The first three minutes of this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones set a somber mood—and with not a single word uttered, just the ominous tolling of a bell. That’s because words are somewhat beside the point. The trial of Cersei (Lena Headey) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) has begun, and if one believes the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), everything about this moment has been predestined. And so director Miguel Sapochnik wisely echoes that sense of fate, orchestrating every shot to the gradual crescendo of a classical choir, and providing hawkeyed viewers with an abundance of foreshadowing.
There’s reason for the focus on the way King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) are dressed, the fineries and weights of their crowns pressed on them almost as certainly as the heavy chains that hang from the Faith Militant. Then, a bird’s-eye shot of the Great Sept of Baelor emphasizes the sewer grates scattered across the room. Muted colors and shadows mask any sort of pleasure in these preparations; we see only the finality with which the High Sparrow shrugs on his simple sackcloth, or the resignation shown by a mud-caked Ser Loras as he’s hauled away from the prison walls that he practically blends into.
And there’s a reason why Cersei doesn’t appear at the Great Sept, and why she clothes herself in a jeweled, funereal black. Alas, by the time Margaery realizes what Cersei’s absence means, she panics and drops all pretense of piety, an act that causes the High Sparrow only to double-down on his misplaced faith, barring the doors as if that might somehow reassure the masses. Instead, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) uses his network of child spies to pick off Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) and Lancel (Eugene Simon), just before setting off the stockpile of wildfire placed beneath the Sept. How instantly meaningless Ser Loras’s confession is, as the seven-pointed star carved into his forehead is burnt away in a green conflagration and that ominous bell from the opening ricochets off a wall before lying silent and useless on the charred streets. We return now to that initial establishing shot of King’s Landing from the Red Keep, except that now a great swath of the city lies in ruins, with Cersei smiling as she sips from a gilded goblet of wine.
What follows is positively Jacobean, all gore, cruelty, and revenge as Cersei lightly waterboards the bound Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham) before revealing her true punishment for her: to be a plaything for the zombified Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who we now see unmasked for the first time since his transformation, to maximum effect. And yet, Game of Thrones also maintains the wit and classicism of an Elizabethan play here, especially as Cersei cruelly twists Unella’s words back at her: “Confess: It felt good beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me.” In the end, all of those deaths, that chaos, that suffering, comes down to a woman seeking satisfaction. In many ways, it’s the perfect parallel to the closing shot of “Battle of the Bastards,” in which Sansa smiled as Ramsay was torn apart by his own dogs, only hours after thousands of men died on a battlefield.
But deaths don’t have to be insignificant, suggests “The Winds of Winter.” After dutifully removing his crown, Tommen walks to a chamber window overlooking his ruined city and gracefully plummets forward, falling into the abyss of his mother’s making. The best rulers, perhaps, are those who take responsibility and choose not to act selfishly. That’s certainly why Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) rallies the troops at Winterfell to swear for Jon Snow (Kit Harington) as King of the North. Jon has been resolutely selfless (he literally died for the Wildlings), and he once more demonstrates this morality when he exiles Melisandre (Carice van Houten), despite the usefulness of her powers, after Davos (Liam Cunningham) reveals that she burnt Princess Shireen at the stake. He understands the dangers of blind faith, which can be misinterpreted or simply wrong (as it was for the High Sparrow), or as Davos best puts it: “If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil.” On the other hand, despite having genuine affection for Jon, Sansa (Sophie Turner) shares the ambitions of the lovestruck Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), and instead of cheering for Jon’s elevation, she somewhat balefully meets Littlefinger’s eyes instead.
Death is momentarily thrilling, but the struggles of those who live on are what sustain the series.
And this, perhaps, is why Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) also manages to inspire such passion from her followers, even genuine faith, as the cynical Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) puts it. She has a strong sense of justice and feels such loyalty to her people that she’s completely willing to order her lover, Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman), to stay behind to keep order in Meereen. It’s not entirely an act of self-sacrifice, for she admits to Tyrion that she’s over her childish infatuation with Daario. At the same time, however, she also shows wisdom by fearing the way in which she was able to so easily cast Daario aside—and it’s that awareness that keeps her from becoming as monomaniacal as her father. Moreover, that fixation on how the end of the relationship affects Danaerys—and forges a deeper bond with Tyrion, now named Hand of the Queen—is what keeps the whole sequence from being anticlimactic, given how little we’ve really come to know Daario.
“The Winds of Winter” works so well because it focuses almost exclusively on how big shifts in power affect the characters we know the most about. If we’re only offered mere glimpses of Theon (Alfie Allen) and Yara (Gemma Whelan), it’s to reveal how they fit within the greater context of Daenerys’s arc as she builds her army, which leads a fleet of Dothraki and Unsullied toward Westeros. In season four, Dorne’s characters were given purpose through their connection, however tangential, to Tyrion’s trial; alone in season five, they floundered without having much to say, and it’s only now, at the end of season six, that Varys (Conleth Hill) is able to anchor them, so to speak, by offering both Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and the visiting Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) the vengeance they seek against the usurping Lannisters. Through these scenes aren’t much more than asides, they reorient the way in which we view Daenerys, centering the narrative.
By comparison, the episode’s least useful scene features Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) arriving at Old Town, with the even less essential Gilly (Hannah Murray) and her baby in tow. Sam is awed by his view of the maester’s massive library, but it’s somewhat thirdhand to the audience all too patiently bearing with him; one wonders if this is a happy ending for Sam or if his knowledge will one day be required by Jon Snow. Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) isn’t doing all that much more, but at least his final vision before becoming the Three Eyed Crow is tied directly to a more central character: He witnesses a dying Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi) pleading with her brother, Ned Stark, to protect the child she just bore. (If there’s any doubt as to the child’s identity, Sapochnik cuts directly from this vision of the past to a shot of Jon Snow.)
As Game of Thrones potentially diverges from the sixth and seventh novels in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, it’s all the more essential that it maintain the meticulous focus of these last several episodes, and do more than simply provide fan service. It’s absolutely delightful to discover that cruel Walder Frey (David Bradley) has been unwittingly eating meat pies baked from the flesh of his own children, and there’s a symmetry to the way his baker—a disguised Arya (Maisie Williams)—slits her mother’s murderer’s throat in yet another Frey banquet hall. But it’s also rather shallow, for Arya has been reduced to a two-dimensional character out of some grindhouse revenge thriller. She’s not playing the game of thrones like her sister, Sansa; she’s just a token wreaking havoc on the board. In the more compelling prior scene, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) physically recoils at the way Walder presumes to know him, to refer to them both as “kingslayers”—as if such an honorless man could comprehend Jaime’s actions. There’s no victim and revenger here; just two complicated men, each misguided in their own way, looking to define themselves.
Death is momentarily thrilling, especially when as spectacularly executed as in that opening half of “The Winds of Winter,” but the struggles of those who live on—like Cersei, who’s crowned upon the Iron Throne—are what sustain the series. Episode like this one, then, which manages to mete out well-deserved vengeance while simultaneously developing plots and characters, are about as good as Game of Thrones can get.
For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.