Note: this article discusses plot details from the show Game of Thrones as well as the Song of Ice and Fire novels.
There is a certain cruelty, intentional or not, in titling the season finale of Game of Thrones’ sixth season The Winds of Winter. It is, after all, the working title for the next entry in George RR Martin’s series of novels. Readers have waited five years since the release of the last novel, and for those who started with the first book, A Game of Thrones, way back in 1996, watching as the television adaptation reveals scenes and details 20 years in the making can be bittersweet. In using The Winds of Winter as title for their season finale, showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss have planted their flag in Martin’s story.
In the end, how would the show perform, no longer guided by the books? At times, season 6 is a narrative that embraces the worst of television, relying on twists and drawn out mysteries to keep audiences watching and talking. However, season 6 also reaches new cinematic heights, putting together some of the most well-composed scenes in television history. Below is how, unguided, Game of Thrones is worse, and better than it has ever been.
Season 6 lacks suspense, preferring shock and awe
Martin’s novels have often been praised for subverting traditional fantasy narratives, and this praise translated to the early seasons of Game of Thrones. Many fantasy series follow a traditional hero’s journey, emphasizing physical deeds and a black and white morality, but this show was about politics, not heroism. Rather than large battles and flashy set pieces, early GoT examined the political and social structures of its fantasy world, and the people trying to navigate those structures. Few characters in GoT fit squarely into the role of hero or villain, and the morally gray, complicated narrative produced tension: viewers would wonder whose plans will work, whose will fail?
Unexpected eruptions of violence may surprise the audience, but they lack the brutal catharsis of earlier seasons.
Ned Stark’s role in the first season exemplifies the series’ ideals. A stoic man of honor, Ned tries to reform the corrupt politics of King’s Landing. In any other fantasy novel or series, he would probably discover villains and bring them to justice. But in Game of Thrones, the audience is made aware very early of what is going on in King’s Landing. We are shown that Queen Cersei and her brother are lovers, and thus, while Ned investigates the truth about Prince Joffrey’s parentage, the revelation is not a surprise. Rather than a shocking reveal that Joffrey is the product of incest, Ned’s story creates tension, as the audience can see that he is swimming with sharks even when he does not.
Contrast season 1’s slowly drawn noose with the guillotine that is season 6. Game of Thrones has always had its share of “shocking” moments (Ned’s execution, the Red Wedding), but those moments were typically the result of long build-ups, as characters make mistake after mistake until death seems the only natural consequence. In season 6, however, death comes at a moment’s notice, and while unexpected eruptions of violence may surprise the audience, they lack the brutal catharsis of earlier seasons.
The first episode of season 6 offers clear example of the show’s new priorities: the coup in Dorne. In the novels, Dorne is a hotbed of rebellion, as Prince Doran secretly works to arrange an alliance with the Targaryens (both Daenarys and Aegon, who is so far absent from the show) with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Lannisters. Doran is playing a long game, and although his nieces, the Sand Snakes, criticize what they perceive as inaction, he explains that the grass that hides the viper is as important as the viper itself.
In the show, Doran seems not to have any plans; if he does, the audience will never know. The Red Woman features a brief check-in with Dorne, in which the Sand Snakes, led by Oberyn’s lover Ellaria, assassinate Doran and his son and assume control of Dorne. It’s a shocking moment for a few reasons. First, the Sand Snakes are upset that Doran has not avenged their father, so it seems odd that they would choose to wipe out the rest of Oberyn’s family. Second, there is no blowback for the coup; Doran’s guards, apparently disgusted by his weakness, simply watch as he is murdered. Dorne remains out of sight for most of the season, and when the show finally returns to it in the finale, Ellaria seems to be sitting comfortably, despite being a usurper with no legal or genealogical claim to the throne. The only-slightly-bloody revolution in Dorne is shocking not only as an event, but for what it says about the show’s sensibilities: the machinations of earlier seasons have given way to sudden, violent clearings of the deck.