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In its first season not leaned on George R. R. Martin’s books — save for some leftover Iron Islands stuffs — Game of Thrones moved faster than fans have come to anticipate concerning story, payoffs, and even the literal movement of characters from one world to another.
Occasionally, there were so many “happy” moments that the show began to feel rather un-Game of Thrones like, even though the series definitely had an excuse for speeding us toward the end and giving the heroes more wins than normal – the end is near! This is when things are supposed to begin falling into place, if we’re to follow conventional fantasy storytelling rules. None of this really means we’ll end up with a feel-good ending by the time the curtain actually falls on this show, but for the time being, with Game of Thrones Season 6 serving as the gateway to the actual series endgame (which will take place over two shortened final seasons), it was time for many of our heroes to victor and ascend in manners that Martin never quite allowed in his books. To date, of course…
Looking back at the major number of grand payoffs and give-backs this year: Jon Snow was brought back to life, The Hound turned out to have survived his wounds (and abandonment), Benjen Stark also returned alive (…kinda), Jon and Sansa were touchingly reunited, two incredibly malicious characters met gruesome ends at Stark hands, we learned the time-bending origin (tragic though it was) behind Hodor’s name, Jon Snow’s biological parents were revealed, Winterfell was reclaimed, Daenerys left Meereen with a huge army and fleet, and someone other than an offspring of an incestuous union rose to the Iron Throne.
It was a big year, to the very least, and Game of Thrones Season 6 was remarkably light on viewers contempt and tragedy, which had been the series’ bread and butter up until this point. It was also the year that fans – especially those who have loved the series for a long time that read the books — found themselves getting ahead of the story a bit, as their long-held theories about Jon Snow’s parents, Jon Snow’s short-lived death, Coldhands, and more were revealed to be pretty much matching what had been guessed by many.
Does that mean these reveals fell flat? Well, it depends. I can see how they might seem less impressive when you’re used to a series that relentlessly subverts expectations – in very brutal, unkind manners, in fact. But the fact remains that I was excited to witness Jon gasp that breath of sorcery-induced air and loved seeing Benjen Stark return, after a long time, and have his presence also answer a question that the novels hadn’t gotten around to answering yet (perhaps they eventually will, that is). And, certainly, the deaths of Walder Frey and Ramsay Bolton were both incredibly satisfying. I learned to embrace the bliss of this season and not shun it too much.
Since there were certainly times, given how the show had been running so far, where it almost felt like the viewers didn’t deserve so many big crowd-pleasing moments. What’s more is that since executive producers Benioff and Weiss were forming a bulk of the content themselves — with only the greater plot points having been unfolded to them by GRRM ahead of this season — the series started to deliver a slight “fan service” vibe. Sansa’s storyline, especially, had moments of empowerment that felt like a straight-forward response to how poorly her Season 5 victimization was received. That said, regardless of the reasons, seeing a stronger, emboldened Sansa this year was a straight-up joy – especially how she somewhat started to lean toward a devious side right at the end, even in regard to her own family.
Speaking of female empowerment, Daenerys had herself a banner time, turning the tables on her original seasonal plight rather fast and (re)claiming herself a Dothraki army. Tyrion’s time in Meereen, alongside Missandei and Grey Worm, may have dragged, but when Dany finally came back to the pyramid, the huge clash at the end was spectacular. And speaking of plots that lagged for a while and then finished with a flame-full massacre, Cersei’s decision to eliminate just about every namable character in King’s Landing was an absolutely satisfying purge, and a great ending to an arc that had meandered for far too long. And the Hitchcockian scene that started the season finale, building up to the massive wildfire blast, was beautifully executed.
The saddest death this year belongs to Hodor, but with his death came the first-time inclusion of time-travel elements on the series and it was brilliant. Hodor’s situation was a loop caused by Bran, in his Three-Eyed Raven tutelage, that directly affected the past and the moment marked one of the series’ most tragic, and meaningful, exits while also introducing the supernatural rules of the show as well. And because I’m touching on standout scenes, the battle for Winterfell was a phenomenal spectacle full of a ton of stakes, emotion, and soulful satisfaction. It should be noted that I saw Ramsay get mauled by dogs many times, and the same goes for Arya’s epic takedown of Walder Frey.
The Hound was nearly overshadowed by the likes of Jon’s resurrection, Hodor’s death, Coldhands, and the first Tower of Joy flashback by the time he came back. And then his return arc, featuring Ian McShane as a reformed killer leading a communal support group for pacifists, felt a little cliched and too traversed a territory for a show like Game of Thrones to tackle. At the same time, The Hound’s past companion, Arya, flailed a bit during her second year in Braavos. Arya works best when she has someone to banter with and Jaqen, simply put, is not that guy. By the end, I was just happy to see her ditch that entire sequence. Even better though was the fact that it seemed like she left the Faceless Men with his blessings (and faces), so her time there doesn’t feel totally wasted, even if it didn’t need so much screen time.
Two arcs this year seemed like they took too long to play out, added to since it was the second year we were following both of them – King’s Landing (the rise of the High Sparrow, in particular), and Arya’s aforementioned time in Braavos. Yet,if you lookon the bright side, they both had satisfying endings, especially Cersei’s major plan to wipe the whole slate clean, because that’s pretty much what that storyline needed. And the end result of both tales seems to be a collision course now – Cersei on the Iron Throne and Arya with one hell of a target in her sites, as she resumes checking names off her list.
I’m not going to be too harsh on the Riverrun arc, except to say that I wasn’t a fan of Blackfish dying off-screen (which just makes me suspect he’s not really dead, though who knows after Stannis). I hope the dividends for this will pay off soon (perhaps next season). As for right now, it really only served to take Jaime out of King’s Landing so that Cersei was free to become the Mad Queen on her own. Even though it should be noted that the likeliness of having a bitter, infuriated Edmure in charge now at Riverrun — and no more Walder Frey (or his sons) — could make for an exciting future scenario.