“Promise me, Ned.”
Olenna Tyrell sits all in black in the water gardens of Dorne, surrounded by beautiful women bent on revenge. “Cersei stole the future from me,” she tells Ellaria. Her enemy’s crime is so vast, so terrible that it cannot be described as the destruction of places or people. Instead it is the transformation, as if by magic, of love and hope, of the very will to live itself, into a tower of smoke and dust. It’s a magic trick The Winds of Winter plays more than once.
The episode opens on insular royalty and impoverished fanatics readying themselves for trial, their costumes all equally affected. A mournful piano burdens the sequence with a sense of dread and melancholy, building in the background as Cersei’s plot to destroy the city unfurls with horrid inevitability. The piece stitches bleak, quiet visuals into a clockwork sequence which begins with children carrying out hits on Cersei’s orders and ends with the instantaneous incineration of a significant chunk of the show’s starring cast. The scale of it all is difficult to digest, the visuals of the sept’s detonation, of a churchbell propelled by the explosion pulverizing hapless bystanders fleeing the scene, instantly unforgettable.
Equally devastating is the series-in-miniature that plays out tragically within the sept as Margaery butts heads with the High Sparrow, their senseless contest a shadow play of the pointless brutality of all Westeros’s wars in the lee of the Walkers. Loras’s broken-hearted confession, made to save his own skin as part of Margaery’s long game. Lord Mace’s grief at seeing his son renounce his title, then his terror at seeing him mutilated. “I can’t let them,” he cries as Margaery holds him back. It’s raw and wrenching, a lifetime of paternal devotion expressed in a single line by Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s done a lot with a little since his introduction. The High Sparrow’s smug certainty that his authority is beyond challenge. All of it human, moving, momentous until the moment it’s swept away into nothingness.
Cersei watches it from the balcony of her apartments in the Red Keep, a distant plume of green flame licking up from the city, a thing so far removed it hardly seems to matter. Satisfied, she descends into the dungeons to torment Septa Unella before leaving her to torture and rape at the hands of what remains of ser Gregor. And in the interstice, her last child sees the same sight from his own window and flings himself out of it to his death in a silent, breathless sequence. That Cersei planned for his safety by confining him to his rooms only makes it worse. The wildfire reaches out a tendril, invisible to all, and plucks Tommen from the world. It offers a brutal parallel to the night she held him in her arms while Stannis’s fleet besieged the city.
Every ascent to power carries with it the seeds of loss. Take a crown from your dead son’s brow. Put a lover aside to gain a throne, and find a hole in your heart where you thought he resided. Take up your father’s standard, be a king and not a bastard, and watch your sister’s hard-won love curdle into jealousy. Even The Winds of Winter’s sole unambiguously joyous visual, Sam staring in teary-eyed awe at the library of Oldtown’s Citadel, is marred by the knowledge that these halls, and Sam’s new life, have no room for Gilly or Young Sam. These intimate pains augur the far weightier horrors and sacrifices Game of Thrones has been showing us are part of ruling since its earliest moments. And those aren’t the only auguries; the episode opens with a terrible fire unleashed on King’s Landing and closes with Dany’s dragons winging their way toward that wounded city, ready to make a new hell of it.
The episode’s coronations are undeniably different in tone, Jon’s boisterously optimistic, Cersei’s near-silent and heavy with menace, but both are united by uneasy looks and threads of doubt among the crowned party’s intimates. Jaime’s apprehension at the sight of his sister on the Iron Throne doesn’t bode well for their future, and nor does Sansa’s fading smile as she catches Littlefinger’s wry expression at how quick the Northern lords are to accept a bastard ahead of her. Their garden conversation is as beautifully staged as it is illuminating as Littlefinger tells Sansa that power and her at his side are the only things he desires moments after she expresses disgust with her younger self for dwelling so pettily on what she wanted rather than appreciating what she had. Littlefinger’s avarice is mature, direct, and calculated, an image of completion he invokes like a mantra and uses to make every decision in his life, but in Sansa’s eyes he’s revealing himself as no better or wiser than a selfish teenager preoccupied with handsome princes and gallant knights.
In the Tower of Joy, Bran discovers the truth of his aunt’s death and his father’s greatest secret. Jon Snow is a Targaryen bastard, son of Lyanna and Rhaegar. Long theorized by fans, the revelation of Jon’s true parentage seems like part of a seismic shift toward the show’s endgame. With only a few seasons left before the final battle between life and death, major pieces of the story are finally beginning to snap into place. Meanwhile, the four surviving Starks haven’t been so close to one another since the pilot, with Bran nearing the Wall and Arya wreaking nightmarish vengeance on Walder Frey in the Riverlands while Jon and Sansa occupy Winterfell, rallying the North around them.
Arya’s return to Westeros is among the episode’s most graphic images. That finger baked into Lord Walder’s pie, the flesh of his own sons served up and relished by the old lecher, is of a piece with the sight of Gregor Clegane’s ruined face as he moves to loom over Unella in the dungeon. It’s pure horror, a perversion of the natural order. Lord Walder’s death in Arya’s arms is almost a mercy, her eerie calm and joyful grin profoundly nauseating. She, too, has paid a price for the power she now wields as an adept of the House of Black and White. Her humanity is tarnished and bloodied, perhaps forever. In her guise as a serving girl she eyes Jaime, too, dreaming of the day his throat will open for her even as he confronts the loathsome Lord Frey’s suggestion that the two kings they killed make them comrades of a sort.
In this light, as Daenerys prepares to return to Westeros with the vengeful widows of Houses Martell and Tyrell ready to back her, with the Dothraki and the Unsullied under her command, there is a sense of hopeless terror underlying the pomp and circumstance. It means more misery, more suffering, more fire poured into city streets. It means a continuation of the storm that has engulfed Westeros since the show’s first season, an expansion of its scope and its fallout. It means more old men killed in their homes, more young and broken-hearted boys leaping to their deaths, more brothers and sisters burned together, more helpless women given to the Mountain.
It means vengeance. Justice.
Fire and blood.