Visually impressive as it was, last week’s “Battle of the Bastards” ultimately fell short of the best HBO’s Game of Thrones has to offer. In part, the excessive amount of time the show had spent hitting us over the head with Ramsay’s evil ruined any chance of his death being satisfying: we were so ready for him to go that it was hard to imagine a truly fitting way to kill him off. Even still, Sansa’s execution by dog consumption felt overly pat and primal, particularly by the high standards of moral complexity in Game of Thrones’ finest hours.
And sure enough, “The Winds of Winter” lays claim to being amongst those, even going beyond the typical episode length to deal with Season Six’s many plot strands in remarkable fashion. Where “Battle of the Bastards” stumbled by offering simplistic resolutions to complicated problems, “The Winds of Winter” soars by reveling in the dark ambiguities of Westeros’ violent brutality.
The episode’s interest in the minutiae of the effects of violence is apparent from the cross-cut and heavy first act montage, set to the tune of a haunting piano and cello score by composer Ramin Djawadi. Tommen, Margaery, Cersei, Loras and the High Sparrow all prepare for the long-awaited trials, even if Cersei has a different idea of how the day will go. The focus on their preparations makes for a powerful moment of quiet before the brutal storm, an emphasis on the humanity of those whose lives will soon be taken away.
This emphasis makes the demolition of the Sept of Baelor, when it finally comes, all the more devastating. As horrifying as Loras’ mutilation following the renunciation of his identity would be no matter what, that it ends up being one of his last moments highlights the horror of Cersei’s act. Ditto for Margaery’s plea to the Sparrow for them to abandon the building once she realizes what’s going on, as her desire to cooperate with a man who stands against everything she believes in calls attention to the direness of the situation. Cersei smiles and toasts to the havoc she wreaks, showing the sadism of a woman whose torture at the hands of others has made her, at times, sympathetic. In case the explosion of the building seems in any way uncomplicated, her torture of Septa Unella — a vicious act of cruelty even if the victim herself had once been equally cruel — emphasizes just how twisted Cersei has become.
But most haunting of all the collateral damage from Cersei’s actions is Tommen’s suicide. Two lengthy takes show the King watching the Sept of Baelor go up in flames, the look of horror and grief on his face, and his self-defenestration after he decides that he has nothing to live for now that his wife and priest are dead. Director Miguel Sapochnik, showing off his flair for spectacle between last week’s battles and this week’s explosion, proves himself to be equally adept at a more minimalistic approach to capturing the horrors of Westeros.
Quiet emotions also pervade in Winterfell, where Davos confronts Melisandre and Sansa and Jon discuss living arrangements in their new home. The siblings’ reunion after Jon’s resurrection was one of the most emotional moments of the early part of Season Six, and the shot of them together in their family’s castle makes for no less of a compelling image. Winter is here, and the Starks will spend it together, even if Jon and Sansa don’t share a father after all, as Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy reveals. If these moments highlight the happier side of life in Westeros, Davos’ revelation of Melisandre’s burning of Shireen, and Jon’s subsequent exile of her, remind viewers of just how brutal things can get. At the same time, Melisandre’s argument for the necessity of her actions is hard to dispute, particularly when considered in conjunction with Cersei’s God-free sadism.
Brutality also reigns supreme in Arya’s murder of Walder Frey, which comes only after she pulls off her disguise as a servant to reveal that she made him made him eat a pie filled with his son, in a move worthy of Titus Andronicus. As with the pleasure Cersei takes in torture and mass destruction, the sheer grotesqueness of Arya’s actions highlights the hideous effects of life in Westeros. You can survive their primal world, as Arya and Cersei have, but one hardly leaves unscathed.
And as much focus as “The Winds of Winter” puts on the terrible deeds required to gain control, the episode also doesn’t ignore the powerful symbolism of the women of Westeros taking charge. Lyanna Mormont, used more for comic effect earlier in the season, delivers a stirring speech in support of Jon in defiance of men dwarfing her in age and size. The feminist reclamation of power is particularly significant in the cases of Sansa and Daenerys, two women who’ve been violently abused by men in the past and now reject attempts by other men (Littlefinger and Daario) to share in their success. As for Cersei, her shared glance with Jaime could be endlessly interpreted, but the image of her sitting on the throne while he stands to the side remains a moving one nonetheless. Long may she reign, indeed.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.