Entertainment·Analysis

Game of Thrones post-mortem: Season 6 zooms past George R.R. Martin's novels

Was the first Game of Thrones season to leap beyond George R.R. Martin's bestselling novels the best one yet? A trio of CBC Thronies weigh in on season 6: the good, the bad and the poorly written.

Expect eye-popping spectacle with routine dialogue as show races to the finale

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, left) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) plot the takeover of Westeros in the season six finale of HBO's fantasy TV hit Game of Thrones. (HBO Canada)

SPOILER ALERT: This discussion contains information and details from the entire sixth season of Game of Thrones.

Winter is here and the fan base for the epic swords and dragons drama Game of Thrones grows ever larger, with nearly nine million fans tuning in on Sunday night to close the book on season 6 (with encores, on-demand, DVR and streaming pushing the figure to more than 23 million views weekly).

This season was a watershed moment, marking the first time the hit HBO series moved past its source material, author George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels (devotees have been awaiting his sixth tome, The Winds of Winter, for nearly five years and there's no current release date set).

What did this mean for the show? A trio of CBC "Thronies" converge for a discussion about season six. 

What did you expect from the first season to jump past George R.R. Martin's book series?

John Mazerolle, Song of Ice and Fire diehard: I was a little apprehensive about having the show spoil the books for me. But this was largely misguided. Many of the big reveals this season were things the book-reading hive mind predicted years ago: from Melisandre's true visage to Jon Snow's parentage to the wildfire explosion.

That said, the show isn't closely hewing to the books anymore. Season one was basically a beat-for-beat adaptation, seasons two to four had necessary streamlining and season five kept the big moments, but often took a different route to get there.

We don't know exactly how The Winds of Winter (novel) will unfold, but it's guaranteed to bear only a passing resemblance to season six. Martin has released or read 11 chapters at fan events, sharing viewpoints of characters dead or non-existent on the show, or who have had just a line or two. As Martin has said more than once: the show is the show, the books are the books.

A hint about the back story of Red Witch Melisandre (Carice van Houten) offered an early jaw-dropping moment in season six. (HBO)

Jessica Wong, skeptical TV series devotee: Having read just a bit of Martin's original series, I nonetheless expected punchier, albeit less poetic dialogue and many more flashy, big-budget scenes packed into 10 episodes. Less oration, more action, I guess?

Deana Sumanac-Johnson, recapper extraordinaire:  I had a sense that the tone and overall feel of the show might change. While the books are not high literature by any stretch, Martin paints this world in a vivid and believable way. I anticipated that some of that lifelike quality — the quality that makes people from the land of dragons and zombies feel like they're your family — would be lost.

What did you love? What did you hate?

JM: The show varies in quality, but when it's good it's very good. I loved the first appearance of Euron Greyjoy, the Hodor reveal and Cersei's big move.

I hated the way they presented both Sansa and Arya's revenge as unambiguously positive moments, when one of the overriding themes is the futility of revenge (or so I thought). Maybe there will be repercussions later, but I'm doubtful.

The season's penultimate episode was dominated by the so-called Battle of the Bastards, which featured fan favourites like Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju). (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

I was surprised the Battle of the Bastards was so universally loved: Jon, Ramsay, Sansa, Davos and Tormund were all remarkably stupid at least once during the episode. Was it terrible? No. But it wasn't even the best episode this season.

JW: Incredible GoT speeches are something I love, but in season six they were often replaced by laughable dialogue and one-liners (ugh to both Meereen and Dorne). 

Past seasons saw characters — from Jamie Lannister to Arya Stark to The Hound to even Grey Worm — imbued with layers of complexity. This season, so many characters felt one-note. The actors were admirable in their efforts, but it seems jam-packed scenes of spectacle now rule Westeros.

I have a love-hate relationship with how producers dispatched so many villainous characters this season. It was, naturally, cathartic to watch a dastardly Bolton, nasty Frey or arrogant High Sparrow get his comeuppance, but it also felt a bit like writers were too keen to deliver everything fans wanted on a silver platter.

DS: The production value this season was superb: probably better than in any of the other seasons. It's still a thrilling, epic show. The writing, however, really wasn't great. Many of the lines were on the nose, in contrast to the tradition of characters speaking in riddles and metaphors (remember Tyrion's "Cousin Orson smashing beetles" speech? Such nuanced, allegorical dialogue would've never made the cut this season).

Particularly riling were Tyrion's drinking games with Grey Worm and Missandei — so cringeworthy and unworthy of Peter Dinklage's talent. His unfunny tirades also seemed like a sad mimicry of his wit of seasons past.

Sophie Turner (Sansa) really grew as an actress this year, going from fierceness to fear and vulnerability with great agility. When Sansa and Jon Snow reunite, I actually had tears in my eyes: the first reunion of the long-separated and long-suffering Starks. But the tensions between them have been just as interesting to watch, and I have a feeling that tension will be a major point next season.

I also hated anything happening in Meereen and the unmotivated change of Daenerys from a kindhearted ruler to one who is increasingly vicious.

Sansa Stark, portrayed by Sophie Turner, evolved into a major player (finally!) this season. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

What were your most memorable moments?

JM: Positive images that stay with me: The Godfather-like pacing and score behind Cersei's return to power. The wights crawling along the cave ceiling like half-human insects. Jon nearly being crushed by his own soldiers.

Negative images that stay with me: Sansa smirking as she sinks to Ramsay's level. Arya's perfect recovery from a knife twisted into her gut. Ten seconds of Dorne is 10 seconds too much.

JW: This season, I enjoyed watching the likes of Sansa and, especially, Samwell grow and evolve (it was a helluva Look Who's Coming for Dinner scenario at Casa Tarly). Ian McShane gave a terrific performance in the back half of the season. The Hodor reveal was perhaps the lone "stab the audience in the heart" moment of the entire 10 episodes. 

Low points included regularly feeling Daenerys déjà vu. Oh look, another Carrie scene. Surprise, surprise, the dragons save the day, etc. Thank goodness we're finally unshackled from the former slave cities.

DS: I loved most of the Bran flashbacks, especially the Tower of Joy scenes. The actor portraying young Ned Stark (Robert Aramayo) is fabulous, his facial expressions and accent a perfect mirror for Sean Bean. There were tender, emotional moments in those scenes: the love between Ned and Lyanna Stark is palpable, Bran's desire to reach out to his dead father, heartbreaking.

Bran Stark's (Isaac Hempstead Wright) vision scenes helped the audience discover an important secret to the entire series. (HBO Canada)

I also loved anything Davos-related. Liam Cunningham is such an affable actor that, at this point, if he dies I'd mourn him more than Jon Snow. His season finale confrontation with the Red Woman about Shireen's death, a girl whom he "loved like a daughter," was just tops for me. His voice crackles with pain and anger. I hope it served as a reminder to GoT showrunners that you don't always need fire and dragons to make a powerful scene.

What's your overall feeling now?

JM: Whiplash. Game of Thrones can leave you in awe of its terrific filmmaking, but frustrated by its erratic, hit-and-miss writing — sometimes in the same scene. The show's spectacle this year was, well, spectacular: the White Walker attack, the Battle of the Bastards and the dragon battle were all movie-quality moments.

An epic, intricately planned, fantastically shot and scored power play from Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) leads off the finale and marks one of the season's highlights. (HBO Canada/Helen Sloan)

But without Martin's text to guide them, producers have been pushing details aside and it hurts the storytelling. Why does no one seem to care that Jon was resurrected? Why is kinslaying — previously one of the very worst things you could do in Westeros — now something three different families can do without anyone raising an eyebrow? Why does everybody treat Jon like a hero in the final episode, after he proved himself the world's most inept field commander just a week earlier?

It's not as good as it once was, but it's still fun and has its moments. I'll watch until the end, but it's the books that I truly care about. Long may they reign.

JW: I have mixed feelings. After seeing female characters in particular subjected to so much violence in the past, this was an interesting "Girl Power" season (Can we get a regular dose of Lady Lyanna Mormont, please?).

But I can't shake the feeling of season six having been more about getting from A to B, moving chess pieces around and checking off boxes — Dragons roast the baddies? Check. Grisly vengeance served ice-cold? Check, check and check — than engrossing storytelling. That said, I know some fans appreciated the faster jumps between storylines and focus on fewer faces versus the stately pace and cobweb of alliances from earlier in the series.

Villains such as ruthless father-and-son Roose and Ramsey Bolton (Michael McElhatton, left, and Iwan Rheon) get their comeuppance in season six. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

The big cinematic scenes were undeniably amazing. The battle to retake Winterfell invoked Saving Private Ryan. The horror film-inspired escape that led to the Hodor reveal was skin-crawling, then heartbreaking. The finale's impeccably paced, scored and filmed opening segment in King's Landing has rightly been likened to The Godfather or The Sopranos.

Personally, I'm in the too-invested-to-stop-watching camp. But I'm still hoping the show's final seasons can balance art and spectacle.

Game of Thrones is like a pizza: even if it's bad, it's still pretty damn good.- Deana Sumanac-Johnson

DS: I think that, partially, Game of Thrones is now suffering from being too big to be able to maintain the mystery. In season one, to find fan theories you had to search obscure Reddit sites. Now, things like Jon Snow's parentage and exactly how the resurrection scene would proceed are covered by mainstream media. So, I don't think it's entirely the fault of showrunners for not being able to keep mystery intact. We, the fans, spoil things for ourselves sometimes.

In many ways, this season felt like a different show: packed with action, but low on mystery and suspense. That said, it's still a damned good show. Its sheer scope and ambition compensate for some of the storytelling flaws. Game of Thrones is like a pizza: even if it's bad, it's still pretty damn good.

I'll continue to watch it as I'm invested in the characters now and curious about the final showdown (and for the record, I will always be Team Jon Snow).

The reunion of Sansa Stark and Jon Snow (played by Sophie Turner and Kit Harington) was an emotional high point for many fans watching season six. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

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