Going into the season 6 finale, I assumed that any episode following the exhilaration and brilliance of “Battle of the Bastards” would suffer from at least some measure of anticlimax, regardless of the quality of the episode itself. I am happy to report that I was sorely mistaken in my assumption. I was mistaken to the extent that I must concede that while “The Winds of Winter” was as dissimilar from “Battle of the Bastards” as two episodes could be in such a stylistically consistent series as Game of Thrones, it was absolutely on par with that installment in every respect save for action, which it obviously need not be because that wasn’t the focus of this episode, that being central to the aforementioned difference. Indeed, several aspects of this episode were stylistically unique for the series, not just in relation to the previous installment.
The first indication that this was not going to be just another episode was in the very first moments of the opening montage. Upon hearing those first piano notes on the score, I honestly thought that a cell phone had gone off or that some malfunction on the network or cable company’s end was causing something to pipe in the wrong soundtrack. Unless I am very much mistaken, this was the first time that instrument has been used this prominently on the score for Game of Thrones. The sequence was perfectly scored as usual by Ramin Djawadi, but the use of the piano felt completely foreign, almost invasive and the result was utterly chilling. The piano had the effect of ratcheting up the tension and suspense, not only because it provided and subsequently became a part of a beautiful rhythm for the sequence and how it was edited, but because the strangeness of the cue made one feel that they were in uncharted territory, that something monumental was going to happen.
The suspense of the sequence was underscored by the mundaneness of the activity dramatized. Just as Miguel Saphochnik, whom, with these last two episodes has now officially moved into the “Tim Van Patten class”of legendary HBO directors, described the titular “battle of the bastards” of the previous episode as a “pub brawl” in terms of his approach to the sequence in a behind the scenes feature, he uses similar terms to describe the section of the opening montage of “Winds of Winter,” referring to the various characters “getting ready for work.” It’s this type of approach to the material, using something simple and relatable from everyday life to anchor the action in a fantastical universe that makes Saphochnick such a great director for the series and is a large part of why the series is so dramatically effective in the first place.
One of the quintessential Hitchockian techniques is the way Hitchcock would call attention to seemingly innocuous objects by making them prominent in the frame in a way that was unmotivated by the actions of the characters or the course of the narrative on the surface level. It’s an incredibly effective way to build suspense for an audience because it tips them off to something the characters are unaware of for reasons that the audience can’t always quite explain. It almost functions as a sort of glitch in the audience’s perception of the narrative. One can find traces of this technique in the way Saphochnick called so much attention to things like Tommen’s crown, the High Sparrows vestments, Margaery’s painfully conservative garb, almost parodic in its modesty relative to her usual style, even post-“conversion,” and perhaps especially, Cersei’s heretofore unseen “iron Queen” costume. Here, again, is the “glitch,” so to speak, because the viewer is forced to ask themselves, “why the hell would Cersei wear something like this to her trial?” The brilliance of the montage, though, is that one quickly relegates that question to the back of one’s mind because of the misdirection of the continuing action.
Another notable aspect of the montage here is how infrequently this series features montages in the first place, relative to most other television dramas, especially for a show as highly stylized and cinematic as Game of Thrones. Starting an episode with such a stylized, operatic montage is yet another signal that something rather tectonic to the narrative is primed to occur.
All the more remarkable, and again, calling attention to it only to misdirect the audience once again, was that the montage was basically interrupted by Loras’s trial. The filmmakers were certainly right to sit still here, so to speak, because this scene on its own, tense and scoreless as it was, was incredibly effective in the nakedly cynical and sadistic brutality of the High Sparrow and his thugs in their humiliation of Loras. The way the scene was punctuated by the Sparrows carving the seven-pointed star into his forehead reminded me a bit of a prison rape in which the victim is branded or tattooed.
Loras’s general lack of dynamism and ambition has never inspired much devotion (at least for my part) to his character, but he’s certainly never been unlikeable. Frankly, the fact that he’s one of the few characters who hasn’t really wronged, betrayed, or acted with malice towards anyone is probably what makes him so run-of-the-mill in the first place. Still, I found myself feeling a tremendous amount of sympathy for Loras here (the closeup of him broken and despondent with his head hung as the blood dripped from his wound was especially devastating) and tremendous outrage at his captors; for just as Cersei was the victim of an institutionally imposed sexual assault at the hands of an angry mob at the conclusion of last season, Loras is the victim here of what can only be described by modern legal parlance as an anti-gay hate crime. This is made all the more tragic by the fact the he was only a pawn in this scenario. It’s yet another perfect example and representation of religious authority exploiting populist bigotry for its own political ends.
The concluding third of the opening sequence that commences with Loras’s punishment features several of my favorite beats of the series to this point, all of which built off of one another successively in an absolute masterstroke of screenwriting by the increasingly incomparable Dan Weiss and David Benioff that was executed to perfection by the actors involved, director Miguel Saphochnick, editor Tim Porter, and composer Ramin Djawadi.
Any doubt I might have had as a viewer that everybody in the Great Sept was as good as dead was dispelled when the Mountain blocked Tommen’s way out of his chambers, but I admit that the seedling of knowledge planted seasons ago by Jaime in his magnificent monologue revealing to Brienne the existence of the Mad King’s cache of wildfire beneath the sept had been relegated to the recesses of my mind. It wasn’t until the flicker of Lancel’s torch in the catacombs revealed that small bit of the cask after being led down by Qyburn’s whisperer that I realized exactly what was happening.
Again, the buildup in this sequence was utterly masterful, the tip of the dramatic spear being Margaery’s entreaties to the High Sparrow to evacuate the building. The way Jonathan Pryce scoffs at her when she tells the High Sparrow they all have to leave clues the viewer in perfectly to the undeniable notion that he has made his first misstep since his introduction and is quite clearly too blinded by arrogance and hubris to realize this in time. The beauty of the crescendo of the montage rests on that conflict. The first of the beats I mentioned earlier that absolutely made the sequence for me was when the situation became desperate enough for Margaery to finally rip off the facade of born-again piety when she shouted at the High Sparrow to “forget the bloody gods and listen to what I’m telling you.” What gave this moment added weight was the way one of the background actors in the master shot visibly flinched in reaction to Margaery’s exclamation.
The next beat that stuck out for me was the reveal of the wildfire to Lancel and the audience that was punctuated sublimely by the introduction of the organ into the score, yet another instrument not heard before on this series, building off the piano part in a way that felt so organic it almost came across as a naturally occurring event. The buildup to the explosion that follows, capped off by the next beat that stuck out to me, the intercutting between the High Sparrow and Margaery wherein the High Sparrow surveys the chaos that has engulfed the crowd in the sept unable to escape under his orders, Margaery glaring back at him from the barred door. There’s a moment of realization on the reverse of that shot where the High Sparrow seems to realize that he’s lost (its the classic “all is lost” shot). We next see him being engulfed in a deluge of green in an astoundingly well-edited explosion with some truly spectacular CGI.
The juxtaposition of Cersei and Tommen’s reactions is jarringly indicative of the gulf that has grown between those two characters. Cersei’s semi-orgasmic reaction to the explosion as she sips her wine and surveys the carnage from afar communicates pages worth of the inner workings of her character in a single image. From a survivalist standpoint, eliminating the Sparrows in one fell swoop is a no-brainer for Cersei, and the tactical efficiency of the atrocity she orchestrates in bombing the Great Sept is undeniable. What adds a truly dark and tragic layer to this, though, is the cruelty of the manner in which she effectively forces Tommen to experience the event for himself.
At first blush, it appears that Cersei is protecting her son by (one can assume) ordering the Mountain to bar Tommen’s way to the Sept, and of course, that is, in fact what the result is. However, one has to question why exactly she chooses this method to do so. I would argue that Cersei knew exactly how Tommen would react to this event, whether he witnessed it from his chambers in the Red Keep or not. Therefore, I do not think it a stretch to say that Cersei wanted him to witness it from a vulnerable and helpless position from which he is utterly unable to do anything about what’s happening to the woman he loves and has effectively chosen over his mother, going all the way back to him falling in love with Margaery in the first place and then being solidified by his coercion by her in aligning the Crown with the Faith and subsequently capitulating to the High Sparrow in outlawing trial by combat, a direct rebuke to Cersei which arguably forced her hand in eliminating the High Sparrow.
Having said that, and conceding that the bombing employed was no doubt the most efficient and spectacular means of assassination at Cersei’s disposal, there were myriad other ways of accomplishing the same result, many, if not most of which would not have involved eliminating Margaery in the process or directly traumatizing Tommen, which is precisely why, I would argue, Cersei chose not to employ those options. Margaery wasn’t collateral damage in an action against the Faith, she was an intended target. Cersei may not have known specifically that Tommen would kill himself in reaction to this, but she certainly knew how he would react generally and she chose to not be there to comfort him (or face his “wrath,” if he could muster it), instead choosing to savor the event for herself in what was, frankly, one of the more genuinely chilling and sinister moments of the series, even for Cersei. From an Oedipal standpoint, the bombing of the Great Sept by Cersei is every bit a punishment for Tommen for “replacing” her with Margaery as it is an action against the High Sparrow and the Faith.
Tommen’s suicide calls attention to the fact that considering what a bleak universe A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones is, there are remarkably few suicides in the series, if any, prior to Tommen. I can speculate as to why this could be but I’m not sure its serves much of a purpose to do so, because ultimately, it is rather unimportant why things don’t happen in a given narrative. It does add a bit of weight to the actual event of Tommen’s suicide, which was beautifully conceived and executed, making for an eerily elegant, tragic, and emphatic punctuation mark to a monumental opening sequence. The masterstroke in this last scene for me was the choice of overlapping the audio from the next scene of Walder Frey’s toast of “to house Lannister.” Being almost darkly comedic was one of the most legitimately poetic moments of the entire series.
The long-awaited occasion of “the Late Walder Frey” actually becoming the late Walder Frey at the hands of Arya draws some interesting direct links back to the finale of the previous season, an episode that featured Arya crossing the first name off her list in fittingly bloody fashion. With the elimination of another name from her list, Arya now officially becomes a serial killer, by definition. What makes this sequence so resonant for her character from the perspective of a viewer is that it’s both vindictively triumphant and extremely worrying if you care about Arya. The question going forward in her development is to what extent will she descend into darkness and at what cost relative to whatever else is going on with her character. Most entertaining for me with this scene was how much it reminded me of Sweeney Todd, with Arya filling the roles of Todd and Mrs. Lovett simultaneously, having slit Walder’s throat and baked a pie containing human remains.
Unsurprisingly, I loved the Winterfell material. The setup with Jon and Sansa on the battlements reminded me so much of a Wes Anderson shot that I laughed out loud when it came on screen. The scene obviously didn’t play out as humorously as most Wes Anderson scenes do, but it was just as well-played and heartfelt. Jon’s reaction to the news that winter has come is one of my favorite Kit Harington moments of the season.
However unsurprising the revelation of Jon’s true parentage was, the scene was still quite compelling and made for a great bridge into the “King In the North” scene, a scene so stirring and startlingly similar to the first one with Robb (but just different enough) that there is now little doubt in my mind at least, that Jon Snow will be murdered once again. Even if Jon wasn’t seemingly destined to die the way Stark men die, I don’t have a great deal of confidence in his reign in the North, because, as Tormund said to Davos in the previous episode, “Jon Snow is not a king.”
Amidst all the grandeur and spectacle this episode had to offer and delivered on, my favorite scene of the episode by far was the scene with Dany and Tyrion. The first thing that stood out to me here was that the actors were staged and the camera placed in a corner of the room we’ve never spent any time in, which was an inspired choice because the scene was unlike any of the scenes that have been set in that room to that point. It was a bit reminiscent of the scene one often sees in a number of series wherein the characters are leaving an office or home that’s been used at great length over the run of the series, and that’s basically what this scene was, the difference between this and most other series however, is that in the universe of Thrones this “office” the characters are leaving happens to be a giant pyramid.
This scene played almost like an answer, so to speak, to the scene from “Hardhome” (also directed by Miguel Saphochnik) last season where Dany and Tyrion speak alone for the first time and part of the beauty of the scene in this episode rests on how much the dynamic between the two of them has changed. In “Hardhome,” Tyrion was still Dany’s prisoner and Dany was defensive and a bit petulant, as she often is. It was essentially Tyrion’s “second interview.” By the time we get to the scene in “Winter,” Dany has come to trust Tyrion, their rapport is much more relaxed and familiar, even warm. Accordingly, the moment where Dany names Tyrion Hand of the Queen and almost bashfully bestows him with the badge she’s had fashioned for him was incredibly touching.
I’ve said this, in one way or another, several times in this space, but it bares repeating that Peter Dinklage is so celebrated and beloved an actor at this point and so consistently delivered great performances over the course of six seasons (he had more than proven himself an excellent actor long before Game of Thrones, but Tyrion is far and away the role of his career), one can almost forget what a truly gifted performer he is until he reminds you with these subtle, unwritable bits of acting that are truly flooring. His reaction to receiving the badge was one such moment and now joins my personal “Moments That Nearly Forced Me To Weep Openly While Watching Television” Hall of Fame.
Together, the two concluding episodes of season 6, are the crown jewel of what was, in my opinion, the best season yet of Game of Thrones, to this point, and the best season of of any series I’ve seen, excluding the anthologies True Detective season 1 and The People Vs. OJ Simpson, since the fourth season of Breaking Bad. I’m even prepared to say that I now hold Game of Thrones in as high esteem as The Wire and The Sopranos, something I considered unthinkable only a few years ago.
Besides the strength of the content on its own merit, the great achievement of season 6, in my opinion, is how cleverly the board has been set up for the conclusion of the series, and for a show that has so far accomplished the exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented, feat of steadily improving in quality with each successive season, that is a truly thrilling prospect to consider as a fan of the series.