give Ramsay Bolton a run for pure evil. Based on the Septa's screams, I don't think becoming a zombie improved him. At any rate, this was intensely disturbing.
• When Partially Dead Uncle Benjen leaves Bran and Meera, he takes his horse, and there seems to be no way for Meera to transport Bran's body other than literally dragging him by hand. I hope they're close to the Wall, because otherwise that's gonna suck for Meera.
• Daenerys tells Daario that he has to stay in Meereen to keep the peace. Daario doesn't like that, and Danaerys does not care that he doesn't like it, even a little. But given how we saw Danaerys shed some of her humanity as she accumulated power last week, it's notable -- and maybe a bit concerning -- that she tells Tyrion that she didn't feel a thing when she dismissed the man who loves her.
• You want a fine bit of understated acting? Please rewatch Peter Dinklage's face when Danaerys gives him that Hand of the King pin. The flash of shock, then happiness, then gratitude, then embarrassment happens in about half a second, and you can still see tears just about to form in his eyes when he kneels down to hide it, at least as much as he's pledging his allegiance to her. Seeing Tyrion regain that badge that his terrible dad stole from him was so satisfying that it made me tear up.
• Also satisfying: Seeing the Stark direwolf sigil replace the Bolton flayed man on the Winterfell model in the opening credits.
• Speaking of the credits, it appears the Citadel has the weird clockwork armillary sphere thingie that serves as the "sun" of the map hanging from the ceiling of its library. Weird.
• And speaking of the Citadel, Sam and Gilly and Baby Sam arrive in Oldtown, and Sam gets to see the Maesters' library, which is gargantuan. As a bit of a library fan, it was pretty awesome. Now the question is, what information will he discover in there that will help the battle against the White Walkers?
• I could listen to Olenna Tyrell talk shit to the Sand Snakes all day. If Benioff and Weiss want to make a season 6.5 where it's just Olenna sitting on a comfortable chair and mocking them, I would pitch in for that Kickstarter.
• Varys is in Dorne, making pals with Highgarden and Dorne, but when Danaerys sails to Westeros he's also on her ship. Presumably a few weeks have passed in-between the two scenes, but it's still weird because it seems like Varys may have teleportation powers, or at least a jetpack. Unless… FACELESS MAN.