Season 6 sees Game of Thrones move well and truly beyond the narrative set down in George R.R. Martin’s books. There is one exception: the arrival of Euron Greyjoy, who first appeared in “A Feast for Crows”. Having had to deal with Martin’s quagmires for a great portion of season 5, there was a lot of curiosity about how showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would progress the story beyond A Dance with Dragons.
After seven episodes, they appear to have nailed it. Season 6 is one of the strongest seasons yet. It certainly leaves season 5 in the shade, with its quagmires and silly story lines involving Stannis Baratheon and the Sand Snakes.
I know it is a shocking plot twist that was meant to have come from Martin himself, but that doesn’t make it any more plausible that a man who loved and cherished his daughter despite her facial disfigurement would then be willing to burn her alive as a ritual sacrifice on the suggestion of a priestess of a religion he had only recently embraced. Christ, who brings their wife and child to a battle in the first place? For this viewer at least, the Shireen moment did not ring true. Instead, I was left with the feeling that the showrunners were simply trying too hard to be edgelords.
The Sand Snakes are the weakest link in the entire show, which is a pity given that they are much more compelling and bad-ass in the books. In the show, they are femme fatale caricatures who say things like, “You want a good girl, but you need the bad pussy.” Nobody knows their names, but it doesn’t matter because personality-wise they are indistinguishable from each other.
When one of the Sand Snakes drives a spear through the back of a young man’s head, the other Sand Snake says, “You’re a greedy bitch, you know that?” A flippant line which feels incongruent given that the young man happens to be the Sand Snakes’ own cousin, Trystane. It doesn’t work on a comic level, and it doesn’t work on a narrative level. In S05 E10, the Sand Snakes had stood on a Dornish dock and watched Trystane’s boat sail away for King’s Landing, resplendent in their brightly colored, billowing power suits. In S06 E01, the Sand Snakes magically appear on the boat, having perhaps used the ancient Dornish art of teleportation, and proceed to murder Trystane, this time wearing their Xena: Warrior Princess costumes.
It is almost as if the showrunners were in a rush to get them out of the way, continuity be damned, because we have not seen the Sand Snakes since.
Instead, season 6 has treated us to an array of strong women, broken men, and revenants. There is a distinct sense of loose ends being tied up, circles being closed, and the stage being set for some epic battles, particularly the upcoming “Battle of Winterfell” (S06E09, tantalizingly titled “Battle of the Bastards” and directed by “Hardhome” director Miguel Sapochnik). The grand finale, which can only be two seasons away at the most, is already starting to feel close.
Game of Thrones has always had strong women, but season 6 has been the most explicit in its depiction of female empowerment. There’s an inkling of it in the first episode when Ellaria Sand (played by the wonderful Indira Varma) tells a dying Doran Martell, “Weak men will never rule Dorne again.” Episode 4 is called “Book of the Stranger”, but probably should have been called “Girl Power”: Sansa tells Jon Snow to toughen up and get his shit together; Margaery tells Loras to toughen up and get his shit together; Yara tells Theon to toughen up and get his shit together; and, in the piece de resistance, Daenerys sets fire to a room full of Dothraki meatheads who had just threatened to rape her. In episode 7, we meet Lyanna Mormont, the precocious, no-nonsense 10-year old who rules Bear Island like a boss.
It’s a refreshing change from seasons past with their dead prostitutes, stabbings of pregnant women, and rapes that were never rapes in the books (i.e. Jaime and Cersei’s infamous scene in S04 E03).
It’s fitting that episode 7 is called “The Broken Man”, because this season has been full of them: the perforated Jon Snow, the emasculated Theon, the greyscaled Ser Jorah, the lachrymose Loras, the mindfucked Hodor, the washed-up Jaime, and of course, Sandor Clegane, who we discover has been trying to lead a quiet, bucolic life after being left for dead at the end of season 4.
“The Broken Man” is a brilliant episode, thanks in no small part to Ian McShane’s robust performance as Brother Ray. It might be disappointing to some book readers that Brother Ray did not deliver Septon Meribald’s famous “broken man” speech from “A Feast For Crows”, after which the episode is named, but he is given a powerful and telling speech of his own:
“I remember once a woman screaming at us, calling us animals as we dragged her son from their hut. We weren’t animals; animals are true to their nature, and we had betrayed ours. I cut that young boy’s throat myself as his mother screamed and my friends held her back. That night, I felt such shame. Shame was so heavy on me I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was stare into that dark sky and listen to that mother screaming her son’s name. I’ll hear her screaming the rest of my life.
“I know I can never bring that lad back. All I can do with the time I’ve got left is bring a little goodness into the world. That’s all any of us can do, isn’t it? It’s never too late to stop robbing people, to stop killing people, to start helping people. It’s never too late to come back.”
In season 6, characters come back alright. Jon Snow’s literal return from the dead in episode 2 only turns out to be the first of many showstopping returns. After being absent for all of season 5, Bran Stark comes back with a vengeance. No longer relegated to the sidelines, Bran is now clearly a pivotal character, an astral Michael Jordan with the ability to transcend time and space. Because of his extraordinary abilities, he is able to link us to both the past (visions of Ned Stark, Lyanna Stark, and Howland Reed) and the future (his terrifying encounter with the Night King and the White Walkers foreshadows the horrors to come). Not only can he warg his way into the minds of animals and humans, he can also do this across different time periods, as we discovered in the heartbreaking episode, “The Door”. The Three-Eyed Raven told him that he needs to learn “everything”, and the Night King wants him dead, so clearly the kid’s got skills.
This season has also seen the return of Rickon Stark, the aforementioned Sandor Clegane, season 3 alumni Walder Frey, Edmure Tully and the Blackfish, and the deepest of deep cuts, Benjen Stark, who makes his first appearance since S01E03.
At this rate, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if book favorite Lady Stoneheart also makes an appearance.
Some characters may have narrowly avoided death, some may be close to death (poor Arya!), and all of them probably suffer from PTSD to some extent, but as Martin’s unsentimental writing reminds readers again and again, everyone has to keep going.
I am reminded of two moments from “The Broken Man”: Theon’s steely gaze when Yara asks him whether he’s ready to fight instead of acting like a beaten dog, and The Hound grabbing his axe at the end, forsaking the pacifist life in favor of a John Wick-style rampage.
As we learned from the slaughter of Brother Ray and his followers, trying to bring a little goodness into the world can be futile if one is not also willing to fight against evil.
As every Game of Thrones fan should know by now, the polite response to the Braavosi greeting “Valar morghulis” is “Valar dohaeris”.
All men must die.
All men must serve.
To put this traditional Braavosi exchange another way: we are all going to die, but in the meantime, we all must serve.
That which we each choose to serve is one of the fascinating subtexts of Game of Thrones. Does one serve the crown or the faith? The Starks or the Boltons? The Seven Gods or the Lord of Light? One’s king or one’s conscience? The greater good or oneself?
Brother Ray wanted to serve something greater than himself. The Hound wants to serve up a sixpack of whoop-ass.
In the complex, violent world of Game of Thrones, they are both right.
Finally, here are some predictions before we head into the final three episodes.
Arya will not die. It doesn’t make sense from a narrative point of view to have Arya mess around in Braavos for all of season 5 and half of season 6, only to die just when she’s on the verge of heading back to Westeros. Episode 8 is called “No One”, so expect a large chunk of it to deal with Arya’s resurgence.
Ramsay Bolton will die, most likely in “Battle of the Bastards”. The showrunners have taken his villainy about as far as it can go, so there doesn’t seem to be any point in having him hang around.
I expect Jon Snow and the pro-Stark forces to prevail in the Battle of Winterfell, but it will probably come at a heavy cost. Don’t be at all surprised if a beloved character dies, such as Davos, Sansa or young Rickon. Also, for all his faults, I expect Littlefinger to make good on his promises to Sansa and line up the Arryn army against Ramsay Bolton.
Sandor Clegane will face off against his brother Gregor in the Cleganebowl, the trial by combat that will decide Cersei’s fate. I expect The Hound to win, given that Gregor has already won one trial by combat at the expense of poor Oberyn Martell. Plus, The Mountain is Qyburn’s zombie now and probably not the fighter he once was.
Sweet Tommen will probably die this season, quite possibly as a result of his mother’s actions. I only say this because Tommen and Cersei shared a scene early in the season that was quite unnerving and creepy, and that witch in S05 E01 did prophesy that all of Cersei’s children would die.
Season 6 will probably end with Daenerys on the verge of sailing for Westeros, with her ranks swelled by Dothrakis and Greyjoys.
As for Bran Stark, who knows? Like Arya and Samwell Tarly, he is a wildcard in the Game of Thrones universe. He will probably have another vision about the Tower of Joy, and shed light on Jon Snow’s parentage. If anyone is able to confirm whether the fan theory “R + L = J” is correct, it is Bran.