‘Game of Thrones’ Paints Its Masterpiece With ‘The Winds of Winter’

A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones season finale coming up just as soon as I examine the contents of this delicious meat pie…

“But sometimes, before we can usher in the new, the old must be put to rest.” -Qyburn

Earlier today, a friend texted to ask for my final predictions on who would die in this episode. I quickly realized that I hadn’t given the matter much thought at all in the past week, not only because the only death I particularly cared about at this stage was Ramsay’s (and that was only to eliminate that character from the show), but because the combination of all the major deaths in previous years and Jon Snow’s resurrection earlier this season had fundamentally devalued death as dramatic currency for the show. (It hasn’t helped that so many other series have decided that this is the most important thing they can copy from GoT, so that death across primetime now feels more numbing than shocking.)

It was telling that this season’s most potent death hit so hard not because of the loss of Hodor himself, but because his death was accompanied with the revelation of how his entire life was ruined to enable him to get to that particular moment in time. We’re close enough to the end of the story that no death would feel especially surprising, or in most cases sad (though I’d like to see Tyrion make it to the end somehow), and what matters is less who dies than how, what their deaths say about their own journeys through the story, and how they impact those left behind. The jaw-dropping shock of Ned’s decapitation or the Red Wedding isn’t coming back; all that matter is good storytelling.

All of which brings us to “The Winds of Winter,” an episode that killed an awful lot of characters, particularly in Cersei’s terrorist bombing of the Sept of Baelor, which took out the Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Mace, Uncle Kevan, and Lancel, with Maester Pycelle being stabbed to death at the same time by Varys and Qyburn’s little birds. Though some of them (Margaery and the Sparrow in particular) had memorable moments along the way, none of these were huge losses in the grand scheme of the series. The interlocking feuds between the Lannisters, the Tyrells, and the Sparrow were — like a lot of storylines from the last two seasons — primarily a way to fill time and keep certain characters (Cersei in particular) occupied while more important things were happening elsewhere. Even Tommen — who jumps to his death out of a combination of grief for the dead and the realization of what his mother is capable of (and what he is very much not capable of) — was the king, but almost entirely in name only; very little of what happened outside of King’s Landing in any way reflected that he was the ruler of Westeros. In terms of the larger plot of the series, that Wildfire explosion, and all that followed, was the removal of a lot of cannon fodder who had nothing to do with an endgame that should involve some convergence of dragons and zombies, with the Starks and maybe Jaime and Cersei standing between them.

But the larger plot of the series doesn’t have to define the series from moment to moment, scene to scene, episode to episode. I won’t particularly miss any of the characters Cersei wiped out (even Margaery, while entertaining, had largely outlived her usefulness, and will perhaps be even more interesting as a dead motivator for her grandmother than she’d have been as a living nuisance to the queen mother), but they are almost besides the point. Their deaths — and the later death of Walder Frey at the hands of a girl named Arya Stark — are powerful not because of who was killed, but because of what they told us about their killers, and about how masterfully the show dramatized their final moments.

The King’s Landing sequence in particular was sensational: as technically stunning in its own way as last week’s Battle of the Bastards, but with far more humanity and emotional heft. It was assembled in a different way than we’re used to from Game of Thrones. The editing was faster and more purposeful, whether contrasting the different ways that Cersei, Tommen, Margaery, and the Sparrow got dressed for the trial, or the Hitchcock-style(*) cutting between Lancel crawling to his death and Margaery realizing how very wrong things were about to go. Ramin Djawadi’s score deployed new themes (leaning heavily on piano and cello in a way that briefly had me wondering if I was watching a really weird episode of The Leftovers) to create a dread-filled, funereal atmosphere long before Cersei’s plan came to fruition. And even harder-hitting than the pyrotechnics that took out the Sept, or the many little daggers that brought down Maester Pycelle, was that very still shot of Tommen’s chambers as he surveyed the damage, thought of all he had lost and all that his future held (and didn’t), and chose to join his wife and his priest in the next world. As impressive as all of Miguel Sapochnik’s work was in the battlefields outside Winterfell last week, the way he framed Tommen’s suicide was equally jaw-dropping.

(*) Hitchcock liked to define the difference between surprise and suspense using a bomb underneath a table. If the audience doesn’t know it’s there before it explodes, the filmmaker gives them 15 seconds of surprise; if they know it’s there long before it goes off, the filmmaker has given them 15 minutes of suspense. Cersei using the wildfire against her enemies had been foreshadowed for weeks, but the lack of surprise mattered not at all because of how masterfully that sequence was put together.

But beyond the virtuoso filmmaking, Cersei’s revenge was so effective because of what it told us about one of the show’s most important and best defined characters. She has had virtually everything taken from her — her mother, her father, all three children — just as the old woman once prophesied, but she will not stop fighting for control of her life and her story and for all that she feels she is still owed. Compare her reaction to Tommen’s death to the deaths of Joffrey or Myrcella. The first two, she grieved mightily; Tommen was already lost to her when he sided with the Sparrow. She may have sent the Mountain to his chambers to prevent him from dying in the explosion, but she’s also not broken up over his decision to step out of that window(*). She is the full and proper queen of Westeros now, not because of whom she married or whom she gave birth to, but because of actions she took, power she seized, lives she snuffed out because it suited her to do so. She doesn’t exactly look happy when she ascends the throne in her fabulous black dress — nor even as smug as she appears when welcoming Septa Unella to her new life of bondage and torture — but she looks… content. This is not the way she would have wanted to take what she views as her rightful place on the Iron Throne — not without any of the kids, or Tywin, there to see her sit upon it — but she did what she had to do, and seems at peace with how the scales have been balanced. Even with another dead child. That’s cold enough to even give the Night King pause.

(*) Karmically fitting, I suppose, that Cersei’s son should deliberately plummet from one window as the end result of a long string of events that began with her brother pushing Ned Stark’s son out of another.

The revelation that Walder Frey’s new serving wench was really Arya wasn’t quite as pretty to look at or listen to, but was potent in a similar fashion because of what it told us about where Arya is now. (It was also a nice piece of misdirection, because the earlier scene with Jaime suggested he was so disgusted by his association with this man — and by Frey’s suggestion that they have anything in common with one another — that he could have arranged the death himself.) As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Arya’s time in Braavos was more about parking her away from the carnage for a couple of seasons than setting her on a new emotional path, but the Arya who not only cuts Walder Frey’s throat, but first makes him eat the butchered remains of his two idiot sons, is a far cry from even the girl who killed Meryn Trant at the end of last season, let alone the one who left the Hound lying against a rock the year before that. She is starting to grow nearly as cold and hard as Cersei, who is one of the names remaining on her list. If a girl should continue down this path of revenge, rather than heading back to Winterfell once word spreads (as Littlefinger promises it will) of her brother and sister’s presence there, I’m not sure whom I would wager on in a battle of cunning and cruelty between Arya and the queen. But I imagine it would be damned entertaining to watch.

Where much of the episode is about the revenges of Cersei and Arya, the folks up at Winterfell have already gotten theirs against Ramsay, so the concern there is about preparing for the next war against the Night King. Jon being declared King in the North was not only another excellent illustration of why Lady Mormont has filled that Hodor-sized hole in my heart, but of how potent the show’s long game can feel. This isn’t Jon being given the Stark name, but as Lady Mormont points out, it doesn’t matter if he’s a bastard, because Ned’s blood runs in his veins…

… only she makes this proclamation only moments after we’ve learned that technically, it’s another Stark’s blood who runs through Jon’s veins.

The theory that Jon was actually the secret child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Aunt Lyanna — aka the formula “R+L=J” — has been circulating among fandom for so long, and so loudly of late, that it was impossible for even a non-reader like me to avoid it. But where shows can sometimes run aground when their fans solve mysteries long before the answer is revealed on screen (this was a recurring Lost problem in the later years), this didn’t lack for much power for everyone’s suspicion that it was coming. As with Cersei’s revenge, the show set up the moment so carefully, all the way up to that very purposeful cut from the baby’s very serious face in Bran’s vision to Jon’s familiar expression in present day, that I can’t imagine it would have been any more effective had I never heard of the damn theory. Jon’s parentage — and the idea that the honorable-to-a-fault Ned would break his oath only in this one area — had been an open question nearly from the start of the series. This answer changes nothing on the ground for now, since Bran is the only one who knows it (and it’s unclear even how much he heard of what Lyanna whispered to Ned), but it should make things even more pregnant with possibility whenever he and Dany inevitably meet — particularly if she should decide that he is her best bet for a political marriage, before either of them realizes that she’s his aunt.

And as we close the door on this season, we have a trio of unlikely rulers on a collision course: Jon, Cersei, and Dany, who now has a massive fleet, dragons, and an unlikely coalition of Westerosi allies all heading towards her birthright. Cersei had better enjoy that throne while she can, because at the rate the story’s now moving, she probably won’t be sitting on it for very long.

This was at times a very frustrating season of Game of Thrones, featuring more filler episodes than you would expect this late in the saga, and at times being less than graceful in revealing that certain storylines existed only to keep the important characters safe while others fought and died. But that streak of episodes from “Oathbreaker” through “The Door” was as satisfying as the show’s ever had, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, once I’ve had some time to sit with it, I feel like “The Winds of Winter” was the series’ single best episode. There are times when Game of Thrones seems destined to be a collection of great moments rather than a great narrative, simply because there are so many moving parts that don’t always work in harmony. But in this one, all the pieces felt unified — the shifts from one locale to the next almost always being accompanied by a clever or cutting piece of dialogue linking the two (Walder Frey toasting to the success of House Lannister immediately after we’ve watched King Tommen plunge to his death, or Varys promising “fire and blood” to Lady Olenna right before we see Dany preparing to leave Meereen) — and greater for their association with one another.

The novelistic structure of Game of Thrones means the later episodes of seasons are almost always going to be more satisfying than what comes before them. But even by the standards of previous years, this one was special. And grand. And as ruthless as the woman who, for the moment, sits on the Iron Throne.

Some other thoughts:

* Only five map locations this week, so we’ll have to wait for next season to see if there will be an animated version of the Citadel. The absence of Braavos should have been a tip-off as to Arya no longer being there, whereas the presence of the Twins initially seemed to only be telling us where Jaime was. One important but subtle difference: the Winterfell animation removed the House Bolton flayed man decor in favor of returning the House Stark wolves to their proper place.

* Speaking of the Citadel, that place hasn’t gotten the kind of advance hype of other locales like Braavos, but boy howdy was the library everything Sam could have hoped for: gleaming and ornate and seemingly stretching on into infinity. It’s a fitting place not only for Sam to learn whatever he can to try to stop the Night King, but to contain all the knowledge of a world as big and intricate as the one George R.R. Martin created.

* Sansa apologizes for not telling Jon about Littlefinger’s army, and there’s no suggestion that she had some master plan for not doing so. Definitely not the best piece of plotting this season, but it’s good to see that her shields are still up when it comes to Lord Baelish and his attempts to have her take her mother’s place in his heart (and more).

* Varys’ presence on the lead ship of Dany’s fleet is notable for three reasons: 1)Reunion of the Dinklage/Hill comedy team, 2)Rekindles my dream of a Varys/Theon/Grey Worm conversation to discuss the loss they have in common, and 3)Confirms this season’s trend of the creative team no longer caring about travel time if it gets in the way of the story. The last goes against the show’s general narrative approach in the earlier seasons, but is necessary at this phase to bring all the characters and stories together for the endgame.

* Poor, stupid Edmure: after all of Jaime’s promises, he’s right back in his cell. I wonder if Arya will even think to set her uncle free before she resumes her travels.

* Chekhov’s Wall: Benjen notes that the Wall is fortified with magic that prevents the dead from going through it, which suggests the Night King will have to find a way to bring the whole damn thing down to make his invasion happen.

* Perhaps out of gratitude for restoring his life and allowing him to reclaim the family home, Jon spares Melisandre’s life, merely banishing her back to the south of Westeros. What are the odds her path crosses the Brotherhood Without Banners again as she heads south and they go north?

* It took two full seasons, but the show finally gave me a reason to care about Dorne, and that reason starts with Dame Diana and ends in Rigg. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are still only vaguely defined, but put Olenna in among them (with an assist from Varys), and that’s something we should all be interested in.

* Peter Dinklage makes everything better: Dany giving Tyrion a custom-made Hand pin would have been touching on its own, but the look of tearful gratitude on the imp’s face took it to another level.

* If this is the last we see of Daario (assuming he doesn’t turn up, for instance, to help Jorah the Andal seek a cure for grayscale, or doesn’t defy the orders of the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Wounder of Hearts and sail over to Westeros when she needs him most), then he got a much better ending than most on this series: separated from the woman he loves, but alive, well, and empowered.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com