Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. I have only read the first three books and I have no knowledge of what transpires in the show moving forward. Any views or content expressed are solely personal theories, opinions and insights.
THE WINDS OF WINTER
Put in the books…Season six is officially over, which means we have about a full year to wait until the return of Thrones. But if there was ever a season which delivered enough magic, enough surprise and enough excitement to last us until next season, this was it. And putting an exclamation point on this incredible season was the finale episode, The Winds of Winter, which delivered enough major plot-twists for multiple finale episodes. In past seasons, we would’ve gotten one major event in the finale episode to make us go “wow, that was amazing,” and hold us over until the following season. In this episode, we got four or five of those moments, seemingly one after the next. Cercei blowing up the Holy Sept of Baelor and killing all her enemies in one fell swoop, including basically all of House Tyrell. Oh, and doing it with wild fire no less. Tommen casually jumping out the window to his death. Jon Snow being declared King in the North. Cercei assuming the freakin’ Iron Throne. Arya revealing she’s already back in Westeros and taking out her enemies. After six years, Khaleesi is actually leaving Easteros to take what is hers — the Iron Throne of Westeros. Oh, and did we mention that Winter is officially here?
Any one of these events could’ve been enough to end the finale on, especially after last week’s epic Battle of the Bastards. But as season six came to an end, we didn’t get one major event, we got them all. Because whereas the objective of past seasons’ finales was to wind the show down and bring things to a close, the purpose of this finale was the exact opposite: to propel the show to all-time highs and position characters for the final lap ahead. That’s right, there’s not much left and the end is near. Likely split over two more seasons, we are looking at 12-14 more episodes total, and that’s it for Game of Thrones, folks. So there is no wind-down at this point. There is no deliberation or hiatus. We are in the thick of it now, full force, and The Winds of Winter pointed us in the direction we are headed.
But before we jump into a recap of the episode, let’s explore what the show is really about at this point. To date, Thrones has been about a lot of things: power, loyalty, war, love, vengeance, deception, to name a few. But as the show has evolved through the years, and now nears its end, what is it really about? As I asked myself this question and reflected back on the finale episode and this season as a whole, I thought about thing: survival. It was once about who could play the Game of Thrones, now it’s about who can survive it. In this finale episode, we saw three major characters who have survived and now risen to the top: Khaleesi, Cercei and Jon Snow, each of whom is now a King/Queen.
What is also interesting when thinking about the survival of characters is how dominant the females are as season six comes to a close. For a show that was often-criticized about the subjection of its female characters (which hit an all-time high last season after the rape of Sansa by Ramsay), it is now the females who are in positions of power and dictating the outcome of this story. Cercei has ascended the Iron Throne and is the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Khaleesi is the Mother of Dragons and commands an army of loyal followers that appears to be growing by the day. Yara, not Theon, is calling the shots for House Greyjoy and has joined up with Khaleesi. Arya is crossing names off her list in Westeros. Sansa won the battle against Ramsay and got her revenge, and also pushes off Baelish in this episode. In Dorne, it is the Tyrell and Martell females that convene to discuss their revenge against the Lannisters. Even Lyanna Mormont, an 11-year-old girl, appears more powerful than all the men of the North, as she reminds that House Mormont stands with House Stark and that the North remembers, ultimately swaying the other Northern houses to support the Stark cause. Even once-powerful men like Tyrion and Varys have now abandoned their personal endeavors to support the greater cause of a female character. In fact, when you stop and look around, it’s almost hard to name the major male characters that are really in the picture, other than Jon Snow. We’ve come a long way since the earlier seasons which covered the Battle of the Five Kings, mostly all males fighting for the Iron Throne. And now, winter is no longer coming. Winter is here.
DARKNESS IN KING’S LANDING
Many people, including myself, were predicting a possible death for Cercei in the finale episode. She was weakened by her walk of shame, never seemed to quite recover from it and appeared relatively powerless this entire season. And when trial-by-combat was ruled out, it looked like the end might be near for Cercei. Boy, were we wrong. The episode opens as we see various characters dressing for the trial. Margaery and Tommen both dress in regal garb, fit of a king and queen, while the High Sparrow throws on his minimalist robes. But Cercei is preparing for something entirely different, as she dresses in an all black piece that almost resembles armor. This entire segment, which was one of the longest we’ve seen, was accompanied by a beautiful piano arrangement called Light of the Seven by Ramin Djawadi, which can be heard in the video below. It was unlike any other music that has ever been played in an episode before, and captured a particular eeriness, hinting that something terribly out of the ordinary was going to happen. It was masterfully executed, and though I don’t think it’s worthwhile to compare the books to the show, since they’re both genius in different ways, this was an example of how music, and visuals and directorial vision can setup a major event that was to come in a way that the books never could.
As everybody stands around the Sept of Baelor, it is Queen Margaery who realizes that something is wrong after Cercei and Tommen both no-show. She warns that everybody must leave the Sept, but the High Sparrow’s stubborn faith gets the best of him as he instructs the Faith Militant to prevent anybody from leaving. Elsewhere, Maestar Pycelle is tricked into entering the tunnels below King’s Landing, as is one of the Faith Militant, Lancel Lannister, both of whom are stabbed by Qyburn’s little birdies. It’s unclear what Qyburn has done to these little peasant children or why children were needed to do the actual killing, and maybe we’ll find that out down the road, but we did see Qyburn with these children in an earlier episode this season, so we knew he was up to something. What we also saw a few episodes back, after Tommen declared that trial-by-combat would be illegal moving forward, was Cercei asking Maestar Qyburn whether the rumors were true, to which he responded that they definitely were, more so than she could even imagine. We now know that she was asking him about the wild fire, which she would use to blow up the Sept of Baelor and kill everybody inside.
Beyond the power of this scene and the way it unfolded, there are some very interesting takeaways. First, we got a glimpse of this wild fire explosion many episodes back in one of Bran’s visions, which very quickly showed the green flames engulfing the tunnels below King’s Landing (see photo below). So, Bran saw this before it actually happened, and so did we. This speaks volumes to other visions he may have of events that are yet to unfold, with the potential to stop them before they happen. Next, it is very powerful to consider that Cercei did the very thing that her brother killed the Mad King to avoid from happening. Going back to the Mad King Aerys Targaryen (Khaleesi’s father), when Robert’s Rebellion succeeded and the rebels arrived at King’s Landing, rather than surrender, the Mad King kept saying “Burn them all.” He was obsessed with wild fire and wanted to use the wild fire to blow up all of King’s Landing and burn everybody alive, rather than let the rebels usurp the Iron Throne. Though he was sworn to protect the king, Jaime put his sword through the Mad King’s back, and would forever be known as Kingslayer. He broke his sworn oath to protect the king in order to save tens of thousands of innocent lives who otherwise would’ve been burned alive. Ironically, years later, it is his own sister who ends up doing this very same thing, albeit in a more controlled fashion as to eliminate her enemies in the Sept of Baelor and not all of King’s Landing.
As Tommen looks on and sees the Sept explode into the sky, realizing everybody has just died, including his Queen Margaery, he is in total disbelief. He is just a boy — a boy that watched his older brother murdered when he was king and who then lost his sister to murder as well. His mother was locked away and then forced into a humiliating walk of shame. The High Sparrow and Margaery have been in his ear telling him to follow the Faith. Rumors swirl around about who his true parents are. Talk about stress — the things Tommen has dealt with since being a little boy are enough to drive anybody to suicide. So now, after watching the Sept explode, he’s had enough, and in an indifferent fashion, decides to simply fall to his death. This marks the third child that Cercei has lost, and unlike the murders of her first two children, Cercei has nobody to blame but herself for the death of Tommen. Interestingly, in the premiere episode of season five, we saw a flashback of Cercei as a child as she wanders into the woods to find a witch. The witch tells her of a prophecy in which all of her children would eventually die (see video below). Now, decades later, this prophecy has been fully realized and Cercei has lost all of her children. Well, at least most of the prophecy has been realized. The witch also tells Cercei that she will eventually be replaced by another queen, younger and more beautiful. It’s safe to assume that this will be Khaleesi.
Perhaps, in some ways, Cercei wanted Tommen to die, even if subconsciously. After all, as she stated so many times, her purpose in life was to protect and defend her children. Well, clearly she wasn’t so good at that. Or maybe, it was a greater drive that she had which outweighed her ability to truly protect her children. Maybe it was her undying quest for power. And after losing two-thirds of her children and sort of already losing the third to all the madness of King’s Landing, she was ready to rid herself of all her motherly baggage, which is in fact what happened. And now, free of any responsibility or burden to her children, Cercei is able to ascend the Iron Throne and take what is hers. Dressed in all black, the Throne Room looks darker than ever before, nobody daring to question her claim. She appears cold and ruthless, hardened by the deaths of her children and the torture she experienced at the hand of the Faith. Now that Cercei has taken the Throne, she’ll be free to pursue vengeance against the murderers of her children, namely the Martells of Dorne. But how will Jaime fit into this? He looked rather unpleased, if not shocked, at the scene he saw upon arriving back to King’s Landing. Perhaps, Cercei and Jaime’s union is starting to unravel, and maybe Jaime resists Cercei’s pull to the dark side.
KING IN THE NORTH
We get first glimpse of Jon Snow in the halls of Winterfell as he stands with Melisandre, moments before Davos storms in commands Lady Melisandre to tell Jon Snow what she’s done to Princess Shireen. Davos is more emotional and angry than we’ve ever seen him before and it is clear that he truly loved Princess Shireen like a father. Melisandre confesses to her crimes, but adds that she has only done what the Lord of Light commanded. Once again juxtaposing Melisandre’s faith to her god against Davos’ commitment to morality and reason, Davos exclaims “If your god commanded you to burn an innocent little girl, then your god is evil!” Davos appeals to Jon Snow and demands that Melisandre be executed, to which Melisandre tells Jon Snow that her work is not done. Clearly, Jon Snow believes this, and knows that he may yet need her down the road. He commands her to ride south, rather than executing her.
As Melisandre rides off, Jon Snow and Sansa stand atop the ramparts of Winterfell. Jon Snow acknowledges that it was Sansa who won the battle by securing the Knights of the Vale, but notes that they must trust each other moving forward. He tells her that he is not a Stark, and wishes for Sansa to be the Lady of Winterfell, rather than he. Sansa also tells Jon that a white raven has come from the Citadel and the Maestars have determined that winter is officially here. As if we didn’t already realize that the show is really reaching an all-time highpoint, we just got explicit confirmation — after six years of waiting, winter has now come.
Standing beneath a weirwood tree, Sansa tells Baelish that she no longer prays and is done with the gods. As they discuss what it is that Baelish really wants, a question we would all love answered as well, Baelish tells Sansa that he wants to sit on the Iron Throne as king with Sansa as his queen. As he goes into kiss her, she pushes him off and tells him that it’s a “pretty picture.” Again, we see that Sansa is not a naive child and will not be easily manipulated. But more importantly, we finally hear Baelish explicitly reveal what he wants, which is ultimate power. Throughout the last six seasons, there have been breadcrumbs along the way which have pointed us in the direction of Littlefinger’s true intentions. In the very first season, Baelish has a conversation with the keep of his whorehouse in King’s Landing, and he retells the story of how he challenged Brandon Stark (Ned’s older brother) to a duel, to win the love of Catelyn Tully. He lost that duel to the much fiercer Stark warrior and was badly embarrassed and injured that day. “You know what I learnt losing that duel? I learnt that I’ll never win. Not that way. That’s their game, their rules. I’m not going to fight them: I’m going to fuck them. That’s what I know, that’s what I am, and only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” When she asks him what it is that he wants, he responds “Oh, everything, my dear. Everything there is.” Littlefinger has also often referenced investments he has made, some good and some bad, in an effort to achieve his means. In an earlier season, Varys also noted “Baelish would let the whole country burn if he could be king of the ashes.” And finally, years later, he comes right out and tells Sansa what he wants — the Iron Throne with her beside him.
Later, in Winterfell, the remaining houses of the North gather and Jon Snow makes his case for their support. Winter is here and the North will be the front line against the White Walkers that are coming — nobody knows this better than Jon Snow. Still, the Northern houses have doubt and express uncertainty about once again supporting House Stark. Lyanna Mormont, not only the only female in the room (besides Sansa), but also youngest in the room, delivers a passionate speech noting that House Mormont stands with House Stark and that the North remembers. Houses Manderly and Glover are moved by her words and pledge their support of House Stark, declaring Jon Snow the King in the North. Before long, the whole hall is shouting for Jon Snow as King in the North, much the way they once did for Robb Stark — hopefully this one has a better ending.
Certainly, Jon Snow will be a much different kind of king. He has no interest in the Iron Throne or petty battles — his eyes are set on defending humanity from the army of the dead. Moreover, he’s seen a lot and experienced much more than his brother Robb ever did, including dying and being brought back from the dead. Jon Snow now has the beginning of an army, but it’s unclear how Sansa feels about this. Just moments before, he was telling her that it should be her who leads House Stark, not him. Sansa exchanges a glance with Baelish, who quietly observes like a fly on the wall. The look they exchanged was almost as if Baelish was saying “Hey, my offer is still on the table. I am still on the quest for power and you can share that quest with me, rather than going back to being the sister of the King in the North.” We’ll have to wait until next season to see how this all unfolds, but to see Jon Snow brought back from the dead, defeat Ramsay to reclaim Winterfell and now to be declared King in the North with House Stark finally supported again by the other Northern houses, is a welcomed and long-awaited turn of fortune for the Starks. And let’s not forget, both Bran and Arya are not not too far away from Winterfell.
After not having seen Dorne since the first episode when the Sand Snakes executed Prince Doran, we are taken back to the southernmost region of Westeros, where Lady Olenna Tyrell is convening with the Sand Snakes. Lady Olenna has basically lost everything, including her son and two grandchildren, with no apparent heir to Highgarden. She makes it clear that all the world can offer her is revenge. Perfect timing, as Varys enters the scene, offering fire and blood. The Martells and Tyrells both have a common enemy in the Lannisters, namely Cercei. Luckily for them, the Lannisters are also the enemy of Khaleesi (it was Jaime who killed her father and Lord Tywin who orchestrated much of the rebellion). So, Varys offers the Martells and Tyrells to join Khaleesi’s cause, with the promise of imminent revenge.
This is an extremely significant development for Khaleesi’s camp, which was already in great shape with three dragons, a wise and loyal small council, armies of the Dothraki and Unsullied, support of House Greyjoy and 100 ships to travel to Westeros. Now, Khaleesi has landed the support that she’ll need when she finally arrives to Westeros. And not just any support. House Tyrell is the wealthiest and largest house in all of Westeros, making them an incredibly important asset to Khaleesi. The support of the fierce Dornish people is also very valuable, but not as valuable as their land. Dorne is the southernmost region of Westeros, isolated from all the other kingdoms, making it a great landing place for Khaleesi, her dragons and her army. Outside of Dorne, there are not many places on Westeros Khaleesi could land without being thrown right into conflict with other houses. But because Dorne is so far removed from the rest of the continent, it makes the most ideal landing place. It is also interesting to note that during Aegon’s Conquest 300 years ago, Aegon was able to conquer and unite six of the Seven Kingdoms, with Dorne being the only one he was unable to hold. The reason being that it was too far from the rest of the continent, proving too difficult to conquer. It wasn’t until many years later that Dorne became the seventh kingdom through an arranged marriage between Houses Martell and Targaryen. Unlike Aegon, the first Targaryen to conquer the land of Westeros, Khaleesi is now entering Westeros with an alliance with the Martells of Dorne, which should prove hugely valuable to her conquest of the Iron Throne.
ONE MORE NAME OFF THE LIST
As Walder Frey continues to gloat upon his recent successes, Jaime reminds him that it was House Lannister that was responsible for these victories, and that House Frey is dispensable. Proving this true, moments later, we learn that Arya is not only back in Westeros, but is crossing names off her kill list. And, even more, she made sure to grab some faces from The House of Black and White before she left Braavos. Arya killed the two Frey sons and cooked them into a pie that she fed to Walder. She reveals all of this just moments before slitting his throat.
Besides the awesomeness of seeing Arya back in Westeros and avenging the deaths of her family murdered in the Red Wedding, there was another layer to the way she did it, which goes back to a season three episode in which Bran told the story of the Rat Cook. According to legend, thousands of years ago, a King once visited a castle of the Night’s Watch. During his stay, the King offended members of the Night’s Watch, and as revenge, the cook killed the king’s son, baked him into a pie and served the pie to the king. The king enjoyed the pie so much that he asked for a second helping. The gods punished the cook by turning him into a giant rat, forced to run the halls of the castle and eat his own offspring. According to Bran, the gods were not offended by the murder or even by the cook feeding the king his own son. Rather, the gods could not forgive the ancient law of guest right which the cook had violated. This scared law dictates that a person shall commit no harm to any other person who’ve they’ve taken in as their guest. Bran tells, “It wasn’t for murder the gods cursed the Rat Cook, or for serving the King’s son in a pie… he killed a guest beneath his roof… that’s something the gods can’t forgive.” Many years later, Walder Frey would commit this very same crime as he brutally murdered the Starks who he had taken in as his guests. Rather than just killing him, Arya feeds his sons to him, an allusion back to the story of the Rat Cook and the violation of guest right. It will be interesting to see what comes next for Arya. She is as close to home as she has ever been, but something tells me she’s not quite ready to journey back to Winterfell just yet.
Still north of the Wall, Benjen tells Bran that he cannot join him south as he cannot pass under the Wall. He reminds us of what we’ve heard before: the Wall was built with powerful magic of the Children of the Forest, preventing the dead White Walkers from passing through. Benjen confirms that he is in fact considered dead as he cannot pass under the Wall. So, he will go his separate way and continue to fight off the dead for as long as he can. The reunion between Bran and Benjen was short-lived, but we will likely see Benjen again at some point.
As Bran looks up, he sees a weirwood tree, the magical trees of the Children of the Forest, and he goes to connect with it. Before he does, Meera questions if he is ready, to which he responds that he is now the Three Eyed Raven and he must be ready. This statement can be taken figuratively, as he is now taking on the responsibilities of the Three Eyed Raven. But, maybe it can also be taken literally. What if Bran actually is the Three Eyed Raven? What if they are the same person? The Three Eyed Raven that we saw in the show could be Bran thousands of years in the future, coming back to guide a younger version of himself along his journey to save the world. After all, The Three Eyed Raven stayed propped up in his tree and we never saw him move, just like Bran cannot move. So, maybe Bran and the Three Eyed Raven literally are the same person.
In any event, Bran’s vision takes him to the final reveal of the Tower of Joy, where the younger Ned ascends the tower to find his sister Lyanna, bloody and dying. After many years of hearing about Lyanna, we finally get to see her. Before she passes, she tells Ned that she must take her baby and protect him. If they figure out who he really is (a Targaryen), they will kill him, she says. And just like that, we get confirmation of the most popular fan-theory, R+L=J (Rhaegar Targaryen + Lyanna Stark = Jon). This might not have come as a shock, since it was in fact such a popular fan theory. But, this is arguably the most important reveal that we’ve seen in the entire six seasons. The implications of this reveal are huge.
First, we now understand that Ned raised Jon to be his own, even though he in fact was not. This point backs to the nobility of Ned’s character and what a great man he was. So much so, that he made up a story which reduced his character, claiming that he had a relation with a whore who gave birth to the bastard Jon Snow. Of course, when you consider Ned’s character, this story never made any sense, as his defining characteristic was his moral character. What’s more, his wife Catelyn always resented Ned for this, and every time she saw Jon Snow, she was reminded of this “affair” that Ned had. She hated Jon Snow so much because of this. In reality, none of it was true. Ned never had an affair and Jon wasn’t a bastard. But Ned had to protect Jon Targaryen. If anybody found out he was Targaryen, especially Robert Baratheon, he would have immediately been killed.
So, looking back, it’s pretty powerful to think of everything Ned did to protect Jon Snow. But, looking forward, there’s even more to consider. First, like we said, Jon is a Targaryen. Moreover, he’s half Stark as well, which is quite genetic makeup, arguably the two greatest families. He could be the link between uniting the strength of the North with the power of his Aunt Khaleesi and her Targaryen bloodline. Yes, Khaleesi is Jon’s aunt (her older brother, Rhaegar, was Jon’s father). And perfect timing as Khaleesi is headed to Westeros with her dragons and all. Naturally, this begs the question of when Jon will find out who he is and what type of union might follow between Khaleesi and Jon. But, this also debunks the idea that Jon is Ned’s son, which weakens his claim as King in the North. It was this very episode that Lyanna Mormont stated that Jon had Ned’s blood running through his veins, which we now know to be false. All in all, this was a mind-blowing reveal which will have a huge impact on what is to come.
In Mereen, Khaleesi makes the difficult decision to leave Daario behind to protect the city of Mereen. She notes that in order to make allegiances, she may have to marry, and having him around would be a liability. Even after a heartfelt plea, she remains stone-cold and commands him to stay behind. As she convenes with Tyrion, we learn that this was his advice, to which she once again listened. Quicker than anybody before him, Tyrion has had a major influence on Khaleesi and she continues to value his counsel. Tyrion and Khaleesi have a wonderful exchange, in which she expresses doubt and fear for what is to come next, but he reassures her that he believes in her more than anything in his life. She formalizes their relationship by naming him Hand of the Queen. In a world where nothing is as it seems and peoples intentions have to be constantly questioned, the support that Tyrion and Varys were offering Khaleesi was not necessarily 100% pure. But now that Tyrion has become Hand, we get the feeling that Tyrion is going to be by her side until the end, as one of the wisest strategists and politicians in the world.
And as if all of this was not enough to end the episode on, we get one final truly epic scene, in which Khaleesi and her entire following finally departs Mereen. For six seasons we have seen her endure to build the army and following of loyalists that she has today. She never forced anybody to join her cause; rather they all saw her greatness and made the decision to follow. And now, all united, they head for Westeros, stronger than ever before. Fire and blood will surely be coming….