In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you [feel slightly underwhelmed in certain areas of the story, and whine about it a few weeks later.]
Yes, yes, it has been weeks since the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ sixth season, making this piece all but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things…on the surface, at least. But this is freaking Game of Thrones we are talking about, the pop culture phenomenon that all but demands constant recaps, thinkpieces, and (let’s face it) clickbait centered aroudn it. This show is keeping the lights on for the entire entertainment blogging realm, so it feels very appropriate for it to be the centerpiece of the first actual article on Freshly Popped Culture. And hey, it was very recently in the news for the truckload of Emmy nominations it received yesterday, so it’s not entirely out of the zeitgeist.
And why not make the first article on this website a list of all the things that bothered me about a show the internet (including I, for the record) loves? I hear that fans tend to like that sort of thing. In any case, a few weeks late and multiple dollars short, here’s the six biggest problems I had with Game of Thrones Season 6.
1) Coup de Dorne (and Everywhere Else, for That Matter)
Oh Dorne. Dorne, Dorne, Dorne — will you forever be the nadir of this series? Hot off the heels of its big Season 5 debut (which I called “probably the worst thing that Game of Thrones has ever done” at the time of its conclusion), it was a smart move for the show to basically cut ties with the storyline, throw their hands in the air, and ignore all of Dorne until a quick scene in the finale. That being sad, even if the intent was pure, that doesn’t forgive how AWFUL the coup scene was in the Season 6 premiere. My mouth was literally agape at how rushed, poorly thought out, and just plain stupid the assassination of pretty much everyone of importance was, and how silly the concept of the Sand Snakes and Ellaria taking over the entire region was presented. Yes it was smart for the series to wash its hands of the storyline, but boy did it still come off as awkward and jarring.
And while we’re on the subject of rushed storylines involving the major political upheaval of an entire region, let’s talk about…well, everywhere else this season, it seems. It’s okay for so many places to suffer giant political developments this season — that’s been the show’s raison d’etre since pretty much the beginning. But what would once be the brunt of an entire character’s storyline for a season was now constricted to a couple episodes, if even that. And there’s both pros and cons to this quick and streamlined approach — we don’t necessarily need to spend 10 hours with Theon and the Kingsmoot, and lord knows I didn’t want to see anymore of Dorne than what was absolutely necessary. But to get all the plots in place for the main event of the season (and arguably the series’ entire endgame), things started to feel very rushed and underthought. It also don’t help that the coup in Dorne, the coup in Winterfell, and the coup at the Iron Isles all occurred within a two episode spans— believe it or not there’s such a thing as too much coup, especially at he pace it was dished out here.
There’s certainly a time in place to argue brevity in a plot (and boy will I in some storylines ahead), but when so much of the fun of Game of Thrones is the political machinations, I just couldn’t help but be disappointed at how many situations were solved by “surprise backstab!” throughout the season. And speaking of surprise stabbings…
2) Jon Snow: Dead and Loving It
No one really knew what to expect when Jon Snow came back from the grave. Yes we all knew it was going to happen (the breadcrumbs for that one were pretty noticeable), but where the story would take our resurrected bastard was a different matter entirely. And when actor Kit Harrington spoke of what was to come for the character following his return to living form, I think we were all pretty excited to see what this new direction would mean for the (soon to be former) Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
But boy was that a wash, huh?
For what it’s worth, it didn’t start all bad. Jon’s whole monologue about seeing “nothing” after death was pretty dramatic (and the only freaking reason I can see for Harrington getting an Emmy nomination in a year stuffed with great lead performances), and his execution of the traitors (including Olly!) was indeed pretty hardened stuff. But even in that execution, it was easy to see that the show would not make due on its promises of a changed Jon Snow — despite the ruthlessness of the act, Jon still showed hesitation in hanging the traitors. Our noble good guy was still clearly present, and narrative wise, that wasn’t a thing to celebrate.
Because what happened with all those talks of a “changed” Jon? As the season progressed, it quickly became clear the show was just going to ignore it, to concerned with the machinations of the plot to actually devote time to what could have ended up being a fascinating piece of progression for the character. And if the show wasn’t fully committing to Jon Snow coming back “differently” (as Beric Dondarrion teased many seasons ago), then what was even the freaking point of killing him in the first place?
The answer unfortunately is now obvious: they had to find a way that Honorable Jon Snow could be shackled free from the Knight’s Watch and actually join the fray, and killing him (and thus technically fulfilling the vow) was the easiest way of doing so. Yes it’s a decent way to move the plot forward, but that’s sadly all it ended up being. At the end of the day, the death of Jon Snow is just a footnote, something we’re bound to forget ever happened by the time the series concludes…if not already.
3) Repetitive Dany
On the subject of characters frustratingly refusing to change (the segways are coming fast and loose today), let’s talk about the Daenyrs storyline…again. On paper, her activities this season were fine: she got herself a big old group of loyal men, dealt with those pesky slavers, and seems to finally be on path to make her way to Westeros. Yes, all this is great, but certainly loses its luster the, oh, let’s say fifth time we’ve seen it happen.
Yeah that’s being a bit hyperbolic, but still — Dany’s plot seems to have been on the same rails for seasons now, and Season 6 did very little to change that. Yes we got a couple cool scenes (her leading the dragons to burn the ships at Slaver’s Bay was good spectacle), but it was hard not to feel like the “big” moments of her story were dulled substantially be a severe case of daja vu, the biggest example of course being the ill thought out burning of the Dothraki khals in “Book of the Stranger.” Once again, in theory, it should be awesome, and for many, it was. But I just couldn’t get into the scene, primarily because it highlights the show’s biggest problem with the Dany character: she always wins, is always confident (and arguably smug) that she will win, and faces little difficulty in conquering the problems around her. A couple seasons of that is fine, but after seeing it over and over again for six years, it can just get a bit grating. Like everyone else I absolutely loved that time she “dropped the whip” and burned the hell out of that asshole slaver back in Season 3, but constantly giving me that scene at least once a season just dilutes the brand a bit, does it not?
Thankfully the final scene of the series seems to illustrate that Dany’s circular plot motions in Essos will soon be coming to an end, and thank god for that. I don’t think I can take another scene of her shouting dramatically in a fake language to a crowd of brown people (often bowing to her) as a dragon roar blares in the background, her satisfied smirk closing out the episode. There’s a supercut of like half a dozen scenes of that EXACT SAME SCENARIO to be had, and for a show as varied as Game of Thrones can be, that’s not a good thing.
4) The Uselessness of the Riverlands
I don’t have a segway for this one, so this point is just going to be awkwardly introduced with little build up, and likely given much less time or reflectiion than the other points. Hey, wait, I guess I had a segway for the Riverlands plot after all!
Yes, it was nice to return to a region of Westeros we haven’t been too in a while, and taking Jamie out of King’s Landing was a necessary aspect of the plot…but ultimately, was that all the Riverlands story ended up doing? Simply move the characters of Jamie and Brienne to a place where they couldn’t be a part of the other storylines that no longer needed them? That’s fine as an overall narrative choice, but that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have to have a little fun with it. What they introduced (the Blackfish forming his own little coup against the Frey’s) wasn’t a bad setup at all for an extended storyline, but it was resolved so soon and ultimately did so little that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the whole thing.
And that resolution really struck in my craw too — it didn’t really show a different side of Jamie like in Season 3, and keeps him on the same disappointing trajectory he has been on since, what, Season 4? And look, I get it: his big developments are likely to come next season when he (probably) starts to have some massive doubts about his loyalty to his crazy sister, and the show felt it necessary to further build up that thread so it can (likely) knock it down come next season. But rather than that, couldn’t you have simply began to plant the seeds of doubt already, showing us how his experience in the Riverlands ultimately leads to his (not-confirmed-but-come-on-its-happening) betrayal of his sister? And that could have easily been accomplished by what the show was already doing: Jamie could have simply forced Edmure to command the Frey soldiers to ACTUALLY FOLLOW THEIR HOUSE MOTTO, retreat from the castle, and head to Winterfell. Everyone would have “won,” and you could have further showed how Jamie is playing both sides, torn between what he has to do for King’s Landing, his loyalty (and friendship) with Brienne, and a natural sense of honor and goodness (he’s still trying to keep the Stark girls safe and fulfill his vow to Catelyn, after all.) Instead we get this silly scene, which would have had a much greater impact if the character’s reunion had any dramatic payoff whatsoever:
Yes, I know I sound like I’m “backseat writing” for the show right now, but I was just really confused when this storyline came to an end, and seemingly nothing of note actually ended up happening there. Ah well, at least we got a Bronn appearance out of it. I guess there’s worst reasons for a storyline to be around.
5) Assassin Arya
Never would I think that perhaps my favorite character in Game of Thrones would be at the center of one of its worst storylines but, well, here we are. Arya is still a great character, and Masie Williams still does a great job of playing her, but oof. What a stinker of a season for her.
Now obviously there’s a lot of problems with Arya’s Assassin Adventure in the Magical Land of Braavos, to the point that it could be easy to become overwhelmed with all the little minutia of problems (such as parkouring like a crazy person the day after getting fucking shived in the stomach 2,000 times) But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to talk about the biggest issue: functionally, nothing that happened here really made a lot of sense, and often times was flat out boring.
I’m not against the idea of seeing Arya train to become a badass assassin — arguably it should’t take two entire seasons to do it but, whatever, there was certainly a way for Weiss and Benioff to advance this storyline in an entertaining fashion even with its slightly bloated runtime. And as we could see from Arya’s final moments in Season 6, her training with the Faceless Men will influence her character going forward, so you can’t just argue the show would have been better skipping out on the whole thing. But why oh why did it happen to end up so flat out bad?
The answer in large part goes to pacing, and resolution. It felt like the show was inferring more about Arya’s training than actually showing it, taking more than a season to get to the point where she started to learn some skills and, even worse, showing very little of those skills in actual practice. If the show was going to stretch this out to occupy two years of time, couldn’t they have used that time to show her going on some Faceless Men assignments, and actually being somewhat skilled at the job until her identity finally kicked in and she (inevitably) betrayed them? Instead we got multiple episodes where Arya’s sole purpose is to get the shit beat out of her, which does little to advance both the plot and the character. And when Arya finally did get her eyesight back and began training again, what did we get? A couple of montages where she fights with a stick. And that’s all it took to be a competent assassin, I guess. It’s a rare example of a storyline both taking way too long to progress, but also feeling incredibly rushed.
And the resolution — oh boy, the resolution. Sure all the play stuff was great, and worked well as a way to “awaken” Arya Stark. But the show never really took the time to build up her identity of being “no one” in the first place, thus making it feel like Arya didn’t really change at all through any of the two season’s material. She trained a little, broke the rules, got in trouble, made up for it, and IMMEDIATELY AFTER fucked up again. Seeing Arya legitimately renounce her identity, become an assassin, and actually excel as a contract killer (at least for a while) could have been an interesting way for the show to present just how much the events in her life changed Arya, while also giving her the kickass powers she would need to make further events in the show possible. But just like with Jon Snow above, it seemed like the show refused to really do anything dramatic and risky with its characters — right when they were on the precipice of doing so, the writers would instantly pull back, all the better to preserve the “fan favorites” we all know and love. It’s a problem that many popular shows run into later in their lifespans, but with a series as willing to be as ballsy as Game of Thrones, it’s a shame to see it happening here.
And yes, I still DO love Jon Snow and Arya Stark — flat characterization isn’t going to change that. But for the sake of the story, you can’t pull punches here, and I can’t help but feel like George R.R. Martin isn’t going to when (if?) he ever gets around to finishing those books. If you’re going to change these characters, CHANGE THE CHARACTERS — don’t just go through the motions of doing so and call it a day.
Also, don’t have a parkour scene the day after a character nearly dies. And don’t have her triumphant moment of victory happen off screen. And don’t have her return to the people she betrayed, having her boss say she passed the test (???) just as she walks out…still fucking bleeding. Ugh, this storyline.
6) The Battle of the Brainless
I’m going to try and keep this one short and sweet, because if you made it this far into the piece, you’ve already suffered enough. But “The Battle of the Bastards” is one of the most iconic episodes of television ever, so it feels like I have to talk about it in some degree and, funny enough, will spend time discussing about it in both this list AND the “best of” list forthcoming. Which is apt, because boy have I never been more mixed on an episode of television than with this one.
Because though the spectacle was incredibly, I was one of those people who just couldn’t forgive what the writer’s had to do to get there — namely making every character a gigantic idiot. I’m not going to complain about the fact that Jon Snow (or Sansa for that matter) wasn’t going to die during the battle: at this point in the series I’m okay having a few “safe” characters, and I think killing off Jon just for the sake of a shock would have been a bad move overall. But just because Jon (and seemingly every other character in the battle) has plot armor, it doesn’t mean you have to make him a bumbling fool.
At this point, we’re supposed to buy that Jon is a pretty capable leader of men, and a strong warrior: the two battle episodes he was in before this, “Watchers on the Wall” and “Hardhome,” very much proved this. And both episodes did that by showing Jon survive against insurmountable odds, just as “The Battle of the Bastards” seemed to set up as well. Jon was going into a battle where he was clearly outmatched, against a foe who (until that point) proved to be unbeatable. Showing Jon thrive and win the battle through his own skills would have been a pivotal point of development for his character, but that didn’t happen. At all. And I really can’t wrap my head around why.
Swinging back to the pure technical aspects of the battle, let me say this: what Miguel Sapochnik and his crew were able to pull off here (on a $20 million budget no less) is incredible, and nothing I say can take away from that fact. But even taken as simply spectacle, I feel like there was something missing, a moment that I would always remember from the series. In “Blackwater,” there was of course the lighting of the bay with the wild fire, or Tyrion’s badass speech to the troops before “fucking them in the ass.” In “Watchers on the Wall,” there was the oath under the tunnels, or the giant freaking scythe taking out a bunch of dudes, or that 360 degree shot of Jon fighting Styr, or like every other moment from that episode because it’s just the coolest. Likewise for “Hardhome,” which had the wights destroying the gate to assault the beach, Jon shattering a White Walker with his sword, and of course the Night King chillingly giving Jon the stink eye in the episode’s final moments. All these things were incredible, defining moments of Game of Thrones for me, and I’m honestly not sure there’s a moment that comes close to matching ANY of them within “The Battle of the Bastards.”
And once again, I don’t even think it was Sapochnik’s fault — he did absolutely the best he could do with what was given, and managed to elevate the entire battle beyond its simple descriptions. But despite the massive declarations of love and support for “The Battle of the Bastards,” I couldn’t help but come away from its final moments feeling like something — or more likely many things — were missing in its conception. And that of course just left me feeling disappointment, rather than excitement. Oh well, at least Ramsay got the brutal death he deserved. We’ll always have that, at least:
Whew, that’s that: the six biggest problems I had with this season of Game of Thrones. Remember: I actually love Game of Thrones. I really do.