This article contains spoilers for every season of Game of Thrones. Read at your own risk!
For five-plus seasons, the characters on Game of Thrones have lied, cheated, stolen and killed to achieve one end: a seat on the Iron Throne, and with it, rule of Westeros. But if one thing is increasingly clear in Season 6, it's that the time for games is over.
It's a thought that's been scratching at the back of my mind for weeks now, why the show feels so different this year than the previous five. It could be because showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have finally broken free (mostly) from George R.R. Martin's series of novels on which the show is based. It could be that we're moving towards the endgame, so all the set-up is out of the way. And it could be that we're barreling through plot so quickly, we've moved away from spending time with the characters.
All of that could be true, but there's one aspect of the show that I feel confident is 100 percent true, and this week's episode underscored that difference with every scene. It's that the secret battle for the Seven Kingdoms is over, and the time for real conflict has begun.
At heart, both in the books and the show, Game of Thrones was always a secret war between two men: Varys (Conleth Hill) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). You can't necessarily break them down into good and evil, but Varys always seemed to have the best interests of the realm at heart, while Littlefinger always focused on his own gain.
Though the opposing families, the Starks and the Lannisters, were always front and center, every move they made was — in some fashion or another — manipulated behind the scenes by one of the two men. Varys' long range plan involved not just getting the exiled queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) back on the throne, but also making sure the world was safe from the greater threat of the undead White Walkers to the north.
Littlefinger, meanwhile, made a complicated series of moves that (creepily) brought him closer to Sansa (Sophie Turner), the daughter of his denied and deceased love Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), but mostly succeeded in bringing him land and nobility, and ever closer to controlling the Throne itself, since he'd never be able to sit on it and rule.
Along the way, secondary players emerged, like Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), who allied herself with Littlefinger in a plot to kill the vicious boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and get her own daughter closer to sole control of the continent. On Varys' side, he allied himself with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), the one semi-good man in the Lannister clan.
One by one, though, these kingmakers have learned that their words and plots mean nothing in the face of unrelenting death.
Littlefinger was the first to feel it, in an uncharacteristic scene where he begged Sansa to forgive him for leaving her with the rapacious Ramsay (Iwan Rheon). I've talked to a number of fans of the show who thought — as usual — he was pleading forgiveness as means to a greater end. ... But when he later manipulated an army to go help Sansa, out of what seemed to be the goodness of his own heart, it was clear this was a changed Littlefinger.
Varys got taken down a peg in the same episode. In previous seasons, he's always been (sometimes literally) behind the scenes, pulling the strings. But more and more often, he's been stepping out as second-in-command to Tyrion, who himself is second-in-command to Daenerys. So when Varys disrespected a Red Priestess to her face, she shot back with a story about how his genitals got burned to a crisp back in the day, shutting the master of whispers down with one perfect tweet.
What characterizes both of these scenes, and connects them, is that these two manipulators stood in the sunshine and were revealed. For Littlefinger, it was getting told off by Sansa; for Varys, by the Red Priestess. But both moments only happened when they stopped working behind the scenes, and instead attempted to manipulate the world from out in the open. ... And it didn't work.
The game-stoppage hasn't stopped with the two grandmasters, either. Tyrion has been having a rough time of it this year (which we've talked about on TVGuide.com before), and in the past few episodes, Olenna's many moves have been stopped at the pass, leading to her deciding to leave King's Landing entirely, for her own safety.
In fact, the trickle-down effect continued in nearly every exchange this week. Arya (Maisie Williams) attempted to plan her escape from Braavos, only to be stabbed multiple times in the gut. Sansa aimed to manipulate an army to support her battle to take back her home, only to run into Jon Snow (Kit Harington) insisting they just have to go to fight, talking be damned. And when Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tried to parlay with his enemies, they basically told him to f--- himself and just bring the war already.
At every turn, characters who have depended on schemes and plans are being shut down, in favor of swords and knives. Look at the central axis of scenes the episode built on: The Hound (Rory McCann) tries to find a life built only on words and promises, but ultimately has to pick up his axe by the end of the episode and rejoin the battle.
We've had wars on Game of Thrones before, but they've always been in service of some other move on the board, always the manipulation of some player. That time is past. The Night's King and his army of the undead are closing in on the North. Daenerys and her dragons are closing in on the South. And in between, Jon Snow is about to bring fight to Ramsay and Winterfell.
By the end of this season we'll have moved that much closer to knowing who will sit permanently on the Iron Throne when the series is over. But as Cersei (Lena Headey) said back in Season 1, "When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die." Looks like play time is over, and it's time to choose: are you a winner, or are you dead?
For Varys and Littlefinger at least, that decision is now out of their sneaky little hands.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.