(Be warned, intrepid reader: This story contains loads of spoilers regarding every episode from this season’s run of Game of Thrones, including Sunday’s season finale.)
This was the season that Game of Thrones seriously changed its game.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Sunday’s season finale, the last of 10 episodes that pulled together far-flung storylines and characters spread across the show’s mythical seven kingdoms — and beyond.
As much as fans have complained recently about “table-setting” episodes, which arrange characters like chess pieces poised for future action, Sunday’s installment soared while leaving plotlines neatly arrayed for a momentous series conclusion, which seems likely to be spread over the show’s next two seasons.
If there was a theme to Thrones this season, it might be summed up in a single word: satisfaction.
Unlike in previous years, which often felt like producers were trying hard to avoid anything fans could predict or expect, Season 6 delivered much of what the audience wanted. It began with the resurrection of popular character Jon Snow and ended Sunday with a particularly brutal revenge taken by Queen Mother Cersei Lannister — a crowd-pleasing turn that was a long time coming.
For all of this season and much of the last, viewers have seen Lena Headey’s ruthless noblewoman Cersei continually humiliated by the High Sparrow — a religious zealot who controls the Faith of the Seven in the kingdom of Westeros, played with delicate precision by Jonathan Pryce. Last season, he forced her to stride naked through the streets in a devastating walk of atonement; this season, he turned her own son, the king of Westeros, against her.
But Sunday’s episode brought sweet revenge, as Cersei set off barrels full of wildfire — a kind of mystical napalm — underneath the building where the High Sparrow had planned to put her on trial. The explosion killed him and most of the faithful who served him, while also wiping out her son’s wife, Margaery Tyrell, who had been Cersei’s chief rival.
It may be to the producers’ credit that they could get fans to root for a woman like Cersei, who once killed her own husband to continue an incestuous relationship with her brother. But the Queen Mother’s victory Sunday was gratifying, restoring a powerful character to the top of her game even as viewers were reminded just how coldly ruthless she is.
(Of course, Cersei’s cruelty corrupts everything she touches. Her son Tommen jumped out a window to his death after seeing that his mother had blown his wife to bits. This, ironically, left Cersei as ruler of the kingdom.)
Critics of the show’s treatment of women got some satisfaction from this season as well. The gratuitous nudity and offhand sexual violence against women which once littered episodes decreased significantly this time around, as female characters stepped up to become major power players.
One of the show’s central heroines, Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, has finally developed into the powerful leader the show has been grooming her to become for five seasons.
Last week, we saw her finally take control of the three dragons she has raised from birth to defeat an enemy. On Sunday, we saw her leading an armada that includes ships pledged by another powerful female leader, Yara Greyjoy. And there were hints that Daenerys may also have united with women who killed their male relatives to take over the kingdom of Dorne, and Margeary’s grandmother Olenna Tyrell (played in wonderfully acid, scenery-chewing turns by TV veteran Diana Rigg). Talk about a high-powered sisterhood.
Satisfaction also came this season in a surprising way; the bad guys actually lost. This hasn’t always happened in Games of Thrones-land; early on, the show seemed to pride itself on storylines in which heroism mostly led to defeat or a brutal death. It seemed a sort of antidote to more conventional sword-and- sorcery tales, where the hero’s virtue always leads to victory over the less trustworthy.
This was a series, after all, that killed off its first hero, Ned Stark — played by one of the show’s biggest stars, Sean Bean — in the first season.
But Season 6 brought many more nick-of-time victories for the good guys. Friends of Jon Snow kept his body safe until he could be resurrected. Daenerys showed up at the last moment with dragons to save her city, Meereen, from conquest. Little Arya Stark, who last week barely escaped from the league of assassins known as The Faceless Men, popped up in Sunday’s episode to slit the throat of Walder Frey, the man who had killed her mother in a legendary scene from Season 3 known as The Red Wedding.
And sadistic killer Ramsay Bolton — whose smirking, obvious villainy has vexed many a critic — suffered a crushing defeat in last week’s episode when he seemed on the verge of besting Jon Snow on the battlefield. Eventually, he was devoured by his own dogs as a sort of final comeuppance for all the torture and pain he had visited on so many other characters — the kind of cathartic triumph over evil that the series rarely allowed itself in the past.
Game of Thrones also turned in some of its most visually arresting episodes this season, including last week’s installment, “Battle of the Bastards,” featuring a raging clash between armies supporting Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. It was a bloody, visceral exercise, epic in scope and detailed in execution, reportedly involving 500 extras and nearly a month of filming.
This is the season that the show’s producers moved past much of the material in novelist George R.R. Martin’s published books, freeing them up to take different paths and try new storytelling styles. The resulting plotlines felt a bit more conventional — with good triumphing over evil more often — but also more gratifying, as we see the threads of the show coming together with more momentum than ever.
There are still some issues here. Seeing the show tone down its sexual violence but retain its blood and gore felt odd, as if the series was repeating the same dynamic we see in more conventional corners of television. At a time when we’re reeling over real-life acts of violence, should we be so quick to accept explicit depictions of disembowelments, decapitations and impalements on one of TV’s best series?
Still, in many ways this season of Game of Thrones reached new heights, setting up its endgame in spectacular, meticulous fashion.
Now all we have to do is figure out how to keep our anticipation in check until the next season rolls around in 2017.