In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.
otIn a glorious triumph of cinematic television, “Battle of the Bastards” gave us a rare victory for the “good guys”—the Starks and, for the time being, Daenerys Targaryen. While the audience has a clear rooting interest in the Starks, Daenerys is more of a wild card these days. For now, we can applaud her victory. However, I wonder if by the end of the series this is the moment we look back on to mark the start of a tyrant’s campaign to brutally conquer the Seven Kingdoms. Only time will tell if Tyrion can continue to smooth out her fire-and-brimstone, “return their cities to the dirt” edges.
In the eponymous battle, the Starks unseat the nasty Boltons and reclaim supremacy in the North. Before he is mauled by his own dogs, Sansa reminds Ramsay, “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” Will Daenerys be delivering that same speech to Sansa in a season or two? What will conquering the Seven Kingdoms look like for the dragon queen? Tyrion looks horrified when she promises to raze cities in Slaver’s Bay and unsure when she grants the Greyjoys their independence. It felt so great to see the Stark banners unfurled over the walls of Winterfell once again, but how long can these fleeting moments of triumph last with dragons looming on the horizon?
In war, death is arbitrary and knows no bounds; the likable die as easily as the unlikable. Though a fantasy, Game of Thrones often draws better historical parallels than true historical fiction; it is raw, real, and complex, just like true times of war. Too often in fiction, protagonists are protected from any real harm even in times of chaos and danger. The risk to them is minimal, the stakes relatively low. One of the greatest conceits of Game of Thrones was established in the first season with Ned Stark’s surprising death: Valar Morghulis, “all men must die,” even your favorites.
In “Mother’s Mercy,” the Season 5 finale, the death toll soars, with many major characters offered up to the God of Death. Ironically, there is no peace or mercy of the Mother in this episode—not for anyone. Viewers were left reeling when the credits rolled on this season as one beloved character’s blood stained the snow, but there may be more to some of these deaths than meets the eye.
War is awful, all-consuming turmoil where death can come on a massive, indiscriminate, and impersonal scale, where friend and foe alike are consumed by the machine of war—in this case, by a dragon’s flames. War is also specific and personal; of the warring factions in the War of the Five Kings, four must die or be destroyed. No one is safe, not even the children.
This episode is named after a Targaryen civil war that took place almost two-hundred years before the events in the show. This war between two factions of the same family pitted a king against a queen for the right to sit on the throne, both of them armed with dragons (hence the “Dance of the Dragons”). The queen, Rhaenyra, was eventually captured and fed to King Aegon II’s dragon in front of her son. However, Aegon II also died from the wounds he sustained during the war, so after all that, neither of them got to rule for long.
As a result of the ambitions of two would-be rulers, cities were sacked and burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt again. King’s Landing was in ruins. Other rival kings across the realm declared their right to rule, resulting in anarchy throughout the land. The Seven Kingdoms took a generation to recover. In just a few years, the dragons were extinct.
“The Dance of Dragons” draws an easy parallel between the Targaryen civil war and the current War of the Five Kings. “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne,” Shireen retells of the civil war to her father. “When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead, and it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered.” War is ruin for cities, species, families, hearts, and minds.
In many ways, Game of Thrones is intensely antiwar. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (he worked with the domestic Peace Corps instead), which may seem odd given the abject violence of his novels and the adaptation. However, it’s in this violence where his views are made clear, and this episode was certainly no exception.
“Many in Dorne want war, but I’ve seen war. I’ve seen the bodies piled on the battlefields. I’ve seen the orphans starving in the streets. I don’t want to lead my people into that hell.” – Doran Martell
Growing up can be tough. Young adults crave independence and control, but rarely have the skills they need to claim it. Game of Thrones is, among many things, a tale of coming of age. Many of the characters start as children or adolescents, but there is little room in this world for the innocence of youth.
For most, childhood is wrested from them suddenly. Sansa and Arya witness the beheading of their father and then live through the eventual murder of their entire family. Daenerys’s late brother, Viserys, sells her in marriage to Khal Drogo in exchange for an army. Jon Snow, feeling like an outsider, impulsively joins up with one of the biggest bands of outcasts in Westeros, the Night’s Watch, pledging himself for life to an ascetic military order.
All of these young people have struggled, to varying degrees of success, to learn the tools that they need to survive in the adult world they were thrust into.
This season has proven to be a reckoning for the children who remain: as Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow, it is time to “kill the boy and let the man be born.” A few episodes ago, Arya had to cast off the symbols of her childhood in order to enter the House of Black and White. This week, “Kill the Boy” furthers the coming of age theme when Jon Snow takes a controversial, but critical stand as Lord Commander. Sansa, embedded deep in enemy territory, works in more subtle ways to stop being a “bystander to tragedy” and avenge her family. And across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys sheds some youthful naivety and shows her strength as queen.
In both continents, the seeds of rebellion have been properly sowed, with two parallel uprisings occurring in both Westeros and Essos. Perhaps now more than ever, the instability that so many have tried to tame to their will is too wild to control. “The Sons of the Harpy” sets the stage for the remainder of the season with a lot of explanation and backstory, and a hearty helping of bloodshed to spice things up.