April 24, 2016

Game Without Frontiers

Filed under: Books,TV — DB @ 2:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, fly away to safety like Drogon flew from the Sons of the Harpy.

The arrival of every new Game of Thrones season is highly anticipated, but my guess is that none of have been more eagerly awaited than tonight’s kick-off of Season Six, thanks to the downer of a cliffhanger we were left with last June: the death of Jon Snow. In the 10 months that have elapsed, speculation of Jon’s fate has been a constant presence on the internet. I don’t think a single day went by in all that time when I didn’t see something about it online. So this premiere should bring with it an especially acute wave of relief. And lest we forget about all the other big developments awaiting resolution — or at least exciting continuation — here’s my annual stroll down memory lane to catch us up on where things stood when last we danced with the dragons.

Many characters were in particularly interesting places last time we saw them, beginning of course with Jon Snow. He was dead. That’s pretty interesting. He was murdered by a band of Night’s Watch brothers that included his nemesis Ser Alliser Thorne and his squire Olly, for what they deemed the betrayal of making peace with the wildlings and allowing them to pass through Castle Black into Westeros. He wasn’t inspired by generosity, of course, but rather the recognition that only by fighting alongside the wildlings would they stand any chance against the growing army of White Walkers — a lesson crystallized when the Walkers attacked the wildling base at Hardhome and added huge numbers to their Army of the Dead.

Still in the North, but a bit further south, Stannis Baratheon is also dead, having met his end after a series of bad luck and bad decisions. Challenging weather conditions, along with a calculated strike on Stannis’ camp by Ramsay Bolton and a small group of his men, left Stannis significantly handicapped in his mission to defeat the Boltons at Winterfell. At Melisandre’s convincing, he made the harrowing decision to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light, burning her at the stake in front of his full army. Although the weather turned more cooperative after this, Stannis’ wife Selyse hung herself, and half of his army abandoned him, taking all the horses with them. Stunned by this turn of events that contradicted her supposed visions, Melisandre quietly slipped away. Stannis pressed on all the same, but his reduced army was roundly defeated outside Winterfell by Team Bolton. Badly wounded, Stannis himself was killed not by Ramsay or his men, but by Brienne, who had long awaited her moment of vengeance for Stannis’ murder of Renly.

Brienne had been just outside Winterfell, keeping watch on the highest tower for a lit candle in the window — a sign that Sansa needed help. Moments after Brienne learned that Stannis was approaching Winterfell and went off to find him, that candle was finally lit. On her way back to her room, Sansa encountered Theon, along with Ramsay’s paramour Myranda, who nearly shot an arrow into her until Theon finally stepped up and shoved her ass over the balcony wall. Myranda plunged to her death in the courtyard below, just as Ramsay and his men were returning from their victory against Stannis. With the die cast, Theon and Sansa jumped over the outer battlement to escape…though it looked like a deadly jump.

Further south still, the power structure in King’s Landing had been turned upside down. Cersei mobilized an order of religious fanatics known as the Faith Militant and granted power to their leader, the soft-spoken, seemingly incorruptible High Sparrow, hoping she could use them to deal with her enemies. It worked for a while; she managed to get both Loras and Margaery thrown in jail, where they remain as they await trial for their sins — Loras for engaging in intimate acts with men and lying about it at a hearing before the Gods, and Margaery for lying about her knowledge of his behavior. But a similar fate awaited Cersei, when confessions to the High Sparrow by her cousin Lancel — now a Brother in the Militant — implicated her in murder, incest and adultery. King Tommen, kind but weak, proved ineffectual against the Faith Militant and withdrew to his chambers after the arrests of his wife and his mother. Cersei finally confessed to incest, but denied the other charges against her, including sleeping with Jaime. (She admitted only to bedding Lancel.) The High Sparrow allowed her to return to the Red Keep while she awaited trial, but as her atonement, she had to walk there from the Sept of Baelor, naked, through streets packed with less-than-admiring citizens. Upon her arrival back at the Keep, she was greeted by her uncle Kevan, Maester Pycelle and Qyburn, who covered her with a blanket and introduced her to The Mountain 2.0, disguised as a member of the Kingsguard. As the hulking zombie carried her off for cleaning and treatment, Cersei’s expression hardened into what could only be described as Sweet Vengeance Will Be Mine, Motherfuckers.

Sadly — or not, depending on your feelings for her — things are going to get worse for Cersei before they get better. Jaime is on his way back from Dorne, but Myrcella is dead, victim of a poisoned kiss by another vengeance-minded lady of power, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand. Accompanied by Bronn, Jaime had gone to Dorne to save Myrcella after a threat on her life was sent to Cersei. Doran Martell, Oberyn’s brother and the ruler of Dorne, had no intention of going to war with the Lannisters, and struck a peaceful resolution with Jaime that would see his son Trystane — Myrcella’s intended — return to King’s Landing with her and take a place on the Small Council. When Cersei learns that Myrcella is dead, Doran’s intentions may well be rendered moot.

Across the Narrow Sea, on the continent of Essos, the third Lannister child has been tasked with keeping the peace in the divided city of Meereen. Tyrion was accepted into Daenarys’ circle of advisors, but they have had little time together so far. At the Great Games of Meereen, the insurgent force known as Sons of the Harpy staged an audacious attack, which Dany escaped by flying away on Drogon. Wounded in the arena attack, the dragon settled down to rest in a patch of rolling green hills far from the desert city. Exploring on her own, Dany encountered a Dothraki Khalasar, and those hardcore warriors weren’t about to let her continue wandering alone and free. Back in Meereen, Daario Naharis took charge, assigning Tyrion to draw on his skills and past experience to govern the city along with Missandei and Grey Worm, who was still recovering from an earlier attack by the Sons of the Harpy that left Barristan Selmy dead. Tyrion has an additional ally as well, now that Varys finally made it to Meereen. Meanwhile, Daario and Jorah — who has been accepted back into Dany’s good faith after saving her life in the arena — set off to find her. Unfortunately, Jorah is now contending with an affliction of Greyscale, which he contracted when he and Tyrion were attacked by Stone Men while passing through the ruined city of Valyria.

For now, Jorah’s condition doesn’t seem much of a hindrance. Doubtful we’ll be able to say the same for Arya, who faces a new handicap of her own. When she discovered that Meryn Trant was in Braavos, she abandoned the mission that had been assigned to her by Jaqen H’ghar and instead tracked the movements of the Gold Cloak who killed her beloved dancing master Syrio Forel. She stole an identity from the Hall of Faces and exacted a brutal revenge killing on Trant. But the cost of her disobedience was the loss her eyesight.

Hmmm…who else? Prior to Jon’s murder, he granted Sam permission to leave Castle Black with Gilly and journey to the Citadel to begin his training as a Maester. But Jon wasn’t completely without friends at this time of his death. Ser Davos had been sent by Stannis to seek supplies from the Night’s Watch, so he is currently at Castle Black, as is Melisandre, who returned there after leaving Stannis to defeat. She took quite the liking to Jon, and she may have the power to bring him back to life.

Last but never least, there’s Littlefinger. The last time we saw him was in King’s Landing, meeting in secret with Lady Olenna Tyrell, with whom he had conspired to kill Joffrey. What exactly he was promising Lady Olenna was not clear. He had met with Cersei earlier, prior to her incarceration, and revealed that Sansa was in Winterfell, about to be married to Ramsay. It’s hard to say at this point whether he has any genuine desire to protect Sansa, after leaving her to be Ramsay’s plaything…though he claimed to not know much about Ramsay, and therefore might not be aware of his psychotic predilections…even if it seems unlikely that anything so significant could elude Littlefinger. Still, I have to assume that revealing Sansa’s location to Cersei and promising to deliver the girl in exchange for being named Warden of the North is yet another example of him playing his own game that isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Oh, and there’s one more story thread yet to be mentioned, but we have to jump back to Season Four to pick it up. That, of course, is Bran. The crippled Stark child, along with his companions Hodor (Hodor) and Meera Reed, finally made it to the Three-Eyed Raven, where apparently he has spent the time covered during Season Five learning how to control and harness his powers. He’ll be back, and hopefully with a big impact on events to come.

Whatever those events are, non-book readers are no longer the only ones in the dark. The show has now caught up with George R.R. Martin’s novels, so we are in completely uncharted territory as Season Six gets underway. Things are said to pick up right where we left off last year, which means Jon Snow is lying in the courtyard of Castle Black in a pool of his own blood. Ever since Season Five ended, the question that’s been asked ad nauseum is if Jon Snow is dead. Which has always been the wrong question. Of course he’s dead! The guy was stabbed in his chest and abdomen six times, and that final blow from Olly was, if not in the heart, pretty damn close. Jon Snow is dead. The question should be, does he stay dead? The season was barely over before Kit Harrington was seen at Wimbledon still sporting his Jon Snow locks and facial hair, and it wasn’t long after that when he was spotted around the Ireland locations where portions of the series shoot. In this day and age, there was little-to-no chance that Harrington could have been on set without evidence getting out, but considering the desire for proof of his return, it’s impressive that no one managed to ever get a shot of him in costume or to provide any concrete, irrefutable proof that he was filming. At this point, we know that he was on set and in costume, if for no other reason than to play Jon’s corpse, which has been seen in trailers for the new season. An article after the recent Season Six premiere event in Hollywood confirmed that Harrington’s name appears in the first episode’s opening credits, though the same was true of Charles Dance and Jack Gleeson — Tywin and Joffrey, respectively — when they appeared as dead bodies in the episodes following the demise of their characters.

In November, HBO made the rare move of unveiling an early teaser poster for the new season, and they put Jon Snow and the question of his survival front and center.

Teaser Poster


The network just recently released the log line for the first episode: “Jon Snow is dead. Daenarys meets a strong man. Cersei sees her daughter again.” (Interestingly, the description I see on DirecTV is slightly different; it says, “The fate of Jon Snow is revealed.”) That official word on Jon from HBO sent The Internet into a tizzy, as if the mystery had been addressed at long last. But again, “Is Jon Snow dead?” was never the right question. The question is what happens after he dies? There’s the theory that he turns into one of the White Walker’s wights and joins the Army of the Dead. There’s the theory that he suddenly developed warg-like abilities akin to Bran’s, and that his consciousness was transferred into his direwolf, Ghost. But the prevailing theory — and the most likely and logical — is that he will be restored to life by Melisandre, who will call upon the Lord of Light just as fellow priest Thoros of Myr did the six times he brought Beric Dondarrion back to life. (See my previous Thrones post for clips of one such resurrection, and of Thoros explaining the circumstances of these revivals to Melisandre.)

One thing the latter scene makes clear is that Melisandre has never done this herself, so if she does attempt to revive Jon, it will be a first for her. Assuming she does, will it go smoothly? Her faith is clearly shaken with everything having gone wrong for Stannis. She wasn’t looking like her usual confident self when she returned to Castle Black. Will her more fragile state impact a possible attempt to bring Jon back? Or will she pull it off and be reinvigorated by her success? What are the potential side effects to Jon? Beric stated that each time he’s been brought back, he’s a bit “less” than he was before. Jon could surely be revived once and still be the badass fighter he was, but are there other unknown risks to Melisandre attempting to bring him back to life? Is timing an issue? I’m not sure how long a body can be dead before the Lord of Light can revive it. When we saw Beric Dondarrion cut down by The Hound, Thoros sprang quickly into action to try and bring him back. It doesn’t appear that a potential revival of Jon will happen that fast.

I just hope we know by the hour’s end whether Jon is alive again or not, and that we aren’t left with his possible return still to come in a subsequent episode. The premiere is titled, “The Red Woman,” so we can assume that Melisandre factors in prominently, and the trailers have already suggested that Davos is right up in the thick of this as well. Whatever awaits Jon, it can’t be dragged out too long. The Night’s Watch brothers who stabbed him will surely be looking to handle the body and move on with their business, and they might not be so keen on the continued occupancy of Davos and Melisandre. (Is that why Davos is seen drawing Jon’s sword at the end of the first full trailer?) So I’m highly curious to see what awaits not just Jon, but also Alliser Thorne and Olly. And speaking of Olly, the biggest clue to Jon’s fate may have been out there in the open all this time, teased by the writers in the scene from “Hardhome” when Olly talks to Sam about Jon’s mission to make peace with the wildlings. “Try not to worry, Olly,” Sam says. “I’ve been worrying about Jon for years. He always comes back.”

Sansa’s storyline in Season Five was tough to endure. The internet certainly lost its collective shit when Ramsay bent her over and took her on their wedding night. But to be fair, the internet loses its collective shit whenever Taylor Swift makes a veiled allusion to an ex-boyfriend, or the latest in-production comic book movie reveals the design of its hero’s costume. So that’s not the most reliable gauge. (It was legitimately controversial though, with critical reactions coming from more than just angry bloggers. Bryan Cogman, a producer on the show who wrote the episode, addresses it on the DVD commentary.) When Littlefinger first tells her that he’s bringing her to Winterfell to wed Ramsay, she is livid and refuses, but he implores her to see it as an opportunity. “You’ve been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father,” he tells her. “Stop being a bystander, do you hear me? Stop running. There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.” We saw, toward the end of Season Four, how Littlefinger’s cunning was rubbing off on Sansa and how she was starting to show some savvy. She seemed to cross a threshold and was poised to continue down that path, emboldened and clever.

Thing is though, the story didn’t follow through on that. Upon her arrival at Winterfell and her marriage to Ramsay, she became passive again; a victim of the very kind that Littlfefinger said she’d been all along. I suppose she did what she could, trying to light that candle in the tallest tower, which an ally had told her to do if she needed help. But was that really her only card to play? We wanted to see her put Littlefinger’s tutelage to use and take steps to ruin the Boltons. Littlefinger, before returning to King’s Landing after a summon from Cersei, spoke to Sansa in the Winterfell crypts, and told her she could wrap Ramsay around her finger and make him hers, though she said she doesn’t know how to do that. Fair enough. Using her sexuality as weapon, like Melisandre does, probably doesn’t make sense to someone who’s never experienced sex. But Sansa better figure out pretty soon what her way is, because to watch her storyline backslide so jarringly after the progress it seemed to make was a shame. It’s hard to see what there is to be gained, story-wise or character arc-wise, by putting her in this situation. As if things haven’t been bad enough for her, do we really want to see Sansa impregnated by Ramsay, something that’s bound to happen if he’s raping her every night? As I noted in my previous Thrones post — and as Cogman mentions in that DVD commentary — this is not Sansa’s storyline in the books. Ramsay marries Sansa’s childhood friend, and these events play out with her while Sansa remains back in The Eyrie. Knowing this, I assume that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will ultimately bring her story to the same conclusion that George R.R. Martin intends. Benioff and Weiss can kill supporting characters like Mance Rayder and Barristan Selmy who are still alive in the books, but I gotta think that with the main players, they’re going to follow Martin’s lead. So that’s why I ask what is gained by these events. Why is this a good story for Sansa, if Martin is getting her to the same endgame by other, non-rapey means? Let’s hope that Benioff and Weiss’ long-term plan justifies this problematic detour.

As for Ramsay’s part in all of this, even considering what a vicious asshole he is, it doesn’t seem that making life so miserable for her can be good for him. He’s not Warden of the North yet. His father still holds the title, and may have a true born son on the way. Isn’t it in Ramsay’s interest to handle Sansa a little more carefully? Or is he just too much of a raging sadistic psychopath to help himself from torturing her? And why does Roose allow it? He must have some sense of what’s going on, especially if Sansa spends her days locked in her room, and shows up with fresh bruises whenever she is seen outside. Roose is repeatedly chastising Ramsay for his aggressive behavior, and he understands — even if Ramsay doesn’t — how crucial Sansa is to the Bolton’s position in the North. You’d think he would step in and bring Ramsay into line.

The biggest question mark in this thread is Littlefinger. He’s always the biggest question mark, isn’t he? We never really know what angle he’s playing, and that’s never been more true than in this particular scenario. In that Winterfell crypt scene, he says that he’s betting on Stannis to defeat the Boltons. Presumably, the plans he makes from there depend on that outcome. Or do they? He later tells Cersei to let Stannis and the Boltons fight each other, and then to attack whichever one wins. He volunteers the Knights of the Vale as the fighting force, and in return asks to be named Warden of the North if they prove victorious. He also promises to deliver Sansa to Cersei, who still believes her to be a co-conspirator in Joffrey’s death. Later still, in that aforementioned secret meeting with Olenna Tyrell — now at odds with Cersei over the arrests of Loras and Margaery — Littlefinger promises her a gift. “The same kind of gift I gave Cersei,” he says. “A handsome young man.” This was the last we saw of Littlefinger or Lady Olenna for the season. And I have no idea what he’s talking about. What handsome young man? Ramsay? Robyn Arryn, and more accurately the fighting force he now technically commands? Or someone else? The new season’s trailers have offered only glimpses of Littlefinger, in snow-covered forests that suggest he’s back in the North. How will the games he’s playing with the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Boltons and Sansa Stark all pan out?

That’s all I have regarding where the story stands. What about where the show stands? For a while now, there’s been no question that the show will conclude before Martin has completed his books, but there was some hope last summer that his sixth book, The Winds of Winter, would make an early 2016 release, in time for fans to catch up before the show returned. But that was not to be, and Martin posted a message about it on his blog in January, explaining earnestly where things stand and apologizing to those disappointed by the slow progress. I felt bad that Martin felt so bad, and that he felt the need not just to update, but to apologize. He began A Song of Ice and Fire years ago, and should be allowed to complete it at his own pace without having to endure the vocal frustrations of fans, most of whom have no idea what it takes to seriously write anything, let alone write an epic tale of a wholly imagined world. Sure, it’s unfortunate that the show will finish before the books, and that Martin will have many of his plot resolutions revealed by Benioff and Weiss before he gets the chance to reveal them in his own way, but as he talks about near the end of his post, he seems to have a good attitude about that, and about the pleasures of both reading a novel and watching its adaptation, no matter the order in which they are consumed. And if Benioff and Weiss are to be believed, the show is going its own way even more now than it already has, and it’s gone its own way quite a bit of late. The two showrunners, along with Martin, all seem in sync that when fans finally do get to read the last two books, there will be plenty of surprises in store that will not have occurred on the show.

Another timing question that has cropped up often in the past couple of years is how much longer the show will air, and sadly, it looks like the end is in sight. Benioff and Weiss recently speculated that after Season Six, there are probably about 13 more hours of story to tell. They concede that nothing is set in stone, and HBO certainly wants to clarify that talks are still ongoing. (The network has already renewed the show for another season.) Thrones always runs 10 episodes per season, but the idea would be that the remaining 13 — if that is indeed the number that sticks — would be told over two shortened runs, with more time being spent on each episode. As Benioff and Weiss explain, at this point the show — already a massive logistical undertaking that films with multiple crews on multiple continents — is more on the scale of a mid-size movie than even a typical high-quality episode of television. The behind-the-scenes scope of the show is daunting, and necessitates that directors helm two consecutive episodes in order for the production to run efficiently. To give a sense of the complexity involved: one of this year’s directors is Jack Bender, whose long list of credits includes being Lost‘s most frequent man behind the camera. This will be Bender’s first experience with Thrones, and his two hours of story required him to be on location for over four months.

But I digress. Whenever the show ends, whenever the books end, the focus for now is on Season Six, which arrives as the reigning Emmy Award winner for Best Drama Series. In fact, the show set a record at last year’s Emmys when it captured 12 awards — the most ever for a drama series in a single year. It nearly swept the main categories in which it was nominated, with wins for Best Directing and Best Writing (both for season finale “Mother’s Mercy”), and a second Best Supporting Actor win for Peter Dinklage. It’s other eight wins came in the Creative Arts categories for achievements such as Production Design, Editing and Casting. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had slightly mixed feelings about the Emmy victories. I’ve been waiting since the beginning for the show to win the top award, and yet I couldn’t help being a little disappointed that when it finally happened, it was for the show’s most problematic season. I loved Season Five overall, but as I detailed in my previous Thrones post, there were a few storylines that stood on shaky ground. I wish the show had triumphed for a year in which, to my mind, no such problems existed. And while it was great to see a win for Best Directing, it was for the wrong episode. How was “Hardhome” — one of the best and most spectacularly directed episodes in the history of the show — not nominated in that category??

But again with the digressing. Back to Season Six. HBO usually sends the first two-to-four episodes of the season to critics in advance so they can write their reviews, but this time, no episodes were provided ahead of time (except to President Obama, apparently.) There was a premiere in Hollywood a few weeks ago, with a large number of the show’s cast members in attendance…but not Kit Harrington. Some members of the press were there as well, and while they all swore not to reveal any details (only the first episode was shown), the reactions were extremely positive, with word circulating that the episode is full of shocks and surprises. The screening was followed by a new trailer showing what’s to come. Among the clip’s most intriguing images are the return of Red Wedding co-orchestrator Walder Frey, not seen since the Season Three aftermath of that slaughter; Podrick being grabbed from behind; several shots of the Night’s King and the White Walkers; and a new Red Priestess visiting Tyrion and Varys in Meereen. (This will be interesting. The usually confident Varys has a look of concern on his face as this new character walks away, and he has previously expressed his loathing for those who practice the sort of dark magic that a servant to the Lord of Light could conjure. See: Melisandre and her crazy, Renly-killing Shadow Baby.)

We also get a quick glimpse of the great Max von Sydow, who joins the cast as Bran’s mentor, the Three-Eyed Raven. I love that von Sydow is joining the show; hopefully he’ll be better utilized than he was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where his brief role in the opening sequence made little use of his talent, presence and all-around awesomeness. (von Sydow was previously heard, but not seen, as the narrator of the season’s first teaser trailer, which highlighted such prominent past incidents as the deaths of Ned, Robb, Joffrey, and Jojen; the massacre at Hardhome; Jaime’s behanding; and perhaps most out of place and therefore most telling (?), Littlefinger kissing Sansa. Past events were also recalled in a subsequent teaser trailer, set in the Hall of Faces.) Other notable actors who will appear this year in undisclosed roles are Ian McShane and Richard E. Grant, and the new characters we’ll meet include Theon’s uncle, Euron Greyjoy, as well as Sam’s entire family. How will the Tarly clan factor into his Citadel storyline, I wonder?

All will be answered soon enough. Need some things to tide you over in these remaining minutes I’ve left you? Here’s something from the special features of Season Four’s DVD: a roundtable conversation with actors whose characters were killed off that year: Pedro Pascal (Oberyn), Charles Dance (Tywin), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), Sibel Kekilli (Shae), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) and Mark Stanley (Grenn).

If you prefer focusing on beginnings rather than ends, here’s a compilation of moments from the cast’s audition reels. I’d have hired Kristofer Hivju (Tormund) on the spot.

In this clip, members of the cast try to differentiate between the names of GoT swords and 80’s metal bands. No easy task…

And here’s another amusing trivia game to test your knowledge of the show. It’s called, “Why is Sansa Frowning?” (To be fair to our put-upon red-headed Stark, those aren’t all frowns…but it’s still a good reminder of things Sansa has gone through.)

Here’s something crazy: a guy who makes snow art, and offered up this massive salute to the Starks. Must be seen to be believed.

And finally, in tribute to the character who gives tonight’s episode its title, here’s what happens when Melisandre attends a baby shower.


With that, there’s nothing left to do but wait for the witching hour. Whatever happens, at least we can be grateful that we no longer have to endure any more questions about whether Jon Snow is dead. Seriously…every day for the last 10 months.



  1. I’m up to date on my seasons and I still found this all hard to follow. What a tangled web they’ve woven. Thanks for the excellent summary. Now begins the dance of spoiler-avoiding that comes with being HBO-less.

    Comment by Karen — April 25, 2016 @ 5:22 am | Reply

    • I think I’d rather literally dance with dragons than dance with GoT spoiler avoidance.

      It is indeed a tangled web, but well worth getting stuck in. Hope I was able to shine a little light. Feel free to hit me up with questions anytime. I’ll be as helpful as I can, considering I have a few myself…

      Comment by DB — April 25, 2016 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

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