“The Winds of Winter” is the most conventional finale that Game of Thrones has ever had. A hero is crowned king. A supervillain completes her origin story. A savior rides in from the east. It’s a litany of fuck-yeah moments worthy of the third act of any good sword-and-sorcery epic. But this is precisely the kind of euphoria that this show famously has no truck with: A Thrones finale traditionally forgoes a blockbuster showcase in favor of quietly tying up loose ends.
And yet “The Winds of Winter” also feels uniquely Game of Thrones: ambiguous, self-aware, and for better or worse, sadistically violent. And this combination of narrative convention and trademark touches makes it the best episode of the season.
Start with the music: If there’s ever been a reliable signal that Westerosi shit is about to hit the fan, it’s a sudden change in the score. (Think “The Rains of Castamere” at the Red Wedding.) So when the King’s Landing sequence that occupies its first 20 minutes adds both piano and an organ rendition of the theme song, our guard immediately goes up. From the opening montage to that final, heartbreaking shot of Tommen toppling down into the ruins of his short, disastrous reign, director Miguel Sapochnik — going back-to-back with “Battle of the Bastards” — crafts a buildup tense enough to make us forget that many of us guessed this was coming.
This carries over to the rest of the episode, and even the rest of the season. Just as the outcome of last week’s battle was never truly in doubt, Dany’s triumphant return to Westeros isn’t a shock; it’s the culmination of her entire character arc, not to mention the end of a subplot that was, at times, the most maddening on the show. Yet it’s initiated by a particularly fine example of the quintessential Game of Thrones scene: two people squaring off in a room, swapping backstories and motivations and brief flashes of vulnerability. Dany gets a true confidante with no ulterior motives. Tyrion gets the recognition of talent his dwarfism has always denied him. It’s a work marriage worthy of Aaron Sorkin, but particular to Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The same goes for the Starks. The confirmation of R + L = J (or at least the confirmation that J = L + whatever Lyanna whispered) has long been the fan-theory equivalent of legalizing weed, more a matter of “when” than “if.” And though anyone with a soul wants as much screen time for Lyanna Mormont as humanly possible, the alliance of the lords of the North under the Stark banner was a foregone conclusion the second that banner rolled down the castle walls. We’ve seen people chant “the King in the North,” and we know how it can end.
The heart of this week’s goings-on at Winterfell is that last, lingering gaze between Sansa and Littlefinger. Sansa is a savvy political operative now, and she shows it by accomplishing what no one else, including Game of Thrones itself, has managed to do: Getting Petyr Baelish to state, unequivocally, exactly what it is he wants. Still, Sansa knows that as long as Littlefinger lives, he’s a potential threat (or ally, if she decides to take him up on that offer to break bad). It’s that tension that injects Jon’s pep rally with Thrones-ian dread.
Speaking of dread! The sight of Cersei bedecked in black chainmail and strolling into a pitch-dark throne room is one of the more chilling images this series has produced. By killing her worst enemies and, inadvertently, her only surviving son, Cersei has no loyalties left. While never wholly sympathetic, a pre-massacre Cersei was at least predictable, motivated by motherhood first and revenge second. Now, her Bond-villain speech suggests that she’s got nothing to guide her besides the frighteningly arbitrary metric of what feels good. And what feels good to Queen Cersei, the First of Her Name, is likely not what feels good to pretty much anybody else.
That’s the point, though. Cersei taking the Iron Throne means she’s become an instant target for virtually everyone we’ve come to root for, as well as someone we’ll be happy to see roasted alive. What adds nuance here is Jaime, whose bond with his sister is as genuine as it is misguided. The Kingslayer now has to reckon with the only person he’s ever truly loved becoming exactly what he sacrificed his reputation to destroy. (All that spare wildfire is hanging around courtesy of the Mad King, who would have done … exactly what Cersei did if Jaime hadn’t stabbed him in the back first.) It’s a far more interesting conflict than Young Usurper versus Evil Queen, and a far better expression of what makes this show great.
But Game of Thrones is rocketing toward its conclusion, and wrapping up a series like this requires falling back on some of the tropes it’s previously avoided. We need a Big Bad to root against. We need minor characters, like Olenna and the Sand Snakes, condensed into a single, larger battle. We need heroes to root for. Finally, Thrones is producing them.
“The Winds of Winter” is promising precisely because it accomplishes these things, while still shooting them through with complexity. That’s a handy skill for Game of Thrones to have in its back pocket as it enters its final stretch: satisfying the part of us that wants a happy ending — and the part of us that knows happy endings are bullshit.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.