The Tonal Change-up of “Game of Thrones” Season Six

Game of Thrones’s sixth season is the show’s bravest tonal departure since director Alan Taylor’s episodes in season two. As NPR’s critic Eric Deggans points out, “satisfaction” could very well be the season’s most coherent theme. In the first episodes Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is revived, and in the final few episodes the North retakes Winterfell, Iwan Rheon’s smudged and smirky Ramsay Bolton is given justice, and Arya (Maisie Williams) executes fantastic revenge on the dour Frey family. The last few episodes, in my opinion, make it the only season of Game of  Thrones to end an optimistic note (so far).

(The one possible rebuttal to this optimistic tone could be Bran’s [Isaac Hempstead Wright] vision that reveals Jon’s Targaryen bloodline. Although, to me, this evoked a sense of surprise rather than the hopelessness of Ned Stark’s capital punishment, the Red Wedding, or Stannis’s defeat at Winterfell.) 

In general, the season thrives whenever Jon Stark is on screen and it dies whenever Arya shows. Every Jon-dominant episode just fares better than Arya’s now-pointless activities with the death-cult in Braavos. Other than Arya, the showrunners make a futile effort at making any character in all of Braavos interesting or worthy of empathy. The Girl with No Name (Faye Marsay) is too stoic for interest and too hell-bent for liking. She lacks the inner-driven character motivations that makes characters like Jamie Lannister and The Hound more captivating than her. Jaqen H’ghar’s (Tom Wlaschiha) charm from earlier seasons has ended up wayside; now, Wlaschiha acts lifelessly and devoid of passion. Only Arya matters—and since we aren’t quite ever sure of her purpose in Braavos, or even what the city is like—the sequences lack whatever watchability they retained in season five, when the newness and weirdness of Braavosi culture justified it.

By turn, the ninth episode, the “Battle of the Bastards,” has set the new height for a Game of Thrones action sequence. The grand over-head shots resemble a modern-war movie, an evocation the showmakers double-down on in the handheld camera weaving (and the dirtying-up of the camera) during the battle itself. Jon’s suffocation in the mound of bodies, along with the sound mixing, makes for one of the most permanent images in Game of Thrones. And seeing Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) devious smile melt when the Knights of the Vale emerged recovered for the lack of imagination in their last-minute backup arrival. 

This season continues its fantasy-genre innovations in the relationship between the simultaneously brooding and delicate Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and the innocent go-happy Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). Their relationship is as typical Lone Wolf and Cub as the genre can toss up, other than the gender dynamics. Nearly every Long Wolf is male, with a Cub of an unimportant gender; in the rare depiction of female Lone Wolf’s, the Cub is almost always male… and sexuality comes into play, usually with the female advancing on their younger companion. With Brienne and Pod, a sexual relationship isn’t on the table. Brienne thinks of herself as a teacher or mentor, and Pod, a loyal servant with loving admiration and the utmost respect for Brienne. 

Pod was never stubborn with Tyrion or Bronn, but he is incessant with Brienne on one point: despite never being knighted, she’s a knight. In Pod’s eyes, she embodies knighthood: loyal to a flaw, brave as anyone, and a damn good fighter. In Game of Thrones, few characters have such belief in others. There’s never a doubt that Daenerys’s followers share in a common fear of her, even if they earnestly believe in her. Rob Stark’s bannermen and his mother pushed back on many of his decisions, as have the followers of Jon Snow. Nobody on the Lannister side of things has ever approached such hope. But Pod’s admirable belief in Brienne summarizes the tonal change-up this season offers: hope, not hopelessness.

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