Spoilers for Game of Thrones past, present and future beyond this point.
As we pass the halfway point of Game of Thrones' sixth season, two things are clear: the first, that the show continues to be an exciting, unique cultural experience that will be hard to ever reproduce; and second, it has entirely lost the element of surprise.
The first part isn't that shocking. Thrones is as fun to watch as it's ever been. More fun, even, for reasons we'll get into shortly. But the second part is, not to put too fine a point on it, surprising. After all, this was the season where Thrones was finally getting away from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the book cycle that inspired the show, and until now dictated almost every plot twist, not to mention significant chunks of dialogue.
The first five seasons loosely adapted Martin's novels, sometimes jumping around to show us bits from the next book, or veering slightly. And some of the greatest joys in the first few seasons for book readers were those digressions, like the pairing of a captive Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her captor, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). That didn't happen in the book, but fit seamlessly into the television narrative, and allowed a new, fresh look at both characters.
Season 6, though, some minor touch-points aside, was book-free. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss consulted with Martin, who sketched out a rough arc for the last two books in his series; but ultimately it was their show, and they have repeatedly said they're following their own path to get to a similar endpoint. Not to mention that, unlike previous seasons, they didn't have Martin's signature, epic speeches to pull on for dialogue.
Add in that we're entering the final act of this story: There are four episodes left this season, and then reportedly 13 after that. For an epic story like Thrones, that means we're well beyond setting up characters, and expanding the cast; and instead rapidly killing off minor speaking characters left and right (R.I.P. Hodor, Osha, et al).
When you factor in all of these elements, it should be the most exciting time to be a Thrones fan, for both book and TV readers who have often been at odds in the past, as book readers lorded their foreknowledge over their less erudite kin. Instead, going into this season, everyone was on even keel, ready to be stunned by the latest revelations and twists.
So why isn't that happening? Why does every new plot element on the show feel like we're checking boxes and moving pieces towards the final gambit, rather than diving deeper into the thrilling world of Martin's books? Why is this season making Westeros seem... so small?
The issue goes squarely back to this season's freedom from Martin's books. Overall, we've been treated to some spectacular visuals and reveals, from a tunnel literally covered in zombies; to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) setting fire to the patriarchy and coming out unburnt; to even this past week's reveal that BenJen Stark (Joseph Mawle), who has been missing since Season 1, isn't just alive — he's a fan-favorite character named Coldhands.
It's that last reveal that really crystalized what I've been feeling all season long, and gets to the heart of what's wrong with Thrones right now. Book readers have been living with the mystery of BenJen Stark's disappearance for years — if not decades — so when a mysterious, cloaked figure named Coldhands showed up to help Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) on his journey North of the Wall, they immediately put two and two together.
Except also for years, Martin has been insisting that Coldhands isn't BenJen Stark. In a (albeit, unconfirmed) look at Martin's original manuscript, the author — when asked by his editor if Coldhands was the missing Stark — said simply, "No."
It's entirely possible Martin was lying, or changed his mind, or the manuscript was doctored. But what happened on the show amounts to absolute confirmation of a fan theory. It's the most satisfying solution, but it's also the easiest solution; the one that fans have always pushed for and expected.
Jon Snow's (Kit Harington) resurrection was another moment like this. Even in the books, where we were left hanging on the death of the Night's Watch Lord Commander in 2011, fans have mostly expected he'd be brought back by Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the magical Red Priestess. There have been plenty of other theories, but this — again — seemed to be the easiest solution, and on the show, that's exactly what happened.
There's one more theory — probably the most famous fan theory of all time — that R+L=J; or that Jon Snow is secretly the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. That would mean he isn't a bastard at all, he's actually been the true king of Westeros this whole time. Though we won't know for sure until the end of the season, it certainly seems like we're headed in the direction of confirming this theory.
Getting these fan theories confirmed, and as "canon" — at least as part of the TV show — is supremely satisfying. That's because a narrative wants to go a certain way; and Benioff and Weiss are letting it take them along that path. We're pleased, because it's what we expected, and now we know it's true.
Except that's not what Martin's books are about, and that's never what Game of Thrones was about to begin with. The novels — and series — were always about subverting narrative tropes, particularly those that had to do with fantasy.
Martin felt that, as much as he loved Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle, it had broken fantasy. The genre had been spitting out the same tropes and ideas for decades, and Martin wanted to break them in turn. Martin broke the mold in A Song of Ice and Fire, when he killed the hero at the end of the first book (that would be Ned Stark); but it continued with nearly every plot point and twist and turn... leading to the Red Wedding, the moment when multiple beloved characters died simultaneously in a storm of swords.
It's a moment that led to many readers (myself included) throwing their book across the room, giving up on the series, believing all hope was lost... and then after a short break, picking the book right back up again.
After the Red Wedding, though, Martin didn't let up: Things progressed in the narrative, but the danger only increased from there; and the next two novels in the series brought characters together only to split them apart. In the books, and on the show up to this season, every victory has been marred by tremendous defeat. Every time the heroes win a battle, they lose the war.
This season has been different. They've been letting the heroes win all season long. Slowly, the band is getting back together, as Jon and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) found each other again; and Daenerys is heading back to her home base of Meereen with an army in tow, to reunite with her old army as well as her advisor, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage).
There are dangers and obstacles, sure; but the show has been relying more and more often on action sequences with dragons and zombies, and letting the heroes be down for a little bit, only to pick themselves back up.
This week's scenes with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) encapsulate what's been different about the show this year, even beyond the confirmation of fan fave theories. Jon's best friend traveled back home for the first time in years with his girlfriend Gilly (Hannah Murray). And though his mother and sister were delightfully daffy and kind, we also met his cocky, handsome brother, and his mean father who made fun of his weight and life choices.
Bryan Cogman, who wrote the episode, created a fun, sweet and sad collection of scenes at Horn Hill. Bradley and Murray, as well as the rest of the cast, acted the heck out of them, and kind of made me wish for a spin-off set entirely at the castle.
But for a show that has created classic, unique villains at nearly every turn, the "disappointed dad" was a depressing change of pace. There's nothing we haven't seen before in a million sitcoms and movies. Guy takes his girlfriend home for dinner, they disapprove, she tells them off, he gets the courage to stand up to them. The end.
It was, as mentioned, well acted, well written, and well filmed by director Jack Bender. But anyone could have told you that was what Sam's family life was probably like from his first appearance on the show.
The main problem that Thrones is facing right now gets back to what I mentioned above: A narrative wants to go a certain way. It needs to flow the way it does, taking twists and turns but ultimately ending up where you thought it would originally. You don't want to row down a river expecting to get to the Atlantic Ocean, only to end up in China.
That's not what Martin created though. He created a narrative that is specifically there to defy expectations at every turn. I'd venture a guess that's why he's taking so long to write the final two books in the series: The impetus for his narrative is battling against the fruition of it, and is leading to indecisiveness at every turn.
But armchair psychologizing George R.R. Martin aside, Game of Thrones is a giant, mainstream phenomenon. With something like that, and with network executives and multiple voices getting into the mix, the push to head towards something conventional becomes even stronger.
That's where we are right now, and that's why fans are starting to invent their own theories to break the narrative. For example, the Mad Queen Daenerys theory, which gained steam this week when the episode opened with a flashback to the Mad King Aerys — the man who set a number of the series' events into motion — telling his minions to "burn them all;" and ended with Daenerys, his daughter, astride a dragon explaining how she was going to set the world on fire.
Having Daenerys, who is arguably the hero of the story, turn into the villain by the end would be a major, stupefying twist. But there's no chance that's going to happen. That's not the show we're watching anymore, and even if Daenerys does delve somewhat into madness, she'll be turned back to help fight the real ultimate villain, the undead Night's King, by the series' end.
That's just how it works. Magic has come back into the world of Westeros, and with it, all the fantasy tropes Martin fought so hard against. You can't blame Benioff and Weiss for it either. It's fun to watch dragons scream at an army. It's fun for zombies to fight giants. Who doesn't like fun? The reason these tropes have become so prevalent is because they are pleasing. They serve the narrative in just the right way.
Ultimately, though, they sacrifice the element of surprise. So will we ever get another Red Wedding moment on the TV show? Will it ever reach that level of upset, that push against the pull of centuries of narrative fiction?
We'll definitely get agonizing or sad moments, as more minor characters die (bye, Rickon). But something of that scale? Something that kills Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) all of a sudden in the middle of a season/book, rather than leaving his death for the climax of the story? Something entirely unexpected, that doesn't conform to fan expectations of theories?
I wish we would, as much as it would kill my soul to watch something on the scale of the Red Wedding again. Those moments when Thrones rails against the narrative gods, when we're allowed to be unsettled and uneasy, are what takes the show from good to great. But if we continue on the path we've been following all season? No. And ultimately, the show is more satisfying — but less surprising — for it.