"Sometimes, before we can usher in the new, the old has to be put to rest."
Game of Thrones finales have always been about setting up the following year's story. For the first few years, that meant a ninth episode in which all the poop hit the fan, and a tenth in which the survivors picked up the pieces and the the pawns were moved around the board, preparing for a new year and a new direction.
Over time, however, that process of setting up the new season has become more and more dramatic and the real gut-punch of the season has moved from the penultimate episode to the grand finale. It started when Tyrion offed Tywin Lannister on the bog in the tenth episode of season 4, while in season 5, the really dramatic beats hit in episodes 8 (the extraordinary battle sequence at Hardhome) and 10 (the assassination of Jon Snow) with episode 9 reserved for the truly nasty action (the murder of Shireen Baratheon).
All that culminates in this, truly a Grand Finale in every sense of the term, because the process of setting up season 7 doesn't mean moving some pieces into place - it means wiping out half the board and rearranging the rest into a simpler, grander formation. The Meerenese Knot and the complex tangle of webs in King's Landing have been cut loose, and the scale of the action has gone global, with the various storylines we've been following for six years finally looking set to converge as Winter hits.
And what a satisfying process it is! We've been waiting so many years for Dany to take her dragons and just go and invade Westeros already, and she's finally doing it. We finally know who Jon's mother is (if not his father, the show is still dragging that out even though readers worked it out years ago) and he has been crowned King of the North in a scene that exactly parallels Robb's similar crowning at the end of season 1. Or, perhaps more accurately, it almost exactly parallels it - the winter light in the Great Hall is colder than the warm fires were when Robb was crowned, and there was no Littlefinger smirking in the background back then.
That scene in itself is paralleled by the crowning of Queen Cersei - finally Queen in her own right after years as wife and mother - which is brilliantly chilling. The crowning of Joffrey in season 1, which it echoes, was ominous enough (and, like the King on the North, that earlier crowning was more brightly lit and coloured in Lannister red and gold, where Cersei and her court wear mourning black) but this is a much more darkly sinister moment, the grieving and increasingly unhinged Queen looming over her subjects like Death itself.
If there's a downside to all this, it's perhaps that the show, so brilliant at being complex and offering us equally conflicted and conflicting people on all sides, has become a little bit more black and white now. If we leave out Littlefinger for a moment, we are left with three contenders for the throne; Cersei on the one hand, who was always pretty awful and has now crossed the line into more or less irredeemable (especially considering she no longer has her children to live for), and Jon and Danaerys on the other hand, both generally 'good' (we've been told repeatedly by characters we like - Davos and Tyrion - that Jon and Dany are good rulers who are worth fighting for over this season) and who could potentially divide Westeros between themselves. Plus the invasion of ice zombies from the north, of course, who are definitely Bad.
Tyrion has joined Dany, Davos has joined Jon, so the only character we like who remains in a dodgy camp is Jaime, and he is unlikely to remain loyal to Cersei now that she's started playing with wildfyre (and he's been reminded how much he likes Brienne). The complex mess of human emotions and ambitions that made up the first two or three series has been replaced with a much more traditional fantasy narrative in which the noble bastard and the scion with the dragons must fight the ice zombies and the Mad Queen. But perhaps that's no bad thing. After all, we've all been desperate for something actually to happen with the ice zombies and/or the dragons for years, and it's hard to deny that this sweeping, epic narrative is rather more dramatic and satisfying in some ways than the mess of plots.
And of course, the plotting isn't entirely done yet. There's still Littlefinger, who has no interest in dragons or ice zombies, only in taking the Iron Throne for himself, and Sansa with it. And Littlefinger's true enemy is Varys, who reminded us all that Dorne exists before, we can only presume, flying back to Essos on one of the dragons, since there seems no other way he could possibly have got to Dany's ships so quickly. When Cersei has gone down in flames and the ice zombies have been defeated, Littlefinger will still be there and will need to be dealt with before Jon and Dany can carve up Westeros between themselves.
Never mind all that for now, though. For now, we can all revel in how incredibly dramatically satisfying it is finally to see action on a grand scale. The Starks are finally back in Winterfell, Dany is finally on the move and while Cersei might think she has won for now, the Lannisters are finally on their way out. Oh, and just for good measure, Walder Frey just got his comeuppance as well, a huge fan-pleasing moment that's almost in danger of getting lost among all the other dramatic developments of this episode. For the first time, a real end is in sight for this show, and I can't wait to see just how we get there.
Bits and pieces
- I have to confess, I am very disappointed that Margaery went out like that. I thought for sure that she was going to be able to make it out of the sept in time, even if Loras didn't. It seems a bit abrupt that all her scheming and plotting and ambition ended up coming to nothing in the end (but of course, that's equally true of Robb Stark, Renly Baratheon and all sorts of other Game of Thrones characters).
- Having said that, and entirely understanding that Cersei is awful - I wasn't exactly keen on the High Sparrow either, and have to confess to a tiny feeling of smugness with Cersei as she looked at the destruction she'd wrought. Very wrong of me!
- Arya was eyeing up Jaime - not, as Bronn presumed, because she wants to sleep with him, but presumably because she wants to kill him. Whatever goes down between Jaime, Arya and Brienne - and something will, or the writers wouldn't have taken such trouble to remind us that Jaime and Brienne fancy the pants off each other - it's not going to be good.
- The music in this episode was absolutely brilliant, especially in that opening Godfather-style sequence that wiped out half the cast. A really ominous slow-build that effectively ramped up the tension and perfectly underscored Cersei's descent into total megalomania.
- I'm always interested in what the show does with Dany's costumes. She hasn't gone back to the Dothraki outfits of seasons 1 and 2, but her current favourite dress is much less medieval (seasons 4 and 5) or cowgirl (season 3) either. It looks vaguely Greco-Roman, in a loose sort of way - a sign that Danearys intends to conquer in the grand, old-fashioned style of her ancestors, perhaps.
- The library at the Citadel was absolutely beautiful, and the business with the Maester some much needed light relief in a heavy episode. I can't help feeling the Library, like the Library of Alexandria, is doomed, though.
- 'The Winds of Winter' is, of course, the title of the as-yet-unpublished sixth novel in the original book series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
- RIP: Grand Maester Pycelle, The High Sparrow, Lancel Lannister, all the little sparrows, Margaery Tyrell, Loras Tyrell, Mace Tyrell, Uncle Kevan Lannister, King Tommen Baratheon, Lord Walder Frey, Black Walder, the other Frey Junior whose name I can't remember, Jaime's love for Cersei, probably.
Jon: I'm not a Stark.
Sansa: You are to me.
Dany: Tyrion Lannister, I name you Hand of the Queen.
Lots of northerners: The King in the North! The King in the North!
Epic in every sense. Five out of four dragons.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.