by Geoffrey Golia
ATM’s Game of Thrones Guru looks back at an unforgettable sixth season and the splendor that was The Winds of Winter…
So another season of everyone’s favorite quasi-Medieval, erotic-thriller has come and gone. I hope you’ve enjoyed my commentary as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. We’ve had a lot of fun adventures, and I look forward to providing context and comedy next season and beyond. Until then, here are my final thoughts on the Game of Thrones’ season finale (“The Winds of Winter”) and a few possible future directions of the show.
It seems that there is broad consensus that Season 6 was one of the best in the show’s history, and I am certainly not one to disagree. Finales are a way to give the audience a sense of completeness and closure while, at the same time, planting seeds of curiosity regarding future events. So there needs to be a tying up of loose ends as well as a pivot, both in terms of plot and characters. And by pivoting, I mean killing lots of folks. Where this seasons finale succeeded, or at least felt very satisfying, was the fact that many of the deaths were a long time coming, and well-deserved. Also, Cersei blew up the motherfucking Vatican of Westeros. Sometimes I think to myself, “Wildfire, you’re the real MVP.”
ATM: What right does Cersei (dressed in her Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation tour dress) have to the Iron Throne? Does that fit with any line of succession in the books?
G.G.: In short, none. Cersei (Ms. Lannister, if you’re nasty) has no hereditary claim to the Iron Throne. Even as King Robert Baratheon’s widow, she has no legitimate claim; she was the Queen consort. Think of Phillip II of Spain. He was married to Queen Mary I Tudor of England when she was the hereditary ruler of England. When she died, the throne did not pass to him, as he was King jure uxoris (“by right of his wife”). Cersei is in the same camp.
However, there are two situations in which Cersei may legitimize her claim to the Iron Throne. One, she could, in fact, be a secret Targaryen – the daughter of Aerys “the Mad King.” Rumor has it, the reason Tywin Lannister resigned as the Hand to Aerys (way before the events of the books and series) was that he sexually assaulted Johanna Lannister, Tywin’s beloved wife. Some have suggested that Tyrion was conceived through this assault. Others have suggested that perhaps Jaime and Cersei are, in fact, the Mad King’s children. I can’t speak to the likelihood of this, or that it could ever be proven or accepted by the population of Westeros and, given the rampant misogyny present in their society, Jaime’s claim would be better.
This leaves one other scenario which, even without any explicit corroboration in the show, seems to be what has actually happened: Cersei, in murdering her chief rivals for power (including Queen Margaery) via a Wildfire inferno and pushing her son, the King, to suicide, basically took the throne by conquest. (Heck, even if she didn’t mean for Tommen to take his own life, she nevertheless found herself victorious in her quest for power.) While Robert Baratheon had a better claim than Robert Arryn and certainly Ned Stark, fundamentally, he took the Iron Throne from the Mad King and Rhaegar by defeating them in battle, subduing lord and bannermen, and conquering territory. I’m not one to condone mass violence, even when it ends the nascent religious tyranny being fomented by the High Sparrow, but Cersei certainly imposed her will that day.
ATM: R+L does indeed = J (Rhaegar Targaryen plus Lyanna Stark equals Jon Snow)! It was incredibly satisfying to behold Bran finish his vision quest where Ned promises to keep an eye on the man who is now the King of the North! I have a general feeling that this “reveal” was old news to book readers. Is this the case?
G.G.: It certainly is the case the book readers have been theorizing since A Game of Thrones was published in 1996 that Jon is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s child. The theory also reimagines the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna, suggesting that their affair was far more consensual than it is described by characters in the book. In the novel, we learn of this scene piecemeal, through Ned’s various dreams and memories. Bran’s version also comes in pieces, but the narrative is far more linear. And while I think the show essentially confirmed the theory, a few omissions left me feeling less than satisfied about the reveal.
Let me explain: After killing three Targaryen Kingsguard, Ned Stark enters the Tower of Joy and encounters his sister, Lyanna. The presence of the Kingsguard is meaningful as, by definition, their job is to protect the King and his family. Lyanna has given birth to a child but appears to have been badly injured during childbirth; she is literally covered in blood. Anticipating her death, she admonishes Ned to promise to take care of her child. She whispers something to him, most likely confirming that the child is Rhaegar’s and, as a Targaryen, is in mortal danger if anyone, particularly Robert Baratheon, discovers this. We see the baby and the face of the baby fades into a shot of an adult Jon Snow. So, yes, essentially, the theory is confirmed.
Maybe it would have been less dramatic, but why the secrecy and whispers? Would it have been so hard for Lyanna to unequivocally state that Rhaegar is the father? It wouldn’t have to be like on the Maury Povich show, I’m sure of it!
Going forward from here, the leading question is: what is the meaning of Jon’s parentage, especially in terms of his destiny, responsibilities, and allegiance? This, I feel, is central to the shows plot moving forward.
ATM: Dany is FINALLY heading to Westeros! What a conclusion to the episode! Does she have what it takes to take King’s Landing? I can think of three reasons why she does, but Cersei, as exemplified in this episode, probably won’t go quietly into that good night.
I am certainly no expert on military strategy and tactics, as some in the fandom are, but even an amateur’s glance at the situation on the ground in Westeros reveals Cersei’s vulnerability and some good opportunities for Dany. And, of course, there’s the Jon-as-King in the North wildcard, not to mention the larger conflict with the vast armies of the dead and the potential eschatological consequences therein. Still, while many of Cersei’s liabilities can be exploited by an invading force, particularly one with hereditary legitimacy and three huge dragons, these challenges may also make it difficult for Dany to consolidate her power and unite Westeros.
I see the threats to any Westerosi monarch, particularly Cersei, as follows: there are neutralized threats, small threats, big threats, and existential threats. The potential, or actual, threats that have been neutralized include the Faith Militant and the power of the High Septon. In destroying the Sept of Baelor, Cersei has destroyed the re-formed armed wing of the Faith of the Seven, as well as a rogue and unbought leader of the Faith. Given that the Faith is very much entrenched culturally and acts as an “opiate of the people,” there is always the chance that the hierarchy is reestablished but tightly controlled by the monarchy. Clearly, there are still septons, and septas, and a religious community in the Westeros which will have to be placated.
Additionally, in blowing up the Sept, Cersei also did away with the entirety of the hostile members of her family and the Martells, helping her consolidate power, especially after Tommen’s suicide. However, I doubt it was her intention for that to happen but Tommen basically sentenced Cersei to death by outlawing trial by combat so her son was as much an obstacle to her as her sworn enemies.
Small threats include insurgencies like the Brotherhood Without Banners. It’s easy to underestimate a force like this, especially given their ability to galvanize the smallfolk and strike at high profile targets, but its hard to see (in the TV show universe, anyway) Cersei’s power being seriously threatened by them alone (In the book, their ability to seriously fuck with the Freys and Lannisters in the Riverlands is far more extensive.).
Big threats, to my mind, include revolts from major Houses and regions. In Cersei’s case, the fledgling alliance between the Martells of Dorne and House Tyrell of The Reach. While these alliances against the monarchy have been known to be successful, like in Robert’s Rebellion, it will be Varys’ ability to link this alliance with Dany’s invasion that will turn the Martell-Tyrell allegiance into something far more threatening to Cersei’s power. Think about it, who are Cersei’s allies? She has the Lannister force, perhaps the City Watch, and the Queensguard, but who else? Her Frey allies will be in disarray after Walder’s deeply satisfying death at the hands of Arya, and the Lord Paramount of the Trident, who is also the essential ruler of the Vale, who actively took part in the rebellion against Bolton rule in the North, and Jon’s ascent. The Reach and Dorne are in defiance, and the two players for control of the Iron Isles are both vying for Dany’s favor. And, of course, Dany has a viable Lannister heir and master tactician in Tyrion, who also happens to be the bane of Cersei’s existence. So the chip’s, as they say, are certainly stacked against Queen Cersei, but a well thought out alliance could also bring down a Targaryen just as effectively.
And then, of course, there is the existential threat to all the humans playing the Game of Thrones: the armies of the dead and the quasi-supernatural power behind them. Cersei, who has never taken this threat seriously, could clearly never galvanize and align the feuding Houses of Westeros to combat this threat. She couldn’t even make peace with the Tyrell’s, whose fortunes were tied, at least up until that point, with the Lannisters. It’s clear that many of the main characters, especially Jon and Dany, are going to have to lead this fight which, despite the name of the first novel and the television series, is way larger than the Game of Thrones.
If Cersei somehow outlives everyone, that would be a quite a plot twist, but many, many factors (including prophetic factors) point to her downfall. For now, though, I hope she gets to enjoy this moment of power and agency. As women are treated so poorly in this society, hopefully she can get in a few months of competent administration.
ATM: What is Dany and Tyrion’s relationship, if any, in the books? I might be alone here, but their discussion that resulted in him becoming the Hand of the Queen was one of my favorite parts of this fine episode.
G.G.: In the books, including the released chapters of book six, The Winds of Winter, Tyrion has not yet connected with Dany. I imagine that in the novel, he will find his way into her company and good graces, but the road is and will be more complex and involve plot devices that have been omitted from the television series. Tyrion is brilliant, competent, shrewd, and loyal to those he chooses to align with. Additionally, it would be a triumph of meritocracy in a perversely corrupt world, to see Tyrion rewarded based on his skill and effort. And, let’s be clear, Dany needs him if she is going to navigate the world of Westerosi politics and seek to run an efficient and just polity (Lest we forget Tyrion’s many municipal accomplishments, including his success in effectively improving Casterly Rock’s sewer system – not a small accomplishment.).
ATM: Will we see Benjin again? Please say yes?
G.G: Call me sentimental, but I can see him providing some much needed assistance during the war against the dead. As someone who is caught between the living and the dead, and given his family background, I get the sense he will have a small, but vital part in this conflict.
ATM: With visits from both House Tyrell and Varys, what do you think Dorne’s role will be in the upcoming season?
As I discussed above, the Martell-Tyrell alliance, and their potential backing of Dany, is going to be devastating for Cersei’s grip on power. Given the intense, long-held enmity between these two Houses, their negotiations, even before Varys magically showed up, are deeply meaningful and indicative of their shared hatred of Cersei and the Lannisters.
Dorne’s hatred for the Lannisters goes all the way back to Robert’s Rebellion. The Martell’s and the Tyrells remained Targaryen bannermen until the end, Dorne’s connection to the Targaryen monarchy was personal, as Rhaegar’s wife was Elia Martell, who was brutalized and murdered, along with her children, during the Lannister sacking of King’s Landing (which also resulted in the murder of King Aerys). Remember Oberyn Martell’s vendetta against Tywin and the rest of the Lannisters? Like the North, Dorne remembers.
The Tyrells bring wealth and manpower to the alliance, as The Reach is wealthy, fertile, and relatively untouched by the various conflicts of the last few years. And the Queen of Thorns is in a nasty mood so look for her to play a major part in the fights ahead. Interestingly enough for the Tyrells, the television show, to my knowledge, does not present any potential heirs. I wonder if the prospect of the house going extinct won’t exacerbate Olena’s wrath moving forward.
My hope is the book is released before the next season, though I won’t hold my breath. I’m fine with the general plot direction, but I’d love to see it in the context of the books’ universe. For now, I’ll see you all next April!