Wildfire explodes, Cersei takes the Iron Throne, Jon Snow’s parentage is confirmed, and Dany heads for Westeros (finally), but the whole hour feels rather like an introduction to the real action. Indeed, everything after the destruction of the sept of Baelor feels rather like the show immediately launched into the season seven premiere.
This isn’t a bad thing. Game of Thrones is all momentum now, and any time it stops to reflect is time to realize that much of its plot doesn’t make sense anymore, and its characters are defined almost solely by what other characters tell us about them. (Notice how hard the show works to convince us that Dany and Daario were in love, when they’ve barely shared scenes together in ages.) So simply plowing ahead with the story might have been the best call.
But the resulting episode was, like the season preceding it, heavy on incident and light on meaning. Yes, the hour was pretty remarkable at times. But Game of Thrones still used to be a show wrapped in rich themes, and now it’s pretty much one where characters shuffle from place to place, while the series tries to figure out where they’ll be when the endgame begins.
If that sounds rather critical, I still had a lot of fun watching this episode, enough fun to name more winners and losers than usual. As such, here are eight winners and seven losers from "The Winds of Winter."
Winner 1: Cersei Lannister
By almost any measure, Cersei rules this episode. She perfectly executes her plan to smite all of her enemies, particularly the High Sparrow and Margaery. (Only Olenna isn’t present when Cersei reduces the sept to rubble.)
She essentially decimates both House Tyrell and the Faith. And she even ascends to the Iron Throne, though under tragic circumstances (more on that in a bit). If Lena Headey is considering Emmy tapes, well, she should stop. This episode is all she needs.
If there’s one reason to hesitate when it comes to proclaiming Cersei a winner, though, it’s how Game of Thrones has effectively placed her in the role of the horrible villain who must be defeated, just in time to take over for Ramsay.
She’s certainly a better character than Ramsay, and a more interesting one, but it seems like the show is building to some sort of meeting between Dany and Jon, and she’ll probably just be the way of that.
Still, it’s not hard to be a little swept away by how Cersei was reduced to nothing, then got her revenge in seemingly record time. If she had to endure some losses along the way, so be it. But she’s got the full weight of the Seven Kingdoms behind her now, and she’s seemingly made everybody comfortable with the idea of a queen on that throne, an idea Dany may later thank her for.
Winner 2: Jon Snow
The episode ends with a very clear set of parallels among Jon, Cersei, and Daenerys. Game of Thrones has carefully built up all three characters’ leadership styles, and now, we’re going to see which of them holds the greatest sway over the people.
In terms of advantages, Jon has the least of any of the three. Cersei has the full weight of an entire kingdom, while Daenerys has a bunch of ships, a large army, and three dragons.
Jon has the fierce loyalty of a few people. But, hey, they really, really like him, and on Game of Thrones, that’s often enough.
What’s interesting is how the show seems really invested in convincing us Jon is the King in the North, when its other two major rulers are women, and Sansa has as legitimate a claim to the kingdom as anybody. (None of them know Jon’s true parentage, after all.)
To some degree, this is because Sansa doesn’t think she should rule just yet. However, it feels like the tight bond between Sansa and Jon might fray around this central question. We’ll see.
Winner 3: Daenerys Targaryen and her ragtag band of misfits
Did Daenerys and everybody stop off in Dorne to pick up Varys? Does this mean that the Sand Snakes and Olenna are #TeamDany now? Do we know why the four characters in that final shot of Dany, Tyrion, Missendei, and Varys were chosen?
It doesn’t matter. It’s just nice to see Dany on her way over to Westeros after six seasons of bluster.
I couldn’t tell you what this season’s Dany story was supposed to accomplish for her, beyond her acquiring an entire Dothraki horde as her army (and striking an alliance with the Greyjoys), but I’m glad we’re getting this show on the road.
Plus: That shot of the dragons swooping and dancing among the ships was Game of Thrones at its epic best. It's hard not to be at least a little excited.
My theory is that the newly banished Melisandre will bump into Jorah next season, cure his greyscale, and allow herself to hear the good news of #TeamDany. It’s what the Lord of Light wants.
Winner 4: Samwell Tarly, maester in training
The shot of Sam staring longingly at the gigantic library at Hightower went on so long that a friend messaged me to ask if he was about to be stabbed. But, no, it was just a really long shot of Sam smiling while he looked at a gigantic library.
That said, I don’t blame him. That library looks like a pretty great place, and I presume that we’re leaving off with him in the same way we left off with Bran a couple of seasons ago. The next time we see him, he’ll probably be incredibly knowledgeable in all sorts of mystical arts. At the very least, he did a fine job of bullshitting his way into the place when the maesters’ reception desk hadn’t even heard about Jeor’s death.
Meanwhile, he’s going to have to find somewhere for Gilly and young Sam to hang out. No women and children in the library! (Maybe Queen Cersei will have something to say about that.)
Winner 5: Arya, more or less
Walder Frey was an intriguing loose end on a show that has a habit of lopping off loose ends as a matter of course. It was clear he would die at some point; the question was simply who would deliver the killing blow. When Jaime more or less wrote off the old coot by insulting him and walking away, it left an opening for the Stark you’d most expect to kill Walder: Arya.
In the post-episode discussion from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the two tried to portray this as a sign of just how far gone Arya is, how troubling it is that she’s the kind of stone-cold murderer who would feed a man pies containing the body parts of his own sons. (Maybe she saw Sweeney Todd recently.) But I find it hard to get too worked up over Arya killing Freys. Maybe if she stalks and kills Jaime we can talk.
Anyway, it seems like Arya is taking over a lot of the story that would have gone to the sadly-not-adapted Lady Stoneheart. That means the sorts of wild fan theories that greeted the books-only character are now attaching themselves to Arya, so I guess we have that to look forward to.
Winner 6: Whomever came up with R + L = J
Long, long ago, some brave internet theorist came up with the idea that Jon Snow’s parents must have been Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and that Ned had raised Jon as his own bastard, because he knew Robert would kill the boy if he heard tell of the kid’s royal blood. Others have embellished upon this basic framework over the years, but it’s long been perhaps the most popular fan theory about the books.
And it’s true! Just like everybody guessed, Jon is the child of Rhaegar and Lyanna. Good work to you, internet commenter. You figured it out!
For now, only Bran knows this truth (or maybe he’ll tell Meera), but it seems like he’s not too far from Winterfell. He can let Jon in on all of these secrets the next time the two see each other, which will probably be in the season seven finale, given how time works on this show.
Winner 7: Director Miguel Sapochnik
Sapochnik has a strong claim to winning an Emmy for "Battle of the Bastards," but his work on "The Winds of Winter" is just as impressive, thanks to his use of muted colors, wide shots, and a deliberate pace that only enhances the tension in moments like the one where everybody is waiting for Cersei to blow up the city. His choice to hold on the window as Tommen strode out of frame, then right back in to pitch himself out of it, was masterful.
This episode is full of dark moments that the characters can’t take back, and Sapochnik matches that with gorgeous shadows and a distant camera that suggests some of these characters are unknowable to us now. (Check out how he gradually pulls us back from Cersei throughout the episode. Even her close-ups aren’t as close.)
Also, he keeps framing Jon and Sansa in a way that seems meant to directly nod toward Ned and Catelyn Stark, and I don’t know what to do with that information.
Winner 8: Lady Lyanna Mormont
Lady Lyanna is by far the best character Game of Thrones introduced this season, and I hope she lives forever.
Loser 1: Cersei Lannister
Sure, Cersei got everything she always wanted, but at a terrible cost. She’s now lost all of her children (after Tommen took the dive out the window), and even Jaime seems a little terrified of her at this point.
All of that might be okay if she had somehow held onto whatever little bits of soul she had left, but she also sicced a zombie rapist on Septa Unella, the nun who guided her long walk of shame last season. On a show that has done an admirable job of pulling back on its sexual violence this season after everybody complained about it last season, that moment was... a little much (to put it mildly).
In short, Cersei might be a short-term winner, but she’s still losing the game in the long run. She doesn’t have many valuable allies left, while Dany and Jon are accumulating them left and right. Next season should be very interesting for her.
Loser 2: All of House Tyrell
I’ll be honest. Margaery Tyrell’s death might be one of the most shocking deaths on the show in several seasons.
It’s not that the plot needed her around. She was mostly just a foil for Cersei. But it seemed like she was protected by all of the relationships she had with various characters and the way she seemed integral to a variety of plots.
I guess not. House Tyrell is pretty much done for at this point. Yes, there are remnants of it back in Highgarden, and Olenna is out there to plot her revenge (which will hopefully prove effective), but the Tyrells as we know and love them are effectively over, burned away in a haze of green wildfire.
Loser 3: House Frey
This, however, was not surprising at all. If you had told me after the Red Wedding that Arya would kill and bake two Frey boys into a pie, then stab Walder after revealing what she had done, I would have said, "Sure! Sounds about right!" That didn’t make it any less satisfying.
Loser 4: Sansa and Littlefinger
The North is Sansa’s to claim. All she has to do is tell Jon that she wants to. But she stands aside, in rather atypical Sansa fashion, then actually apologizes to him for not telling him that Littlefinger might be coming. We can debate the ethics of Sansa telling or not telling Jon about that development, but it’s absolutely the sort of thing you don’t apologize for after the fact. You just act like it was always meant to happen.
Even worse off is Littlefinger, who insists that he will sit upon the Iron Throne, with Sansa as his queen, only to be quietly rebuffed. And yet as Jon is acclaimed the King in the North, Sansa shares a meaningful glance with ol’ Petyr Baelish, one that makes me think we haven’t seen the last of this plot.
In general, Littlefinger strikes me as a character who will die next season. He just wants the Iron Throne too much to ever have it. I finally understand why people felt irritated by Anne Hathaway’s Oscar campaign a few years ago.
Loser 5: Daario
The vast majority of scenes in "The Winds of Winter" consisted of certain storylines being closed off, and me saying to myself, "Well, I guess that story is over." Such was the case with Daario, whom the show worked hard to convince us was Dany’s true love, even though it never seemed at all interested in this.
Daario wanders off and out of the plot. I’m sure Game of Thrones will eventually find some way to wrap him back in for the final battle, but I think I agree with Tyrion when he says that leaving Daario behind is not, ultimately, a great loss in Dany's pursuit of being queen.
Now we get to figure out whom Dany will find the most advantageous husband. Even money’s on Jon, but you never know.
Loser 6: The Seven Kingdoms’ postal service
Now that everybody seemingly travels everywhere via a teleportation service, you’d think important documents would no longer be sent by ravens, which can be shot down or even just get lost. But no! Everybody in the Seven Kingdoms is poorly informed because their mail is delivered by birds. Actual birds.
Loser 7: Fans of the books
As George R.R. Martin has greatly complicated the world of his books and his cast of characters, it’s been tempting to think he’s either writing himself into corners he can’t get out of or creating an epic tale that has grown far, far beyond its original trappings of Starks vs. Lannisters.
But the longer Game of Thrones is on the air, the more clear it becomes that the endgame in the books must be some version of... Starks vs. Lannisters, with a Daenerys wild card thrown in. We know that Benioff and Weiss know, more or less, how the books are planned to end. And now we know that they feel they can largely remove certain characters from the narrative (like, say, all of the Tyrells) without affecting where things are headed.
Yes, the ending of the show will probably be very different from the ending of the books. But Benioff and Weiss are likely going to paint with the same shades, and as the show gradually winnows its cast down to the Lannisters, Starks, and Dany, it seems all the more apparent that the books will travel in the same direction. The huge sprawl of the books, in the end, seems like a kind of distraction.
Agree? Disagree? Join me in comments at noon Eastern to discuss this episode and other cultural topics. I’ll be there for 90 minutes.
And answer my question for you: Who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of the series? I’ll give you my answer in comments!