With the death toll so (relatively) low this season, I really should’ve expected what was going to happen in the finale. These characters went far too long going (again, relatively) unscathed to avoid their fates. Some acts felt like retribution, others like sheer misfortune. Regardless, there was not a smile to be found in all of Essos or Westeros on Sunday evening.
Stannis’ filicide from last episode hit him harder than he expected. Sure, the Lord of Light may have melted the snow to make it easier for Stannis and his troops to get to Winterfell, but what the Lord didn’t do was make sure he didn’t lose half his army and all his horses in the process. As expected, a good deal of his men abandoned the quest to make Stannis king after he mercilessly burned his child to death. Stannis may have been able to push on without the burden of guilt weighing on his conscience, but Selyse could not, and hanged herself on a nearby tree. And as Melisandre predicted, Stannis did march upon Winterfell to meet the Boltons on the battlefield. What she did not foresee is that they would have an army three times the size of his, each soldier on a horse, surrounding what was left of Stannis’ forces.
The defeat came so quickly and easily that the battle didn’t even need to be shown. There was no rousing call to arms, no look of determination in Stannis’ eye; only fighting out of obligation for all of the pain and suffering he caused the people that were aiding in his quest for the throne. When Brienne happens upon him, he is broken and has no fight or honor left in him. She is finally able to avenge Renly’s death, and when she asks Stannis if he has any last words, his response is an empty, “Go on. Do your duty.” He knows he did literally everything he could do become king, and every single one of those acts has failed. Apologies don’t matter to the dead. There is no one left alive to forgive him. Oathkeeper swings, and the Baratheon line ends.
In order to condemn Stannis to death, Brienne left her post where she was watching the highest window of the broken tower for a sign that Sansa needs help. The object that looked like a corkscrew turned out to be a key, and rather than use it against Ramsay by, say, thrusting it in his jugular, Sansa unlocks the door to her room and hurries to light the candle in the window. In the moment Brienne left, the candle was lit. Upon attempting to return to her room, Sansa happens upon Myranda with a bow and arrow aimed right at her and Reek by her side. That candle was Sansa’s last hope, but she has already accepted the idea of dying, saying, “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there is still some of me left.” But Myranda has no intention of killing her, because Ramsay needs her (or some of her, at least) to create an heir.
And then, something I had suspected (and mostly hoped for) this whole season happened: Theon Greyjoy found his way out of Reek and threw Myranda over the railing, and she lands with a bloody splatter. Sansa and Theon hear the gate opening and know staying alive with Ramsay is worse than death. They come to the edge of the walls Winterfell and hand in hand jump off the ledge together. There is no fear in their eyes, no tears of pain or regret. Only determination and the satisfaction that, after everything Ramsay has done to them, they are able to claim their lives for themselves. Though, as we did not see or hear them hit the ground, perhaps they are not dead after all, only likely very sore.
The remaining Stark daughter, as stubborn as ever, defied Jaqen’s commands to kill the gambler, and seeks out Meryn Trant to cross off the first name on her list. Arya even goes so far to steal a face, which happened to be the face of the girl she euthanized earlier this season, to get through the brothel to his room. Her Faceless training of being slapped with a stick has come in handy. Once she has him alone, she unleashes years of pent-up rage on Meryn, using a dagger to stab both of his eyes and then his torso repeatedly. Before she slits his throat, she reveals her identity and says, “Do you know who you are? You’re no one. You’re nothing.”
It seems as though Arya’s forgotten that she is supposed to be No One. She is caught by Jaqen and the Waif upon her return to the Hall of Faces, and the Faceless Men do not take her thievery lightly. Her impatience and vengeful streak has clouded her judgement. She never learned all of the rules of the House of Black and White, and her inability to consider the consequences of her actions has cost her what she took from Meryn Trant before she took his life. In payment of the life she stole from the Many Faced God, Arya loses her sight.
By some miracle, Tyrion, Jorah, Daario and Missandei escaped the fighting pits in Meereen after Daenerys flew off on the back of Drogon. In short order, Daario decides he and Jorah must head out to find Daenerys, leaving Tyrion, Missandei and a still-recovering Greyworm behind in Meereen to rule in place of the queen. Tyrion is left to try and keep peace in a city “on the brink of civil war,” and in the exact moment when it was feeling too overwhelming, Varys slides up next to him. “A grand old city,” he comforts Tyrion, “choking on violence, corruption, and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast?” Tyrion may have his work cut out for him, but at least he has Varys and all his little birds on his side to help.
The mother of dragons, meanwhile, is stuck in a remote section of landscape, trying to comfort a dragon who is either too sick, too tired, or too full to carry her back to Meereen. In search of food, Daenerys wanders off and finds herself in the middle of a swirling hurricane of Dothraki. She takes off a pearl ring on her hand and drops it to the ground. Did that symbolize her now defunct marriage to Hizdahr zo Loraq? Did she do it in case she gets taken away and someone tries to find her? (Immediately, I thought of this moment from The Lord of the Rings.) Daenerys has earned the respect of the Dothraki before, and at least this time she already knows the language.
The plot line that I assumed had concluded in the previous episode came to its actual end in the finale, but it did not end as prettily as expected. Jaime and Bronn set sail from Dorne to King’s Landing with Myrcella and Trystane in tow. Before departing, Ellaria bids Myrcella farewell with a kiss on the lips, which was odd, but not entirely out of character for her. They’re not far in their journey before Jaime decides to tell Myrcella who he is to her, but she instinctively already knows. The moment after the two share their first father-daughter moment, Myrcella’s nose begins to bleed. Ellaria laced her lipstick with the same poison that Tyene used on Bronn in an earlier episode. Her revenge plot in the name of Oberyn wasn’t dissuaded by Doran’s threat to have her killed if her rebellion persisted. She was willing to put her own life at stake to get back at Cersei.
As it turns out, Ellaria didn’t need to go to such extremes to take revenge on Cersei. Had she known what was happening to Cersei in King’s Landing, Ellaria would have likely sat back, laughed and finished her glass of wine, then would have possibly spared Myrcella’s life, believing that it was perhaps a bit too much. But karma has a way of coming back around full-force on Game of Thrones. Cersei relented and confessed her sins before the High Sparrow to end her torment in the dungeons, though still denying her relationship with Jaime. What she didn’t know, however, was that confessing was not the end of it. Before a trial, before seeing her son, and before all of this could be over, she had to face her atonement.
Among a host of deplorable characters living and dead on this show, Cersei was one of the worst. Seeing her arrested unleashed a shriek of glee from my throat (the same one was also heard this week when Myranda fell to her death), but there are few characters that deserve being put through the severe punishment she had to endure in this episode. To enjoy her pain is cruel, and to absolve her of any wrongdoing seems naive, so we are then forced to deal with the uncertain emotions drudged up while watching Cersei walk to through the streets of King’s Landing. She deserves something, of course, but is it this? Naked and utterly vulnerable, being assaulted verbally and physically, she keeps her eye on the Red Keep, the place where her son is and the place where she has power. She takes it as well as anyone could; she never shouts back and she never objects. She just continues on through King’s Landing at the same steady pace until she reaches the gate of the Red Keep, and Qyburn can cover her up and Zombie Mountain can whisk her to safety.
Cersei’s ordeal is long from over. In coping with this humiliation and then learning of the death of her only daughter, on top of being put through a trial where it’s dubious that she will be found innocent, the majority of her role in the next season will likely have something to do with her psychological fortitude.
And then there’s Jon Snow. Of all the 997 Lord Commanders before him, it’d be a feat if any of them served as leader of the Night’s Watch for a shorter period of time than he did. Narrowly securing the position in the first place, his high aspirations led to risky moves that did little to win the esteem of those that didn’t vote for him. The fewer his friends in Castle Black, the more precarious his position. Had he the time to earn their trust and prove his worth, he may have gradually convinced his brothers the value of forming an alliance with the Wildlings. But his farsightedness was outmatched by a handful of mutineers armed with the delusion of honor. If only Alliser and Olly and the rest were present at Hardhome to hear the Wildling elders debate joining with the Night’s Watch. “My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a crow,” says one Wildling. To which another retorts, “So would mine, but fuck ’em, they’re dead.”
To believe the latter sentiment is necessary for the situation in which both the Wildlings and Nights Watch find themselves. The dueling morality of both of the sentiments goes back to Tyrion’s theory on the right kind of terrible. For some, it would be terrible and dishonorable to betray the doctrine of ones ancestors, and actively doing so should result in the penalty of death. For others, the terribleness would come in upholding an ancestral doctrine that no longer applies to the present situation. Jon decided that the right kind of terrible was the kind that prevented his people “from being even more so”; to stop fighting a bygone enemy in order to more adequately fight an imminent one.
At the end of this episode, show runner David Benioff says that Game of Thrones is not a story about ultimate good versus ultimate evil, which is very unlike many stories of this nature. Sauron with the Ring and all his minions were the definitive evil forces in The Lord of the Rings, while Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, et. al. each operated as a paradigm of good not simply because they were actively trying to destroy evil, but because they had a vested interest in the wellbeing of others. There are a scant few characters on Game of Thrones that operate in such a way; the vast majority functions with their own self interest at the helm of their decision making. Jon happened to be one of the good, but unlike Frodo, his selflessness and righteous core were not enough to save him. In a world without a conclusive moral compass, what happens when good cannot combat evil?