I don’t really feed a need to beat around the bush on this one: From top to bottom, beginning to end, the Season Six finale of Game of Thrones is one of the series’ best episodes.
I wanted to get that out of the way because I’ve read and heard a lot of criticism (or damning with faint praise) in regards to this season. Indeed, I’ve done a lot of that myself. I’ve been unhappy with Daenerys’ storyline as a whole, and Tyrion’s role in particular. I’ve often felt that Bran’s new super powers only exist as a way to tease the audience with reveals-to-be and to move the narrative forward in ways that really don’t make a lot of sense if you spend any time contemplating them. And the entire land of Dorne just seems to be a place where good story ideas and Lannister children go to die. But all of that and more is redeemed in a stellar episode of Game of Thrones that doesn’t waste a single moment.
This is, on multiple levels, a complete and satisfying episode, both in terms of plot and in what it signifies for the series as a whole. First, at the most basic and surface level, we get satisfying and dramatically engaging resolutions to just about every important story, and even the areas that had fallen short earlier in the year are redeemed. Cersei gets her revenge on the Sparrow and his Faith Militant, and really just about everyone in the kingdom, literally burning it all to the ground in a blaze of wildfire. The whole sequence is one brilliantly conceived shock after another, as we travel from the little beggar children of the city going on a stabbing spree, to the High Sparrow glowing green in the moment before he, and everyone else in the great hall, explodes in a blaze of wildfire, to King Tommen’s suicide as he watches his kingdom burn around him.
Tommen’s death is actually one of the most affecting and understated scenes of the whole finale. His despair is complete and fully evident as he calmly takes off his crown and walks out the window—the subtle power of his not even having the will to jump, but simply deciding to fall, says more about his sudden and final understanding of all that’s happened around him—and how much of it was his fault—than any weepy post-blaze soliloquy could have accomplished. And the whole story here is wonderfully bookended as Jaime returns to the kingdom just in time for Cersei’s coronation as queen. Jaime, we must remember, became the “Kingslayer” in the first place by deciding to sacrifice his honor to stop the Mad King from using wildfire on his own people… only to now ultimately find that Cersei has committed the very same act that Jaime himself gave so much of his own self-respect away to prevent.
Even Bran, Dorne (freaking Dorne!), and Daenerys have shining moments where they all rocket back to prominence. Bran’s only appearance here in the finale find him having another vision—this one concluding the scene from earlier in the season where he almost-but-not-quite gave a big reveal. Though the ultimate payoff here— that Jon Snow is not, in fact, Ned’s bastard, but is actually his nephew and (so says that predominant fan theory) a Targaryen—is something many fans have predicted for a long time, and so perhaps isn’t exactly a “surprise,” it nonetheless complements quite nicely the following scene of Jon being declared the King of the North. Jon’s ascension, from unwanted child, to lowly member of the Night’s Watch, to the King who may finally be able to unite the North against the coming White Walker Winter, is perfectly and climatically encapsulated in the single moment we hold close on his face as his new allies all chant for him: The King of the North! The King of the North! The King of the North!
And Dorne, that bad block of cheese in the back of your fridge, becomes something of a player once again. After being completely ignored (and rightfully so) by the show for the vast majority of the season, we return to land of Sand Snakes. Olenna has learned her family’s fate, and traveled the Dorne to both hurl insults and seek help in getting revenge. But she seems dubious as to what assistance her hosts can actually offer her. Enter Varys, literally from the shadows, with the answer: Fire and Blood. In other words: Daenerys and her dragon power.
From there we cut to the scene we’ve been waiting for, ever since Daenerys first hatched her dragons in Season One: her long-coveted army finally, finally sailing across the world to help her take her rightful spot as the Queen of all the Seven Kingdoms. So much of her story was essentially wasted screen time these past ten episodes, and it still seems criminal that Tyrion had so little to do all season other than drink and make bad jokes and even worse diplomatic decisions, but the image of the Mother of Dragons and Tyrion standing side by side on the deck of a great warship, flanked by a powerful army and three monstrous dragons, makes all that wasted time before an easily and quickly forgiven misstep.
So Season Six leaves us with King of the North Jon Snow, the emotional heart who has the people, if not the numbers, on his side; ruthless Queen Cersei, who, with the death of her last child, has lost the final piece of whatever moral compass she ever had; and Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, having finally amassed her army. And all three are now on an inevitable collision course toward each other, and toward the undead demons beyond the Wall.
But beyond the purely story-driven and dramatic high points this season-ending episode hits, something of arguably more significance—and certainly more compelling—has finally evolved in Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones from Season One up through and including Season Five was, to be completely frank, incredibly unkind to female characters. This is a show where rape has regularly been used as a casual story device. And violence toward women has often been used even when it has been completely unnecessary. One often-cited example: in the books, Daenerys rather easily falls in love with her Dothraki king; but the show saw fit to portray their first coupling as a rape. And it was all downhill from there. Indeed, last season saw things hit a fever pitch level, and when Ramsay raped Sansa while forcing Theon to watch, it became nearly impossible to defend how the show treated its female characters—halfhearted exclamations of “Well, they’re aren’t glorifying the violence” rang distressingly hollow.
And especially considering the state of the real world now: where almost every other day, it seems, we’re faced with yet another headline about the latest white, privileged college kid getting a six-month prison sentence for rape; where millions of people are absolutely certain that a new Ghostbusters movie is terrible months before its release and no, of course it has nothing to do with an all-female cast (use of the phrase “rape your childhood” conspicuously, unironically thrown around with abandon); where I can have a discussion with a coworker about how despicable a character Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones is, in part for his rape of Sansa, and hear said coworker respond: He didn’t rape her… in this world, where traditionally marginalized Others are finally breaking through to a level of societal acceptance, while simultaneously experiencing greater pushback against their rights to exist, to live, to be, than ever before, it’s increasingly impossible to casually accept mass media entertainment that uses violence against these Other groups—and against women in this particular case—as simply story device, as plot convenience. As means to an end.
And okay, look: I don’t want to oversell the cosmic importance of Game of Thrones, but it is still refreshing to see, finally, the best show on television—the best show in years, and one of the best shows of all time—arrive at a point where women are no longer (at least over the course of the last season) existing as fodder for violent and vile men to rape, to the ends of progressing a storyline. Here, finally, in fact, we have strong, powerful women as the most dominant characters on the show, unequivocally: Arya has the power of the Faceless Man, but isn’t forced to submit to his authority as she re-engages in the mission of completing her kill list. Two of our three “Kings” are in fact Queens—and both of them, regardless of the ruthlessness with which they approach their goals, are vastly more powerful than the nominal hero we now have in Jon Snow. And Jon himself, even—yes, he is hailed as the King of the North, but he is propelled to power by a preteen girl who shames the other lords into supporting him, and will no doubt be held in that position of power by Sansa Stark and her ability to see the whole chessboard.
The most appropriate analog I can think of comes from an episode of Game of Thrones itself: Sansa, if you’ll remember, was at one time betrothed to Tyrion. And as despicable and horrible as she found the prospect, she still submitted to it, and was even prepared to consummate the marriage, because that’s what was Supposed to Happen. Now, though, after accepting Littlefinger’s help in the Battle of the Bastards, she easily and almost casually dismisses his romantic advances—his seeking of “payment” essentially—as nothing more than pretty little pictures in his head. This isn’t, I would argue, evidence only of her growth, but of the show’s growth as a whole.
It’s not too often that I admire a piece of television or film on both the level of pure storytelling enjoyment and layered, greater importance. And, in all honesty, as much as I’ve loved Game of Thrones for the past six years, I can’t remember when, if ever at all, it’s had something more important to say than “Ned Stark Good, Night King Bad.” So whether by happy accident, deliberate design, or maybe something in between, it’s wonderful and refreshing to be so completely satisfied by what this finale gave us, going into the last dozen or so episodes of the series.
This season has taken us on a journey that was in no way promised by the show when it began. When we started this whole ride through Westeros and beyond, we were led to anticipate a Good vs. Evil battle, and what made Game of Thrones so special was that every Good Guy had at least one dirty secret or a subtle cruel streak (Ned presumably cheating on his wife, Daenerys freeing slaves one moment and then burning alive her adversaries to make an example of them the next), and every Bad Guy had at least a small core of noble motivation (every evil thing Cersei did, she did from a place of true, pure love of her family). And it made knowing who to fully root for and against a fool’s errand of frustrating back-and-forth. And from the time Ned Stark was killed up to the beginning of Season Six, this lack of certainty of where to put our allegiances was mashed together with a sense of really having no idea what could happen next.
And that would have been enough to carry Game of Thrones. But (though here’s the caveat: I am fully prepared to be disappointed next year if we revert back to form) this season’s additional element of flipping the power structure, and letting its female characters rise to positions of prominence, rather than allowing them to serve as veritable dehumanized place settings, has taken the show in a brand new, incredibly welcome direction. And here’s to hoping we stay on that course as the series approaches and crosses the finish line.