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The Winds of Winter: Josh Reviews Season Six of Game of Thrones!

August 15th, 2016
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I am hideously late in posting this review, but I had a lot to say about season six of Game of Thrones.  First and foremost, while I have read a lot of criticism of this season online, I found season six to be thrilling, with the show as good as it has ever been if not better.  How many shows demonstrate such storytelling strength this deep into their run?  For me, Game of Thrones has been getting better and better with each season.  The show briefly threatened to lose me in the third season, as I began to tire somewhat of the endless misery being forced upon the characters I had grown to love, and impatient with the way the show kept pulling the characters further and further apart from one another.  But with season four I was happy that some of the show’s disparate story-strands and characters began to at last be drawn together, and the show has been on a narrative build since then that is tremendously impressive.

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With Jon Snow’s death in the final moments of season five, the event fans had wondered about since the very beginning finally happened: the show caught up with George R.R. Martin’s novels.  As pretty much everyone knows, with season six the show burst ahead of the novels to venture into unexplored territory.  It will be fascinating, in the years ahead, to look back at season six of Game of Thrones (as well as the not-yet-made seasons seven and eight) and compare it with Mr. Martin’s final two (or more?) novels to see how similar or dissimilar they wind up being.

For me, the most noticeable difference between season six and the previous, adapted-from-a-book seasons was that the pace of the storytelling felt dramatically sped up.  Back in season one, it took Catelyn Stark half the season to journey from Winterfell to King’s Landing.  I loved that about the show, that it took the time to dig into the details and develop the reality of the world of Westeros.  But here in season six characters bounced all over the place in no time at all.  For the most part this worked, as this deep into the show I was eager for the story to start reaching some conclusions and din’t want to see characters knocked out of the story-telling for lengthy amounts of time as they traveled from place to place.  (The one bridge to far for me, though, this season was the silliness of Varys’ getting from Dorne to back on Daenarys’ boat in the final few minutes of the finale.  That stretched my credibility a bit too far…)

The highlight of the season for me was unquestionably the final two episodes, “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter.”

“The Battle of the Bastards” gave us the show’s largest-scale battle, as Jon Snow finally led an army against the sadistic Ramsay to retake Winterfell, which had been held by the Boltons for the past several seasons.  There was a visceral thrill in getting to see Jon finally taking dramatic action, and in seeing Winterfell finally, finally, reclaimed by the good guys.  What I was not expecting was the episode’s astoundingly gruesome, gut-wrenching dive into the horrors of this type of combat.  The episode was a horrific, nightmarishly intense experience to watch, as we followed Jon and his men’s increasingly hopeless assault on Winterfell.  I don’t think I have ever before seen anything like this on television, save perhaps for Steven Spielberg’s masterful miniseries Band of Brothers.  One of the things I love best about Game of Thrones is the way the show doesn’t allow the audience to get any easy wins.  Even when a hated character finally gets his comeuppance, the show usually twists the knife such that it is hard to take too much pleasure from the event.  (A prime example would be Joffrey: we all spent years waiting for the little snot to get what he deserved, but the moment of his death was so gruesome that it was hard to derive much joy from it.)  The same happened here, in spades.  This wasn’t an episode that you could watch while munching popcorn and cheering for the good guys and hissing the bad guys.  The episode made the audience feel the terribly high cost of Jon’s victory.  This was incredible storytelling.

But it was the next episode, the season finale “The Winds of Winter”, that was the true masterpiece.  The gorgeous piece of music that opened the episode, as we watched a montage of the characters in Kings Landing prepare for the momentous trial that would take place in the Sept of Baelor, was incredible.  As the episode (the longest the show had ever done) unfolded, we caught up with virtually every major character left on the show.  While sometimes episodes like that (with such a broad focus, spending time with so many different characters) can seem unfocused, this one was woven together masterfully, as we followed the escalating events across Westeros (and beyond) as the pieces fell into place for the show’s final act (and its two final shortened seasons).  I was thrilled that the long-brewing hints about the Mad King’s caches of Wildfire, buried beneath Kings’ Landing, finally paid fruit.  At the end of the episode, the three major players in the Game of Thrones were assembled and set loose on a collision course with one another: Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, and Daenerys Stormborn, mother of dragons and breaker of chains and lady of many other titles.  I am beside myself with anticipation waiting to see how all this plays out in the show’s final two seasons.

Jon Snow has been a passive character for much of the show’s run, so it was exciting this year to see him finally take action, leading an army to take back Winterfell.  Even more thrilling was his reunion with Sansa.  Remember, Jon left his Stark “siblings” all the way back in the very first episode of season one!  Getting to see the two of them together, and working together, was very gratifying.  Though goodness I would have liked to have seen Jon demonstrate some tactical know-how when assaulting Winterfell.  His plan was basically to just charge straight at the Boltons!  I wish the show had allowed him to demonstrate some real leadership and wisdom (by coming up with a clever strategy to help outwit Ramsay), rather than his basically just being lucky by being rescued by the Knights of the Vale in the nick of time.  Similarly, I think the show made a big mis-step in having Sansa conceal the truth about Littlefinger’s army from Jon.  For what reason in the story would she possibly do that??  I understand that the show didn’t want us to know about Littlefinger’s army so as to give us the climactic reversal at the end of “The Battle of the Bastards” (though I suspect most people, like me, saw this plot twist coming a mile away) but there’s no reason in the story for Sansa to have kept that information from Jon.  Her actions cost the lives of THOUSANDS of men!!  For had Jon known of the Eyrie’s forces, he surely would have waited a few extra hours before attacking, and with a stronger force would surely have had better luck against the Boltons.  I was disappointed the show let Sansa the hook off so easily for her selfish act in keeping this information to herself.

By the way, speaking of Jon, it’s funny that by the end of the season I had almost completely forgotten about the tremendous interest, world-wide, in the mystery of Jon’s fate after he seemed to have been killed in the final moments of season five.  It seemed pretty clear to me that Jon wasn’t going to be dead forever, and sure enough, by the end of the second episode of this season, “Home,” he was back drawing breath.  His resurrection wasn’t a huge surprise, but then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be.  The show had been planting clues for years as to the possible manner of his resurrection, and I enjoyed seeing those narrative threads drawn together so nicely.

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I was discussing Littlefinger a moment ago, and let me say that there’s never enough Littlefinger in the show to suit me, but his brief appearances this year were great, particularly the moment in “The Winds of Winter” when he finally, openly admitted to Sansa what he truly wanted in life.  Her decision to shun him will surely be a problem next season.  (Sansa seemed foolishly unworried about that.)  I also have to highlight the earlier moment, in “The Door,” in which Sansa gave it to Littlefinger for his actions in handing her over to the sadist Ramsay.  (I wish the show had clarified whether Littlefinger knew Ramsay’s true nature when he made that decision.  Because we know Littlefinger loves, or at least lusts after, Sansa, its hard to believe he knew.  But that makes the otherwise crafty Littlefinger look pretty dumb…)

I love how Sansa, one of the most annoying characters back in season one, has turned into one of the show’s most empathetic, and strongest characters at this point.  This was a great season for Sansa.  As with Jon, it’s thrilling to see this passive character suddenly taking the reins of her life.

Staying on this topic, one of the great delights of season six was in seeing how the show has become almost entirely focused on the string female characters: Sansa, Daenerys, Cersei, Arya, even Ellaria in Dorne and Yara Greyjoy.  The men have fallen away, for the most part, leaving the women standing.

One of the few remaining powerful and interesting men remains Tyrion, still my favorite character on the show. I love his pairing with Daenerys.  The scene in the finale in which she named him Hand of the Queen was one of the most magnificent moments in the whole run of the show.  It brought a tear to my eye.  After all of Tyrion’s travails, it’s delightful to see him finally in a place where he is valued, and where he is in a position to do a lot of good.  (I love how Tyrion is able to deftly convince Daenerys to take a more moderate course than burning all of her enemies.)

Daenerys, meanwhile, had an interesting season,  I did not like the clear stalling tactic of having her briefly stranded back with the Dothraki at the beginning of the season.  That felt like a nakedly obvious way to keep her off track for a while, and that bored me.  Though I will admit that it was cool to see Vaes Dothrak brought to life on the show’s now much-larger visual effects budget!  The Dothraki center looked far more impressive than it did back in season one.  That was cool.  While I still don’t think Daenerys has figured out how to be a good queen (are we supposed to see her dumping Daario as a step forward or a step backwards?), it’s undeniable that she and Tyrion make a powerful (and very entertaining to watch) pairing.

Watching Cersei take care of all family business in “The Winds of Winter” was incredible, and as she strode down the chamber, resplendent in that gorgeous and bad-ass black gown, and finally sat in the Iron Throne, it felt as if the show had finally turned a huge narrative corner.  Meanwhile, Jamie’s ambivalent reaction to that moment was one of the most intriguing aspects of the season finale and one of the things I am most wondering about as the show roars towards its conclusion.  Will Jamie make a heroic turn towards the light and abandon his sister Cersei?  Or will his story be a more heartbreaking one, as even though we know there is good in him we will watch him choose his evil sister and doom himself?  I suspect the latter.  I am very eager to see where this goes.

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I was very pleased that Edmure and the Blackfish — introduced briefly back in season two and three — were finally, finally brought back into the story.  I wish the show hadn’t dropped those characters so completely for the past several years, though I understand the choice to do so.  I do wish the show had actually shown us the Blackfish’s final end — it felt like a bit of a cheat that that happened off-camera.  The whole Siege of Riverrun felt weirdly anticlimactic to me.  I had thought the significance of that event would be Jamie and Brienne’s being reunited but now on opposite sides.  That is what happened, but rather than any sort of conflict or resolution, Jamie just sent Brienne off on her merry way (when they cross paths in “No One”), thus pushing off the eventual conflict between those two characters that I highly suspect is coming.  That scene between Jamie and Brienne was wonderful (I love those two characters) when considered on its own, but it wasn’t at all the payoff i had been hoping more, merely a delaying tactic.

I was also thrilled to see the hated Walder Frey finally reenter the story after a long time away.  I loved the scene in “The Winds of Winter” between Walder Frey and Jamie, as Jamie brutally rebuffed the old man’s suggestion that they were cut from the same cloth.  And getting to see him finally meet his end, in a very Shakespearean way, was marvelous.

Which brings me to Arya, probably the season’s biggest disappointment for me.  I was thrilled at the start of season five when Arya first found the House of Black and White.  I thought we’d get to learn more about the mysterious order of assassins to which Jaqen H’ghar belonged, and get to see Arya gain some asskicking skills so she could finally turn the tables on the many people who had wronged her.  But instead, this two-season-long stay in the House of Black and White wound up feeling like a huge waste of time to me.  We didn’t really learn much of anything about the order of assassins or how their skills worked.  (I am OK with some of that being kept mystical or vague, but maybe give us at least a sense of how their potions worked — how, for instance, could Arya have been cured of her blindness if, as we learned at the end of the season, she wasn’t really a true believer?  If the faces that they use to disguise themselves are all kept in that fortress in Dorne, then how was Arya able to change her face in the finale when she snuck into Walder Frey’s home?  I have many questions.)  But more problematic than that was that, after two seasons spent on this story-line, I didn’t feel Arya learned much of anything from her lengthy stay there.  Like her brother Jon, Arya was shockingly stupid towards the end of the season, allowing herself to be fairly easily set upon and stabbed by the Waif.  It felt like she’d learned almost no actual tactical skills or sense.  That was a big disappointment.

Some other thoughts on Game of Thrones season six:

The revelation of Hodor’s origin, and his tragic death, in “The Door” was absolutely a high-point of the season for me.  I’d certainly expected that Hodor would be a character who would make it to the end, so I was shocked by his death here, a moment strengthened by the simultaneous revelation of how the young Hodor/Wyllis’ mind was crippled.  This was a devastating moment and a wonderful payoff to years of story-telling.  (As was the origin of the White Walkers, which we also learned in that very same episode.)  (Though I do wish the show had spent a little more time telling us about the Children of the Forest.  The revelation of their complicity in the creation of the White Walkers would have landed more effectively had we had more of an idea of who or what they were.)

It was great seeing Hodor and Bran again, after a season spent on the bench.  Bran’s journey to becoming the three-eyed raven is also a wonderful bit of payoff to mysteries who have been in the show since the beginning.  Meanwhile, Max Von Sydow was great as the human three-eyed-raven, but they didn’t really allow him to develop into any sort of a fleshed out character, which was a bit of a bummer and a waste of a magnificent actor.  I wish I understood more of how the Raven (and his ability to mentally travel through time) and his powers worked, why Bran was chosen to replace him, what the Raven has been doing all this time, what he ultimately wants Bran to do, etc. etc.  I feel like these are questions that need to be answered soon.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see in “The Winds of Winter” the true origin of Jon Snow and proof of fan-theory R+L=J.  That was such an exciting moment and such a great payoff to so many years of fan guesses and supposition!  My only complaint is that I wish this season had given is more of the story of Jon’s birth and what exactly went down at the Tower of Joy.  Was Lyanna a prisoner of Rhaegar or was she in love with him?  Was she fatally injured in the act of giving birth, or was she stabbed?  If so, by whom?  I still have lots of questions that I very much hope the show will answer before it concludes.

Speaking of long-standing mysteries, I was also thrilled to see the long-missing Benjen Stark finally pop back up in “Blood of My Blood”!!  That was great.  I hope we see Benjen again before the end of the show.

I hated to see Osha brought back only to be so quickly and brutally murdered in “Book of the Stranger.”  That was painful.

I was sorry to see Rickon go as well.  That was so sad.

On that subject, boy, the Stark Direwolves sure took a beating this season, huh?  (Will we ever see Arya’s Nymeria again??)

That Tormund Giantsbane is in love with Brienne of Tarth (as glimpsed in one spectacular moment in “Book of the Stranger”) is one of the greatest things ever.  I am rooting thoroughly for this relationship.

RIP Wun Wun.  His death was so sad in “The Battle of the Bastards.”

On the other hand, I am glad poor Pod has survived another season!  And it was GREAT seeing Bronn again!  I am glad HE survived another season too!  I love Bronn’s weird friendship with Jamie.

There was not much for Sam to do this season.  Finally getting to meet his family sounds interesting on paper, but as realized in “Blood of My Blood” it was a bore.  (Sam’s family is as one-dimensionally horrible as the annoying Dursleys were in the Harry Potter films.)  The only great Sam moment this season was in the finale, “The Winds of Winter,” in which he (and we, the audience) got a good look at the amazing library in the Citadel.

I love Davos, who is left as the show’s most moral, honorable character, though it felt like a storytelling mistake for it to take him the whole season to discover what happened to poor Shireen.  Why wasn’t he asking about what happened to her immediately in the season premiere?  It felt weird that it took him so long to suspect anything.

I am curious to see when the Red Witch Mellisandre will re-enter the story, after having been banished by Jon.  It’s interesting that the Brotherhood without Banners — who, like the Blackfish, were introduced years ago and then apparently forgotten — also finally reentered the story at the end of this season.  Remember that Ser Beric Bondarrion also was resurrected by the Lord of Light.  Will these forces of light/fire unite and be an important force against the Ice (the White Walkers)?  This is what I am betting on…

I was thrilled to see the Hound return — that episode focusing on him, “The Broken Man”, was terrific (even though the slaughter of his new friends was painfully obvious to predict), and like many Game of Thrones fans I hope for a Hound vs Mountain event in the future.  (Speaking of this episode, I loved Ian McShane’s guest appearance as Brother Ray, and wished his character hadn’t been killed off so quickly.)

RIP Ser Alliser Thorne.  It was interesting to see that jerk finally meet his end.  Other old bastards (not literally) who finally got offed this season also include Balon Greyjoy and Roose Bolton and the High Sparrow.  Bye bye, you evil pricks.

Though let me comment here how shocked I was by the death of Margaery in “The Winds of Winter”!!  It felt like her character still had a lot of story left to tell.  This was a very surprising turn…

After being introduced early in the season, I’d expected Euron Greyjoy to have more of a role to play this year.  We’ll see if he winds up being more consequential next season…)

I was intrigued when we got to see Dorne in season five, and I was delighted that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig was cast as Prince Doran Martell.  But the Dorne story felt very thinly sketched last year, and then this year it was as if the writers decided to try to forget about it as quickly as possible.  We saw Ellaria murder Prince Doran at the very start of the season, but then Ellaria and Dorne wer gone from the season until a brief moment in the finale.  I do hope Ellaria’s character has more of a purpose in the next two seasons.  Because right now it seems as if the show as somewhat bungled this whole Dorne storyline.

So Edd is left in charge of Castle Black?  Wow!  I wonder if the show’s story will ever return to Castle Black and the Wall.  (I presume it will, whenever the Night’s King decides he’s finally ready to smash through it and invade Westeros.)

I mentioned this before, but boy, the show’s production values have just gotten better and better and better.  The visual effects this season were absolutely gorgeous.  We got to see some extraordinary vistas and new locations this year.  I love how these visual effects are allowing the show to really open up in terms of scale, and to achieve a far more epic feeling than the earlier seasons did.  It’s really quite wonderful.

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Being a geek one of my great pleasures in watching the show is paying close attention to the map in the opening credits to see how it changes each week.  I loved that we got to see Riverrun, the Eyrie, and the Twins all back in the map at various points this season!!  As I commented above, it’s great that the show is circling back to these story-lines and locations from earlier seasons.

The season ended with the appearance of a white raven and the arrival, finally, of winter in Westeros, just as Ned had always promised.  What a magnificent end to a magnificent season.  The show feels like it has entered its home stretch, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I hope they can stick the landing.  Please don’t let me down!!  Time to start counting the days until season seven (which apparently won’t launch until next summer, sigh…)


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