Season 3 of Game of Thrones brought an end to the Stark vs. Lannister war that had dominated the show ever since Ned Stark lost his head at the end of season 1 and represented the main conflict of the show since the very first episode (which of course ended with Jaime Lannister pushing Bran Stark out of a tower).
Without that main source of conflict and intrigue, the following three seasons struggled to find that throughline that could carry things until the endgame. While the show’s audience has been treated to some absolutely spectacular moments, battles, etc. for the past thirty episodes, there was also a sense of aimlessness to the overall story.
There were often times where it felt like the show was stalling with the leftovers from seasons 1-3 until they could justify having the final moments (Dany coming back to Westeros, and the White Walkers invading)…well, finally happen. If nothing else, show’s destination is finally in sign as the season 6 finale (and the sixth season in general) seemed to be designed to be the “clear-the-board” season for the show. All the major pieces are in place to bring this show to an end.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at all the major storylines going on and look back at how effective they were in season 6 (and further back if need be).
If any plot encapsulates both the storytelling and socially problematic issues with Game of Thrones in the past 2-3 seasons, it’s Dany in Meereen. For starters, it brought Dany’s momentum on the show to a screeching halt as she essentially stopped attempting to make any progress to Westeros due to her desire to fix Meereen. This theoretically set up an interesting scenario where Dany could prove her worthiness to rule Westeros by displaying the wherewithal to rule Meereen. Instead, she most fails in Meereen and only eventually defeats the resisting slavers due to excessive use of dragons. In other words, after all that time in Meereen, Dany basically would have better off camping out somewhere and waiting for her dragons to grow up instead as opposed to trying to “save” the slave cities and lose countless soldiers and Barristan Selmy.
Meereen was further plagued by the atrocious “white savior” story the show has been doing with Dany since season 3. It was incredibly condescending and cynical to construct a narrative where the white woman goes through and tries to save all these slave cities when said cities and characters are mere supporting characters at best and mostly just objects at worst. There has been a long history of Hollywood telling these types of stories, and there was absolutely no need for Game of Thrones to fall into the same trap.
Jon Snow & Sansa vs. Ramsay
Ramsay Bolton was a classic case of a low-level villain being elevated to BIG BAD status for inexplicable reasons. This often happens on long-running shows that are looking to delay the endgame without killing off the real bad guys until the end. This created a problem for the show, as it invested so much into the Ramsay Bolton character despite there being no reasonable chance that he would ever be truly important in the grand scheme of things. To have Ramsay kill off Jon Snow or Sansa this season would have just been terrible storytelling on a number of levels, and the “shock” value of it would not have been worth the cost.
The other issue was that Ramsay and Ramsay’s “side” (the Boltons and Umbers, I guess?) had absolutely no one to root for over there. The brilliance of the Blackwater battle was Tyrion’s presence actively made people root for Joffrey despite him being a detestable human being. The presence of Davos and general awfulness of Joffrey made people root for Stannis (despite his dour demeanor and allegiance to dark magic). Ramsay was pure evil with no redeemable quality or followers and absolutely had no path of redemption worth exploring. While the Battle of the Bastards was brilliantly executed in a bubble, it signified a distinct step down in terms of level of storytelling that made Game of Thrones initially so gripping.
Arya and The House of Black & White
Arya’s two-season journey with the House of Black and White also captures the struggle Game of Thrones has had with telling compelling and meaningful stories with all of its characters. Arya left the Hound to die and went on a journey to be a faceless (wo)man assassin. She basically went through the two-season training montage to become more efficient at killing people in order to exact her revenge more easily in the final fourteen episodes of the show (which started in the season 6 finale).
They tried to fill time by forcing a rivalry with the Waif, and it was yet another conflict in the show where there was no question as to whom to root for whatsoever. The Waif’s motivation for hating Arya was never even explored, and the audience was left to assume it was an inexplicable high level of jealousy. In other words, the Waif was not really a character and not someone worthy of being the main antagonist for Arya. She was an obligatory inclusion to give the illusion that there was genuine conflict for Arya on this side of the world when the only conflict was internal. The show was either unwilling or unable to properly explore that though.
Cersei vs. The High Sparrow
In the wake of Tywin Lannister’s death, Cersei Lannister attempted to retake full control of the seven kingdoms and push out the Tyrells. To do that, she teamed up with the faith militant and the High Sparrow. This inadvertently led to the High Sparrow taking over King’s Landing and even recruiting King Tommen Baratheon on his side. Cersei sees her trial against the High Sparrow as an opportunity to gather all of the faith and all of her political rivals in one building to blow them up with the last remnants of the Mad King’s wildfire. It leads to an incredible sequence with Cersei eventually watching all of her enemies burning alive that the show should be proud of for pulling off.
In the end though, what did this story of the High Sparrow attempting a coup of King’s Landing truly accomplish? It mostly pitted two very unlikable characters (Cersei and the High Sparrow) against each other. Margaery Tyrell was initially put into the intriguing position of trying navigate this whole nightmare in order to get her family from out from under. However, she ended up just being a casualty of the High Sparrow underestimating Cersei’s willingness to burn the world down to declare herself Queen of the Ashes.
Having two unlikable characters play chess for two seasons and see far more interesting characters (like Loras as well) literally go up in flames is just poor storytelling. It seems like the storytelling here was more based on stalling with Cersei for two seasons and then clearing the board before Dany arrives. Making Cersei as unlikable as humanly possible to meet Dany is just a far less complicated situation than having Margaery finally triumph before someone else the audience likes invades to take it away from her yet again.
Riverrun & The Twins
After being entirely absent since season 3, the show finally brought us back to Riverrun and The Twins to deal with the leftover characters from The Red Wedding. It was good to get some closure on The Blackfish, Edmure, and Walder Frey for sure. However, The Blackfish definitely had a lot more story to tell obviously with Sansa, and the show probably should have decided to explore that. However, given how few episodes are left, the temptation to wrap this whole thing up in a few spare hours of season six was an understandable temptation.
Similarly, it is obvious the show wanted to tie up the Walder Frey loose end as well. Unlike The Blackfish though, the character did not have anywhere else to really go. Betraying Rob Stark and murdering Catelyn is pretty much as involved as Walder Frey could ever truly get in the show. It was time to close the loop. Having a Stark kill Walder Frey is probably the closest thing the show will ever have to a true feel-good moment even if it signals Arya Stark turning a bit into a psychopath.
Brienne & Jaime
After Brienne basically has to confront failure over and over again in seasons 2-4, Brienne finally got to be on a bit of a hot streak. She got to kill Stannis Baratheon and avenge her beloved Renly at the end of season 5. She got to start of season 6 by saving Sansa and finally achieving one of Catelyn Stark’s wishes. From there, she once again resumed her position in the backseat of the show but with two key developments as we got a welcome reunion and a not-so welcome reunion for Brienne: she got to rekindle her kinship with Jaime and then felt the familiar sting of failure one more time.
Jaime and Brienne’s scenes together serve as a much-needed reminder to the former that he is more than Cersei’s pet and that he has pretty much completely strayed from the path of redemption he was on after he lost his hand. Jaime is given a moment with Edmure to make the humane decision and instead chooses Cersei. That of course sets Jaime up to return to King’s Landing to find Cersei fulfilling the Mad King’s promise to “burn them all.” How much longer can Jaime remain loyal to Cersei after this one?
Brienne then returns to her ways of failure when she cannot find a way to make The Blackfish cede his homeland to go help Sansa in her quest to take back the North. This result made Brienne’s journey feel rather fruitless obviously, but she is still a joy to see travelling throughout the world and calling out men on their shit. It seems she still at least has a role to play in the end for this story. One has to imagine her Valyrian steel blade would be of use against the army of the dead at the very least.
The Hound is back! The Hound is classic Martin in that he appears as an obviously bad character but there is so much nuance to him. With each season, the audience got to see more and more layers pulled back until he became one of the more tragic characters. It was assumed that he was going to die after Arya left him for dead in the season 4 finale. However, he gets reintroduced here, and he is now doing good work for Al Swearengen and his group of religious followers (a far more reasonable bunch than those who follow the High Sparrow). Basically, this reintroduction is a mini-arc spanning two episodes and establishes that Sandor was considering changing his ways. However, he was served a cold reminder that the world is a cold place, and he seemed to clearly decide that he will rejoin the world as it actually is as opposed to what he may want it to be.
Sam & Gilly
The show has received some criticism for having too many characters and too much going on, and Sam’s story from season six has sometimes cited as proof of that. This was really just a short and sweet way of continuing Sam’s story in an effective and an organic manner without taking away from the rest of the story. The show gave us detailed insight into Sam’s home life while also getting him to Oldtown to set him up for his final role in the show’s endgame. Sam’s story could have ended during the battle at The Wall, but it’s clear he has more to do when the long night gets here. Taking a few minutes in three episodes this season to continue him on that path was perfectly fine and a valuable reprieve from the dour tone present throughout most of the show.
Bran & The Three-Eyed Raven
After the show wisely put him on the sidelines for season 5, Bran and company returned to the show for a handful of effective and informative appearances. Bran fucking up leading to the deaths of The Three-Eyed Raven, Summer, and Hodor was awful. Learning how the same Bran fuck-up basically led to Hodor becoming Hodor in the first place was tragic. The return of Benjen Stark was both touching and grim given his almost-dead status. We finally confirmed that Jon Snow was Lyanna Stark’s son and not the offspring of Ned. Again, they did not focus on this corner of the world too much, and they made sure to not really waste any time. Good job.
See more of my work below.