“A raven came from the Citadel. A White raven. Winter is here.”
It’s been a tumultuous year in Westeros, as Benioff and Weiss, freed of the constraints of actual books to adapt, have yanked the plot bodily forwards. As if acknowledging their free hand, this season finale was named The Winds of Winter, after the next volume in the series, which, let’s face it, is unlikely to show up until after the TV version is finished.
While nothing like as carnage-sodden as last week’s blood-soaked orgy of battle, this season finale still had plenty of epic events taking place, unlike previous wound-nursing followups from ep 9 battles. Let’s face it, Cersei’s plan to finally get rid of the High Sparrow and his army of fanatics was typically blunt – blow the living crap out of them, and the temple that symbolised their beliefs. It was like King’s Landing’s own 9/11.
Like any sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut plane, it was certainly effective. But in typical Cersei fashion, she didn’t seem to have planned for the possible consequences (much like another blond ambitious would-be leader in the UK right now). Yes, she’s rid of the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce will be missed), but if her plan was to cement Lannister power that went a bit awry when her beloved Tommen, devastated at the death of his wife, jumped out of a very high window.
It’s an interesting development for Cersei, whose villainous scheming has always been tempered with a degree of sympathy for a put-upon woman whose love for her children was her most driving passion. She hasn’t got any children left now; and her formidable but hated father is long dead. The only way to cement Lannister power in the Seven Kingdoms is for her to take the Iron Throne herself.
Lena Headey played all of this fantastically, particularly Cersei’s determination to see the (presumably pulverised) corpse of Tommen despite advice otherwise. This is a woman who’s achieved her aims but lost everything in the process; just look at the empty expression on her face as the crown was finally lowered onto her head.
Miguel Saponchik, back on directing duties this week after last week’s amazing ep, played this whole sequence (virtually the first fifteen minutes of the ep) as one long montage, cleverly raising the tension throughout with ever more frequent intercutting between the Sept, the wildfire-filled tunnels beneath, and the disturbingly patient Cersei waiting in the Red Keep. Praise, too, must got to the ever-talented Ramin Djawadi, for his mournful but tense string and piano laden score throughout the ‘montage’ – it was up there with the best of Bear McCreary’s work on Battlestar Galactica.
Aside from that long, eventful sequence, which was kept onscreen without cutting to other plots, there were plenty of other subplot-ending shenanigans on display. None were gone into with quite as much detail, but the intention was clear – it was a clearing of the decks for a show with multifarious tangled stories as it heads towards its climax. Last week, the Guardian published a piece wondering where all the show’s villains had gone; after the (very satisfying) death of Ramsay Bolton, there don’t really seem to be any left.
But that’s to overlook the ones who are painted in shades of grey. Cersei herself, of course; the still scheming Petyr Baelish, who may have to step out from behind the scenes and actually do something if he wants his plan to succeed; not to mention the Sand Snakes in Dorne, the bitter, vengeful Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg as majestic as ever). Oh, and there is still the Unstoppable Supernatural Evil, and their massive undead army, intent on destroying all of humanity to contend with.
Plus there’s always the question of just how moral the ‘heroes’ are, thrown into sharp relief here with the anguished Ser Davos confronting Melisandre about the fiery sacrifice of little Shireen Baratheon. That was a great scene, dominated by passionate performances from Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten. Oh, and I think Jon Snow might have been there too, but it was hard to notice.
Still, more heavy hints were dropped this week about Jon’s significance in the (presumably bloody and violent) battle to come. For a while, I’ve been nursing a theory that Jon isn’t ‘Ned Stark’s bastard’ at all, but that he’s the illegitimate fruit of Ned’s late sister Liana and her lover Rhaegar Targaryen. That seemed all but proven this week, courtesy of another of Bran’s handy trips back in time, as we saw Baby Ned take her sister’s newborn infant and make her a whispered, inaudible promise that was blindingly obvious. But in case you still didn’t get it, the scene cut straight from the eyes of the baby to the now-grown Jon, predictably brooding silently in a dark room, Morrissey records not having been made available in Westeros as yet.
That’s important, in light of the apparent omission of another Targaryen pretender in the books; it means Dany is not the last Targaryen after all, and someone else might have a (sort of, given that he’s illegitimate) claim to the Iron Throne after all. After six long years of wondering when she was actually going to get around to it, the season climaxed with Dany at last on her way to Westeros, with a giant fleet of ships, a Dothraki/Unsullied army and three dragons, Westeros’s equivalent of doomsday weapons. It’s hard to see how Cersei, even with a still formidable Lannister army, could stand up to that; much less the oily Baelish and his knights of the Vale.
Sex and Violence
Again, pretty much none of the former; one random whore in the unfortunate post-coital position of having shagged Grand Maester Pycelle understandably demanded “Have you got my money?”
Not that much of the latter either, after last week’s orgy of carnage. The Julius Caesar-style death of stuffy buffoon Grand Maester Pycelle at the hands of Qyburn’s (formerly Varys’) ‘little birds’ was pretty brutal:
There was the fist-pumping return of Arya Stark, channelling Titus Andronicus to serve C-grade villain Walder Frey his own sons in a pie before cutting his throat:
Cersei surprised no one with her revenge against the sadistic Septa Unenna, setting henchman/Frankenstein monster the Mountain on her. But that was cleverly kept behind a closed door, with just the screaming to fire our imaginations.
Of course the most violent bit, snuffing out innumerable characters at a stroke (Margaery, Loras, Mace Tyrell, the High Sparrow, Kevan and Lancel Lannister) was the destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor. But aside from seeing the High Sparrow engulfed in green flame, there wasn’t that much death actually shown; instead, Saponchik cleverly cut to the view from the Red Keep, the cloud of dust and debris rising over the city. That 9/11 comparison was no coincidence – though England’s Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is just as applicable.
Choice dialogue this week
Arya, crossing another name off her list: “My name is Arya Stark, I wanted you to know that. The last thing you’re going to see, is a Stark smiling at you while you die.”
Sam Tarly, cheerfully dealing with the stuffy Maester who huffed that his appointment was “highly irregular”: “I suppose that life is irregular!”
Cersei’s chilling final words to Septa Unenna: “Oh, you’re not going to die today. You’re not going to die for quite a while.”
And of course Tyrion, touchingly proclaiming his faith in Daenerys Targaryen: “I’ve been a cynic for as long as I can remember. People were always asking me to believe in something – family, the gods, myself. It was often tempting. Until I saw where belief got people.”
After last week’s carnage, this was a less violent but still event-packed episode in a season that’s been full of them. It’s now clear that all this year’s drama has been about clearing the decks for the final resolution of the show’s two Big Plots – the fight for the Iron Throne, and the onslaught of the White Walkers. The deaths of so many major characters – principally the nasty ones – has wound up loads of the show’s innumerable plotlines, greatly slimming down the narrative in preparation; while also moving the key players into the relevant places for the end game.
Benioff and Weiss have now stated that the show has, perhaps, another fifteen episodes to run – another two, shorter, seasons. My guess is that next year will focus on the battle for the Seven Kingdoms, with Daenerys allying herself with Jon Snow, King of the North, and perhaps the vengeful Sand Snakes of Dorne and what’s left of house Tyrell. Ranged against her will be the still-powerful army of the Lannisters, but precious few others; and who knows which side Petyr Baelish will take? The end game of thrones has truly begun, and I think it’s going to be good.