YOU KNOW WHAT? AT THIS POINT, UNLESS IT’S A REVIEW, ASSUME SPOILERS
This is the best season of Game of Thrones ever.
I’m not being hyperbolic and I’m not saying that just because I have a soft spot for Jon Snow.
As a narrative work, Game of Thrones is currently hitting its peak. Even if other seasons have had better individual episodes (The Rains of Castamere, Hardhome), I don’t think any season of this show has been as consistent, as narratively compelling, or as absolutely vital as this one. Which is a hell of a compliment to throw to a show six seasons into its run.
So, of course, come the halfway point of this impressive season, we really do need to figure out why this season of Game of Thrones is that much better than the other remarkably impressive seasons up until now, and especially what has made it improve from the last season.
The answer really is fairly simple. It’s not any event or emotional death or badass attack from an army that would be an impressive in a movie but can doubly wow on TV. It’s because for the first time in its history, Game of Thrones feels like it’s going to end.
Let’s start at some basic narrative principles. I mean, the most basic. Every story we tell must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. To give an example, in Lord of The Rings:
There is a magical artifact that must be destroyed.
A group of adventurers go on an adventure to destroy it.
The magical artifact is destroyed and the land is saved.
Pretty basic, but you get the picture. It’s interesting in that basic breakdown how much simplifying the middle leaves out. There’s wars and loves and loss and monsters and magic that completely comes down all to the service of getting from the beginning to the end.
Welcome to the delicate art of the second act. It’s fundamental purpose is to guide the story through the paces that the audience requires to feel satisfied from point A to point B, as well as properly convey all the thematics that the storyteller wants the story to be about.
That means there’s a lot going on, and that flurry of activity has to be played carefully for the audience to care enough to get all the way to the beginning.
See, because as an audience, people are generally fairly fickle. If they don’t feel like there’s a point to the events of the second act (in other words that the events in the middle are actually progressing towards the end) then they tend to drop out and not care. If the Fellowship of the Ring had spent the entirety of Two Towers going through the same fights and discussions and talking to a bunch of different people who ultimately wouldn’t matter, then the audience would be right to not give a shit about Return of the King.
Just remember that the second act of any story, no matter how traditional or nontraditional the narrative, needs to always have its endgame in mind so that the audience knows that they’re narratively moving towards an end that will feel satisfying.
With television, that’s particularly difficult. Unlike most forms of narrative media, showrunners aren’t necessarily sure how much time they have to get through to reach their end, but they have to keep their audience engaged no matter how short or how long they have. Up until recently that didn’t matter, most shows operated in arcs or on an episodic basis. But the Golden Age of Television has brought the rise of the serialized drama, one which now must extend the “beginning, middle, and end” rules of narrative for however long the show must go on.
Now, Game of Thrones has had an an advantage over most. Up until now, it’s been directly adapting a series of books that had already done the work of moving through the middle of the story and managed to keep us on the hook for finding out how it would eventually end.
At least until season 5.
Season 5 began to poke the holes in the overall narrative, mainly that it had lost sight of how it would end. Plenty happened, sure. But none of it seemed to really matter to the overall story. It was pieces being shifted into different places, no guarantee that it was where any of those pieces needed to be.
What’s more is that showrunners Benioff and Weiss seemed to be removing the bits from the book that made any of the events seem like they had significance (most notably Dorne, a storyline which seems to have been mercy killed in its sleep this season), signaling to the fans that in the overall scheme, none of what happened in the season really matters. Which is understandably frustrating for people who had spent 2000 pages finding futility.
It became a season of wheel-spinning, distracting you while the show tried to find what the next step in the whole process was. I will grant you that it has one of the show’s best episodes in Hardhome, but the reason that one actually felt so enjoyable was, besides the wicked “heavy metal album art come to life” center piece battle, that it felt like it was opening up something new for the show. Some direction to move forward to, something that it made it clear that there was bigger threats to come, not just shifting around the same one.
Which is what Season 6 finally realized, perhaps because it is free of any expectations visited on it by adapting a book.
Sure, there’s been a lot of great moments that work just as something mind-blowing to watch. The Tower of Joy sequence, the Night’s King attacking the holdout of the Three-Eyed Raven, Jon Snow’s resurrection, and Ser Robert Strong killing Cersei’s enemies were all wonderful bits of visual storytelling and compelling narrative.
But what’s more important is that each of them feel like they’re finally putting in place pieces for the end.
Let’s take Jon Snow’s resurrection. Whether you like him or not, it’s become very clear that he’s being set up as one of the main protagonists for this series, if not the main. His resurrection did two things.
- It frees him from the Night’s Watch and gives him the ability to move beyond Castle Black with impunity.
- It gives him a certain mythological significance that allows him to begin to come into his own as a leader thematically as well as narratively.
It also makes him our unquestioned hero in the North, having come back from the dead, and pits him against our unquestioned villain, Ramsay Bolton.
You can do fairly similar analysis for Cersei and Ser Robert Strong, Bran and the Night’s King (as well as the Tower of Joy), and Tyrion in Mereen, plus countless others. But I choose Snow because I think it will be the most important.
Essentially, in one fell swoop, Snow’s resurrection pivots a character into being a now active participant in the overall narrative and sets up the conflict that could ultimately resolve one portion of the storyline and set it up for the endgame.
That’s this season’s MO in totality. Great sequences that are about putting into place what is necessary to get this show to a conclusion. For the first time in a long time, Game of Thrones knows where it’s going. And it can finally give us the directions to come with it.