This post is the second 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 much further down
Way back in 2011, when Game of Thrones‘ first season aired on HBO, the network spared no expense in trying to convince audiences that Game of Thrones wasn’t just another shallow attempt at riding the pop culture fantasy tidal wave that The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter had created throughout the 2000s. You would hear phrases like ‘it’s a fantasy show for people who hate fantasy’ or ‘it’s Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos‘. I’ve never liked either description because I felt it set up false expectations. In trying to emphasize the politics and grit of the story, I think that HBO downplayed the fact that at the end of the day, Game of Thrones is very much a fantasy story, which means that whether or not the mass market likes it, there are going to be fantasy elements to it. Speaking in an incredibly broad sense, I think that the show’s fandom (which I think can be considered separate from the books’ fandom) was split into two parts during the first couple of season. There were those who loved the dramatic elements of the show – the politics, the character development, the excellent acting – but got a little uncomfortable when the fantasy elements were played up and then there were those who loved the fantasy bits of it but bemoaned that they were used so sparingly.
This week, we’ll take a look at where Season 6 took the characters in Essos, particularly Daenerys Targaryen, the character who has always had a stronghold on the magic in the series. Sure, Tyrion had his wildfire and the Others were stalking around beyond the Wall, but Dany’s story was the only one with the dragons and the magic house of visions. In some ways, this season was really do-or-die for Dany – I don’t think there was any segment of the audience that was ready for yet another season of the monotony in Meereen.
The expectations of Dany’s storyline this season were high. The writers needed to figure out a way to get Dany out of the Dothraki’s hands, back into Meereen, resolve the politics of Slaver’s Bay and finally set out for Westeros, all within 10 episodes. It is a demanding task no matter how you slice it and so I guess some disappointments were in order. I’ll get a little ahead of myself and spoil the rest of this week’s write-up for you; I have precious little good to say about the storyline in Meereen.
How To Train Your Dragons
The biggest issue was how often we would get incredibly inelegant solutions to complicated problems that have been built-up over the last three (!) seasons. Ever since Season 3, we’ve been getting ever more detail about the nuances of Slaver’s Bay. We’ve been shown the dynamic between the freed slaves and the now disenfranchised former owners. We’ve been shown the growing unhappiness in both sides and how Dany’s faction was caught in between. In the books, there are further intricacies since there are additional factions like the Free Cities thrown into the mix. I was not and am not a fan of getting all that information on Slaver’s Bay since I would rather the story have never gone in that direction in the first place; but given that it did go in that direction, I am not at all in favour of having Dany simply burn her way out of the narrative hole that Martin dug himself into. Dany doesn’t talk, Dany doesn’t negotiate; she simply declares how things will be an burns everyone who disagrees, in truly Targaryen fashion. Perhaps that was the whole point; to show that Dany is now officially a true Targaryen – dragons sow no seeds, after all – but leaving aside the fact that that’s hardly a cause for celebration, it’s also plain lazy. If all it takes is Dany burning dissension down wherever she finds it, then did we need the whole Dothraki charade? I’m not even asking this from an in-universe perspective, I’m asking it from a narrative perspective. Couldn’t we have been spared a season’s worth of miserable Slaver’s Bay politics if the answer was – as it always seems to be in Dany’s case – dragon fire?
To say I have mixed feelings about this is a gross understatement. On one hand, as ridiculous as it sounds, I feel that the writers owe it to the audience to see this stupid narrative situation they put themselves into out through to the end. If you make a mess, you should clean it all up yourself not conveniently ignore the messy bits that you can’t reach. On the other hand, however, I can’t argue that this solution is as neat and tidy as it’s going to get because as much as I dislike the way it was all resolved, I would absolutely detest even one episode more in Meereen. If ignoring subplots and hand-waving problems away is what it takes to get us out of Meereen, then so be it, it is a price that I’m willing to pay, however unhappily. Don’t think that my complaints are centered around just the final episodes either; I have problems with all of Dany’s story, from her ridiculous subjugation of the Dothraki to the total lack of explanation of how she got Drogon under control. This isn’t just the fan-boy in me demanding answers to a specific, esoteric part of the story; Dany’s lack of control of the dragons was an important plot point in the series – remember the drama around her chaining them up? I know that the theory goes that Dany will regain control of the dragons when she embraces her Targaryen nature, but there is nothing in the show to even support that. I understand that the writers have already had to cut out a huge chunk of book material – Aegon VI is gone along with Jon Connington, Quentyn’s story was taken out, the Free Cities’ role was vastly reduced and the Red Priests’ role was reduced to a cameo. With all that heft taken out, is it really so much to ask that the writers address the stuff they decided to leave in?
All The Queen’s Horses And All The Queen’s Men
The second major issue is the role that Dany’s supporting cast plays – or more specifically, the absolute lack of a role that Dany’s supporting cast has. I won’t list out every single no-body that did nothing but let’s run through a list of some of the more prominent ones, shall we?
- Tyrion. What they did to Tyrion’s character this season was an absolute travesty. The writing for his character is the worst it has ever been – just when you thought watching him make eunuch jokes was rock bottom, along came the scenes with him trying to get along with Grey Worm and Missandei. Watching him fail over and over again made for some of the most miserable moments in the season – the negotiations he led so confidently blew up spectacularly in his face and it seems like his success in governing King’s Landing might just have been a one time thing. All of it made Dany’s decision to pick him as her Hand at the end of the season extremely questionable – until you remember that Dany has consistently made questionable decisions since Season 1. If gross incompetence can get her this far, why stop?
- Missandei & Grey Worm. I’m going to ask a brutally honest question: why even bother keeping Grey Worm alive? Sure, I like his character just fine, but I’d rather have had Barristan the Bold alive and Grey Worm dead because neither character had much to do throughout the season and at least Barristan has some stack in returning to see Dany on the Iron Throne. It’s the same with Missandei; I get that she and Grey Worm were meant to be foils to Tyrion, but like I mentioned above, the absolute lack of chemistry, and awful writing, sort of totally ruined it
- Daario & Jorah. Did we really need the buddy cop comedy that was Daario and Jorah sneaking into Vaes Dothrak? Let’s ignore the fact that Vaes Dothraki was half a continent away from Slaver’s Bay for now. Did we really need both of them to go save Dany? I’m trying to understand what crucial role they played that could not have been played by a Dothraki already in the camp. This might seem like a strange point to nitpick at but unless Daario and Jorah have further parts to play in the story, wouldn’t it be better to give one of Dany’s future Dothraki companions (who possibly would have a part to play in the invasion of Westeros) a role right away? Beyond that I just feel like Daario, especially, overstayed his welcome, but on the flipside, I’m glad that Jorah got a decent send-off for his long hours of suffering.
I’m sure there are others I’m missing but that’s also kind of my point – I can’t for the life of me remember what part they played.
What is dead may never die, unfortunately
The third big problem is the Ironborn. No, not any particular character; all the Ironborn. Now, to be fully fair, it’ll be a cold day in hell before the Ironborn aren’t problematic in some sense or another but this time, the problem lies in how disorganized the Ironborn storyline is. I guess it probably seems especially disorganized to book readers who, having expected Balon’s death for a while now, had simply assumed that it would not happen, only to find out that Operation Euron was indeed in full effect. No offense to Pilou Asbaek but his take on Euron is just too cuddly looking to take seriously – between his goofy eye-patch and the farcically tiny Kingsmoot, the whole Ironborn storyline was just one big letdown. There was nothing about the Ironborn that was absolutely awful, I guess (hence the reason it’s so low down on the list) but at the same time, I’m of the opinion where it would have been fine to omit the storyline entirely or do it well (obviously) but half-assing and rushing it they way they did, left a lot to be desired.
The one, semi-bright spot was Alfie Allen, who I will have much more to talk about in the next post. His take on Theon has been excellent, and while I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that Theon is still in a ‘Reek’ state of mind, I think that one’s on me – it would be downright terrible writing for a character to simply shrug off that kind of mental and physical abuse. Then again, in a less than bright spot, that’s exactly what Asha/Yara asks him to do. The last thing of note from the Ironborn though was their pact with Dany, which I hope turns out to be more than just a convenient way to get Dany some ships. I just don’t see how it would work since the Ironborn have always had an antagonistic relationship with the people from the green lands – you can’t change a culture centered on rape and pillage overnight. I did like the acknowledge that all four characters involved in that treaty (Tyrion, Dany, Asha, Theon) had terrible fathers though Tyrion’s mockery of Theon was thoroughly uncalled for. Also, Tyrion made fun of Theon back in Winterfell in Season 1, not the other way around. Yeah, Tyrion’s just a dick now.
Outnumbered, overpowered, overkill
Game of Thrones apparently is not a show to do things in moderation. When Dany had no army, she literally was stuck with a ragtag bunch of Dothraki misfits and a couple of thousand highly trained eunuchs. It seemed impossible that she would get the kind of army she needed to launch a credible invasion of Westeros. In fact, I think the prevailing theory at the time was maybe the civil wars in Westeros would thin the armies to the point that a few thousand elite soldiers and some dragons would be enough to do the job. Now, however, we’re looking at the other end of the spectrum. I just can’t see any way that any of the surviving armies of Westeros can resist Dany’s army. She has the advantage on the field with the Dothraki and in sieges with the dragons, and she also has the strategic advantage of being able to split her army up as she needs to. Forget the lords of Westeros – I just don’t see how the Others can fight that, unless they have a dragon of their own. What’s that? There have always been theory about the Other having a few secret weapons up their sleeves?
Without going full tin-foil like the stir-crazy folk over at /r/asoiaf, there are a couple of credible ideas on how the show can even the odds and make Dany really work for her happy ending. One idea is that there is a dragon hiding under Winterfell. Yes, I’m serious. I don’t really put much stock into the theory because all the evidence that points to it – basically that Winterfell has hot springs and that Summer sees an a serpentine shape rise from the ruins of Winterfell in the final pages of A Clash of Kings – is highly circumstantial and can be easily explained away. I also don’t really hold to it because it’s never been shown in the show and introducing a dragon under Winterfell now would just seem ridiculous. The other theory is that the Others find a way to commandeer one of Dany’s three dragons. It’s not clear how this happens but it would be a great way of evening the scales, since it not only strengthen the Others but also weaken Dany to the point of needing to look to the Westerosi for help.
It’s all relative
The last big beef I have with the season lies with time travel. To be specific, it lies in the amount of time it takes the characters to travel. Now, this isn’t a problem specific to just to Dany and the characters in her story, but the number of characters merging in to her story really draws attention to how scattered in time the different plots are. I could give examples, but the thing is, without a reliable frame of reference, it’s a little tricky. For example, I think Jorah and Daario reached Dany way too fast considering that she herself moved halfway across Essos to Vaes Dothrak. However, her travel time is excused somewhat because she flew there via Drogon. In that time, Theon was able to head from Winterfell to the Wall and back down to the Iron Island, over the narrow sea to Slaver’s Bay. Now, I know what you’re going to say – well, that just means that the events in the North were taking place before the events in Essos. You’d be right but the trouble with the show’s format then is that it is presented in a way that implies that most of the events in a season are taking place at roughly the same time. This is, by any measure, an extremely tiny flaw to drone on about. The point is that the writers are playing fast and lose with the time scales but for the sake of moving everyone to where they need to be for the final act, I’m fine with it.
The massive silver linings
All these criticisms of Dany’s season 6 storyline come with a couple of huge upsides. The first, and most obvious, is that we are finally done with Meereen specifically and Slaver’s Bay in general. I can’t emphasize just how big a deal this is to me – for a while I was convinced that this day would literally never come. Dany’s long-awaited departure from Essos is something that fans have been looking forward to right since the end of the first season and it’s finally here! Yes, they had to cut some corners to get there but honestly, I’m willing to let it all go to finally see Dany’s story merge with the main storyline. There are just so many meetings and potential interactions to look forward to – how will Cersei react when this new threat appears just as she has consolidated her own power? What will Jon and Sansa’s reaction be to this new player? What role will Tyrion play in the proceedings? How will Littlefinger react to this new late-stage entry into his little game? The list is pretty long and even if we don’t see every possible permutation and combination of interaction happen (which is fine), it’s enough to give me some reason to watch the next season.
The other big positive from the season was finally watching the dragons in action. It’s another point that I can’t (and won’t) undersell. The promise of the dragon’s destructive capabilities is not something that any fan of A Song of Ice and Fire can downplay – it’s a promise that was made at the end of A Game of Thrones when those little creatures hatched. We knew at that time that it would be a long time till those dragons were anywhere near capable of doing some damage and I’ll be damned if we haven’t waited an extremely long time to finally see it. If there was ever a moment in which I would just suspend all my critical thinking about the show and just let my inner fan-boy take over, that moment was it.
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