Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

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I once read that George R.R. Martin considers the Red Wedding the end of the first act of his story, with the practical end of the War Of Five Kings and the diaspora of the Starks. With the Red Septing, “The Winds Of Winter” marks the end of the second. It’s the tidiest episode since the pilot, leaving just enough loose ends to bind the body of the story to the final act’s direwolf head. Dany finally sets out across the Narrow Sea with allies in the South. Lyanna Mormont rallies the North and the Vale to Jon Stark’s side. And Cersei takes out every political power in King’s Landing in a single move, leaving the Iron Throne hers for the taking. It was fun rooting for her while it lasted.

Actually, it’s even tidier than that, barreling through any potential complications just so it can get to its ending points. Take the Dorne bookend. The very term, Dorne, embodies the second act’s shortcuts by being a no-fuss catch-all for anywhere in Dorne, most often its capital, Sunspear. In my day you had to learn the sigils and the words for the lesser houses to understand what was going on. Olenna arrives in mourning, and Varys is on his way out because he has to get back to Meereen in time for Dany’s departure. He can’t just wait for her to get there for some reason. Anyway, he’s there in Dorne to help broker an alliance between the Tyrells and the Martells on one side and the Targaryen queen on the other. So what has Ellaria been doing all this time? Ever since she took out her region’s ruling men for their inaction against the Lannisters? Apparently she’s been busy waiting patiently for the narrative to activate her. And the Dornish citizens who abetted or accepted her coup? They’re fine. Real go-with-the-flow types, unlike every single Dornish character with a name. For that matter, what has Olenna been doing? Did they intercept her on the road, or was she raising an army, or is she army-less because the Tyrells are out of power now? Who’s to say? All that matters to the producers, even more than the sight of her learning what happened to her family, is that she join Team Dany. Meanwhile Dany agrees, at Tyrion’s behest, to leave Daario behind to keep the peace in Meereen while she’s gone. Yes, there’s peace in Slaver’s Bay—make that the Bay Of Dragons. Dany decisively ended the insurgency. But what about the ex-slaves who were unhappy with the free life? On the one hand, Daario’s right: “Fuck Meereen.” But Game Of Thrones can’t make such a big deal about how hard it is for an occupying ruler to assert her own justice on a city and then just wipe its hands of the nitty-gritty. Or I guess it can. Welcome to season six.

“The Winds Of Winter” is a lavish feast where every course is popcorn. Major players make big moves, years-old questions are finally answered, and the universe is finally, satisfyingly tending toward order again. The payoffs are so magnificent there’s very little time for consequence. Which isn’t as big a problem as it sounds in the short term, at least not compared to all the shortcuts. There’s time to wallow in the consequences later. For now the problem is that season six is hellbent on hitting the high points. By skipping to the ends, it diminishes its victories.

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That said, the Red Septing is the perfect narrative spectacle. The tantalizing cross-cutting of ceremony and violence reminds me of The Knick’s first season finale. Game Of Thrones never does anything like this. Episodes are so regimented they rarely even cut back and forth between locations on the map. The sequence is so momentous Ramin Djawadi breaks out a new piano score for the occasion. The first shot is a view of the sept where everyone’s gathered to enjoy the trials of Loras and Cersei, and the camera pulls back to reveal Cersei watching from her room, dressed in black with embroidered lions on her shoulders. Loras’ trial is brutal, and the episode starts swinging big at the start: With Loras’ confession, the Tyrell house becomes the latest great power to wind up heirless. But never say never. Roose legitimized Ramsay, after all. Whatever the faults of the season’s pacing, by throwing so much at us, it gives you plenty to distract yourself with while it sets up the next huge moment. I was speculating about the prospects of House Tyrell until I realized what was going on. And then Cersei lit the match. Not personally. Qyburn and the little birds lure Pycelle and Lancel to separate ambushes. Lancel soon discovers he’s bleeding out in the Mad King’s wildfire cellar, well, wildfire cavern. A handful of lit candles are burning down atop some puddles, but there’s no real suspense about whether Lancel can get there in time to blow them out. The real suspense is whether Margaery might get out. At least she goes down swinging, totally dropping her pretenses of piety, humility, and friendship with Cersei. Just in time for the wildfire demolition of the sept.

So that’s why we never got to know Kevan Lannister. Despite being hand of the king and one of the few people in Tommen’s ear all season, he was just going to be meat. A name on a list for the producers to cross out when they needed a body count. Season six loves to deliver bodies; it just hates endowing the characters. Which is odd, because when it does, as in the case of Septon Swearengen, it gives us one of the best episodes of the show. Anyway, Mace Tyrell goes, too, although he may as well have never come back from Braavos. Loras is just as expendable lately. If he was so broken way back when he told Margaery, “Let them win,” why couldn’t he confess then? That’s how it worked for Cersei. Alas, Loras is just meat nowadays. The High Sparrow is the most satisfying victim of Cersei’s villainy. His arrogance commits him to staying in the sept even though things are amiss. He’s smart enough to realize Margaery’s right, and even to show some worry as he looks around deciding what to do. But he essentially barricades the sept anyway. In those final moments, they all just wait to die.

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Which brings us to Margaery. Game Of Thrones didn’t neglect her the way it did her brother and the others. She’s probably had more scenes that aren’t strictly plot propulsion than anyone introduced after the first season—and they’re among the show’s best thanks to Natalie Dormer’s calculated gaze. Think of her open-eyed, very kind offer to her husband King Renly, her suggestive stare with Joffrey and the crossbow, or her pleasant, passive-aggressive throwdown with the alcoholic queen mother at the beginning of the season. Margaery was even there for the pivotal introduction of Ser Pounce. (Okay, all these scenes are plot propulsion—they’re about Margaery advancing her own interests—but they’re less immediately consequential than most.) Meanwhile her sins are among the least tangible. So she only pretended to care about the poor? Her charity still did a lot more good for the commoners than anything Cersei’s ever done. So she’s ambitious? She’d make a far better ruler than most characters. She didn’t even have to compromise her own values too much until the sparrows came along. Given how things played out, the moment she lost is when the High Sparrow let her see her brother. She tells Loras not to play into the High Sparrow’s hand, but her even being there with him is playing into his hand. That’s when she made a deal she thought she could eventually get out of, once she and Loras were safely back in the keep. That’s when one of the most successful power players on the continent is finally outmatched. The lesson: Come at the queen regent, you best not miss.

Olenna doesn’t cry, at least not on-screen. Like all survivors this seasons, she hardens. But you don’t feel any change. This is a woman who has lost every living family member, her legacy, and potentially the source of her power over the citizens of the Reach. She might have an ally in Littlefinger if she could get word to him. She was theoretically engaged in rallying the troops (her last words to Margaery being, “I’ll see you soon, my dear”). She’s alone and adrift except for her thirst for vengeance. And when we see her again, she’s sitting on a veranda sassing her company, like always. “The Winds Of Winter” keeps skimping on consequence. This is the opportunity to show us what the Tyrell deaths mean, and apparently all it can come up with is motivation for another character’s revenge.

After Tommen’s suicide, Cersei shows Olenna how it’s done. Given the way she took Joffrey and Myrcella’s deaths, you might expect Cersei to show some reaction beyond anger. But she takes after Olenna, only more so. We have to have a big bad, as the screenwriting gods probably say, so she’s back to being a pure villain. Her torture of Septa Unella is appropriately heartless. There’s nothing left in the world that incites her compassion. She doesn’t even show any reaction to Jaime, who looks awfully concerned about her coronation. I was afraid he was walking into his own wedding. Instead the scene harkens back to the Targaryen dynasty in a different way: a monarch who would burn their subjects. Slay, queen.

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That’s the two-word idea behind the whole season, the bumper sticker plastered across a perforated bumper. Certainly it’s satisfying to watch women like Sansa assert themselves. It would be more satisfying if it didn’t feel so scripted. Her victory at Winterfell wasn’t cunning. It wasn’t even her victory. It was luck that Littlefinger showed up in time to save Jon’s last 12 men, and it was obsession that led Littlefinger to pledge the knights of the Vale in the first place. She didn’t manipulate him, and she didn’t manipulate Jon. She just happened to have interests tangled up in theirs. And it feels like the producers think that’s good enough for us to pump our fists. Sometimes it is. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Arya has never looked more like her sister than when she gives Walder Frey an irrepressible smile as she holds his head back so he can bleed out. This is after she feeds his own sons to him. Don’t ask how she managed to get to the Twins, kill Black Walder and Lothar, butcher them, cook them, and serve Walder. This is the Sand Snakes showing up on Trystane’s boat all over again. It’s not even clear how many people Arya needed to kill to make that happen. Maybe nobody noticed. Maybe every Frey man is dead. In any event, it’s some satisfying revenge on a base level. Cersei better watch out.

It’s just that Game Of Thrones keeps talking a big talk about how violence begets only violence, and then it gives us scenes like this. Meryn Trant’s execution is painful to witness. Everything from his nasty pederasty to his final muffled moan is disturbing. That seemed like the whole point. By contrast, Walder Frey’s execution is a pep rally. Slay, Arya! Slay, Sansa! It’s totally different when Starks do it.

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But there’s nothing rah-rah about Cersei’s victory, and that’s what gives me hope the producers know what they’re doing. “The Winds Of Winter” is a dirge. A spectacular dirge, but a dirge nonetheless. After all, Castle Black is practically empty, several great houses are now heir-less, and the commoners are inevitably slaughtered by some marauding band or another. Look at the big picture and see what Cersei’s viciousness has left her with, nothing but a throne. Dany breaks up with her boyfriend like she’s laying him off, only with even less compassion than that. Now Arya skips going home so she can spend some time with the Freys, and it’s treated like a triumph. Maybe for now. But Cersei is one logical endpoint for these young Stark women, and there’s still time for them to swerve.

One of the themes of the season I keep bringing up is hope. Season five was a death march, and season six is rainbows and kittens. The problem is those rainbows and kittens aren’t earned simply because the characters survived this long. Just because Sansa endured Ramsay doesn’t make it awesome that she accidentally won the battle that resulted in his death. Just because Arya’s finally free of the Faceless Men doesn’t mean she gets to suddenly appear wherever she wants on the map. The fewer steps you skip on the journey, the more we can savor the destination. It took almost no negotiating to unite Yara and Dany, and it took even less to bring the Martells and Tyrells into the fold. I’m thrilled for Yara and Olenna, at least, but I’d be a hell of a lot more thrilled if it hadn’t fallen into their laps.

Does all this mean anything, or is it just character rearrangements? That’s the big loose thread that takes us into the final act. Sam’s in Oldtown now, Melisandre’s headed south toward the Brotherhood, Bran’s by the Wall, and Euron’s still out there somewhere. But the biggest question mark is one of substance. Can the producers get back to fleshing out the story, or are they just going to race to wrap everything up in reportedly 14 episodes? As “The Winds Of Winter” shows, Game Of Thrones is capable of astonishing entertainment. But unless there’s more to it—motivation, consequence, the details of real life—it’ll just be a dazzling game of musical chairs.

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Stray observations

  • “The Winds Of Winter” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik.
  • For the first time all season, we had a chance to see a new location on the map, but the credits whiffed. Better luck next time, Oldtown.
  • Winter is here! Technically Autumn lasted five seasons as I recall. It’s purported to be the coldest winter in a millennium. Remember Dany’s vision at the House Of The Undying? The one where she walked in the deserted throne room and it was snowing?
  • Consider Tommen. Here’s a king who was effortlessly bested by monks wearing chains in season five. He didn’t even try to use military might against them. So he began this season ashamed of his powerlessness. When he finally begged his mother’s forgiveness, he asked her to show him how to be strong. You might not remember that because it had no bearing on anything that followed. Instead Tommen kept pestering the High Sparrow because he wanted to have sex again, and thus he fell under the High Sparrow’s sway. That’s the story here. Helpless little tween is overpowered by his libido. I defy you to find a more relatable story. But instead of selling that, the producers gave us the inexplicable waffling of a good-natured boy in a bad spot who somehow avoided being sternly lectured by his mother on stranger-danger. I hate to generalize, but never let your kids spend time with old men who call themselves birds.
  • Welcome back: No one. Based on the season, I was sure we’d get some sort of resurrection this week. Instead we got a bloodbath. At least we’re probably done with Essos. Good to be in Westeros full-time.
  • R.I.P. Margaery, Loras, and Mace Tyrell, Kevan and Lancel Lannister, Tommen “Baratheon” Lannister, the High Sparrow, Grand Maester Pycelle, Walder Frey, Black Walder, Lothar, and Melisandre if she ever comes North again.
  • So who’s left to man Cersei’s small council? Other than Ser Gregor, commander of the queensguard, and Grand Maester Qyburn, that is. Jaime? There’s some small comfort in knowing the producers have angled him to be collateral damage instead of having him blindly join Cersei. She may be pure villain now—and the best, most understandable one yet—but Jaime’s still generally someone to root for.
  • “Loras, stay with me,” Margaery tells her brother. At least they get that moment together. That and one last tandem “You fool” spoken entirely with their eyes as they stare at the High Sparrow before the end.
  • Margaery to the High Sparrow: “Forget about the bloody gods and listen to what I am telling you.” She gets it. Worst loss since Oberyn.
  • Walder has Edmure locked in a dungeon. He knowingly tells Jaime, “Can’t go killing my son by law, wouldn’t be right.” How much you want to bet Arya didn’t check the dungeons on her way out?
  • Oldtown bureaucracy would make Terry Gilliam proud. The library, though, now that’s one of the most hopeful sights in a hopeful season.
  • “If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil.” Davos is such a good man. I’m worried about his inevitable round two against Tyrion.
  • Speaking of whom, Tyrion swears allegiance to Dany at the end of this speech about how she restored his faith. One question: Where did that come from? He had two chats with her before she abandoned him on a dragon, and then she helped him (well, he helped her) swiftly fend off attackers. Where is all this faith coming from? You have to earn these things, producers.
  • The strongest demonstration of Sansa’s cunning: “Only a fool would trust Littlefinger.” Yes, exactly. So why is she so cavalier with his passion? At long last he’s laid bare his motivations, and it’s convincing. All he wants is to sit on the Iron Throne with Sansa as his queen. That is his deepest desire. And she brushes off his kiss and doesn’t tell anyone. To me, the very next thing you do after that chat with Littlefinger is plot how to keep him in line, whether by stringing him along or killing him. He just implied he wants to kill Jon. She doesn’t need Littlefinger, necessarily. After all, Robin’s the Lord of the Vale. He’s the one who’s family. And she should know how dangerous Littlefinger is when he doesn’t get what he wants.
  • Tyrion tells Dany, “This is actually happening.” Finally! “Are you afraid? Good. You’re in the great game now, and the great game is terrifying.”
  • “My name is Arya Stark. I want you to know that. The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark smiling down at you as you die.”
  • Littlefinger calls Jon Snow a “motherless bastard born in the South.” Half-right. Turns out, as many predicted, Jon is half-Stark, just not on his father’s side. He’s the offspring produced when Rhaegar kidnapped (or “kidnapped”) Lyanna Stark. Which makes him half-Targaryen too. And more specifically, Dany’s nephew. The wider resonance is that Ned sullied his own honor to protect Jon. He claimed he had an affair so nobody knew he was carrying the Targaryen brat. Aw, Ned.
  • So Benjen drops Bran and Meera off at a weirwood tree on the north side of the Wall, saying he can’t go through because it was carved with ancient protection spells and he’s part White Walker now. Which is fine, but couldn’t he at least take Bran to the gate? Jesus, Benjen, this is basic stuff.
  • “The war is not over, and I promise you, friend, the true enemy won’t wait out the storm. He brings the storm.” Unfortunately we’re all still busy playing the game of thrones: Jon vs. Cersei vs. Dany. Except it’s hard to imagine Dany really going up against Jon. It’d be awesome to pit the two groups of relative good guys against one another, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • I’d kill for a shot of Gendry’s rowboat somewhere as Euron’s fleet passes in the distance.

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