Game of Thrones: The Head That Wears the Crown

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Winds of Winter,” the tenth and final episode of the sixth season.


Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz discussed the new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments. (David Sims is filling in for Christopher Orr for this week’s finale.)

David Sims: For six seasons, Game of Thrones has been promising the future: Daenerys the conqueror, glorious Stark revenge, Cersei’s cup of madness running over. Well, it took its time, but the future is finally here, in all its grim glory. “How about the fact that this is actually happening?” Tyrion asked Daenerys midway through this super-long finale episode, and I, for one, appreciated the reminder. After many false starts and narrative detours, there was a tremendous sense of momentum to “The Winds of Winter,” a feeling of ends being tied up and of story threads dovetailing in satisfying fashion, with plenty of murder and darkness mixed in, of course. I loved it.

Part of the appeal of George R.R. Martin’s series has been his efficient subversion of every fantasy trope and his unwillingness to navigate toward easy, heroic conclusions for his characters. That conundrum has seemingly tripped him up as he tries to write the end of his book saga, but make no mistake: Game of Thrones is coming to an end, with the long-awaited sight of Dany’s fleet of warriors (Dothraki, Unsullied, and Westerosi among them) serving as epic punctuation to an episode filled with closure. For all the misery of “The Winds of Winter” (and there was plenty), there was also plenty to wonder at, from Sam beholding the glorious Citadel of the maesters (a solid Hogwarts knock-off) to the multi-colored banners of Daenerys’s new navy.

How about that misery, though? There was a haunted quality to Ramin Djawadi’s piano score in the opening montage, as many crucial characters dressed for the final time, but once Cersei donned her scaly leather armor (looking straight out of Dune), I steeled myself for the worst. Cersei’s story has always been two-fold: She’s a political chess player who wrongly thinks she’s one move ahead of everyone else, and she’s a fearsome mother who wants to protect her children without quite knowing how. Her wildfire plan was perfectly simple—how better to rid yourself of your enemies (RIP, Margaery) than by blowing them all up at once? But it sealed her fate as a Mad Queen worthy of the vacated title, and the price she paid (Tommen’s tragically shot, silent suicide) felt dreadfully appropriate.

No wonder there was a funereal sense to the coronation scene, with Cersei still clad in black—she finally has power back, but talk about a poisoned chalice. Her kids are all dead (she couldn’t even bother with a proper burial for Tommen), Jaime looks ready to turn against her, and her seat of power is a smoldering wreck. A side note: Why do any nobles still bother to live in King’s Landing at this point? You’d think when the ruling queen blows up one of the landmarks and roasts half the royal court inside it, that’d nudge you into hunting for real estate in sunnier shores. Perhaps Oldtown? Things seem peaceful over there, even if the Citadel desk clerks are a bit persnickety.

A much more enjoyable bloodbath came up at The Twins, where Walder Frey met an end just as awful as the one he provided for Robb and Catelyn Stark, munching on his own sons (in pie form) before getting his throat cut by Arya. Yes, it was a little clean from a storytelling perspective, but why else would you have the viewer suffer through two years of assassin camp? Seeing the Starks begin to reunite on the same continent had the same emotional impact as seeing Daenerys’s fleet—Arya may still lurk in the shadows, and Bran might stick to hanging out by the weirwood trees, but there’s just something reassuring about having them all (minus Robb and Rickon) closer together.

Then again, the finale also brought a quiet coup at Winterfell as Jon Snow was seemingly legitimized by popular demand, crowned the new King in the North simply for his military prowess. The ambiguous note of that triumph was thudding, but necessary. I maybe didn’t need the knowing glances from Littlefinger (he’ll never stop scheming, no matter how many times Sansa politely declines his hand in marriage), but I did tense up at the idea that Jon should ride to glory mostly thanks to his gender after he basically blew his grand battle with the Boltons. Also, part of his appeal as a great hero in Martin’s narrative is his experience with the Free Folk, and the great empathy it gives him for the people of Westeros beyond their family allegiances—I don’t want him to lose that once he’s swaddled in the robes of a king.

But perhaps it’s inevitable, because “The Winds of Winter” also canonically sealed the long-running theory about Jon’s parentage by finally revealing just what happened at the Tower of Joy. Young Ned, indeed, found his sister Lyanna near death, bleeding out after what seemed like a medieval Caesarean section, and was made to promise not to tell Robert that the child was fathered by Rhaegar Targaryen, the oldest son of the Mad King. “The Winds of Winter” was already wrapping things up, so it made sense for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to make it official by acknowledging the truth of “R+L=J.” I appreciated the artfulness of the info-dump—Lyanna’s repeated “Promise me, Ned,” and the cut from that baby’s black eyes to Jon’s haunted stare—but more than anything, the scene felt like a gleeful thumbs-up to the audience.

That’s fine. The sixth season of Game of Thrones has sometimes struggled to justify the existence of its weird side-plots as it barreled toward a conclusion, and there were some threads that will feel incomplete forever (again, RIP Margaery). Others may get picked up again next season (the Hound is still floating around). But the trade-off is the sheer glee that comes from watching the big puzzle pieces finally fall into place. Lenika and Spencer, were you similarly satisfied customers?

Lenika Cruz: For years, fans have asked Game of Thrones for a scene of Daenerys Targaryen sailing to Westeros. And, in turn, Game of Thrones refused the call—but no longer. As you noted, David, “The Winds of Winter” delivered several major payoffs in the span of 70 minutes (rendered in gorgeous scene after gorgeous scene, thanks to the director Miguel Sapochnik). This was a finale that reminded us at every turn that a distinctly new era has arrived: Qyburn’s flock of little birds stabbing the wizened old Grand Maester Pycelle to death. Littlefinger telling Sansa, “The past is gone for good.” Jon Snow being crowned the “White Wolf” years after the death of his brother, the “Young Wolf.” Olenna railing against Cersei, who “stole the future” from her.

But even the new couldn’t help but feel, well, old—or at least cyclical—at times. The Red Wedding-er was dispatched in a Red Wedding-y fashion. A bunch of Northern lords (and a lady) had a “King in the North!” cheer session. Littlefinger asked Sansa to be his partner in crime and life, again. Dany rode triumphantly in some direction with a giant army. Dany also said “Boy, bye,” to yet another decent man who professed his love for her. Jon sent away Melisandre as an act of mercy, like Dany did with Jorah, or Ned with Cersei. Cersei endured the loss of yet another family member. The show got yet another terrible occupant on the Iron Throne who believes in the cleansing power of wildfire.

Though “The Winds of Winter” repeatedly hit on these familiar beats, it never quite felt repetitive. Just as the same seasons come every year and bring something slightly different each time, each subtle re-tread in the finale felt meaningful, even necessary. Patterns and similarities between different characters took on greater poignancy: Both Arya and Cersei promised their victims that their faces would be their final vision before death. Cersei looked like the next Ramsay Bolton, with her wine-boarding and zombie-torturer ways. Tyrion and Qyburn updated their LinkedIn profiles after being named Hands of the Queen. Everyone, including fans, may be eager to push ahead with whatever’s next, but the immense, almost predictive weight of history animates every moment of that future.

Sam’s visit to the Citadel telegraphed this idea nicely: To prepare for this epic upcoming battle between the living and the dead, he had to search through acres of books in the most Pinterest-friendly library ever built, the product of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. Arya’s knifing of Walder Frey may have been pulled from his own playbook, but her feeding him his own sons cooked into a pie came straight from the tale of the so-called Rat Cook, which Old Nan likely told her when she was young. The burning of Princess Shireen, which happened over a season ago and was witnessed by no living person, resurfaced and helped banish a woman who raised a king from the dead. Most importantly of all, we got the R+L=J confirmation—a flashback to a past so obscure only one other living person other than Bran knows of it, but one that may play a critical role in the great war to come.

Though “The Winds of Winter” was a largely well-paced, well-written, and eventful episode—and one of the series’s best finales—it did waffle in its explanation of a couple clumsy plot points from recent episodes. Anyone trying to keep track of the rules of the Faceless Men should probably abandon that task after tonight: Arya showing up with a face she may have stolen from the House of White and Black, apparently using her assassin training for her own selfish purposes, seems like something Jaqen H’ghar wouldn’t forgive so easily. Also, Sansa’s apology for not telling Jon the Knights of the Vale were possibly coming stopped short of actually saying why she didn’t mention it to him. Additionally, the destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor felt a little bit like the destruction of the entire Republic in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—in a split second, several big characters and a major location evaporated into nothing, with little acknowledgment of the enormity of the event other than Tommen’s death. (It felt like a brutally abrupt way to culminate Margaery’s story, after years of compelling build-up.)

I suppose you could just borrow the words of Samwell Tarly and point out that most obvious and yet most true of things: Life can be irregular! At the start of the series it would have been strange to see someone like Lyanna Mormont scolding a bunch of grown men. Or to see a bastard crowned a king. Or to witness several women plotting their imminent paths to the throne, or to have one sitting on it at all. (Side note: Seeing Cersei keep Dany’s seat warm for her made me think of that epic rant from Veep about Selina Meyer being such a bad president that there’ll be no more women presidents.) If winter is indeed here, then it would behoove all of Westeros to finally pay heed to Jon Snow’s warning. After all, the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant didn’t listen to Margaery, and look how that turned out.

Spencer, do you feel, as I do, that this episode should rank high on the list of great Thrones finales, at least for that scene of Lady Olenna telling the insufferable Sand Snakes to shut up?

Spencer Kornhaber: Olenna in shooshing mode was glorious, but even without that, this episode would have been satisfaction guaranteed. The feeling of seeing Dany aboard a fleet heading West, Arya crossing the worst person off her kill list, and the Starks back in Winterfell must be similar to the feeling of watching your kid head to college or a new George R.R. Martin book hit shelves: Your giddiness is undercut only by the reminder of your own mortality in how very long you’ve anticipated this moment.

The fact that Benioff and Weiss treated some of their most potent plot material like wildfire, storing it out of sight until the right moment for a sudden kaboom, wasn’t the only thing that made this finale distinctive. The wordless storytelling at the episode’s start—resembling either a brooding foreign film or a great nu-metal music video—signaled an hour of heightened cinematic ambition. From the ravishing costumes for various mourning royals, to the Hogwartsian library in Oldtown, to even small moments like when Jon and Sansa stood framed symmetrically on either side of a Winterfell crenellation, prettiness prevailed.

But perhaps the most subtly gratifying thing about this finale was in how it elevated the theme of wanting. The writers summed up the idea when Ellaria told Olenna it wasn’t survival that she offered the Queen of Thorns but rather “your heart’s desire.” Survival has, in fact, been the most common motivation for Game of Thrones characters to act in recent seasons, but now a few key figures have recently climbed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that they can focus on something other than feeding themselves and not being flayed alive. Seeing natural game players finally get back to playing the game is exciting and, as Tyrion put it, “terrifying.”

Cersei’s “I do [X] because it feels good” monologue to Septa Unella will rank as a defining moment in Cersei’s series-long dance with depravity (her treatment of the nun probably ratifies her final transformation from antihero to pure villain). But that monologue was also a twisted take on the storybook trope of the “I want” speech—most famously dissected in the opening number of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a clear spiritual kin to George R.R. Martin’s work. All epic tales require wanting, but this saga is so filled with complication and detail that its characters’ most cherished motivations often feel obscured, whether because of the urgency of a trial in King’s Landing or a rebellion in Slaver’s Bay or another test by the Faceless Men. But this finale reminded us of resurfaced desires: the ambition of Littlefinger, Daenerys, and Cersei for the Iron Throne; the ache for revenge by the Starks, the Martells, and now, the Tyrells; the idealism of Tyrion, Lyanna Mormont, and perhaps even the speedy continent-hopper Varys.

In many cases, acting on desire requires being wrenched free of vital human attachments. Without Tommen, Cersei can finally rule. Without Daario, Dany can hope to do the same. What happens to Jaime if the woman he loves keeps acting like the king he famously slayed? What happens now that Olenna has no offspring to protect? And in the matter of Sansa and Littlefinger: Did she liberate herself by turning down his marriage proposal, or did she instead, dangerously, liberate him from the one emotional tie that’s been constraining his otherwise ruthless quest for power?

Littlefinger’s ominous reemergence is well-timed, in any case. After a long period where the Iron Throne seemed irrelevant, royal status has come back to the fore: This finale set up a War of Three Kings—or rather, a War of Two Queens and One King—much as the first season finale set up the War of Five Kings. Yet viewers and Jon Snow know that the most fearsome ruler is the Night’s King. Benjen said that the Wall’s magic prevents the dead from passing it, so either the long-tipped apocalyptic threat is overblown or all that ice at Castle Black will soon make like the Sept of Baelor and come crashing down. When that happens, the most powerful people in the land will face an unprecedented challenge: Putting aside their desires to rule humanity so as to save it.