Game of Thrones’ Sixth Season Was One of Its Best

Photo: HBO

It’s tempting to call season six of Game of Thrones the best yet. On a storytelling level, it was cleaner and more focused than past seasons. It managed to feel as big as prior installments (during the battle scenes they could’ve panned to reveal HBO accountants writing checks) yet more emotionally intimate. The violence was as gruesome as fans expect, yet somehow it didn’t feel as oppressive as the torture and bloodletting we’ve seen up till now. Was it due to the absence of graphic onscreen rape, or the presence of scenes where women assert themselves against condescending or vicious men? Or did it feel good simply because the “good guys” — the label “good,” of course, shifting depending on circumstances — got to win this time?

This was the point where the long, slow fuse caught up with the powder keg. The sadist supreme Ramsay Bolton killed Rickon Stark, then got thrashed within an inch of his life by Jon Snow and fed to his abused dogs by his onetime captive, Sansa Stark. Arya Stark donned a false face to slit the throat of Red Wedding mastermind Lord Walder Frey, who murdered her mother, her brother, and his pregnant wife near the end of season three. Daenerys Targaryen supervised the airborne slow-roast of a fleet of warships hoping to conquer Slaver’s Bay, broke up with her lover–adviser Daario Naharis, and accepted a pledge of allegiance from her new right hand, Tyrion Lannister — one of the most understatedly moving exchanges on the series to date, probably because both characters feel like despised outsiders even when they’re inhabiting the inner circles of power.

And we were reminded again that it’s not a good idea to underestimate Cersei Lannister. The first 15 minutes of the season finale was peak Thrones: an extended bit of cross-cutting that built to an emotional as well as pyrotechnic explosion, unified by a persistent, ominous, Philip Glass–like music cue. I like that the High Sparrow didn’t get a protracted, painful sendoff, but simply perished in an explosion (in a house of worship, no less). It was as if he’d been zapped by a bolt of lighting for worshiping the wrong god all this time.

Being freed of the burden of having to adhere to George R.R. Martin’s template seemed to liberate showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and their gigantic cast and crew. You could almost hear them breathing a collective sigh of relief at no longer having to deal with gripes that the show wasn’t a scene-by-scene enactment of the novels. At long last, they were primarily creators (or at least embellishers) rather than adapters.  

To be fair to Martin, though, these are his characters and his world. When we watch season six, we’re seeing a speculative completion of unfinished business. (HBO’s The Leftovers, a novel adaptation that ran out of original material after season one, is facing a smaller-scale version of this challenge.) The emotions summoned in these recent ten episodes represent the harvesting of crops planted a long time ago. A good part of this season’s power stemmed from our awareness of how long we’ve been living with these characters, getting to know them and their families, and appreciating their pain, even if we don’t like or approve of them. Watch a show long enough, and this is what happens.

When the characters talk about what happened to them, you feel as if it happened to you, too. Ned Stark’s public murder was mentioned repeatedly in dialogue and reenacted in a play witnessed by Arya Stark — a travesty of her lived experience, and a reminder that history is written by the winners. Her horrified expression at seeing her reality distorted mirrored our distress as well, because she’s the closest thing to a pure-hearted silent-movie-style heroine that Thrones has given us.

But a similar effect took hold in the scene where Cersei torments the nun who once tormented her, staving off regret by reciting a litany of things she’s done over the years — including having an affair with her brother — because they felt good. Cersei is hardly a model human being. There were times when her misery at the High Sparrow’s hands felt like karmic punishment as well as politically and religiously motivated brutality, and under different circumstances you would root against her; but she’s suffered so many traumas that here you were with Cersei, rooting for her to cause her enemies as much pain as they’d caused her. (It’s fascinating how this show flips our sympathies; the reanimated Gregor Clegane, a giant, brutish bully and sexual violator, is basically Cersei’s version of the Golem now, protecting her and enacting her darkest wishes.)

There were as many momentous events in this season as in any two others combined, but in contrast to similarly busy TV dramas like Empire, a bag of exclamation points in the form of a show, it never felt as if Game of Thrones was burning through plot just to get a rise out of fans. Every “Wow!” moment had been carefully prepared for in seasons past. The final two episodes, both of which were written by Benioff and Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik, felt like the action-packed climax of a 60-hour movie — or a two-hour sword-and-sorcery equivalent of the sequence in the first Godfather where all family business is settled. It was all engrossing and cathartic, and often wryly funny in a way that was uncharacteristic yet welcome. The writers turned Tyrion and Varys into a classic old-movie comedy team, and even took time out to let Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Missandei drink wine and tell jokes. And this season was as close as the show has gotten to being able to legitimately claim that its women are empowered, even if they did leaven liberation with boob shots. Sansa’s monologue about rape’s physical as well as emotional aftershock was one of many scenes where Game of Thrones seemed to be addressing its feminist critics directly. There were points in season six where it seemed almost unnecessary to attempt a “deep read” of the show’s messages because the show was already doing it.

How will Game of Thrones prevent its final stretch from feeling like a glorified afterthought — or worse, a protracted mortals vs. zombies gorefest that makes the previous six seasons’ worth of house-on-house warfare seem like an epic detour? I have no idea, and I’m sure Benioff, Weiss, & Co. will have to burn a lot of midnight oil to figure it out. They can take comfort in having overseen a peak season for the series — a reminder of how smart, exciting, and heartfelt Game of Thrones can be while still delivering shocks, thrills, gore, and dragon fire.