Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing each episode of Season 6 from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Season 6 is a milestone for the franchise as it will be the first to continue the story beyond George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice books. Fortunately, Martin provided showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss with a rough outline of his vision for the rest of the story. As such, we’re in an odd position in which the show might spoil the story for fans of the books.
Before I get to this week’s episode, let me put my cards on the table. As much as I enjoy the TV show, I have only read the first two books (I’m sure I just lost some readers…). I plan on finishing the rest at some point, but I felt the books lost focus. They read more like a sprawling history of Westeros rather than a tight story with a clear narrative structure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a political scientist and I love history, but the joy I get in reading history comes from understanding how the past affects the present. You can draw a straight line from the 2016 presidential campaign to the Revolutionary War to the Magna Carta to the fall of the Roman Republic. By contrast, I find myself less interested in the minutiae of Tyrion’s tax policy or memorizing the names of all the great houses of Westeros.
I worry that in recent seasons the HBO show is becoming more like the books, if not in the specific plot points than in the manner of storytelling. The first few seasons of the show (and the first book) presented a focused story about Ned Stark’s investigation into the murder of the King’s Hand. All of the main characters felt connected and relevant to that story. Even Daenerys Targaryen, then with the Dothraki, was a living reminder of King Robert Baratheon’s failures. It felt like a well-woven tapestry, with all the threads coming together to form a larger picture.
As I’ve written before, the larger picture is no longer clear. The show now has to keep track of almost a dozen separate plot lines as the main characters are spread out all across the realm. It’s not clear if and how these separate plot threads will ever connect. With a few exceptions, the major characters rarely interact. When was the last time Tyrion spoke a word to any Lannisters or Starks? Meanwhile, the show is getting cluttered with new plot lines involving the Boltons and Dorne, houses that weren’t even part of the story during the first two seasons. As a result, the past season felt like butter spread over too much bread, forced to divide each episode over too many different plot threads. The episodes no longer have clear internal arcs but rather seem too busy checking in on each character, watching them go from point A to B to C.
So, how is Season 6 faring so far? (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
I think some of these plotting issues remain. “The Red Woman” does continue the trend of spreading out too many plot threads over an hour-long show. It feels like Tyrion, Arya, Jorah, Marjaery Tyrell, and the Boltons especially are only in this episode to remind viewers where they are and what they are doing. Much of that time would have been better spent at the Wall or in Dorne, where things actually happen. That said, this is definitely an episode that matters. There’s a reason the episode cuts back to Dorne, and it’s not just to hear Prince Doran ramble about war and peace (the coup in Dorne seems like it will reverberate throughout Season 6). The reveal of Melissandre’s true nature at the end seems like a sign that the Lord of Light’s magic will play a larger role this season.
I was especially impressed that the episode spent so much time at the Wall. Whereas we only get brief glimpses of what’s going on in the rest of Westeros, “The Red Woman” takes the time to explore the aftermath of Jon Snow’s death at the end of Season 5. We get to see Melissandre and Ser Davos react to the news. We see Alliser Thorne attempt to consolidate control over the Watchers. And Edd goes on a mission to recruit more allies (presumably the Wildlings). In short, for a show that often comes across as distracted and unfocused, this episode seems like a clear statement of purpose, that what happens at the Wall is critical to the overall story, no matter the ultimate fate of Jon Snow.
There are also some encouraging signs that the showrunners plan to consolidate plot threads. Roose Bolton hints at the possibility of conflict between the North and the Lannisters, suggesting some resolution to the crisis in the North. Likewise, both King’s Landing and Dorne have sworn vengeance upon the other (for the murders of Myrcella Lannister and Oberyn Martell, respectively); I expect only one noble house to survive the season. I would be surprised if we end Season 6 with so many plot threads remaining. Some consolidation is necessary. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss have suggested that the show will only continue for another 10-15 hours after Season 6. We might not yet be at the end, but it looks like the beginning of the end.
Another thing I appreciated in “The Red Woman” is just how funny the show can be when it tries. In Meereen, Tyrion tries to give a poor woman some money to feed her child, but because of his poor mastery of the Valyrian language she thinks he wants to buy her child to eat. It’s a moment that works well for some laughs, but also shows how utterly depressing life is for those at the bottom. There are some other funny moments in the episode, but the humor never feels out of place or inappropriate. Instead, it helps to balance out the darkness in the episode, as if to say there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In short, I’m cautiously optimistic. It seems like Game of Thrones has to resolve an incredibly large number of plot lines in just 25 hours of television, but I also get the sense that Season 6 is going to be about weeding out the less important threads and focusing on the core story. I also think it will help that the show no longer has to follow the books (blasphemy, I know!). If the showrunners know that a plot thread from the books won’t payoff at the end, they’re free to drop it. Hopefully, in about 2 years from now, we can look back on the entire show and see how all the threads connect to form one coherent tapestry.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.