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Fantasy Fandom: Conflagration and the Winds of Winter

Cersei's desperate act to avoid trial alters the landscape heading into the long off-season.

The Mother's Mercy is no match for the Queen Mother's wrath.
The Mother's Mercy is no match for the Queen Mother's wrath.

The final episode of Game of Thrones season 6 reminded us just how far many of the characters have come. At the beginning of the season Arya was a blind beggar on the streets of Braavos. By the end she had returned to Westeros and carried out her first mission to avenge her family. Daenerys was a captive of a Dothraki horde. Now she commands a Dothraki nation. Jon Snow was dead. Now the bastard who was not even permitted at the high table in his youth is very much alive, the new Warden of the North, and more. Beyond how far so many characters have come, we also saw just how far one character would go to preserve herself and pursue her ambitions.

King’s Landing

In the capital the principal players for the trials of Loras Tyrell and Cersei Lannister suit up. The scene moves from chamber to chamber as the High Septon shrugs into his dingy shift while Tommen is adorned with a jeweled collar bearing the Lannister lions, and Cersei is dressed in a high-necked black dress with severe shoulders that looks more like armor than garb for a lady of the court. The musical score is simple piano and strings, muted but persistent. The seven septons take their seats, one in each point of the star on the floor of the Sept of Baelor. The scene cuts to Grandmaester Pycelle, who is dismissing a naked woman while he dresses, saying he’ll pay her later. A child whispers a message in his ear.

At the trial Loras confesses all his sins (vocabulary word for the day: profligacy) and says he wishes to renounce his name and title and spend the rest of his days in service of the Seven. Lancel carves the seven-pointed star into his forehead while the crowd watches. Margaery quietly protests this mutilation to the High Septon, who dismisses her complaints. The next time he ignores her will be a terrible mistake.

Back at the Red Keep, Ser Gregor prevents Tommen from going to the trial. When the queen mother is a no-show, the High Septon sends Lancel and two others to "show her the way." Apparently forgetting what happened the last time they went to fetch Cersei, they set off. A young boy with a torch diverts Lancel, and he follows into the tunnels beneath the sept. The musical score adds urgent pipe organ. When Lancel finds the torch on the floor, he picks it up and utters an idle threat into the darkness. The boy sneaks out and stabs him in the spine. In Qyburn’s laboratory, more of the "little birds" have turned murderous. They stab Grandmaester Pycelle, bringing him to a gruesome end.

Margaery realizes something is terribly wrong. When the High Septon rebuffs her suggestion that everyone should leave the sept, her façade of blind obedience falls. "Forget about the bloody gods," she says, "and listen to me. Cercei understands the consequences of her absence and she’s absent anyway. Which means she does not intend to suffer the consequences." The supposedly humble servant of the Seven huffs.

In the bowels of the sept, Lancel has dragged himself to the source of the eerie, glowing green. Candles, burned almost to their end, sit in puddles of wildfire, crude time-delay fuses. As members of the Faith Militant refuse to let Margaery lead Loras and her father out of the trial chamber above, the candle gutters into the pool, and green flames erupt down the underground passageway. The mass of people and the septon hear a rumble before the explosion consumes them and demolishes the sept, killing them all and sending a pyroclastic flow into the surrounding square. Cersei sips wine and watches from a window of the Red Keep.

Next she turns her attentions to Setpa Unella, who is tied to a table in a dank chamber. Cersei pours wine in her face and urges the septa to confess that she had tortured her not because she cared about her atonement, but because she enjoyed it. Cersei then confesses her own sins, from sleeping with her brother to killing King Robert and the High Septon, saying she did those things because they felt good. The septa professes to be prepared for death, but Cersei says she will not die today and gives her to Ser Gregor. He takes off his helmet to begin the torture. As Cersei closes the door she returns Septa Unella’s own words from the walk of atonement: "Shame. Shame."

In one fell swoop Cersei has rid herself of many of her enemies. The Tyrells (apart from Lady Olenna) are wiped out. The High Sparrow is dead, along with much of the Faith in the city. Her uncle, Kevan Lannister, will never condescend to her again. Whether she intended it or not, Tommen is lost, too. Upon hearing of Margaery’s death, he takes off his crown and walks out of view. Through the window where he had been standing, the remains of the sept smolder in the distance. The orchestra has gone silent. Tommen re-enters the frame and, without a moment’s hesitation, steps onto the windowsill and falls face-first toward the ground below. Another youth lost, too good and innocent to remain in the world of ice and fire. Cersei had been bereft at Joffrey’s murder and despondent on learning of Myrcella’s death. On receiving word of Tommen’s suicide, she emotionlessly orders his body burned and the ashes scattered where the sept once stood, so he can be with his brother and sister. Not all Broken Men are men.

The Twins

In the ominous chamber where Walder Frey spat on ancient Guest Right at the Red Wedding three seasons ago, he toasts the alliance between his house and House Lannister to celebrate the recapture of Riverrun. His sycophantic offspring cheer as if they actually had a hand in the accomplishment. When the old man sits with Jaime to gloat about putting Edmure back in the dungeons and the Blackfish being killed by lowly foot soldiers, Jaime ask about his own military experience. Clearly Frey has never fought. He deflects the question by saying the purpose is to defeat your enemies, which he has obviously done, since he holds Riverrun again. When Jaime mocks him by calling him a "great conqueror," Frey reminds him that in his last battle he was taken prisoner by Robb Stark. He tries to draw a parallel between them by saying both are kingslayers, but Jaime dismisses him saying, "If we have to ride north to take the Riverlands back every time you lose them, why do we need you?"

If the Lannisters ever do need Walder Frey, they will be out of luck. In a later scene a serving girl brings Lord Frey meat pie. To his demand, "Where are my damn moron sons?" she says, "They are right here, my lord," indicating the pie. He pulls back the crust and finds a fingertip. The serving girl peels away her face, revealing that she is Arya in disguise. She slits Walder’s throat and watches him die, a look of haunting serenity on her face. Her Titus Andronicus/Scott Tenorman revenge on Walder, Black Walder and Lothar demonstrates that she acquired the skills of the Faceless Men. Did the cult give her permission to use the serving girl’s face, though? At some point Arya will be reunited with Jon and Sansa. It is difficult to imagine her assimilating to family life again.

The Citadel

Not all is darkness and gloom. Sam and Gilly arrive at the Citadel, still carrying the Tarley family sword, Heartsbane. They stop to admire the pristine tower reflecting off the bay. A flock of white ravens circles as each bird begins its journey across the Seven Kingdoms. Sam understands they are meant to announce the arrival of winter to the rest of Westeros. Inside an officious toad of a clerk (played by Danish comedian Frank Hvam) first ignores them, then refuses to extend a hand to receive Sam’s missive from Jon. After Sam shuffles forward twice to put the letter in his hand, the clerk turns pages in some big logbooks and announces that their records show Jeor Mormont, and not Jon Snow, is the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. So the seat of all knowledge clearly doesn’t know everything. He calls Sam’s awkward explanation of Mormont’s death, followed closely by Maester Aemon’s, "highly irregular." Sam stammers, "I suppose that life is irregular." Sam the philosopher. Someone should print T-shirts. The clerk leads him to the library, forbidding Gilly and Little Sam to enter.

As Sam passes through the high, dark stacks with chains dangling from the shelves, there is a sense of foreboding, as if Randyll Tarley will surely leap out and demand Heartsbane back (seriously, there is no way that irascible goon would just let them walk away with the family’s signature heirloom and symbol of its power) and then use it to cut Sam to ribbons. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, Sam emerges into the largest room the show has depicted—an enormous cathedral to knowledge with row upon row of books. For Sam, this is nirvana. You can almost hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in his head. The ceiling is also adorned with familiar symbols, many of which appear in the opening credits to the show.  Let’s hope Sam doesn’t forget the purpose of his journey or that Gilly and Little Sam are waiting for him.


Oh, how I dreaded having to type that word again. Yet now, I look forward to going back there. The Dornish mess may yet be saved by the only means imaginable: Lady Olenna Tyrell is there, her acid wit on full display. After shaming the Sand Snakes into shutting up to "let the grown women talk," she makes clear that survival is not her aim. The deaths of her son, grandson and granddaughter, have spurred the Queen of Thornes to seek retribution. She joins Ellaria Sand and her offspring in plotting the demise of the Lannisters, and Cersei in particular. Ellaria promises her vengeance and justice. Varys emerges from an inner room and adds "fire and blood" to the list of things she can expect. Now we know where Daenerys will land to launch her campaign for the Iron Throne.


The most dramatically acted scene occurred in the great hall at Winterfell, where Jon reminisces with Mellisandre about sitting at a low table for feasts while the trueborn Starks sat at the head of the room. The Red Lady basically tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself. At least he had a family; at least he had feasts. Ser Davos interrupts to toss the charred toy stag to Mellisandre. On his insistence she admits it belonged to Princess Shireen, who they burned at the stake. She says she did it at R’hllor’s command and with the blessing of Shireen’s father and mother because it was the only way to break the harsh weather so they could attack the castle. Davos (masterfully portrayed by Liam Cunningham) retorts, "If he commands you to burn children, your Lord is evil." He tearfully recounts how he loved Shireen, who was good and kind and who taught him to read, like one of his own. Davos laments that Shireen died for nothing. Despite the cursed sacrifice, Stannis and his followers all died in the battle, anyway.

Davos requests leave to execute Mellisandre. She says she has been ready to die for many years, but that the Lord of Light still has a purpose for her. She points out that all of them are there because of her Lord. Jon is torn. He is horrified by what he has heard, yet he believes she brought him back from death and that she could be necessary in the battles to come against the army of the dead. He banishes the Red Lady from the North, saying she will be hanged if she ever returns. Davos assures her that he will execute her himself. Davos has always been a measured man. Years ago he saved Stannis and his people by smuggling onions to them when they were starving during a siege. For his bravery, Stannis knighted him. For his smuggling ways, he took the fingers of one hand off at the knuckle bone. Yet Davos accepted Stannis's rough justice and loved the man, until the Red Lady put demons in his ear. It is hard to know whether Davos accepts Mellisandre’s banishment as an fitting punishment for Shireen’s death. He is sure to be Jon’s Hand, and his honor is unassailable. But seeds of conflict may have been sewn in this scene.

Jon and Sansa watch the Red Lady ride away. Jon offers Sansa the Lord’s Chamber, saying he is not a Stark. She says he’s a Stark to her. Jon gives her credit for winning the battle against the Boltons, saying it was lost until the Knights of the Vale rode in. She apologizes for keeping the possibility they would come a secret from him. He forgives her as if it were a mere trifle. She tells Jon a white raven arrived from the Citadel, announcing that winter had come. Jon says, "Father always promised, didn’t he?"

When Jon asks whether they can trust Petyr Baelish, Sansa admits, "Only a fool would trust Littlefinger." Later in the Weirwood Sansa’s resolve is put to the test. Littlefinger shares a vision of himself on the Iron Throne with Sansa at his side. He leans in to kiss her, but she rebuffs him. As she walks away he tells her that she, and not Jon, is the future of House Stark. She is the daughter of Ned Stark, trueborn in the North. Jon is a motherless bastard born in the South.

The First Coronation

Later in the Great Hall, the Northern Lords put aside the "trueborn" nonsense and back Jon unequivocally. After Lord Royce speaks against the wildling "invaders" and another lord says that the war is over and they should set about preparing their homes for winter, Jon insists that the true enemy, the Night’s King, won’t wait out the storm; he’ll bring the storm. Amid murmuring at the tables, little powerhouse Lyanna Mormont stops the show it its tracks. Lord Manderly’s son was butchered at the Red Wedding, she says, yet he refused Jon’s call for aid. Lord Glover broke ancient allegiance in the Starks’ hour of need. Lord Cerwyn’s father was skinned alive by the Boltons yet he, too, refused to fight. "House Mormont remembers," she says. "The North remembers." Bastard or no, Jon has Ned Stark’s blood in his veins, and little Lyanna considers him her king from this day until his last day.

Manderly agrees, saying Jon avenged the Red Wedding. He is the white wolf, the King in the North. Littlefinger takes in the scene silently, as Lord Glover says he will regret his refusal to fight until his dying day and will from now on stand behind House Stark and Jon Snow. As the others take up the chant, "The King in the North! The King in the North!" Sansa first smiles. Then she catches Littlefinger’s eye, and her expression changes. Does she see Littlefinger as a threat to the Starks’ reasserted power? Or does she see Jon as a threat to her own ambitions, and Littlefinger as a possible solution?

Jon, for his part, looks humbled and trepidatious. Maybe even frightened. He once turned down Stannis’s offer to make him Lord of Winterfell. Now all the northern lords are looking to him as their king. A bastard by birth, he has risen impossibly high.


Tyrion, the unwanted dwarf son of Tywin Lannister, finds himself elevated beyond expectations, as well. Daenerys has advised Daario Naharis that he will not accompany her to Westeros, but will instead be left behind to run things in Essos. He despondently tells her that no woman could possibly measure up after the Mother of Dragons, but he wishes her well, saying she will win the Iron Throne, and that he hopes it brings her happiness. It has never brought anyone happiness, of course.

Tyrion attempts to console Dany, saying that having a lover would have been a liability in her pursuit of the crown, and that sacrificing the love of someone she cared about was a mark of a good ruler. He confesses he is terrible at consoling. Dany agrees. She admits she is scared, and Tyrion says that is a good thing. Only madmen aren’t afraid of failing. Tyrion tells her he is a cynic by nature. Everyone is always asking him to believe in things—family, gods, kings, himself—but he has seen where belief gets people. "So I said, ‘No, thank you,’ to belief," he says, "and yet, here I am. I believe in you." Tyrion undoubtedly finds this break in his code somewhat frightening, as well. He feels silly, he says, as if he should swear her his sword, but he doesn’t own a sword. Daenerys tells him she does not need his sword, but his counsel. She pins the symbol of the Hand on him and makes him her first Hand of the Queen. It’s a proud moment for Tyrion. The belittled, despised dwarf has earned the position not as a birthright or because of his family’s influence, but by his own merits.

North of the Wall

Benjen delivers Bran and Meera to the Wall and tells them that old magic woven into its foundation prevents him or any of the undead from passing beyond it. He will remain in the North, fighting for the living. Before passing through, Bran takes hold of the heart tree, saying as the Three-Eyed Raven, he has to be ready. Rather than looking in on current events, though, he returns to the past where he can see the end of the Tower of Joy scene from which his predecessor yanked him back before. As everyone has long expected, the cries from the tower window were those of Lyanna in difficult child labor. She is a mass of blood. Dying, she whispers to Ned, then says, "Promise me." The camera focuses on a baby boy, and the picture morphs to Jon Snow. So, rather anticlimactically, the R+L=J theory is confirmed. Now, how to tell Jon? And what will the knowledge that he is part Targaryen mean to his reign as King in the North? Most importantly, when will he get his dragon?

A Second Coronation

On a hill overlooking King's Landing, Jaime and Bronn see the smoking remnants of the Sept of Baelor. They ride into the city where Jaime is just in time to see Qyburn coronating Cercei, naming her Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, First of her Name. None of the lords and ladies in attendance cheer. In the severe black garment, with her expression hard and emotionless, she evokes Maleficent, the evil queen of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Jaime, who shares a pregnant stare with his sister, must instead wonder if she is the Mad Queen. Earlier he told Edmure that Cersei was the only thing that mattered to him, his sole purpose for existing. Now that she has done the unthinkable deed that he once sacrificed his honor and killed a king to prevent, his utter devotion to her will be sorely tested. Cersei is Jaime’s fatal flaw. And she is a doozy.

Casting off the Shackles of Essos

This episode was big on granting viewers’ wishes. Dorne was rejuvenated by Olenna’s arrival. Arya disposed of three loathsome Freys whose recompense was long overdue. Pycelle, Lancel and a host of annoying zealots puffed out of existence without so much as a whimper. But seeing Dany and her followers on ships with Meereen fading in the background was the most welcome gift of all. As they sail for their ultimate mission in Westeros, the camera looks in on Theon and Yara, Grey Worm and Missandei, and finally Tryion, Dany and Varys (seriously, I want to see whatever travel device that dude is using) while the three dragons wheel overhead. After years of annoying quagmire in the east, their central adventure is finally beginning.

Summing Up

Later, if ambition meets on friendly terms with opportunity, I may try to put a wrap on the entire season. For now I’ll just say this season, on the whole, was spectacular. There were some bumps along the way, including the dubious portrayal of Jon's resurrection, Arya’s seeming stupidity that should have caused her death but instead gave us a chase scene with an improbably fortunate outcome, and Sansa’s inconsistent characterization that caused her to keep a secret from Jon at the cost of countless lives, only to be brushed aside as if it were nothing. But for the first time it feels as if events are actually going to coalesce into a conclusion. This episode resolved so many plot lines that new conflicts will be necessary to keep the story going next season. While it was hard to believe Benioff and Weiss early this year when they said they would wrap up the story in only thirteen more episodes over the next two years, that seems imminently possible now. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until next April for the first seven of these final installments. And that’s if the show can overcome the obstacles placed in its path by the Brexit vote. Otherwise, I have forty acres and a video phone. We can all get together and finish it ourselves over a couple of weekends.

Scenes not Seen

  • The Hound and his merry band of righteous assassins
  • Gendry and his bodacious upper body after three years of rowing
  • Lady Stoneheart, who clearly is not coming to the show because she is not important. Okay?
  • Brienne and Pod’s awkward banter as they return to the North
  • Jorah’s search for Stoneman remedies
  • The Night’s King and the army of the undead (doesn’t he always show up in season finales?)