[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]
Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.
Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.
But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.
That’s a weird sentence to write as a book reader when you consider that this was the first season where the show actually was actually unpredictable in significant ways due to moving beyond George R.R. Martin’s novels. But even when the show was adapting books I’d read, the absence of an ending—what with Martin having not released the final two books—was a source of instability: it meant that there was always uncertainty about what was “essential,” and the show could be read as a sort of hint at where Martin was heading in the books. When the show excised Lady Stoneheart—not that there aren’t still some truthers out there, mind you—or entirely glossed over Aegon, it was the show using the “predictability” of adaptation against its book reader audience. It also created a rhythm to watching the show as a book reader, oscillating between evaluating the “translation” of certain moments that remain and then considering the impact of those moments that are removed or changed significantly.
Season six had a different rhythm, and there were moments where this was thrilling as a book reader: the show’s “Hold the door” moment was what I dubbed its “first TV-exclusive iconic tragedy,” and there was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about waiting for each episode knowing that it could go in untold new directions in nearly every storyline. But for all these thrills, there was also the growing sense the show was changing its approach, adopting a move toward closure that was foreign as a book reader both thanks to the show’s existing precedent and the fact that Martin’s books have made no such move to date. And so the season began the process of training me how to watch the show do something entirely new, converging and streamlining where it once diverged and expanded.
This retraining had its ups and downs. While moments like Hodor’s death finally gave book readers access to the pure uncertainty that had driven the show’s biggest “shockers” for the non-reader majority, there were other moments that felt like the show betraying its principles in the interest of moving forward. My criticism of “Battle of the Bastards” as “empty” drew a lot of criticism itself, as fans were confused how I could say something as eventful as the Starks reclaiming Winterfell was empty. But the show had trained me to see conflicts like this one in terms of complex morality, and detailed character development, and so it felt strange to see Rickon reduced to a prop who never speaks, and to see the battle ignore the hints at unrest among Ramsay’s northern troops for a straight heroes/villains showdown that ends with the predictable last-minute save by the Knights of the Vale. The end result was meaningful, yes, but the battle—impressive as it was—seemed disconnected from that meaning.
I still believe this to be a fair critique, and rewatching the episode and then seeing how the story resolved in the season finale did nothing to change my opinion. But I’ve gained greater insight into where this opinion originates, which is the fact that I had not fully come to terms with how the show had changed without explicitly signaling its intentions. Whereas a show like Lost kept retraining its audience to expect the unexpected, first with the shift to flash-forwards and then in the final season’s flash sideways, Game Of Thrones is doing something different: it is signaling to the audience that the show is done expanding, delivering long-awaited resolution before sending all of its characters hurtling toward the final showdown between good and evil (albeit with some definitive shades of grey in some storylines). If you are primed for this catharsis, accepting of the plot armor it gave Jon Snow and the lack of surprise in Littlefinger’s assistance in removing Ramsay—rendered a videogame mini-boss—from the board, then I think “Battle of the Bastards” works. But by the show’s previous standards, set by similar episodes in previous seasons and not yet fully overwritten in my brain, the absence of complexity was a disappointment.
It was interesting, then, to see the show do something so similar in the opening scenes of “The Winds Of Winter,” and to have it work so much better for me. Both are technically impressive accomplishments from Miguel Sapochnik, it’s true, but the destruction of the Sept of Baelor feels so much richer, despite the fact it serves a similar function. Just as the battle serves to turn Ramsey into a mini-boss and push the Winterfell story forward (with Sansa as Lady of Winterfell, Jon Snow as the King in the North, and Littlefinger as the power-hungry advisor), the explosion of the Sept of Baelor writes off a huge chunk of the King’s Landing storyline as a collection of support characters designed to contribute to the central arc of Cersei and Jaime Lannister’s respective journeys. But whereas I found the battle struggled to connect its weight onto the procedures of the battle, more visually evocative than narratively complex, the same cannot be said in the finale: the suddenness of the explosion and its aftermath wrests storylines from their moorings, but the weight of that feels fully felt, an “end” as much as a “beginning” and with significant ramifications for the surviving characters.
With so many “endings” coming at once, it creates a far higher burden than the Battle of the Bastards, which ends a villain narrative that always had to end in retribution, a giant who was beloved but ultimately very minor, and a Stark child that spent too much time offscreen. The destruction of the Sept of Baelor ends a significant arc with the High Sparrow, a five-season journey for Margaery, and the third king to die over the course of the series—and while this creates a higher burden, it comes with higher reward if it works, and it does. I do think that Margaery perhaps deserved better, but it’s a fitting end for her character: put into a bad situation, she does what she can to strategize her way out of it, becoming undone when the High Sparrow doesn’t share her instincts about Cersei’s motivations. She made a mistake in trusting the High Sparrow, but it was a strategic error, and one that was born out of her skill at diplomacy—until her death, she believed in the power of words and small actions to wield political power, and failed only because Cersei was willing to burn it all down and the High Sparrow was too stubborn to listen to the one rational person in the room.
For the High Sparrow and the Faith, it represents the fundamental contradiction of their existence brought to life: for all of the ways they dehumanized Cersei by shaming her, they ultimately relied on their belief that she would never do something like this (much as the Septa believes that Cersei intends to give her a merciful death instead of having the Mountain torture her). And for Tommen, poor Tommen, it’s the sheer weight of Cersei’s decision come to bear: she chose the path of most resistance, which successfully brought her to power and removed her enemies but also lost the very things she told herself she was fighting for, and the tragipoetics of this far surpass anything that manifests in the Stark takeover of Winterfell. It felt like the show reaching the climax of multiple stories, before pulling back to reveal that what we were really watching was the climax to Cersei’s long march to power, as she rushes to the end with unimaginable consequences.
The sequence also benefits by solving one of the season’s nagging issues, namely the characterization of Jaime and Cersei’s relationship. By this point in the books, Cersei’s letters to Jaime were going unreturned, but the show has powered through focused on their deep romance, to the point where Jaime proclaims his love of Cersei to Edmure. But the logic becomes clearer when you see that the show had this in its back pocket: given the limited economy to play out their subtle separation, their disconnect is best achieved through actions and consequences, and Cersei blowing up the city and leading to their last remaining child’s suicide gets the characters back on clear tracks. The glances they share during Cersei’s coronation tell a story of a couple that is about to be torn apart by what they are willing to do for love, and whether or not Cersei can claim to have been motivated by love when she failed to keep her son alive and murdered hundreds or thousands of people in the interest of avoiding the responsibility of her actions.
But while I would argue these elements of the scene elevate it over “Battle of the Bastards,” I do think that the show benefits from the groundwork laid by the previous episode. For better or worse, the fight between Jon and Ramsay taught me that the show was moving toward its endgame, and gave me space to process what I want out of these “moves to the middle.” And so when the finale executed the same moves, it wasn’t just that they did so more successfully: it was also that I had come to terms with the show’s goals, and was better able to interpret them as they were happening. And so while part of me thinks we needed more buildup to Arya’s murder of Walder Frey, and that the chronology of the episode was even wonkier than it usually is (more on that below, just because my brain won’t let me not try to work it out), the efficiency mandate has been made clear, and the scenes that make up “The Winds of Winter” all get their points across while delivering something of value in their own right.
Sam meets a quirky Maester at Oldtown who gives him access to a library of knowledge that will surely come in handy in the battle ahead: it does nothing to add any particular weight to Sam’s story this year, but it makes his function clearer, and adds some levity to an otherwise dark hour. Varys gathers the Tyrells and Sands to assist in Daenerys’ attack against the Lannisters, who have been unburdened of the political obstacles that made it difficult to see them as a clear target: the timeline is insane, yes, but the efficiency of seeing houses led by four women (the Greyjoys, the Sands/Martells, the Tyrells, and the Targaryens) sailing to take down Cersei both carries weight and resisting weighing down the show in the procedures of gathering the army (which the show does not have time for at this stage, even if it’s something the books would have luxuriated in with some measure of success). When you consider where this season started, and where the show clearly has to be headed, these and other scenes in the finale tap into the right balance of acknowledging that these ongoing storylines have been meaningful but also admitting that what’s most important right now is getting the house in order.
I do feel some disappointment that the show’s ambitions are narrowing in focus instead of expanding, the show’s storyworld forced to become smaller in the interest of reaching a centralized concluding arc. I think that disappointment manifested in the “Battle of the Bastards” because it showed the sacrifices that come with the show’s streamlining: they didn’t have enough time to make Rickon matter, the battle was forced to end in ways that cut off potential story directions they hinted at (mostly as failed misdirection to try to pretend Littlefinger’s arrival wasn’t the only way for it to end), and the way all of the ambiguities are glossed over here—even if they do indeed emerge in the future—still rung false for me.
But that disappointment is local, not global: the battle failed for me as an isolated sequence of events, but the season as a whole represents an impressive accomplishment. The show never dramatically changed what it was doing: it kept killing characters, it kept taking twists and turns, and it delivered the kind of big battle that we’ve come to expect. But whereas these have all been in some way forms of expansion in the past, season six trained us to see them as acts of resolution, eventually landing on a sequence to start “The Winds of Winter” that, like the white ravens, signals the show’s full transition into an actual, honest-to-goodness grand finale. Every major character—except potentially Jorah, who I presume is headed to Sam in Oldtown—is now in or on their way to Westeros. Every obstacle that the show’s non-linear storytelling created has been removed, leaving behind discrete forces all looking to rule Westeros: some for their own self-interest, some because it is their destiny, and others in the interest of fighting a greater war that others aren’t yet aware of. Suddenly, Game Of Thrones is all about a throne again, and on paper that seems to ignore so much of the ambiguity that the series has embraced over the years. But in practice, the season managed—with some ups and downs—to translate what it does into what it needs to do: some stories got short shrift, some characters got lost, and I’m still not convinced that big battle did everything it could, but season six goes into the books as highly entertaining, genuinely thrilling, and a successful navigation of narrative transition for one of television’s most sprawling narratives.
- I tried for a few minutes to mark out what chronological order the scenes in question had to be in, if we unscrambled the fact that narratives have been out of alignment all season, and realized it was a fool’s errand.
- It feels weird to gloss over the reveal of L+R=J as canon, truly, but it’s been too obvious for too long, and makes too much sense: the flashback was well-handled, I appreciate the troll of leaving his real name as something to be revealed in time, and anyone trying to claim that Rhaegar isn’t the father is delusional—we all know that Jon and Dany are gonna have a meet cute and then they’re going to be at the altar and then Bran is going to be carried in by Meera screaming “Wait” and then tell them they’re aunt and nephew.
- Qyburn gonna Qyburn: I’ll be curious how the complete absence of a Maester at King’s Landing plays into Sam’s storyline at Oldtown, or whether they’ll even bother to note that Pycelle’s death has created a significant absence. Regardless, Peak Qyburn as he transitions to being Hand of the Queen.
- Speaking of Hands, a nice little scene with Tyrion and Dany—it’s a fun dynamic, and Dany needed an advisor, and the choice to use Tyrion in this role from an earlier date gives an easy charm to their relationship here. The Hand pin was a nice gesture, and a good breath note before they set off sailing.
- CleganeBowl Watch: Well, with the Mountain now a representative of the Crown, it’s clear that we will eventually get a showdown between the two brothers, although how specifically that will manifest remains a question, and I contend that it is not CleganeBowl as was previously anticipated. But it’s definitely coming.
- Cannot say enough good things about Ramin Djawadi’s work in this episode, particularly “Light of the Seven,” the piano, cello, and organ track that covers the destruction of the Sept of Baelor. It is a huge part of the sequence’s ability to make you uneasy, so distinct from much of his work on the show, and works together with the direction/performances to sell the scale of the thing.
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: Yes, they sent Melisandre south. Yes, that theoretically means she could resurrect someone else. No, I don’t think that someone is going to be Lady Stoneheart—the utility of that character has been moved past too considerably, I feel, for them to go through the work of bringing her back. If she already existed, she would have been visible to some other character by now; if she doesn’t, the logic by which she could reasonably be revived is absent. I think, alas, that the dream is dead.