Given the real-life political events sandwiching this season’s finale of Game of Thrones, there was a risk that the episode could actually have been underwhelming. ‘The Winds of Winter’ proved to be the exact opposite. As well as being the show’s longest ever episode at 69 minutes, it may also have been its finest and most overwhelming. Not only did a dozen established characters meet their end via assassination, suicide, or burning, but one of the series’ greatest mysteries, stemming all the way to the debut novel’s 1996 release, was finally answered.
In short: In King’s Landing, Cersei decided to avoid trial for her crimes by blowing up the Sept of Baelor, where her trial was to take place resulting in Tommen committing suicide and Cersei’s accession to the Iron Throne; Jon and Sansa fortified their position in Winterfell with the former being declared the new King in the North; Daenerys finally set sail for Westeros, with Tyrion has her hand and allied with the Greyjoys, Martells and Tyrells; Arya completed revenge for the Red Wedding by murdering Walder Frey; and Bran revisited the Tower of Joy using greensight to find that Jon Snow is not actually the son of Eddard, but is the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. As implied, there’s a lot going on here.
Simply, the King’s Landing sequences were extraordinary. Cersei knew that if she stood trial then she would lose and be called out for the murder of King Robert, incest with Jaime and numerous other crimes. Expectations geared toward her demanding a trial by combat were thwarted two episodes earlier by King Tommen outlawing the practice. With such a strong militant force, Cersei was going to have to pull out all stops to avoid more humiliation or possibly death at the hands of the leading High Sparrow. There had been two seasons of build up with the High Sparrow’s undermining of Cersei’s authority which at times seemed to drag or appear anti-climactic, but the payoff that the fans were rewarded with in this episode made it all worthwhile. Ticking every box for the oncoming awards season, acting was strong, direction was flawless, the visual effects were stunning and a special mention should go to Ramin Djawidi’s musical score. Often overlooked among all the drama, the ominous music, littered with unpredictable pauses, was hypnotising and put the audience even more on edge as the full picture of what exactly was happening was painted. There were some confusing elements to the sequence. It’s not really made clear why Pycelle and Lancel had to be lured away by the Birds to meet their end, though it served the purpose of demonstrating their brutality under Qyburn’s mentorship and added build-up to the explosion. In the aftermath, Tommen commits suicide, a move which might be surprising, but on reflection is oddly poignant given that with Joffrey, Cersei, Margaery and the High Sparrow in his life, it’s probably the most autonomous action the King has ever done. Stooped in darkness and without rivalry, Cersei moves from Queen Regent to the ruling Queen, though what’s left to rule is a different question. Jaime is clearly perturbed by this and followers will know that she has executed the action that, when commanded by the Mad King, triggered Jaime’s darkest deed. There may have been no direct confrontation straight away because it’s hard to imagine what Jaime could actually say at this point.
In the wake of last week’s stunning ‘Battle of the Bastards’, Jon and Sansa deserved a calm episode. While calmer, they still faced difficult decisions. Sansa has to honour that the battle against the Boltons was won due to Littlefinger’s support but Littlefinger asks for too much in return and attempts to turn her against Jon. Jon has to honour that Melisandre was responsible for resurrecting him and is still coming to terms with his ambivalence toward her god while dealing with the revelation she was partly responsible for the burning of Shireen Baratheon. Both Jon and Sansa seem to make the right choice, exiling Melisandre and rebuffing Littlefinger respectively, but as Jon is triumphantly declared King in the North in a scene echoing their brother Robb’s crowning in season one, it is clear that they face challenges ahead, with Sansa going largely unnoticed by the Northern clans despite her efforts in declaring the war and winning the battle.
With less screen time came Bran and Arya’s storylines. Arya has quickly made it to Westeros and, as was previously affirmed, became a lot more watchable having left the House of Black and White. Under the guise of a serving girl, Arya infiltrate’s Walder Frey’s home and having fed him his own sons baked into a pie, quickly dispatches the cowardly tyrant that had been responsible for her brother and mother’s death. Her scene is short and to the point and serves more as a taste as to what she will do now having committed to the identity of Arya Stark but with all the skills of a Faceless Man. Bran’s scene comes across as double-edged, in part to demonstrate he is getting close to the Wall and that he can still use greenvision, but also so that Ned’s experiences at the Tower of Joy can be revisited. It’s all but explicitly confirmed that Jon is the illegitimate child of Rhaegar and Lyanna, given that Lyanna insists Robert Baratheon must never know of the child’s existence and the cut-scene from a very moody baby close-up to a typically moody Jon close-up. The element of doubt still remaining was frustrating but likely a move to give fans material for debate in the interim period between seasons.
Daenerys finally sets sail for Westeros, breaking ties with lover Daario Naharis, affirming political allegiance from Tyrion Lannister and realising that she is ready to leave her humanity behind in favour of her conquering ambition. Through Varys’ machinations she has already got some loyalty from Westeros and with dragons, ships and an army in tow, her closing the episode effectively raised anticipation for the next season.
The episode came across as high-quality but also very functional. It sought to streamline and converge subplots so that from early next season, most of the action will revolve around Cersei, Jon and Daenerys as heads of the three major powers left in the build up to the White Walker invasion. This resulted in a very fast pace which didn’t always match the tone of other episodes, but that’s not a major problem as the series often dwells on some events and glosses over others. There was a sense of resolution and momentum toward the final quarter of the show as the Starks were back in Winterfell, Arya has found her direction, Cersei has achieved her biggest dream and worst nightmare and Daenerys is ready to achieve what she’s seen as her life purpose. With this episode, winter is here.