It’s over. Well, for 10 months at least. And with season six finished (and indeed the last full length, 10-episode season finished), it’s time to once more look over the season on the whole. Going into this year, my expectations – and I’d argue general expectations – were dampened somewhat by a number of mitigating factors.
For a start, this marked the first season on which the show was really leaving the books behind. Of course that’s something that was probably more concerning for book readers than it was for show-only viewers, but often in earlier seasons, the influence of the books was felt less in the arc of the plot, or the big set pieces, and more in the smaller elements stitching it all together.
Then there was the fact that season 5 had seen a noticeable drop in quality from season 4 in particular, and overall from what is expected of the show. As I pointed out in my season five review, it was still a good season, even if not a great one, but that needed to be a one-off drop in quality, not a new trend.
Add to that the small matter of Jon’s ‘will-he-won’t-he resurrection’ and growing impatience for Dany to finally cross the Narrow Sea, and season 6 really needed to deliver. The question was, would it?Well, it certainly ticked the latter two boxes. By the final shot of episode 2, Jon was back, and while there was a sense of déjà vu in seeing Daenerys and her fleet at sea, it was different this time as she is finally headed for Westeros. Perhaps Euron will block her path with his magically built ships, but that’s something to criticise next season about.
There was far less subtlety and nuance to this season in almost every arc of the show. Despite seeming too small to be a direwolf’s head, it turned out that no, there wasn’t a secret plot to protect Rickon and overthrow Ramsay, and yes, that was in fact Shaggy Dog’s head. Jon should have died multiple times in ‘Battle of the Bastards’, but simply didn’t, as opposed to crafting the action to make his survival slightly more plausible.
Perhaps the best example of this problem came in Margaery deceiving the High Sparrow with her ostensible newfound piety. As I highlighted at the time, there were no signs whatsoever that this was a layered scenario – Natalie Dormer portraying normal Margaery portraying pious Margaery – instead of Margaery simply now being devoutly religious (which incidentally was a development retrospectively given credence by her brother Loras undergoing that exact transformation under the same conditions in ‘The Winds of Winter’). Instead, we had the deceit, and then later were shown explicitly that this was just her plan through the rose drawing she gave Olenna.This wasn’t to say that you could see everything coming. Bar that guy at a convention year’s back who was travelling in a lift with George R.R. Martin, I don’t think anyone saw ‘Hold the door’ coming, and it certainly packed a punch. The reveal of Melisandre’s ‘true form’ was pretty shocking too. Yet both of these were developments rooted in the source material of the books, rather than original points for the show, and, alongside the meandering nature of Tyrion’s scenes this year (entertaining as they were), it was clear that without the anchor of the books, the show had changed slightly.
Saying that, one could rightly argue that this change was due more to the need to streamline than anything else. And while that streamlining may have meant for less in-depth developments, it didn’t mean they weren’t effective. In a really positive sense, the opening 25-minute focus on King’s Landing in the finale was unlike anything we’ve seen before, with such a slow build towards such a dramatic payoff. For all the oddity to get them there, Sansa’s dominance over Ramsay before his death worked really well for two characters – both for him to depart and for her to progress.
Looking back on that Sept of Baelor explosion, ending with Cersei on the Throne was a really interesting development. It’s not something she has necessarily ever wanted or planned for – she wanted power, but with Tommen still on the Throne. By her fatal misstep in not accounting for his psychological frailty, she is now faced with a situation where she has the degree of the power she was plotting to achieve, yet she now has nothing to protect or fight for beyond her own survival. Watching how Jaime plays into this dynamic should be fascinating too.The excellent acting was also a big factor in avoiding a big drop in quality. As mentioned in the episodic reviews, Sophie Turner has been brilliant this year, handling the steady increase in Sansa’s centrality to the story well. Opposite her, Iwan Rheon, for me at least, was great as Ramsay. A glut of obscure newcomers also stood out – Sam Coleman as the young Wylis/Hodor was as integral to the emotion of his character’s death via flashback as Kristian Nairn was in the present; Bella Ramsey’s Lyanna Mormont was as dominant as anyone; and Robert Aramayo channelled Sean Bean well in portraying the younger Ned Stark. There were veteran appearances in the form of Max von Sydow and Ian McShane, and while key performers like Peter Dinklage and Alfie Allen weren’t required to perform their usual acting feats, they still put in typically good performances across the year.
I feel like I mention the music of the show regularly, but a key element of the opening to ‘The Winds of Winter’ was the unconventional (for Thrones, that is) piano-led score, a 9-minute piece titled ‘Light of the Seven’. It is absolutely fantastic both as an accompaniment to the scene, and as a standalone piece of music (I’ve had it on repeat since watching the episode). Ramin Djawadi’s composition has always been a big part of the success of the show (so much so that it’s always interesting to consider he was a last-minute replacement for Stephen Warbeck, the original composer), but this season his work got even better. The motifs for each character fit so well and play into the characterisation. Things like the slight hint of Dany’s ‘Fire and Blood’ theme creeping in during ‘Oathbreaker’ as Jon left the Night’s Watch played into the eventual reveal this week that he is of course a Targaryen by birth, and, with his true father Rhaegar being Dany’s older brother, actually her nephew.The visuals took a big leap again this year too. It might have a gigantic budget for TV at this point, and be a far cry from what the show was made on back in seasons 1 and 2, but it’s still a TV budget, one that has to cover 10 hours of screen time, rather than a comparable film budget that covers at best 3 hours, and so the strength of the effects and action is incredible. ‘Battle of the Bastards’ was a feat of physical genius, bringing together so many different aspects on screen, while the wildfire explosion in the finale was simply stunning CGI, as has been the portrayal of Drogon in his seemingly full-form. Watching year on year, the improvement isn’t always noticeable, but if you go back and briefly watch Dany’s scene on the boat in the season 3 opener ‘Valar Dohaeris’, and then look at Drogon in ‘The Winds of Winter’, you can easily see the difference in quality.
It’s disappointing as a fan to know we only have 13 hours (well, 13 episodes – who’s expecting a bumper hour and a half final episode?) of the show left over the last two seasons, but when you consider all that we are expecting to happen (I’ll cover that in depth in a preview article), and obviously the multitude of things we have no idea about yet, the cut in overall running costs and filming time associated with making a 10-episode season of this scale will no doubt be made up for in the consistency of those 13 hours.
Overall, the march towards the end has been good and bad for the show. With a need to pare the show down to the final players, it’s been a year that has probably been more enjoyable if you have a partisan stake in the plot. Many people enjoyed ‘Battle of the Bastards’ primarily because Ramsay finally got his comeuppance, while a similar reaction greeted the demise of Walder Frey in the finale. Watching objectively, both of these developments and others have been slightly less thrilling given the questionable developments that have accompanied them, and it’s this payoff between fan service and logic that the show will continue to toy with as it moves towards the end.
So season 6 was certainly a great season. It wasn’t in my eyes the show at its best, something that will be hard for it to accomplish with the aforementioned shift in focus as we wind up, but it was a definite improvement on season 5, and delivered many fantastic moments of action, tension and emotion.