This post is the first of three covering the latest season of Game of Thrones. If spoilers including material from the books and fan theories aren’t your thing, you might not want to scroll down too far
Some of you might have been wondering why I had not covered Game of Thrones season 6 week by week as it happened. There are a few reasons. First, after the way season 5 ended, I felt a distinct lack of hype about the direction that the show was heading in. I did not like the way that characters like Sansa, Stannis and Shireen had been treated. I did not like the Sand Snakes and the bad poosi. I thought that Arya’s storyline was dragging on too long and I thought that the show had lost the spark that made it stand out way back in season 1. At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that I would eventually watch the new season when it aired. For a number of reasons – work, being busy with other shows – I didn’t watch the show when it aired, but I have fully caught up now. Some of the criticisms I brought up about season 5 still apply to season 6, as well as some new ones, but on the whole, I don’t think I am alone in thinking that season 6 is a strong step in the right direction.
Since I’ve already seen all 10 episodes of the season, and I assumed anyone reading this has as well or at least, doesn’t care enough about spoilers, I figured that I can cover most of what I want to say about the season in three posts. This week’s post is going to focus on the storyline in King’s Landing – a rather incendiary storyline, I’m sure most of you would agree. I’ll be talk mostly about what worked and what didn’t, things that I liked and stuff that I thought missed the mark as well as sharing some reactions I had to the first season of Game of Thrones in which I had no idea what would happen.
The King Is Dead, Long Live The Queen
In many ways, this was the season of comeuppance. It wasn’t the first season in which the bad guys got hurt – you could argue that no faction in Westeros has been emerged from the conflict unscathed. However, this was the first season in which the good guys actually had something good happen to them. It didn’t come easily and you can make the argument that perhaps the good that happened in this season is hardly enough to offset all the bad that happened in seasons past, but really, isn’t that true of so many great stories? The story in King’s Landing is different. In Essos, Dany finally emerged triumphant and set sail for Westeros at the head of the largest coalition army that that world might have ever seen. In the North, the Boltons are dead and defeated and the Starks have been returned to power. In King’s Landing however, the bad guys continue to win – or so it would seem.
The story in King’s Landing this season, it turns out, was ultimately the story of Cersei’s ascension. It was her final form, it was the manifestation of both her dearest dream and her worst nightmare. Cersei was never even the most adroit politician in Westeros; she wasn’t even the best politician in her family. She fancied herself among their ranks however and was seemingly taught in the last season that aspirations and achievements are two very different things. Cersei is not a good person; this season establishes that beyond any reasonable doubt, as though the previous five seasons were not enough. Yet, there is something about the way that Lena Headey portrays her that makes her seem sympathetic enough that watching her being humiliated, or watching her lose her children is enough to trigger some basic level of pity in the audience.
In the end, it’s that really what the core appeal of Game of Thrones has always been? It’s never really been about the fantasy elements of the story – there are other stories which have done that better – and I don’t think it’s really been about the gritty nature of the series either (which is why season 5 didn’t sit that well with me, since it felt like grit for its own sake). I feel that the appeal has always been about deeply flawed individuals trying their best to make sense of the deeply flawed, imperfect world they live in. Cersei’s storyline captures those complexities perfectly – there is something beautifully tragic about how she finally becomes Queen – not Queen Regent, not Queen Mother, but a true, full Queen – after a lifetime longing for it, at the cost of all three of her children’s lives. As a character Cersei has always been predominantly a mother – her love for her children has long been her most prominent redeeming quality – and now, all bets are off. The world has taken everything she values from her but as a direct consequence of that, it no longer has any means to control her. The Cersei that we will see is will be as unshackled as she can get, and that alone is a good reason to tune in to season 7.
The roses of Highgarden – all of them except Olenna – died in full bloom this season. The deaths of Margaery and her family were shocking enough in their own right and the manner of their demise was probably the most elegant way of resolving a plotline that would otherwise have just dragged on indefinitely. The elegance is a matter of some subjectivity, of course. No one can argue that the detonations in King’s Landing were not amply telegraphed well in advance, but something about just killing all those characters in one fell swoop seems unlike Game of Thrones. It feels a little too narratively convenient – oh, not sure what to do with these characters? Well, let’s just blow them up – that way, we won’t have to ever worry about them again.
Which is not to say that that isn’t exactly what the overall narrative needed; even in the books, it does feel like there are too many untied threads floating around for Martin to tie up in the next two books. A well-placed explosion might not be the most nuanced way of tying those plotlines up but really, not every character is going to get a nice, neat ending in any case and there is definitely an argument to be made that not every character deserves one in the first place. Margaery received far more attention in the television series than she received in the books but regardless I don’t think that she was too important a character to dispose of in such a manner. Her role in the series was largely at an impasse – there was simply no way that both she and Cersei could co-exist. In the narrative question of who between the two Queens is more pivotal to the overall plot, there is simply no way that it is not Cersei. Moreover, the Tyrells in general, and Margaery in particular received plenty of attention throughout the season – we got to see the guile and emotional deception that Margaery was capable of. She was able to deceive the High Sparrow and navigate an increasingly tense situation with far more skill than Cersei. Where Cersei was humbled and humiliated, Margaery simply bowed but retained her dignity. It is perhaps the most Game of Thrones thing about the season that it was ultimately Margaery who lost despite making almost all the right moves. It’s never about the battles, it’s all about the wars.
The sub-title of this section is technically ‘Withered Roses’ but I don’t think anyone has any words of note for Mace Tyrell. He wasn’t a bad person but he was just a little too plain in a cast that simply has no space for vanilla. Margaery stole the Tyrell show even from her own grandmother by being the only one in the entire bunch to figure out that Cersei was up to something, even if that knowledge didn’t ultimately save her. I’m sad that the character had to go but I’m glad that she went the way she did, which is a terrible thing to say about someone who was burned to death in a fiery explosion.
The Faithless Sparrow
Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of the High Sparrow was another highlight of the series. Pryce’s portrayal of the High Sparrow struck me as more dignified and serene than the High Sparrow in the books. He was able to strike the balance between venerable and menacing very well; the season did an incredible job of building him up as a credible threat and as an important political force within the capital.
Indeed, the whole interplay between the Faith, the Crown and the Lords that are supposed to serve them both, was very well done. The season did a great job of showing the way that the High Sparrow was able to move the various pieces on the board to his liking. By showing how little power the Lords had to resist him – even collectively – the show also raised the stakes on Cersei and Margaery.
My favourite thing about the High Sparrow – or at least, Pryce’s interpretation of him – was that right until the end, I could never be quite sure how religious he really was. Was his faith all a ruse to reach the heights of power? Or was he really a deeply religious, incorruptible extremist? There’s an argument to be made either way, I think, and I love it. The one thing that was never in any question was that whether he was religious or just power-hungry (or, let’s be frank, both), the High Sparrow had proven himself to be utterly ruthless and often rather cruel. His punishment of Loras in the final episode was unnecessary – I don’t think any of his followers expected it of him – but he did it anyway and I think it was at that point that I was on board with getting rid of him.
A Bad Time For A Good King
Has any character on Game of Thrones ever been as ‘good’ as Tommen Baratheon? Perhaps Ned Stark, but his ‘goodness’ is tainted a little in how it veered dangerously close to naivete. Tommen is purer than the world around him was forgiving. He was a simple child who took to heart the lessons that he was taught. He loved his mother and his wife, he did not want violence if he could avoid it and he always tried to find a solution that would make everyone happy. He was a good kid.
He was also an absolutely terrible king, as everyone expected him to be. He was too mild, too indecisive, too easily led by everyone else. I don’t want to be too hard on him; he was a child, he never expected to be King and he grew up in the same terrible household as Joffrey, Cersei and Robert. It would have been nothing short of a miracle if he turned out to be a good king. I won’t pretend however, that watching him throughout the season wasn’t incredibly frustrating. There was a balancing act to be played in that situation and Tommen was fundamentally incapable of playing it. He was also surrounded by far stronger players in both his mother and wife and I guess at that point it was pretty much inevitable that there would be no happy ending to his story.
Tommen’s death was a surprisingly powerful one, despite all the memes it generated. My personal interpretation of it is that he knew, in his heart of hearts, that his mother was responsible for the massacre. How could he not? I fully believe that his decision to kill himself was out of guilt for not having done enough to protect his people and stop his mother and out of grief for having lost his wife. It was the universe’s final blow to Cersei; she had inadvertently killed her last child. Tommen was also the last of the Baratheons – with Stannis and Shireen dead, the Baratheon line (stretching back from the time of the Targaryens) has now ended.
The Headless, Handless Chicken
Thus far, I’ve been fairly complimentary of the various characters and storylines but Jaime and Bronn had stories that I just could not get excited about. Jaime’s character and story suffered immensely last season – it was so bad that watching his daughter die in his own hands was the highpoint of his season. It’s not quite as bad this time; between his confrontation with Edmure Tully and his snarky remarks to Lord Frey, Jaime does get a couple of good scenes and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau duly delivers.
The trouble however, is that it feels, once again, that the writers did not quite know what to do with Jaime while waiting for the series’ endgame. They know that they need him around for the end of the story – probably something to do with Cersei – but sending him all over the Seven Kingdoms seems like a blatant attempt at keeping Jaime relevant when he doesn’t need to. However, given how weird it was seeing Bran again after a season’s absence, perhaps it was for the best that they didn’t remove Jaime entirely.
His meeting with Brienne did not really deliver much either. There was potential in that meeting for something beyond two friends just acknowledging that they are no longer on the same side – both characters should have grown enough that there should have been meaningful being said. It was a missed opportunity. There is a whole host of material exploring Jaime’s evolving relationship with Cersei that was just left out of the show entirely. In this continuity, Jaime is still very much in love with Cersei – and that’s sort of weird because it means that I don’t know what to make of his character. His rejection of Cersei and her selfish and cruel nature was a big part of Jaime’s development as a character and without it, it doesn’t really feel like the same character at all. It’s not really a change that I can get behind.
The Walking Dead
This is something a miscellaneous section, to discuss all the characters that don’t really fit into any of the other sections or other posts. Characters who have returned from the dead (except Jon Snow, of course) or who have been returned to relevance; characters like Sandor Clegane, the Mountain and the Blackfish. The Mountain’s continued presence on the show is the only one that I can really get behind and that’s because he is more of a device than a character at this point. He is a narrative entity that exists solely to enable Cersei and to create an element of physical threat about her.
The Hound had little business coming back from the dead. I know that he didn’t die on-screen and I would have been fine if we had found that he had become the gravedigger but returning him into the series proper seemed unnecessary. What role could he possibly play that could justify bringing him back? I say this as a big fan of Rory McCann’s performances but the even as entertaining as it is to see the Hound kick ass, it just seems superfluous to have him back with the Brotherhood. Haven’t we already seen this story play out before? Having said that, I’m curious enough to see what relevance the Brotherhood could have – and how that relevance involves the Hound, of all characters – to give this one a chance.
The return of the Blackfish however was just plain cruel. It was something of plothole that his fate was never explained but coming back to it after this long, only to kill him in the process was just silly. I don’t know if it was part of the need to keep Jaime busy doing stuff, but it just reminded me of how irrelevant the Blackfish had been in the story. They didn’t even give him an on-screen death which makes me wonder if they might having him join with the Brotherhood (please, no)
Some closing thoughts on where we go from here
As usual, I’ve rambled on for far too long. I’ll end today’s post by posing the question of where the show goes from here. The Tyrells have tied their power – which I expect to be quite substantial since they didn’t really participate in any large battles – to Dany. The Lannisters however, are not exactly a spent force and Cersei has made it clear that she is not really opposed to a scorched earth policy. I do hope that we get a scene of Dany confronting Cersei, in fulfillment of the prophecy that Cersei heard as a young girl. More importantly though, I wonder whether Jaime will finally have had enough of Cersei. The look he gives in one of the season’s final moments was not one filled with tender love. It was the look of a man who is questioning some major life decisions. However, I’ve thought those same thoughts about Jaime before and was proven wrong, so I’ll believe Jaime disavows Cersei when I see it. Elsewhere, I’m sort of glad that the Cleganebowl (GET HYPE) is not officially dead but at this point, I really don’t think it’s going to happen.
I guess the biggest question mark over all of King’s Landing is what happens next? Cersei has got pretty much everything that she has wanted since the beginning of the series. She stands unopposed and feared at the top of the realm. What does she do next? Does she go after Jon and Sansa and Euron and finish the job of reforging the Seven Kingdoms? Or does she actually focus on governing the lands that she already has? If we’ve been watching the same show, there’s only one possible answer to that question.
The next post should be next week, but as I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, I’m trying to devote as much time to it as I can. Of course, as always, I’d like to take a moment to appeal to everyone who enjoyed this post (or any of the 400 others) to support the blog in one of the following ways:
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