Television Review: It’s Win or Die on Season Six of “Game of Thrones”.
Has there ever been a major television series that is as hotly debated on a week-to-week basis as “Game of Thrones”? Even “The Sopranos” — widely regarded by many as HBO’s defining dramatic achievement to date — still existed well before the age of social media. Nowadays, each Monday morning after a “Game of Thrones” episode screens, and the Internet is abuzz with spoilers, memes, reaction pieces and more. “Game of Thrones” is without a doubt the network’s most popular show at this present time, and so every move made by the creators is inevitably scrutinized to within an inch of its life. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but it does change the way that we watch the show in the long run. We all experience the same grand, familiar rush on Sunday nights when that classic theme music cues up, and then spend the rest of our weeks cracking “hold the door” jokes or googling variations on Cersei Lannister’s resting bitch face.
Alas, this is not an editorial piece about how and why we watch “Game of Thrones,” George R.R. Martin’s colossal, controversial series of fantasy novels that have been adapted for television by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but rather a review of the show’s new season, its sixth. Season five of the show came under some pretty heavy fire for its reliance on rape and sadism as narrative devices and although I didn’t find last season to be any more or less wretchedly devoted to either of those two conceits/excesses as any of the four seasons that preceded it, it’s a criticism that bears a considerable degree of merit. “Game of Thrones” is not doing much to combat the problems that exist with most primetime cable dramas, and it’s very much endemic of the kind of show HBO helped to patent with “The Sopranos,” the great, underrated “Deadwood” and particularly “The Wire,” with its vast ensemble, dense narrative and crisscrossing webs of deceit and political maneuvering. And now, “Game of Thrones” can join the ranks of excellent television dramas that have remained vital and exciting for several seasons. There is no fictional world in our pop cultural sphere as densely realized as the Westeros of “Game of Thrones,” and each episode is practically a labyrinth unto itself of intrigue so smoldering it occasionally approaches the level of a really good soap opera. But, y’know, with dragons.
One of the most brilliant aspects of “Game of Thrones” is how it can be enjoyed both as a rip-roaring medieval fantasy filled with near-Biblical acts of retribution (including but not limited to: decapitation, flaying, eye-gouging and burning at the stake, just to name a few) and endless layers of deception and power-mongering, and also somehow come across as a palpable, if nevertheless broad, reflection of today’s socio-political landscape. This narrative point reached its apex in a spellbinding monologue delivered by Aiden Gillen’s nefarious Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Season Three, in which the ruthless schemer decries the pious morality of Westeros’ elites and declares that “chaos is a ladder,” and only the most ruthless and self-serving among us will ultimately make it to the top. Season five also explored the dangers of religious zealotry in the form of the High Sparrow, played magnificently by Jonathan Pryce, who began his arc on the show as a soft-spoken, shoeless fish merchant and ended as a veritable demagogue who initiated Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame, still one of the most disturbing and dehumanizing sequences the show has staged to date (he’s still shoeless, just in case you were wondering). Season six does a fair amount of catching up in its early episodes, particularly the premiere “The Red Woman,” which stumbles a bit trying to re-introduce several plot points, including Ser Davos’ reluctant alliance with the dark priestess Melisandre, Tyrion Lannister’s political stronghold in the city of Mereen, and, of course, the terrible murder of Knight’s Watch stud Jon Snow at the in the final moments of season five’s near-perfect finale, “Mother’s Mercy”. While nearly every “Game of Thrones” season premiere often feels like it’s picking up strands of forgotten narrative thread from the end of the season previous, “The Red Woman” feels burdened by exposition, even as it thrusts us back into this wonderful and familiar world of bloodshed, conquering and shifting power alliances. Nevertheless, the next few episodes move at such a breathless gallop that, at times, it can be hard to take it all in. But no matter: “Game of Thrones” is effectively back (not that it ever really left) and season six looks to be another muscular entry in what is shaping up to be one of HBO’s definitive series.
Season five’s end seemed to signal a kind of change in the ways of life in Westeros, and particularly King’s Landing, that gilded bastion of protected wealth in which the Lannisters — one of the realm’s wealthiest families, including fallen father Tywin, (Charles Dance) cruel queen Cersei, (Lena Headey) Kingslayer Jamie (Nikolai Coster-Waldau) and the fast-talking, wine-slurping ‘half man’ Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) — had ruled for years with little to no outside interference. Alas, last season saw the hateful Ramsay Bolton — who achieved Internet villain status when he raped poor Sansa Stark and forced former Ironborne warrior Theon Greyjoy, now cruelly renamed “Reek,” to watch — gunning for the Iron Throne. Sure enough, Ramsay stabs his dear old dad Roose in the early goings here, assuring us there’s no depths of depravity to which this loathsome character won’t sink. Theon and Sansa, meanwhile, are on the run, finally landing at Castle Black in the third episode “Oathbreaker,” after which Sansa shares a warm and funny childhood reminiscence with her estranged bastard brother, Jon Snow just one episode later. Snow’s resurrection at the hands of Melisandre is merely the latest proof that unless you see the entrails coming out of their stomach or their head getting lopped off, that no “Game of Thrones” character can effectively be counted upon as being dead.
Scenes like these are rare in a show this bleak and serious-minded, but season five was practically bereft of them, substituting organic scenes of character building for the head-slapping subplot about the Sand Snakes (remember those guys? yeah, me neither) and endless scenes of carnage and brutality. As such, Season Six is grounded more in the human drama that’s always given the show a sense of emotional heft. It’s right there in Cersei Lannister’s face as we see her relive the most humiliating moment of her life, or in the damaged visage of Arya Stark, who has travelled so far and killed so many people just to avenge the death of her father Ned Stark that she’s effectively lost every last droplet of her humanity. “Game of Thrones” has always been an epic fantasy that includes dragons, giants, ornately realized magical kingdoms and the gnarly breed of frost demons known only as the White Walkers — and yes, nerds, there are White Walkers aplenty in this season, but more on that later — but at its heart, the show is a cynical and deliciously entertaining treatise on power and the many ways in which it can be abused. Chaos is indeed a ladder, and season six appears to be about what happens when we reach the end of said ladder, and who will be left standing after the fall.
One of the tougher elements of last season was watching characters — even those the audience had come to hate, like Cersei — being ritualistically debased and having whatever degree of power they possessed stripped away from them in an often vicious fashion. Season six sees several of these characters plotting to take their own form power back: Cersei, sure enough, is plotting another epic comeback in King’s Landing, and looks to be using her patsy of a son, King Tommen, for leverage. Her twisted incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie has cooled a bit, though she’s still out for the blood of her other brother, the mischievous Tyrion, after he shot and killed their father on the crapper in the near-perfect season four finale “The Children”. If season five of “Game of Thrones” was about what happens when the empire slides into ruin, season six looks to be about how these characters can adapt, or not, to life in a landscape where societal order is little more than a cruel memory. The death of the beloved Winterfell servant Hodor at the hands of the White Walkers and the Night King in the season’s breathtaking fifth episode is only the latest example of this: winter isn’t just coming anymore. It’s here, and the dead are at the doorstep of the living. Only those with a ruthless, Darwinian mentality will persevere — it’s win or die out there, folks. The noble idealism that Ned Stark championed is, after all, what got his head chopped off in the first place.
I won’t say too much more, because frankly, if you’re a fan, you should be experiencing this show for yourself — and you should be experiencing it cold. But man, is it great to have “Game of Thrones” back. There is nothing like its massive fantasy landscape currently on television, and though you can trace its period stylings back to HBO’s “Rome” and see its current influence in marauding-warrior programming like “Vikings” and “Black Sails,” “Game of Thrones” conducts its particular narrative symphony with sophistication, polish and an epic sweep that can’t be seen anywhere else on the small screen. Season six feels like it’s gearing up for something huge, and I couldn’t be more excited. Winter is finally here — which is bad news for the residents of Westeros, and pretty much great news for anyone else.
Grades: “The Red Woman,” B+. “Home,” A-. “Oathbreaker,” B+. “Book of the Stranger,” A. “The Door,” A. “Blood of my Blood,” B-. “The Broken Man,” A-