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As we count down to the Game of Thrones series finale, we're looking back at the most pivotal moments of the show's first seven seasons.
In the final episode of Season 6, "The Winds of Winter," it's finally time for Cersei Lannister to face judgment before the Light of the Seven. Many main characters gather in the Great Sept of Baelor, and the High Sparrow wastes no time in judging the accused Loras Tyrell first. He confesses, gets a bloody star stabbed into his forehead, and the High Sparrow is ready for Cersei.
Yeah... Cersei isn't there.
The sixth season of the series has plenty of pivotal moments — Daenerys takes full, fiery control over all Dothraki, there's an end to the drama in Meereen, the epic Battle of the Bastards takes place, the banners of House Stark hang once again over the ramparts of Winterfell, Arya comes home, and, of course, Daenerys finally makes her voyage across the Narrow Sea.
These are all huge moments, and looking at them all you almost forget that Jon Snow was actually "dead" at the start of the season. When you get right down to it though, nothing in Season 6 is more pivotal than Cersei Lannister's master plan to blow up the Sept of Baelor, wipe almost all of her enemies off the board, and separate Westerosi church and state for good.
**WARNING: From this point forward, there will be spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8. If you are not caught up and wish to remain unspoiled, then fly like a little bird away from this article.**
It helps that this entire sequence is incredibly well done. It takes up almost the first eight minutes of the episode (approximately), and the tension slowly ratchets up, notch by notch, until things literally explode. There are moments when each character slowly becomes aware of what is about to take place, and as they realize it, we realize it.
The sequence (and the episode) begins, interestingly enough, with tolling bells. Ask not for whom the bells toll, they're tolling for a f**k-ton of main characters. Cersei is getting dressed, Tommen is getting dressed, and the High Sparrow is putting on his giant potato sack. We think that Cersei is actually going to her trial, but then she doesn't. She goes to stand at her "screw all of you people" windowsill instead, and just looks out at the Sept in the distance. Tommen is prevented from going by Gregor Clegane. Something's gonna go down.
Once Loras confesses and receives his mark, Margaery Tyrell begins to suspect something. She's the smartest character there, and she's right. The High Sparrow sends Lancel Lannister to retrieve Cersei from the Red Keep (great choice), but he decides to chase a child into some dark tunnels instead. Gotta love Lancel! (You don't, actually.)
At the same time, Grand Creepster Pycelle is summoned to a secluded room by some other "little birds," where Qyburn is waiting for him. Qyburn tells him that it's not personal, and then the little birds proceed to stab Pycelle to death. He doesn't get so much as a Byecelle as Cersei continues to window watch. Lancel arrives in the tunnels, gets stabbed by the kid, and falls on his face. When he looks up, he sees an unholy amount of bright green wildfire... and a slowly burning candle.
It's at this point that we cut back to Margaery, as she tries unsuccessfully to reason with the High Sparrow. Cersei knows full well what the consequences of not being there are, and her decision to ghost her own trial means she doesn't intend to face those consequences. Margaery seems to be the only one who fully comprehends what Cersei is capable of, and she tries to get everyone out of the Sept. We, the audience, now know that the Sept and everyone in it are on a ticking clock.
The High Sparrow says something about the gods, or whatever. Margaery's words are left unheeded in a sea of idiots, so she hugs her mutilated and humiliated brother, gives the High Sparrow a "go f*** yourself" look, and tries to remember the lyrics to "Memory."
Once again, Ramin Djawadi flies his dragon of musical brilliance right through the scene and provides this sequence with one of the greatest cues he's ever written, if not the all-time greatest. "Light of the Seven" begins with soft piano, weaves in some organ, and then slowly grows in power. It eventually weaves in the main theme to perfectly compliment the escalating tension.
As Cersei continues to watch from afar, Lancel watches the candle burn down. The wildfire ignites, and Lancel becomes toast. Hearing the rumbling under the Sept, the High Sparrow cracks his ever-faithful facade for a moment, as if to ask, "Hey, does anyone think something is wrong here? Why didn't someone speak up?" Immediately after this, he combusts in a furious stream of green flame. The Sept then erupts in a torrent of that same fire, taking everyone inside with it. The explosion is enormous, and it can be seen from every corner of the city. The Sept is destroyed and everyone inside it is dead.
Cersei sips her wine.
Why is this pivotal from a story perspective? For one thing, it wipes half of the show's characters right out of the credits. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), Pycelle (Julian Glover), Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon), and Kevan Lannister (Ian Gelder) are swept off of the board for good. Because of the carnage, reigning King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) jumps out of a window. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has triumphed for the moment (though her actions have also resulted in the death of her last child), and she takes the Iron Throne for herself. Uncle Kevan (aka Fake Tywin) can't stop her — once Tommen is gone, there's no more regent, no more dowager — just full-on Lion Queen.
The High Sparrow plotline (and his army of zealots rising to power) was snuffed, and Cersei no longer had a weird cult-controlled capital to worry about. She also doesn't have to worry about Margaery anymore. Her chief rival (or so she thought), was gone.
The death of almost every Tyrell brings Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) over to the side of Daenerys. The Queen of Thorns imparts some wisdom to Dany during their Dragonstone Ice Cream Social in Season 7 — the only way to gain respect is through fear. Dany doesn't listen to her (and Olenna is soon off the board herself), but Dany eventually takes that advice when she performs her own version of drastic fear-based action.
An act on the scale of the exploding Sept was almost unheard of when it occurred. It made the Red Wedding look like Wedding Crashers 2, and it truly turned Cersei (three for three children dead), into an even more extreme wine-slurping sociopath. We probably didn't think that a main character would cause destruction on this level again, but then those bells rang out once more two seasons later. Daenerys flew in and told the show to hold her Thrones-themed Shake Shack meal. If you think Cersei was extra, then you've never experienced what happens when a Targaryen feels alone in the world.
Was Cersei's Sept-icide a harbinger of what was to come? Story-wise, perhaps... but in terms of execution, probably not.
The High Sparrow storyline went on for close to two seasons, and Cersei's rivalry with Margaery went on for much longer. We knew full well why Cersei did what she did, and neither plot was missed much. When it came to the High Sparrow, good riddance. Margaery herself, though, would be missed. The scene brought out the best work from everyone on the Thrones team, but special mention has to go out to Djawadi, Headey, and Dormer. Pryce, as well, really, just for the ever so slight cracking of his holier-than-thou veneer.
What the event ultimately did more than anything else is clear the decks of any and all dangling plotlines and characters, freeing the series up to fast-travel along at ludicrous speed in its truncated final seasons. There were too many players, too many names, too many notes, and if David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were going to finish things up in 13 episodes, then they had to blow up a Sept.
Who knows if George R.R. Martin will make the same choice in the books. It may be a fantastic sequence, but it's highly cinematic. It's also very convenient, so it tends to feel like more of a television invention. Martin still has most of these characters alive, so who knows what he'll do with them. For all we know, two-thirds of the book The Winds of Winter will involve Fake Aegon and the High Sparrow talking with Mace Tyrell and the Mad Mouse about tapestries. On a television series that needed to careen faster than a burning loot train towards Daenerys Stormborn lighting everything up? That plotline wouldn't do. Boom went the Sept, stab went the children. They paid the iron Pryce.
Before watching Pycelle get stabbed, Qyburn (the always fantastic Anton Lesser) tells him, "Sometimes before we can usher in the new, the old must be put to rest." This pivotal moment did exactly that. It put the old to rest in a fiery blast, and for better or worse, it ushered in a newer, sleeker, and faster model of Game of Thrones.
Thanks for ushering in the new, Cersei. It worked out really well for you.