Game set match
(Warning: surprise twists and plot details, of both series and novels, to be discussed)
Season 6 of Game of Thrones has just ended and--yeah.
Not sure I'm happy with the series moving past George R. R. Martin's series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire; at least till Storm of Swords the books were superbly plotted and paced, and Martin managed to draw from episodes in English history (War of the Roses the Crusades among others) to fashion a tale both epic and intimate in scope and sweep, the story told through various point-of-view characters instead of some impersonal omniscient narrator.
Readers complained that the latter two titles--A Feast of Crows and A Dance with Dragons--moved too slowly; I thought Martin having delivered superb entertainment with his first three books felt the need to cram even more sweep and detail into the world he's built, to create the sense of vast forces gathering. To do that on the scale he wants takes time and space--enough space spread out across the printed page, enough time to write in his easy yet evocative prose.
With Season 6 the HBO series has dispensed with the books (the showrunners are going on details Martin has personally given them) and...something's missing. Not sure what, exactly; the series tells a faster-moving story (to be honest it's done a fair job of summarizing and streamlining the books throughout) and the last two episodes of Season 5 seemed to give us a taste of the season to come: Daenerys meets Tyrion, Brienne confronts Stannis, Arya offs Ser Meryn. Basically moments fans have long yearned to see, granted in a swift one-two combination.
Would Martin really bring Jon Snow back from the fifth book's cliffhanger? Perhaps. Jon apparently represents Ice to Daenery's Fire in the book series' title (proposed theories freshly confirmed by the season finale help cement his special status). The character's potential had only been halfway explored up to the fifth book's end, and it's hard to imagine Martin throwing away all his careful preparations to force yet another downturn in the Stark fortunes (hat off to the series handlers for adding details that compare Jon's resurrection to Christ's--it helped sell or at least energize what was otherwise a less-than-startling twist).
On the other hand resurrecting Jon didn't seem to help the good guys much either--before "Battle of the Bastards" he could barely muster the men to throw against Ramsay Bolton and once on the battlefield (commanding a mere three thousand compared to Ramsay's six) he can't resist his adversary's provocation, resulting in a disastrously premature charge.
Sansa saved that day. Could Sansa have lead the Northern forces herself instead? Why not? With Davos as her Hand and maybe even the Red Witch she'd be a force to reckon with...and no silly half-brother (actually they're cousins) to hold her down. Wildlings? With Brienne by Sansa's side who knows what Tormund might have accomplished?
Of course we might call "Bastards" a learning experience for Snow--he's only faced a hundred thousand wildlings with barely any military training, and supernatural forces with straightfoward motivations no real cunning (far as we know). The Boltons are a strong army complete with knowledge of Carthaginian tactics*--tho one wants to ask: where on earth did that wall of corpses come from? Yes people died earlier and yes corpses do tend to pile up in battle but to create a mountain of dead some ten plus feet high and a few hundred feet wide would probably involve modern automatic weaponry, not to mention diesel-fueled earthmoving equipment.
*(In the Battle of Cannae sixty thousand Carthaginians did to eighty-five thousand Romans--a bigger opposing force yes--what Snow's forces intended and instead had done to them, a double envelopment)
The series ends with an awe-inspiring shot: Daenerys with army and navy fleet and dragons and all--practically all of Westeros--sailing across the sea towards King's Landing to claim her rightful throne. Who would dare defy such an intimidating armada? Why Cersei Lannister of course, garbed in Darth Vader battle-dress and certifiably insane (this and the previous season were careful to chart the Queen's progress towards triumphant despair), a quietly uncomfortable Jaime Lannister watching her from the sidelines. Stay tuned for Season 7 where two queens clash in a pitched battle, and Cersei reprises the final act of Macbeth on a broad scale.
Maybe my biggest problem with the series is the look. Granted the production design is opulent and the digital effects state-of-the-art, we don't really see the kind of distinct visual style a real filmmaker (as opposed to a skilled television director) can bring to the table. The series did have one, Neil Marshall (The Descent), who helmed two of the series' biggest setpieces ("Blackwater," with its breathtaking moment of a flaming arrow arcing across the night sky--Barcelona Olympics anyone?--and "The Watcher on the Wall" with its long tracking shot of men swarming all over Castle Black, to end with Snow's one-on-one duel). Otherwise the show is basically a collection of glossy images delivered carefully and expensively, without much distinctive personal style on the director's part.
You see this in the season's biggest setpiece, the battle in "Battle of the Bastards." The makers cite Kurosawa as an influence; critics mention Braveheart. I say they were aiming for what inspired Bravehart the definitive onscreen depiction of a pitched medieval battle, Orson Welles' magnificent Battle of Shrewsbury (in Chimes at Midnight).
No Gibson and "Battle" director Miguel Sapochnik do not touch Welles despite having budgets several times larger than the master's, though Sapochnik to his credit does add a vivid new detail: breathing. Jon is pulled under and nearly crushed by the dead and dying; he struggles to draw air. A high overhead shot captures his head emerging from the swirl of packed bodies.
It's not quite Chimes--Sapochnik with his host of five hundred extras (digitally extended I'm guessing to seem vast and contain multitudes) plus horses and camera crane suggest a hero undergoing rebirth; Welles due to budget limitations (he had over a hundred extras on the first day, only a handful over succeeding days) was forced to use considerably tighter footage of costumed extras struggling in thick mud stitched together in a series of brief shots. The result is extraordinary: a progressively degenerating montage suggesting the existential despair of men, of creatures scrabbling uselessly to keep their hardwon if meager evolutionary progress from slipping back into the primordial muck.
Perhaps the season's best moments aren't so much fan service or major plot developments presented like fan service (Sansa reunited with Jon; Lyanna's secret revealed; Arya finally winning grotesque vengeance in a scene that recalls Titus Andronicus) as they are small. "The Door" has my vote as finest episode of the season partly because the final twist feels like something only Martin could have thought up, partly because Martin especially in the novels never really forgot that it's not kings and queens but ordinary folk who do the real suffering in war. In A Feast of Crows a peasant describes his life both as survivor and as part-time soldier, arguably the finest passage Martin has written for the series; this episode helps evoke that passage.
It's not just that Hodor--Wylis--saved Bran's life by giving up his own, it's that (and this is strictly my theory) Bran transmitting Meera's order in the past may have shaped the hapless stable boy's whole existence around that command. Grow strong, eat well, maybe practice leaning on a door or two; don't fall in love, don't make friends, don't do anything a normal man would do. Just stay prepared throughout the span of your fairly lengthy life (Wylis eventually acquired gray hair remember) for the moment in the future when you'll be asked (without having much choice in the matter) to perform the ultimate service for the sake of your feudal lord. That's the horror implicit in Meera's desperate words, and Wylis' thoughtless boundless sacrifice.
First published in Businessworld 7.1.16