Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice." We got our fair share of both during Game of Thrones' spectacular sixth season, though fire had the final say. But however the song's last verse will go, one thing's clear: We're a lot closer to it now. Through moments large and small, huge set-piece battles and quiet conversations between estranged loved ones, the roar of dragons and the silence of a young king stepping through an open window to his doom, Season Six is where the show turned a corner. The end is in sight, and the alignments and alliances who'll be there for it seem to be in their final shape. But these 10 episodes also contained troubling signs and symbols of what the end will look like — and what it will cost.
The most direct contrast between this season and its direct predecessor is the relative position of its leaders. By the end of Season Five, Cersei had been imprisoned, beaten, publicly humiliated, and placed under house arrest. Daenerys lost control of the city of Meereen and got dropped by her dragon in the middle of hostile Dothraki territory. Sansa endured unbearable sexual violence until she and Theon managed to run for their lives while their tormenter Ramsay was busy defeating Stannis. And most strikingly, Jon Snow was freaking dead.
Where are they now? In a much stronger place, though whether that's for better or for worse depends on the rulers involved. Cersei vaporized all her enemies, from the High Sparrow to Margaery Baratheon, in a Night of the Long Knives–style act of score settling. It cost her the life of her beloved son Tommen, who killed himself when he heard the news, but that cleared the path for her to take the Iron Throne herself. After taking down the Dothraki khals, Dany retook Meereen with their men; now she appears poised to do the same to Westeros at the head of a massive all-star alliance. Like her former running buddy Theon, who helped broker his sister's alliance with the Khaleesi, Sansa played an integral part in defeating the Boltons and securing her half-brother Jon's claim on the Winterfell (perhaps to her own chagrin).
Then there's Lord Snow himself, who by the way is no longer dead (!). In the most dramatic turnaround of all, considering where he started the season (i.e. as a corpse), he has been crowned the new King in the North. The so-called "White Wolf" is now the undisputed leader of his region's great houses, the knights of the Vale, and his wildling allies; no doubt whatever's left of the Night's Watch would follow his lead as well. And now that we know via Bran's psychic flashback that Jon's DNA contains both wolf and dragon strains — he's actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Dany's older brother Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, who died before she was born — he has a decent claim on being ruler of a whole lot more than just his native land.
In each case, the pieces on the Game board have begun coming together in a dramatic and seemingly near-final way. We had glimpses of this forward motion last year — Tyrion meeting Dany, Sansa's return to Winterfell — but this season such reunions and realignments were thick on the ground. Jon's Northern Alliance appears poised to stand against both political enemies to the south (and hopefully within, if Littlefinger acts the fool) and the White Walkers to the north. Taking the opposite tact, Cersei cleared the decks of her rivals, and a genuinely massive chunk of the cast; between the High Sparrow, Margaery, Tommen, Loras, Pycelle, Lancel and Kevan Lannister, and Mace Tyrell, this may well be the single largest die-off in the show's history. Ironically, this made the previously precarious political situation in King's Landing far more stable, and has the Lannister Queen ready to square off against all comers.
Finally, Daenerys's Axis of Female with the women in charge of the Greyjoys, the Tyrells, and Dorne has enabled her to set sail to Westeros (that noise you heard last night was a huge chunk of the audience shouting "finally!"). But there's more to it than just the fact of forward movement. The Mother of Dragons has assembled both the most fearsome fighting force the show has yet seen: Dothraki screamers, Unsullied supersoldiers, Ironborn reavers, the spears of Dorne, the largely untouched army of the Reach, and various factions from within the now-free cities of Slaver's Bay as well. At its head is the most formidable Small Council yet to put their minds together, too: Dany, her close advisors Missandei and Grey Worm, spymaster Varys, skilled admiral Yara, no-nonsense Ellaria (with the Sand Snakes riding shotgun), and the Queen of Thorns; hell, even Theon likely has useful intel to share if he can keep himself together. Meanwhile, the red priests and priestesses of the Lord of Light are singing her praises around the world. And did we mention the dragons? If she can unite with the Northern faction upon her arrival, then by gods, the living stand a fighting chance against the dead.
But will they? For one thing, there are still loose ends out there, though far fewer than usual. Arya Stark has come home, another sign that the end is fast approaching — but she's a grinning killing machine who just toppled the ruler of the Riverlands in the form of Walder Frey, and there are many other men and women on her hitlist. The Hound is out there too, hooked up with Beric Dondarrion and his benevolent but fanatical Brotherhood. Brienne and her sidekick Pod are traveling north. Melisandre has been banished south. Euron Greyjoy, the Mad King of the Iron Islands, is hunting for his niece and nephew among whatever other tricks he has up his sleeve. As the new Three-Eyed Raven, Bran Stark has an untold part to play, and magic powers with which to play them. At least Samwell Tarly has made it to the Citadel of the maesters, surrounded by the books he loves more than anything. But while that kind of collected wisdom will make for a valuable resource in the war to come, it also makes Oldtown and its inhabitants a target.
But who isn't? If there's one thing Season Six truly taught us, is that Arya was right when, long ago, she said "Anyone can be killed." Anyone can be butchered, truth be told: slaughtered on the battlefield, burned alive in a house of worship, fed to dogs, fed to Walder freaking Frey, handed over to the FrankenMountain, stabbed to death by adorable children, set alight by dragons, torn to pieces by zombies while holding the door against them. While its ending was markedly less grim than several of its predecessors' Game of Thrones' sixth season showed time and time again the true nature and cost of war, power politics, and interpersonal violence. Each time it did so, humanity got a little weaker and the White Walkers got a little stronger, even if what happened appeared necessary to move the players into their final position before the plunge. "Winter is here," said Sansa Stark. She's got that right.
See who made our list of the 30 best 'Game of Thrones' villains. Watch here.