Missing: Brad Pitt in a battle skirt.
The fifth season of Game of Thrones was its worst, saved from mediocrity by the penultimate episode Hardhome which completely raised the bar for the show in terms of dramatic power, visual effects and small-screen myth-making. For a show which, for four previous seasons, had always been an effective and satisfying slice of drama (if still running a distant second to the novels in terms of characterisation and satisfying political drama), the fifth was a major let-down, reportedly the result of the producers not knowing how many episodes they had left to tell the story and the confusion caused by adapting elements from George R.R. Martin's novels whilst also outpacing them.
The sixth season is, thankfully, vastly superior to the fifth. It is has a sense of purpose and relentlessness which has been missing for a while, as well as a willingness to seed major moments amongst almost all of the episodes rather than holding back the best for last. This isn't to say that it's all plain sailing. Arya spends too long getting beaten up on the streets of Braavos before finally doing something about it. Bran's crucial, fan theory-confirming visions are doled out excruciatingly slowly (and in a contrived manner) over the course of the whole season. Sam and Gilly have so little to do that it may have been better to have pulled a Bran and rested them for a year. For the second season in a row we're set up a very promising Brienne storyline that then goes nowhere fast. And, as thrilling as seeing Daenerys humble the Dothraki is, it's also a redundant repeat of what she already did five years ago.
The biggest and most continuous problem through the season, and one I suspect we will see going forwards, is the absence of George R.R. Martin's dialogue. Benioff and Weiss are - when on their game - effective plotters and sometimes quite clever in how they reframe the source material to work in 60-minute chunks with far fewer characters and locations to call upon, but their original dialogue is frequently clunky. With no novels left to adapt, the opportunity to use Martin's dialogue in-situ is largely gone and they have to fall back on their own material, which is much more variable. There's also major issues with portraying the passage of time (most notably Gilly's still-too-young baby, who should be a three or four-year-old by now) and characters teleporting around the map with no thought for plausibility.
But elsewhere the show does better. Extending pain and misery across eight seasons without surcease would have been rather depressing, so after the mostly dark and defeat-shrouded fifth season the sixth gives us a huge number of victories. Major storylines are closed down, most of the major villains are defeated and the "good guys" (or, in some cases, maybe "least-worst bad guys") are on the rise. Particularly interesting, especially after the claims of misogyny laid against the show in prior season, is how the sixth year sees women rising to power right across the board: Cersei, Daenerys, Yara Greyjoy, the Sand Snakes of Dorne, Sansa, Arya, Lady Mormont (this year's break-out character bar none) and more.
Lyanna Mormont, indisputably the breakout character of Season 6. At this point I think she's more popular than the Red Viper.
The question of whether the sixth season would spoil the final two books has also been answered by the TV show going off in a completely different direction in numerous storylines. The only areas where the show does spoil the books is by confirming fairly blatantly obvious theories (about both Jon's birth and his fate) that even GRRM doesn't strenuously deny any more. Those things that are spoiled seem to be fairly minor - such as the origin of Hodor's name - but I suspect the true spoilers will come in the next two seasons.
Although the sixth season paces major plot movements and developments over its whole length, it does spin some wheels in the latter part of the season and the season premiere is probably the weakest they've ever delivered. But other episodes are extremely strong, such as Oathbreaker, The Door and, especially, the finale.
Perhaps the most disappointing episode of the season is the penultimate one. We were promised a jaw-dropping, amazing field battle sequence and didn't entirely get what was promised. The battlefield tactics were a horrendous mess that didn't make sense, Jon Snow's military acumen is non-existent (the handy strategist who held the Wall against Mance Rayder has gone AWOL) and Sansa witholds vitally important tactical information on reinforcements for absolutely no discernible reason. Yes, seeing the end of Ramsay Bolton is highly satisfying, but the way it was reached was contrived to the point of incoherence.
Vastly superior is the season finale, easily the best they have ever done and a strong contender for best episode of the entire series. Some plot developments were predictable, but seeing Cersei sweep the board clean of her enemies in one swift movement and be established as the show's final human villain of consequence (Euron, I suspect, will remain a side-player) is immensely satisfying, especially as it is set to Ramin Djawadi's finest musical work since the first season. Bringing in new bad guys can be fun, but returning to the very first one and seeing them gain an immense amount of new power and prestige is even more satisfying. It was a delicious moment, if undermined by the fact that Cersei's enemies outnumber and outflank her on such a scale that her defeat is inevitable. But that's for next season to worry about.
Not many TV shows can boast a scene that some people have been literally waiting to see for twenty years.
More impressive is the shot of Daenerys setting sail for Westeros. As someone who picked up A Storm of Swords on release day in 2000 hoping that's how that novel would end, it's brilliant to finally see that realised on screen. The staging of the shot also made me wonder if the CG guys were tipping the hat at David Benioff, as a similar shot of the Greek fleet can be found early in the running of his 2004 movie Troy.
But of course the killer moment of the finale was the revelation that one of the longest-held fan theories about the books, one that was discussed on nascent internet message boards as early as 1996, was true. By now it was all but certain it was true, but the final confirmation still delivers a powerful emotional kick. Special kudos to Robert Aramayo who played the young Eddard Stark so convincingly in flashbacks. Although a "Robet's Rebellion" prequel series has been ruled out by George R.R. Martin (who has the rights to it and is not minded to sell them), if HBO ever do talk him around it'd be great to perhaps see Aramayo in the role again.
Overall, the sixth season of Game of Thrones executes some much-needed damage control after the problems of the fifth season to deliver a much more interesting set of stories. There are still weaknesses in worldbuilding, dialogue, characterisation and how it handles military matters, but the show has developed a renewed sense of purpose and focus as the final end of the show comes into view.
601: The Red Woman (***)
602: Home (***½)
603: Oathbreaker (****½)
604: Book of the Stranger (****½)
605: The Door (****½)
606: Blood of My Blood (***½)
607: The Broken Man (****)
608: No One (***½)
609: Battle of the Bastards (***½)
610: The Winds of Winter (*****)