‘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.