Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Fuck yes
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Season Six – *****
Part One: Dergens
I mentioned before that the quality of the seasons in Game of Thrones is correlated with how frequently the creatures (or in the first season, eggs) appear. That trend seems to hold especially true in this season, and the dragons appear often. Actually, to say they appear often is an understatement. I wouldn’t be surprised if the dragons show up in more scenes in this single shortened season than they do in all of the other seasons combined. The range of shots they appear in varies greatly too; we see them breathing fire, flying around, sleeping, fighting on the ground, approaching characters, being ridden, hovering, taking off, landing, and even dying. The fourth episode concludes with the new most spectacular dragon scene of the show, a full-on dragon battle featuring thousands of Dothraki horsemen, the largest dragon ridden into the fight by Danaerys, and new to this season, a massive bolt-firing ballista designed to bring down the massive creatures.
The visuals are spectacular on their own, but more importantly in my opinion, the dragons play a much bigger role in the story as well – something that has been crucially missing from prior seasons. They were often involved in important events, like rescuing Danaerys from the gladiator pit in Mereen and securing her navy, but in past seasons they were basically used to rush in, spit fire, kill whatever was causing trouble, and then leave. Here, the show is able to make full use of its dragons and doesn’t shy away from keeping them around well after they’ve technically served their main purpose. It doesn’t feel like the showrunners have to budget their use of the dragons anymore, and that frees up the show to have intense scenes like when Drogon burns Randall and Dickon Tarley to ash, or when Jon touches one of the dragons for the first time. The dragons are now front and center to the story, meaning they’re a more unpredictable threat to Danaerys’ opponents, and an invaluable tool for her to use, as opposed to just being set-pieces.
In the second to last episode of the season, we see a major development that makes major promises for the future: one of the dragons has died. Not only that, but it died north of the Wall at the hands of the Night King, who as he is wont to do, has reanimated it. Not only is a “dragons versus zombies” fight going to happen in the future (and fulfilled to some degree by this season), but now we have the strong potential of “dragons versus dragon zombies.” Good luck competing with that, The Walking Dead. The Wall being the only major obstacle between the army of the dead and the rest of Westeros practically sealed its fate from the start, and a massive fire-breathing reptile is just the means necessary to bring it down, as finally happens here. The season set up the events surrounding the dragon’s death beautifully, establishing means of harming dragons in the second episode, injuring one of them during the loot train attack, and finally killing one and forcing the characters to deal with the consequences of their carelessness.
Plenty of people love to speculate about what will happen in future episodes and I found myself doing the same frequently in this season, often having to re-think my hypotheses after watching each new episode. The dragon’s death was foreshadowed heavily in this season, and while shocking (I think one of the more shocking deaths in the series, actually), I can’t say it was particularly surprising. I do suspect that based on how the show has developed these dragons, it isn’t going to let them off the hook any easier than it has its human characters.
The one main criticism I have about the way this season handles its dragons (outside of aesthetic nitpicks like how their roars are too high) is that only one of them has anything that might be called a personality, never mind a memorable name. The black dragon, Drogon, is the biggest one, Danaerys’ personal riding dragon and the one she takes into battle. Aside from having about the laziest fucking name anyone could give a dragon, Drogon is the most plot-involved of the dragon. It is the one standing on her shoulder when they hatch in the first season, it is the one whom Danaerys pretends to sell and who burns its captor alive, the one who rescues her from the fighting pit, and the one who leads the fight against the navy in Mereen. Drogon is the most dangerous and apparently obedient of the dragons, meaning that his death would have more impact than any of the others. Even the green dragon, Rhaegal, is at least visually distinct and the most noteworthy as an egg, but the brown dragon, Viseryon, is the one that dies, and even its namesake is unimpressive. Without going into the petty details of the series, Viserys was Danaerys’ abusive brother who died in the first season and did nothing remarkable his entire life, on-screen or off. At least Rhaegal’s namesake has become important to the story. It would be gutsy, but I think the show has the capability at this point to kill off Drogon in the last season if it chooses to do so.
Part Two: Yes, I Will Fight You On This
Beyond the dragons, the rest of the storytelling has gotten considerably stronger as well. Part of this may be the result of less interesting characters and subplots getting axed by the start of the season. But even without Stannis, and the Boltons, and the Freys, and the Night’s Watch, and Tywin, and Joffrey, and the Tyrells, and the Sand Snakes, and the idiots of Mereen, all of whom played important roles in the overall story but none of whom ever participated in especially compelling story arcs of their own, the structure of this season is much more compact than any of the previous seasons. There are still characters around whom I might consider to have problematic subplots, like Sam, Baelish, Theon, and Bran, but several of the episodes either omit these characters entirely in favor of the ones driving the main story – Danaerys, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, Jaime, Sansa, Arya, and Davos to some degree – or else the actions of more minor characters directly inform the decisions of more major ones.
For instance, the first few episodes spend considerable time with Sam as he trains in Oldtown to become a maester. These scenes are tedious and often contain unnecessarily gross imagery, even by the standards the show has already set, but they do provide important information through Sam’s book research. Early on, he learns of the obsidian on Dragonstone that gets Jon to finally meet with Danaerys, and later he verifies that Jon is the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targarean, and by extension a viable candidate for king. Sam’s other contribution is in saving Jorah from the leprosy-like greyscale. This subplot is resolved quickly and initially seems irrelevant except to ret-con the poor decisions of the last two seasons, but when Jorah ends up north of the Wall with Jon and a few other characters, he motivates Danaerys to risk her dragons to save them all, which of course gets one of them killed.
Unlike in other seasons, where only major events tended to have repercussions, in this season, almost everything seems important. Minor characters who get special attention feature prominently in the plot later. Sometimes this trend makes upcoming scenes predictable, like when the show goes out of its way to be sure the audience remembers Dickon Tarley by name so that when he dies horribly, the death has an impact. However, even predictable scenes like this, or the dragon’s death, or Jon interacting with Drogon, are not made worse for being predictable. The foreshadowing is especially dark and often pays off as well or better than what the audience would expect when it does come, making each foreshadowed event more highly anticipated than the last.
Dickon Tarley doesn’t just die, he offers his life in what he thinks is a noble, upstanding gesture, only to be burned to ash by Danaerys’ dragon, killing any hope of resistance in the men he meant to inspire.
The dragon doesn’t just die, it gets killed by the Night King and crashes into an ice lake, only to be pulled out later and reanimated as a zombie.
And that’s just the predictable events; much of what happens in this season comes out of nowhere, like the zombie dragon, the loot train attack, the dragons flying to the north, the zombie polar bear, the reunion of most of the Starks, the attack on Casterly Rock, and the Greyjoy-on-Greyjoy sea battle, among others. Some of the unpredictable moments are action-oriented, but others are crucially based in character development: Arya plotting to kill her sister, Sansa becoming active ruler in Winterfell, Genry reappearing and meeting Jon, Danaerys and Jon meeting for negotiations and falling in love (which I’m still a bit concerned about, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day), Jaime meeting in secret with Tyrion, Sam leaving the citadel, Tyrion trying to convince Danaerys not to burn away half the countryside.
I would be getting ahead of myself to say the characters are much more complex or interesting than they have been in the past; the core characters are able to fulfill more of their potential than in previous seasons because the series has trimmed the fat of its minor characters, but only a little has changed for any of their characters since the last season. What is different about the characters is their dialogue, which has become immensely less pretentious and convoluted. More of the characters’ personalities are able to come out in what they say, including a surprising bit of humor. The characters say a lot more with far fewer words than they have in previous seasons, which has long been a point of issue for me with the series’ writing. Can anyone remember a single impactful thing relevant to life outside of the plot that Stannis ever said? That might be a bad example, but the same is true of Catelyn, Ned, Robb, Tywin, Lord Commander Mormont, Khal Drogo, Robert, Brienne, and pretty much any major character in the series except Tyrion. Previously, whenever characters offered proverbial advice, it was either phrased like a commercial soundbite (“There is only one thing we say to Death: not today,” or “chaos is a ladder”), or else so abstract it rarely related directly to the story (“wear your weakness like an armor so other people can’t use it to hurt you” or “the man that issues the sentence should swing the sword”). There are still nonsense phrases like these uttered by characters in this season, but it’s less common than in prior seasons, and now the phrases are also often layered, whereas before poetic lines like these were just there to give a small taste of atmosphere and sound clever.
For example, when Cersei repeats one of her father’s common phrases to Jaime, “The lion does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep,” the external context lends more meaning to her words.
Tywin first says this line when Tyrion is complaining to him about a personal matter back in Season One. The phrase there indicates that Tywin is proud, holds his family in high esteem, holds common people in low esteem, and is irritated that his son doesn’t hold his views. All this is already apparent well before the phrase is uttered, though; his constant mention of the name “Lannister” indicates that he holds his family in high esteem, and Tyrion being disabled would logically make him angry because, in Tywin’s eyes, he makes the family look bad. Tyrion has expressed his father’s dislike of him and generally haughty nature many times before Tywin even appears on-screen, so we already know that his relationship with Tyrion is strained and that he’s a proud noble. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume he doesn’t care for his subjects based on the information we already have, and nothing else we see (aside from perhaps Tywin cleaning a stag corpse in his tent) indicates he is anything but a snooty lord. The metaphor, then, is just a reiteration of what the audience should be able to discern through less obtuse dialogue, and feels like it’s meant to recap their relationship for the slower members of the audience.
When Cersei says the same words in this season, however, the context lends to its meaning. She says it to her brother, whom she loves and covets, but feels is slipping away from her. It also comes right after her announcing their fourth pregnancy, a pregnancy that may be a lie or delusion for all the audience knows at this point. Cersei is largely defined by being proud, and has been trying to emulate the role of powerful men like her father, seeing herself as on their level in terms of strength and cunning. In reality, she is overconfident in her own abilities and though smart, as the show is keen to point out, she’s not as smart as she thinks. Like her father, she’s driven by family, especially her brother and children, which can be both a strength and vulnerability. In the wake of her children’s deaths and her shaky ascension to the throne, she is starting to grow desperate and more than a little mad.
Jaime, meanwhile, has been through a lot over the past few seasons and after losing his sword hand, a metaphorical castration that left him unable to fight or even defend himself, he has been stripped of his identity. People no longer fear or respect him and while ultimately more moral than he ever likes to admit, he lacks the strategic mind of his siblings or father, meaning any standing he does gain after losing his hand is something that is given to him by a more powerful person, not something he’s earned. He loves his sister, but he was never a father to his own children and didn’t have the blind love for them she did. He saw how cruel Joffrey was and that Tyrion had nothing to do with his death. He recognizes that Cersei has few allies, and after witnessing the loot train dragon attack, he is desperate to do anything in his power to keep her from harm, even if that means opposing her will.
When Cersei says, “The lion does not concern itself with the opinions of sheep,” this is in part her attempt to present herself as a capable ruler like her father. However, it is also more of a wish than a clear statement, a reflection of her lack of wisdom and rash tendencies, as it is not her own saying but that of someone else, typically used for more rational situations than declaring an inbred bastard child to the public. The phrase reflects that Cersei believes she has grown, both in power and in confidence, but it is also a plea to Jaime to try to keep him on her side. He is desperate for her approval and though he never had the chance to be a father, he has demonstrated that he craves that opportunity. Cersei is manipulating him to stay by her side in order to turn her brother into an even stronger ally than before, but the irrationality behind this move means that it’s a brittle alliance. If she turns out to not be pregnant, or loses the child, the likelihood of Jaime sticking with her drops considerably further than it was before she told him about the pregnancy. Indeed, at the end of the series when he starts to become canny to her madness, he’s driven to abandon her with the implication of giving up all interest in returning to her in the final season.
The proverb used in this context addresses the characters’ current situations, the events that led them to this place, their change over that time, their core personalities, future consequences of what they intend to do, and the dramatic irony of their circumstance – “the lion does not concern itself with the opinions of sheep,” but perhaps it would live longer if it did.
Part Three: How to Make Enemies with Fans of the Books and the Show
The season isn’t all good. The last episode is twice as long as a typical episode and I found it to be slow compared to the rest. The characters jump around constantly, and while I enjoy the faster pace, especially in light of how interminably slow so much of the rest of the series has been, there are times when the speed of travel leads to minor plot holes. The season is shorter by three episodes than most of the others in the series, and while each episode is longer, it does come out to be about half an hour shorter overall than past seasons. I actually like the longer-but-fewer-episodes format because it allows the show to spend more time in certain areas without neglecting important arcs, and we don’t end up with disjointed episodes that feel like the writers said, “Well, we’d better put in five random scenes each with a different character because they haven’t shown up for half the season” I can concede that the format does alter the structure of the show, and perhaps fans often want more episodes rather than more runtime, provided those episodes are well-structured.
What I cannot for the life of me fathom, however, is the ridiculous backlash against the season over inane things like “dragons can’t fly that fast” or “I wish we had more of the pseudo-political bullshit from the last seasons,” or my very favorite response, “I hate the show now that they’re not following the books.” THEY ARE FOLLOWING THE FUCKING BOOKS, YOU WHINY LITTLE PEDANTS! Martin directly involved in the creative process as a producer — and while, yes, producers do only play a role to a certain degree second to the show runners and writers, based on what I’ve seen so far, the divergence is not very strong. (In other words, book fans, don’t go blaming the corrupting influence of the show when Jon comes back to life and Stannis dies ten years from now when The Winds of Winter is finally released.)
As of writing this review, I’ve just finished the fifth book in the Song of Fire and Ice series as of writing this review, and between it and the fourth book, I’ve come to an important conclusion: I don’t really like the books. They’re not horrible by any means, when taken as a whole, and I can understand the appreciation for the long bouts of description common to the series, as well as the shifting perspectives and multitudes of small characters (though I find both of these fluffy). The differences between the books and the series are greatly exaggerated by book purists unless you account for unimportant details like the makeup of the sausages or minor characters introduced halfway through the series. The characters are not much more interesting in written form than visual, and the plotting is almost identical save for largely irrelevant details. If you want a series that is nothing like its source material, look at Preacher, How to Train Your Dragon, or better yet, the 1970s The Thing. I’ll talk about adaptation in later reviews (and you can bet it will come up if I ever give in and cover the Song of Fire and Ice series), but honestly, Game of Thrones is akin to Harry Potter in its adaptation; the things omitted from the books are unnecessary details and subplots that lead nowhere, and some parts are added or altered for dramatic purposes. We don’t need to hear about the story of the pointless Dornish guard, or of Aegon Targaryan the Whateverth who ends up (spoilers, I guess) dying from his own sheer stupidity. I don’t care about the Citadel students, or the Greyjoy dumbasses, or the long donkey-back and boat trips, I have less than no interest in the waves of ridiculous Mereenese advisors that the fifth book paints in a light I can’t help but feel is somehow racist. After a certain point, I found that the only way to get through the fifth book was to listed to it on audiobook at three times the speed it was recorded. When I first read the books, I was frustrated because they were so similar to the show, despite all of the book fans insisting that they were so much better. (Coincidentally, if you are looking to listen to the books on audio and are finding them dull, I highly recommend speeding up the audio, as you don’t miss anything important and it gets you through the overlong descriptions the same way skimming might. It genuinely makes the descriptions not only tolerable, but occasionally pleasant).
And that’s not even really addressing the actual writing, which varies from “passable” to “middle school fanfic” levels of quality. I don’t know enough about George R. R. Martin to make judgments about him as a person, but I don’t bear him any ill will and he seems like he would be a pretty cool guy to meet in person from what little I do know about him. I want that to be abundantly clear, because if I have to read or hear the words “dun” or “frog-spear” or “craven” again in my life, I think I’ll bash my head against a wall. For fuck’s sake, man, use “beige” just once! “Cowardly!” You meant to say “cowardly,” not “craven.” And do we really need to be reminded that the girl’s spear is specifically for frogs for the umpteenth time in this series? We get it, it’s a frog-spear. That’s one more syllable than you need. Same thing with bastard sword, and about half a dozen other weapons or tools. It’s a small wonder the books are so long being written as they are.
But outside of butthurt book apologists, I’ve heard from a number of fans of earlier seasons that they don’t like the current one as much either, and I think this is a bigger issue.
I’ll accept that primacy bias exists, especially when it comes to adaptation, and that because books tend to be packed with more explicit information, they will often be viewed as better written than the films or visual media they are based on. Heck, with big-budget productions, adaptations are often justifiably worse, so I can understand viewers familiar with the source material going into the adaptation with cynicism from the start. And honestly, I don’t blame people for liking the books; they’re fine for fantasy series and I can see why they’re so popular, it’s just that I see them setting the bar low for the response I often hear. Even though the show is based on the books, both those that are written and those that are unfinished, and Martin has a direct role in the series’ production, the difference in medium requires more cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Sometimes this mitigates bad ideas from one person, but it can also make other parts of the production unfocused.
I am growing increasingly concerned, however, that a lot of fans who liked the past seasons, especially the fifth and sixth, were hooked by the air of intricacy and plotting, the supposed political intrigue that I hear so often about but have yet to actually see in either the books or the show. For those who liked the slow pace of the past seasons, and the many minor characters, for the people who liked the Stannis subplot, for the people who think Baelish was a complex character or are interested in the role Bran has to play in the series, I think that the sudden shift in style and the show’s choice to de-emphasize those elements is the main point of criticism. Fans of the books, and especially those who have taken to YouTube or fan blogs to over-analyze the details of every shot are likely to be disappointed if certain plot points, especially those concerning prophecies, are not fulfilled. I’ll likely talk about the role of prophecies and fate in the show in the last season’s review, but one of the common themes of the show is subverting expectations concerning fantasy tropes (well, sometimes anyway), and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the series never fulfilled the Lightbringer prophecy, or did so in a vague, unsatisfying way.
The seventh season is the most different of the seasons released so far, but I imagine that someone watching the series for the first time starting with this season could see it as I do: a well-structured, tightly-written, and fast-paced but layered experience that builds tension for the next season and promises an epic finale to this fantasy story. However, if the response to this season is any indication, I think the eighth and final season will be met with some contempt, and while I doubt it will have much effect on this series as it stands, I worry that it may have deleterious consequences for future fantasy shows.