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The Sixth Season of 'Game of Thrones' Forgot What Made the Show Special

The show's biggest, most expensive season so far missed the little things.
Emilia Clarke. (Foto: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO.

Jon Snow died and came back to life. I'll forgive you if you've forgotten, because Game of Thrones certainly did.

Jon's resurrection, arguably the biggest moment in the show to date—not necessarily in audience impact, but in confirming a major book event that's yet to occur, as well as firmly situating Jon as Westero's de-facto Jesus Christ figure—should've had people talking. The plot twist legitimized Melissandre's sorcery, excused Jon from the Night's Watch, and added credence to the "prince that was promised" prophecy. It also set the sixth season's biggest set piece in motion: the Battle of the Bastards, an event that unites the northern houses just in time for an ice zombie apocalypse.


But no one mentions Jon's resurrection. Not the sister he is reunited with, the lords he tries to turn against Ramsay, or even Ramsay himself, a mustache-twirling psychopath who would surely question how the honorable son of Ned Stark wiggled out of his Night's Watch oath—which binds its swearer to a life of duty. Even Jon is barely changed by death: sure, he's moodier and sadder, but he was already moody and sad. He gets in a quick word about the absence of an afterlife, but it never comes up again to haunt him or those around him. It isn't even mentioned before a battle that might claim him once again. Did Jon Snow have to die at all?

Jon Snow's plotline is one of many ways that Game of Thrones' sixth season betrayed its characters in favor of spectacle and motion, paring down the story for bigger battles, better-looking dragons, and more scenes of Tyrion drinking (God forbid Peter Dinklage sit out a few episodes). I don't envy showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss's monumental task of adapting and making sense of George R. R. Martin's behemoth book series—the timeline of which, not coincidentally, they surpassed with season 6. A show of this scale, and with this budget—over $10 million per episode—has to end sometime, and it's a small miracle that it even exists at all.

But in the rush to arrive at each goal post, elements of character and rationality have been lost in the mud. Take Sansa Stark, who rallies Jon to the cause of taking back their family home. She's galvanized by her arranged marriage to Ramsay and the sexual abuse he put her through; she's one of the show's strongest characters, a girl made into a woman by means of circumstance and survival.


But she withholds a key piece of intel from Jon before he rides into battle—intel that might change his strategy and save the lives of many northern riders. Midway through the battle, Sansa's cohort Petyr Baelish arrives with a fleet that crushes the enemy and saves the day. Sansa knew they were coming and never told anyone, for no apparent reason. The moment as it unfolds is a cathartic fist-pumper, but it makes Sansa look like a fool—and after Jon tells her it's no big deal in the next episode, it becomes pretty clear that it didn't even matter. They had to win the battle, so Ramsay could die and Jon could sit in Winterfell for season seven. What could've been a rich moment of rivalry between siblings turns into essentially a moot point.

Jon and Sansa aren't the only characters that suffered from careless writing in the sixth season: Tyrion and Arya did a whole lot of nothing, and Arya especially suffered in a season that had no idea what to do with her. Her scenes with the acting troupe were fun but inconsequential, and even though she got to murder Walder Frey, the action arrives with no build-up to make it feel earned. (If it happened closer to the Red Wedding, it might've fit better within the show.)

None of this would matter if Game of Thrones had always been this kind of show—shiny and big and not much else. But the show's earlier seasons were exactly the opposite: Smaller in budget, but riper in context and dialogue. Recall the moment where Cersei discussed the death of her infant son with Catelyn, or when Tywin and a disguised Arya discussed her father, or when Brienne and the Hound battled cliffside. All of these non-book moments served to enrich the characters and told us new things about who they are and how they live in this world.

Ironically, Game of Thrones' sixth season was actually the most enjoyable season to sit through—certainly more so than the grueling fifth season. After a slog of death and loss, it was cathartic as hell to see all three of Dany's dragons fly, or Ramsay get ripped apart by dogs. But when the buzz fades, those moments don't sting or linger. There's nothing so intimately devastating as the Red Wedding or Ned Stark's execution, nothing so lovely as Arya laughing at bad news, nothing so engrossing as Brienne and Jaime in the bath. Without the books to transcribe, and with only an outline of where things go, Benioff and Weiss are giving into their worst impulses by letting the plot steer the way, not the people in the seat.

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