We’re in uncharted territory on Game of Thrones. There are no books to work from — even George R.R. Martin might be surprised with what’s happening on the HBO series — and things could get confusing. To help you out, after every new episode, our Thrones experts will answer your six most pressing questions.
1. Valar Morghulis! Was that a new record for the most people killed during a Game of Thrones season finale?
Josh: The highest Game of Thrones body count is typically one week before the season finale, in episode nine. That’s when the Battle of the Blackwater was fought, and the Red Wedding coated Walder Frey’s hall with Stark blood, and the Wildlings fought the Night’s Watch, and Drogon set fire to the Sons of the Harpy in Daznak’s Pit, and, well, you remember what happened last week. This was no typical season, though, and “The Winds of Winter” was no typical finale. I can’t find a definitive guide with the corpse count for every episode, but this one claims the biggest finale death toll came last season, when Stannis Baratheon, Meryn Trant, and Myrcella Baratheon, among four other “major” characters, were murdered, including Jon Snow (yeah, about that…).
“Winds” put that number to shame.
Margaery, Loras, and Mace Tyrell were blown up, as were the High Sparrow and Lancel and Kevan Lannister; Grand Maester Pycelle was stabbed by “little birds”; King Tommen Baratheon committed suicide; and Walder Frey ate his sons, Goofus and Doofus, then had his throat cut by Arya. That’s a whole lot of grisly murder, even for Game of Thrones. Which one was your favorite!?
Ryan: Tommen jumping to his death was definitely the most powerful. For all the wuss moves he pulled over the past season, I still can’t help but feel for the kid as he carefully took off his crown and then fell from a window, Bran-style, without hesitation. It’s as if he wanted to avoid any further havoc being wrought on account of his poor leadership, and plunging to his death seemed like the completely obvious solution. It’s probably also the only move he made as king that was actually his own. He went from being a pawn of Tywin to Cersei to the High Sparrow, never truly in power and never being able to make anything happen. You could see how helpless he felt over the course of the season, and it was only in death that he finally got to make his own choice rather than being controlled by others.
2. It’s finally been confirmed that Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon Snow, but what the heck did Lyanna whisper to Ned that we didn’t hear?
Ryan: The secret of Jon Snow’s parentage has finally been confirmed. Book readers have suspected that he was not the bastard son of Ned Stark, but rather the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen for a long time. The whole Tower of Joy thing has been getting hyped for half a season. Yet now that they finally confirmed it, why am I feeling so underwhelmed?
Let’s face it: Lyanna Stark wasn’t even the coolest Lyanna in this episode. That honor goes to Lyanna Mormont, who set things up for Jon Snow to become KING-O-DA-NORF. That was the true magic moment for show watchers, and I bet most of them have no idea who Rhaegar even is, or the significance of the Tower of Joy (basically, it means Jon’s now in the running for the Iron Throne, if he wants to be — here’s a helpful explainer). The only thing the episode clearly explained is that Jon Snow is Lyanna’s son.
As far as what she whispered to Ned, I bet it was her explaining that the baby was Rhaegar’s son. Why did they make it inaudible? Because Rhaegar has gotten half a dozen mentions in the show so far. Adding his name would just confuse non-book readers when the desired effect of the scene was to blow people’s minds when it was revealed that Jon wasn’t Ned’s bastard. But of course, many of us have suspected that for over 15 years.
Josh: Yes, the whole R + L = J thing is important — like you said, it means Jon’s half-Stark, half-Targaryen, which could make things a little awkward when another Targaryen arrives in Westeros. (Will they fight? Will they f*ck? Will they do both? It’s hard to tell with this show sometimes.) But Game of Thrones making the theory official felt like David Benioff and D. B. Weiss throwing hungry book readers a bone. It’s been a rough season for people who used to lord knowing about the Red and Purple Weddings before they happened over their friends. Jon Snow’s lineage was basically all they had left, but now it’s gone; it’s everyone’s theory now. And it’s time to move on.
3. How the heck did Arya get back to Westeros so fast?
Ryan: There were a whole lot of characters moving around at a jetsetting pace this episode… or so it seemed. Just two weeks ago, Arya was in Braavos, which according to that map we see at the start of every episode is pretty far away. But suddenly, in this episode, she’s back in the Riverlands to take revenge on Walder Frey for the Red Wedding. And then there’s Varys, who not only showed up in Dorne this week, but also was back on Daenerys’ boats as she led her fleet from the newly-named Dragon Bay to Westeros.
These “jetpack” moments have been driving some viewers crazy, but the truth is none of these scenes are supposed to be taken in any kind of rigid chronological order. Over 20 minutes passed between Varys appearing in Dorne and Varys on the Narrow Sea, but much more time passed in the world of Westeros. Maybe the showrunners could do a better job of explaining the time jumps better, but characters do mention various events as being “years ago,” like Yara saying Theon suffered “some bad years” as Ramsay’s captive.
George R.R. Martin had to stick a “Note on Chronology” at the start of book three, A Storm of Swords, because as the story got more complex, we no longer got things in linear fashion. Instead, various characters jumped forward and slid back along the timeline as needed to keep things interesting and simplify a story where there’s dozens of characters all over the world. But if that all bugs you, don’t worry. It seems like everyone is finally meeting next season, so there may be less of these troublesome jumps to deal with.
Josh: I’m sure Bran having the ability to literally travel thousands of years without physically moving will clear things up. Actually, Game of Thrones should get extra timey-wimey and confusing next season. Remember in Interstellar, when Anne Hathaway & co. go to that tidal wave planet where every hour equals seven Earth years? I hope that happens to Daenerys. She finally makes her triumphant return to Westeros, except oops, she rode her dragon through a wormhole, and it’s actually 7,353 years in the future. King’s Landing is underwater, the Iron Throne is gone, and the only other person alive is Jorah Mormont. Because apparently that greyscale is never going to kill him. I think they can get 13 more episodes out of this premise.
4. After all that plotting, how bad did Littlefinger botch his proposal?
Josh: I can imagine a lot of characters on the Iron Throne. Jon Snow? Sure. Cersei? We saw it happen this episode. Daenerys? Hopefully! Tormund? In my Game of Thrones fan fiction, yes. But every time I try to picture Petyr Baelish up there, I, to paraphrase Ygritte, see nothing. Littlefinger’s the kind of guy who gets people on the Throne, not someone who actually sits on it. He’s shady as hell, in other words (never forget how he betrayed Ned Stark and helped the Lannisters, who, in turn, had Ned executed), and apparently has no chill. “Hm, there’s Sansa, who I gave away to that sadomasochistic Ramsay Bolton, quietly contemplating something next to a sacred weirwood tree,” Littlefinger thinks to himself, “now’s the perfect time for me to try to make out with her.” He got blocked worse than Andre Iguodala in the NBA Finals. (That makes Sansa LeBron James? I can live with this comparison.)
Does anything make your skin crawl as much as Littlefinger uncomfortably hitting on Sansa? I bet he’s really jealous of Hugh Jackman…
Ryan: The worst part about Littlefinger’s little speech is that it revealed him as the liar that he is. He claimed he wanted the Iron Throne with Sansa at his side, not the other way around. Everything he did, he did to try and make that happen. Yet one of the last things he did was marry Sansa off to Ramsay. Even if Ramsay wasn’t a monster, that’s not a move you make if you want to marry Sansa. So that makes it clear that he just wants the Iron Throne, and will do anything he can to win it. One moment, that meant selling Sansa off to the new power in the north. What will his next move be to try and further his power? Littlefinger once said chaos is a ladder, and he’s clearly willing to cause it to climb that ladder. He may not have given that speech to Sansa, but unfortunately for him, she probably understands that particular modus operandi well enough now regardless.
5. With new lines of power drawn all over the place, who’s got the upper hand coming into next season?
Ryan: Daenarys is coming back to Westeros, and it’s at the head of a fearsome army that includes the Unsullied, Dothraki, Ironborn, Martells, and Tyrells. That’s a pretty solid lineup right there, and I have to give props to Varys for masterfully pulling some heavy hitters from the major houses onto Team Targaryen. It’s always been a big question how Dany would be received as a foreign ruler with an army full of pillagers. But all of a sudden she’s in a great position to take the entire South, and she may not need to deploy her army too often to do so. As badass as Cersei looked in her new black queen costume (she must have raided Dark Sansa’s closet), she doesn’t have the alliances to back up her reign of terror. She just drove the Tyrells away and blew up the Game of Thrones equivalent of the pope. She’s ripe for toppling, and it won’t take much of a shove to get her there.
Josh: That’s the brilliance of Varys’ plan. He knew that cheering for the team with the horse lords and Ironborns that rape and pillage might result in a small fanbase. But add the respected and sympathetic Tyrells to the equation, and you’ve got yourself a team worth rooting for. Lord knows if I were on the show, I’d be rooting for Daenerys. For one thing, she didn’t get resurrected by the same person who burned a little girl at the stake. Also, she has dragons. Good enough for me. Then again, Lyanna Mormont is kind of the best… One thing’s for sure: Dany should marry Yara.
6. How would you rank this season compared to the other ones?
Josh: If I had to rank all six seasons, from worst to best, I’d go:
6. Season 1: It’s not bad, or anything; there’s Khal Drogo, after all. It’s just the hardest to watch now, considering everything that’s happened since. Have you tried reading the first Harry Potter book lately? I haven’t, because I don’t need 20 pages explaining what Quidditch is anymore. That’s season one.
5. Season 5 : Yes, “Hardhome” is amazing, and probably the best episode of the entire series, but season five is heavy on filler. The Sand Snakes, the fighting pits, Arya’s introduction to the House of Black and White, etc.
4. Season 2: There are some post-Ned Stark growing pains, but the second half of the season, particularly “Blackwater,” is stronger than the first. And the first is still pretty darn good.
3. Season 4: Two words: Oberyn Martell.
2. Season 6: The most technically impressive season yet was also nearly the best. Game of Thrones has never been more adept at juggling big explosions with smaller character moments. That’s trickier than it sounds.
1. Season 3: The Unsullied, Brotherhood Without Banners, the Hold Steady, the King Beyond the Wall, Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding, Jon Snow and Ygritte in the cave, and most importantly (and tragically), the Red Wedding — season three is still the high water mark, despite a merely-good finale.
What does your ranking look like?
Ryan: No offense, you idiot, but season one is my favorite, simply because it was so magical seeing the Song of Ice and Fire books come to life with such great production values and obvious loving care. The number of times I’ve had the things I love trampled into the dirt by a lackluster adaptation are too many to mention. (Jem and the Holograms, why!?!) Season one is also the most faithful to the books, which I’m a sucker for. All the rest of my rankings follow closely to how well they represented my favorite parts of the books, which makes ranking season six somewhat hard to rank.
I think I speak for many when I say it was better than expected, but not as good as it could have been. There was a certain straightforwardness to the events of this season that feels a bit out of place compared to the twists and turns we’ve learned to expect from the source material. Fans of the series fielded complex theory after complex theory as to what would happen next, only to have Occam’s Razor dash their sometimes extremely well thought out hopes and dreams in favor of a more simple solution or plot device.
Without George R.R. Martin’s words to draw from, some characters also seemed to suffer. While Tyrion has always been the master of the amusing quip, this season left him with little else to do other than drink and know things. Margaery went from being an adept player in the titular game to taking a backseat to her own doom, which is disappointing because her character was never fleshed out in the books, only in the show. So to have her botch her attempt to play the High Sparrow and then get blown up was a bit of a let down.
But these are all the gripes of someone who adores the books and the show. They’re like children who we think have infinite potential, so when we imagine they’re not living up to that, it is easy to get frustrated. But we still love our kids, and appreciate the things they get right. And Game of Thrones did a lot of things right this season. Most impressively, it managed to do what Martin has been struggling to achieve for several years now: Move the characters within striking distance of wrapping the entire storyline up.
Josh: I think that’s what impressed me the most about “The Winds of Winter,” and why I have the season as a whole near the top of my ranking. Call it a post-finale high, but despite not getting the ending I expected (I really thought the Wall was going to fall, courtesy of the Night King), I love how Benioff and Weiss set everything in place for the final 13 episodes. It’s a battle over power, and leading the charges you have Cersei, the complex villain that Ramsay never was; Jon Snow and Sansa in the north; and Daenerys, her dragons, and the anti-Lannister alliance between Dorne and the Queen of Thorns from the east. For the first time, it feels like all the main characters, particularly the women, are where they need to be. There’s little time left for stalling. This episode also did an admirable job of wrapping up the plots that served their purpose. David Bradley was an evil delight as Walder Frey, but there’s little reason for the show to keep him around — so Arya killed him. Same with the High Sparrow. They did what they needed to do (serve the plot), now it’s time to move on. Season seven can’t get here soon enough.