Since “Game of Thrones” began — first in the guise of George R. R. Martin’s novel of the same name, published 20 years ago — the question of Jon Snow’s parentage has been a lingering mystery, and the Season 6 finale finally gave us the answer. As fans have long speculated, it appears that R+L really does = J — Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark are the true parents of Jon Snow, and Ned kept his sister’s secret to protect Jon from the wrath of Lyanna’s betrothed, Robert Baratheon, claiming his nephew as his own bastard son. Bran discovered this powerful revelation by revisiting his earlier vision of his father and aunt at the Tower of Joy, just as the Lords of the North were declaring their allegiance to Jon at Winterfell, proclaiming him the King in the North.
Unfortunately for Jon, not everyone in the room was entirely enthusiastic about following him to glory — Littlefinger outright admitted his desire to claim the crown for himself, and Sansa right along with it. Since Sansa’s already had more than her share of creepy suitors over the past six seasons, that offer didn’t go down so well, but it’s inarguable that without spouses or heirs, Sansa and Jon are both in a fairly tenuous position politically right now. That has already led some to speculate that the Starks may follow the example of the Targaryens and Lannisters and opt for an incestuous marriage of convenience, but I have a hard time imagining Jon going that route rather than finding Sansa a suitable, non-Littlefinger substitute at this stage of the game. Then again, misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows — and stranger things have happened in Martin’s world. (Sophie Turner weighs in on that possibility and the lingering question of Sansa’s loyalties in our finale postmortem interview.)
All things considered, the finale’s body count was probably comparable to last week’s “Battle of the Bastards,” as we witnessed Arya Stark taking her long overdue revenge on Walder Frey for the murder of her mother and brother, disguising herself as a serving maid to slit his throat — and that was after serving Walder’s gormless sons to him in a pie. (Her time undercover with the theater troupe has definitely cemented her flair for the dramatic.)
Vengeance was in steady supply in the extended episode, as Cersei avoided her trial by using the Mad King’s stockpile of wildfire beneath King’s Landing to destroy the Great Sept, along with the High Sparrow and his followers, Margaery and Loras Tyrell and their father, the rest of the small council and countless unwitting nobles. Stricken with grief after losing his wife, Tommen killed himself, leaving Cersei to assume the Iron Throne (much to Jaime’s horror). And in the episode’s final moments, Daenerys set sail for Westeros with a magnificent fleet of ships, along with her army of Dothraki, Unsullied and Greyjoy forces — not to mention those handy dragons. It’s safe to say that women came out on top this season — they may have had to endure rape, torture and public humiliation to get there, but between Daenerys, Sansa, Arya, Cersei, Yara and the Sands, the balance of power has finally shifted, resetting the board in a way Westeros has never seen before — but that’s not to say that Cersei or Daenerys are any less dangerous than The Mad King or Joffrey.
The episode furthered the season’s overarching theme of dismantling the hierarchies created by overzealous men. The High Sparrow may have cloaked his arrogance in piety, but true faith should be used as a shield to defend the helpless, not a sword to oppress them. Extremism in any form is dangerous, and that’s true whether you serve the Seven or the Lord of Light, as Davos realized when he discovered what Melisandre, Stannis and Selyse had done to Shireen in the name of the Red God. If you have to torture people into confessing their sins, or burn innocent children in the hope of securing victory, you’re probably putting your trust in the wrong place — and it remains to be seen whether Tyrion has done the same in choosing to believe in Dany.
She has the noblest intentions for her people — wanting to abolish slavery, see women on equal footing with men, and allow the people of Meereen to choose their own leaders — but she’s still sailing into Westeros with the far less noble intention of slaughtering anyone who stands in her way. She may have told Yara that the Iron Born will no longer be able to raid and rape once she is queen, but as we’ve seen time and again, whether sanctioned by the Lannisters, the Freys or the many sellsword factions still running amok across Westeros, there will always be bad men to take advantage of those who are perceived as weaker. Even with Daario in charge of Meereen, who’s to say that slavery will never return to Slaver’s Bay, or that the Dothraki will be willing to ignore centuries of raping and pillaging any place they conquer just because their current khaleesi (who they were all pretty ambivalent about following in the first place, until she offered them the incentive of killing people on a different continent) tells them not to? Dany even admitted that her quest for power has already changed her, telling Tyrion that she felt nothing when she said goodbye to Daario, “just impatient to get on with it.”
A little reluctance goes a long way when it comes to leaders — Jon has never had designs on the Iron Throne; his positions of power have all been thrust on him against his will, and the fact that he’s already been sent to meet his maker and discovered that there’s no one waiting on the other side has probably left him with a healthy sense of his own insignificance. But he’s also a man who has always craved acceptance and been met with derision, so it’s possible that a small taste of that long-withheld adoration might go to his head. Martin’s novels and their TV adaptation have always made it clear that institutions are deeply flawed at best and downright dangerous at worst, and while Cersei once mockingly told the High Sparrow that “the faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world,” it seems as though the people of Westeros will never be free until those pillars are knocked down for good.
While it was satisfying to have confirmation of what many book fans have long suspected in terms of Jon’s lineage, the reveal inevitably felt a little anticlimactic after years of fervent speculation — especially after we were teased with the Tower of Joy earlier in the season. That’s not entirely the fault of Martin or showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who managed to pull off one of the most grandiose seasons ever committed to television, but it’s worth remembering that Martin began writing his sprawling saga before the 24/7 news cycle and rise of spoiler culture, when every plot twist and unanswered question is now endlessly dissected over message boards and social media. “Game of Thrones” certainly still has the power to shock us — “The Door” was potent proof of that — but it sometimes seems as if we’re all too busy trying to outsmart the writers (or each other) to enjoy the ride — and critics are as guilty of that as anyone.
The breakneck pace of Season 6 has been a welcome salve after the wheel-spinning of previous seasons (sorry, Sand Snakes) but the closer the show gets to its endgame, the more the momentum can occasionally feel like corner-cutting — one minute Varys was in Dorne to trade snark with Lady Olenna, the next he was on a ship with Dany, heading for Westeros. We certainly don’t need everything spelled out for us — obviously the Martells and Tyrells are every bit as eager to depose Cersei as Dany is — but with so many characters and storylines to service, the season occasionally suffered under the weight of its competing factions. As impressive as the show’s sprawling battle scenes have been, my favorite moments have always been those in which a conversation between two characters illuminates their complicated motivations and conflicted moral compasses; unlikely discussions between Arya and Tywin or Jaime and Brienne that gave us a glimpse of the humanity behind the villain, or banter between Tyrion and Bran that ruminates on the usefulness of cripples, bastards and broken things. In the rush to check all the boxes and line up all the toy soldiers in the rush to the finish line, those kinds of scenes have felt fewer and further between this year.
Theoretically, now that everyone is focused on Westeros, that issue should be alleviated next year, teeing Season 7 up to be the most satisfying to date, especially now that all of the surviving Starks are on the same continent. Still, with the potential of only 13 more episodes left in the series, there’s a growing sense of separation anxiety with each new episode — all things considered, think how little time we spent with Brienne or Sam or Theon this season. The more the show narrows its focus, the sharper it becomes, but it’s also an unwelcome reminder that our time in Westeros will soon be at an end. Whether we like it or not, winter is here.
What did you think of the “Game of Thrones” Season 6 finale and the reveal of Jon’s true parentage? Did you appreciate the fact that Arya got to kill Walder Frey, or were you hoping for another figure from the books to leave him cold as a stoneheart? Weigh in below.