The television event of this past weekend was undoubtedly the finale of the sixth season of that most entertaining telenovela-for-dudes, Game of Thrones. While it was diverting for its 70-minute length, one also needs to admit that, while labeled a finale, the episode’s main purpose was to get all the narrative ducks into a row for the coming season. The finale only contained one big piece of action, and one all-important reveal: the dramatic climax of the season turns out to have come in episode 9, with the protracted (and very protracted it was, too) set piece of the “Battle of the Bastards.” Eye-popping and exciting that certainly was, and Heaven knows it was time for the repugnant Ramsay Bolton to meet his end (and a clever end it was, too), but it left little dramatic punch for the finale.
The finale did a nimble job of getting an unwieldy flock of ducks into marching formation, but it just wasn’t edge-of-the-couch television. Even running ten minutes longer than all the other Game of Thrones episodes, last Sunday’s finale still left three ducks unaccounted for: the Hound is still at large, and Brienne of Tarthe and squire Podrick are also out there somewhere. (I admit I may be getting my dark-haired guys with bad haircuts mixed up, but isn’t Podrick the sole surviving bastard of Robert Baratheon, and, thus, a viable pretender to the Iron Throne?) The Game of Thrones canvas has gotten so crowded that a season-ending cliffhanger (ah – the appearance of the velied Alexis at the end of the first season of Dynasty!) wasn’t possible: which of the characters could they have chosen to leave dangling over an inter-season precipice? (The answer, going back to episode 9, would have to have been Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow losing the battle for Winterfell with the appearance of a mysterious cavalry on the horizon. We could have spent the inter-season wondering whether whoever it was had come to save or destroy what remained of the Stark forces (there is a Lannister army unaccounted for at present), but the writers took a different tack. The choice was to make the finale of season six into a prologue to season seven.
Which is not to say that nothing happens. Something big does happen, but it happens very early in the episode, and not a great deal of time is spent on it. By this I mean Cersei’s blowing up of the Septa and sending everyone in it – from Big Bird (i.e. the High Sparrow) to Queen Margery – to the Seven Kingdoms Come. That certainly came as a surprise: Cersei’s way out of the mess she’d created with Big Bird was remarkably ingenious. I do have to take issue with its aftermath, however: you simply can’t ignite cask upon cask upon cask of Greek fire in the middle of a densely populated area (“wildfire” is, of course, Greek fire, but, as there’s no Greece in Westros, another name needed to be found for it) and expect it only to incinerate what you want it to incinerate. The explosion would have to have taken out a huge swath of King’s Landing along with the Septa, although I don’t suppose Cersei would have lost too terribly much sleep over that.
Given how long the big set pieces have become this season – when they spend big money, they want to get it up on the screen (e.g. the Battle of the Bastards, or the maritime rescue of the Wildlings with the Army of the Dead breaking down their door) – I was surprised that the conflagration at Cersei’s non-trial was given so little screen time. I think the answer there was, first and foremost, money: the producers had likely blown their wad on the battle scene in episode 9. I think they might also have had a problem with special effects. Despite the show’s CGI wizardry, they don’t seem to have gotten wildfire to look right. The rushing green flames we saw really did look cartoony, which probably explains why the Septa became a smouldering ruin in the distance in under thirty seconds of screen time.
The conflagrated Septa was indeed fun and exciting, something which can’t be said for the downright weird staging of the finale’s other big narrative development: King Tommen’s suicide. I guess the idea was to make the silence which went with it to contrast to the roar of the explosion sequence, but I don’t think it resulted in more than an anticlimax. Had they hired Word Handler to do the script for the episode, I would have had Cersei present for Tommen’s suicide, with son cursing mother for having murdered the queen. (Admittedly, that type of closet high drama isn’t the sort of thing in which Game of Thrones trades too often.) On the other hand, we did get the scene in which Cersei turned on that dreadful bewimpled woman who so badgered her to confess during her incarceration. For a brief few seconds in the scene, Lena Headey even seemed to be enjoying herself.
Although I had been tipped off that the “fire and ice” of the books’ title likely referred to Jon Snow’s parentage, I hadn’t figured out just how that was to be. Thus the episode’s big reveal, that Jon Snow is the natural (or is he legitimate??) son of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark, came as a surprise to me, although, done as it was in one of those weirdass Three-Eyed Raven flashbacks (I mean…seriously…what the hell is that about?), it didn’t have the kind of visceral punch that that kind of a reveal (likely the biggest reveal of the series) ought to deliver.
Feminist critics (like the LA Times‘ Mary McNamara) have jumped on the fact that the ducks being placed in a row are now nearly all hens, but I wouldn’t get too excited on that front if I were they. True, Cersei is on the Iron Throne, the always delightful Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell has joined forces with the odious Ellaria Sand down in Dorne, legitimate heiress to Winterfell Sansa is flashing potentially conspiratorial smiles, and Daenerys has launched her thousand ships. However, none of these women in seeming positions of power appear without a man in the scene. Cersei may sit in apparent triumph, but she has Jamie looking on; the Dornish alliance is cemented with Lord Varys in the middle of the frame; and Sansa is flanked by Jon and Littlefinger, and cannot do anything without one or the other.
Most telling, though, is Daenerys’ final position. She has her navy, she’s dumped Daario, and has seemingly taken charge of her destiny. That gave the director a splendid opportunity to quote the end of Queen Christina (not that Emilia Clarke bears comparison with Garbo), with Daenerys in profile against the prow of the ship, gazing off into her uncertain future. Instead, the last we see of people in the episode’s final sequence is Clarke standing right next to – and on the same level as – Peter Dinklage. Tyrion may have knelt in homage to Daenerys, but the tableau tells us that the coming invasion is as much his as it is hers.
Moreover, the “feminist” reading of the finale (as acknowledged by McNamara in her piece in the Times earlier this week) omits the all-important fact that the show’s center of gravity has now shifted irrevocably to Jon Snow. Acknowledged as the King of the North (and as the only leader who truly grasps the danger they are all facing from yonder side of The Wall), Jon has finally become what the saga has not had until this point: a hero. The apparent ending of Game of Thrones isn’t as blatantly obvious as Harry Potter defeating Voldemort, but it would seem as though we have begun to move irrevocably towards Jon Snow uniting North and South, claiming the Iron Throne and bringing peace and prosperity to the land (once he’s kicked some serious White Walker butt.)
If incident was lacking in the season finale, what was lacking even more was what Aeschylus fans would call the “what about Orestes?” factor. The final shot of the Targaryen fleet sailing for Westros was impressive and majestic, but I’d have thought it more powerful had we heard the chorus cautioning us that stormy seas lie ahead.
Not that the finale was devoid of warnings from the chorus. Sophie Turner’s brilliant piece of acting as Sansa’s smile shifted from Jon to Littlefinger the last time we saw her makes her very much a Westrosi Orestes. Jon is King of the North…or is he? There are two living and legitimate Stark daughters, and we now know that Jon is only Ned Stark’s nephew, and, thus, not heir of Ned’s body. There are unhatched chickens definitely not to be counted there.
The great “what about Orestes?” moment comes a little later in the episode, at Cersei’s coronation, when we see Jamie standing on a gallery looking at his irredeemably evil sister as she (by default rather than right) assumes the Iron Throne. I’ll admit that Jamie is my favorite character in the series, not least of all because he’s the one who’s shown the most growth, and who, despite himself, has turned into a mensch. And a charismatic (I use the term in its Dungeons & Dragons sense) mensch at that. Although Cersei has seized control of King’s Landing (I guess we are to assume that she’s swayed the Kingsguard to her side), there’s a whole highly restive continent she needs to rule, and there is no way she can possibly do that without an army. But Cersei doesn’t have an army; Jamie does. Cersei may appear settled on the throne (and photographs iconically when seated upon it), but (to quote the chorus which isn’t) what about Jamie?
I’ve felt for a while that the best possible outcome for Westros would be if Daenerys married Jamie and they were to rule jointly. (I’d be willing to leave the North and the White Walkers to Jon Snow.) Thus my cinematic ending of the episode would have given us that Queen Christina shot of Daenerys intercut with one of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in King’s Landing looking (half-mysteriously and half-smirkingly) in the direction of the oncoming armada.
That would really have given us something to ponder until next year.
Postscriptum, 24 July: I have been chided by friends for my references above to some dusty old movie and some ancient actress no one’s ever heard of. Herewith, then, the final shot of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina:
It may be a dusty old film (in places), but the image is immortal.