game of thrones season six: the red woman and others

I’m now weirdly, terrifyingly close to the end of this series. Or rather, to the end of this slightly pointless blogging project. And perhaps one of the things I should say to begin with is that I absolutely don’t recommend this method of watching the series. Jumping from the new episodes that everybody is hype-slash-angry about to the old episodes that we’re all used to taking for granted is interesting but it’s not fun, especially when you’re trying to fit a rewatch into the schedule of the new series and putting together multiple long-winded blog posts about it. I should probably stress that there is loads of good stuff in the early series, especially when viewed in the proper context (which, broadly, was when it came out) rather than as this weird melange-outside-of-time where everything is judged relative to everything that has come before and afterwards.

Season six is the point where the show well and truly went past the end of the books, and this has both advantages and disadvantages. It means that the series is freed up to be more straightforwardly televisiual, which tends to make for more satisfying television (for obvious reasons), and I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that the point at which the show ran out of book content was also the point at which it started really pushing forward with what you might call the main plots (Dany finally sets sail for Westeros at the end of Season Six, we get to see the outcome of Bran’s training North of the Wall). In a way, S6 hits something of a sweet spot in that there’s just enough residual book content to make everything feel grounded but the showrunners have enough freedom that they can kick up the sense of urgency in a way that’s more suited to the TV format.

Like season five, season six is very spread out, although still less so than the books. For a lot of book-fans, S6 is where things start getting rushed and abbreviated, with Arya’s Faceless Man training getting wrapped up in a couple of short (and not especially well explored) sequences, Cersei committing an act of domestic terrorism for which she suffers weirdly few consequences, Jon acting like a complete muppet at the Battle of the Bastards only for Sansa to save his arse out of nowhere and Dany leaving Meereen after a couple of very high-impact set pieces. Season Six is also where it becomes increasingly clear that certain large segments of the book plot—the pretender Aegon who in the books is aligned with Varys, Catelyn’s resurrection as Lady Stoneheart, and the more explicitly occult elements of Euron’s plot (in the books he’s what some commentators refer to as a “goth wizard pirate who worships Cthulhu”) aren’t going to be in the TV show.

In my month-long Song of Ice and Fire fandom binge, I’ve been reminded just how vast and complex the book narrative is, encompassing as it does not only the existing novels but also prequel stories, worldbooks, and most recently the vast two-volume history of the Targaryen dynasty Fire and Blood. Bringing all of this content down to a single satisfying story with a satisfying conclusion is an enormous task and possibly an impossible one (depending on how broadly you define “satisfying”), and it’s a task that the showrunners didn’t entirely sign up for (the broad consensus seeming to be that they expected the books to be finished by the time they caught up with them). Season six seems to represent the beginnings of their effort to … well … wrap things up.

In King’s Landing, for example, we have a plot which now only really involves Cersei and a bunch of tertiary characters (the Tyrells, the High Sparrow, and so on) and while the scene in which they’re all blown up in the Sept of Baelor is shocking and impactful (and also, trivia point, the only time apart from the death of the Night King when piano music is used in the score) but it also feels a little bit like … to borrow some tabletop gaming jargon … the “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending. A lot of people are, for understandable reasons, bothered that having been built up for eight seasons, the Night King and the White Walkers were defeated in the space of one episode and—ultimately, in a single dramatic sequence. (Some seem less upset by this and are more upset that the single dramatic blow that defeated the setting’s greatest objective threat was given to the wrong character, and that’s a criticism with which I have somewhat less sympathy). But really the destruction of the Sept of Baelor is a very similar moment. It’s awesome and shocking and (quite literally) explosive, but it throws away a whole supporting cast of characters we’ve been building up in seasons-long arcs. And I can absolutely see why this had to happen—what would Margaery Tyrell or the High Sparrow bring to the final battle or the final season? Neither of them would make sense as a primary antagonist, and having other people who were hostile to Cersei in King’s Landing would just take the emphasis away from the people who were always going to be the main characters (interestingly in his original pitch, GRRM suggests that the key viewpoint characters who would remain for the entire series were Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Bran and Tyrion, which I think is interesting partially because all those characters wound up at Winterfell as part of the Alliance of the Living, and partly because it notably doesn’t include Sansa who I suspect might wind up with a smaller role in the books). Just destroying everybody with Wildfire is an imperfect way to bring an end to those plotlines, but I’m honestly not sure what a perfect way to do it would look like.

You see a similar race-to-a-conclusion with Dany’s arc in Meereen. Tyrion negotiates a peace with the slavers, which fails, meanwhile Dany is away getting the Dothraki on her side by the simple expedient of burning all their leaders alive (turns out fire immunity is OP if you’re in a sacred city with no other weapons allowed). And … again there’s some deeply tricky racial politics here which far more qualified people than me have discussed at length, but much in the same way that knowing the White Walkers ultimately never make it south of Winterfell makes a lot of the Night’s Watch stuff feel a bit pointless, so knowing that Dany ultimately gets back the Dothraki horde she lost in season 1, and by pretty much the same method that she used to keep what few followers she hung onto at the end of season 1 makes a lot of what happened in the middle feel like so much back and forth. Dany was always going to arrive in Westeros with an army of Dothraki, that was a given. Having her gain the Dothraki, then lose the Dothraki, get a different army and fight a bunch of different battles only to get the Dothraki back again and walk away from those other battles leaving them half-won at best just feels a little repetitive.

It doesn’t help that Dany’s whole Meereen arc ends with what I at least perceive as a difficult disconnect between what I think is happening and what I think the showrunners think is happening. It seems like, from the show’s perspective, Dany has finally liberated Slaver’s Bay and is now returning to Westeros having done what she set out to do in Essos. What I think is happening is that Dany has won a couple of indecisive victories in a conflict that is likely to bog down for years or decades, but decided that she’d rather go and be Queen of Westeros than continue to hang out in Meereen. And I will concede that both of these interpretations are valid, especially given the series’ overall “winning is easy, governing’s harder” theme and the perception that Dany is shaping up to be the final villain (or at least final antiheroine). And it’s certainly valid to point out that the show literally has her leave the city in the hands of Daario Naharis who literally responds with the line “fuck Meereen, fuck the people” which surely we’re expected to interpret as a bad sign? But on the flip side, Grey Worm and Missandei (may she rest in peace) are kind of the moral heart of Dany’s story arc (in a way that is very far from being unproblematic) and they seem completely supportive of the idea. And it’s not like we get any word from Essos, so either we’re supposed to assume it’s fine, or we’re not supposed to care.

The thing is, there isn’t really a good way out of this problem. Either you give Dany’s arc in Meereen an unrealistically hurried conclusion that glosses over the enormity of the task she took on when she conquered it, or Dany never leaves Meereen. Because when you think about it, it is at once testimony to the vastness and complexity of the story and the … difficult approach it takes to its non-quasi-European setting elements that “abolishing slavery in a society the entire economy of which is based on slavery” is effectively a subplot. It’d be like writing a novel about Abraham Lincoln and treating the whole thing with the Civil War and the presidency as a tangentially relevant narrative quirk getting in the way of the real story, which is about him going to France and pressing his claim as the last surviving heir of the Bourbon dynasty. (Umm, not suggesting that I actually think Abraham Lincoln was secretly descended from French aristocracy, just drawing an analogy).

The other really big plot arc that moves dramatically forward in season six is Bran’s (notably, Bran was wholly absent from season five). He spends the first half of the season in the company of the three-eyed raven (side note—in the books this figure is called the “three eyed crow” and there are relatively well argued theories that the man who trains Bran and the strange figure who has been appearing to him in dreams as a bird are completely different entities because the books are much more complicated to an honestly unfilmable extent). Here he is trained as a greenseer, which in practice means spending a long time having visions of stuff. He sees his father in the past, he sees the creation of the White Walkers, and he sees the Army of the Dead (this last vision causing him to be marked by the Night King and allowing the dead to attack the cave where he and his companions are sheltering). This is also where we learn that Hodor’s name comes from weird time-travel hijinks whereby Bran was simultaneously viewing him in the past while also warging into him in the present while Meera Reed was yelling “hold the door”. Which is … one of those things that we’re sort of invited to see as tragic but which we’re also not especially invited to think too closely about. Because honestly the whole way Bran and co treat Hodor is just not okay on any level. I mean first of all, you shouldn’t use a guy with actual brain damage as your personal transport device. And having done that you definitely shouldn’t directly mind control him the same way you do literal animals. And at the very least, once you discover that the only reason that he had the brain damage that allowed you to treat him in this fundamentally unacceptable way in the first place is because of something you did to him you should at least stop and reflect a little on your culpability here.

I know a lot of people are disappointed that Bran hasn’t done more with his powers, but it’s actually pretty much in line with what I expect from the level of magic in the series. It’s true that things have grown a lot more explicitly magical over time but, dragons aside, pretty much all of the magic you see in GoT/ASoIaF is subtle rather than showy. It’s true that from a perspective of military strategy you’d expect the Army of the Living to at least make more use of Bran’s ability to warg into birds (as the wildlings do in the earlier seasons), but there have been predictions that he would be warging into dragons or leading vast armies of forest creatures against the Others, and I never felt like that was on the cards. There’s this notion out there that Bran was useless during the Battle of Winterfell, but from a certain perspective he was the one who orchestrated every beat of their actual victory. If you assume that the only way to win was to lure the Night King to a weirwood and stab him in the chest with a specific dagger, then every part of that outcome was set up by Bran quite deliberately. I sort of put him in the same space as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, most of what he achieves, he achieves by talking to people rather than by throwing fireballs at things.

 I have rather less to say about the North this time around. It does mildly bug me that Jon Snow gets proclaimed King in the North when he’s a bastard, given that Sansa is there and isn’t. And it’s true that Westeros does seem weirdly resistant to female rulers even relative to the societies it’s based on but … come on? I mean really? Jon is terrible. I mean obviously he’s not, he’s fine. But he’s far and away the character who most resembles a regular fantasy novel protagonist. Like, to the point where it’s sometimes really not clear that he’s in the same show as everybody else at all.

 And … like … I don’t mean to harp on about this, but there’s a whole big deal where Lyanna Mormont is all like “we recognise no king but the King in the North whose name is Stark” and all the Northern lords are like “we agree, we definitely want to be ruled by our own king who should definitely be a Stark and who definitely shouldn’t swear fealty to the first attractive lady he sees” and Jon is all like “Gotcha, I’ll definitely not do that. I mean, unless she’s got dragons. Dragons are awesome.” There’s this whole thing in S8 where Varys and Tyrion are talking about how people flock to Jon Snow, how he’s an instinctive leader and people follow him. And … actually isn’t he just kind of an inveterate people-pleaser? I mean basically he spends his entire arc getting people on side by offering them whatever they ask for with no real plan for how to give it to them (“oh sure you can come live south of the wall, nobody will mind”, “pledge the North to fight for your claim on the iron throne? No problem!”—hell even killing Qhorin Halfhand is something he does specifically because Qhorin asks him to).

 Anyway, the Battle of the Bastards is actually pretty cool. I mean yes, Jon is a liability but I’ll give him credit for the fact that in this one specific case he’s throwing away his strategic advantage in order to make a death-or-glory suicide charge for an understandable personal reason. That doesn’t quite justify all the other times he does exactly the same thing, mind. And actually you could reasonably hold this up as emblematic of the core paradox at the heart of Jon Snow’s character arc. He’s the character in the show that is closest to a straightforward hero, but he’s also the character in the show whose primary motivation is most divorced from straightforward heroics (okay, maybe not compared to Sansa or Tyrion, but certainly compared to Dany, Bran or Arya). If you listen to what Jon Snow talks about his primary concern is that everybody needs to work together to defeat the army of the dead, which is pretty much the opposite of heroism, it’s far-sighted coalition building to encourage a collective response to a potential existential crisis. But if you look at what he actually does it’s almost all bold unilateral action where he tries to fix big problems by doing dramatic things with little or no help, which sort of undermines his point. Because it winds up sounding an awful lot like what he’s really saying is “I want you all to send your armies north so I can have a nice big audience when I 1v1 the Night King.”

 Anyway, the Battle of the Bastards is nearly lost but Sansa calls in the Knights of the Vale to save the day. She doesn’t tell Jon that they’re coming which … like on the one hand, I want to say that since Jon is clearly a massive liability it was probably fair enough, but on the other hand you just don’t keep vital tactical information from your commanding officer. There is a bit later on where she tries to explain that she knew Littlefinger couldn’t be trusted, but even that’s not a great reason, and it feels mostly like a plot-convenient excuse when what’s really happening is that they needed to preserve the surprise of the last-minute rescue. So in my head-canon what actually happened is that Sansa knows Jon really, really hates spoilers, and she didn’t tell him that she’d sent for the Knights of the Vale because she knew he’d be pissed at her for ruining the surprise.

 Thinking about it, that might also be why he keeps risking his life needlessly. He’s trying to get himself killed because he’s decided to read the books first, and doesn’t want to spoil the end before Winds of Winter comes out.

 Final final point. There’s a little bit in the middle of this season where Brienne goes to the Riverlands while Jaime is laying siege to Riverrun, and they have some really nice I-believe-you-are-a-better-person-than-you-think-you-are interactions that are only slightly marred by the fact that Jaime goes back to boinking his sister pretty much immediately afterwards. (Much as people complained about it, if Jaime did suddenly decide to throw in with Cersei last episode, it wouldn’t actually be all that out of character). I mention it here mostly because during the siege, Brynden the Blackfish taunts Jaime with the notion that they have the supplies to last for a year. To which, as always, I say then what are you going to do for the other four years of winter? #showusthegrainsilos

 Okay, final final final point, I think I’ve twet about this already, and mentioned it in my summary of S8E4, but just one more time because it actually happens in the closing moments of this season: it is cool that Arya gets revenge on Walder Frey for the Red Wedding, but please explain to me why having gone to all the trouble of killing his sons, butchering them, cooking them into a pie and serving them to him, she then tells him what she’s done before he eats any of it. Don’t get me wrong, I respect A Girl’s commitment to the classics, but A Girl has to work on her attention to detail.

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