Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap: The Winds of Winter
It's the bloodiest -- and most game-changing -- GoT finale ever
Boom. On every level, boom. Game of Thrones concluded what many have considered its best season with one of its finest — and the deadliest — episodes, “The Winds of Winter,” which excelled in dramatic storytelling just as last week’s “Battle of the Bastards” raised the bar for action sequences. Though the finale shifted from the battlefield, the events were, if anything, far more seismic, with game-changing revelations and huge moves from every corner of the realm that established some very clear new conflicts going into season 7.
Judging by reactions online, super-sized 69-minute finale bloodbath left viewers stunned at both its operatic execution and its mercilessness. Thrones wiped out 11 series-regular or recurring cast members from its ranks. And just look at all that happened: Dany set sail for Westeros, Dorne joined forces with both Dany and the Tyrells, Arya returned to Westeros and crossed a major name off her list, Jon became King in the North, and Cersei blew up her enemies and then claimed the Iron Throne for herself. There was death and destruction galore, but it was also rather gleeful death and destruction, as fan-favorite characters mostly got precisely what they wanted.
Some quick-jump links before we get started breaking down this episode: Here’s our interview with Natalie Dormer on her character’s fate, here’s our chat with Lena Headey on those twists, our conversation with Emilia Clarke where she makes some season 7 predictions, actor Finn Jones on Ser Loras’ sad fate, director Miguel Sapochnik breaking down that opening sequence, and our detailed breakdown of the Tower of Joy scene.
So give this recap your best evil smile and let’s start with…
King’s Landing: The producers and director Miguel Sapochnik smartly took advantage of the extra length of the finale by opening with a 25-minute sequence all set in one location instead of jumping around the map. Thrones normally only does a sustained focus on one setting for a battle. In a way, a battle is exactly what this was, just a very uniuqe kind. And the entire tone, pacing and score of this sequence is unlike anything we’ve seen on Thrones before.
We start by hearing church bells, which is appropriate, because there’s a whole lot of funerals coming soon — including the death of the church itself. We see Cersei put on a black leather dress with a chain across the front that’s unlike anything we’ve seen her wear before. Have you ever wondered what Cersei would look like in armor? That’s sort of what this is; she’s preparing for war and this is her battle-dress. Only instead of being on the front lines like Jon Snow, she’s a general who has set her plans into motion and is going to sit at her window, drink wine, and watch and wait — finally looking like the Disney-esque Evil Queen we’ve always suspected was in her.
In the king’s chambers, Tommen is ready to go to the trial and seal his mom’s fate. The Mountain blocks him from leaving. The Mountain doesn’t say anything, but also doesn’t need to. There has been so much speculation over The Mountain’s ultimate purpose this season. Many assumed he would fight for Cersei in trial by combat because that’s what the characters told us would happen. Maybe he would fight The Hound? But while fun to watch, that would have also been repetitive — he already fought for the crown vs. The Viper in season 4. Nobody — and this is how truly unpredictable Thrones is — nobody has guessed that The Mountain would spend the season 6 finale creepily babysitting Tommen.
Pycelle gets a message that the king wants to see him, and he goes to Qyburn’s lair. The Grand Maester has survived in the Red Keep’s court for a very long time. He’s one of the few whose services goes all the way back to the Mad King. He’s craftily acted the part as a weakling sycophant — nonthreatening and supportive — always ready to switch allegiances when the crown is placed on a new head. This time, however, Pycelle chose poorly, picking Tommen over Cersei. He pays for it now.
Throughout this build-up, Ramin Djawadi’s score, with delicate piano, has been ebbing in and out of these scenes. The music now ramps up as the bloodshed begins. The chorus of children singing makes what happens next all the more creepy: Pycelle gets shanked to death by a gang of children.
NEXT: A Boom with a View
In the Sept, we see the major players have gathered. There’s the High Sparrow, Lancel Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Ser Loras. Ah, poor Ser Loras. He’s a broken man, ready to say anything to stop the pain. He’ll be put out of his misery soon. Loras says there’s no need for a trial; he’s ready to “confess” everything. He’s willing to sacrifice his title and future to become a member of the Faith Militant. The High Sparrow has their cult’s star carved into his forehead to help keep him on board. Margaery is upset — that wasn’t part of their deal, she says, which confirms for us that there was indeed some backroom haggling going on between them. The Sparrow says he’s fine, he’s joining the faith, that’s their mark, what’s the big deal? He has a way of making whatever he wants sound reasonable.
But then, Margaery starts to get concerned. No Cersei? No Tommen? That’s not good — for them.
“Something’s wrong,” she tells the Sparrow, who sends Lancel to fetch Cersei.
He takes a few Faith Militant to get her. You would think after their previous attempt to extract Cersei from the Red Keep they would have brought more men. On the way out Lancel “catches” one of Qyburn’s “little bird” spies. Lancel gives chase and he’s led to a dungeon by the Sept. The Little Bird stabs him in his spine, which looks horrible. Lancel realizes he’s by a massive cache of wildfire, that infamously explosive napalm-like substance Tyrion used to sink most of Stannis’ fleet during the Battle of the Blackwater back in season 2. The Mad King had an enormous stash created when he planned to burn the city down before his order was halted to Jaime. This is the discovery by Qyburn’s Little Birds that he and Cersei discussed previously, all cryptic-like.
Lancel crawls forward toward a candle burning down, he’s trying to blow it out and stop what’s about to be an enormous explosion. He almost makes it. In a terrific shot, you see the green flash in the reflection of his eye.
Back at the trial, Margaery tries to leave, but she’s blocked by the Faith Militant just like Tommen was blocked by The Mountain. Nobody is leaving their respective rooms! Margaery doesn’t know what’s going to happen, exactly, but has correctly calculated they are somehow totally screwed. “She’s beaten you; she knows the consequences of not being here,” she tells the befuddled Sparrow. He’s too proud to admit he’s wrong, brought down by one of the seven deadly sins, and it’s ironic given that the reputation he tries so hard to cultivate is that of a man who is humble.
Margaery doesn’t want to spend her final moments with the High Sparrow, so she goes to her brother. She holds onto Loras as the explosion comes. We see the High Sparrow obliterated. The entire Sept explodes in an orgasmic burst of green fire. Margaery, Loras, Kevan Lannister, Mace Tyrell, the High Sparrow — all gone. Crown beats church. Don’t mess with Cersei.
And then we see Cersei, wearing a little gleeful smile. Green wildfire for her green eyes. Looking out her window, it’s like she’s watching the Game of Thrones finale along with us, and loving how it’s all turning out. All her local enemies have been wiped out, all at once. I wonder, if Cersei could have opted to spare Margaery from the fire, if she would have? Probably not.
Actually, they’re not all her local enemies. There’s one left. And somehow Cersei made certain she wasn’t in the Sept when it went boom.
In a dungeon, she has Septa Unella captive. She promised Unella last season that her face will be the last she ever sees. This scene could be the most guilty of guilty pleasures that Thrones has ever served up. Consider: A woman is tied to a table being tortured. We should be horrified. Yet we’re almost as giddy as Cersei, who waterboards her with wine. Confess! Confess! “Confess it felt good beating me, starving me,” Cersei says. And then, Cersei herself confesses, to all her sins — killing King Robert, having kids with Jaime. “It felt good to watch them burn … even confessing feels good under the right circumstances,” she marvels. Oh academy voters, confess you love Lena Headey’s performance and give her an Emmy already.
Unella says she’s prepared to die. Cersei assures this won’t happen for a long time. “This is your god now,” Cersei says and brings in The Mountain, who we can be confident will do all sorts of horrid things to her. As Cersei exits, she says, perfectly, “shame, shame, shame…”
This is a scene that’s sure to explode the mind of anybody attempting to lasso Thrones into a simplistic frame. Cersei is the Strong Female Character who just took control, without her brother or uncle’s help, and solved her immediate problems by killing truly evil and totally innocent people alike. Then she gets revenge on a sadistic woman by subjecting her to a gruesome fate that we can probably assume will include every variety of assault. Cersei is a complicated and oft-vicious character doing what she wants to survive. The show isn’t going to tell you how to feel about it or expect us to feel a uniform or simplistic emotion. She’s our Tony Soprano, our Walter White, our Michael Corleone — except a woman. Her gender shouldn’t make a difference. If it feels like it does, it’s interesting to wonder why it should.
Tommen, like Pycelle, backed the wrong person, and he knows it. He picked his wife over his mother. He fully expected his mom was going to die today, or something just as terrible, and apparently made some kind of peace with that. Instead his beloved wife is dead. Give the kid some credit: He’s been so indecisive so many times. For once, Tommen knows precisely what to do. Without hesitating, he takes off his crown and leaps off his balcony. At least he gets to avoid an excruciatingly awkward chat with his mom. Who will feed Ser Pounce?
Once again, Thrones told us exactly who was going to die in advance, and we didn’t fully believe it until it happened. Melisandre cursed the three kings (Joffrey, Renly, Robb) and each died. Last season opened with Cersei’s flashback showing the prophecy of Maggy the Frog, who told her she’d have three children who would all perish. Joffrey’s fate was largely beyond Cersei’s control, really. Myrcella was more directly due to her actions — worriedly sending Jaime to rescue her. And Tommen’s fate was the most direct cause-and-effect of all. How much of this is prophecy vs. free will is left for us to figure out.
Cersei sees Tommen’s body. She’s sad, but not surprised. And, well, this actually presents an opportunity. She decides to burn him, because that’s what she does now. Burn them all.
NEXT: Damn Arya, you scary
The Twins Hey, it’s Walder Frey in his gloomy murder-castle — or what would happen if you made Argus Filch the Hogwarts headmaster.
He’s having a chat with Jaime Lannister, a man who has sex with his own sister, crippled a young boy and killed his cousin, yet even Jaime finds this guy utterly despicable. Jaime points out that Walder hasn’t really accomplished anything aside from murdering defenseless wedding guests. Whenever Walder needs help he calls the Lannisters to bail him out.
A comely serving girl gives Jaime a couple looks, almost flirtatous. That we later learn this girl is actually Arya Stark makes that so much weirder.
Later, when Walder is alone, the girl comes back. Walder wants to know where his sons are. The girl says they’re right here, and reveals they’re… cooked into the food. I didn’t even think Arya had any baking skills. And I’m not sure how she could have pulled this off unless she murdered his entire staff unnoticed and then spent hours single-handedly making dinner. But we’re too enthralled by what’s going on to think too much about the fact she just chopped up Walder Frey’s sons and then cooked them into bread. (Also: Christ, Arya…).
It’s like a literal twist on Westerosi “guest right.” A host isn’t supposed to harm his own guests, especially once they are served bread and salt, a tradition Walder Frey violated when he killed Arya’s mom and brother. So Arya here has taken his bread and made it into a cannibalistic dish, corrupting it literally, like he did metaphorically.
Arya whips off her mask and reveals herself. “The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark smiling down at you as you die,” she explains. She’s very closely echoing Cersei to Septa Unella, which is quite interesting. She slits his throat — precisely like how Catelyn Stark was killed.
Viewers cheer. The North remembers. Arya smiles coldly. This episode is rather big on evil smiling.
Dorne: Yup, Dorne! We haven’t seen Dorne since the season premiere.
Lady Olenna has figured the enemy of her enemy is her friend and went to Ellaria Sand to make a pact.
One of the Sand Snakes tries to speak up and the Queen of Thorns smacks her down, and we all chortle happily. “You look like an angry little boy … do shut up, dear, let the grown-ups talk,” she scolds them. The Dorne storylines get a lot of flack from fans, but we’re totally willing to spend time in Dorne if it means Olenna regularly dissing the Sand Snakes.
Olenna says something quite foreboding: She’s not interested in survival. She wants vengeance. That’s when that man behind the curtain, Varys, reveals himself. “Fire and blood,” says Varys, the Targaryen words.
As if Dany didn’t have enough advantages going to Westeros, now she’s enlisting Dorne and the Tyrells, too. Cersei always thinks everybody wants to kill her, and it’s looking like next season that’s actually going to be the case.
The Citadel: Samwell arrives in Oldtown to begin his education to become a maester. He enters the library and has a total nerd-gasm at the rows and rows of books. Beautiful. But poor Gilly. She’s probably not getting any for a while. Time enough at last, Samwell.
The Wall: Fans expected Bran to show up at Winterfell, but no. They get to The Wall, and Benjen / Coldhands says he cannot stay with him. That’s when we’re reminded that The Wall was built to keep out the White Walkers, and there’s a spell on it that prevents anybody who is undead from passing. Then we think about Jon’s quip to Dolorous Edd about not knocking down The Wall while he’s gone. Which leads us to think: Before this show ends, that Wall is so coming down.
Bran then goes to the weirwood tree. It turns out Bran can get online at any heart tree, not just the one at the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave. They’re like Internet cafes for his vision-brain.
So Bran decides to finish that really exciting vision that was left unfinished on his psychic DVR from so many episodes back. You know, the one at the tower?
Tower of Joy: We waste no time. We’re already on the stairs following young Ned Stark to the chamber where his sister Lyanna lays dying amid a pool of blood. And everything happens basically as fans expected: “Promise me, Ned…” she says. She whispers something in his ear. We don’t hear what it is. Around the world fans are cranking up the volume on their TVs. And then we see her baby. Young Jon Snow.
Watching all this, Bran Stark is like our avatar, we see he’s realizing the implications. Jon Snow’s mother wasn’t some rando battlefield hookup, but rather his aunt’s child. Which means Ned Stark wasn’t Jon Snow’s father (We can assume that, right? Even in this show?). And it means, also presumably, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen is the father. Which, if correct — and we don’t know the full paternal story 100 percent here — Jon Snow is half Targaryen and half Stark. Born out of wedlock, presumably (Rhaegar was already married), but still: a noble with a major claim to the Iron Throne. This also means he’s Dany’s nephew, so chew on that. If you’ve ever wondered what “L+R=J” means but haven’t looked it up because you hate math, its Lyanna plus Rhaegar equals Jon (and no, there’s no baby Meera Reed, c’mon, they’re not Skywalkers, even for fan theories that one was silly). (We get far more detailed on the TOJ scene in a separate story, linked at the end.)
This point is made eloquently by zooming in on the child’s eyes and then back out again on…
Winterfell: … Jon Snow’s eyes. We’re going a little out of order here, but this is what goes down in Winterfell:
First, Jon has a meeting with Melisandre and Ser Davos, who can’t hold in his secret any longer. Davos has long had it out for Melisandre, and he finally has a smoking gun — or charred stag, rather — suggesting her guilt. He tells Jon she had little Shireen burned alive. We have never seen Davos so upset. He says he loved Shireen like his own daughter. His pain is magnified since he’s a man who lost his own sons to war. So the loss of Shireen too, so senselessly, is particularly upsetting. “I didn’t lie, I was wrong,” she says, but cold comfort that would be to Shrieen. Davos wants her executed.
NEXT: Hail to the King
“I’ve been ready to die for many years,” she says, and you get the feeling maybe she’s actually wanted to die but couldn’t. Jon is faced with a tough decision: Keep Melisandre, and lose Ser Davos and have a child-killer in your inner circle. Or kill Melisandre, and execute the woman who brought him back to life and a potential helper against the Night KIng. Tricky. So he makes a compromise measure, and exiles her. But Davos warns: If he sees her again, he’ll kill her. Not sure he can do that, but it’s a pledge that we suspect carries some weight. Given her age and overall witchiness, I bet getting banished from a group is something that’s probably happened to her many times before.
A white raven arrives from The Citadel, which signals the meteorologist maesters at the Old Town weather center have made it official. Winter has come. Jon then gets as close as he ever does to a one liner: “Well, father always promised, didn’t he?”
Sansa apologizes for not telling him about the Knights of the Vale. Jon says he’s giving her the big master bedroom (awww). The bedroomm is probably not much of a sacrifice — even the second-best room at Winterfell must be like staying at the Grand Wailea compared to the accommodations at Castle Black. “We have so many enemies now, we can’t fight a war amongst ourselves,” he says.
And speaking of enemies coming between them, here’s Littlefinger with his version of The Secret. He explains he’s got the Iron Throne on his vision board, with Sansa as his queen. That she calls this a “pretty picture” is a bit disconcerting, but maybe that was just her way of stopping his attempt to kiss her. He’s trying to drive a wedge between her and her brother, and despite the show suggesting otherwise, it’s hard to imagine this working. Darth Sansa is no fool. When he says “you’re the future of House Stark,” she rightly notes that Littlefinger only serves himself.
Later, we’re in the Feast Hall and all those bannerman who were wimps about joining the fight against the Boltons have come crawling back (wait I had something for this — House Glover? More like House Grovel-er! … ahem). Lady Mormont shames them; a 10-year-old girl chastises them as cowards. She’s Jon Snow’s pint-sized bad cop, and terrific at it.
She rallies them to support Jon Snow — “King in the North!” The men cheer Jon, “The White Wolf,” who looks almost proud for once, and a bit amazed. When we first met Jon he was an outsider in this hall. He never felt loved and accepted. Being Ned Stark’s true heir is what he always wanted. He turned it down when Stannis tried to hand it to him a couple seasons back because it meant breaking an oath. Instead Jon took the hardest road and earned all this.
Of course, we’ve now learned there’s a wrinkle — his parentage isn’t what they think, and we wonder how his bannerman would react if they knew the truth. Jon Snow isn’t a heir to Winterfell. He’s a heir to the whole Seven Kingdoms. It’s like being promoted to run an entire Apple Store but not knowing Steve Jobs was your father … actually, that probably wouldn’t even matter, but you get the idea.
Sansa is happy for Jon, then catches sleazy Littlefinger practically rolling his eyes. Maybe a better question is how will ambitious Littlefinger react to Jon’s parentage? Jon would suddenly be a huge threat to his plans.
NEXT: Queen of the Damned
Riverlands: Brienne and Podrick leave their boat at an icy riverbed. The snow is coming hard since winter has arrived. They trek through the forest, making their way toward Winterfell.
Suddenly they realize they are not alone. Brienne takes out Oathkeeper, and she tells Pod to hang back. Their breath turns icy. Uh-oh.
Through the trees, a hooded figure approaches. An old woman. She seems familiar somehow.
Brienne is stunned. This is impossible, she thinks. And yes, it is impossible. Because it didn’t happen, and probably won’t happen, and that’s perfectly okay if it doesn’t happen. But I do wish other TV writers would stop writing stories on how Lady Stoneheart is “almost surely coming this time!” in the run-up to every Thrones season finale making everybody think it’s going to happen. You click on those stories, I click on those stories, and we feel like Lucy being fooled into trying to kick Charlie Brown’s football yet again.
Still, though: No Brienne or Pod. Which is surprising. And no Night King or White Walkers, which is quite unusual for a finale. Usually there’s a “Great War to come” reminder scene. Given how much ground the show had to cover, I suppose that’s understandable.
King’s Landing: Jaime and Bronn arrive in King’s Landing just in time to witness a rather momentous occasion.
They see the ruins of the Sept and hurry to the Throne Room. There the lords and ladies have gathered. And Jaime sees Cersei taking her seat on the Iron Throne. Qyburn is her Hand of the Queen. We thought Dany would become the first female ruler of Westeros, but no. It’s Cersei. We have a new winner of the “Who’s going to end up on the Iron Throne next?” game. And for the first time since season 1, the official ruler of the Seven Kingdoms is an actual grown-up.
Cersei and Jaime share a look. He’s like: What the f— have you done?
The mood is grim. The lighting is dark and menacing. Notice the reaction among the lords and ladies in the Throne Room is quite different different than when Joffrey and Tommen were crowned. This time, no one claps.
Meereen: Dany dumps Daario. She doesn’t want him to be a distraction, and she might have to marry somebody when she gets to Westeros (um, how about a nephew? Or is that too weird? Not for Targaryens, right?). Daario is frustrated. He’s not getting what he wants and finally blurts out that he loves her. All of Dany’s men say that when she sends them away. He says their breakup must have been Tyrion’s idea, and she says it wasn’t.
But it seems like it totally was. Dany and Tyrion have a chat. She’s wearing all black, which is unusual — and just like Cersei. She’s rebranding Slaver’s Bay into the Bay of Dragons, which is a much cooler name, though you wonder if tourists will be disappointed to discover the dragons are now over in Westeros. Dany confesses she felt emotionally detached from dumping Daario, which is another note in the show’s ongoing suggestions that she’s becoming less empathetic the more powerful she becomes. But maybe she’s just annoyed by breakups and wishes she could simply stop texting her lover until he gets the hint like most people too.
Tyrion hasn’t had as many great scenes as usual this season, but he’s given a good speech here. “I’ve been a cynic for as long as I can remember. Everybody was always asking me to believe in things …[But] I believe in you.” It’s good timing, because she’s got a pin for him — she made him her Hand of the Queen. It’s another mirror of Cersei in this epiosde (making Qyburn her Hand).
And then they set sail for Westeros. Epic shots of the fleet. It’s happening, at last. Dany is going home. We say goodbye to the pyramid. Hell, we say goodbye to Essos, there’s nobody left on that continent that we care about. Dany stands on her ship and looks out to the open ocean, excited for her future.
So much was resolved. In another place, another time, these last two episodes could have functioned as the Game of Thrones series finale. What happens when the ships hit King’s Landing could have been left to our imagination. It won’t be, of course, which is great, because our imaginations are lousy. And we do have so many burning questions: Will Dany make it directly to Westeros — or will Euron and his fleet trip up their plans? Will Sansa make a power play? Where will Melisandre go? Where will The Hound go? What will Cersei do as queen? Will Jaime accept Cersei’s actions or think of her as a new Mad Queen? Willl Bran be able to stop the Night King’s advance on The Wall? How many books will Sam read? Will Brienne and Pod join Gendry in the sea of eternal boat-rowing?
The Thrones showrunners’ plan of having just two more shortened seasons after this year now makes more sense. With Dany coming to Westeros, we’re really and truly heading into the final chapters of this tale. Along with the demise of the show’s greatest villain, Ramsay Bolton, the events of this season set up two great battles — one is between the living and the dead, and the other is where the stars of the show, the lead characters we have followed for so long, begin to take aim at each other…
MORE COVERAGE: We have Natalie Dormer on Margaery’s fate (she could have beaten Cersei, she says). There’s Lena Headey talking about Cersei’s surprise promotion and her odds against Dany (she read the scene where Cersei takes the Throne nine times, she couldn’t believe it). Here’s our conversation with Emilia Clarke where she makes some season 7 predictions. Director Miguel Sapochnik breaks down that opening sequence. Actor Finn Jones on Ser Loras’ sad fate. There’s also a post breaking down that Tower of Joy reveal in more detail.
Coming later Monday: We’ll also have the showrunners briefly weighing in, and Maisie Williams on who Arya should cross off her list next. Plus, we have another edition (but not the final one this year!) of our podcast tomorrow afternoon. Oh, and we saved our best trivia prizes for the finale: Game of Thrones Monopoly board game for the recap and a Risk board game for the podcast. The trivia question is a multi-parter, one lucky winner who emails the correct answer to email@example.com gets the game: 1. Who was the first king of Westeros and how many kings have their been total (including Tommen, but not including Cersei)? UPDATE: New episode posted below.