'Game Of Thrones' – The 10 Most Important Moments In "The Winds Of Winter"

Game of Thrones season six is over and it went out with a few bangs (one of them very literal). "The Winds of Winter" is the finest season finale the series has produced so far and a frontrunner for the shortlist of all-time best episodes. Story threads years in the making come to a head, several characters of tremendous importance meet their maker, and revelations that shake up the entire show as we know it are finally unveiled.

There's a lot to take in here, so let's just dive in.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Bran

Winter Has Arrived

Although this is an episode full of moments that redefine the entire show moving forward, let's start with something a little more low-key before we dive into the big stuff. First of all, the Stark words have finally come to pass: winter is here, truly and officially, as signified by the white raven being sent from the maesters at the Citadel to important figures around Westeros. This is bad news for just about everyone, as winters can last for years and bring fierce colds and powerful storms that can decimate entire populations. The many wars over the Seven Kingdoms were hard before this became a threat. Now, every victory will require more effort, more loss, more hardship, and more blood. With four new factions set to go to war (and we'll get to them in due time), everyone can expect heavy losses.

Speaking of the Citadel and the maesters who dwell within, Samwell Tarly and Gilly's long journey to Oldtown wrapped up this week and it was a bright spot of comic business in the middle of an hour that was otherwise harrowing and bleak. Sam is still in possession of his father's sword and he's been officially granted access to the grandest library in Westeros. Sure, there's going to be a bureaucratic hiccup or two and who knows what will become of Gilly and her baby now that Sam is entering another career that demands celibacy, but hey, these two crazy kids have made this work out so far. Seeing the generally miserable Sam fill with wonder and awe at the sight of so many books is a rare victory for one of Game of Thrones' chief punching bags. Hopefully, the stirring rise of other female characters all over the show suggest that Gilly is heading toward something big, too.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Sept of Baelor

Massacre at the Sept of Baelor

Okay, let's just discuss the lioness in the room: Cersei Lannister changed the game in "The Winds of Winter" not by breaking the rules, but by destroying the board entirely.

The past two seasons have seen the relentless but shortsighted Queen Mother get boxed into a corner by the High Sparrow and his minions, the cunning Tyrell family, and key figures of the king's court, including Grand Maester Pycelle and Kevan Lannister. The result was her sole surviving son, King Tommen, turning against her and forcing her to go to trial for her crimes against the gods. Checkmate, right? However, a lion only gets more ferocious when you cut off its every escape. With the help of Qyburn and his "little birds," she waits until all of her enemies are in the Sept of Baelor (to see her go on trial, of course) and puts the stockpile of wildfire originally brewed by the Mad King so many years ago to its intended use – she ignites her explosives, destroys the grand building, and kills everyone inside of it.

Many important supporting characters turned to ash. A half dozen subplots vanished in a flash of green fire. The long, quiet con that Margaery Tyrell had been playing to escape the High Sparrow's clutches was all for naught (although she proves herself once again to be the smartest person in the room when she and she alone realizes that Cersei has set them up). Margaery Tyrell is dead. Loras Tyrell is dead. Mace Tyrell is dead. Kevan Lannister is dead. The High Sparrow is dead. Lancel Lannister is dead, having tried to extinguish Cersei's plot with his final breaths. Even Grand Maester Pycelle, who was not present at the sept, is executed, falling under the knives of Qyburn's little birds.

It's a genuine massacre, the biggest expulsion of important characters from Game of Thrones since the Red Wedding. In one fell swoop, Cersei reminded us why she has always been one of the most fearsome characters in this game. She will not lose. She does not lose. And if you even put her in a position close to losing, you get strapped to a table and promised ages of torture at the hands of Gregor Clegane. And just like that, Cersei is back at the top of this particular food chain with the blood of countless people on her hands...not that she'll even feel a shred of guilt.

Of course, Cersei's horrifying actions instantly ripple outward. King Tommen, having lost his wife, spiritual advisor, court advisors, and Hand of the King in an instant, chooses to commit suicide. Cersei has fulfilled the the prophecy she has spent a lifetime attempting to avoid. All of her children are dead...but she's the queen. And the less she has to lose, the more dangerous Cersei becomes.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Dany and Tyrion

Dany, Tyrion, and Westerosi Wisdom

Tyrion was right. Benching Daario was the right move. First, it's a canny political decision. Second, it allows the show to ditch a little bit of weight as it hurdles toward an apparent endgame. And much like how Daenarys later admits to her top advisor that she felt nothing when she decided to leave her sellsword boyfriend behind after she sets sail across the Narrow Sea, it's a scene that doesn't carry too much weight. The sparks between these two have been...well, a little unremarkable. Leaving the least interesting member of Team Fire and Blood behind feels like a wise choice for the story that lies ahead.

And while that break-up scene doesn't leave much of an impression, the scene that immediately follows it does. It may have been unpleasant business, but Daenerys agrees with Tyrion Lannister that she needs to be unattached and free to wed once she hits the seven kingdoms. In fact, she's starting to agree with him on many things and she does something that no other leader on this show has ever done: she treats him like the smart, able, and reliable human being that he truly is. After six seasons of being looked down upon, both literally and figuratively, by everyone he has ever worked for, Tyrion has finally found someone who appreciates his services. When she pins that "Hand of the Queen" badge on his chest, it's a tearjerker. Unlike his own father, who named him Hand of the King out of desperation before unceremoniously kicking him out of the job, the Mother of Dragons gives him this title willingly and out of respect for what he has accomplished.

And like that, Tyrion Lannister has completed his transformation from clever amateur wiseass into the right hand of the most powerful person on Game of Thrones. There is no one else who deserves this more.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Arya and Walder Frey

Arya' Vengeance

Deep down, we all knew they were bringing Walder Frey back for a reason. The storyline about his men losing control of Riverrun was perfectly decent television, but his scenes only reminded of us a few key facts: he's one of the most despicable people on this show (which is saying something) and he helped pull the strings at the Red Wedding, sealing a pact with House Lannister and killing Robb and Catelyn Stark. And when Jaime Lannister gave him a good dressing down at their victory banquet for re-taking Riverrun, that seemed like the end of it. Walter Frey deserves more than a dressing down from the Kingslayer, but hey, sometimes you have to take the table scraps you are tossed.

Then it happens. A mysterious woman brings Walder a pie made from pieces of his two now-dead sons. That mysterious woman turns out to by Arya Stark, back in Westeros and using the abilities she learned from the House of Black and White to finally take down everyone who has harmed her family. She makes sure Walder knows exactly who she is before she cuts his throat, and she very much enjoys the kill. Arya reclaimed her name and her mission, but she's as ruthless and icy as the coming winter. This is not the Arya Stark we once knew (it should be reiterated that she murdered two men and fed them to their father), but it's hard to ignore that Walder played a vital role in creating the monster that slashed his throat. Every Stark death meant another piece of a Arya's soul crumbling into dust. Men like Walder Frey broke Arya Stark, but she learned how to reassemble herself as a weapon of absolute vengeance.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Melisandre and Jon

Littlefinger's Goals Come Into Focus

We've known for a long, long time that Petyr Baelish will only settle for one thing: complete control. And Sansa has known for long enough that her savior and betrayer will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. No alliance is unbreakable. No back is un-stabbable. Jon Snow may be surprisingly understanding that she didn't inform him about a potential ally in the Vale, but he's blinded by the victory. He doesn't know what Sansa knows about their powerful new friend.

And then Littlefinger spilled his guts to Sansa. He's blunt about the endgame. He sees himself on the Iron Throne and he sees her ruling alongside him. Of course, we understand what's unspoken here. If he can't have Catelyn Stark, he'll just have to settle for her daughter...and all of the Seven Kingdoms, just to teach everyone a lesson.

Of course, Sansa turns down his advances. Maybe, once upon a time, she would have considered it. But season six has tracked the new Lady of Winterfell as she transformed from a victim into a leader in control of her own destiny. She realizes what Sansa of season four, who willingly embraced a partnership with Littlefinger, could not know: this charming smooth talker, with his grand plans and big promises, is an abuser and an emotional manipulator. Sansa rebuffing him, albeit with more politeness than he deserves, is a genuine act of courage. The fact that she doesn't want to lead, but knows that she must, already makes her a more competent and able leader than the man who is more than content to burn Westeros down so he can rule the ashes. Only those who understand sacrifice are fit to lead and Littlefinger has never willingly given up a damn thing.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Olenna Tyrell in Dorne

A Tyrell Lady in Dornish Court

What happens when you drop Game of Thrones' most delightful character into the middle of its all-time worst subplot? You get Lady Olenna Tyrell visiting the Dornish court, dressed entirely in black to mourn the death of her entire family. However, the fiery demises of her son, granddaughter and grandson haven't dulled her wit and she treats the Sand Snakes with all of her usual venom. Watching Westeros' wittiest woman brutally take down the three most irritating characters on Game of Thrones with a few cutting phrases is a fine apology from the show's writers. If you must bring Dorne back into the fray, this is how you do it.

However, the scene exists for reasons beyond verbally slapping around a few annoying characters. Ellaria Sand, who took control of the kingdom after assassinating Doran Martell in the season premiere, sees in Olenna a potential ally, the leader of a great house who now has every reason to devote every fiber of her being to destroying the Lannister grip on King's Landing. Revenge is the great uniter. This seems like a promising alliance before Varys steps out of the shadows and the bigger picture takes shape – House Tyrell and House Martell may very well be the first families to declare support for a certain invader with an infamous last name and a trio of fire breathing dragons. Could Cersei Lannister, even with full control of King's Landing, repel a Targaryen/Tyrell/Martell alliance? The Queen's swift and decisive victory may have wiped out all of her enemies in King's Landing, but it has created something far more powerful in the south, something that will surely want to march on her gates in the very near future.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - baby Jon Snow

Jon Snow's True Parentage

After teasing us with it earlier this season, Game of Thrones finally went ahead and confirmed one of the most popular fan theories of all time. Yes, Jon Snow is not the bastard son of Ned Stark, but actually the son of Lyanna Stark and her abductor, Rhaegar Targaryen. As we hear a dying Lyanna explain to Ned her final moments, his identity must be protected – a vengeful Robert Baratheon would never allow a Targaryen child, even one who is half-Stark, to live. That means that the man everyone has been spitting on since the pilot, the man whose unlikely rise to a role of leadership in a reformed North, has the blood of two very different, very respected great houses floating through his veins.

The big problem here is that the only living person who knows the truth is Bran Stark and he only knows it because he can travel backwards in time through magical trees, which isn't the kind of thing you tell people if you want to be taken seriously. How Bran will bring this information into the public eye, and how everyone will react to it, should prove fascinating. Now that we know this to be true after literally years of wondering, we can start pondering the actual fallout.

Let's start with one question to consider: will Daenerys see her long-lost family member in the North as a potential ally...or a threat to her claim on the Iron Throne?

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - King in the North

A New King in the North

Every major storyline in "The Winds of Winter" was united by a common thread. The system is breaking down, the old power structures are dying, and unlikely new leaders are emerging to lead people through uncertain times. Jon and Sansa somehow feel like the least likely new leaders of the bunch. After watching as their family was decimated over the course of six tragic seasons of television, they're now back in their childhood home, victorious after defeating a monster, and attempting to balance a collection of allies that includes wildlings, various northern houses, and the forces of the Vale. The initial wave of anger and frustration soon turns to shame courtesy of a well-timed Lyanna Mormont speech (this girl may be the MVP of season six) and everyone gathered in Winterfell's hall remembers their old oaths. They are ready to follow the Starks again...and they're ready to declare Jon the new King in the North.

We know what happened to the previous King in the North. Robb Stark fought valiantly when the odds were against him at every turn, gained serious ground, and was then murdered at a wedding by supposed allies. For this crowd of Northern lords to once again pledge their swords to a new King in the North, to chant this title and promise to fight in his time, they have to take an enormous leap of faith. This kid is Ned Stark's son. He's the best choice they have and because Sansa isn't a man, the only choice they have. The patriarchy may be tumbling elsewhere in Westeros, but it still has some distance to fall up here.

But we know something they do not. We know that Jon is not Ned Stark's son. A Stark yes, but something more. I can't shake the feeling that Jon will soon have bigger things on his plate and that the future of House Stark and its various allies will depend on Sansa.

And while we're here, let's take a moment to reflect on the new King in the North siding with Davos Seaworth over Melisandre, banishing the red witch after he learns that she burnt Shireen Baratheon alive. It's a powerful scene (it may feature the finest work Liam Cunningham has performed on the series to date) and also a Big Huge Deal. Were does Melisandre go now that Jon has cut her loose? What chance do Jon and his forces stand against a mystical army of the undead without one of the few sources of reliable (if frequently ugly) magic in Westeros? We surely haven't seen the last of her, so it's only a matter of who she joins up with next. Maybe she'll run into Jorah and Gendry and Hot Pie and form a traveling club?

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Cersei

Cersei on the Iron Throne

Sansa quietly rules alongside Jon in the North. Daenerys preps an army to the east. Lady Olenna now speaks for House Tyrell. Ellaria Sand rules Dorne with the Sand Snakes. It's only appropriate that Cersei now sits on the Iron Throne. The old systems are dead and dying. After all, the patriarchy went up with the Sept of Baelor. The men have been failing the Seven Kingdoms for centuries. Why not give the women a chance?

Of course, giving Cersei a chance means allowing someone calculating and cruel and spiteful a chance to rule, and that is a frightening thing indeed. She is uncommonly effective at getting things done and should she actually dedicate her skills toward preserving King's Landing instead of dismantling it, it's actually possible to imagine her doing a great deal of good. King Tommen, a kind king and a king of faith, failed miserably. Maybe the city needs a ruthless politician, someone who is willing to make tough choices. Someone selfish enough to preserve her power at all costs. King Joffrey was unstable. King Robert was a drunk. The Mad King was, well, mad. Cersei is none of those things. She is terrifyingly competent when she wants to be and now that she's all out of children, the barriers that may have kept her from committing to her decisions have vanished.

But we cannot forget how she got here. She got here through mass murder, by literally burning the opposition to the ground. And what are we to make of Jaime's concerned look when he watches her take the throne? After all, he stabbed the Mad King in the back when he threatened to burn the city and now his sister, the love of his life, his new Queen, used that exact same method to reach the throne. By burning down the High Sparrow and the Tyrells and a few lingering Lannisters, Cersei may have also burnt the bridge between her and her beloved twin.

Game of Thrones season 6 finale recap - Targaryen ships and dragons

Daenerys and Her Allies Finally Set Sail

It only took six years, but Daenerys Targaryen is finally, officially, sailing for Westeros. Remember how some people thought she'd make it there in season three or so? Ah, we were so adorable back then. Anyway, the Mother of Dragons is sailing toward a new Westeros, a kingdom now ruled by a woman as cunning as her chief advisor and as ruthless as Dany herself. She thought she was sailing toward a war with a kingdom she understood, but the game has changed. War with Cersei Lannister isn't going to be easy. She's no pushover and she will not give up her new throne without spilling a great deal of blood.

The final shots of "The Winds of Winter" are the necessary antidote to Cersei taking the Iron Throne. Dany and her crew now feel like liberators, the heroes coming to the rescue, and it's impossible to not root for them. Just look at this line-up: Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Varys, Grey Worm, Missandei, Yara Greyjoy, Theon Greyjoy, countless Dothraki warriors, a couple thousand Unsullied and, of course, three dragons. And that's before you include support from Dorne and Highgarden when they make landfall. This is not a force to be taken lightly.

And yet, Cersei and Jaime and Qyburn and Gregor Clegane are nothing to sneeze at, especially now that they have complete control over the crown and its resources. And then there's Jon Snow and Sansa and Littlefinger in the north, feeling like a big wild card in the war to come. And beyond the wall, the Night King still waits with his army of the dead. As Benjen Stark tells Bran, the only thing keeping them back is the ancient magic built into the Wall. If they find a way through, all the armies amassing in the Seven Kingdoms are in for a wake-up call.

Winter is here. The dead are coming. Who will still be alive to fight them when they arrive?