Over the previous five years, I’ve been writing about “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read – and reread – George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels.
And while I may not be quite as zealous as people like my friend and fellow critic Sean T. Collins, who has published one of the comprehensive guides to fan theories about the events and mythology of the franchise, my husband and I debate the episodes over breakfast on Monday mornings.
So going into this sixth season of “Game of Thrones,” I was both anxious and excited about watching the show without a road map. Sure, there was a certain pleasure in watching other people react to Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) execution or Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) blindness, but I wanted to be shocked along with everyone else. And I was eager to see whether the theories I and other fans had been harboring for years would be proven true.
But a third of the way through this year on “Game of Thrones,” the show feels like a cautionary tale, a warning that it’s possible to analyze a piece of art too much, even one with the plot complexities and big themes to stand up – at least part of the way – to the scrutiny.
Let’s take the season’s most-anticipated development so far, Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) return from the dead at the hands of Melisandre (Carice van Houten).
I actually think there has been a lot of very fine acting taking place in these big reveals. Nina Gold and Robert Sterne did an exceptional job casting “Game of Thrones” overall, though Harington has often been weaker compared with Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Isaac Hempstead Wright and other relative newcomers in the cast. But Harington has never been stronger than he was in “Oathbreaker,” as the breath returned to his body and he responded to the fact that he had returned from the dead with as much shock and disappointment as wonder. Melisandre’s journey – from crushing lack of faith, to last-ditch attempt to wield the power of her god, to renewed hope – has been remarkable and subtle.
The choices to make Jon’s resurrection a character study rather than an occasion for flashy special effects, and to broaden our sense of Melisandre’s powers in her moments of doubt rather than in a magical working, are smart and sophisticated ones. But they also seem to be bowing to the inevitable: For television viewers, Jon Snow was dead for a year in real time, but for novel-readers, he was stabbed by his sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch all the way back in July 2011, when “A Dance With Dragons” was published.
Something similar is happening with the Tower of Joy sequences, in which Bran Stark (Hempstead Wright) and his visionary mentor, the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) revisit Ned Stark’s youth, including his confrontation with Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts) over Ned’s missing sister, Lyanna (Cordelia Hill). These scenes are well-staged. They’ve given us a nice glimpse of Lyanna, a relative enigma in Martin’s novels, and cleared away the cobwebs of mythology from Ned’s – and Westeros’s – past. But however well-done they are, it seems inevitable that they’re going to confirm for many of us what we’ve already guessed, rather than revealing something truly new.
And where “Game of Thrones” has ventured beyond what we knew or what we could guess, this season has often done so in storylines involving Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), a character to whom I’ve developed a definitive allergy.
Ramsay’s murder of his father, Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), stepmother (Elizabeth Webster) and stepbrother in last week’s episode, “Home,” did away with one of the more memorable villains on “Game of Thrones.” And Smalljohn Umber’s (Dean S. Jagger) decision to turn Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) and Rickon’s wildling guardian Osha (Natalia Tena) over to Ramsay this week resolved one of the more significant lingering threads from Martin’s novels.
But however much information these plot developments give me, any time Ramsay is on screen, I feel the same sickening fear. “Game of Thrones” can use Ramsay to advance the plot, but the series has lost its power to use him to elicit new reactions from me or to get me to want different outcomes as a result of his actions.
As a critic, of course, I thrive on the vibrant discussions that surround a show like “Game of Thrones.” But the fact that the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” has felt less surprising than inevitable to me is a reminder that it might better for me to sit with shows than to try to solve them.