'Game of Thrones' Season Finale Recap: Winter Is Here

Rulers rise and fall in an explosive and powerful season finale

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'Game of Thrones' Season Finale Recap: Winter Is Here

Who needs spectacle when silence will serve just as well?

Granted, that's an unusual question to ask in the context of Game of Thrones, the most spectacular show on television by a comfortable margin. Certainly the series' sixth season finale — "The Winds of Winter" — contained more than its fair share of stunning visuals and shocking revelations: the wildfire explosion that destroyed both most of King's Landing and a third of the core cast; the crowning of Jon Snow as King in the North and Cersei Lannister as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms; the massive alliance that saw Daenerys set sail for her ancestral home at last. Need more? OK, fine, how about the long-awaited revelation that Lord Snow is not Ned Stark's son at all — he's the offspring of Eddard's sister Lyanna and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen himself (so he really is the King in the North, just by a different bloodline)? And the vengeance of Arya Stark for the Red Wedding as she served Walder Frey a taste of his own, uh, medicine.

But it's the silence of the opening minutes that stays with you. Composer Ramin Djawaid's score pulls a delicate, melancholy piano suite from out of nowhere as the major players in Cersei's trial — the Queen Mother, Tommen, Margaery, the High Sparrow, Loras Tyrell — wordlessly prepare for what's to come. Then, when it's over — Loras mutilated and humiliated, the King blocked by his mom's mountainous bodyguard, Lancel Lannister failing to stop the enormous stockpile of wildfire beneath the Sept from detonating — there's the silence of the young ruler's room. He watches the city burn, realizes who and what he's lost, steps away to take off his crown while the camera still lingers on the empty sky through his window. Then he returns and quietly leaps from the ledge. It's the most devastating sequence in the episode, as sad as Samwell Tarly's trip to the massive library in the maesters' Citadel is uplifting. Both moments would have been just effective if you'd had your TV on mute.

Tommen's suicide doubles as an object lesson on the wages of vengeance. If you suspected that Sansa's smile as her tormenter Ramsay was eaten alive by his own dogs was, well, nothing to smile about, the events of this episode confirm your suspicions. After all, what are the most direct parallels we have to Lady Stark's grin? Cersei Lannister, smirking as she blows hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to smithereens in order to finally eradicate her enemies. Arya Stark, beaming and bright-eyed as she cradles Walder Frey's head in her arms while he gasps for breath, his belly still full with the flesh of his own murdered and cooked children. And the Queen again, all but giggling as she turns a former captor over to the reanimated man-thing Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane for god only knows what hideous treatment.

That some of these characters, victims and perpetrators alike, are "good" and some are "bad" hardly alleviates any suffering or justifies the infliction thereof. It's hardly the show's fault if some in the audience bay for blood, any more than David Chase or Vince Gilligan are to blame for bad fans cheering for Tony Soprano and Walter White to whack 'em all. To paraphrase the Bastard of Bolton, if you think this is a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention.

In fact, the terrible retribution doled out in these past few episodes carries with it the seeds of trouble in the future. It's reasonable to argue that Sansa's bloody experiences with the Lannisters and Boltons are what makes her susceptible to Littlefinger's manipulation regarding her claim to the Northern throne versus that of her bastard brother. (Lord only knows why else she'd give his advice a second's thought at this point.) "We have to trust each other," the so-called White Wolf tells her earlier in the episode, with her own apology for withholding knowledge of the knights of the Vale spurring the sentiment. The desire to get what one is owed, whether power or payback, is a direct impediment to that kind of trust, and that's what Petyr Baelish is counting on. (Interestingly, when presented with the opportunity to execute Melisandre when Ser Davos gets her to confess her murder of poor Shireen Baratheon last season, Jon himself stays his hand.)

Similarly, Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell, the last women standing in Dorne and the Reach respectively, have formed an Axis of Female with Daenerys Targaryen and Yara Greyjoy. With their combined forces — which include the Ironborn fleet, the Dothraki hordes, the Unsullied infantry, and three flying nuclear dinosaurs — their Varys-brokered alliance stands a decent chance of raining the Khaleesi's house words, "Fire and Blood," upon their shared enemies. But where does it end? Dany's dilemma has long been finding a happy(ish) medium between justice and vengeance, might and mercy. How would that square with, say, the Sand Snakes or the Queen of Thorns pushing to raze Casterly Rock to the ground, or burn up whatever parts of King's Landing Cersei's left standing?

Still, we're closer to the Game's endgame than ever now. Yes, there are wild cards still in play, like the Hound and his Brotherhood, or crazy Euron Greyjoy and his Ironborn revanchists. But the three major factions are now firmly established: The Lannisters under their wicked queen, Cersei, ruling in King's Landing; the North and the Vale, united (for now) under Jon Snow, the new King in the North; and basically everyone else lined up behind Dany, on her way to Westeros after all this time. But winter isn't just coming — it's here. And when the dead arrive and the Wall inevitably falls (raise your hand if you thought it would happen before the credits rolled), what will they find? Seven kingdoms united against them, or at each other's throats? Who'll be smiling then?

Previously: Dogs of War

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