Earlier in the season, at the time of Bran’s apotheosis under the tree where he simultaneously discovered and created the story behind Hodor, I remarked that the characters of Game of Thrones were increasingly embodying the Faulkner line that
‘The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.’
And yet despite this, despite all the revelations this season that we need to look at the past and learn from it so as to avoid repeating mistakes and gain greater meaning about our current actions, two characters in ‘The Winds of Winter’ illustrate what is so fundamentally wrong with the conclusion to Season Six’s story in King’s Landing, and to Cersei’s horrific actions.
Firstly, Qyburn confronts Pycelle in his chambers, surrounded by his little birds, and calmly explains that this is his end. It is regretful, but nevertheless:
‘Sometimes, before we can usher in the new, the old must be put to rest.’
Much later, Littlefinger confronts Sansa in the weirwood at Winterfell and stakes his claim not only for his alliance to her through marriage, but also his desire for the Iron Throne.
‘The past is gone for good. You can sit here mourning its departure or help prepare for the future.’
Both these lines are spoken by character who represent what the show deems to be illegitimate claims for power. Nobody can claim to be supportive of Cersei’s actions in this finale, and therefore no-one can tacitly approve of Pycelle’s bloody end, even if we didn’t like him. And whatever Sansa’s faults might be, there is no empathy toward Littlefinger’s motivations for us to be on board with his sentiments. The show is reminding us yet again – given that this idea had been expressed earlier in Bran’s storyline – that we forget the past at our peril.
These are characters who don’t learn from the past. Not only that, they refuse to by denying the past any meaning on their actions. They use the desire for new power as a means of severing with the past, and thus are doomed to repeat the sins of the past.
This final episode of the season is littered with visual echoes of the past. It’s one of the happy byproducts of a successful, long-running series is that it becomes a semiotic feast, allowing the audience to play games of extrapolation, reading more and more into the layering of signs and symbols through repeating images. This was something Mad Men played with enormously, and Game of Thrones has taken strides to embrace in this season. This is shown most notably in the opening sequence, as Cersei finally succeeds in her plan to assume control of the Iron Throne.
There has never been a sequence like this in Game of Thrones. Stylistically, the show has stayed conservatively traditional, operating in a linear, almost plodding fashion by moving from one location to the next without any interference. With the exception of Hodor’s final scene earlier this season, the opening sequence of ‘The Winds of Winter’ is the first in Game of Thrones to employ stylised cross-cutting across multiple locations, multiple points-of-view, and scored to a decidedly modern, Philip Glass-like extended piece by Ramin Djawadi. Briefly dialogue interrupts the fray – to conclude Loras’ judgement, Pycelle’s end, Lancel’s discovery and Margaery’s realisation – but by framing these with the escalating piano and organ score, the show creates a sense of fatalism to King’s Landing. These characters are being left behind in the past as the story moves past them. They are the collateral in Cersei’s desire to destroy the past.
And Cersei wins, but she ends with less than she started with. Her horrific gloating over Septa Unella is unnecessary and centred on a character we have no real attachment to, and so it serves merely as a means for Cersei to articulate her desires, and to brutalise the audience with the presence of the Mountain. None of this would have been necessary for the show had they handled King’s Landing differently, and it might have allowed the success of the earlier sequence to land with more resonance than it did. We can applaud the editing mastery, and marvel at the terror that Cersei is unleashing on the capital, but in the end we’re spectators in another groteseque.
The problem with this is how the show has handled both Cersei and Margaery. Margaery isn’t a character we have any proximity to in the books. One of the benefits of the show is that it has generated empathy for characters like her, and Robb. And yet Robb’s death at the Red Wedding was a tragically natural end. His character had exhausted his story, and there was nothing left but the betrayal by the Boltons and Freys. Once the blood had been spilled, it was so easy to look back and realise how we – and he – had missed all the signs pointing to his demise.
For Margaery, it’s different. Not only did we empathise, but she was given plot to deal with. Her story seemed to be developing, not oblivious to Cersei’s machinations, but in spite of them. So while her death is tragic and unexpected, it doesn’t have the same impact as Robb’s because it feels oddly wrong. Why spend all that time laying tracks to Margaery’s deceit of the High Sparrow? Why establish that she is avoiding Tommen? Why generate interest in her abandonment of Loras to the cells only to undo that in his trial? This might have been successful had the show dramatised what Margaery’s ultimate plan was, so instil in the audience’s imagination a sense of hope at what might be, so that when it was taken away we felt the loss. But because so much was unsaid and implied, all we knew was that something was being planned, and now it’s gone, and unsaid.
By allowing us to empathise with Margaery the show has humanised a very inhuman corner of the story, and yet her death only underscores what a waste this has been. Cersei, in contrast, has been at a distance all season. We have spent a lot of time watching her watching on, but we’ve been given little insight into her own emotions. Where Game of Thrones has succeeded in the past is in muddying the audience’s relationships with villains, typified in Jaime’s oscillations between tragic hero and amoral villain. I can’t help but feel that this ending to the wheels within wheels of King’s Landing might have landed far more of an emotional punch if we had followed Cersei more closely and felt her growing sense of isolation and loss – her madness – so that when this action came we weren’t just watching on with horrified glee.
(By the same token, it’s worth speculating just how much more the forthcoming novel will be able to elaborate on Jon’s resurrected psychology given that he is a point of view character, and the show has somewhat shirked its duties in that area. Stylistically, the show has evolved in leaps and bounds this season as it has freed itself from the source material, but they have lost perhaps some of the control about what to show, and what not to show.)
Ultimately, Cersei’s reign of swift terror upon King’s Landing achieves two things. Firstly, Cersei is now the sole antagonist in Westeros, and the only character who seems capable of pushing against the need to unify in face of the Night King. Secondly, she has destroyed the Lannisters. Tywin only sought to preserve the House legacy, and Cersei has undone that in a fraction of the time. All her children are dead. Tyrion is in exile under mistaken accusation he murdered Cersei’s eldest child. Tywin is dead at the hands of Tyrion, brought about by Cersei’s accusation of Tyrion. And now Jaime is left alone at the episode’s conclusion, watching Cersei’s coronation and realising that the past is still with him.
Having borne the unending taunts of ‘kingslayer’ since he prevented the Mad King from using wildfire on King’s Landing, Jaime now finds himself wedded romantically to a woman who executed what the Mad King did not. The honour and nobility that Brienne appealed to in Jaime two episodes ago becomes more integral now, and for Season Seven. His swift handling of Riverrun without bloodshed, his desire to treat the Blackfish and Edmure honourably, and his intolerance for the Freys shows that Jaime is in no position to share in Cersei’s victory.
In Winterfell, the echoes of the past resonate through both Jon and Sansa. Jon is both assuming the role that Ned once occupied, but is also declared King in the North in a scene consciously similar to that of Robb’s ascension at the end of Season One. He is aware of the past, and how he sits in relation to these two forerunners, and one can sense the palpable unease Jon has at his new title. Position and title has never come easy to him, and unlike the other two crowns in this episode – Cersei and Daenerys – his new status comes not out of his own desire, but the need of the people. The North is unified because of Jon’s actions, rather than Jon unifying the North to stabilise his authority.
This scene is also established by Bran’s final journey to the Tower of Joy, to confirm what many suspected – that Jon is not Ned’s bastard son, but instead the child of Lyanna Stark. And while we can assume with a fair amount of certainty who Jon’s father is, that revelation is held by Bran and the show, no doubt for some significant moment later next season. This revelation allows us to not only view the new King in the North as a continuation of Ned and Robb, but also as someone who holds more prominence in the old conflicts of Westeros than he might realise. Sansa catches Littlefinger watching on, and we remember how he carries his own suspicions about Jon’s parentage, and can see now that the past clearly isn’t gone for good for the Starks, or for the North.
Sansa sits by Jon in this scene reminiscent of her mother Catelyn, and her actions to call on the Vale and to operate independent of Jon’s wishes are also throwbacks to Catelyn’s movements behind Robb’s back. And yet when Littlefinger confronts her at the weirwood, she is positioned just as Ned was in Season One, and the show is dramatising her struggle to do what she feels is right, and what she thinks is necessary. Support from Littlefinger is helpful, and aids the Stark’s strength, but she clocks instantly that he seeks the throne only for himself, and not for her. However, Sansa similarly recognises that to spurn Littlefinger is to risk unleashing his destructive deceit on them at a time when they are ascending.
Daenerys confirms on Tyrion the role of Hand of the Queen, a role he craved from his father and yet was denied. That the show finds time to register Tyrion’s emotion at this validation, in addition to Sansa’s fears and Jon’s reluctance, is a good sign that they haven’t quiet forgotten all characterisation in a season when plot seemed to rule supreme over the story.
Tyrion suggested to Daenerys to sever ties with Daario and the Second Sons, and this action illustrates how Tyrion understands Daenerys’ character fully, even if she only realises this now. She describes feeling no emotion at cutting Daario loose, and it becomes clear that she needs to embrace her inhumanity in order to succeed. Her attempts at diplomacy and as an eligible wife all ended in bloodshed. She is at her strongest when she embraces the mythic nature of her existence, as one born again from the fire (just as Jon was born again among the ice).
Despite Jon’s newfound rule as King in the North, and Daernerys’ march on King’s Landing as Queen supported by what is left of the Iron Islands, Dorne and Highgarden, it seems unlikely that either will end up claiming – or even wanting – the Iron Throne. Cersei has destroyed the Sept of Baelor and a good portion of King’s Landing with it. While she has blinded herself to the past, Daenerys and Jon act in response to their own histories, and they will recognise the damage Cersei has inflicted on Westeros, and its people.
There are loose ends everywhere, despite the neatness of Cersei’s coup. Arya arrives at the Twins and dispatches Walder Frey and his sons, and there is no triumph in this. It is an odd scene in how it fits with the rest of the episode, and seems purely designed to give Arya a presence in the finale while also concluding the Freys’ ineptitude. But how are we to now feel about Arya, given that she spent two seasons of tutelage at the House of Black and White, as well as a season of unofficial squiring for Sandor Clegane? Has this just been a three-season journey to skill her up to exact revenge for the Red Wedding? David Benioff suggested that we are meant to fear for Arya now, given the relish she feels at Walder Frey’s murder, but it does feel as if this moment for her character was earned a long time ago, and the padding has become too obvious.
Still, it is worth reflecting on her list. While it differs in the books, all she has left in the show is Gregor Clegane and Cersei (she did briefly mention Beric Dondarrion, Melisandre and Thoros of Myr, but it seems unlikely that she still maintains her ill-will toward these three). How this revenge story of Arya dovetails with recent events in King’s Landing, and the resurrection of the Starks in Winterfell will be undoubtedly of interest next season, even if the methods used to get there have been somewhat dubious.
Sam arrives in Oldtown with Gilly in a scene designed to establish the location as significant for next season. So some inference can be gained from this: clearly the knowledge Sam will learn in Oldtown is integral to the eventual battle against the Night King. Additionally, long-forgotten Jorah and his journey to cure greyscale is integral. As are the various Valyrian swords floating around Westeros. And Clegane, Melisandre and the Brotherhood are also all integral.
With so much clearing of the decks in this episode, what remains is what is essential. With so few episodes to go, the endgame is nearing and we can see Game of Thrones articulating clearly who these characters are and what they represent, even if their means of getting to this clarity has taken some shortcuts mixed with tedious tangents.
We started this season with characters unsure of their place. Jon’s death, Daenerys’ flight and Cersei’s walk of shame left the end of Season Five at a point of uncertainty and darkness. There has been far more resolution and reunion in this season than ever before, but also we now finish with these three characters occupying hugely significant roles with very few encumbrances. How their conflict plays out, and how this sets the board for the final conflict with the army of the dead, is clearly the trajectory for next year.
Hopefully Bran is around long enough to remind them all that the past of Westeros isn’t dead, and it holds keys to unlocking their future survival now that winter is undoubtedly, and finally, here.