[WARNING – This article contains SPOILERS for the Game of Thrones season 6 finale, as well as open discussion of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.]
The Game of Thrones season 6 finale has come and gone, and like the best of finales before it, 'The Winds of Winter' has irrevocably altered the landscape of the series going forward. Major characters and powerful players in the game were wiped off the board, while other pieces were moved into dangerous, and in some cases, precarious positions. Make no mistake, we're in the great game now.
The Mad Queen
It's always nice to have a nagging suspicion of yours come to pass, but Cersei's efficient dispatching of practically every one of her enemies exceeded expectations. Marvelously composed, shot, and paced, the opening minutes of 'The Winds of Winter' were some of the best this season, slowly building to a positively explosive climax. She may not have burned down the whole city, but near enough, effectively removing from the game the High Sparrow, his followers, the ruling body of The Faith in general, hundreds of King's Landing's courtiers, and most notably Mace, Loras, and Margaery Tyrell.
Yet, her moment of victory is tinged with tragedy; and again, it's an instance where many (myself included) didn't give either Cersei or Tommen the full credit they deserved. Suspecting Cersei would use wildfire to destroy her enemies, it was assumed Tommen would die as result, fulfilling the prophecy that each of her children would die before her. Yet, Cersei did have a plan to keep Tommen safe -- The Mountain would stay behind and guard Tommen's chamber, ensuring he would remain in the Red Keep and not be at the Sept when it blew sky high. What Cersei didn't plan for, however, was how her decision would affect her dear, sweet son, who really was far too pure for this cruel world. And who in his sorrow and shock at what his mother had done, threw himself from a high window in the Red Keep, killing himself.
This was the first of many surprises the finale had in store with which there are no counter scenes from the novels to compare. In fact with this episode, Game of Thrones has covered almost everything from the A Song of Ice and Fire novels outside of those few elements (Lady Stoneheart or Young Griff, for instance) that now more than ever are seem cut from the show.
In King's Landing, both Kevan Lannister and Maester Pycelle also met their ends, something which in the novels occurs when they're both murdered by a recently returned Varys and his "little birds." There was something of that in Qyburn's use of the "little birds" to kill Pycelle, while Kevan just went up in flames. But the purpose of their deaths remains -- Varys kills them out of fear they'll fix the mess Cersei has made of the kingdom, something he's carefully orchestrating, weakening the Seven Kingdoms for the coming Targaryen invasion.
So while Game of Thrones hasn't necessarily followed the route layed out in George R.R. Martin's novels -- and it's hard to say if the novels will even include anything similar -- it seems safe to assume Cersei becoming the true Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, The First of Her Name, is the endgame for this particular plot. And when she is crowned, she is left with nothing to live for and as much power as she's ever had, making this Cersei at her most dangerous and unpredictable -- a fact Jaime seems only all to aware of upon entering the throne room. That look they share speaks volumes, and much like what begins happening earlier along in the books, Jaime is realizing his sister has begun her descent into madness.
Roses Cut Down
Though 'The Winds of Winter' was expected to have a high death toll, most didn't count on Margaery Tyrell being among them. After all, the young queen was easily one of the game's best players and her decision to fool the High Sparrow into thinking she was a pious and devout follower of the Faith proved she was in it for the long haul. Sadly, there were more powerful forces conspiring against her and her family -- namely, a mad woman willing to risk it all. Margaery did at least suspect Cersei was up to something, a fitting end for one of Game of Thrones cleverest characters in that it allowed her to prove herself smarter than everyone else, even if it was for the very last time.
Just don't expect anything nearly as suspenseful or thrilling for book-Margaery's death once it happens. The character which Natalie Dormer has portrayed brilliantly for four seasons is thankfully a much richer character than the Margaery we meet in the novels. Never receiving a POV chapter, Margaery is only ever seen through the eyes of other characters, and though it's implied she's smarter than she looks, the clever wit and scheming Dormer and the writers instilled in Margaery isn't really there on the page. And of all the deaths in the season 6 finale, of which there were many, losing Margaery hurt the most. (As for Loras, the books may even have him die off-page due to burns received from boiling oil in an entirely different scenario.)
And no one understands that pain more than Lady Olenna, who in one fell swoop lost her son, grandson, and -- that who she clearly held most dear -- her granddaughter. As she later tells Ellaria Sand, Cersei took away her future and now she wants revenge.
Starks On The Rise
All things considered, season 6 has been a banner year for the Starks. Sure, there were struggles and heartache and so much death -- Rickon, Hodor, Osha, Shaggydog, and Summer. But not since before the Red Wedding have the Starks had just as many wins in their column as losses. Jon is alive and was just made the King in the North; Sansa is free of Ramsey Bolton and saw to his death, personally; Arya has also tasted sweet revenge, striking Walder Frey from her list; and Bran persevered in his quest to become the Three Eyed-Raven, beginning to display a greater control of his abilities.
Still, not every thing for the Starks was left on a cheery note. Bran and Meera remain north of The Wall, with only the furs on their backs and no transportation (Gee, thanks, Uncle Benjen); also unclear is what effect Bran's visions will have on the story's events. Sure, they inform viewers of the truth in the past, but unless Bran can either reach the show's other characters or find a way to send a message, how he'll be proactive in the 'war to come' is a bit of mystery. Arya's next step, too, isn't exactly clear. She's offed Walder Frey in a deeply satisfying scene (shout out for the Frey pie, they actually managed to squeeze it in there!) but where she goes from here is anyone's guess. She may simply continue her streak of vengeance and head to King's Landing to kill Cersei, or she may go north to Winterfell upon hearing Jon and Sansa hold the castle? Either option will be deeply tempting for Arya, and which path she chooses will give us a strong indication of just how dark she's actually becoming.
Though, where matters will be trickiest is in Winterfell. At first, it was sweet how neither Jon nor Sansa presumed to rule, each actually suggesting it'd be the other who'd become Lord or Lady of Winterfell. Then Lady Mormont threw down the gauntlet by declaring again that she serves no king but the King in the North whose name is Stark, which for her means Jon Snow. One by one the other northern lords follow suit, and before too long we have a recreation of the scene in where Robb was hailed as King in the North in season 2. The matter seems settled, and even Sansa looks quite pleased with the strong show of support for her brother -- that is, until she looks across the hall to Littlefinger.
Earlier in the episode he revealed to Sansa his plan: to sit the Iron Throne with her by his side. To do so, he needs Winterfell and for that he needs Sansa to be Wardeness of the North, not Jon. Littlefinger reminds Sansa of her stronger claim, too, a point which must have stuck with her judging by the clear conflict on her face. All of this seems to suggest that season 7 may find Jon and Sansa competing to rule the North, which sounds like the exact kind of infighting they can't really afford.
However, this is an instance where the book can perhaps shed some light on what's to come. In the novels, Sansa remains in The Eryie where Littlefinger intends to give her The Vale through marriage to Robyn's heir, then reveal her as the only remaining trueborn child of Ned Stark, making her a claimant for Winterfell as well. But, if the time all this comes to pass Jon already holds Winterfell, well, we can see where a conflict would arise. The show may have just gotten to this point more quickly while in the meantime developing Jon and Sansa's relationship more thoroughly. Either way, expect things to get messy in for the Starks in Winterfell -- especially if and when Bran arrives with the truth of Jon's parentage.
A Maester of the Citadel
It may have been the briefest narrative of the finale and on its own may not appear all that significant, but Sam and Gilly's arrival in Oldtown (where their carriage left them off really far away, for some reason) suggests there may just a bit more from the published books left to include. On Game of Thrones, all we had was an awkward scene between Sam and another maester, followed by him entering the enormous Citadel library; all serving as merely set up, only included so we know where we'll find Sam next season. But in the novels, Sam's arrival in Oldtown holds a bit more intrigue.
Upon arrival, Sam is taken to meet with Archmaester Marwyn, who unlike most at the Citadel, believes in magic and even has a glass and obsidian candle burning in his office (a mysterious candle with strange properties clearly linked with magic and dragons). He also believes that the stories of Daenerys and her dragons are true, and tells Sam that "the world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons," implying it was the maesters who caused the dragons to die out in the first place, leading to magic receding from the world. And after Marwyn listens to Sam's account of the all events which have transpired north of The Wall, he immediately sets sail to find Daenerys with the intention of becoming her maester.
Clearly, throwing all this information at viewers so late in the game would have only muddled what was a fantastic finale, but book readers have to wonder if this is where Sam's upcoming adventures at the Citadel are leading. And with Daenerys already on her way, whomever wants to be her maester will need to get a move on.
Finally Sailing for Westeros
It's a voyage twenty years and six seasons in the making, but Daenerys Stormborn is coming home; as her newly appointed Hand of the Queen, Tyrion Lannister puts it: "This is actually happening." And it's these sorts of developments that clue us in that Game of Thrones is heading for its grand finale, because next season every plot will be in happening in Westeros, bringing all of these many characters into closer and closer conflict with one another. And for the coming conflicts, Daenerys has assembled such an impressive coalition that the Seven Kingdoms won't even know what hit them. (She may even be able to count Melisandre and the Brotherhood Without Banners on her side before too long, what with the red priests and priestesses across the Narrow Sea preaching Daenerys as the 'prince that was promised.')
Of course, book readers know that Daenerys' coming invasion isn't the only Targaryen force landing in Westeros. The Young Griff, revealed to be Aegon, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, also lands in Westeros near the end of A Dance With Dragons with his own army of sellswords. Arrianne Martell, daughter of Prince Doran, is even sent to meet with Aegon, and if satisfied, throw Dorne's support behind the young dragon prince. And while expecting anything of the sort to happen on Game of Thrones would at this advanced stage be absurd (and frankly, it's a little absurd in the novels, too) we can see the similarities between it and Varys bringing House Martell onto Daenerys' side.
More surprising, though, is finding Lady Olenna in Dorne as well, invited there by Ellaria on the terms of their sharing a common enemy -- Cersei Lannister. That in itself would have intriguing enough, but uniting House Martell and House Tyrell behind Daenerys' claim is a masterstroke. This scene also echoes another from the books, one in where Doran tells Arrianne he sent her older brother, Quentyn, across the Narrow Sea to bring back their hearts desire -- "Vengeance. Justice. Fire and blood." On Game of Thrones, the promise was the same but it was made to characters we have more cause to care about. (Yes, even Ellaria and her Sand Snakes.)
It's unclear if in the books the lines of loyalty will be drawn in quite the same way, but for simplicity's sake, having those who are against the Lannisters but not familiar enough with the Starks join Daenerys' cause makes the most sense. Heading into season 7, the continent looks to be divided into three camps (four, if we're generous to Euron Greyjoy on Pyke) with Jon and/or Sansa ruling the North, Cersei seizing control in King's Landing, and Daenerys' coming ashore with the support of much of the South.
Without a doubt, House Lannister and especially Cersei are being positioned as the major villain going forward, but we still don't know on what terms the Stark and Targaryen forces will meet. Will they be friend of foe? Could Daenerys in the end be considered a villain herself? How will Jon's possibly Targaryen heritage affect her claim to the Iron Throne? For as many answers as we received this season to questions fans have been grappling with for years, the questions raised by Game of Thrones season 6 may be even more puzzling. And no matter which comes first, Martin's sixth book The Winds of Winter or HBO's Game of Thrones season 7, fans the world over cannot wait to learn their answers.
Game of Thrones will return to HBO with season 7 in spring 2017.