Now that is a fucking finale. The opening credits kick off at what seems to be double speed, to be able to squeeze in the Twins and Dorne (and blowing right past the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it triumph of the dire wolf sigil once again adorning Winterfell). But not Oldtown despite the Citadel and its great library being among the most fantastic set designs the show has ever created. On the Citadel tip, it’s an extremely minor point in such a literally explosive finale, but I’m slightly confused by the handling of Sam’s storyline this year. It doesn’t feel like there is time enough left (13 episodes being the showrunners' recent quote), for Sam to properly train or, well, do all that much at the Citadel. I imagine he’ll find some important info on the Night King in the stacks, but what I’m not sure is why they felt the need to cram such non-climactic developments into an already extended finale. It’s not like they couldn’t have fit all the Sam material in the first 2-3 episodes of the season and had it effect any of the rest of the story. And there was at least one episode that ran a full 20 minutes shorter than this one, so I'm not sure why it wouldn't just go there.
But there should be more time for the credits to linger all over Westeros next year, no longer splitting time with Essos as Dany is finally on the move, her rapidly swollen fleet of allies in tow. On the one hand, everything wrong with Dany’s plotline is in evidence here, as it takes no more than a single conversation to get the Greyjoys and then the Tyrells and Martells on side. That’s 3 out of 7 kingdoms come into her fold in 2 scenes, while we spend episode after episode of her camp dealing with the one dimensional “threats” of the Dothraki and slavers.
|At least Tommen managed to off himself on the first try|
But if all of this is rushed, as so much of season 6 has been, then there is an “ends justify the means” element to it. The timelines of the far-flung subplots, always fuzzy, have become utterly shredded by the end. To the extent that you have one day in King’s Landing stretched out across the entire hour+ episode, intercut with Varys and Olenna appearing in Dorne what must be weeks later, after which it cuts back to that day, after which it jumps forward to Varys and the Dornish fleet being in Mereen what must be even more weeks after his other scene. And part of me wants to cry foul with the show not just glossing over this added inconsistency, but using it against us to try to create surprise with Arya showing up at the Twins when she “just” left Essos. I’m a great defender of the value of surprise in a narrative (there’s another conversation to have with the sizeable “spoilers don’t bother me” crowd, but I am definitely not one of those), but there is a difference between surprising me with a genuine twist in a story’s trajectory versus surprising me by fudging the logistics of characters locations, in time or geography.
But if the setups have gotten clunkier, the payoffs have gotten even more grandiose, and “The Winds Of Winter” is all payoffs. Arya’s vengeance may be completely sadistic and utterly over-the-top, but it’s also utterly satisfying to see the utterly loathsome Walder Frey get his utterly just desserts, with A Girl declaring her name while she does it. Tyrion expressing such devotion to Dany and her embracing him as her Hand may be rushed when you consider that she has been absent for nearly all of his time in Mereen, but Dinklage sells the hell out of how moved he is to be embraced by someone in spite of his family name rather than tolerated because of it. And if it is a little too easy to get the southern houses onside, those single scenes of Dany meeting Yara or Olenna dismissing the Sand Snakes are terrific in themselves, and in service of finally, finally getting Dany headed to engage with the actual story.
|Yaaaas kween of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass...|
In addition to winding down the wheel-spinning storylines in Mereen, Braavos, and beyond the Wall, season 6 was also the feel good-est season of the series. Just look at the now bloated “Season Morghulis” list below; for all those deaths, the only sympathetic character of real significance to take the loss was Marge Tyrell, with Hodor’s hitting the hardest despite of his minor status. That would seem a fair exchange if it only rid us of Ramsay, but instead we have seen the Red Wedding completely avenged with (in addition to Tywin’s previous demise) the offing of Roose, Frey and his sons, plus the overthrow of Theon’s miserable prick father (not that the replacement seems much better), the slave masters, the spiteful Waif, the Night’s Watch mutineers and bigoted Sparrows, high and low. Plus it gave us the spectacle of Pycelle being gratuitously Children’d of the Corn by Qybrun’s little birds of prey, which was disturbingly amusing. Things have not been this good for the “good guys” since the opening episodes of the series, and that’s before you take into account that Jon Snow was technically dead when the season opened, and the Hound’s return and steps onto a redemptive path.
Things are very best-est in Winterfell, where Sansa and Jon at least don’t fall to immediate infighting, despite Littlefinger’s best efforts to piss in her ear. Her handling of the battle still strikes me as dangerously stupid, but Jon is too kind, or just weary, to rake her over the coals for some mild treason. Their support for each other is heartwarming to see, in a place where Ramsay’s psychotic whims so recently held sway. Jon also returns some of the Stark sense of justice to Winterfell when Melisandre’s crimes come to light. He banishes her where Ned would no doubt have executed, but then it's not as though she sewed Ned's head back on for him. I had figured that Melisandre would be exiled, since having her around to potentially resurrect people undermines the stakes of the all-important conflict with the White Walkers, but she has to live long enough to see Arya again as she predicted. But I also thought she might be somehow stripped of her power first, and it would be the old hag version from the season premiere that Arya would come across, perhaps not even aware that she was the witch who stole her pal Gendry.
The most altogether satisfying development, though, is lil’ Lady Mormont, the baddest of all asses, turning a bastard into a king by her own self. Okay, so the last time he was acclaimed to a leadership position by surprise, it didn’t turn out particularly well for him. Nor did things go swimmingly for the last King In the North, so maybe I should be more concerned about what this bodes. But lil’ Lyanna shaming the cowardly Northern lords, and their sincere contrition, was at once an earned payoff and callback, and one of the most genuinely uplifting moments in a series that is very stingy in doling such moments out, even in this brighter season.
But even in its darker phases, the show has always had a talent for payoffs, and Cersei’s final solution to the 99 problems she has had over the last season or two was much more in that awesome-but-disturbing vein in which the show traditionally operates. Most of us saw her explosive revenge coming, and even that Tommen would become collateral damage to it, but the scale of the body count and Cersei using it to vault all the way on to the Iron Throne still managed to surprise. Cersei has always been a favorite character of mine, and with the dearth of outright villains (Night King and Littlefinger notwithstanding) after this season’s house cleaning, there is a vacancy for a truly villainous ruler figure, and Lena Heady should fill that role as well as she filled out that dark, almost-armored dress.
She is already stepping into that role. While many of us were eager to see her, or anyone really, strike back at the miserable, repressive Sparrows, she takes things to unsettling extremes. It’s not just that she takes out several blocks of the city out with the sept, or that she hardly seems to react to the death of her last child. The scene that opens with her wineboarding Septa Unella starts as something that most of us had wanted on some level to see, as the nun had always been an abusive prig, but became the most deeply unsettling moment of the season when she leaves the Mountain to do…something to the terrified, shrieking woman. I don’t think that she is being condemned to be repeatedly raped by a horrible, rotting giant, because the Mountain seems to have lost anything in the way of autonomous desires with his transformation....but I was also telling myself that repeatedly as the scene transitioned to relatively lighter fare.
Cersei’s ascension also finished a near-complete removal of the Westerosi patriarchy in favor of ascendant women. Dany has represented the Targaryens for essentially the entire series, but this year saw the Lannisters, Greyjoys, Tyrells, and Martells all taken over by (or simply reduced to) female regents. With the Baratheons and Boltons wiped out entirely, it is really only Starks and Arryns that still have male heirs in power. I’m torn on this, actually, as I like all the individual story turns that put them there, but as it becomes a blanket over all the disparate storylines, it starts to feel simplistic and a bit like …fantasy? Which is an odd charge to level at a fantasy story, but the interesting thing about GOT has always been the way it takes a fantasy setting and subverts the narrative tropes associated with that setting. It also seems unfair to level charges of historical inaccuracy against a wholly fictional history, but I feel on some level like having anachronistic values take over the show’s narrative (rather than being applied solely by the audience) undermines the power that came from applying the ugly truths of feudal societies to such a typically-whitewashed genre. This has already been a factor in Dany’s story, as I think the great strides she has made in eradicating slavery in a time period that is broadly analogous to the medieval period where such reforms would be many centuries ahead of that curve are somehow less believable than the dragons she hatched with the power of her magical fire blood.
|"I...I think this guy just came out in support of slavery?"|
I can’t imagine that the Game won’t stay the Game once women are moving most of the pieces, or that the entire show will culminate in a feminist utopia replacing the brutal patriarchy. This season’s triumphs by the Starks notwithstanding, the series hasn’t ever really trucked in wish fulfillment, feminist or otherwise. But if the entire point is that it doesn’t change anything, it seems kind of unnecessary to contrive a ways to broadly empower women just to say “See? Putting them in charge doesn’t fix things!” It somehow feels unreal and unfair at the same time.
|Half-Assed Moralizin' is, as always, brought to you by Papa Johns|
But we’ll see how that develops next year. All in all, this was a transitional year for the show, as it moved away from established source material and into the last act of this story. Except that the story has actually been about seven distinct stories that occasionally overlap, not unlike the 7 independent kingdoms of Westeros, which required a Targaryen to invasion to unite them with fire and blood. It was at once more predictable and more satisfying than years past, and while I think that it introduced certain problematic elements that did not plague prior seasons (the cheapening of life-and-death stakes via resurrections, the complete unmooring of any temporal consistency between storylines), the magnificent payoffs of the finale may have lifted it just above last season in my book. Things are moving faster than ever, and 13 episodes still feels like not enough time to properly deal with Dany’s invasion, Cersei’s reign of terror, the Night King, whatever is going on with the Brotherhood, and everything else.
The maesters were right. It’s going to be a long winter.
Subplot Report Card:
Mereen: A- (I like how they handled Daario’s exit from the story, never having been a fan of the character. I appreciate that they didn’t succumb to the temptation to just kill him off for cheap shock, rather turning it into a character moment for Dany that raises my respect for her by underlining the primacy of her political aspirations over any feelings for this preening peacock)
The North: A (My annoyance with Sansa's poor motivation for hiding Littlefinger is tempered by my delight with how lil' Mormont pronounces "Ned Stark's blooud".)
Wargin’: B (I didn’t even mention the confirmation of the R + L = J theories, since I think most of us have taken it as given for so long, but kudos to the production for finding a baby able to so effectively mimic Jon’s signature look of dour befuddlement)
Kings Landin: A+ (it can’t be overstated how masterful that sept sequence was put together, the piano-driven score immediately setting an ominous mood despite being unprecedented for the show)
Dorne: A (Is it still bullshit that the Snakes overthrew Doran in the premiere specifically on account of his inaction against the Lannisters, only to sit on their hands the entire year while Jaime marched their army in the other direction? Yes. But pairing them with a vengeful Olenna and baleful Varys is the best possible way to drop them back in to the storyline.)
Oldtown: B (great set, not particularly great placement within the season)
The Twins: A (I don’t care how absurd it was for Arya to get access to the kitchens in order to prepare Frey’s sons after surreptitiously removing them. The simplest explanation is that she just removed a toe to plant after having positioned herself as a serving girl, but I prefer to think that she stopped at the crossroads inn to have Hot Pie tutor her in how to make long pig pie. And I loved the payoff for the grisly rat cook story Bran told way back in the S3 finale, and that they were confident enough not to telegraph it in the “Previously On” segment)
Season Morgulis: Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah, Roose Bolton, Walda Bolton, Balon Greyjoy, (-Jon Snow), Shaggydog, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, Alister Thorne, Olly, Osha, Khal Moro, Euron Greyjoy (-Euron Greyjoy), Summer, Leaf The Child Of The Forest, The Wargist Formerly Known As The Three Eyed Raven, HODOR, Septon Swearengen, Brynden “Blackfish” Tully, Lady Crane, the Waif, Rickon Stark, Badjon Umber, Wun Wun, Ramsay Bolton, Grandmaester Pycelle, Lancel Lannister, The High Sparrow, Margaery Tyrell, Loras Tyrell, Mace Tyrell, Kevan Lannister, Tommen Baratheon, Lothar Frey, “Black Walder” Rivers, Walder Frey
Death Watch: I went 4 for 5 in the finale, even hitting the kiss off line that Arya would deliver to Walder Frey....but that still only puts me at 4 for 15, and as I was convinced that Grey Worm, Olenna, and Varys were all going down at certain points, not an impressive oerformance overall. Oh well, at least I managed to be wrong by being too pessimistic, which is a first for this show.