It is, of course, crass and ostentatious spectacle less interested in dramatically earning its major beats than it is in making sure they are explosively propulsive. Which is to say that it unapologetically plays to Game of Thrones’s strengths in a way that does not so much minimize its weaknesses as renders them largely irrelevant in the face of the giant fucking wildfire explosion that is the onrushing plot. Everything here is sufficiently thrilling, its implications generally punch-the-air triumphant, that their sheer momentum and the bald confidence with which it’s all carried off makes it work. This is what Game of Thrones’s aesthetic ultimately exists to do. It’s not a subtle pleasure. But, as Cersei would put it, it does feel good.
If there is a problem with it all, it’s that in the ludicrous din of it all moments that should have had real weight get swallowed. The biggest problem, of course, is the way in which the revelation of what actually happened at the Tower of Joy fails utterly to be a significant takeaway from the episode. The decision to save the revelation for this episode, as opposed to putting it in “Oathbreaker” where there would have been room to let Bran gawk at the fact that Jon’s a secret Targaryen, is in several regards baffling. And it highlights the extent to which this episode is overstuffed at the expense of previous ones. What on Earth, for instance, is the purpose of the four minute excursion to Oldtown? Surely Sam, who has spent the season blatantly being a plotline more than Benioff and Weiss actually wanted to deal with, could have been given a scene with actual weight, as opposed to one that exists purely to show the white ravens being sent out. Surely there was room for a third Benjen scene instead of having his second appearance be him leaving again. (Arya’s murder of Walder Frey is an interesting counterexample though. I admit, I didn’t think she’d be in this episode, since “No One” worked just fine as an ending, and the short nature of the scene and her appearance would have made it easy for it to end up as one of the swallowed moments. Instead Maisie Williams single-handedly kicks the scene into one of the best moments of the episode, because she is a fucking boss.)
But what minor quibbles. Let’s be real here. This is stunning, from start to finish. The opening set piece is majestic, due largely to Sapochnik’s direction. The decision to abandon the show’s normal visual storytelling in favor of heavy cross-cutting, further emphasized by a bespoke musical cue (which is subsequently mixed to satisfying effect with “The Rains of Castamere” for Cersei’s coronation) gives it a strange and unsettling quality that allows the realization of what’s going to happen to slowly build over the sequence’s frankly majestic length. The handling of Cersei this season has been one of its real high points - she’s been positioned relatively sympathetically and allowed to mostly be a rational, sensible character. To pay that off with her orchestrating the biggest slaughter of named characters in series’ history (the sequence ties “The Rains of Castamere” for most credited regulars to go down in a single scene) and then seizing the Iron Throne in full “I am now an obvious villain” garb is wonderfully effective. As is the still, lengthy shot on the window for Tommen’s suicide, which ends up being a deliciously effective balance of genuine pathos and morbid spectacle.
On the episode’s other end, meanwhile, is the long-awaited payoff to six seasons of buildup as Daenerys sails west. In and of itself, the final scene is literally pure spectacle, being dialogueless and all, but it can afford to be. Indeed, in some ways it has to be, since the only thing it exists to dramatically emphasize is the idea that it has in some sense been worth waiting six seasons for this. And it’s structured to do that, the camera moving from the Greyjoys to the Unsullied, the Dothraki, Tyrion, Varys (magically teleported over to remind us of the Tyrell/Martell alliance he forged with a single line), and finally just the basic spectacle of dragons and a fuckton of boats. Bolstering this, of course, is the Tyrion/Daenerys scene, which is one of the moments where the show most impressively gets away with it, selling Tyrion’s heartfelt conversion a week after he was telling Daenerys off for excessive similarities to the Mad King on little more than Clarke and Dinklage’s acting and the basic weight of the “I had a Hand of the Queen badge made for you, I hope I got it right” image. Indeed, in many ways this scene highlights just how smart and effective “The Winds of Winter” is in how it makes its moments work. Something like this is easily carried by nothing more than the six years of buildup to it. We don’t need to see an extended plot of Daenerys winning Tyrion over. We just need to see the moment where she does given adequate weight.
The one point where this does become a bit stretched, though, is Jon. His coronation is a suitably emphatic moment, sold further by the inherent charm of Lyanna Mormont. The spectre of Sansa and Littlefinger’s fraught relationship hanging over it is effective tension, as is the basic question of how his Targaryen heritage is actually going to play in beyond the basic messianic implications of it. The problem is really with the fact that the answer to this latter question could well be “it’s not.” And, more broadly, with the fact that, frankly, Kit Harrington remains nowhere near the caliber of Clarke or Dinklage as an actor. And so the complete failure this season to give him a single moment of competence and indeed to spend the entirety of “Battle of the Bastards” stressing the fact that he is absolutely as big an idiot as Ned and Robb if not bigger doesn’t undermine the weight of Jon going from dead to king in nine episodes flat, but it leaves a distinctly Jon-shaped hole at the center of the entire narrative of the North.
That’s not a problem with “The Winds of Winter” at all, though - it’s an altogether more existential problem that the show did a good job of fighting against from about “The Watchers on the Wall” through “Mother’s Mercy,” but has really dropped the ball on this season, which is finding ways to make Jon Snow work in spite of the limitations of his actor and to show him as an effective leader as opposed to telling us he is one. But this is genuinely a minor complaint - the weakest of the three tremendously engaging storylines this episode. The overall picture remains one of a triumphant finish. And while one can fairly complain that there are bits of the season that were sabotaged in favor of stuffing this to the max, that doesn’t, in the end, take away from how ruthlessly entertaining this was. Roll on the conclusion.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of the Twins: Jaime Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister, Tommen Baratheon
Direwolves of Winterfell: Jon Snow, Sansa Stark
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Ships of Winterfell: Davos Seaworth
Mockingbirds of Wintefell: Petyr Baelish
Burning Hearts of Winterfell: Melisandre
Snakes of Dorne: Ellaria Sand
Direwolves of the Twins: Arya Stark
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
Spiders of Dorne: Varys
Paws of Winterfell: Tormund Giantsbane
The Archer, Samwell Tarly
Kraken of Meereen: Theon Greyjoy
Swords of Meereen: Daario Naharis
The Flower, Gilly
The episode is in thirteen parts. The first runs twenty-one minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening image is of a wide shot of the city, the Sept of Baelor centered.
The second runs four minutes and is set at the Twins. The transition is by family and dialogue, with Walder Frey’s “to House Lannister” beginning over the shot of Tommen’s window after he’s leapt from it.”
The third runs one minute and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Cersei Lannister.
The fourth runs four minutes and is set in Oldtown. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei standing over Tommen’s body to Sam and Gilly’s carriage.
The fifth runs seven minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, the scene beginning with one of the white ravens from Oldtown flying towards the castle.
The sixth runs two minutes and is set in Dorne. The transition is by contrasting images, from a wide shot of Winterfell to a wide shot of the far greener Dorne.
The seventh runs six minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by dialogue, from Varys speaking the Targaryen words to Daenerys.
The eighth runs two minutes and is set in the Twins. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion kneeling before Daenerys to Walder Frey eating and drinking.
The ninth runs three minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Sansa Stark.
The tenth runs five minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Bran and Benjen Stark.
The eleventh runs five minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from Jon Snow’s face to Jon Snow’s face.
The twelfth runs four minutes and is set at King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Sansa’s troubled face to Jaime and Bronn riding up to the capital.
The last runs two minutes and is set in the Bay of Dragons. The transition is by image, from one queen to another. The final image is of Daenerys’s fleet.