Game of Thrones set a record for Emmy wins this year previously held by Frasier (…what) which is great; the show is an international success, its production value and quality performances are without peer and it will go down as the pop culture phenomenon that defines this decade. I couldn’t be happier for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, they have done a fantastic job with a sprawling, massive story that seems to get better season after season. But. I’m going to be Sally Complains-A-Lot for a few thousand words here because something happened at the end of season six that I think has fogged everyone’s perspective. The fact of the matter is that, with a few exceptions and the penultimate and ultimate episodes, season six was a dramatic shift in tone and, dare I say, drop in quality. Obviously, I’m going to point out the reasons why forthwith, but I want to be clear that I still think the show is one of the best on television and, even on a bad day, is one of the finest ever made, fully deserving of awards and praise. However, Weiss and Benioff’s departure from the source material was apparent immediately and affected the narrative in ways that have me a little bit concerned for the future of the series. What follows is only intended to be constructive criticism but, at the same time, if I’m not called an asshole by a fanboy or girl at least once I won’t feel like I’ve done my job.
The Problem: Tyrion Sucks All Of A Sudden
I’m not going to bury the lead here: Weiss and Benioff do not appear to know how to write this character. Tyrion is arguably George R.R. Martin’s own projection into his story, a well-spoken, deviously clever albeit damaged outsider who affects his environment through sheer force of will and his intellect. In the books his deformity is much more pronounced, the facial scar that he received at the Battle of the Blackwater far more severe than how it is depicted on the show. But he is still a capable character with agency and abilities, he stays relevant to the story in a world that is brutally violent by staying one step ahead whenever possible and in season six this year all of those qualities were missing. In Daenerys’s stead he negotiates a peace with Astapor and Yunkai which fails dramatically but, worse than that, is completely taken by surprise when those slave trading city-states sail an entire fleet of ships into the bay and attack Meereen. I mean, I’m no doctor, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night and I’m pretty sure that threatening the entire way of life of a few dictators, politely asking them to stop buying and selling human beings and then sitting back with a bottle of wine is the opposite of clever stratagem. How about a spy or two? How about keeping an eye on things or taking the advice of the locals or putting together a defense or a game plan of any kind? Sure, I liked the scene where he and Missandei and Grey Worm tell each other jokes, that was so cute. But while Tyrion has been playing chess up until this point all of a sudden he’s playing checkers and can only stand there mollified when Dany comes back to find the city in flames. And that’s the entirety of his storyline in this season, after that massive failure in leadership she names him Hand of the Queen and we all feel good about it but the fact of the matter is, he was a non-factor this year.
The Solution: Bring Back GRRM. In earlier seasons Martin tried to write at least one episode per season while also serving as creative adviser but quit in order to focus on finishing the next novel in the series The Winds of Winter. I think we can all accept the fact that the books are going to need to take a back seat to completing the show and HBO needs to reach into those deep pockets and pay the man whatever it takes to bring back his influence. Weiss and Benioff are very intelligent, gifted writers, and talented storytellers but they are not as smart as George when it comes to Tyrion Lannister, the character belongs to him and in anyone else’s hands he’s found wanting.
The Problem: Daenerys Is Shouting in Dothraki Again
I read an interview once about the locker room mentality in the NFL and being a fan of Friday Night Lights, I always hoped the right person gives the big speech at the right time but in reality there are guys that always give the big heartfelt soliloquy every single game and they do it so frequently that the team eventually just tunes them out. After six seasons of watching Dany empower the shit out of herself, I’m getting a little tired of the rousing calls to action. I mean. I get it. Follow her to fortune and glory. To say her arc in season six was recursive is a gross understatement, I’ve really come to have mixed feelings for our platinum pixie queen. I like that they are adding some ambiguity to her character, that she’s flirting with becoming the kind of ruler that she’s despises, quick to violence and brutality. But she’s also lost that underdog quality and become kind of a generic Mary Sue. She can more or less do no wrong and with her dragons somehow always in the right place at the right time and everyone who meets her immediately falling in love with her and swearing fealty, it’s hard to understand her pathos anymore. She wants to return to Westeros and rule. She wants to break the wheel. But…why? Because she hates the feudal system so much? Because the people (rightly) deposed her psychotic pyromaniac father? A man once said something about people and their desire to be in charge but what is she going to do with the world when she is? Slavery is already illegal there, that’s been her big motivation for taking over Slaver’s Bay and, in all honesty, she’s done a shit job ruling over the place in the short time that she had. Again, I’m no expert but if you suck in the Minor Leagues you’re probably not going to soar in the Majors, Westeros is much larger and more complex than what she’s encountered so far.
The Solution: It’s the Superman Dilemma when you really look at it. How do you get invested in a character that can’t seem to fail, everyone loves and has an unstoppable ace-in-the-hole in the form of a trio of fire breathing dragons and an immunity to fire? Very few characters in GoT are bulletproof and she’s obviously one of them so we need some kind of kryptonite, something that grounds or humanizes Dany so that she’s relatable again because right now she’s in danger of becoming just as two-dimensional as a Stephenie Meyer character. Taking away her dragons seemed to be the answer this season except, like punishing a teenager by taking their car away but caving and giving it back at the last second, there is no point if they just show up again right when they are needed the most.
The Problem: Everything Important Happens In The Back Nine
The biggest difference between the first five seasons of Game of Thrones and the sixth is that the latest one has fully shifted into a television narrative, rather than a novel for television. In a ten episode television season you’re going to have a captive audience that will stick around until the end where you hit them with a big finish and everyone go homes happy but novels don’t work that way. They are going to have several peaks and valleys which makes the entire novel for television season fun to watch rather than just the last two episodes. Which is where the whole crux of my argument lies, really. With the exception of The Door, season six was almost entirely forgettable. Everything was a build up to the Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter. And those episodes were so exceptional that everyone immediately forgot about the bizarre suspense-less T-1000 chase scene between the Waif and a completely out of character and gravely injured but parkour skilled Arya through the streets of Braavos. I’ll come right out and say it, that entire encounter and conclusion to that storyline was just bad writing. It was illogical, incongruous with the tone of the rest of the show and deeply unsatisfying in that we didn’t even actually see the killing stroke. My point is that without the novels as a road map the showrunners seem to be prioritizing action over the characters and backloading the season like an M. Night Shamalama-ding-dong film.
The Solution: Hand the whole thing over to Miguel Sapochnik. Since the novels are not going to be finished before the show the only way to establish a more consistent tone is to dial down the whole Director Of The Week strategy, the entire atmosphere and almost operatic quality of the last two episodes almost felt like a different show when compared to the earlier parts of the season. Without a consistent rhythm or feel there’s a real sense of too many cooks in the kitchen and the hands-down best director on the show is without a doubt Sapochnik. If not him, Alan Taylor or even Jeremy Podeswa, just one guy to keep the show from feeling like a slapdash mixtape until the finale. This is a moot point with regard to the seventh season, by the way, as the returning directors have been named and, insanely, Sapochnik isn’t one of them.
The Problem: Just In The Nick of Time
How about those last second heroics this season? Sansa and Theon are about to be captured and returned to Ramsay when Brienne suddenly rides in and saves the day. Yay! Bran and Meera are moments away from becoming worm food…food (Right? Because they are running away from zombies) when Benjen Stark gallops in and saves the day with like, hadoukens or something. Yay. The Battle of the Bastards was one of the most epic, groin grabbingly bitchin’ scenes of all time that loses none of the tension or impact on repeat viewings but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I have run out of ways to say ‘person on horse does rescue at last second’.
It’s exciting and thrilling, yes, and I agree it’s not like anyone can ride in on anything else like a helicopter or, oh wait, a dragon, he said with a significant glance. Lookit, I am not so without joy or masochistic that I want Game of Thrones to continue butchering our favorite characters but one of the things that made it so compelling in the first place were the stakes, the real sense that it played for keeps and didn’t cheat or cop out of the dramatic situations it placed itself in. And it was nice getting a few wins for the good guys and if I’m leaving out Hodor…well, it’s just because I don’t want to think about it.
The Solution: Never mind. This is probably going to be a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation as accounts about the next season are that it’s probably going to get darker before it concludes. Maybe the whole sixth season is actually a set up for the audience, to fool us into letting our guard down so that the seventh can sneak up behind us like a suspiciously friendly and hot new serving girl with a meat pie that’s got a special ingredient or two in there like a relative or the family dog or dear god, Arya, what’s become of you.
The Problem: The Assassination Of Subtlety By The Producers David and D.B.
So. Let’s go back to the first season and the death of Robert Baratheon by boar which, come to find out, was actually orchestrated by Cersei via manipulating Lancel into swapping out the king’s wine with a stronger fortified booze. This made him vulnerable and sluggish and led to his mortal injury and it took us a while to learn this was what happened because Cersei was actively trying to avoid anyone finding out. In fact, it took us a couple seasons to get the whole truth. Let’s skip ahead to Peter Baelish and his years long manipulation of Lysa Arryn who, come to find out after several seasons, was secretly the one who poisoned Jon Arryn and got this whole mess started to begin with. Aaaaand let’s skip right on to season six where Aeron Greyjoy throws his brother Balon, the king, off of a bridge and then proudly announces his murder during the kingsmoot and is still somehow elected as the new king, where a newly legitimized Ramsay Bolton murders his own father in front of two other random people, his infant brother and sister-in-law in the middle of Winterfell and goes on to take charge of the north, where Cersei Lannister blows up the entire fucking Sept killing hundreds of innocent people, several members of the Tyrell family and the leadership of the city’s church in the middle of Sunday Service. The politics of Game of Thrones has shifted away from its origins based on English history and a period known as The War of The Roses and is now something more akin to Vikings as interpreted by Michael Bay.
I mean, what the actual fuck. No ones claim to the throne has any validity at all if it’s based on the obvious murder of immediate family otherwise the entire power structure collapses. Lines of succession are irrelevant, brothers and sisters may as well just start stabbing each other in their sleep in order to inherit houses. You can’t tell me there wasn’t one Northerner at the Battle of the Bastards who wasn’t standing with his back to Winterfell that didn’t turn to a buddy and say, “Hey, where’s Roose Bolton? All I see is that sick fuck Ramsay at the head of this goddammer. What gives?” To which is buddy responded, “Oh, Roose is dead. He was poisoned by our enemies (wink, wink).” Then the buddy throws some air-quotes in there for good measure. The Northerner persists, “The fuck does that even mean? Roose is a veteran commander, Warden of the North and the leader of House Bolton. Ramsay is a sadistic bastard who has his own torture room where he cuts off people’s wieners.” “Yeah,” says his buddy, “But he stabbed and killed his papa and fed his baby brother to his dogs, so…..he’s calling the shots now, mate. I think we’re in good hands.” The Northerner can only express incredulity. And don’t even get me started on Cersei. The entire city has to know she’s responsible at this point and although she certainly got a dour reception while being crowned, you can’t tell me half the population of King’s Landing wouldn’t riot at the sight of her.
The Solution: I need to get over it. The toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube on this one, the days of behind the scenes scheming are over, with the exception of Littlefinger, whatever he has planned, and if Sansa doesn’t have him in irons in a cell at the beginning of next season she deserves whatever she gets because that slimy bastard is nothing but trouble. Honestly, I could shift the blame over to David and D.B. where it rightfully belongs, again, I just don’t think they are as intelligent as the source material George R.R. Martin has been developing for over a decade. But as popular as the show has become, you give the people what they want. And they want results, damn it. Big slutty, explosive results.
The Problem: Teleportation Is A Privilege, Not A Right
Okay, don’t get me wrong, I understand that if all 30 or so major and minor characters actually spent the time it takes to travel all over the world of Greater Westeros we’d be watching people walk down roads for the next few years before anything of consequence happened. That’s a lot of small talk. A lot of getting to know each other and campfire stories. Basically, The Lord of the Rings times 10 and no one has time for that, I too have shit to do. But season six went a little overboard with travel times, I’m talking Theon and Yara zipping across the known world with an entire fleet to meet Dany, who conveniently waited around for them to get there without knowing they were coming. I’m talking about Jon and Sansa touring the Northern countryside in a van with a drummer, a bassist, a giant, and a dream in a matter of two or three episodes, max. And although the reveal of Arya at the end was one of the most shocking and satisfying moments of any show ever, part of the reason it was so surprising is that as far as we knew she was on a different fucking continent.
Never mind Jaime has also been up and down Westeros, and Mama Tyrell has Fast Traveled down to Dorne, the biggest pain in the ass moment for me was seeing Varys travel to meet with the Sand Snakes to chat and then travel back to Meereen in time to sail with Dany all within the space of a half hour of the show. I know people have tried to validate this by saying, well, it’s probably been a month or two so that they can prepare which would have given him time to get back, but that’s a problem. If you need to fill in the logic of a story or a television show with educated guesses that means the storyteller has failed a little bit. I am absolutely nitpicking right now, I know this but it’s to a purpose: aside from the magic and the zombies and the warging and all, Game of Thrones has always felt pretty grounded in reality when it comes to the limitations of what is essentially Medieval Europe. It’s hard to communicate effectively over great distances. Dangerous to travel down certain roads. The things we take for granted in modern times are difficult and a lot of that fidelity to the time period was missing this season and the travel times were just the most apparent part.
The Solution: Slow the hell down. No one knows for sure why next season is going to be shortened to eight episodes and the final shortened to seven. But it’s probably because they are cutting out all the filler material that Martin’s admittedly dense novels contain and are skipping right to the juicy stuff, to which I reply, why? What’s the hurry. We’re going to watch. HBO is going to make their money. Take your time and tell the whole story. Tell it right.
Okay, that’s all I got. Are we still friends? I may have come down a little hard on Dany, I just like the character so much she felt wasted this year, like they weren’t ready to bring her to Westeros so they put her in a holding pattern, rolled out the liquor carts and restarted the in-flight movie. Which was, ironically, Backdraft, an instant classic, Ron Howard really came into his own. I also mostly left out Jaime who had a surprisingly anti-climactic stroll to Riverrun and back again, like when you go to the store for groceries, can’t think of anything to eat and end up returning home with a cake, paper towels, and a magazine. And can anyone justify the off-screen killing of the Blackfish, who was built up like a badass of Sam Elliott-in-Roadhouse proportions? Granted, that’s a bad comparison because technically Sam Elliott was killed off-screen in Roadhouse but that’s not the point, Internet. The point is, I believe in taking a second look at a show or film. The first look is for the experience, the second for the craft, the how of it and I found some flaws I hadn’t seen in earlier seasons. As far as audiences go, this season rates as high as any others and I was on the edge of my seat along with everyone else, however, I am going to hold David and D.B.’s feet to the fire as a critic and as a fan, as much as I loved this year’s finale, I am not drinking the Kool-Aid.