SPOILER ALERT. If you haven't watched the episode yet, leave now.
"Confess. It felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn't do it because you cared about my atonement. You did it because it felt good. I understand," Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) tells Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham), after she bombs the Great Sept of Baelor with wildfire at the end of tense, nervy sequence that kicked off the sixth-season finale of Game of Thrones. "I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I [f-] my brother because it feels good to feel him inside me. I lie about [f--] my brother, because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites....It felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good under the right circumstances."
The tension between what feels good for an individual, and what's good for a realm is at the heart of "The Winds of Winter," a strong capper to an often-uneven season of Game of Thrones. And the tension between what's fun for a show to do and what's good for the show, to keep both plot and character development moving forward, was often what made "Game of Thrones" uneven this year. But "Winds of Winter" stuck the landing, assembling all of its chess pieces effectively for two final battles - the one between rival houses and the one between the realm of men and the Night King and his forces - while also delivering some grand spectacle moments of pure delight. If I spent the season finale of Game of Thrones shaking, I alternated between shaking and cheering with delight.
The distinction between what feels good and what actually is good shows up most starkly in the storylines of the two queens who are placed in direct opposition to each other at the end of this episode: Cersei, now First of Her Name, and in an ugly twist, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who assembles her forces and sets sail for Westeros.
Cersei does what feels good to her when she incinerates the Great Sept of Baelor, taking with it her nemesis, the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), and the woman she saw as the young queen from the prophecy who would rise up to take her place, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). To its credit, Game of Thrones managed to freight the sequence with dread, not with any grotesque displays of violence, but with eerily calm cinematography and restrained music that grew from piano and strings to something much grander and more ominous. She's free, at least from the immediate threat of a trial, and from the possibility that her son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) will love someone more than he loves her.
But Cersei lives almost entirely inside her own perspective; she's never been particularly good at thinking about what other people might do and how they might react to her choices. And so when Tommen, watching the burning sept, takes off his crown and quietly, almost gently, steps from his window, it's both inevitable and tremendously sad. Tommen is a decent, guileless person raised by a woman whose love was like poison.
Tommen would have likely made a terrible king, given his liability to manipulation. Unlike badder and/or madder kings though, his death is a tragedy; it saves no one, and serves only to turn Cersei's triumph into wormwood. She always told her brother and lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) that it was the two of them against the rest of the world. But now that it is only the two of them: no husband to discover Cersei and Jaime's affair, no children whose legitimacy must be defended and safeguarded. Their paradise is shot through with rot and gall. What happens when you're alone with the person you love and discover that they are actually the snake in the garden, the voice tempting you to ruin all along?
Dany, by contrast, gives up what feels good when she tells her lover Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) that he must stay and keep the peace in Meereen so she can make an alliance through marriage in Westeros. Though she confesses to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), whom she names Hand of the Queen, that she felt less than she expected at breaking off the affair, it's still a sacrifice.
And unlike Cersei, a woman who burned her city to the ground and was surprised to be left with ashes, Dany's feelings as she contemplates the task before her are more complicated. She's known for a long time now how bitter it can be to rule.
"How about the fact that this actually happening. you have your armies. You have your ships. You have your dragons. Everything you've ever wanted since you were old enough to want anything is yours for the taking. Are you afraid?" Tyrion asks her, testing her gently. When she acknowledges that she is, he's satisfied. "Good. You're in the great game now, and the great game is terrifying."
Of course, Cersei and Dany aren't the only people trying to navigate between what feels right and what is right as they prepare to fight for the Iron Throne.
In Dorne, Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) meets with Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) not because she has any hope of putting a Tyrell on that painful seat and changing her country for the better, but because before she dies, she wants to pay back the Lannisters what they have cost her in fire and blood. Varys (Conleth Hill) brokers the deal between these two women and Dany, who has as much cause or more to hate the Lannisters, and the army and dragons to make that fire and blood more than a metaphor. And as exciting as it will be to see this pincer maneuver play out on a scale broader and more vicious than the one Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) pulled on Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in last week's "Battle of the Bastards," Dany is stoking her civilizing quest, with vengeance as the tinder. The combination may not be as unstable as wildfire, but it's still a risky one.
And in Winterfell and the Riverlands, the Stark sisters are pursuing different, but equally fraught, visions of justice. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) thankfully turns out not to be the Waif (Faye Marsay) in disguise; that's one fan theory I'm glad to see go down to quick defeat. Instead, she serves Walder Frey (David Bradley) his own sons in a pie. The faint smile on her face as she crosses another name off her list with Needle isn't as obscene as Cersei's joy in watching the Great Sept of Baelor burn, but it's still disturbing. Arya may have reclaimed her name, but she's yet to reckon with the damage to her soul.
At Winterfell, Sansa tells Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) that "I'm done with all that." She means prayer, but also the dream of a happy marriage that would elevate her to the highest classes in the land. For all Baelish claims that chaos is a ladder, he may be the last man in Westeros who still believes in that old fairy tale of a man rising from common origins to claim the Iron Throne, assisted by a woman who will just be delighted to stand by his side. It's immensely satisfying when Sansa walks away from Baelish, and when little Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) shames the lords of the North into acknowledging Jon as their king, pulling one of the steps on Baelish's ladder from underneath his feet. But for all Baelish deserves not to have Sansa fall into his arms, the look they exchange across the room in that scene is only a notch less deadly than the gaze between Jaime and Cersei in the throne room in the Red Keep.
Even when characters try to compromise, to take the strategic route and submit, that's no guarantee of freedom or happiness. Watching Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) confess his supposed sins, kneel before the High Sparrow and consent to have a seven-pointed star dug into his forehead is tremendously painful. And it's worse that it's all for naught; had he lived, left King's Landing, and survived to fight another day for the Tyrells, his submission might have been redeemed. But Westeros is a complicated place; nobody expected Cersei Lannister to be as destructive as a dragon-mounted Targaryen.
For all the tension and destruction in "The Winds of Winter," there are moments of pure delight in this episode, too. But, as they should be, they're spiked with bitterness for us; what we want can't be purely good for us, or we'd lose the point "The Winds of Winter" wants us to absorb.
Sam Tarly (Jon Bradley) has his Beauty and the Beast-style moment when he finally gets to see the library at the Citadel, but to do so, he leaves Gilly (Hannah Murray) and baby Sam behind; Sam may not be his father, but he's no fantasy of an egalitarian partner, either. Seeing Olenna snap "Do shut up, dear" at one of the Sand Snakes, and seeing her reunited with Varys, made me yelp with pleasure. But the reunion between the two cattiest uncrowned queens in Westeros only comes to pass because Olenna has lost so much, so violently. Lyanna Mormont's big moment is adorable and charming, but it also casts the dice before Jon and Sansa could come to an agreement about who should rule in Winterfell. Now that Jon has been anointed King in the North, Sansa won't be able to overrule him lightly.
And being spared visual cruelty, as Game of Thrones does several times in "The Winds of Winter," doesn't actually save us from the knowledge of what has happened. It's a kindness not to show us Tommen's body, Septa Unella's torture*, or Arya butchering the younger Freys. But that doesn't make Tommen any less dead, or Septa Unella any less tortured, or Arya any less morally degraded.
In the end, "The Winds of Winter" illustrates all the ways that, while Game of Thrones had to deal with a lot of creaky plot machinery this season, and while book readers had to face the inevitable anticlimax** of events we'd predicted for ages, the show became more fully realized than ever before in its sixth year.
Watching Sansa, Cersei and Dany climb to the pinnacles of power showed how deeply committed "Game of Thrones" and George R.R. Martin have always been to exploring the damage done by male domination, and what happens to women when they throw off their chains. Watching Jaime Lannister's dreams of fatherhood be murdered, and seeing Ramsay Bolton dispatch his own wretched, noble sire suggested just how twisted that hereditary patriarchy renders men. Watching Dany just barely restrain her impulses towards destruction reminds us that there is no truly benevolent conquest. Watching Melisandre (Carice van Houten) age and yearn to die shows us just how cruel service to a god can be. And watching Hodor (Kristian Nairn) struggle to fulfill the order that has guided his life, holding the door to save the people he loved, reminded us of the damage we do when we strive for greatness and transcendence.
No matter how glorious the summer has been, winter is coming.
*My assumption is that the Mountain's first move is going to be to blind Septa Unella, given that Cersei first says she's fulfilling her promise that her face will be the last thing that Septa Unella sees, and then warns her that she won't be dying just yet.
**I feel like it says a whole bunch that the final confirmation of R+L=J barely had any emotional impact in this episode.