Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
Raiment. The crown of a monarch. The sackcloth-burlap robes of a monk. The performative-modesty hairdo of a subdued young queen. The leather and quartz crystal of… whatever Cersei is.
Piano notes in light echoes; wistful, sorrowful, and somehow inevitable. Slightly moaning strings. The motif ties together several solitary characters in their discrete acts of dressing and preparing for what is about to happen. Plink. Plink.
People file into the Sept. Successions of tight shots illuminate the faces of the haggard Loras Tyrell, the High Sparrow, Lancel Lannister, Margaery, Lord Mace—you can’t help thinking of the Academy Awards or something: Everyone is in that building, except Tommen and Cersei, still back at the Red Keep donning their regalia. Strands of silver chain across the front of Cersei’s dress. A wreath of lion pendants around Tommen’s shoulders. Pycelle’s maester chain.
The music pauses as Loras is dragged to the middle of the Sept to confess to his sins. Depravity. Dishonesty. Profligacy. Arrogance. It’s a creepy echo of two previous pre-arranged confessions, neither of which went according to plan: Ned Stark’s on the steps of this same building, and Tyrion Lannister’s in his preposterous sham trial for Joffrey’s murder. It looks like Margaery was in on it and Mace wasn’t. But it seems to be proceeding apace. The Sparrows carve a seven-pointed star into Loras’ forehead with a knife.
The music resumes as we cut back to Cersei and Tommen. And if it wasn’t already, it now becomes ominously clear something more than a trial has been set in motion. The Mountain keeps Tommen from leaving. Cersei pours wine. The High Sparrow sends Lancel to retrieve her for her trial, but a street urchin who seems to be going underground catches his eye. (Suddenly it occurs to us to wonder what the other “little bird” was whispering to Pycelle earlier.) And there he is, confusedly entering the catacombs under the Red Keep, only to be confronted by Qyburn and a cohort of abused whores and small children wielding knives. The music swells, quickens, moves to low string arpeggios. Lancel continues following the child through the tunnels beneath the Sept. The little one stabs him, but that’s not the worst of it. Up above, in the Sept, Margaery is about ready to drop her humbled, pious demeanor, her old imperious voice coming back as she demands the High Sparrow wake up, understand something about the situation is horribly wrong, and let everyone out of the building. He seems slightly perplexed by her outburst.
Lancel drags himself through the tunnel. Toward something. There’s a dawning awareness that barrels are lining the walls, leaking something acid-green and faintly glowing. (Dawning awareness rises as the score begins to sound something like a boys’ choir.) Lancel doesn’t entirely understand yet, but we do. Then he sees it. Three guttering candles in a pool of wildfire. Faces. The High Sparrow. Margaery and Loras. Mace and Kevan Lannister. Lancel, as the candle flame meets the surface of the pooling green fluid and we see the blaze reflected in his eyes. Upstairs, half of King’s Landing goes up in a massive explosion that reduces the Sept of Baelor to a smoking crater.
Cersei, watching from the Red Keep, sips her wine and smiles.
Artistically, the first 15 minutes of “The Winds of Winter” are beautiful, full of precision timing and Miguel Sapochnik’s wonderful sense of epic sweep. It’s visually luxuriant, textural in a way that in film school you’d probably call “painterly,” even though there’s plenty of movement. In particular, there are strange hints of Caravaggio throughout the passage: single light sources in dim interior spaces creating intense shadows. The seven-pointed star window in the Sept, the candles in the wildfire puddle, the dark stony spaces below the two buildings and airy, high-ceilinged spaces above. Thrumming, incessant, frame after frame advancing a sense of inevitability—and also unbelievability. It sets a high bar for the rest of the Season Six finale, which rises to the challenge; the whole episode is spellbinding.
At a narrative level, it’s also a watershed. Yes, we’ve just bumped off a whole bunch of secondary and tertiary characters, but it’s what will have to happen next that’s really amazing. Had the destruction of the Sept of Baelor explosion been a cliffhanger instead of a beginning, the terms of its contract with viewers would probably have been different. Placed as it is as an opening salvo, it does some important things. It makes us understand Cersei’s act as a premeditated, non-reactive one in a way we might not have had it come after the other events of the episode—as Dany is on her way across the Narrow Sea, for instance. It gives us time to recall all the foreshadowing elements. I first thought of Olenna Tyrell scoffing at Cersei and suggesting simply killing off everyone who was in her way. But I also thought of Tyrion and Bronn visiting the pyromancer in Season Two. (“The contents of this room could lay King’s Landing low.”) And Jaime and Brienne in “Kissed by Fire” (“He put caches of wildfire everywhere… under the Sept of Baelor, even under the Red Keep itself!”)
Of course, Cersei has been threatening to burn cities to the ground for one thing or another for several seasons. The fact that we have the rest of the episode to contend with the aftermath, versus a season-end hiatus, underscores what Margaery has just said to the High Sparrow about Cersei understanding the consequences of her actions and doing it anyway. In the remaining 50 minutes of the episode, she loses her last living child, directs Gregor Clegane to rape a nun, brings down the wrath of Dorne and Highgarden against her and, perhaps most importantly, profoundly alienates (and probably scares) Jaime, who is realistically the only ally she has left. This is a character who has turned a final, irrevocable corner as surely as Jaime found the road to redemption in a moment of vulnerability in a hot tub, as surely as Sansa found her inner Machiavelli in the murder of her crazy aunt, as surely as Bran stopped being completely human right around the time he inadvertently destroyed Hodor in the past and the present simultaneously. Cersei has lost her shit and abandoned any pretense to the contrary. She’s flying the homicidal despot flag from here on out.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.