The Almost Unbearable Happiness of Game of Thrones, Season Six

Distressingly happy things that happened in season six (spoilers for season six)

  • Jon Snow came back from the dead. Not happy for me or the kid he hanged immediately after, but happy for everyone else. See below.
  • Sansa escaped from Ramsay Bolton’s tower of torture and was reunited with Jon Snow. She’s also completely fucking fierce now and I love her more than ever.
  • It turned out Brienne of Tarth really did kill Stannis in last season’s finale, and then she got back to her post fast enough to save Sansa from Ramsay’s soldiers and fulfill her vow to the Starks.
  • Brienne tried to return her Valyrian steel sword to Jaime Lannister but he wouldn’t take it back, because he loves how noble she is; she is now in an excellent position to kill some White Walkers.
  • Sansa and Jon Snow rallied an army and re-took their family home, Winterfell, from the Boltons.
  • Sansa fed Ramsay Bolton to his own dogs.
  • Arya fed Walder Frey’s sons to Walder Frey. And then killed Walder Frey. Also, Arya finished her assassin training and got to be a faceless man without having to make any of the sacrifices normally required for that, which kind of sucks. See below.
  • The Hound turned out not to be dead, and then he lived in a commune or something.
  • Daenerys finally got on a fucking boat to Westeros.
  • Daenerys destroyed the Dothraki patriarchy once and for all in a giant, meaningless fire. See below.
  • Yara Greyjoy came back, and she sailed to Essos, and she and the Queen of Thorns and the Sand Snakes are now in an alliance with Daenerys, and it’s basically the best girl squad ever.
  • Maraery talked her way out of religious Sparrow prison without having anyone shave her head or ring a bell behind her yelling “Shame!”
  • Cersei killed the High Sparrow and all the little sparrows (and Margaery, which is not as good) and put this religious plot line out of its misery by blowing up part of the city.
  • Jon’s hapless sidekick, Sam, stood up to his parents and stole their Valyrian steel sword before making his way to the giant library he’s always wanted to live in. His parents are now in a poor position to kill White Walkers.
  • Bran tree!warged to the past and more or less confirmed the beloved fan theory that Jon Snow is actually a Targaryen prince. I’m gonna go out on a limb and bet he’s like 🙁 when they tell him.

I know I said I’d miss Jon Snow

But you can only miss someone if they stay gone. Jon Snow betrayed my trust and the trust of his brothers in the Night’s Watch by refusing to stay dead. He’s back to being alive and annoying.

That said, the best moment of the season was when he almost got trampled to death during the Battle of the Bastards – and not just because I thought I might get to miss him again. It was an absolutely terrifying, claustrophobic scene that was masterfully filmed and – according to behind the scenes specials – made up on the day-of, because they couldn’t film the scene as intended. It stands out as one of the most memorable, creative moments in Game of Thrones, mostly for the way it turned an situation that’s totally removed from how we live today into a visceral experience that felt immediate and real. It made me remember why I love watching this show.

Other than that, the best news is that Bran can’t change the past

The early teasers for season six made me worry that Bran would use his tree!warg powers to travel back in time and make it so the story never happened. Instead, everything we’ve seen suggests that Bran can’t do that. Even in the now-infamous Door-Holding Tragedy, Bran didn’t so much fuck up the past as discover how the past had already been fucked by him when he tree!warged through time. That’s quite a relief.

Sansa is still the best character

There’s this amazing scene where she confronts Littlefinger for betraying her, followed by an interesting arc in her relationship with Jon Snow. Going into the battle for Winterfell, they’re in a subtle contest to see which one of them is least naive, and it’s complicated by the fact that they’ve been separated since the very beginning of the first season, and each has no idea what the other has lived through to get to this point.

Jon thinks Sansa’s overestimating Ramsay because she’s never faced anything as terrifying as he has – he thinks her delicate, sensitive feelings are interfering with her judgement. What he doesn’t see is that she’s actually turned hard enough to write off any chance of rescuing their younger brother from Ramsay’s clutches. She tells Jon straight up to assume this ends with Rickon dead no matter what they do – because Rickon shows up after being MIA for several seasons, just to get captured by Ramsay Bolton – and it just blows past him, even though – as we see – he would have been better off following that advice.

Sansa remembers Jon as an idealistic boy who was hungry to prove himself as a member of the Watch. She can’t possibly know what it means for him that he spent the past five seasons trying over and over again to do the right thing and behave honourably, only to be tricked and stabbed to death by his brothers in arms. She can’t know what it meant to see dead bodies rise up from the ground and become a shambling, ice-blooded, nearly indestructible army.

They don’t know each other anymore, but they’re acting like they do.

FWIW, I side with Sansa, though

It’s a very mundane kind of evil that shows up as an ice zombie. Even though the White Walkers have been presented as the big bad since the series premiere, the threat of a zombie apocalypse is not nearly as interesting as watching regular people back-stab each other. The zombie plot has always felt a little flat to me, and my major issue with Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch is that it’s a separate and more simplistic branch of the story where it’s way too easy to tell who to cheer for and where the good guys are more consistently rewarded with a win.

There’s a very different kind of horror not so much in Ramsay Bolton – who became a little cartoony, the longer he hung around – but in the systems and structures and worldview that allow someone like Ramsay Bolton to gain power. He isn’t scary because he’s a psychopath; he’s scary because, for so much of the series, there’s no way to stop him. When he’s eventually killed, it takes two characters breaking the moral codes they had lived by to do it.

There was a moment when Jon and Ramsay were fighting, and it looked like Jon might let up, where I found myself saying, out loud, to my TV, “Kill him, kill him, cut off his head, don’t let him live, don’t walk away” – and that’s something that goes against my values, too. I’ve written about this before, but what’s interesting to me about Game of Thrones is the way it’s depicting the collapse of civilization, and what that means for things like loyalty and ethics and goodness. That’s way more fun for me than watching CGI zombies smash themselves into a wall.

Speaking of enemies who are boring to defeat

I couldn’t be happier that Daenerys is on a ship to Westeros, especially if this means she’s run out of straw men to burn in Essos.

Was it a cool moment when Daenerys burned all the Dothraki khals alive at what was to be her trial for being a bad widow? Yes. Did it foreshadow the day that Cersei blew everyone up at what was to be her trial for regicide? That it did. But it was ultimately still kind of pointless. So was the scene where she and her dragons destroyed the ships attacking Slaver’s Bay.

Ever since the beginning of the series, Daenerys has been placed in situations where some terrible man from Essos twirls his moustache, says something misogynist, and tells her she has no power, only for the tables to surprisingly turn at the last minute when she gives a speech about how she had power all along and kills the man with fire. She did it to her brother – who, okay, was not from Essos – she did it to the warlocks in that town I barely remember, she did it to the slave trader she bought her army from, she did it to the masters, she did it to the khals.

It basically happens every day, and that’s the problem because, from a narrative point of view, it’s not telling us anything new, anymore. It’s just the same tableau getting set up and burned down over and over again.

Tyrion being right all the time is also getting old

There was a time when I thought it was impossible for me to get tired of Tyrion. That time was before he murdered Shae, but it was also before his Always Being Right-ness followed him across continents to a context where he shouldn’t actually know anything.

Early on in this season, it seemed like Tyrion was going to be wrong. Like, horribly, terribly, recklessly wrong. With Daenerys temporarily absent, he brokered a deal with the slavers in neighbouring cities that allowed them to keep slavery for seven years. The two former slaves he was working with had a big problem with that, and kept looking at each other behind his back while he was talking. They warned him that the Masters couldn’t be tricked or bought-off, but he didn’t listen, and eventually the free city was attacked. The consequence of that is that Daenerys made him her Hand because his council is so great.

Tyrion has faced his share of challenges, but they’re a lot like the challenges Daenerys faces – they end up making him look awesome, and everyone else looks stupid, even when that doesn’t make sense. The faster the two of them can hook up with the main plot line again, the better everything will be.

Arya cheating at Game of Faces makes me sad

Game of Faces is a noble game. It’s a great game. It may be my favourite game. And it hurts me that Arya was always super bad at it, but now she gets to be a Faceless Man.

To recap: A few seasons ago, Arya went to Bravvos to train with a l33t group of assassins who can literally change their faces to disguise themselves and get close to their victims. Part of the trade-off for this is that the Faceless Men renounce personal identity and become servants to the many-faced god. Arya always struggled with that, and had a hard time convincing them, or herself, that she was truly “no one.” Game of Faces is the game where they hit her with a stick for being somebody.

Arya lost at Game of Faces over and over again until she finally decided that she didn’t want to be no one, because what she really wanted was to kill people who’d done something wrong according to her ethical code, not to just kill random strangers because somebody hired her. It’s a powerful, important change for the character, because she’s learned who she truly is – but it should really mean that she can’t be a Faceless Man.

Instead, what happens is that she somehow gets out of the awkward cult she’s joined and gets to keep the supernatural ability to change her face at will. This helps her murder Walder Frey, which is a really nice thing, but it also disrupts the balance of power in the Game of Thrones universe.

I really felt the gap between seasons this time

I did not re-watch season five before watching season six, and there were times I really had to shake myself to remember the context for what was going on.

The best example of that is probably the situation with Margaery and the High Sparrow. After Maraery talks her way out of prison, she makes an alliance with the Sparrow that doesn’t seem to make sense… until you remember that this all started when Cersei tried to screw Margaery and her family over. Then you realize that Margaery doesn’t just want to get out of prison – she wants to get revenge on Cersei, and neutralize that threat for good.

I spent a long time this season thinking, “What is Margaery’s plan? What on earth is she trying to do?” before I realized that getting Cersei killed by the sparrows was, of course, the whole plan. It’s actually really smart, and it almost worked, but, as I was watching the first time, the tension fell flat because I didn’t remember WTF was motivating anyone.

I’m holding out for the day there’s a boxed set of the whole series to do a re-watch, but I bet things will look a lot different when I do.

Now, let me get in on a fan theory that turns out to be right for once

Valyrian steel is forged in dragon fire. Sam discovers that at the big library. He tells Jon. Jon and his aunt Daenerys meet just at the end of next season and they’re about to fight the White Walkers, but we have to wait another two years for the battle. Also, they probably get it on, even though or because they’re related.

Image: Game of Thrones; HBO | August 27, 2016