The final episode of season 6 of Game of Thrones, titled The Winds of Winter, is the longest episode of the series to date, and its 69-minute running time feels somewhat necessary. After six seasons, Game of Thrones has one of the most sprawling narratives in television history, and if the rumors are true that the show will have only two more, shortened seasons, the time has come for the show to begin pulling its many threads together. The Winds of Winter certainly accomplishes this, wiping out a heap of characters and refocusing the action on Westeros, the continent where it all began.
Mad queen Cersei
The episode opens in King’s Landing, where Cersei’s long-awaited trial is set to begin. Bells toll, and the various players of King’s Landing — including young King Tommen, the High Sparrow, and Cersei herself — dress and prepare for the trial. The opening sequence is without dialogue, and the haunting melody that plays throughout underscores the impending dread. Cersei has had a long time to plan for this affair, and despite the High Sparrow’s confidence, there is no way things will end as he imagines.
The first part of Cersei’s plan is to simply not show up. While Loras Tyrell confesses to his alleged sins and asks for forgiveness, Cersei sips wine. She sends Gregor Clegane to keep Tommen from going to the sept, another sign that trouble is afoot. Of all the lords and ladies gathered at the sept, only Margaery notes that Cersei and Tommen’s absence is a sign of danger.
The Sparrow sends his men to collect Cersei, and on their way out, Lancel spots a young boy who flees into the sewers. Lancel gives chase, while at the same time Maester Pycelle is summoned to Qyburn’s lair. Both men are walking into a trap; Pycelle is murdered by Qyburn’s squad of child informants, while Lancel is stabbed by the boy he was following. Lying in the darkness of what appears to be a wine cellar, Lancel spots a light in the distance. He crawls toward it, and sees the truth. Puddles of green wildfire, with three candles standing in them, about to burn all the way down. Lancel crawls towards the wildfire as Margaery exclaims that everyone needs to leave the sept.
The tense sequence ends with the wildfire erupting under the great sept, presumably killing everyone within. Tommen receives the news, standing in front of his bedroom window looking out over the sept. In this moment, the camera remains fixed on the window as Tommen steps off screen. Seconds go by, and he steps back into view without his crown, climbs onto the windowsill, and jumps out. It’s a muted, morbid finish to one of the most striking sequences in the show’s history. Indeed, the juxtaposition of religious ceremony and gruesome violence evokes the famous baptism scene from The Godfather. Like Michael Corleone, Cersei has wiped out all her enemies in one quick round. As far as she knows, anyway.
A new King In the North
While King’s Landing is the scene of a bloodbath, Winterfell is recovering from the Battle of the Bastards. Jon’s first crisis as acting ruler of Winterfell comes from within. Davos presents the toy stag he found in the pyres, explaining that it once belonged to Shireen, and demanding that Melisandre explain. She admits that Stannis offered his daughter as a sacrifice, and Davos demands that Jon execute justice. Perhaps Jon feels indebted to Melisandre after she brought him back, or perhaps he simply is weary of bloodshed. He does not execute her, but instead exiles her from the North.
As he watches Melisandre ride away, Jon hashes things out with Sansa, even offering her Ned and Catelyn’s room, which Sansa claims Jon should have. The issue of Littlefinger comes up, and Jon seems more worried than angry that Sansa withheld information about the forces from the Vale. They need to trust each other, he implores. They have too many enemies to keep secrets.
Littlefinger may have come to the Starks’ rescue but his motives are anything but altruistic. Cornering Sansa near the family weirwood tree, he tells her that his true ambition is to take the Iron Throne, and that he wants her to rule at his side. Although he has always been a blatant manipulator, Littlefinger’s presence in this scene is even more predatory than usual. Littlefinger pushes Sansa to take up command of the North, but fate (and perhaps Sansa, too) has a different plan.
The various lords of the North gather in the hall at Winterfell, and after some quarreling about the presence of wildlings, the young Lady Mormont takes the opportunity to chide the lords who did not answer Jon’s call. The men offer their apologies, and go one step further, proclaiming Jon as the new King in the North, to Sansa’s apparent delight. All but one of the men in the room hail the new king. Littlefinger, hiding in the back, gives Sansa a piercing stare, and her smile fades. In one quick moment, Jon has gone from a bastard with a sword to being a king, and thus a problem for a man like Littlefinger, who wants to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Sansa recognizes this, and her actions in the coming conflict could be decisive. Jon may think the ultimate enemy is beyond the Wall, and he may technically be right, but a man with a grudge can be just as deadly as the Night King.
Bran returns to the Tower of Joy
Elsewhere in the North, Benjen Stark drops Bran and Meera off not far from the Wall. Benjen cannot approach it, he tells them, for there are ancient spells woven into the Wall that prevent the dead from entering. After Benjen leaves, Bran taps into a nearby weirwood, eager to explore more visions of the past. He returns to the Tower of Joy, where a young Ned Stark fought Arthur Dayne at the end of the war, and sees what is inside: Lyanna Stark, lying in a blood-soaked bed, her newborn son nearby. Lyanna implores Ned to protect the baby, and although his name is never spoken, the camera cuts from the baby’s face to Jon’s, all but assuring the audience that Jon Snow is in fact the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, a theory that fans have been waiting to be confirmed for some time.
A mercifully brief interlude to Dorne
The Lannisters have made no shortage of enemies over the years, and although Cersei may feel she has wiped out most of them, plenty remain. Specifically, Olenna Tyrell, whose son and grandchildren went up in flames with the rest of the sept. Following the destruction of the sept, Olenna meets with Ellaria and the Sand Snakes in Dorne. The show hasn’t touched on Dorne since the season premiere, when Ellaria staged a coup, killing Prince Doran Martell and his son. Now, she offers Olenna an alliance against the Lannisters, a chance at revenge or, as Varys, who steps out from the shadows, expresses it, “fire and blood.”
Pie a la Frey
While Olenna and the Sands plot their revenge, a girl in the Riverlands takes hers. Following the Tully surrender, the Freys are in high spirits, hosting a feast for the Lannisters. Although a few serving girls cast him suggestive glances, Jaime is uninterested. Perhaps he remembers what sometimes happens to guests of the Freys? Although Walder tries to brag and talk up their alliance, Jaime reminds him that he only holds the Riverlands thanks to Lannister aid, and then takes his leave.
Leaving quickly is one of Jaime’s many lucky decisions. Later, when Walder is sitting alone in the dining hall, one of the serving girls brings Walder a serving of pie. After fondling her, he demands that she summon his sons. She informs him that they are already present, gesturing to the pie. Walder lifts up the crust to find a human toe, and the girl rips off her face to reveal that she is Arya Stark. She taunts Walder before slitting his throat. Although fans, like Arya, may have been waiting for this moment of vengeance, the psychotic smile on Arya’s face as Walder bleeds out, coupled with a violent string soundtrack, are reminiscent of a slasher film. Arya has crossed a psychological line from which she may never come back.
Jaime, meanwhile, returns to King’s Landing to find a smoking crater in the heart of the city. His timing is impeccable, as he enters the red keep just as Cersei is being proclaimed queen. “Long may she reign,” the onlookers cry out. Not likely, given everything else that’s happened. Jaime, for his part, seems conflicted. He has been struggling with his honor for a long time now, and Cersei has just done the very thing he stopped Mad King Aerys from committing. As one sibling descends into madness and another tries to be a better man, their relationship may be heading for a rocky place.
Daenarys sets sail for Westeros
Although she is a conqueror by trade, Daenarys’ story in the finale is surprisingly free of violence. On the eve of her departure, she tells her lover, Daario, that he will not be coming to Westeros. She may need to make a political marriage during her conquest of Westeros, and she can’t have a lover muddying the waters. Daario is heartbroken, having been truly in love with her. As Daenarys explains to Tyrion afterwards, she herself was not too bothered, instead viewing the breakup as a chore to move through.
Daenarys and Tyrion talk about their plans for Westeros, and their hopes that Daenarys will be a better ruler than Westeros has had in a while. Dany offers Tyrion the position of Hand of the Queen, which he accepts, and in the episode’s final scene, they set sail. Dany is officially on her way to Westeros with an army of barbarians, pirates, and dragons — one wonders if anyone will be excited to see her — and the show is presumably moving into a new phase. Winter has come, and everyone is converging on Westeros, where there will probably be a few more rounds of musical thrones before the White Walkers invade.