It took them six seasons and sixty episodes, but at long last, House Stark has been proven right.
As of last month, HBO’s smash hit series, Game of Thrones, brought its sixth season to a close, and with it set the stage for what will soon be the final two truncated seasons.
It also marked the first season the show has officially moved past what is currently available of George R.R. Martin’s books, making – in many cases – new territory for show and book fans alike, as they worked on rough notes given to them by the author himself over where to go.
So how did this season fare as the shape of things to come?
To be perfectly honest, it’s a big improvement over the last season – and in many regards, it’s a nice reminder of the good and bad that this series is capable of now that its showrunners are in more direct control of the narrative.
One of the single biggest changes one immediately sees over the course of this season in terms of how the show carries itself – and depending who you ask this is either a pro or a con – is that this is a series that’s now operating with a set end goal in sight. Benioff and Weiss know where they want this to go and, thanks to Martin, they have an idea of where they need to bring it to end it, so they’re determined to get they’re from where they are now.
Before we go any further, I want to make one thing clear – while I will be going quite a bit into the problems with this season, I do mean it when I say this is overall one of the better seasons we’ve had in a long time. Arguably the best since the third, really. That I’m giving as much focus to the cons here is more out of necessity to explain why they’re cons more than anything else, and there will still be discussion of the pros as well.
Having said that, I’ll start this one off on a good note and say, in some cases cases, the newfound sense of urgency has helped – we at last have Danaerys becoming a part of the story again after three seasons of twiddling her thumbs in Meereen, and we’re finally getting back to hanging plot threads like the Riverlands, even if only to lock them down again.
Not all the stories are helped out by this, however, as the show reminds us quite early and in a rather abrupt fashion when the season opener throws out a sudden shift in narrative that largely kills the tension the left us with at the end of last season. To be fair, I will acknowledge the Dorne storyline in the show wasn’t a particular favorite for many, readers and non-readers alike, but the way it was addressed this season felt like a particularly jarring move. Especially since, the more I look at it, the more it reads like a tacit admission by the showrunners that all the time spent their last season was ultimately for an end result they could have come to in far less time, allowing them to better flesh out other storylines.
Which is as good a segue as any to the unfortunate tale of Rickon ‘Not Appearing In this Series’ Stark. After having been absent for several seasons, the oft-forgotten fifth Stark child returned to surprisingly little fanfare, almost no characterization, and a fate that, rather than feeling like a big shocker, left many instead riffing on the rather clumsy nature of the outcome – which is a shame as it came in an otherwise pretty damn solid episode.
It would have been nice if we could have gotten more time with the character so that we could actually have a reason to care about what happened to him. But as it was, he barely said or did anything over the course of the season. In fact, his sole function was more to give Jon and Sansa an extra incentive to take back Winterfell. He was a literal plot device, and so when Sansa argues that he may as well already be dead, it’s hard to find fault in her logic.
Fortunately, this was one of only two major hangups the North had this season. I already said more than my share in the season five reviews about my issues with Ramsay’s seeming invincibility, and that streak – annoyingly – continued for much of this season. Besides that, however, this arc had some great moments going for it.
Which is a bit strange for this series – not because I expect bad of it, but more because this season saw things turning in favor of many protagonists in a big way. For a show where one of its biggest selling points has been the fact it seems to take off the safety gloves for its heroes, to see so much going their way after the last few seasons of perpetual losing streak feels strangely alien – even if the climax of that involved a particularly brutal (and technically stunning) battle that made it feel like a concentrated dose of standard Stark bad luck in the space of an hour.
With the North and Dorne setting the high and low points in terms of this season, much of the rest of the show followed suit in either a welcome kick in the rear or a whole lot of feeling like time was being wasted. Especially disappointing was seeing fan favorites like Tyrion and Arya stuck repeating episodes multiple times over, the show not wanting to ignore them, but also not having much else for them to do until everyone else caught up with them again.Granted, not all of the screentime for these two felt like a wasted effort., Some of Arya’s arc at least provided some nice world-building through the theater troupe she interacted with, in particular with their recreation of the events of the war as seen from those outside of Westeros. Meanwhile, the amount of in-story stalling by Tyrion began to feel like a meta joke, right down to the number of scenes where he is left to try and make humorous interactions out of a cast who don’t really have many reasons to joke around themselves.
Meanwhile, of the three Lannister children, Cersei made out the strongest this season. After getting knocked down hard at the end of the last season, she came back swinging this time out and may honestly have given us the one season where the final episode could be said to eclipse, if not surpass, the penultimate. It’s also nice to see Lena Headey finally getting some awards acknowledgment for it as well. Since the show’s start, she’s been delivering a consistent A-game, and these last two seasons have given her material that really lets that shine, to the point where even some of this arc’s shortcomings (Can you fly, Tommen?) seem to be canceled out by the things that did work.
I’d feel awkward completely just hashing out each character (and that would still take more time than I’d like, to be honest – the one downside to recapping a show like this at the end, it never feels like enough’s been said for everything that goes down), especially given many of the rest land mostly in the middle. They aren’t really doing too badly, but compared to the North and King’s Landing, their arcs are mostly just sort of running with a few other notables.
Danaerys’s arc, while breaking from the hemming and hawing of last year, feels like a return to the ‘Give ’em the old Fire and Blood!’ school of leadership we’ve seen her rolling out whenever all else fails since season two – which gets results, to be certain, but doesn’t really feel like the character has gotten to change much. And while Emilia Clarke is doing her best to play the role, the writing continues to undercut those best of intentions – especially when her resorting to conquest and Dothraki feels like it cheapens her entire anti-slavery stance from previous seasons. Were it not for the arrival of the Greyjoys, her arc would be up there with Dorne on feeling like it just circled back and wiped the slate.
Likewise, while Bran is back and actually doing things this season, most of his time (shy of the climax to ‘The Door’, a scene that has made the phrase ‘hold the door’ a source of fan horror for the past few months) is spent laying out traces of reveals and then pulling away before they give too much away. Like Tyrion, the writing makes the fact the scene is being constrained by a greater narrative feels a little too on the nose when even Max von Sydow’s Three-Eyed Raven interrupts a flashback with a “That’s enough for today.”
The two other standouts to come out of this season, for what it’s worth, are both very welcome pros. First off, there was the surprise hit and new fan favorite in Lyanna Mormont. Despite being one of the youngest characters in the series, in a few short episodes, the new acting head of her house proceeded to make for a more effective ‘takes no crap’ leader in her own right than the majority of the other contenders for power around her. Also making a welcome sight for fans, this season welcomed back Sandor Clegane from his being left for dead, confirming a whole wave of fan theories in the process. Where the show plans to go with him from here is up for speculation, but in the meantime, it’s nice to see Rory McCann bringing Sandor’s world-weary cynicism back to the setting.
Beyond the workings of story, this season has largely continued to carry itself with the level of technical proficiency that has made it into such a tentpole of HBO’s lineup. Of the two problems I would argue the show suffered from this season as production went, only one I see being a possible risk down the line.
The lesser of the two evils being with regards to the show’s budget. Now, this isn’t necessarily anything new for GoT. They only have just so much money to work with in any given season, and battles are costly (there’s a reason the Battle of the Blackwater was so subdued compared to what was originally written), but by and large they’ve done well at covering up where they’ve had to tighten belts before.
This season, however, it was a bit more noticeable as a consequence. Some if it wasn’t too bad (the obvious Ian McShane dummy was unfortunate, but not on for too long at least) but it REALLY hurt the episode ‘No One’, which consequently had to resort to multiple occurrences of ‘Tell, don’t show’ storytelling to get around the fact they didn’t have the time or money to depict certain events.
The other, more pressing issue, was with regards to time management. A lot has been said and made fun of over how quickly characters seemed to cross the world this season, to the point the showrunners spoke up about it. While I understand and sympathize with their concerns that the journey risks overtaking the story at points, in trying to work around it, they’ve opened themselves up to another problem – the fact is, this season did a pretty poor job of conveying the proper passage of time.
In the past, one of the advantages of focusing on travel was it really hit home just how much time would elapse per season. This time out, however, large chunks of time are skipped over with little to nothing said for it – be it Varys’s seeming to go from Meereen to Dorne and back again with a flow that made it feel like it it had only been a day or two, or immediately jumping to Theon and Yara in Meereen – not arriving at, already within the city limits – when last we’d seen them they were still a long ways off.
With the end of this season, the final goal is within sight – winter has come, characters are converging and a climax is imminent. Whether this newfound momentum will improve with the next season or not remains to be seen, but I look forward to seeing this ride through to the end, warts and all, all the same.
-Final two episodes may be the show’s strongest since season 3
-Much needed change in narrative momentum after the slumps of last year
-Battle of the Bastards hits a new technical high note for what the series has accomplished on a TV budget
-It’s great we’re going faster, but visually show that, don’t just teleport characters like it’s the next day.
-I like Tyrion and Arya as much as the next person, but if there’s nothing new going on with them, maybe show us other plots for a while instead?
-BotB was well worth the wait, but the budget-cuts getting there could get distracting