HBO promoted Game of Thrones' sixth season in a macabre way, placing the visages of several key characters in the Hall of Faces, including Ned and Catelyn Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Cersei Lannister. Those promos, so eerie and foreboding, suggested that each character would play a significant role in the story ahead — and that the specter of death would cast a heavy shadow over the upcoming ten episodes.
Both the season and this finale, titled "The Winds of Winter," live up to that promise. We've seen a high number of notable casualties, major narrative developments that continue to connect the Stark, Targaryen, Lannister, and Tyrell houses, and the sense that, after more than 50 episodes of buildup, we have finally arrived at a climactic moment. Winter is no longer merely coming. Winter is here.
Close-ups of faces — ones that belong to still-living people, and not filed away on a creepy shelf in Jaqen H'ghar's Dungeon of Creepiness — linger in the mind after the final installment in this overall thrilling season. There's the sight of baby Jon Snow — who, as we learn during the completion of that Tower of Joy flashback, is the son of Lyanna Stark and (almost certainly) Rhaegar Targaryen — morphing into contemplative adult Jon Snow as he once again appears before a roomful of people debating his worthiness as a leader. There's the image of Sansa Stark exchanging a charged look with Littlefinger, who has offered her a path to the Iron Throne that she chooses not to take. There's Cersei Lannister's grave expression as she assumes the Iron Throne while dressed as though she's prepared to rule Rhythm Nation alongside the Seven Kingdoms. There's the utterly terrifying and remorseless sense of triumph worn by Arya Stark after she ditches her disguise and slits Walder Frey's throat, delivering retribution for the Red Wedding in the same way that Black Walder murdered Catelyn during that gruesome affair. And there's the mix of fear and nostril-flaring anticipation that dances across Daenerys Targaryen's face as she stands aboard a ship and looks toward Westeros, the land she hopes to rule.
"Winter is here" is certainly this finale's most memorable catchphrase. But this astute observation from Samwell Tarly — "I suppose that life is irregular" — comes in close second. Things are indeed irregular on this week's Game of Thrones, which is a more refined way of saying that shit gets cray-zee. In the 60-plus minutes of this supersize slice of drama, the following events occur: Qyburn's flock of small children knife Grand Maester Pycelle to death; Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, killing Margaery, Loras, the High Sparrow, and dozens more in one extremely green, intense explosion; King Tommen jumps out of a window, plummeting to his death; Cersei orders Zombie Gregor to begin a long process of torturing Septa Unella; Davos reveals that Melisandre burned poor Shireen to death, causing Jon Snow to boot her out of the North forever; Olenna teams up with the Sand Snakes after insulting them repeatedly on behalf of viewers everywhere; Littlefinger tries to hit on Sansa, which is not particularly violent yet manages to be grosser than almost everything else in this finale; and, as previously noted but worth noting again because it induces the biggest gasp, Arya appears out of nowhere to slice up a Frey after forcing him to eat a pie made of his son. That is some serious Sweeney Todd–level stuff right there. It's a lot, and, even by GOT standards, it's viciously violent.
Ultimately, this episode gains depth and heft from its subtext. In several important scenes, "The Winds of Winter" wrestles with issues of faith raised earlier in the season, particularly after Jon Snow's resurrection. In a previous recap, I questioned whether Game of Thrones believes in God. Even though something brought Jon back to life, when asked what he saw after he died, he replied, "Nothing. There was nothing at all," a statement that implies there is no higher power.
Early in this finale, as Loras Tyrell prepares to confess to his sins, director Miguel Sapochnik seems to consider both possibilities. He toggles between overhead shots suggestive of an omnipotent figure looking down from the heavens and lower angles that make the High Sparrow loom larger than he does in reality. Later, though, the episode clearly conveys that people of faith — or at least those whose beliefs blind them to rational thought — have no future in the Seven Kingdoms. The High Sparrow and his ilk are decimated. Only Septa Unella remains, and she's now at Cersei's mercy, or lack thereof. Cersei wants this supposedly devout woman to know that there's no difference between them, the clergy, and the sinner. "You did it," she says, referring to the way Septa Unella once tortured her, "because it felt good." (It's notable that Cersei makes reference to being the last face Septa Unella will see smiling down at her; those are practically the same words Arya uses before she kills Walder Frey.)
"This is your god now," Cersei later adds, introducing Septa Unella to the Mountain, another person (he still counts as a person, right?) who will hurt her purely for his own enjoyment. According to Cersei, everyone is motivated by the same basic instincts; some people simply label them in a way that makes those instincts seem holy.
Davos strikes a similar tone when he and Melisandre get into a long-overdue argument about Shireen's death. Melisandre argues it was necessary because the Lord of Light demanded it. (Plus, you know, Shireen's dad signed the permission slip and everything.) But Davos rightly makes the irrefutable point that "If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil." Jon Snow — a man theoretically raised from the dead by that same lord — agrees.
Yet Game of Thrones isn't so cynical that it suggests no one and nothing is worthy of faith. In this episode's loveliest scene, Tyrion, now the hand of the queen, delivers a stirring testimonial in favor of believing in people as opposed to omnipotent beings. "I've been a cynic for as long as I can remember," he tells Daenerys during their heart-to-heart following her breakup with Daario. "Everybody's always asking me to believe in things — family, gods, kings, myself. It was often tempting, until I saw where belief got people. So I said 'no, thank you' to belief. And yet here I am. I believe in you." (Also: It's so obvious that Tyrion's fallen in love with Dany, and Peter Dinklage plays that undercurrent of affection in such a beautiful way.)
"The Winds of Winter" affirms a theme that's been lingering throughout the season: Faith in decent leaders and fellow humans is wiser than faith in demanding gods. The fact that the (very) young Lyanna Mormont demonstrates such faith in Jon — a faith that encourages other Stark bannermen to declare Jon as King in the North — speaks to this idea as well. (It's certainly no accident that she shares a name with Jon's mother, either.) While seeking vengeance may work to the advantage of Cersei and satisfy both Arya and Olenna, who wants nothing more than to kick Cersei's butt out of that Iron Throne, honorable behavior and sacrifices for the greater good still seem to mean something.
Of course, questions still remain at the end of this very fine season. Will Sansa change her mind, take Littlefinger up on his marriage proposition, and make a run for queen? What will happen when Jon (or others) realize that he has another Stark's blood running through his veins? Will his true parentage threaten his standing as the North's guiding star? As our Tara Abell asked during last night's liveblog: "It seems inevitable now that Jamie is going to kill Cersei, no? For committing the very crime he killed the Mad King for attempting to commit?"
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait another year to find out any answers. If that seems like a tall order, just consider this: A year ago, we weren't sure whether Jon Snow was dead or alive.
Despite all of the dark and horrible things that happen in "The Winds of Winter," it concludes on an optimistic note when compared to season five. The last image of that finale was of Jon Snow, his eyes open but drained of life, staring off into a void. One of the last images of this season is of Daenerys Targaryen — a possible relative of Jon — with her eyes open, very much alive, and staring off at her next target of conquest. If season five left us with a question, this one leaves us with a single, declarative word: Onward.