Cersei ascended at unfathomable cost, while Jon received more than one significant answer and Daenerys made her choice in the Game of Thrones season 6 finale.
The first half hour of the delicately brilliant “The Winds of Winter” begins and ends with silence. Silence, as the men and women of King’s Landing are laced into their gowns and roughspun, silence as they approach the impossibly evil day ahead. Sparrows and queens, kings and peasants, all unite in a quiet preparation overlaid by Ramin Djawadi’s brutally simple and excruciatingly effective score.
The edges of this silence blur away against the gradual pressure of ominous activity. Loras Tyrell confesses his sins before the High Sparrow and a hungry crowd in the Great Sept of Baelor. Grand Maester Pycell follows a trail of a very different kind of bird to his demise, orchestrated by Qyburn and carried out by children carrying knives. Tommen prepares himself to face his mother’s trial, only to find the way blocked by the notably silent figure of Gregor Clegane, while Cersei dresses like the Queen of the Damned (which she is) and drinks.
The collapse of this silence is emphatic, brief, and terrible. Rising panic within the Great Sept, as Margaery comprehends the implications of Cersei’s absence, comes to nothing when the cache horrific caches of wildfire stored beneath the Great Sept explode. In the roar of green light, sinners and saints (such as they are) are consumed together — Margaery, Loras, and Mace Tyrell, Lancel and Kevan Lannister, the High Sparrow and most of his followers are all destroyed in an instant.
Smoke and silence follows. Cersei observes with a smile; Tommen watches in shock. The entire affair may be Game of Thrones‘ most effective and visceral sequence since the Red Wedding, the horror of Cersei’s actions swollen to a scale even Tywin Lannister never would have imagined.
There is a reason for that, of course. Cersei delights in the vacuum of all that death, failing to understand that she has sucked the air out of more than just her enemies. Tommen, left alone in silence, bereft of his bride, his mentor, and his faith, quietly removes his crown and hurls himself from the Red Keep.
Cersei has his gold-shrouded body burned, seeming only half-cognizant of the irony. Death, like wildfire and like silence, is contagious.
Other segments of “The Winds of Winter” also play with contrasts of sound. A giddy Sam finally reaches the Citadel of Oldtown and — in spite of his unusual circumstances — is ushered into its cavernous library. The mausoleum of books is so vast that even a man of his size looks small by contrast.
In the Riverlands, nauseating clangor rules the tonal palate as Walder Frey and his verminous offspring cheer their renewed alliance with the Lannisters. Jaime is disgusted by Frey’s venal pomposity, and leaves the elderly lord to his own wine. Which is how Arya finds the Lord of the Twins, unveiling herself in the disguise of a maid as she serves Frey his own sons in a pie.
In the very same room where her mother, brother, and hope for humanity was slaughtered, Arya smiles as she tells Frey that her smiling face will be the last thing he sees. She slits his throat, a rapturous, nearly sexual look on her face as she drinks in the gasp and gurgle of death. Arya dips her fingers in his blood as he dies; her eyes are wide with wonder. As dark music swells behind her, I can’t help but wonder if Arya’s attempt to reclaim her identity is a fool’s errand. Is there anything left for the once-Lady Stark beyond vengeance and death?
Speaking of vengeance and death, it is the incongruous music of birdsong that spills across bloody conversations in Dorne. (Which, for once, are not the worst thing ever.) In an affront to both of their houses, Olenna Tyrell meets with Elaria Sand to plot the way forward now that literally everyone is dead. “Survival is not what I’m after,” Olenna warns, to which Elaria produces Varys — who offers the last Tyrell “Fire and blood.”
Which, I suspect, will be a rather noisy proposition.
Far to the North, vengeance and silence also play tellingly together. In a scene quite notably set without music, Davos confronts Melisandre with his long-overdue understanding of the circumstances of poor Shireen’s death. Melisandre, for her part, is less than contrite, forcing Davos to comprehend the dark complicity of Stannis and Selyse in their daughter’s murder.
The Red Woman asserts that she is ready to die, but clearly she has not yet played the role R’hllor has written her. In spite of Melisandre’s insistence that she will help defeat the armies of the dead, Jon orders her south on pain of death. I give this decree a lifespan of two episodes.
Meanwhile, Sansa and Jon contemplate their new, bizarre circumstances as the leaders of Winterfell. Jon entreats Sansa to trust him, and she seems inclined to do so, until Littlefinger returns with the mic drop of all mic drops. He declares his love and lust for Sansa, proclaiming her the only other occupant in his dearest, most driving vision — Littlefinger himself, seated on the Iron Throne, with Sansa beside him.
Admirably, Sansa does not slap Littlefinger silly, nor does she point out how many of his plans are ridiculous and tangential to the pursuit of the Iron Throne. Unfortunately, Baelish responds to her cool reaction by declaring that Sansa is the rightful heir to House Stark — not Jon, “a motherless bastard, born in the South.”
But while the Game of Thrones season 6 finale opens the door on the identity of Jon’s father (yes, we all know who it really is, but let’s pretend there’s still a mystery) the question of Jon’s mother is heartbreakingly answered. Deposited near the Wall by the undead-but-friendly Benjen, Bran falls into the Three-Eyed Raven’s memories once again. He follows his father and the sound of screams into the Tower of Joy, where Lyanna Stark lies dying.
Lyanna is dying after giving birth to a son — and she refuses to die without imparting some crucial information to Ned. The child’s whispered name is difficult to hear, but loud and clear is Lyanna’s belief that her son is danger. She begs Ned to protect him. “Promise me, Ned,” she cries, as the child in his arms opens its newborn eyes.
Many years later (i.e., the present) that baby (i.e., Jon Snow) is rather ironically, pushed into a choice of identity by another brave woman named Lyanna. Young Lady Mormont lays a verbal beat-down on the Northern Lords, and declares that Jon, bastard or not, is her king. In a potent echo of Robb’s impromptu coronation so many years ago, the contrite men raise their swords and bellow in unison, “The king in the North!”
Sansa observes calmly, seeming pleased by the developments until she catches Littlefinger’s eye and the color drains from her face.
Because Sansa Stark can never have nice things.
Anyway, “The Winds of Winter” plucks its final, haunting strings with the return of Jaime to King’s Landing. Qyburn crowns Cersei Queen of the Seven Kingdoms before a terrified crowd of remaining lords and ladies. Jaime observes as Djawadi’s terrifying refrain returns from the episode’s bloody beginning, now blended hauntingly with “The Reins of Castamere.”
“Long may she reign,” the crowd choruses of Cersei, but it’s hard to say over what Cersei intends to reign. She is queen of ashes and bones, charred meat and rotten hope and crucially, Jaime watches her like a stranger.
And across the Narrow Sea, another queen comes. Daenerys, who is, purely by accident, casting herself in a mold opposite to Cersei, casts off Daario Noharis for the preservation of Meereen and her future throne. “That’s the type of self-sacrifice that makes for a good ruler, if it’s any consolation,” Tyrion tells her — how different from his own sister, who sacrifices others for her own gain. Cersei sits on her dead throne, and for all that the Targaryen words are “Fire and Blood,” Daenerys’ cause is very much alive.
She has her Dothraki. She has the Ironborn. She has her dragons, and she has the Spider (somehow… I’m not quite sure how Varys got all the way back to Meereen.) Perhaps most crucially, Dany has loyalty. She has Tyrion’s trust and his faith, rewarded with the title Hand of the Queen.
Armed with love and self-sacrifice and Cersei’s first enemy, Cersei’s last enemy comes to her bloody destiny.