As the fifth season of Game of Thrones ended last year, two big questions hung over the show. The first was whether or not author George R.R. Martin would complete his sixth Song of Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter, in time for the show to faithfully adapt it. The second: If Martin didn’t finish the novel, where would the show go? It wasn’t like HBO was going to simply halt production while Martin, a famously slow writer, pecked away on the next book. So when it became clear that Martin wouldn’t be done in time, we all held our breath and waited to see what Game of Thrones had in store for us.
What we got was the show’s best season yet.
Aside from a brief excerpt published last May, we still don’t know what Martin’s books will hold. We know that he gave showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss a few clues (including how Hodor got his name) as to the future of the series, but we also know that Benioff and Weiss were steering their ship in a different direction even before Season 6 started. Whole characters from Martin’s novels, including a possible lost Targaryen, were omitted. The events in Dorne were shaping up to be rather different, as were those surrounding Sansa Stark. Some of these storytelling choices were likely made by the show to simplify and streamline (just thinking about Sansa’s place when we last saw her in the books makes my head hurt), but when Season 6 started, and the show was entirely free of the pressures of adaptation, something even better happened: The plot took off like Drogon over Slaver’s Bay.
There will no doubt be many similarities when both the show and the novels end their respective runs, but the show itself stood out this season because, well, it no longer felt like an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin novel. It is unmistakably still Martin’s world, but this season it seemed to move less like the Mountain and more like the Viper—nimble and unpredictable and unencumbered by loads of armor. The show has, if you like, adopted a different fighting style.
Martin, in that excerpt I mentioned earlier, reminded us all of the complexity and density of his novels and in his own way declared that he’s still in charge of this world. Indeed, in some ways the show will never live up to the elaborate web he’s still weaving. The interesting and rewarding thing, though, is that the show doesn’t seem to be bothered.
The show itself stood out this season because, well, it no longer felt like an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin novel.
There’s nothing wrong with Martin’s style. He’s a brilliant epic-fantasy novelist, but with that comes a fascination with lengthy bouts of political intrigue, travel and conversations around a table. His books are rich and heavy, like a feast in the great hall of Winterfell, but that sometimes means many, many things have to happen before we get to what TV viewers have dubbed the good stuff. If this isn’t ringing a bell, pick up A Storm of Swords and see how many pages you have to churn through before you get to the infamous “Red Wedding.”
By contrast, look at what the show gave us in just the last two episodes of this season. [Note: total spoiler carnage ahead.] In about 140 minutes of showtime, we got Daenerys ending the Slavers once and for all, Jon and Sansa retaking Winterfell, Cersei getting her revenge on the High Sparrow and Tyrells, Tommen’s suicide, the fall of House Bolton, a pact of revenge between House Tyrell and Dorne, an alliance between Dorne and Daenerys, the murder of Walder Frey at the hands of the newly returned and badass Arya, Cersei’s crowning as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and Dany’s long-awaited voyage to Westeros. Oh, and we found out who Jon’s true parents are.
All of this happened in the time it would take to watch the first Lord of the Rings movie, and I’m pretty sure I’m still leaving some stuff out. What’s more, the show seemed more adept at peppering in epic moments throughout its 10-hour run this year, while past seasons have often relied on premieres and finales for the Big Stuff. By episode 2 we had Jon’s resurrection. By 3, we had the epic flashback to Ned Stark’s duel at the Tower of Joy. By 4, we had Daenerys’ triumph over her Dothraki captors. By 5 we had Hodor’s bittersweet demise, by 6 Benjen Stark’s return, and so on. The past five seasons were never light on plot, but this season seemed to have epic moments in surplus.
Now, I’m not saying the first five seasons weren’t good. They were, and episodes like “Blackwater” and “The Mountain and the Viper” are out there to prove it. I’m also not saying there’s no longer a place on this show for quiet moments; the conversation between Tyrion and Dany in the season finale almost made me cry. What’s happened instead with Season 6 is an intriguing and unforseen alchemy, a merging of Martin’s knack for character and intrigue with the show’s propellant action and copious blood. In the five seasons that came before, the cast and crew of Game of Thrones learned how to exist in Martin’s world. This season, they took all of that education and took off into the stratosphere with tales of resurrection and revenge and badass women finally getting their rewards. This was a graduation of sorts, and it absolutely paid off for everyone involved.
Now we just have to see if they can stick the landing.