Game of Thrones, as a series, franchise, and brand, is always going to stand in the shadow of The Red Wedding. More than Ned’s beheading, more than Joffrey’s demise, more than the battles of Blackwater Bay or The Wall or Hardhome or the bastards, the Red Wedding is the event that defined the series in the popular consciousness. For a long time, it felt like everything in the show up to that point had been building to that moment, and everything that came after was a consequence of it. The third season in particular was a focal point of the larger story Game of Thrones show was telling, with that mortal matrimony as its zenith.
Season 6 of Game of Thrones has felt more like a sequel to Season 3 than an extension of the work that the show did in Seasons 4 and 5. It is the season of resurrection, one where we’ve witnessed the returns (and, just as often, the demises) of those we knew long ago: The Brotherhood Without Banners, The Blackfish, Osha and Rickon, Benjen Stark, Walder Frey, and more. Whether it’s the freedom that comes from no longer being constrained by George R. R. Martin’s novels, or the knowledge that the end is nigh, Game of Thrones spent much of its sixth year tying off loose ends that been dangling for years, often in a characteristically lethal fashion.
The culmination of that spirit comes in “The Winds of Winter,” a season finale of beginnings and endings. It is the close of one epoch of the show — the one which spun out from the Red Wedding, scattered our heroes across oceans, and brought more and more characters into the fold — and the beginning of another. The monarchs from the War of the Five Kings are dead. Winter is here. And now it’s the future that’s coming.
Before it can arrive though, the last of the old guard must be washed away. The wildfire at the Great Sept of Baelor cannot match the Red Wedding for shock value, but it is still one of the show’s great achievements. It’s slow and measured as climaxes go, unspooling over twenty minutes without ever feeling rushed. Instead, the episode lingers on the looming, unavoidable horror to come.
It’s one of the series’ most beautifully shot and edited sequences. The imagery that opens “Winds of Winter” presents a series of contrasts: the light meticulous braiding of Margaery’s hair and tying of her dress and the assembly of Cersei’s soot black finery as she prepares for darkness, the High Sparrow’s arm emerges from his ratty sleeve as King’s does the same from within far nicer adornments and the two moments are spliced together at opposite angles. There is balance, opposition, and discord built into the prelude portion of “Winds.” Adherents file into the Sept in symmetrical order. Grand Maester Pycelle is led into darkness below. Lancel Lannister follows a little bird into the catacombs where lucid jade pools portend death from beneath those who stand opposed. These actions and reactions move in disquieting harmony.
The destruction of the Great Sept is not the Red Wedding; it is the end of The Godfather — the final, all-consuming blow struck by a lone figure attempting to maintain their family’s power and position in the face of those who threaten. The burst of neon flame takes with it the daughter-in-law who threatened to replace Cersei, the zealot who humiliated her, the relations that turned on her. This is her moment, her last gesture toward triumph, a testament to her willingness to leave her enemies bathed in flame like The Mad King once did.
She means it to be a cleansing fire, one that burns away the brush and brambles in her way and clears a path to freedom from these torments and threats. She taunts Septa Unella, the would-be nun who tortured her and shamed her at the walk of atonement, and sees that the favor is returned. This is Cersei’s moment of glory, the peak of her revenge, her ultimate victory.
But everything in Westeros comes at a price, and here the price is the life of her son. For all that may be said about Tommen — his malleability, his weak will, his propensity to be manipulated — he is a young man who meant well, who felt the weight of his crown, and never seemed comfortable beneath it. When he sees that smoking crater, feels the impact of the lives lost under his watch, the sensitive young man can take no more. His end is swift and balletic as he plummets from his vantage point of the carnage. Cersei has what she wanted. The throne is hers. But as the witch prophesied, it’s cost her the things in her life that she loved most, the things that caused her act for reasons other than that it felt good.
But it is still the end of the last external threat, the last separate obstacle the show threw in its characters’ paths until the main figures of this story were set to collide. The Sparrows are no more. The young Tyrells are done for. The Baratheons have fallen. Ramsey is dogfood. Slavers’ Bay is tamed. The Freys are neutered. The Three-Eyed raven has died and lives again. All that’s left is to settle the great game once and for all.
In one corner of the world sits Cersei, the Queen in Black. When Jamie returns from the Freys, he sees his lover sitting on the throne, wearing garments of both battle and mourning. Gone is the woman who smiled in victory at the flaming perdition she unleashed upon her tormentors. Gone is the woman who crumbled inside, almost imperceptibly, to see her last living child lying there with each ounce of life stricken from him. In their place rests a dark-visaged woman with a ten-thousand yard stare. Cersei was always dangerous and now, nothing more can be taken from her. All she has is the throne, and a heart that’s been bled dry, drop by drop.
On another shore stands Daenerys Stormborn. She sets sail with painted ships and her dragons overhead. But she doesn’t travel with Daario Naharis, acknowledging the liability of bringing a lover to the Seven Kingdoms when political marriages are expedient. Instead, she travels with Grey Worm and Missandei. She travels with Theon and Yara. She travels with Lord Varys (who apparently knows how to book it from Dorne). And most importantly, she travels with Tyrion Lannister.
The moment she and Tyrion share is one that points the series toward its endgame. After traveling the Dothraki Sea, after being stranded in Qarth, after what seemed like an interminable amount of time learning to rule Dragons’ (née Slavers’) Bay, she is finally setting on the path to retake Westeros. It is a scary journey, but the anxieties she confides in Tyrion telegraph the heart and hardships to come.
Tyrion affirms her. He speaks of how she cuts through his cynicism, and he validates her unease at the grave and great task that lay before her. In return, she makes him the hand of the queen. It’s a meaningful gesture after all Tyrion gave defend King’s Landing only to find himself branded an outcast and traitor for it. For once, the things he can do better than anyone else, the gifts he can offer, are valued and have placed him at the side of a champion.
But alongside the Queen in Black and that champion, there is the man who turns out to be, through the vicissitudes of royal marriage and tangled bloodlines, Daenerys’s nephew. Bran’s latest trip to the past reveals that Jon Snow is not the child of Ned Stark and an unknown woman, but rather of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. The cut between the face of the child in Lyanna’s arms and Jon standing before the great houses of Winterfell confirms the familial connection among those who hold Westeros’s fate in their hands.
But Jon is not alone. He and Sansa have retaken The North and the lords and the Free Folk have pledged fealty to “The White Wolf” as the new King in the North (thanks to the irrepressible fireplug known as Lady Mormont). The Starks have been preparing for this moment, whether they knew it or not, from the beginning. The two of them have fought and suffered to get here. Jon is uneasy in his father’s chair. Sansa has been through enough not to fall for Littlefinger’s pleasantries and manipulations. They sit at the head of their family table, waiting for what comes next.
Their scenes are as much a denouement from The Battle of the Bastards as they are a narrative mile marker in their own right, but it’s hard not to see these two young people who have seen so much, bracing for what’s to come, in front of raised swords and cheers that the North remembers, and not think them ready for whatever waits in an uncertain, perilous future.
Amid all of this, Melisandre is banished for her hand in Shireen’s demise. Lady Tyrell and the Sand Snakes form an alliance brokered by Varys. Sam stands agape at the font of knowledge where he, like Tyrion, starts to believe that maybe the talents that seemed wasted in this hard world have a place after all. And there still lurks The Night King beyond the wall, the real battle that threatens to overtake any contest for the Iron Throne.
For once, Game of Thrones seems to narrow rather than widen. While there will no doubt be more detours along the way, more unexpected turns and daggers in the back and marauders at the gates, the days of expanding this world are over. The Red Wedding is past. Its victims and perpetrators now a part of the same scorched earth. Those who survive now face the series’ conclusion. The witch’s prediction has come to fruition; the Khaleesi has set sail for Westeros, and a pair of Starks preside over Winterfell once more.
After years of promises, seasons of teases, episodes and episodes of an ever-telescoping world, winter has come; the board is set, and the last chapter of this story, the end of it all, is about to begin.