The reversal was stunning, to say the least. From the rough start to the incredible ending, the sixth season of Game of Thrones was the reward the show’s faithful have long awaited.
For ease of reference, I’ll mostly be using links to the Game of Thrones wikia. However, a few links go to A Wiki of Ice and Fire which covers the books. Although the show has passed the timeline of the novels, there may still be spoilers that have yet be introduced on the screen. I will specifically warn the reader about such links.
The season began on its weakest foot with the uprising in Dorne. Long desiring vengeance for both the murder of Elia Martell and the recent death of Oberyn, Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes enact a plot that sees Myrcella Baratheon slain. The princess’ demise flies in the face of Oberyn’s “we don’t hurt girls in Dorne” promise, which weakens the kingdom’s vision as a more liberal nation than most.
Myrcella’s death was followed by that of her lover Trystane and his father Prince Doran Martell, the latter of whom Ellaria stabbed in the heart for his failure to act against the Lannisters. The scene was difficult to believe, as Areo (a highly skilled bodyguard and a POV character from the novels) was dispatched with ease, while the prince’s guards simply stood there as their liege was murdered. After Doran’s death, Dorne itself remained untouched until the end of the season, when the Sand Snakes meet with Olenna Tyrell.
Dorne proved the poorest of all the storylines. Coincidentally, the writers could have kept closer to the original story; permitting Doran to live and the Sand Snakes reaffirming their loyalty to him once they learn the prince secretly sided with Varys‘ chosen challenger to the Iron Throne. The results would have been far better for it.
For Jaime Lannister, the season revolves around his sense of impotency in political matters beyond mere fighting, his every action backfiring or meaningless. His mission to rescue Myrcella from Dorne fails as she dies in his arms. He can do little to stop Cersei’s mistreatment at the hands of the High Sparrow and, when she is released, her snubbing before the small council.
It isn’t until news spreads that Queen Margaery Tyrell is to take her own walk of atonement that Jaime finds any small measure of success, convincing the council to let him lead troops against the Great Sept. But even this victory crumbles when King Tommen reveals he has sided with the Faith over his family. Worse still, the confrontation costs Jaime his position as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.
In the latter half of the season, we finally see his confidence make something of a recovery when Jaime and Bronn are sent to recapture Riverrun, held by Brynden “the Blackfish” Tully. Arriving, Jaime finds Edmure Tully badly used as a hostage and the siege a mess. After assuming command, Jaime fails to talk the stubborn Brynden down, so he permits Brienne and Podrick (who also just arrived) to parley with the Blackfish, hoping he would abandon the castle for another cause (more on this below).
When this too fails, Jaime plays his last card and threatens to slay Edmure’s son if he does not get Riverrun to surrender. As Edmure was the true lord of the castle, the men turn on the Blackfish while Brienne and Podrick escape by boat. And yet, after celebrating with the Freys, Jaime returns to King’s Landing and discovers that his great win was for naught, his homecoming bitter due to Cersei’s ambitions knowing no bounds…
It’s worth noting that earlier in the season, Cersei told Jaime of the prophecy she received when she was young, that all her children would die and she would be slain by her younger brother. Although this is cited as the reason for Cersei’s hatred of Tyrion, it’s also a critical detail she was born before Jaime by a few moments.
The Maester, The Broken Man & No One
Of probably the least immediate importance this season, Samwell travels south with Gilly and her child to become a maester. A brief stop at his home leads to an chilling encounter with his father, Randyll Tarly. In an act of rebellion, he steals his family’s Valyrian steel sword Heartsbane before they make their way to the Citadel.
This story line was covered in the fourth book A Feast for Crows, which was the most outlandish of the novels due to several new POV characters. However there are questions raised as to the true intentions of maesters. Given that HBO took great care to keep it in the show, Samwell must discover something of intense importance as he learns to heal others.
And healing is another theme elsewhere. Weakened by an infection, beaten by Brienne of Tarth and left for dead by Arya Stark, Sandor “the Hound” Clegane’s survival was uncertain at the end of season five. Between then and his return in episode seven, he had been nursed back to health by a small sept congregation. Like the group’s leader Brother Ray, Sandor seems to want to put the war and fighting behind him, even if he says otherwise. But when a few soldiers from the Brotherhood Without Banners approaches wanting food, Sandor suspects trouble despite Ray’s pacifistic hopefulness.
The Hound’s instincts prove correct when Lem and a few others slaughter the congregation. Tracking them down, Sandor comes upon a rare scene of justice as the Brotherhood’s leader Beric Dondarrion prepares to hang his own men as murderers. After sharing the execution responsibilities, Beric convinces Sandor to join the Brotherhood, who travels north to prepare for the White Walkers. Thus this nearly forgotten faction is relevant to the story once again.
Some are relieved that the Hound is still alive, as there’s something that makes him… not heroic but not a villain either. The people he has fought, killed and/or executed, he has done so under the pretext of law. He accepts his brutal nature and the cruel past— a refreshing difference from those who seek false pretenses justifying their means. But there seems to be some decency at his core that the world itself cannot beat out of him.
Like her former gaoler, Arya faces her own crisis of identity in the free city of Braavos. Blinded, she is forced to beg and absorb painful lessons at the hand of the jealous Waif, who desires to see her fail. However, her teacher Jaqen H’ghar is more forgiving and patient, and offers Arya a second chance before restoring her sight. While not as inherently cruel as the Hound, Arya tries to convince herself to take lives in cold blood for the Many-Faced God. And after her humanity prevents her from slaying the caring Lady Crane, the young Stark finds herself hunted by her rival.
The duel is handled brilliantly as Arya proves how much she’s learned during her spell of blindness. Recovering Needle, she snuffs out the candle and leaves the fight itself unseen. After returning the Waif’s face to the temple, Jaqen gives his approval as Arya returns to Westeros.
While the Braavosi story line provides some sense of accomplishment for Arya, the results aren’t really felt until the finale. As Walder Frey’s celebratory dinner for Jaime’s victory over Brynden Tully, a disguised Arya serves Lord Frey a pie made of his sons before enacting revenge on the murderer of her mother.
Although she deserves to be cheered for, a suspicion arises that Arya’s vengeance may cause unforeseen problems. As she answers to no political authority, an assassination at precisely the wrong moment could cause an unwanted shift in power for other protagonists. Or perhaps even shatter a fragile alliance against the Others. Arya is the wildcard character, who does not need an army to alter history.
Visions of the Past
Bran Stark’s storyline was the most secluded of all. And depending on how much one holds history in esteem, probably the most important. When last we left Bran, Hodor and Meera Reed, they had found the cave of the Three-Eyed Raven. Meera however was despondent and angry after the death of her younger brother Jojen at the end of last season.
Bran hones his powers as a Greenseer at the hands of the Raven, who shows him visions of the past. Among the discoveries include that the Children of the Forest were responsible for creating the Others, a reaction to the aggression of men. Bran also witnesses some of when his father Ned Stark tries to save his sister Lyanna from the Tower of Joy.
Before the Raven can reveal the full truth to Bran however, the pupil makes a mistake that draws the attention of the Night King, the lord of the White Walkers. With the defenses of the cave shattered, the Raven dies as Meera, Hodor and Bran flee. Bran, trapped in a vision of his father’s childhood, acts as a medium through which Meera accidentally programs a young Wylis with the command, “hold the door.”
As the young lad collapses while muttering the command, it becomes his pseudonym “Hodor.”
The powerful revelation is that Bran has the ability to effect time. But the intriguing possibility is that any changes may be accidental, without intent. This solves the time traveler’s paradox, where if someone goes back in time with the desire to alter events then the corrected timeline prevents the traveler’s from ever coveting the change in the first place. Thus, one cannot willingly modify the past. If so, the temptations would be horrible and frustrating for Bran, as he could witness the fall that paralyzed him again and again but would be unable to prevent it. Still, Hodor’s death would suggest that Bran’s powers may have further consequences down the road.
During their escape, Meera and Bran are nearly overrun by wights, but saved by an undead Benjen Stark. Benjen cannot continue south as he explains that the Wall has spells carved into it that keep the death contained (possible book spoilers if you click but this may hint the use of another plot device in the novels) before he takes his departure.
Before Meera and Bran venture further south, Bran takes a final look into past via the Weirwoods, revealing Ned Stark accepting Lyanna’s baby at the Tower of Joy. The father remains unrevealed though Lyanna fears for her child’s safety. Ned promises to protect the boy, who is revealed to be Jon Snow.
Perhaps the biggest impact of Bran’s powers is their potential. At best, through Bran we can witness the truth, without being victim to hearsay and revisionism, a welcome lore-keeper who performs with “show, don’t tell.” At worst, Bran could shattered those theories by mistake. But it seems likely that we will witness another impact on the past at least once more.
Far to the east, Daenerys Stormborn’s abolitionist vision grates the culture of the slaver cities of Yunkai, Astapor and Volantis, but circumstances have left her throne empty. Having rode Drogon out of the city during an attempt on her life, she is abandoned in the wilderness and soon captured by the Dothraki. Daenerys’ entourage split up as Jorah Mormont and Daario Naharis seek the missing Khaleesi, leaving Tyrion in charge with Missandei, Varys, Grey Worm and the Unsullied to protect Meereen.
There, we witness Tyrion make a rare professional blunder when he meets with diplomats from the other eastern cities, trusting that they would bow to his economic views. In prior seasons, the shrewd acumen in the dwarf had us rooting for him; scheming his way out of an execution at the Eyrie and his instrumental strategies that helped lead the crown to victory during the Battle of Blackwater.
That’s why it’s hard to watch Tyrion arrogantly strike some deal with the diplomats of the slaver cities. He believed the Sons of the Harpy were being funded by the other cities, a theory seemingly proven true when the attacks ceased following the supposed agreement. But why then did he not suspect they were probably providing Yunkai, Astapor and Volantis with information as well? They almost certainly knew of Daenerys’ absence and her inability to control the dragons, having them caged instead.
Why he thought the cities would give up on a centuries-old tradition is anyone’s guess. Grey Worm and Missandei should have been heeded. Although, even if Tyrion had foreseen the coming attack, it isn’t clear what he could have done. If the Unsullied took to preparing city defenses, the Sons of the Harpy would likely have resumed their attacks to strong effect— they did set all the city’s ships on fire, after all.
Still, it would have been preferable to see an alert Tyrion. And it was a pleasure to see his childhood dream of seeing dragons come true, a rare moment for a man who has otherwise suffered enough.
Meanwhile the hunt for Daenerys came to a fairly satisfying conclusion. With the help of Daario and Jorah, her time in the custody of Khal Moro proves relatively short-lived, though for the book readers her escape was not without controversy. Fans of the books were upset as Daenerys’ fire-immunity is supposed to be much more specific and special.
Although the show writers twisted this fact, they made strong use of the broken rule to not only free Daenerys but also convert the Dothraki to her cause. Personally, I find the differences pleasing as they mean that the books will not echo the show, providing further incentive to read the forthcoming novels.
Jorah’s brief reunion with Daenerys turns out to be simple. Despite being a rather complex character, his romantic motivation constantly propels him against the odds, and fate seems to punish him for it. After all, his contraction of greyscale is an indirect result of his choices in season five; kidnapping Tyrion to try and re-earn the Khaleesi’s favor. Sent to find the cure for his affliction, one must wonder if Jorah will both succeed but die in the attempt as well.
The Khaleesi’s return to Meereen put her back into fighting form, reminding us all that her best qualities are as a conqueror. As Astapor, Yunkai and Volantis finally attempt their invasion of the free city, the circumstances finally play to Daenerys’ favor as they are no match for dragons and her new Dothraki hordes. Once Meereen is safe, the Khaleesi finally turns her eyes to the west as a fleeing Theon and Yara Greyjoy arrive, bringing news of their uncle’s rise to power.
Still the short battle proved that Daenerys has a fairly insurmountable power. Simply put, how is Westeros going to counter the dragons? If there is no way to beat them, the show risks getting boring. Ah, but there is one element that may level the playing field. Game of Thrones hasn’t introduced it, at least not yet. Although, and possible book spoilers if you click, actor Pilou Asbæk deserves credit for doing his homework.
The Unforgetting North
Season six is best characterized by the whole “return of the good guy” element. But none deliver it better than that of a reunited Jon Snow and Sansa Stark.
Sansa manages to escape from a Bolton-held Winterfell, aided by Brienne, Podrick and Theon. Theon takes his leave to return to the Iron Isles after telling Sansa that Rickon and Bran are alive. Sansa and the others make their way towards the Wall, seeking the protection of Sansa’s brother.
Back at Winterfell, Ramsay feels the pressure. Between an escaped wife, the birth of Roose Bolton‘s new son and the rebuffing of his deranged suggestion to attack the Night’s Watch, Ramsay‘s claim to the north is threatened enough that he slays the rest of his family to consolidate power. Afterwards Smalljon Umber seeks aid, reporting that Wildlings have been pushing into his lands.
Instead of kneeling, Smalljon offers Ramsay a captured Rickon Stark and Osha— the latter whom Ramsay soon slays. He soon sends a taunting letter to Lord Commander Snow, demanding the return of his wife.
But all of this nearly didn’t matter, as Jon was murdered at the end of the fifth season. Jon’s friends, Melisandre and Davos Seaworth, now both lord-less with the death of Stannis Baratheon last season, find Jon’s body and realize a mutiny has happened at the hands of Alliser Thorne and his men. Davos sends Edd Tollett to find Tormund, the remaining Wildlings and the giant Wun Wun. At Davos’ insistence, Melisandre attempts and eventually succeeds at resurrecting Jon. Between the shock and awe of his rebirth and his allies, Jon reasserts command over the Night’s Watch and executes Thorne and his men.
But the experience took Jon’s interest in command. Declaring his watch to be over, Jon quit and prepared to leave just as Sansa and her allies arrive. Followed soon after by Ramsay’s letter.
Before they depart to obtain new allies, Sansa is visited by Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish who tries to atone for leaving Sansa with the Boltons in the first place, and offers aide in the form of both the Knights of the Vale and an ally in Brynden Tully at Riverrun. Sansa contemplates having Brienne kill him but decides against it.
She refuses Petyr’s immediate soldiers, but takes the information about the Blackfish to Jon. Brienne and Podrick are sent to Riverrun while Davos, Jon and Sansa seek help elsewhere, gaining the pledge of Lyanna Mormont and a painful few others. During a meeting with Ramsay, Jon’s offer to fight one-on-one is refuted and the battle is set for tomorrow morning. Ramsay then taunts Sansa that part of him is “inside of her.”
The siblings squabble. Jon wants to attack before Ramsay can draw anyone else to his side, but Sansa knows that defeat is inevitable against Ramsay’s numbers. Sansa secretly requests help from Littlefinger before the battle. Ramsay teases Rickon with a chance to escape before slaying him in the middle of the battlefield with an arrow. Jon and his army charge into the fray, where Ramsay cuts down both sides by ordering volleys of arrows without prejudice.
As Jon’s forces begin to gain the upper hand, Ramsay orders a formation of shield and spear bearers to surround them. But before the worst could happen, the Knights of the Vale arrive and ram into the phalanx, breaking it. A wounded Tormund manages to kill Smalljon Umber. Jon and Wun Wun charge after the escaping Ramsay who futilely barricades himself in Winterfell. Wun Wun gives his life to breach the doors where Jon takes down Ramsay in the one-on-one fight.
Victorious, Jon leaves his foe to Sansa, who has him chained and fed to his own dogs.
In the aftermath, Petyr Baelish admits a dream to Sansa of seeing himself on the Iron Throne with her at his side. She is doubtful, even as he tries to stoke resentment that the bastard Jon Snow should become the king. She believes her half-brother is interested in seeing her rule. However in the final scenes, the gathered lords (including Wyman Manderly) cheer for a reluctant Jon Snow to become the new King in the North. Sansa and Littlefinger share a look.
The conclusion is heavy in cloudy foreshadowing. Does Sansa intend to betray Jon, or is she acknowledging that Littlefinger will be a problem for the new King in the North? Or both? It maybe that Littlefinger’s conniving has rubbed off on her, teaching her that the best way to her heart’s desires is through scheming, manipulation and guile.
Another point is the question of whether or not Sansa is pregnant. While the thought of her having Ramsay’s child is a vile one, her theoretical child could give her some claim to the Bolton territories (as the rest of the family is now extinct), including the Dreadfort.
Likewise, the land inheritance magnifies if someone unwanted tries to claim those territories. Else while the books do offer (possible spoilers if you click) a solution unwanted pregnancies, it has yet to be mentioned on the show.
She Wins or She Dies
But while the season was remarkable for its retribution against its villainous characters, one has thus far gotten away.
Cersei Lannister, temporarily freed of her imprisonment by the Faith Militant at King’s Landing, begins the season from the lowest point of her life following her humiliating walk of atonement.
As if the experience isn’t enough her daughter Myrcella is dead, her son and king seems disinclined to listen or obey her and the Tyrells and their allies have assumed control of much of the Throne’s administration. The only people at her side are Jaime, Qyburn and his creation. She isn’t even allowed to attend her daughter’s funeral.
Still undeterred, Cersei sets to work. She taps into Varys’ broken information network by bribing children to provide her with what she needs. And she plans to clear her name by naming Gregor Clegane her champion in her forthcoming trial. When Cersei learns that Margaery is have her own walk of atonement, she uses the information to leverage temporary cooperation with Kevan Lannister, Pycelle and Olenna.
But as they race their forces to prevent the punishment from happening, the situation reverses itself upon them. At Margaery’s insistence, Tommen strikes an alliance with the High Sparrow.
Jaime is then removed from command of the Kingsguard. Cersei sends him to deal with the situation at Riverrun, trusting in Gregor to keep him safe while she plans and prepares her next moves.
Meanwhile, Margaery pushes her grandmother to flee King’s Landing; the High Sparrow plans to seize the Queen of Thorns for her perceived sins. The message Margaery gives Olenna suggests where her loyalties truly lie.
Unfortunately, Cersei tips her hand when she instructs Gregor to violently fend off a delegation of Faith Militant sent to bring her to the High Sparrow. Realizing that they would lose the forthcoming trial to Cersei’s abomination, Tommen is convinced to outlaw trials by combat under the pretext of it being barbaric and not truly in keeping with the laws of the gods. Qyburn informs Cersei that their “little birds” did validate certain rumors.
The day of the trial arrives. At the Great Sept of Baelor, Loras Tyrell is brought to stand trial for his sins. He confesses, choosing to give up his lands and titles and join the Faith Militant. However, Cersei is nowhere to be seen. Tommen is kept in the keep by Gregor, while Pycelle is soon murdered by Qyburn and his child-spies. The High Sparrow realizes that Cersei has not arrived for her trial and sends Lancel to fetch her. Lancel is distracted by a suspicious child who leads him underground, where the Faith Militant is stabbed and too wounded to walk. There he sees the truth of it, as candles burn to the ground and ignite barrels of Wildfire.
The resulting explosion consumes Baelor’s Sept, claiming the lives of Loras, Margaery and their father, the High Sparrow, Lancel, Kevan and many others who dared oppose Cersei. Tommen, upon learning of the death of his wife, chooses to commit suicide. With no one left to directly oppose her, Cersei claims the crown.
The Present and The Future
A few interesting talking points about this season. With so many of the male characters slain in the last five seasons, the major victors and victims of this season tended to be women. Lady Crane was almost the victim of Bianca’s treachery, yet was killed by the Waif who then fell to Arya’s prowess. Myrcella met her end by the Sand Snakes, while Cersei’s plotting saw the death of Margaery.
Aside from the less-than-stellar Dorne story line, this was an interesting counter balance to the themes of earlier seasons. With the end game fast approaching and the game board clearing, it makes sense that more female characters would rise to the height of prominence. Especially Lyanna Mormont.
But that’s not to say that it has all been female-on-female violence. Most of the other story lines had more varied results. Yara and Theon escaped their uncle Euron. Rather than slaying Melisandre, Jon Snow and Davos saw to her banishment, following the satisfying and karmic conclusion of Ramsay’s life and reign. And Daenerys’ sweeping conquering— not just escape, conquering of the Dothraki warlords and the slaver cities.
There are a few other themes that bounce along with this season unlike any other, the rejection of traditions being foremost. In the north, they are willing to say a bastard has a claim to the crown. In the far east, the end of slavery, freeing of the dosh khaleen and the demanded demise of the Iron Price. Arya bucks the Temple of the Many-Faced God. The Faith moves to end trials by combat while Cersei reacts… most violently to the oldest and most conservative of the church’s decrees.
And most intriguingly, it seems that when the old ways are observed, it is rather to exploit weaknesses. Because Jon Snow died once already, he declares that his watch has ended before leaving the Watch. Edmure Tully’s title is exploited to see Riverrun reclaimed by the Lannisters. And before it was outlawed, Cersei knew Gregor could not be beaten in a trial by combat.
So who was the “winner” this season? A fair question. The choices are the Starks, Cersei and Daenerys. Jon and Sansa did the best job of returning hope to a world which can’t seem to define justice. Cersei’s plot was simultaneously powerful and mixed; her incredible coup removed an untrustworthy faction from the face of Westeros, but she is still a villain herself and has the support of almost no one else. This is problematic, for Daenerys did the greatest job of reversing her fortunes, enlisting not one but two major armies to her cause and sealing an important alliance at the end.
It is very hard to imagine Cersei throwing back Daenerys’ forces, unless she is somehow able to enlist the help of Euron Greyjoy. Likewise, Jon and Sansa maybe divided by the question of venturing north or south, for Jon may wish to take the fight to the Others while Sansa will probably desire Cersei’s head.
And then there are the more minor characters. The Hound, Arya, Melisandre, Bran and Sam all surely they have a critical role to play in events to come. The show is not and has never been about the “exploration” of the wonders of Westeros, and any such discoveries have always led to complications for the great plot in time.
It’s impressive that the show leaves us guessing so much even as the fan theories prove true, but perhaps the theory do not matter as much as we believe. Seasons seven and eight which may very well only have 13 episodes between them.