Warning: spoilers from season six ahead.
The Great Gothing of Westeros
Did you see the season six finale of Game of Thrones? More specifically, did you see the "previously on" segment, beginning with an odd cold open consisting of the mass casualties and costly triumphs of "The Battle of the Bastards" set to Wagnerian strains? What about the following overture, which recapped the slaughter in Dorne, integrated a now/then Ned Stark fade, and reiterated the season's most death-metal lines ("Open the gates," "Our fathers were evil men," "Your reign is over")—in short establishing the operatic, elegiac mood that would run through the rest of the episode?
Or, if you've already rewatched it, did you catch that the orrery-looking contraption that floats above Westeros in the show credits actually made an in-show appearance in the library of Oldtown? How about the silent slow-build of dressing Cersei, King Tommen, Queen Margaery, and the High Sparrow in their confrontation-duds in silhouette?
I'm asking because the uncanny gravitas of "The Winds of Winter" seemed to be in place even before the story actually began and also because I know people get very prickly about spoilers and I want to give everybody a opportunity to reverse course and resist scrolling down if, perchance, you have not actually seen the episode in question, given that it dropped its bombs immediately and obliterated the setting as we've come to know it throughout the prior 59 episodes.
Not to mention killing off nine name characters (counting that mean nun, who I realize was left to die off-screen). Because oh man, was that shit ever hard. In this almost feature-length finale, we opened with a sequence of unheard-of continuity and focus attended by a lovely piano tinkle that seemed to underscore the audience's powerless to alert the folks in King's Landing to the imminent catastrophe. We watch the crowd enter the Sept for the trials of Loras and Cersei (which seems relevant since we so seldom see extras congregate but rather join them in progress) and immediately suspect that none of these people are going to leave again, though the first trial goes off without a hitch, other than Loras being awarded a very goth hexagram right on his forehead. His vows are all the more profound knowing that the Knight of the Flowers will never have the opportunity to keep or stray from them, and that the great gothing of Westeros will continue throughout the episode, as character after character—Cersei, Daenerys, Sansa, Arya—choose darkness.
Grand Maester Pycelle is the first to get the knife, as it were, murdered in the catacombs beneath the Sept by the "little birds" nurtured by his rival, the gentleman-necromancer Qyburn. Well, it was a good run (and for those keeping track, venerable actor Julian Glover has now been felled by Rebel forces, James Bond, Indiana Jones, in addition to this jumped-up St. Thomas More).
Milquetoast-turned-penitent Lancel follows, as though craving death's revelations, another knifey street urchin into the leaking stockpile of Hulk-green wildfire that soon ignites, destroying Mace, Loras, and Margaery Tyrell, the High Sparrow and his followers, Kevan Lannister, and an unknown score of innocent jurors and spectators. Many of these characters seemed like they still had more to do and their mass immolation registers as a shocking loss (even though we've actually seen it before, in Bran's visions). The scene's power is only slightly undercut by Cersei's WWF promo-style braggadocio over the captive Sister Unella and the tease of Mountain-stein removing his helmet while keeping his face hidden in the shadows (did HBO forget to include a Smell-o-vision option for that rotting flesh?). Still, it only seems proper to mourn the crippling fall of a great House and a major antagonist—not to mention poor Tommen, who walks out one of the Red Keep's windows in despair—while observing this public service announcement: People, know what is in your basement and adopt a healthy fear of it.
Vengeance, Justice, Fire, and Blood
Even with such an opening, the rest of the episode is hardly downhill. Jaime sulks opposite vulgar Charles Dickens-reject Walder Frey, unable to celebrate a victory that came at the expense of the honor that we know he sees in Brienne. Samwell Tarly and his family arrive at the Citadel only to be greeted with the usual academic red tape: The arch-registrar needs him to meet with the arch-admissions officer to make sure he's good for the loans and send for a letter of recommendation from Castle Black before he enrolls in a new major, et al. But it's a minor inconvenience for Sam, whom John Bradley-West plays as jolly comic relief amidst the Sturm und Drang, and whose wonder at the massive library is a touching moment of recognition for any bookish type who recalls visiting their university's library or a big-city bookstore for the first time. Part of me hopes this is the last we see of Sam until the last scene of the series, when he finishes his debut novel and turns to the camera with a George R. R. Martin beard and ruined eyesight to remark, "Well, it may have taken me more than 20 years and numerous lapsed deadlines, but it certainly was a Game of Thrones."
For once, it's sort of a joy to see Dorne, as Lady Olenna Tyrell, in full mourning regalia, says everything to the odious Sand Snakes that we've been dying to say, and Varys makes his grand entrance with an implicit proposal of alliance with the Targaryen invading armada (which, like a game of Risk that's been played until three in the morning, suddenly throws nearly all our surviving non-Stark protagonists into desperate league with Daenerys). As for the Queen of Dragons herself, she finally has the runtime for a couple of plum, talky, and (as always) wine-heavy scenes with Daario and Tyrion that manage to challenge gender roles, communicate the sorrow of choosing ambition over personal desire, and surprise us with Tyrion's earnest faithfulness—in a man to whom faith was previously an absurd notion—in Daenerys.
These meaty moments of human sweetness are washed down with a modicum of fan service, particularly when Arya surfaces in the Twins and finally takes her revenge on Walder Frey after baking at least two of his sons into a pie and feeding them to him. But, you ask, how did she manage to subdue the entire court long enough to undertake such daring culinary maneuvers without accomplices? And how did Varys manage to be in both Dorne and at the mast of Daenerys's flagship simultaneously? Come to that, how did Olenna receive word of her family's demise and hoof it to Sunspear between scenes? To these excellent queries, I recommend the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra of old: Repeat to yourself: It's just a show, I should really just relax.
Winter Is Here
As much as a relief it is to see the non-sequitur Daenerys-in-Racistan scenes finally integrated into the Westeros plot, the pillars of the show have always been the Lannisters and the Starks. And yet the biggest threat to both houses are seldom each other and frequently the divisions within their own ranks. In Winterfell, Davos and Jon exile Melisandre and Littlefinger coaxes a hint of plausible malice from Sansa, from whom I believe we can expect something of a Dark Phoenix period from given her Mona Lisa smile at the death of Ramsay and her seeming ambivalence at Jon being declared the King in the North.
Game of Thrones is at its best when using its fantasy coating to address the complexity of contemporary relationships regardless of the genre's usual lawful good/chaotic evil distinctions. Sansa's toxic relationship with Baelish is probably unparalleled in depicting a person dually aware of how manipulative power is leveraged and of the truth, and attraction, of that power. And the powerless want power, naturally: Sansa has only known suffering and yearns for control over a destiny hitherto dictated by men; Baelish, of course, wants a love so vast that an entire continent couldn't fill the void. The same is true for Cersei, who ends the episode as an evil queen, in evil epaulets, as her beloved Jaime gazes on, the very portrait of "I'm not so sure about this, your majesty."
There's something very nice about the fact that Bran's vision confirming Jon's trueborn parentage—a much bandied-about "major mystery" that we've seen through all along—is neither perfunctory nor treated like the most profound moment in the episode. Throughout this season, even while granting fan wishes, dispatching extraneous characters, and dodging back to dangling plotlines, the show really rewards viewers by the attention in pays to the minutiae of storytelling. And so, in this hour and change we were allowed to delight in minor figures like Lyanna Mormont, parse out narrative congruities like Jon's assumption of Robb's "King in the North" rallying cry, and feel flattered by details like Cersei's new Lion-motif crown or the newly painted sails of Daenerys's fleet embarking to the accompaniment of dragons and a nutty choral arrangement.
It's rumored that the last two seasons will only be six or seven episodes a piece and, if the showrunners intend to use "Winds of Winter" as model for those episodes, I see no problem whatsoever. This caps a mixed bag of a season in the best way possible, by leaving us with the sense that this story is an important one and that we are all somehow participants in the fortunes of its heroes, its villains, and the majority who, like us, find themselves slotted somewhere between. Depending on the season.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.