[This post contains SPOILERS for the second half of Game of Thrones‘s sixth season]
We’ve already looked at the biggest reveals in the first half of Game of Thrones’s sixth season, and while some of those were, indeed, rather large, mind-bending twists – Jon Snow came back to life! Hodor became Hodor through time travel! The White Walkers were created by the children of the forest! – it turns out they’re nothing compared to what was in store for the latter half of what has easily proven to be the show’s biggest and greatest season yet.
Indeed, these last five episodes have proven to not only provide a lot of the payoffs to what was so carefully and slowly assembled in the first five installments, but to also deliver on the twists and turns that have been building since, literally, the pilot, five long and gut-wrenching years ago. Who is Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) mother, and why is her identity such a large and well-kept secret? Whatever happened to Uncle Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle)? How and when will Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) ever leave Essos behind to take back what is hers by rights with fire and blood?
It’s time, then, to take stock of the remainder of the season (particularly that action-packed finale, which did much to up the show’s dramatic stakes several notches all by itself) and to compile our new list of the 11 Biggest Reveals in Game of Thrones’s Sixth Season.
Be prepared to be blown away.
11. Arya, faceless no more
The nature of identity is one of Game of Thrones’s most fundamental – and most intriguing – questions, being a theme that has been front and center since the very first episode: who is Jon Snow’s mother? How does becoming khaleesi alter the young and timid Daenerys Targaryen? Who is Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) behind his perfectly-polished mask, and what game is he playing at in the game of thrones?
Perhaps the most interesting of all these character arcs, however, has to do with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who has systematically been stripped of all her identities, both figuratively and literally (she’s had a number of faces and names she’s donned over the seasons, from a fake Night’s Watch recruit in season two to a master-of-disguises assassin in season 6), until there is nothing left.
Well, nothingness was the ideal plan, at least, what Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and his order of the Faceless Men hoped she would become once everything was said and done. “Who is a girl?” he would invariably ask. “No one,” Arya would respond, but she would never mean it – not really. And after nearly two full of seasons of trying to convince herself otherwise, she finally comes to realize it this year, after being sent on her first assassination assignment; Arya, it turns out, decidedly does not want to leave her emotions or her sense of ethics checked at the door, and, more importantly, she doesn’t want to let go off that fabled list of hers, the one she has carefully and assiduously compiled ever since the first season, containing all the names of the people who have wronged her or her family.
At the end, Arya has fully embraced being Arya – but an Arya that now has the benefit of a Faceless Man’s training, making her a force to be reckoned with in an increasingly lawless Westeros (as we’ll soon see).
10. Uncle Benjen’s return
Uncle Benjen Stark, the former First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, can rightfully be called one of the most minor of the series’s many minor characters (he only appeared in three episodes five years ago), but yet his disappearance has been one of Game of Thrones’s most-frequently-asked-about cliffhangers – and the payoff to that long-thought-lost storyline, as it happens, is actually one of the best moments in season 6, as well as one of its biggest reveals.
Benjen returns to the narrative fold just in time to save Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and the only surviving member of his traveling party, Meera Reid (Ellie Kendrick), from an onslaught of White Walkers and their wights, making short work of villains that have, up until this point in the show, been depicted as being rather lethal and extremely hard to kill. And his backstory – what he’s been up to for the past four seasons – is similarly impressive: after being left for dead by the Walkers, waiting to rise again as an ice zombie, he is saved by the children of the forest, who cannot bring him back to life (that, apparently, is an ability reserved exclusively for the red priests of R’hllor, such as Melisandre) but who can nonetheless prevent him from becoming a mindless minion of the Night’s King (Vladimir Furdik). Poor Benjen’s been left to wander the land, trapped between life and death, the Wall and the Walker’s home of the Lands of Always Winter, ever since.
(In the books, Benjen’s reanimated form is known as Coldhands, a mysterious – and even more magical – creature that author George R.R. Martin has decidedly said is not Bran’s uncle. For a full breakdown on the differences, please see our full explanation feature.)
9. The Second Battle of Winterfell
Game of Thrones has become a show renowned for its battles, and rightfully so: the Battle of Blackwater Bay (season 2), the attack on Castle Black (season 4), and, of course, the Battle of Hardhome (season 5) are all some of the most epic and most perfectly-realized combat sequences ever devised for the small screen.
For this current year, the producers wanted to not necessarily top themselves, but to attempt a style of fighting that hasn’t been seen yet: classical legionnaire warfare, in which rows of well-trained troops box in their opponents and proceed to slaughter them. The panic, confusion, and the ever-growing pile of bodies – which threatens to bury Jon Snow alive – are all standouts of “Battle of the Bastards” (episode 9), and they all help to sell the horrors of war in ways not yet fully expressed in the series.
But this says nothing of the two reveals that both proceed and succeed the ghastly, all-out battle sequence. Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson), the long-lost Stark child that was last seen three years previously, is murdered by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) right in front of Jon and Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) eyes, in a way that is surprisingly straightforward for the sociopathic Bolton bastard but is nonetheless psychologically twisted (not to mention heartbreaking). And just when audiences – and the northern forces themselves – think that all is lost and Jon is a goner, Lord Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and the Knights of the Vale (who have become one of the strongest fighting forces in the Seven Kingdoms, thanks to their neutrality during the entire War of the Five Kings) come riding to the rescue, arriving in majestic form and making short, vicious work of House Bolton’s army.
8. The return of the Hound
In addition to the continued explorations of identity, season 6 also seemed especially concerned with investigating the idea of rebirth, whether literal (Jon Snow’s resurrection, Benjen Stark’s new undead status) or figurative (Sansa as a power player in the north or Arya’s new existential direction). Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), the former Hound, seems to be the perfect embodiment of both, a character who is on death’s doorstep for an extended period of time and who recovers only to question his past deeds and contemplate a future that, for the first time in his life, seems more open and full of potential than ever before.
Of course, the quiet, somber, hopeful return of the fan-favorite character inevitably leads to disappointment, death, and, of course, violence – the hallmarks of the Hound from his very first appearance, and the thematic touchstones of the series itself. But what’s the most interesting point to note regarding Clegane’s exciting return is how the former seems to affect the latter: even though the Hound picks up an axe and begins slaughtering once again, it’s not for sheer pleasure or the mindless obeying of an unjust king’s commands – it’s for vengeance and, arguably, for morality, for punishing evil deeds and attempting to push society (yes, even a small fraction of it) back to civil functioning. That Sandor doesn’t kill all of the brotherhood without banners in order to get to the three rogue members says much – and, no, it’s not strictly because of his physical injuries that he’s no longer capable of such widespread carnage.
7. Daenerys triumphant
With Daenerys Targaryen missing in action from Meereen, her makeshift base of power, for the vast majority of the season, her grand return became one of the most anticipated developments of the year. What pushed it over the top, however, and transformed it into one of the biggest revelations was what she did once she came back.
With the Sons of the Harpy once again running amok in the streets, seemingly killing indiscriminately, and with the slave masters from the neighboring cities of Astapor and Yunkai sailing a massive battle fleet in to mercilessly shell Meereen, all would appear to be lost… until Dany rides her now-fully-grown (not to mention now-fully-freed) dragons to obliterate the lead warship, the Dothraki horde that is now unconditionally dedicated to her rides the Harpies viciously down in the alleyways, and her legions of Unsullied corps corner the leaders of the slavers. It is unquestionably one of the grandest, most triumphant moments Game of Thrones has ever featured, depicted in its full glory for all to revel in. And when coupled with the later reveal that Slaver’s Bay has now been renamed the Bay of Dragons, it’s revealed to be the unmitigated victory that it is, as opposed to an ambivalent one.
What makes the sequence all the sweeter is the knowledge that such a stunning turn of events doubles as the perfect launching pad for Dany’s even-longer-awaited departure from Essos to her home continent of Westeros – something which, it just so happens, was also featured this season.
6. Arya’s revenge
There are few television series, past or present, that excel as much as Game of Thrones at making the audience absolutely revile a particular character; although most of the cast is a fascinating study in shades of grey (such as Ser Jaime Lannister or King Stannis Baratheon), there are some villains that are the blackest of blacks, arguably even more sinister or hated than Star Wars’s Dark Lords of the Sith: King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), Warden of the North Ramsay Bolton, and, of course, Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley).
Although Frey is the least-seen and -utilized of these antagonists, he is, in many ways, the most thematically effective; whereas Joffrey gets off on psychologically tormenting his victims, and whereas Ramsay is a master torturer, having the targets of his ire either be irrevocably physically maimed or just ripped apart by his pack of dogs, Frey is more a representation of the cowardly (hiding behind the safety of his castle walls and moats while having others do his dirty work for him) and of unchecked avarice (he has a rapacious appetite for food, drink, and sex, as he’s literally always seen either eating or ogling the subservient women around him).
This combined with the fact that he was so personally involved – and gleeful – about the deaths of some of our favorite protagonists, including King Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and his unborn child, makes the death of the so-called Late Walder Frey one of the show’s single biggest moments of catharsis yet. It’s also home to an eye-popping twist in the form of Arya Stark seamlessly adopting the face and persona of someone else, using her training as a Faceless Man to unleash a personal bloodbath against some of her most-hated enemies.
5. Littlefinger’s endgame, revealed at last
There are few figures as singularly influential in Game of Thrones’s story as Lord Petyr Baelish, the man who almost literally single-handedly started the War of the Five Kings (by first having King Robert Baratheon’s Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, murdered, then blaming it on the Lannisters – thereby putting Houses Stark and Lannister on a collision course – and then helping to have King Joffrey Baratheon assassinated). Indeed, his character arc has been nearly as crazily convoluted as the narrative itself, starting off as the master of coin for Kings Robert and Joffrey and ending as the regent of the Vale and, essentially, the acting Warden of the East, one of the most powerful positions in all of Westeros. But, still, through all of this, we’ve never come very close to knowing what Littlefinger’s endgame is, what he expects to gain from all the death and carnage he caused all around him.
Now we know.
Thanks to a final, personal, telling admission in the season finale, “The Winds of Winter,” viewers learn that not only does he see himself ascending the Iron Throne, becoming the king of the Seven Kingdoms, he also wishes to have Sansa Stark, the younger embodiment of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) – the now-lost love of his life – at his side as his queen.
Whether this actually comes to pass is another question entirely – initially, Sansa seems less than enthused at the prospect, but then, after her brother is unanimously crowned the new King of the North (again, more on this in a moment), stealing her moment in the spotlight as the architect of the north’s reconstruction or redemption, it seems that neither Petyr nor Sansa is rather enthused at this new, unforeseen turn of events, making her participation now an open question.
4. Cersei, the first Queen of Westeros
What a spectacular, unbridled sequence, a masterwork of cinematic storytelling and a dramatic payoff that is simultaneously riveting and disturbing, triumphant and defeatist.
Cornered by an ever-growing legion of adversaries and a son that has summarily turned his back on her, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) feels she has no choice but to do what Lady Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg) sarcastically told her: kill everyone, thereby giving herself the political room necessary to protect her last remaining son and to safeguard her much-obsessed-over sense of agency.
So this is what happens: Cersei has a whole cache of wildfire packed under the Great Sept of Baelor and then ignites it while everyone is inside, killing off the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pyrce), Queen Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Ser Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), Lord Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), and her uncle, Kevan Lannister (Ian Gelder), who has become King Tommen Baratheon’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) chief advisor. Oh, yeah – she also has Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) assassinated, just to make it a clean sweep, and Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham) incarcerated and tortured, just for her personal enjoyment.
But this being Game of Thrones, the effects are never what one predicts, and seldom what one hopes. Anguished over the loss of his wife and new spiritual and political mentor (Tommen, it seems, is incapable of governing for or by himself), the king throws himself off of the Red Keep, committing suicide – leaving Cersei literally the only one left to assume the crown.
With the absence of the one element that kept her even somewhat grounded or remotely humanized, Cersei Baratheon, the first of her name, is now rudderless, with only hatred for her enemies and contempt for the smallfolk to fuel her reign.
3. Daenerys sets sail for Westeros
The long, painful, sometimes-recursive character arc of Daenerys Targaryen, the last of the original Westerosi monarchs, has been one of the very cornerstones of the series since literally day one, showing how a frightened girl who was essentially sold into slavery becomes first the khaleesi of a small tribe of Dothraki and then the accomplished general of Unsullied troops and the iconoclast who attempts to wipe the establishment of slavery from the face of Earthos (or, at least, from the region of Slaver’s Bay). There have been many side-excursions on the way, from attempting to govern the large slave city of Meereen to being a prisoner of the Dothraki horselords, but now – now – at long last, Dany is able to put all of that behind her and to set sail for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, to take back the Iron Throne for her family with fire and blood.
There are two consequences of the sheer amount of time (six seasons!) it has taken Dany to get to this point. Firstly, there is the personal preparations and psychological developments accrued, the lessons learned and the councillors assembled (such as Tyrion Lannister, her newly-appointed Hand of the Queen) and the vast number of troops assembled (her legions of Unsullied and nearly the entirety of the Dothraki horde). Secondly, however, is the range of developments that have occurred on Westeros, the wars fought and the alliances made (and smashed) and the sheer number of houses that are about to fall or already have (the Boltons, the Tyrells, the Freys, the Baratheons, even the Lannisters themselves).
2. Jon Snow’s true parentage
Even more than Daenerys Stormborn leaving Essos behind for her homeland, viewers and book-readers alike have been patiently awaiting for another, even bigger reveal to occur: the answer to the 20-year-old question of just who, exactly, Jon Snow’s mother is.
As we now have seen in “The Winds of Winter,” Ned Stark’s secret lover has turned out to be exactly what fans have thought for the past decade-and-a-half: it’s actually his sister, Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi), who was “abducted” by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen 17 years before the start of the series and left to die in the Tower of Joy in Dorne. This makes the father not Ned (because the Starks are neither Lannisters nor Targaryens and, thus, don’t believe in incest), but Rhaegar himself – which, in turn, means Jon Snow really Jon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (yes, even before his Aunt Daenerys).
Such a revelation may be fully expected by those in the diehard fandom, but it doesn’t make it any less meaningful – or any less potent for the endgame of the show, which is now just around the corner, with only two shortened seasons remaining. How will Dany react to having another contender for the crown she’s obviously thought so obsessively about for the past several years? How will Queen Cersei respond to having two Targaryen opponents?
1. The new King in the North
As it turns out, being labeled a king is something that Jon will have already been well accustomed to by the time his true parentage will be disclosed to him (presumably by his half-brother, Bran, who is doubtless going to arrive at Winterfell sometime early next season).
In a finale that contained so many long-expected (but-no-less-satisfying) payoffs – Jon’s parentage, Cersei’s counter-attack, Arya’s vengeance – there was one twist that was wholly unexpected and, arguably, the most influential for the rest of Game of Thrones: the surprise naming of Jon Snow as the White Wolf, the new King in the North, in a scene that was eerily similar to the first season finale, in which Robb Stark is dubbed the Young Wolf, the first King in the North (well, the first northern king in three centuries, at least).
And it’s precisely this mirroring that makes the development simultaneously thrilling and dreadful. On the one hand, the north has been successfully rallied, with the traitors all executed and the remaining (broken) houses eager to reconcile with the new Warden of the North (and the new major players in the region, such as the wildings and Littlefinger’s Knights of the Vale). On the other hand, we have all seen this movie before, and we know how disastrously it played out for Robb, Catelyn, and all the rest of their family.
It is arguably the single most exciting scene in all of “The Winds of Winter,” and it also doubles as the most ambiguous – classic Game of Thrones, and the absolutely most perfect way to end the middle portion of the show and to cue up the home stretch.
Did we miss your favorite reveal? Is the ranking all wrong? Be sure to sound off in the comments section.