Game of Thrones Recap - Season 6 Finale: Winds of Winter
Given how dense “The Winds of Winter” was and how much it fundamentally altered the current dynamics for Game of Thrones, you might expect I have a lot to say. But the truth is that while this episode was a fine finale, this season has been far messier than I have been willing to admit. Seeing the show on point and firing on all cylinders with “The Battle of the Bastards” only makes me confident in the assessment that season six is a season of competent moments and not necessarily a great product as a whole. The parts are somehow greater than the sum.
The opening of this episode was a case study for this thesis. It is a terrible, quietly building thing. The mundanity of dressing and the nonchalance as every character seems confident that they are in control. Tommen, the High Sparrow, Margaery. But most of all: Cersei. The bell rings from the high sept, like that horrible heartbeat I heard back during “Home”. Ding, ding. The bell tolls. The question: for whom?
Loras’ trial is a mere distraction that hints at the greater tensions at King’s Landing and their wider implications. As Loras stands trial for crimes against the faith, we see how a proud knight and lord can be brought low by zealots. It would seem that all the power rests with the faith. It would seem that the High Sparrow has more power than the throne. More power than Tommen or Cersei.
Yet, as real life, power rests with those that would use it harshly. It rests with the violent. The Mountain stops Tommen from leaving the Red Keep. Qyburn leads Pycell aside with a lie. Lancel follows a messenger boy deep below the sept. Then come the knives. Dozens of knives for Pycell as he is stabbed to death by Qyburn’s little birds. One for Lancel as he come across countless glowing barrels.
In this moment, it was clear who won and how. It was Cersei and she won because she was willing to be violent on a scale we’d not yet seen on Game of Thrones. Soon, fire burns and the sept is destroyed in a great explosion that rocks King’s Landing. It was brilliant in conception and execution. On the part of the show and Cersei. Yet, this was a moment. A great moment but only a moment.
None of this could occur without consequence. While it was cruelly satisfying to see Cersei come out on top, you cannot break down a system without costs. So, the witch’s prophecy comes true and another Lannister child, the final Lannister child, dies. As Cersei gloats, Tommen leaps to his death. Given the themes of this season and how much it wants to talk about faith, we might call this divine justice against Cersei. But she is a living rebuke of the gods, blissful in her sins. The gods did not do this. She did.
Things are less eventful and less compelling as we cut to Jaime. Caught in the Frey’s hall, the affair is so dull that I abhor writing about it. Perhaps this is because I am disappointed. A part of me thought that we would see the reveal of Lady Stoneheart in these halls. Instead, we get a perfunctory scene with light foreshadowing. And while the later reveal is exciting, this highlights one of the great flaws for the show: it really does like fucking about and not getting to the point.
Sam’s return also called this flaw into light. I cannot for the life of me care about Sam Tarly. But Game of Thrones runs under the mistaken belief that it has no flaws. That notions of pace and plot can be sacrificed because we come, week after week, to suck at the televised teat. It is hard to fault the logic but painful to watch the results as “The Winds of Winter” offers such a strong opening only to flail about, asking us to applaud all the while.
Thank god for the moments, I say. Jumping to Jon to close out the Melisandre and Davos conundrum might seem as perfunctory as anything else but we get to see Liam Cunningham on full display. We get to see Melisandre’s fear and her sorrow. In this moment, the season’s theme of faith is explored further. The structure is trite, feeling like Jon is about to make a BioWare Choice™ between Davos and Melisandre but the performances are so strong that I don’t mind the moment. The same can be said for Sansa and Jon on Winterfell’s walls. But, again, these are only moments.
Like a slap in the face, we return to Dorne. I would rather be burned by one of Dany’s dragons than deal with this horrid land and its terrible characters. But here we are. Because Game of Thrones is convinced that there is no such thing as a waste of time. My only solace is that Olenna Tyrell is there to give a sharp tongued voice to my annoyances. Not even Varys’ arrival, surprising as it was, could spark renewed interest.
A great deal of “The Winds of Winter” is spent explaining absences or dismissing excess characters. We saw one advisor go. Across the sea, in Mereen, we see another removed from the story as Dany tells Daario that he must stay behind while she moves on to Westeros. It is hard to care, but I was glad to see that this lack of caring was built into the scene. Dany does not feel anything but impatience. I empathize.
But we still manage a moment. Tyrion and Dany have been generally misused this season. Dany was damseled before returning unchanged and Tyrion did not get to play his wonderful and intelligent games. Here, together, they finally give us the moment. “I’ve been a cynic for as long as I remember...and yet, here I am. I believe in you.”
Game of Thrones concerns itself with belief of all kinds. Here, it is political. What type of power do you believe in? Tyrion believes in something harsh and young but just and liberating. His reward? A returning of his faith and belief. Dany believes in him and his counsel. And so, across the sea, a young, progressive woman shared a moment with a hopeful dwarf who has every reason not to believe but still does.
Walder Frey is less romantic but we at least get a proper end to this wine guzzling, lip smacking buffoon. Chowing down pie, unaware that he’s eating his own sons. It is a moment that book readers likely remember well and so here, we get the twist. Arya Stark cuts Frey’s throat, offering some type of justice into the world for the Red Wedding.
And while it might seem that for every good thing, I mention a bad thing - I cannot bring myself to say that Arya’s storyline this season was a success. Braavos held danger and intrigue but ultimately ended up as a side trip that took up far too much of our time, only to set up a cool moment. I cannot deny Maisie Williams charisma; Arya’s been a favorite from the start. But I will not pretend that all went well. Like Tyrion, she was misused and as a result, she now feels like an extraneous element of the show.
Littlefinger and Sansaaa Starrrkk. You’re lucky the Kniiights of the Vale joined the battle, Shansa Shark. Admit it, you’re hearing his voice right now. But for all the joking, one thing is clear: Littlefinger gets what he wants but can’t have the one thing he wants most. This makes him one of the most dangerous people on the show. He always has been. Yet, his brief interlude with Sansa gives me the sense that he will be around more than ever, with dastardly results.
We finally come to the moment we all expected when we reunite with Bran. In his vision, we learn exactly what Ned encountered when he found Lyanna. We get the answer to the question that we always knew but still needed to hear? Who is Jon Snow, really? Well, he’s not Ned’s kid. He is Lyanna’s. And while the show is not as explicit, the long standing fan theory has held true. R+L=J. Rhaegar Targaryen is the father, no doubt. Jon is a Stark and a Targaryen.
He’s also the damn King in the North. The White Wolf. While Cersei is now the Queen and Dany makes her way across the sea. If anything else, “The Winds of Winter” sets a glorious stage for what is to come. I am excited for the next season. In that way, this episode was a success. I was yelling at the television screen during those grand moments. In that way, this episode was a success and possibly one of the show’s greatest.
Still, I’m tired. Game of Thrones keeps making the same mistakes and hoping that spectacle will trick me into forgiving them. I won’t make that mistake. This was as strong an episode as I could have imagined. But this season was not a focused affair. It was messy and haphazard. Some of that comes from moving into uncharted territory and leaving the books behind. Some of that comes from poor habits. If Game of Thrones wants to succeed in the end, it needs to find more than those moments. It needs to find itself.
Hopefully, I’ll be right there to see it. Maybe I’ll be back here with all of you. I’d like that. It was a privilege to share this season with all of you, gang. Winter is here. But don’t worry too much. It’ll be alright.