So the first episode of Game of Throne’s sixth season aired on Sunday, and I’m sure you probably noticed that… not a lot happened. It was mostly playing catch-up and the story only advanced by inches.
This seems like a good time to talk about momentum in storytelling, because that’s one of the things Game of Thrones is struggling with. A good story is a lot like a train; starting off slow, but building up momentum until it can plow through anything, slowing down only when going uphill (building tension) or around a sharp corner (plot twists).
Game of Thrones‘s train has now slowed to a crawl and it has nothing but straight, flat track all the way to the ending. While it’s tempting to blame this all on the fact that Game of Thrones running out of book to use, this was actually a problem in the book series too. I even touched on this briefly years back when I read book 4, A Feast for Crows. At the time I thought maybe it was the killing of Cate Stark that made A Feast for Crows such a difficult slog to get through, but I realize now I was wrong. The real problem was the introduction of the Dorne plot, and every subsequent plot that followed.
Part of the genius of Game of Thrones, and its biggest draw, was George R. R. Martin’s use of the political stage of Westeros to create compelling drama. The first three books, and a majority of the show’s seasons, all centered around who would sit upon the Iron Throne. However, who sat on the Iron Throne was ultimately all just a subplot, a meticulously constructed distraction created to hold our attention while George R. R. Martin slowly built up the threat of the White Walkers. How humanity will stop them has always been the primary plot of the books, even though George R. R. Martin cleverly made it look like a low-key adventure subplot. Who ultimately gains the throne needs to be resolved for the audience to have satisfaction, there’s no doubt about that. Even subplots need resolution, but it’s never been the important question.
However, with the Hardhome episode, Game of Thrones needed to start quickly resolving things and ramping up the excitement for the final confrontation between the living and the dead. And so far, it’s not doing it. With the Dorne plot and the Iron Islands plot expected to be added this season, I can only see this getting worse.
Have you noticed how most of our characters have all suffered major setbacks that pretty much reset their stories?
Daenarys is once again a slave of the Dothraki.
Arya is blind and is going to have to learn to fight again.
Sansa is once again homeless and on the run with a few allies.
Queen Cersei, and the monarchy itself, is helpless in the face of the religious extremists.
I don’t even know where Jaime’s storyline is going now, he seems to have hit a dead end.
Jon Snow is dead and we’re all waiting around to see if he’s resurrected by the Red Woman or as a White Walker general.
And Tyrion is just kind of dicking around in Meereen, waiting for Daenarys to come back.
Essentially any progress we’ve made through the series has been reversed or paused in it’s tracks, and you can feel that while watching the show… there’s no sense of urgency in any of the characters. The White Walkers are now half-a-million strong at the very least, so what are they waiting for exactly?
Well they’re waiting for the same thing we are: for all the now pointless subplots to be resolved.
The existential threat to all life on Westeros has been revealed, the Hardhome episode revealed to the audience the true extent of the danger. And with half-a-million strong White Walker army ready to attack The Wall, it’s hard to care about Daenerys being kidnapped (as if we don’t all know that she’ll be rescued eventually, probably after taking over the entire Dothraki horde) or some Cersei wannabe at the ass end of the kingdom.
In order for the newest season to succeed it’s going to need to start consolidating everything. It should be working towards bringing Daenerys to Westeros, reintroducing us to Bran, and getting rid of the extraneous subplots like Dorne and Meereen. It has to start building the momentum and then keep that momentum going forward, instead of grinding the plot to a halt by throwing more contrived obstacles in the way of our characters.
All that said, I’m still looking forward to this season and I hope this season of Game of Thrones proves me wrong. All that said, let’s review what happened in the first episode.
Dorne: Home of the Teleporting Sand Teens
As I pointed out last season, the Dornish plot was the worst of the bunch (which was true of the books as well) and it’s only gotten worse this time around.
The death of Prince Trystane continues the infamous legacy of everything Dorne being the single worst part of Game of Thrones, and the prince’s death takes it to a whole new low. First of all it shows us a tragic waste of Alexander Siddig’s talents by killing off his character in a way that makes absolutely no sense (not to mention lacking any dramatic value). How did she manage to convince the palace guards to betray their king? Secondly, how the hell did the Sand Teens get aboard the ship Trystane was on?
When we left them last season, Myrcella, Trystane, Jaime, and Bron (where did he vanish to, anyway?) were all sailing home for King’s Landing. The Sand Teens [I know they’re the Sand Snakes, but honestly they’re so fucking annoying that Teens is way more appropriate] and their mother were standing on the docks watching them sail away. And then suddenly they’re on Trystane’s ship and kill him. How did they manage that, exactly? I know Game of Thrones has always played fast and loose in terms of geography and time, but that sudden jump in locations was ridiculous.
I’m hoping the sloppiness of the prince’s death is a sign that the writers of Game of Thrones now realize Dorne is just a quagmire of awfulness that’s bogging down the plot, and they’re trying to resolve it as quickly as possible so they can be done with it. Otherwise I’m afraid it’s a sign that they simply have no idea what to do now that they’ve run out of book to use as a template.
Theon’s slow transformation into Reek was one of the most powerful, and disturbing, parts of the show. However, once he became Reek, watching him continue to suffer got to be a bit redundant. Yes, we all understand that Ramsay Bolton is a monster, I think we got that message two seasons back. That’s why I had such a problem with Sansa’s Wedding, watching her and Reek continue to suffer offered nothing new to their characters or the plot at large.
However, I enjoyed watching Reek slowly regaining his sanity as Theon and his selfless ploy to try and protect Sansa. Of course the plan might have been slightly more effective had he lured the guards in a different direction several miles away rather than fifteen feet. That said, watching Podrick kick ass was one of the best parts of this episode. I’ve honestly grown a bit tired of Brienne at this point, where once she was a fascinating character (a female knight in a male dominated world), her character hasn’t really progressed or changed at all since she first took her oath to Catelyn Stark.
Also, what happened to the hounds during the battle? Must have teleported away using the same technology as the Sand Teens.
Arya has had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire series, going from a helpless little girl to a badass assassin in training. I think we were all looking forward to watching her return to Westeros and start killing off everyone we hated: Cersei, the Boltons, the Freys, and so on. To see the culmination of all her pain and suffering, her return to the Game of Thrones as one of the most powerful pieces on the board.
And then in the closing of last season, they made her go blind and reset her back to a helpless girl. This episode we see her begging on the steps and then get her ass kicked. So what?
I think we all know how this ends. She ends up learning to fight better blind than she ever did with sight, and whether she ends up regaining that sight or not is ultimately irrelevant. Basically she pulls a Daredevil, and while I love Netflix’s Daredevil, I ultimately find this subplot utterly stupid. We don’t need to see Arya helpless and crying again, we’ve already been through that. This sudden blindness isn’t going to result in anything other than time being wasted.
We’ve already seen Arya as a helpless street urchin trying to earn her way into the ranks of the Faceless Assassins. She’s already learned to go unnoticed, to listen to people on the street to learn vital information, and assume other identities. All of that training went into her assassination of the King’s Guard Meryn and it was awesome.
Now we all just have to wait for the training montage so Arya can get back to where she already was.
Daenerys Déjà Vu
And speaking of taking all our powerful female characters and turning them back into helpless victims, Daenery’s was taken from Queen of Meereen and The First Men back into a Dothraki slave. So we’re apparently back in the first season again. Admittedly instead of being raped this time, she manages to get them to back down and instead send her to some spinster’s home in Dothraki territory, but really…
I honestly don’t understand why this is even in the story, what purpose does it serve other than waste everyone’s time? She still has Meereen to pacify or abandon in favor of an invasion of Westeros. There was plenty of opportunity for good stories to pass the time while we’re waiting for the other plotlines to resolve. The only good reason I can think of is that Daenery’s will need additional manpower to handle the White Walkers, but then why burn her ships? She’d need even more to take the Dothraki.
So yeah, I’m thinking this is all a colossal waste of time. The only brightside might be watching Tyrion and Varys work their magic and pacify Meereen.
Castle Black: The Last Hope for Westeros
(In more ways than one)
The scenes at Castle Black are easily the best in the entire episode, because they’re the only ones where anything actually happens. Until Bran returns to the story, the events at Castle black are the only storyline capable of moving the plot forward. Yet these scenes are kept infuriatingly short, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens as the Night’s Watch prepares to descend into civil war. I also love the lingering shots on Jon’s body because there’s now this amazing sense of dread over seeing his dead body.
Because while on one hand Melisandre might be able to resurrect him, the longer time drags on, the more likely it becomes that Jon will rise to become one of the most powerful generals of the White Walker army.