Game of Thrones Recap: Winter Isn’t Coming. It’s Here.
“How about the fact that this is really happening?” says Tyrion, as he and Daenerys prepare to head to Westeros. She’s talked about going home, promised it, prophesied it—and now the moment is finally here.
Indeed, for fans who have been waiting years—decades even—for these stories to bear fruit, it’s a little hard to believe. But it’s here, and in “Winds of Winter,” we watch the narrative diaspora of our main characters contract and reconsolidate: Bran is heading south, Arya and Daenerys are heading east, and much of King’s Landing going up in smoke.
Chekov’s wildfire finally goes off—or more specifically Cersei sets it off like a bomb beneath the Sept of Baelor—wiping the High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Lancel and really just about everyone of import off the map in an instant. The Mountain had previously removed Tommen, but the puppet king responds to the massacre by throwing himself off a tower, inspiring countless off-color but darkly amusing King’s Landing jokes. Despite being a disappointment in nearly every other way, in death Tommen has finally given his mother the one thing she always wanted: the Iron Throne. Cersei emerges from her mourning into the Rhythm Nation regime, donning a severe black gown with golden shoulder pads that make her look like a cross between a medieval general and a 1980s female executive; she is Queen of the Andals, if also ashes.
During the coronation, Cersei and Jaime exchange a look that speaks volumes, and for Jaime at least, it is as uneasy as it is triumphant. Cersei is taking a page from the Targaryens in more ways than one, not just because she finally powerful enough to openly love her brother, if she wishes—a relationship that was common among Targaryen siblings—but because she’s finally enacted the final usurpal of the Mad King Aerys, the one that began with Jaime earning his Kingslayer name. For all the time that people have spent worrying about vengeful Daenerys ascending the throne, it’s Cersei who sits on the Iron Throne while the city smokes.
Cersei often threatened to “burn cities to the ground” to defend her family, although we’d always presumed she meant another city. She’s also been fond of telling Jaime that they are the only two people in the world, and as far as Lannisters go, she’s certainly made that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. She’s also claimed a more protracted vengeance on Septa Unella, the dour woman who tormented her during her imprisonment. In a scene that my podcast partner (and WIRED alum) Spencer Ackerman has dubbed “Zero Dark Cersei,” she waterboards the terrified septa with wine—possibly the most Cersei torture imaginable—and then leaves her to the tender tortures of the undead Mountain.
Daenerys, meanwhile, finally puts Essos in the rearview mirror, along with her lover Daario whom she inexplicably puts in charge of the city. While this is a poor administrative decision, it’s a savvy personal one. She needs to make alliances in Westeros, and the best way to make alliances is marriage—or at least, the ability to tease great families with the prospect. There have been many comparisons between Game of Thrones and English history here, and Daenerys looks an awful lot like Elizabeth I, the first queen of her name, a woman who took the throne without a man and spent most of her life entertaining princes and nobles as suitors, yet choosing none of them and having no children. Daario is the Robert Dudley of this scenario, a beloved inconvenience who ultimately needs to be sidelined for the good of the realm.
We also learn that a couple of longstanding fan theories are true, including arguably the biggest one of all: R+L=J. In the math of internet shipping, that means that Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark are the real parents of Jon Snow—not Ned Stark and some rando—giving him a pretty great claim not just to the North but to the whole of the Seven Kingdoms. (It also gives him a pretty great “maybe you know my aunt” claim.)
He doesn’t know that yet, though, because he doesn’t get to travel into cool flashbacks like Bran, although with the youngest living Stark heading south of the Wall we may soon see a very informative reunion. Davos also finally figures out that Melisandre burned Shireen; Jon sends her south as punishment so who knows where she’s headed. And who knows who she’ll run into! Beric Dondarrion? Her old pal the Hound? Her fellow red priest Thoros of Myr? They were all on Arya’s list, after all, so it might be helpful to have them all in one place.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell, Jon tries to offer their childhood home back to Sansa, but the patriotic fervor of the Northern men (and for those who didn’t support Jon earlier, their guilt) ends up putting a crown on his head anyway: in a moment that eerily parallels an earlier scene with Robb, Jon Snow is named the King in the North. Here’s hoping that ends better for you, White Wolf. Of course, while Jon was surely brave in the battle that he totally screwed up, he still totally screwed it up, and it was Sansa who saved them all. None of the Northern men mention that, probably because they’d rather crown a bro they can have a beer with than a vastly superior political mind that happens to reside in a woman.
There’s been some criticism of Sansa for not sharing strategic information with her brother, which misses one very important point: Jon might be a great paladin, but he’s a terrible commander, a man who always telegraphs his moves, because his move will always be to do the Right Thing. Not sharing the linchpin secret of their only chance at victory with the Leeroy Jenkins of Westeros wasn’t just a defensible choice for Sansa, it was a borderline brilliant one; the best way to take down Ramsay Bolton was to make him think that Jon was falling into his trap, and since Jon has consistently proven that he’s too Lawful Good to effectively scheme against anyone, tricking Jon was the only way to get it done. Sansa apologizes anyway, because apparently she has to do everything around here, get no credit for it, and still say she’s sorry for hurting Jon’s fee-fees.
And then there’s Arya, who shows up at the Twins wearing the face of a serving girl, serves a big slice of meat pie to Walder Frey, reveals that she murdered two of his sons and used their flesh as filling, and then slits his throat.
It’s satisfying, sure, but why is she using faces even though she was never initiated into that mystery at the House of Black and White? Did she steal a bunch of corpse faces on her way out, the way people steal towels and little tiny soaps from hotels? Who knows. There’s a lot about her departure from the House of Black and White that feels strange and inconsistent, particularly when it comes to the granular details that are George R. R. Martin’s bread and butter. The show is likely playing fast and loose with what will likely be a more complex story in the book, but regardless: Arya is back in Westeros and she finally took out someone on her hit list in a scene ripped straight from both Greek mythology and one of the grossest fan theories, aka the Frey pie.
In the books, this had nothing to do with Arya at all; instead, it was implied that Wyman Manderly, one of the Northern lords who pledges to Jon Snow in this episode, did the ghastly deed at Ramsay Bolton’s wedding feast. Nor was it announced: Three Frey men disappeared, three conspicuous large meat pies appeared, and Manderly has big-ass slices cut for the Bolts and Freys while ordering the bard to play a specific song about a cook who surreptitiously served a a king’s son to him in a pie.
The legend goes that the gods were angered by this murder, not because it was a murder or because it was super gross, but because it violated guest right, the sacred institution of hospitality wherein you cannot be harmed if you’ve shared bread and salt under someone’s roof. Similarly, this was a major factor in the widespread disgust around the Red Wedding, and this death by irony is not merely an act of vengeance but an affirmation of tradition; we’ve spent so much of the show watching the customs and principles of the Seven Kingdoms disintegrate, and the vengeful renaissance of the Starks is a call to tradition that feels very appealing—not just to the Northerners who are tired of seeing their world fall apart, but to an audience who feels the same way.
The axis of violence on Game of Thrones revolves around two primary sources of violence: power and vengeance. The history of the Seven Kingdoms is a great, bloody spiral, where the great houses go around and around, trading blood and crowns back and forth like sticky baseball cards. Everyone wants the former, but taking it usually requires blood, hence the latter. The somber catchphrases associated with so many great families are not just boasts but warnings: The Lannisters always pay their debts; the North Remembers.
Now that we’ve seen that they were as good as their word, and the original sins of the show have been avenged—what next? The first couple of seasons of the show were spent crowning monarchs, and the next few killing them. Now that the board of the great game has been reset, now that it’s all finally happening, there’s only thing we know for sure: they can’t all win, and so characters we love are going to die.