This post is the third and final post 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
Merry Christmas! What better time to talk about Game of Thrones – specifically the advance of the icy White Walkers and the winter they are bringing – than the middle of our real world winter? This is the final post on Game of Thrones season 6, and it’ll be covering the storyline closest to audiences’ hearts – the Starks of Winterfell. Before we get any further, let’s be real for a second. This storyline was not perfect but got it the job done. I didn’t watch the season as it came out in real time but I remember the social media and Reddit hype; it seemed like people were genuinely enjoying the season and seemed to be keenly anticipating the next episode each week. In fact, the internet pretty much seemed to have a collective orgasm in the weeks that episodes 9 and 10 (‘Battle of the Bastards’ & ‘The Winds of Winter’) and its not hard to see why. Those episodes, along with some of the more explosive episodes in the season, were engineered precisely for those reactions. While I’m not taking anything away from the quality of those episodes – I think they showcased some great writing and directing – I think the real test of the season is to see how well it stands up on a second, or even third, viewing, when the explosions and plot twists have less of an effect. By those metrics I’d say Game of Thrones season 6 fares less well, and the story in the North, which was arguably the centrepiece of this season, is no exception. I don’t want this post to be all doom and gloom, though; I think for all its flaws and missed opportunities, this season and the Northern storyline, especially, has had some great moments and there’s plenty in it that has me excited to see where this story in particular goes next season as we finally approach the end of this long song.
Initially, I was going to structure this post by talking about the good, the bad and the ugly but I realized soon after I started that there is isn’t really a neat and tidy way to do that. Instead, I’ll take the more thorough approach of looking at the Northern story by location and by arc and there is no better place to start than Arya Stark, mostly because I was supposed to talk about her in the previous post and totally forgot. I like to think that that particular lapse in memory was my mind protecting me from having to think about the number of ways in which Arya’s storyline was barely watchable. However, since I’m already thinking about them now, I might as well go ahead and list them
- Pacing: Arya spent nearly two full seasons with the Faceless Men and it doesn’t at all feel like the wait was worth it
- Total lack of tension: the pacing was actually made a lot worse by the fact that literally every member of the audience knew that there was simply no way that Arya would die at the hands of a random assassin in Braavos of all places. That entire final confrontation between Arya and The Waif felt like it was shoehorned into the story just in order to give Arya’s story in season 6 a climax before she could move on
- Arya’s incredible plot armour: no child of Arya’s age, however battle hardened and troubled, is going to be able to win a fight with a seasoned assassin after being stabbed in the torso. It doesn’t matter whether the child in question is fighting in the dark to give herself an advantage or if the assassin in question underestimates the child. This is Game of Thrones, not Home Alone. The fact that Arya didn’t just straight up die from an infection after falling into a river with a critical wound had already stretched my suspension of disbelief to its breaking point – when Arya was up and about after some ‘surgery’ conducted by a homicidal and serially abusive actress, that suspension of disbelief simply gave way to incredulity
- The Faceless Men remain a mystery: Despite all the bullshit that Arya’s storyline put us through, the Faceless Men remain a mystery to the audience. We know that Arya knows their tricks now but we don’t a thing about how those tricks work. We don’t know whose faces Arya can use, whether she is even considered a Faceless Man herself or how Arya has learned so much despite having never been taught any of it. Yes, one can argue that all this happened off-screen, but I’d argue right back that seeing this onscreen would have been a hundred times better than watching some half-assed final showdown between Arya and The Waif
- The Faceless Men seem fine with just letting Arya walk away: Look, I do understand that the story needs Arya to be back in Westeros in order to take part in the final run of events before the big finale. However, it just seems like lazy writing that the Faceless Men, as an organization, are perfectly content to let a rogue student, who apparently knows most of their secrets, walk away freely after murdering one of their own (though, yeah, it was in self-defense). Arya has disobeyed the Faceless Men at virutally every opportunity and it seems she will face no punishment for it
- The death of Walder Frey: Walder Frey’s demise is one that most fans have been anticipating for a long, long time. There has been endless speculation about what kind of comeuppance would be perfect for someone like him – and fans being fans, have come up with a number of creative ways in which he could die a perfectly ironic death. Frey’s death, as delivered by Arya, actually did live up to a lot of those expectations – Frey died knowing that his line had perished and that his name would be depised – though the actual execution (heh) was a little lacklustre and felt squeezed into an episode in which some much had already happened. It’s the smallest complaint on this list but one noting simply because of how widely anticpated that moment had been
As we can see, there is a little good to be said about Arya’s arc and while I can see the upside to her return to Westeros, I can’t quite figure out what role she could realisitically play in the upcoming battles with the White Walkers. I am, however, looking forward to Arya taking the last few names off her list – Cersei, in particular is looking like a likely target. There is also Arya’s reunion with Nymmeria, though again, it’s a little difficult to see how that could happen when the show has done so little to keep the direwolves relevant. Arya’s potential reunion with Jon however, has potential to one of the more heartwarming scenes in the series and is another beacon of optimism in an otherwise vast ocean of negativity.
Bran Stark: The Harbringer of the Wintery Apocalypse
There are three stages to any decision made by any decision made by a teenager, in any story, in any era, in any location, ever:
- 1.) Eh, what could go wrong
- 2.) Oh. Um. It’s fine, I got this
- 3.) I humbly request assistance
Bran Stark is no exception to this rule. “Bran, don’t mess with this powerful magic when I’m not around to supervise you”, said the wise magical being with decades of experience. “FUCK YOU, YOU’RE NOT MY DAD”, replies Bran, but only in his head because he knows that if he says it out too loud, he’s going to get grounded. Maybe I’m being unfair; after all, curiosity is only natural, especially when you have all the world’s secrets before you and honestly, it’s total bullshit that Bran isn’t safe in those visions in the first place but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
While Bran’s story, unlike Arya’s, isn’t uniformly bullshit, it still is pretty problematic in its own ways.
- Time travel puts the story on thin ice: I don’t generally like time travel. It’s not because I think the concept is stupid or anything; on the contrary, I think it could be endlessly fascinating. However, it opens up a can of worms if it’s not properly addressed and limited in its usage. Bran’s ability to affect Hodor in the past creates this weird closed loop of cause and effect that is a little painful to unwind and isn’t actually explained. Can Bran stop Ned’s execution? Can he retroactively unwind the story? If these questions aren’t answered, the integrity of the story comes into question. It’s a little like the issue I have with the resurrection – it lowers the stakes substantially if the mistakes that characters make can be undone. Beyond that, the introduction of time travel (for the lack of a better term for it) at this stage in the story just seems unnecessary and forces me to confront two equally unappealing choices – either time travel is going to play a big enough role in upcoming events that Martin felt it necessary to introduce it even at this late stage (since I doubt that HBO would have made such a large change without his approval, and there have been allusions to time travel even in ADWD), or it’s just a one-time gimmick that the writers used to explain away Hodor’s disability. It seems quite clear to me that it’s going to be the former and I’m not sure how to feel about it.
- Bran has stunningly little remorse about using Hodor as a tool: The story of Hodor’s disability would have been sad enough knowing that Bran hadn’t intended for Hodor to become mentally handicapped but seeing Bran show no remorse or guilt for the (unintentional) consequences of his actions makes me think that either the writers did not have time to explore that dimension yet, what with all the other events happening, or Bran is just a dick. I have a few gripes about Bran in general – he seems whinier and more petulant than I remember, and I’m not a fan so far
- Summer dies: Why?
Bran’s story, however, also had some high points that I would be remiss in not pointing out:
- Hodor’s backstory was great: I personally really enjoyed the reveal behind Hodor’s name and circumstances. It was something that no one saw coming and although the logic behind it is questionable, it also sort of holds up if you just don’t think about it too hard
- Benjen is Coldhands: This is a strange one because as far as I know Martin has stated, unequivocally, that Benjen is not Coldhands in the books. I’m putting this in the plus column though simply because I just think it’s neater to have them be the same character since it kills two birds with one stone; it answers the question of why Coldhands is helping Bran and what happened to Benjen
- The Others motivation is finally explained: This was another burning (heh) question that fans have been asking for ages. We have known that Martin was never a big fan of the Lord of the Rings type of villain that tended to be evil for the sake of being evil but finding out that the Others were created by the Children of the Forest to combat humans puts a delicious twist on the whole story
- The Tower of Joy: This is huge. It is the single biggest fan theory of the series. The confirmation of Jon’s parentage has been virtually accepted as fact but most fans for ages but nevertheless, receiving actual confirmation is huge. It also explains why they did away with (fake) Aegon, since it would cloud Jon’s path to the crown for no obvious reason. It obviously remains to be seen how this information gets to Jon and the others and whether it will be believed, but for now, at least audiences knows and that’s plenty to be going on with
So yes, Bran’s story still has some question marks lingering over it but on the whole, it’s put Bran in a promising place even if it’s meant that he’s had to travel from Winterfell to the Wall, to Beyond the Wall and back in the process. It remains to be seen what role he will play in the final battles but for now, he’s made a welcome return back to the series.
Redemption, Resurrection, Resurgence
All of that brings us to the meat of this post. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t all about the Starks, but the Starks are nevertheless key to the story that Martin is trying to tell. Jon Snow’s resurrection was pretty much a no brainer though the exact mechanism of his revival has some interesting talking points associated with it. Sansa’s escape from Winterfell and subsequent meeting with Brienne put us in entirely unfamiliar territory as we go past even the speculatory portions of ADWD into firmly uncharted waters, while Theon complete his redemption and returns home. The downfall of the Boltons is another big moment in the series, not unlike the death of Joffrey and Tywin, the previous major antagonists of the story. Last but not least, Jon’s ascension as King of the North and his assumption of the leadership role of the Northern faction presents another major discussion point. In between all that, there are the Wildlings to consider, along with Littlefinger, Davos and Melisandre.
The Life and Times of Jon Snow
I expect that the death of Jon Snow might have come as something of a surprise to audiences unfamiliar with the books. I don’t think even they were surprised by his resurrection, however. It’s one of the pitfalls of being exposed to enough fiction – you end up knowing that some tropes are tropes for a reason and simply cannot be violated, no matter how trite it might seem to play those tropes straight. No, Jon’s resurrection was no surprise to anyone but that’s not really what this section is focusing on.
Instead, what this section is looking at is how Jon has changed since that life-changing (?) event. We know that resurrection comes at a cost – Beric Dondarrion has remarked previously that he feels a little less like himself each time he comes back. Jon wasn’t dead very long, and this death has only been his first, but we can already see a certain fatalism driving his actions. Before the Battle of the Bastards, he instructed Melisandre not to bring him back if he dies and some of his actions during the battle itself, could be interpreted as the actions of a man who no longer really cares about what happens to him.
It’s not hard to see why. Jon lived his life – or rather, his first life, by a specific set of principles. He tried to do right by those who did right by him, whether friend or foe, and tried to live as honorably as a dishonorable society would let him. In the end, despite his best, honest efforts, he found himself betrayed by men he trusted in the middle of the castle that he commanded. Should it come as any surprise then that he’s a little spiritually lost now that he’s been resurrected? People are supposed to learn from their mistakes but what does it mean when doing what you thought was the right thing leads to you getting assassinated? Clearly, something went wrong but does the problem lie with you or the world you live in?
The immediate consequence of this uncertainty is his resignation from the Night’s Watch – though, not before he hanged (they were not taspestries) his murderers. His hesitation before hanging Olly was a sign that he retained his humanity; his decision to go ahead anyway was a sign that he’s learned at least a little from his death. His freedom from the Night’s Watch allows him the liberty to become King in the North and although no one would have objected to him holding both positions, you get the feeling that the distinction is one that he holds sacred to his own personal honour.
Yet, while it is interesting to see how the character will change as a result of this event, it’s also important to note that this event will cause others’ perception of him to change. Melisandre and the Wildlings are obvious examples but there is also a chance that this could cause some confusion among the Red Priests about who the real Azor Ahai is and those questions could get Dany involved in Jon’s affairs.
The Redemption of Theon Turnclock
Theon has never been an easy character to love. Before he was Reek, he was arrogant, pig-headed and often actively working against his own best interests. After he became Reek, he was too hard to look at without flinching. However, he might be one of the best examples of Martin’s character development; it’s not easy to get readers to feel sympathy for a character so utterly despicable. Theon’s redemption in Game of Thrones has been interesting to watch not just because he’s earned it – that part’s still up for debate – but rather because of how hard fought every bit of it is and how measured the redemption is, even when it comes. Theon’s escape from Winterfell is a little glossed over in the course of the series – we see him jump and next thing we know Brienne saves him and Sansa from Ramsay’s hunters, but the television series is not the right medium for showing what kind of effort it takes him to overcome the horrific indoctrination that Ramsey has put him through. Even after his heroics, the redemption offered is neither absolute nor all-encompassing. Sansa forgives him insofar as to say his debts are paid off and it’s not clear just what kind of reaction he would have gotten from Jon. Elsewhere, he is still known as a traitor and his reception in the Iron Islands is less than warm. He has yet to recover from the trauma he has suffered – one of the more realistic bits of characterization in the show – it seems that he is just one disaster away from total relapse into Reek. Of course, it does not seem like that relapse is coming any time soon – with his fortunes hitched to Dany, the biggest threat to his psyche seems less likely to be his uncle Euron and more likely to be his elder sister who continues to show all the sensitivity of a rock.
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Theon’s presence in the series has less to do with the role his character plays in the story’s events and more to do with the incredible performance Alfie Allen consistently puts in. He is able to portray Theon in such a convincingly pathetic manner that it has become hard to conceive of his character ever returning to the cocksure brat that he once was – which admittedly, was the whole point of the performance, but damn it’s a good one.
All a Knight needs is a Damsel and a Quest
Brienne’s journey through the Seven Kingdoms in searching of Catelyn’s daughters seemed, at least in the books, to be a fool’s errand. In the show, the quest is treated somewhat similarly, with Brienne constantly having these run-ins and near misses with her quarry. Arya views her with suspicion and rejects her while she first misses Sansa and then is turned down by her as well, only to miss Sansa’s plea for help at the end of Season 5 while she is off killing Stannis. Season 6 finally offers her some payoff for her two season long toil – she is able to rescue Sansa, pledge her her sword and even provide her with advice that isn’t dismissed right out of hand, even though it really should be.
Brienne’s presence in this particular theatre of the story is jarring. It’s not just because it hasn’t happened in the books either; her interactions with these characters seem strange, like there is a cultural misconnection somewhere. Brienne views Jon and his allies with the same kind of suspicion that she would heap on a total stranger – no doubt, this is at least in some part a result of Catelyn’s poor opinion of Jon. In a way, it’s like her character hasn’t really been updated on where things stand; while she does sort of give Jon a pass by noting that he is trustworthy, she seems to make this assumption that Sansa trusts her fully and might somehow be more suspicious of Jon who she’s known since forever than Brienne herself, a known Lannister associate. Then again, given the impending showdown over the rule of the North between Jon and Sansa, maybe I’m the one who’s missing a beat.
As hilarious as Tormund’s crush on Brienne is, however, I can’t help but feel that Brienne belongs down South with characters like the Hound and the Brotherhood. There is also the matter of her reunion with Jaime that needs to be sorted out since I don’t think I can handle their previous meeting being their last.
What’s a King without a Court?
Before we head to the two stars of the show – Sansa and Jon – let’s spend a bit of time on the supporting characters that comprise the rest of the Northern faction.
Davos has slid back into the role he’s most comfortable in – supporting a King he believes to be a good person. Davos is, in many ways, a perfect second in command. He does not have the stench of aristocracy about him, which makes the common soldier – which is pretty much all the North has left at this point – take him a little seriously and he is guided by one of the purest hearts and clearest consciences in the story. I’m less than convinced by his defense of a dead Jon Snow since I can’t quite understand just what would motivate Davos to risk so much to meddle in the internal politics of the Wall but in a way, standing up for what is right despite the cost to himself is really what Davos is all about. Perhaps now that Mel has revealed what kind of person Stannis really was, Davos might be able to finally commit his heart and loyalty to Jon.
On the other end of the loyalty spectrum, we have Littlefinger. Littlefinger at this point is hanging on to relevance by the skin of his teeth. He is the Lord Protector of the Vale that all his subjects despise and his only ticket out of the mess that he’s wrapped himself up in is ensuring that he holds on to Sansa’s ear. If he is able to convince Sansa that he, and he alone, is trustworthy than he might have a tenable position in episodes to come but if not, I simpyl can’t see Jon and Sansa allowing someone as devious and untrustworthy as him to hang around. The look he gives Sansa at the end of the season bodes poorly for the future though; I would absolutely hate to see the Stark siblings fight amongst themselves.
Then there are Tormund and the Wildlings. Useful allies to have around though they might be more trouble than they’re worth – it’s unclear if the Northerners will take kindly to their King being so close to the Wildlings, and as Jon’s assassination has established, the general public does not seem particularly predisposed to reasonable compromise. Yet, at this point, the Wildlings are pretty much a spent force; between them and the battered Northern armies, the North is barely able to present itself as a threat to Cersei’s realm. The inclusion of the Vale could change that, but realistically, Jon’s just in no position to fight Cersei for the North.
May his bones be crushed
I sincerely doubt that anyone is sorry to see the Boltons go. There was a time that Roose Bolton looked like he could have been the next Tywin – the preeminent villain of the series. In the books, that possibility is still very much alive, but the show went the route of elevating his son’s deeds over his own. The books play up Roose’s terrifyingly calm and calculative nature – he is shown to be every bit his son’s match and then some. Ramsey, in the books, is utterly incapable of the kind of cold cunning needed to organize his father’s death and likewise, Roose in the books is too careful to give him the chance.
The show however, somewhat reversed these roles. Roose retained his calm dominance, but as his plans began to slowly go awry, that appearance of calm dominance became replaced by a passiveness that Ramsay saw as weakness. In fairness, Ramsay in the show is much more perceptive and deceptive – he is able to hide his intentions while still keep the twisted cruelty that makes him so scary. He outclasses Osha easily and able to get Jon to play right into his hands – not the hardest of tasks, I’ll admit – and was ultimately beaten only by Littlefinger’s arrival. Yet, despite this hypercompetence – all he has ever needed was 20 good men to take down an army, remember – he is not quite the villain that Joffrey or Tywin were. Ramsay was a just a little too much – he was a little too cruel to come off as a real person (though there have surely been crueler people in the real world but this is one of the ways truth is stranger than fiction) and he lacked the humanity that other antagonists had. You see, as awful a human being as Joffrey was, his pettiness and general cowardice made him plausible as a character, while Tywin’s overall competence made him a threat, he was also a characters who had motivations beyond pure sadism.
By the point that Ramsay was feeding newborns to his dogs, he had long become a caricature of a Game of Thrones antagonist, which was a shame since in the books he hasn’t quite reached that point quite yet. That said, his death was a satisfying one, more so that Sansa was able to deliver him his sentence in person. It seems that Cersei is set to take the seat that Ramsay has so recently vacated.
A Time For Wolves
Last but certainly not least, we come to the last Stark siblings; Jon and Sansa. Well, not siblings since we can now state with certainty that they are cousins, but as far as they know, siblings they remain. Jon and Sansa’s reunion was one of the most heartwarming moments of not just the season but possibly the series. It was just incredibly satisfying to see the siblings reunite after all that they have been through, for each to finally find someone they can trust unconditionally after each having been betrayed by others. Whether or not they do trust each is another matter entirely, but before we get there, I guess I should say a few words about Rickon, but seriously? Rickon’s relevance to the story has been marginal at best and while I felt a tinge of sorrow at his death, it was clear that he was reintroduced just to be killed off and that he was killed off just to make way for Jon to become King in the North. Rickon’s return to the story’s main stage raised the stakes of the Battle of the Bastards – not that they needed raising since it seemed like it would be the battle that would decide if the Starks had any chance of returning to power at all. Rickon’s character had a part to play and he played it well but we needn’t spend much time on him.
Sansa on the other hand has a role yet to play. Her character’s been through something of a rollercoaster, what with all the false starts that she’s received. At first, it seemed like she would emerge from the Vale with claws to reassert herself on the main stage. However, things took an incredibly dark turn soon after but if her abuse at Ramsay’s hands showed anything, it was that she was indeed no longer the scared dove that she once had been. Ramsay could not put out the fire in her and once she escaped Winterfell, it was clear that she had hardened significantly into a colder character than before. In a sense, the change was welcome; it was high time that we saw a Sansa that wouldn’t take shit from anyone. However, it came at a time when her new personality put her, somewhat, in conflict with Jon and his allies. That new personality ensured that she retained her own agency as a character instead of melding her cause into Jon’s, but it was a little frustrating to see the siblings argue over how to proceed when the faced an existential threat in Ramsay Snow.
I’m glad that Sansa played such a pivotal role in the Battle of the Bastards, but her role in the buildup was infuriating. Lacking a plan to counter Ramsay but still getting riled up at Jon seemed counterproductive while her decision not to inform Jon of Littlefinger’s approach seems suspicious at best. More than any of that however, I think the course of action that could decide how the audience perceives Sansa here on out is how she responds to Littlefinger’s proposal. It seemed like she was on the right path when she delivered an excellent verbal smackdown early in the season but its impact feels diminished after she had to rely on him for his help. Does she choose to nurse a grudge over being passed over for Queen in the North? Or does she finally recognize what Littlefinger is trying to do and shut him down before he spreads like the virus he is? I dearly hope it’s the latter because if not, Sansa’s entire character has pretty much just been a gigantic waste of time.
Meanwhile, Jon spends the build to the season finale just sort of blundering about. He’s not seasoned commander and he knows it. Between him, Davos and Tormund, there is barely enough tactical and strategic experience to fill a peanut. That they are able to even put together the bare skeleton of a plan that they have is amazing; that they were able to even marginally execute it is incredible. All of this brings me to point that I think feels right but might not really have much basis in reality. In most of this series, but particularly in season 5, it felt like the Starks were being punished beyond what their admittedly poor decision making warranted. Yet in season 6, it feels like they are being rewarded despite doing less than want they needed to earn that victory. Take the Battle of the Bastards as an example – Jon’s army is underequipped, outnumbered and filled with soldiers that can barely stand each other, much less stand with one another. Ramsay’s men are professional, disciplined and well equipped. Battles are not won by the righteous; they are won by the best prepared and best organized. Yet, I can’t make the claim that Ramsay deserved to have won that battle because anyone who lets that many horsemen sneak up on him deserves defeat.
The actual Battle of the Bastards itself was an incredibly shot sequence though I know I’m far from the first to mention it. It captured the chaos of a battlefield in a way that felt accurate (having never had the misfortune of being trapped in a medieval battle, I have no way of verifying it’s authenticity) and uniquely differently from other battles in the series, even Hardhome which is directed by the same director. It gave the audience a good mix of strategic perspective and intimate shots of violence; basically, you got a look at how the battlefield was organized as well as what kind of hell the middle of the battle actually was. The battle’s end at Winterfell was a strange one though – it’s not at all clear to me why Ramsay opted for the bow when a sword could have given him a proper fighting chance.
In any case, that leaves us Jon as King in the North. I wonder if we will ever learn of what happened to Robb’s letter annointing Jon – if it comes now, it could serve to quell whatever seditious bullshit Sansa has in mind though I’d be disappointed if that’s what changed her mind. In all this I’m assumed that she is unhappy with Jon’s ascension but that’s not the only possible option. She seemed genuinely happy for him (though she stayed conspicuously seated and her applause was markedly less than enthusiastic) until she spotted Littlefinger’s look. It could be that she worries that Littlefinger is plotting something and is worried for Jon but I don’t know if she deserves that charitable an interpretation. Regardless, it seems clear that Jon and Sansa will be leading the new wolf pack, thin on numbers and half dead though it might be. Whether that will suffice against the might of dragons and lions, remains to be seen in June 2017.
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