By Noel Vera
(Warning: surprise twists and plot details, of both series and novels, to be discussed!)
Season 6 of Game of Thrones has just ended and — yeah.
Not sure I’m happy with moving past George R. R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire; at least till Storm of Swords the books were superbly plotted and paced, and Martin managed to draw from English royal history (War of the Roses, the Crusades among others) to fashion a tale both epic and intimate in scope and sweep, the story told through various point-of-view characters instead of some impersonal omniscient narrator.
Readers complain that the latter two books — A Feast of Crows and A Dance with Dragons — moved too slowly; I thought Martin, having delivered a serious body blow with his first three books, felt the need to deliver even more sweep and detail about the world he’s built, to create the sense vast gathering forces about to collide. To do that on the scale he seems to want takes time and space spread out on the printed page, and even more time to write.
With Season 6 the HBO series has moved beyond the books, and… something’s missing. Not sure what, exactly; the series has picked up the pace (to be honest it’s been doing a fair job of summarizing and streamlining the books throughout) and the last two episodes of Season 5 gave us a taste of what the next season would be like: Daenerys meets Tyrion, Brienne confronts Stannis, Arya offs Ser Meryn — basically moments book and series fans have dearly wished to see.
Would Martin have really brought Jon Snow back from the cliffhanger of the fifth book? Perhaps. Jon apparently represents Ice to Daenery’s Fire in the book series’ title (recently proposed theories, freshly confirmed by the season finale, help cement this special status). The character’s potential had only been halfway explored up to that point, and it’s hard to imagine Martin throwing away all his careful preparations to sketch yet another downturn in the Stark fortunes (hats off to the series handlers for adding details that compare Jon’s resurrection to Christ’s — it helped sell or at least energize what was otherwise a less-than-startling “twist”).
On the other hand, resurrecting Jon didn’t seem to help much either — before “Battle of the Bastards” he could barely muster the men to throw against Ramsay Bolton and once on the battlefield (commanding a mere 3,000 men compared to Ramsay’s six) he can’t resist his adversary’s provocation, resulting in a disastrously premature charge.
Sansa saved that day. Could Sansa have carried on by herself? Why not? With Davos by her side and maybe even the Red Witch, she’d be a force to reckon with… and no silly half-brother (actually they’re cousins) to hold her down. Wildlings? With Brienne by her side who knows what Tormund might have done?
Of course we might call “Bastards” a learning experience for Snow — he’s only faced a hundred thousand wildlings with barely any military experience, and supernatural forces with straightforward motivations, no real sense of cunning (far as we know). The Boltons are apparently a strong army, complete with knowledge of Carthaginian tactics (in the Battle of Cannae 60,000 Carthaginians did to 85,000 Romans [a bigger enemy force, yes] what Snow’s forces intended to do and instead had done to them, a double envelopment) — though one wants to ask: where on Earth did that wall of corpses come from? Yes, people died earlier, and, yes, corpses do tend to pile up in battle, but a mountain some 10 plus feet high and a few hundred feet wide would probably involve modern automatic weaponry, not to mention earthmoving equipment.
Maybe my biggest problem with the series is the look — granted the production design is opulent and the digital effects state-of-the-art, we don’t really see the kind of distinct visual style a real filmmaker (as opposed to a skilled television director) can bring to the table. The series did have one, Neil Marshall (The Descent), who did two of the series’ biggest battle set pieces (“Blackwater,” with its breathtaking moment of a flaming arrow arcing across the night sky, and “The Watcher on the Wall” with its long tracking shot of men swarming all over Castle Black, to end in Jon Snow’s one-on-one duel). Otherwise the show is basically a bunch of glossy images delivered carefully and expensively, without much personal investment or personal style on the part of the director.
Perhaps the season’s best moments aren’t so much the fan service or important plot developments presented as if they were fan service (Sansa reunited with Jon; Lyanna’s secret revealed; Arya finally getting revenge) — as the smaller moments, like Hodor’s. “The Door” has my vote as the finest episode of the season, partly because the twist feels so much like something only Martin would have thought up, partly because Martin, especially in the novels, never really forgot that it’s not the kings and queens and lords but the ordinary folk that pay the cost of war. In A Feast of Crows, a peasant describes his life during these wars, both as survivor and as part-time soldier, and it’s arguably the finest passage Martin has written for the series; this episode helps evoke that kind of writing.
It’s not just that Hodor — Wylis — saved Bran by dying, it’s that (and this is strictly my theory) Bran transmitting Meera’s order to the stable boy in the past basically shaped his whole existence around that command. Grow strong, eat well, maybe practice on a doors or two; don’t fall in love, or make friends, or do anything a normal man would do. Just prepare throughout the span of your fairly lengthy life (Wylis had gray hair) for that moment in the future when you’ll be asked (without having much choice in the matter) to perform a service for your feudal lord. That’s the horror implicit in Meera’s desperate words, and Wylis’ thoughtless sacrifice.