Season Six of HBO’s Game of Thrones opens on April 24th, and, having recapped previous season for Biff Bam Pop, like millions of fans, I’m filled with absolute gleeful, can’t-think-of-anything-else, seeing–dragons-and white-walkers–in-my-sleep anticipation. Many are busy speculating what may happen in season six, but as season five ended over 300 days ago so lets revisit what happened in Westeros and beyond, right after the break.
The season started with Tywin Lannister dead. His murderer, Tyrion, is on the run; and the baby King Tommen is left with a vengeful and slightly unhinged Cersei as his main advisor. The Kings Landing plotline was really the “Cersei Show” all season, giving Lena Headey a chance to shine. And shine she did as Cersei’s character arc brought her from grieving daughter to fearful mother to repentant(ish) sinner. No disrespect to Uzo Aduba, but Lena was robbed at the 2015 Emmy’s
Cersei’s sowed the seeds of her own destruction by sending Mace Tyrell to Braavos and arming and emboldening a resurgent sect of religious fanatics. Her plans seem to work when Queen Margaery is jailed; but are quickly turned on their head when Cersei too is arrested. It seems former boy-toy (and secret kingslayer) Lancel Lannister confessed to their dalliances, giving the new High Sparrow the ammunition he needs. The season ends with Cersei confessing some of her sins and being forced to walk naked through the hateful crowd. Lena Headey is fearless and fierce in this scene, starting the walk with head held high and slowly breaking down as derision (and lots of vegetables) are thrown down upon her. It doesn’t look like she’ll stay broken for long, not with the backing of creepy Qyburn and the reanimated Franken-Mountain waiting in the wings.
Season five brought us to the land of Dorne and introduced the Sand Snakes. In a plotline that diverged greatly from the books, Jamie and Bronn embarked on a rescue mission to save Myrcella from Oberyn’s revenge-fueled daughters. This new plotline started as an anticipated and welcome change, a chance to see Jamie in a new, unfamiliar environment and to introduce some fascinating characters – including the lame but wise Dornish leader, Doran Martell.
Alas, the Jamie and Bronn pairing quickly devolved into a bad buddy road movie, and the Sand Snakes failed to live up to their literary counterparts. Plots and characters appeared and disappeared almost randomly. Doran was given limited screen time, a waste of the ever excellent Alexander Siddig. And – in the most telegraphed murder in Game of Thrones history – Myrcella is killed James Bond Style, by a poison kiss from Oberyn’s former consort, moments after a touching (if creepy) uncle/father-daughter chat with Jamie. The Dornish plot was one of the few missteps in this otherwise excellent series, but I’m certain the writers will make up for it in season six!
Meereen and The East
The coolest (and shortest) Lannister escaped Kings Landing in a shipping crate and starts season five filthy, seasick, and bereft of hope. Tyrion stays in that state even after Varys convinces him to travel to Meereen to offer himself as an advisor to Dany the Dragon Queen. Their travels are interrupted when a bored Tyrion wanders off and gets himself kidnapped by the exiled Ser Friendzone, Jorah Mormont. Jorah wants to use Tyrion as a bargaining chip to get back in Dany’s good graces.
This too turned into a bit of a buddy roadshow. Luckily, with much better writing and the sheer magnetism of Peter Dinklage and Iain Glen, it works. On their journey Tyrion sees his first dragon and we get more great Dinklage as he is overwhelmed with wonder. They also are attacked by stone men, captured by slavers, and reveal new depths of character and personality that continue to drive the plot forward. The scene where Jorah learns about the death of the elder Mormont is especially poignant.
Meanwhile, in Meereen, Dany continues to learn that it’s much easier to conquer than to rule. A terrorist group, the Sons of the Harpy, are running roughshod through the city, murdering Unsullied and citizenry alike; and ultimately killing the beloved Barristan Selmy (and almost doing away with the adorable murder-machine Grey Worm). While trying to do the ‘right’ thing, Dany manages to piss of her dragons (by keeping them chained), the freed slaves (by executing a former slave for killing a captured Harpy), and the general citizenry (for closing the fighting pits).
Dany eventually opens the pits, which gives Jorah and Tyrion a chance to enter the scene. Tyrion she accepts, and their scenes together promise great things to come. Jorah is re-exiled, but manages to get himself back into the fighting pits in time to thwart a Harpy attack. The season ends with dragon ex machina , Drogon flame-broiling some terrorists before whisking Dany to safety and leaving our remaining heroes surrounded by Harpies on the arena floor. Things don’t look so great for Dany though, as her exhausted and injured dragon drops her in the path of a Dothraki horde led by a Khal not nearly as nice as Drogo.
Speaking of adorable murder machines, Arya makes it to Braavos and eventually gets into Assassin School, where the head master is none other than Jaqen H’ghar, the face-changing man from season two. Jaqen adheres to the extreme Karate Kid version of teaching, assigning Arya house and corpse-cleaning duties and urging her to become “no one” before she can move to the next level of training. From a set and plot design perspective, the scenes in this temple of death are amongst the strongest of the season. We learn that, in this religion death can be a gift (to end suffering and pain) or punishment (when a man without honor advances himself by hurting others). We also learn the source of their power lies within a hall filled with the never-ending faces of the dead.
Arya attempts to embrace the challenges, to become the neutral servant of death the Many-Faced God requires. But there is still too much fire there. She cannot truly become ‘no one’ until she releases her anger, and that inability to do so costs her. While on assignment, she spots Meryn Trant and her need for vengeance overwhelms her. She steals a face and successfully gains her revenge by slashing Trant’s throat in a particularly violent scene at a brothel. But any satisfaction at the offing of the murderous pedophile is short-lived. Arya’s actions anger Jaqen and the Many-Faced God. The season ends with her blinded and cast out of favor. Let’s hope she doesn’t stay there long!
Many roads led to Winterfell in season five. Sansa approached from the south, Stannis from the north and the psychopathic hobbit Ramsay hung around in the middle like a malignantly grinning spider. Both the Stannis and Sansa storylines contained brutal elements that horrified viewers and caused controversy, but both put in place vital plot elements that set the show up for its final laps.
Sansa’s story starts at the Vale with the slime-maester Petyr Baelish. They embark north, with Baelish talking marriage, but we are quickly surprised to find the impending betrothal is not his, but Sansa’s. Baelish has arranged an alliance with the Boltons, to be sealed by Sansa’s marriage to the newly legitimized bastard Ramsay. I feared this plotline at first, mostly because it seemed repetitive to Sansa’s story from season two, and in some ways that proved true. While this was an older, wiser Sansa, she still seemed destined to always play the victim. This was never more evident than in her marriage-night rape at the hands of Ramsay, perhaps the most controversial episode of season six as many fans grew outraged at the show for continuing to use rape as a plot point.
But there were some elements of hope that Sansa was ready to take control of her situation within the story. From her agreement to signal Brienne if she needed help, to taking the knife and other tools that could help liberate her, to her willingness to use Theon’s shame and guilt and fear to her advantage, Sansa planted the seeds of her escape. She and Theon took a literal leap of faith off the castle walls into the snow. I’m looking forward to finding where that leap takes her.
Meanwhile, far to the north, Stannis stands at the wall after delivering Jon Snow from the clutches of the Wildlings. Stannis is planning to march on Winterfell next, and he is looking for troops and leaders to join him. His story arc is perhaps the darkest and most troubling in the series.
We’ve always known Stannis was cold, confident in his destiny, and willing to do whatever it takes to reach it. But we saw some other sides of the bitter Baratheon this year. We found a father who reassures Shireen of his love and her worth; and a diplomat who disagreed with Jon Snow’s decision to stay with the Nights Watch, but respected his need to put honor over glory. We had a glimpse of the kind of king he would be: stern but just, uninspiring but stable…maybe everything Westeros needed.
And then the snows hit, and his army became bogged down in ice, and he made the decision to sacrifice his daughter to Melisandre’s Red God. In a series filled with dark moments, this was its darkest. As Shireen died off-screen in shrieking agony, actor Stephen Dillane pulled off his finest work, wearing the face of a man who knew he was damned and was willing to accept the consequences. Everything afterwards – his wife’s suicide, the desertion of half his men, Melisandre’s abandonment, the rout by the Bolton army, and his death at the hands of the vengeful Brienne – all was mere denouement, the only logical outcome for a man brought low by an appalling level of hubris.
The Wall and Beyond
For all of season fives twists and turns, the main event this year really happened at and around the Wall. You have dragons, Meereen? Pffft…the Wall had White Walkers, ice zombies, giants, and Night Kings! Betrayal, Kings Landing? Yeah, how about we spin the tune of Ollie and the Night’s Watch for you? Hypno-Boobs, Nym of the Sand Snakes? I’ll raise you one …er two Melisandre and a Gilly. Everything that happened in the grander story this year happened in heartbreaking microcosm far to the North. And of course it all revolved around the mopiest of bastards, Jon Snow.
The season started with the last temptation of Snow. Stannis offers the Stark name and power, while Melisandre offers some baser temptations. And of course, the honorable bastard resists. Later, after some good words by the ever-trustworthy Sam, he is elected as Lord Commander, and immediately steps into the role – disposing of the dishonorable Slynt, sending Sam and Gilly away to research the White Walkers, bringing in the Wildlings from beyond the Wall, going to Hardhome to rescue those left behind. Jon acts the way great leaders do, playing the long game and making the hard decisions no matter how unpopular.
Which is why he has to die. Because if Game of Thrones is about anything, it’s about how short sighted people are, about how much we act in our self-interest because we fear the mysteries that lie beyond the veil. How often does a leader emerges that might make a difference, only to be struck down because others fail to see his vision? There was no better end to another tumultuous season than to have the camera pull back from a blank eyed Snow, blood pooling around his head, while millions of people screamed in horror as the character they thought was the ‘chosen’ died in the snow.
Season six really is uncharted territory as the series has moved well beyond most of the plot points of the novels, so we really don’t know. Is the mopey bastard really dead, or just “mostly dead?” HBO says he’s dead. Kit Harrington says so too. And what about his sister? We know from previews that Sansa and Theon survive the fall, but Ramsay’s mutts don’t sound far behind. Will Arya regain her sight and her place as the Many-Faced God’s assassin? Now that Stannis is gone, do Melisandre and Davos spin off into their own opposites attract sitcom?
And what’s happening in Meereen and Kings Landing? Are the Dothraki friend or foe? How will Cersei react to Myrcella’s death and what will she do to Dorne? For once, no one but the show runners have a clue, and I really can’t wait to start finding out on April 24th!