Game of Thrones, like many of the great dramas of the past two decades, has gotten its power and punch from using its audiences’ expectations against them. In its first three seasons, the series murdered Ned and then Robb Stark, the kind of noble alpha warriors one expects to be the long-term heroes of a medieval saga, to say nothing of a prestige drama.* In killing them, Game of Thrones, like the books it is based on, was declaring itself. History doesn’t hew to the demands of storytelling. It doesn’t protect its heroes. Neither would the show.
Having taught viewers that anyone could die, the show came for another narrative fantasy: that revenge feels good. Despite having primed the audience for the death of the tyrannical, vicious Joffrey over many episodes, his end was not cathartic but pathetic, grotesque, a teenager drowning in his own lungs, calling for his mother. (This season, his death was reinterpreted as tragedy by a theatrical troupe roving Braavos.) Even the sadistic Ramsay Bolton’s death last week did not have quite the triumphant tenor one might have expected, if one, like me, had spent multiple episodes razzing Ramsay every time he appeared on screen with “die already!!” Instead, Ramsay’s death came following a battle in which he exacted far too great a toll on the Stark forces, only to be defeated at the last minute thanks to some of Sansa’s ethically suspect strategizing. Sansa’s decision to feed Ramsay to the very dogs to which he had recently fed his infant brother was another reminder of Thrones’ original lesson: Heroes fall one way or another.
But for all that Game of Thrones has avoided certain kinds of narrative fulfillment, it is a story, and stories have to end. Having spent seasons teaching us that violence is contagious and no one is immune, whether they die in body or soul, the rapidly approaching conclusion turned these principles into chuff. The season began by breaking the show’s first rule. Turns out some heroes are too important to die, and Jon Snow, killed at the end of Season 5, resurrected in Season 6, is one of them. Anyone can die, except him—and Dany and probably Arya. And then arrived the season finale, a rousing episode in which merciless vengeance starts to look pretty badass.
The finale was propulsive and engaging. It hurriedly dispatched a number of loose-end characters—Margaery (RIP!), Loras, Tommen, Walder Frey, Daario—for the dash to the series’ end, while confirming a fan theory about Jon’s paternity that had been so prevalent, it already felt like fact. The finale makes me much more excited about next season than the slog of episodes that preceded it did, but it also contradicted the message of the series thus far: that world-historical crises don’t end neatly, if they ever end at all. Instead, in the finale, winter is here, and so, it seems, is satisfaction.
Revenge, a dish Game of Thrones has almost always made taste awful, served hot or cold, became, in the finale, a delicacy. Cersei, the haute couture queen of overkill, calmly watches from her bedroom as she murders hundreds of people, her enemies and a great many others besides, including Margaery, whose plan to outsmart the Sparrow now dies with her. This sequence was filmed like a reverse thriller, in which one roots for the evil plot to succeed. Lancel Lannister momentarily takes on the role of action hero, the wounded man trying to stop the wildfire from going off, but because he is a rigid zealot, less sympathetic even than the Sparrow, we are rooting against him. Even Margaery’s last-minute comprehension of Cersei’s plot worked to distract us from its awfulness, by demonstrating once again how inflexible the Sparrow is, a second behind, too righteous to save anyone.
The scope of Cersei’s actions were also underplayed because, for once, the show does not focus on the ghastly carnage, settling instead for the green computer-generated effects better befitting a Marvel movie, which have trained us not to think about civilian causalities. (Avoiding the carnage also downplays the too-timely resonances of an improvised explosive device going off in a public place.) Even Tommen’s suicide, sudden and sad as it was, ultimately serves the series’ newly straightforward narrative pleasures: Dany needs someone worthwhile to defeat. Tommen was a nice kid. The wrath of Dany’s dragons, Dothraki, and Unsullied will seem so much more justified when brought to bear on Queen Cersei, a woman who doesn’t just torture her torturer, she turns her into a sex slave for a Frankenstein.
Compared to Cersei, Arya is positively restrained, but she capably demonstrated that revenge is a dish best made with human body parts. Arya, in disguise, feeds Walder Frey his children in a meat pie and then slits his throat. In case we were supposed to have any reservations about this, the show gives us a conversation between Walder and Jaime in which Walder again demonstrates that he is a creep and a coot with no honor. Hooray Arya! You murdered a disgusting murderer and you’re back from that snoozy story backwater known as Braavos.
Cersei and Arya are not the only women making moves in the finale, an episode that capped off a season in which women have assumed more and more power (though they still can’t use a library) only to demonstrate that they are as bloodthirsty as any man. Yay, girl power! Remarkably similar to boy power! To be fair, Dany’s rule is more enlightened than that of the series’ other would-be kings: She ended slavery in Dragon’s Bay. But she now finds men with romantic feelings for her to be irritations, a lack of feeling for which the show, using Tyrion as its mouthpiece, congratulates her. She’s as ambitious as any man, so she really shouldn’t have any feelings. Meanwhile Sansa, who never has to explain her strange actions last week, stands by Jon as the Northern houses acknowledge him as their king, all while sneaking shady glances at Littlefinger, who wants her to sit with him on the Iron Throne. Infighting Starks ahoy.
Game of Thrones has spent years constructing a vast medieval world where the expected doesn’t happen. There are dragons, but this is no fairy tale. Heroes die, villains live, decency is destroyed, vengeance is empty and no one ever gets clean. But with two seasons left, someone has to sit on that Iron Throne—and those White Walkers are just waiting to get torched by dragon fire. In its season finale, Game of Thrones finally became the show it has tried not to be: the one that gives its audience what it wants.
*Correction, June 27, 2016: This article originally misstated the season in which Robb Stark died.