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‘Game of Thrones’ Season 6 Channeled George R.R. Martin Without Him, For Better and Worse

Without guidance from the series of novels, how has the HBO drama fared this year?

Jerome Flynn as Bronn and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

Life Beyond The Books

In the run-up to Season 6 of “Game of Thrones,” there was one major question that dominated the conversation — and it wasn’t if Jon Snow was really dead. The big debate was about how different the show would be now that it has gotten past the books.  On the eve of the season finale, the answer to that question, at least for this long-time book reader, seems to be… not much.

READ MORE: Iwan Rheon: Why the ‘Game of Thrones’ Psychopath Deserves to Be a Star

Fandom, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And in the absence of new written material — and a declining amount of public participation from George R.R. Martin — fans have made a number of assumptions and decisions about what goes on behind the scenes of the show. Much of this dynamic centers on the “fast” show fixing the problems of the “slow” books. But while Season 6 may be the first season that is predominantly set after the events of the most recent book, “A Dance With Dragons,” the first five seasons have already diverged from the books so greatly that they’re practically different stories.

We’ve been in beyond-the-books storytelling since the first appearance of the Night King in Season 4. Whole plotlines in the show have been altered — most notably the Sansa storyline. But even with these differences, there has been little revealed in Season 6 that comes as a massive shock. Perhaps the origin and demise of Hodor is the biggest, although we’ve still got room for one or two more surprises in the finale — most notably the potential for the long-awaited confirmation of Jon’s true parentage; something book readers have believed known for a very long time.

Kit Harington in "Game of Thrones."

Kit Harington in “Game of Thrones.”

Helen Sloan/HBO

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both book series and the TV show made their reputations with high profile shocking set pieces — Ned’s death and the Red Wedding in particular. But the power of those moments were based less in the surprise of the events themselves and more about the story’s choice to take narrative paths that we’ve been conditioned to believe will never happen. This is great storytelling. Once the shock wears off, we can look back at Ned’s actions and Catelyn’s choices and Robb’s mistakes and see how they led directly to their terrible outcomes.

In contrast, the high points of Season 6 — and there have been many — have been less about shocks and trope-breaking than they’ve been about paying off long-delayed, wished-for outcomes. Jon’s resurrection, Sansa’s revenge, Arya’s graduation, Dany (finally!) seeming to be ready to leave Meereen — these are all story developments that we’ve known had to happen. So the main joys of this season have come not from surpassing the books, but from paying off the stories that the books and previous seasons have built up.

We’ve even got one or two things from previous books that could still work their way back into the story. [Mild spoilers for the book “A Storm of Swords”] I’m still hoping for the show to give us Lady Stoneheart in Sunday’s finale, not just because her first appearance at the end of “Storm of Swords” is one of my favorite moments of the books, but also because if she’s not in play, then why did Season 6 spent so much time in the Riverlands? I love Jaime and Brienne, but that was an awful lot of diminishing story time just to get them two scenes together.

It’s All Table SettingEmilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones

In this year’s IndieWire roundtable reviews, one of the recurring complaints with this season has been the enormous amount of “table-setting”: positioning characters and plotlines less for their own narrative sake and more to set up later payoffs. On the one hand, this is unavoidable for a show which seems to be pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible to produce in the TV format, both in scale and number of storylines. But more importantly, it’s a function of narrative decisions made by Martin in his books long ago; decisions that have not only delayed his delivery of subsequent volumes, but have dictated the course of action that the show takes even as it diverges from the source.

Encoded in the structure of this story from its very inception is the idea that while the major players squabble over who gets to sit on the throne, they’re all ignoring the real threat. By design, much of the struggle we’ve seen — the conflict for the Iron Throne, the War of the Five Kings, Dany’s march through Essos — are distractions from the main threat of the White Walkers. It’s all been table-setting. The success of each storyline is a function of how much the audience cares about the characters struggles to set their individual table, and even fan-favorites like Arya suffer when their storyline gets dragged out too long.

This is an easy criticism to make, but it should be noted that striking that balance is extremely hard in the best of circumstances, not to mention in a world-spanning, juggernaut of a production. And this very same problem delayed Martin from finishing book five for years — the so-called “Meereenese knot” of how to balance different characters getting to the same place at the right time.

False JeopardyNikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister and David Bradley as Walder Frey in Game of Thrones

The idea that by surpassing the books, Season 6 has been able to take more liberties and increase the pace seems inaccurate. Season 6 has been bedeviled by its own version of the Meereenese knot, as the Braavos storyline has limped to its conclusion; as Jon followed his resurrection by not doing much of anything for a few episodes; as Dany took a detour to Vaes Dothrak that screamed of false jeopardy and as we waited for everybody to get their individual growth arcs out of the way, so we could get on with the ultimate convergence and the final battles.

The one place where Season 6 has been helped by being past the books has been in Kings Landing. I think this is mostly a function of how opaquely the High Sparrow has been characterized. We really don’t know what he’s planning, and that plotline has been a source of constant surprise.

Of course, we won’t really know how much the show differs from the books until we get those future volumes.  But with two doorstop novels to come (at least), it’s fair to say that Martin’s story has much more left to do, compared to a show that is about to turn toward its home stretch. Season 7 will be the beginning of the end, which will naturally come with a sense of acceleration and momentum that the books will not be able to match. Or maybe Martin will surprise us all and deliver “The Winds of Winter,” the next book in the series, in the next six months, and we can revisit this question all over again next year.

The “Game of Thrones” Season 6 finale premieres Sunday at 9pm on HBO.

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