Sunday night’s episode, “The Winds of Winter,” provided the answer to an algebra problem fans of the book and the show puzzled over for years. Replete with majestic scoring, beautiful costumes and staging, tragic deaths and grand revelations, this episode is a strong contender for the most momentous episode of the series yet.
Brace yourselves: Spoilers are
Co-written by Danielle Ryan
The battle between the faith and the faithless comes to a head as Loras Tyrell and Cersei Lannister are set to have a trial before the gods. Since trial by combat has been banished by King Tommen, Cersei’s chances aren’t looking so good. The Queen Mother is notably absent for Loras’ trial, where he confesses to all of his sins and has the seven pointed star engraved onto his pretty forehead as part of his atonement. When Lancel goes to fetch Cersei and does not return, Margaery figures that something is wrong, and she is (unfortunately) right about that. Cersei has made plans with Qyburn and the beggar children of the city.
In the cells beneath the Red Keep, Qyburn lures Maester Pycelle to his death at the hands (and tiny knives) of many of King’s Landing’s beggar children. Another of the children lures Lancel down through the twisting tunnels beneath the city before stabbing him and disappearing into the shadows. Lancel realizes much too late that the barrels around him are full of Wildfire. He notices two candles burning in pools of the volatile green stuff and crawls toward them in a futile effort to smother the flames.
The Mountain has forced King Tommen to stay in his chambers, and Cersei watches from her balcony at the Red Keep, bedecked in an overcoat that looks like armor. She stands and sips wine and watches as the Sept of Baelor goes up in green flames, the ancient building reduced to rubble. The septons, the High Sparrow, and the Tyrells have all been eliminated in one moment, Cersei’s greatest problems taken care of. Even Margaery, the younger queen who would usurp her, has been burned to ash. What Cersei does not account for, however, is Tommen’s grief, and the king takes off his crown and plunges from his window. Maggy’s prediction for Cersei’s future has come to pass, as all of her children have died before her.
Cersei tells Qyburn to cremate Tommen and spread his ashes at the Sept of Baelor so he may lie beside his grandfather, brother, and sister (and his wife). She has a few moments alone with Septa Unella and tells her former keeper that, essentially, the tables have turned. Unella’s cruelty can nowhere near match Cersei’s, however, and the septa’s screams as Cersei leaves her with the Mountain are almost chilling. Cersei, pleased as can be, even intones “shame, shame, shame” as she walks out of Unella’s torture chamber and closes the door.
Dressed in another black outfit made to slay, Cersei is made Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, crowned by Qyburn. Jaime has returned from the Riverlands and watches from the gallery as his sister takes the Iron Throne for herself. The last queen to try that didn’t have a very happy ending, so Cersei’s outlook isn’t great. At least she has her brother, whom she will probably finally be able to marry, Targaryen-style, since there’s no one left in the South to stop her.
In the banquet hall at the Twins, the Freys and the Lannisters celebrate the retaking of Riverrun. Walder Frey toasts the alliance between the Freys and the Lannisters, and the drunken soldiers of the two houses carouse and drink in the dimly-lit hall. With the memory of the Red Wedding hanging over the banquet, even watching the proceedings is enough to leave one feeling the need to take a shower. Jaime and Bronn appear bored, and Bronn needles Jaime for his effortless Prince Charming sex appeal. The sellsword-cum-anointed-knight disappears, half reluctantly, with two young women and Jaime enjoys some relative quiet for a brief moment. Lord Frey seizes the opportunity to impose himself on Jaime, and he proceeds to bask in the memory of his deeds that led to his acquiring stewardship of Riverrun. He compares his situation to Jaime’s, remarking that they share a certain bond as kingslayers. Jaime is visibly shaken by the accuracy of the comparison. When Frey presses his advantage and mocks Jaime for having been captured by Robb Stark, Jaime responds that if every time the Freys lose Riverrun the Lannisters have to come take it back, the next time it happens the Lannisters will just keep it. He strides from the hall, leaving Frey speechless and angry. It is easy to find joy in watching the conniving Lord Frey insulted in his own hall, and it’s not the last of the mistreatment he will see in this episode.
Much later on, after the Lannisters have departed, Lord Frey dines alone in the great hall. A young serving girl enters and sets a large portion of meat pie in front of him. After ascertaining that she’s not one of his children, Frey leers at her, smacks her on the rump and, around a large mouthful of pie, demands to know where his children Black Walder and Lothar are. The serving girl replies that they have already arrived. When he demands to see them, she clarifies by pointing at the mince pie and says in no uncertain terms that Frey is having his children for dinner in a Titus Andronicus kind of way. Frey is mortified and plucks up the crust to see the kind of meat contained within. With Frey retching, the scullery maid peels off her face to reveal the face of Arya Stark. Arya gives her true name to Frey, wanting him to know that it was a Stark who brought him to ruin, and then slashes his throat.
Frey’s folly is like that in the tale of the Night King and the Rat Cook, whose story Sam, Bran, and company told around the campfire in the empty halls of the Nightfort. The Night King in this story was cursed to eat only his own young after he violated guest right by murdering the cook’s son. It’s a moment of prophetic, perverse justice right at home in this bleak fantasy tale. After her turn as a knock-off Miss Lovett, Arya seems fit to keep shortening the list of names that have become her mantra and the flint sharpening the pointy end of her vengeful soul. As Frey gurgles and sputters in a long, painful death, Arya smiles wickedly down at him, the expression on her face far away, as if she is already pondering the next life she will take.
Lady Olenna Tyrell, in somber funerary blacks, treats with Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes in a courtyard at Sunspear. By shushing the Sand Snakes as they try to pressure her with their views, Olenna proves her wit is far from dulled by the grief of losing her son and her grandchildren in one fell swoop. Ellaria insists that the Martells and the Tyrells must band together if they wish to survive, but Olenna retorts that survival is not her interest anymore. As Ellaria explains that she can offer her the chance for vengeance she so craves, Varys’s distinct silhouette appears in the doorway. When he comes full into view, he intones “Fire and Blood,” the words of House Targaryen. His single utterance leaves no mistake about his aim: he has come to recruit Dorne and Highgarden to Daenerys’ cause.
And he is almost certain to succeed. “Growing Strong” is no longer the aim of house Tyrell: the thorns on those rose bushes will snake out and choke the life out of the Lannisters and their allies, even as they wither and fall. As the Martells were allied to the Targaryens during Robert’s Rebellion (Elia Martell was wed to Prince Rhaegar after all), it stands to reason that they will throw the full weight of their military might behind Daenerys as she marches to claim the Iron Throne for her own. The fangs and thorns of the two great houses will not sink in right away, but when they do it will be a but a prelude to the scorching pain the Lannisters and their allies will feel when dragon mama comes home. Plus, if Cersei gets to wear sweet pauldrons, one can hope that we get to see Lady Olenna in battle regalia befitting the Queen of Thorns.
Gilly and Sam have finally arrived at Oldtown. Disembarking from a cart, Sam and Gilly look on in awe at the magnificent port city. The Hightower and the Citadel dominate the landscape, dwarfing every other structure we have seen besides the Wall. It is here that Sam will study to be a maester. From the Hightower, an endless stream of white birds pours forth in a great cacophony of cawing and flapping wings. These are white ravens, we will come to learn, heralding the beginning of the long and dreadful winter discussed since the first season.
In the entry hall of the Citadel, Sam announces himself to a man poring over ledgers at a great desk. After an awkward pause, the man looks up and Sam shuffles forward to deliver the letter from Jon Snow into the man’s outstretched palm. When the clerk consults a codex and states that by their records Jeor Mormont is lord commander, Sam gives an abbreviated account of the old man’s passing and describes the sudden illness and death of Maester Aemon. The clerk unceremoniously crosses out a section of the record, perhaps indicating the passing of the Lord Commander and Maester Aemon. It is a gesture that telegraphs how little the affairs of the outside world interest this man and the insular community of scholars. The clerk tells Sam that he must wait on the pleasure of the Archmaester to determine whether he will be accepted as a student, but that he will have full use of the library while he waits.
Many of the spectacular locations such as the Wall, Braavos, and Mereen have become so commonplace at this point, seeing a true wonder has become a rare treat. The library is just such a wonder. In a sweeping camera pan, we are shown a stories-high archive. Sunlight streams from a central opening and is dispersed by a series of artfully designed mirrors and lenses, illuminating shelves and reading desks alike. The viewer is overwhelmed by the sense that all of the knowledge in the Known World is contained there, waiting to be laid bare to the heroes of the story and to those of us watching from beyond the glass and LED veil. Even more satisfying is watching Sam’s boyish glee. As he gazes with loving admiration at the stacks and stacks of books, we see the beginnings of a man realizing his destiny. For all his promise, Sam still has the ungainly burden of Heartsbane, and it stands to reason his father will try to reclaim it, one way or another.
The stop in Oldtown is a joy through and through. Sam’s interaction with the stodgy desk clerk is a welcome and much-needed moment of levity. It is masterfully choreographed and Frank Hvam may have achieved the distinction of delivering the best cameo appearance of the season. Sam takes his own prize as the season’s best tour guide. Thanks for Horn Hill and the Hightower, Sam, now go forge your chain!
The North and Beyond the Wall
In the great hall of Winterfell, Jon remembers his poor treatment at family dinners in the company of Melisandre. Ser Davos interrupts their meeting and all but hurls the charred remnants of the wooden horse he discovered at the red priestess. He doesn’t even need to accuse Melisandre of burning Shireen at the stake, she confesses to it. She adds that Stannis and lady Baratheon also agreed to this course of action, and for the first time we see Davos on the brink of a total breakdown. While Shireen’s death did nothing to stop the deaths of Stannis and the men under his command, Melisandre argues that she can never be certain of the Red God’s will and she insists that it’s because of R’hllor that they are all standing here. Davos requests the right to execute Melisandre, but Jon instead banishes the priestess commanding her to ride south and never return lest she be hanged as a murderer. Later, from the battlements, Jon watches her ride south and he and Sansa renew their commitment to restore the Stark family name. Jon insists Sansa is the rightful heir to Winterfell, Sansa cautions Jon about Littlefinger’s motives, and before they part, Sansa tells Jon that a white Raven arrived this morning, signaling the start of winter. Her quip, “Winter is here” is more than a play on the Stark house words; the cycle of power has turned and this is the season of the younger scions of the great houses. Some of the major players, we will see, have ties to even greater houses than they think.
In the Godswood of Winterfell, Sansa waits by the snow-covered branches of the heart tree when Littlefinger comes to call. Sansa thanks him again for his aid, and Littlefinger ups the creepiness factor by revealing exactly what motivates his actions. He shares with Sansa that he weighs every choice he must make by whether it gets him closer to his ultimate goal: a picture he has in his mind of himself on the Iron Throne, and Sansa by his side. Littlefinger tries to kiss Sansa after confessing this ambition. She rebuffs him, firmly, and walks out of the garden. This scene is a beautiful parallel to the scene in the courtyard at the Eyrie, where Littlefinger kissed a young Sansa, who had just built a replica of her home out of snow, as a jealous Lysa Arryn looked on. Now, standing in the Godswood of the real Winterfell, where she is the lady and head of the household, Sansa demonstrates that she is more than ready to compete on a much more adult scale, partially due to Littlefinger’s perverse tutelage. Now, as we will soon see, it is Littlefinger’s turn to be jealous.
At the weirwood just north of the Wall, Uncle “Coldhands” Benjen tells Bran and Meera they must carry on alone. He shares that there is ancient magic in the wall meant to keep the undead from crossing over into the lands of the living. He promises that though he cannot come with them he will do what he can in the fight against the army of the dead. Uncle Benjen’s future is bleak, and he will likely fall in the great battle to come, but it is possible that he will be reunited with his nephew Jon one last time before the end.
Meera helps Bran to the base of the tree, and he dives once more into visions of the past. Bran is once again watching the aftermath of the showdown at the Tower of Joy, and the specter of his young father is at the base of the stairs. Young Ned turns briefly to look in Bran’s direction, and after the Night King’s assault on Bran in the green dream and Bran’s subsequent quantum-warg incident with Hodor, we are reminded that Bran may have some yet undiscovered influence on events in this vision of the world.
Ned storms up the stairs with Bran hot on his heels and discovers his sister Lyanna lying in blood-stained sheets. She is delirious with pain but overjoyed to see her brother. As she dies, Lyanna beckons Ned closer and whispers a secret to him that will change the landscape of power for good in the realm. Lyanna pleads with Ned to keep her newborn son safe. She is afraid that if King Robert finds out his true identity, he will surely kill him. The expression on Bran’s face, Ned’s shock, and the revealing jump cut to Jon in the great hall of Winterfell confirm that this is the revelation that was promised: Jon is a bastard, but he just happens to be the bastard of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. We have one surprise left to be revealed: Jon Snow’s true name, which was pitched to be just out of hearing for the audience. Look for Bran to share that information at a key juncture.
Back in the hall, Jon addresses the assembled lords of the North and the Eyrie. He beseeches them to lend their aid, and the lords seem incredibly skeptical of any enterprise involving the wildlings. All hope for unity seems lost until Lyanna Mormont, dwarfed by the hulking bearded adult males who surround her, stands up and shames the northern lords for not coming to Jon’s aid despite the wrongs the Boltons visited on their respective houses. Her stirring speech causes Lord Manderly and then Lord Glover to stand, beg forgiveness, and pledge their allegiance to the Starks, declaring Jon the king in the north. The #GirlPower has been strong on this season of Game of Thrones and maybe Lyanna Mormont deserves at least a place on the small council of this newly crowned King of the North.
Jon, ever stoic, continues to show himself to be the archetypical wise ruler, who never desires power for himself and for that reason is entrusted with it. When he set out for Winterfell, it was to save his family; now he has the means to save the world entire. Sansa, too, looks pleased, but her dream of a strong Winterfell with a Stark in the seat of power is threatened almost immediately when she makes eye contact with Littlefinger across the room. He seethes with a palpable jealousy, and this is only for a bastard born of a dead Stark. When he learns who Jon’s true parents are, Littlefinger may start to dream of painting his picture with some rich, red king’s blood.
It’s good to be the queen, but sometimes it requires sacrifice. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Stormborn is forced to make some decisions about her small council before venturing to Westeros. Though she has enjoyed a nice little affair with Daario Naharis, she tells him that he has to stay in Meereen and take care of the peace there. He gives her a monologue about his love for her that seems to bore her and she tells him that she had made up her mind. He finally leaves and she heads out to tell Tyrion how it went.
Tyrion attempts to console her, and his ability to do so is about as good as his ability to engage Grey Worm and Missandei in idle conversation. He does tell her, eventually, that he believes in her, and he’s never believed in anything. In fact, he’s made it a point not to believe in anything. Dany then gives him a Hand of the King pin that she had made for him and he kneels before her. It’s a touching sequence and a damn fine one – Tyrion has always made a fantastic hand, and with a queen like Dany he could do a great deal of good. This is one of the few times Dany has seemed truly human this season, admitting her fears to Tyrion and showing him kindness. The interaction between these two is good, and Peter Dinklage brings out better performances in Emilia Clarke.
Later, the Mother of Dragons begins her journey across the Narrow Sea, accompanied by Varys (who apparently travels very quickly), Tyrion, Missandei, Grey Worm, the Unsullied, the Dothraki, the Ironborn loyal to Yara and Theon, and her dragons. She has a lot of ships, a lot of good soldiers, and a small council to rival any ruler’s in history. She also has an alliance with the Dornish thanks to Varys, so it’s time for her to take what’s hers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Superlatives – Including “The Winds of Winter”
With a long wait until the next season, there will be plenty of time to speculate about what is coming next. There were some disappointing absences and missing events from this season (I’m looking at you, Lady Stoneheart), and there were plenty of unexpected revelations and additions to the story. For now, let us remember the heroic efforts of the players in this great game in these last 10 episodes.
Most Memorable Death – Hodor
So many notable characters passed this season, especially in the final episode, that it should be impossible to pick just one to highlight. But Hodor’s selfless and life-defining sacrifice makes it an easy choice. In his final moments, we learned about the origin of Hodor’s speech impediment and the origin of his nickname. It was heartbreaking to see that every moment of his life since he collapsed in the yard at Winterfell when Ned Stark was still a child had been leading to his final sacrifice. May the Old Gods and the New watch over you, Wyllis.
Play of the Game – Daenerys Burns the Khals
Like Cersei across the sea, Daenerys was beleaguered by foes set to judge her by standards she never agreed to uphold. So what does the Mother of Dragons do when she is set to be tried and likely executed for failing to fulfill her duty as a Khaleesi? She arranges a Khal-b-que. Dany’s great conflagration in Vaes Dothrak remains the most striking image of the season, as she moves with supernatural, almost sinister grace through the flames and in one maneuver eliminates a cadre of enemies and gains the loyalty of their vassals. Check and mate.
Most Valuable Player
Danielle’s Runner-Up – Davos Seaworth
Ser Davos is one of those secondary characters that viewers can always count on to be great. He’s loyal, has a moral compass that’s easy to believe in, and he does everything he can to do the right thing. He followed Stannis through thick and thin and was one of the only people willing to stand up to the imposing lord of Dragonstone. The Onion Knight is a perfect foil for Bronn – both are commoners made into knights and given authority where they previously had none. Davos believes in greater things and tries to defend them, while Bronn is only really interested in himself. Ser Davos is the reason Jon Snow was resurrected, and his organization of the Night’s Watchmen loyal to Jon while the rest of the crows waited outside saved the day early on this season. He has been steadfast, a constant source of hope in a show where there rarely is any. (Danielle Ryan)
Robert’s Runner-Up – Lyanna Mormont
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lyanna Mormont was an instant fan favorite. The youthful Lady of Bear Island made a huge impact in her debut season. Hers was the lone northern house to pledge their support for Jon Snow in his quest to retake Winterfell. After the disgrace of her half-brother Jorah, the death of her father Jeor, and the death of her mother, Lyanna had to quickly learn how to rule in a fractured and violent region recovering from civil war. She is tough, direct and eloquent in her speech and a staunch defender of those she considers loyal. It is Lyanna’s stirring endorsement of Jon’s right to rule in Winterfell that carries the day, and she proves that she is stronger of heart than any of the men there assembled. Forget Jon
Blackfyre Snow, all hail the Queen in the North! (R.W.V. Mitchell)
The MVP: Sansa Stark
Sansa Stark was just a foolish young girl when viewers first met her in season one. As she has reflected herself, she is no longer that girl, obsessed with small and selfish things. Sansa has grown over the past six seasons more than any other character, from a child who wanted only to be a princess to a woman who wants to see her enemies burn, her ancestral home protected, and her remaining family kept safe. Sansa has learned how to play the game of thrones from a master manipulator – Littlefinger – but she has enough of her mother’s feisty nature and her father’s steadfast goodness to keep her on the right path. The women on GoT have continued to be some of the most engaging characters, and Sansa definitely earned the MVP crown. She survived Ramsay with her heart and head (mostly) intact, saved the day at the Battle of the Bastards, and helped usher in new beginnings at Winterfell. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next year. (Danielle Ryan)