On the cusp of a war for control of Westeros, “Game of Thrones” proffers a pair of set pieces to match its grand design. The first, in “Battle of the Bastards,” is a feat of careful chaos, in which Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) commands his forces to encircle the small army of Jon Snow (Kit Harington); the second, in “The Winds of Winter,” is an act of cruel cunning, in which Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) dispatches her enemies by turning to mass destruction. Both, coming near the conclusion of the HBO series’ sixth season, punctuate an accelerating arc, the once far-flung characters converging on one another as “the great game” nears its close: Here, the prestige epic emerges as a combustible crowd-pleaser, now as content to reward its viewers as it once was to surprise us.
Since surpassing the narrative of George R.R. Martin’s bestselling novels, “Game of Thrones”—always a soap opera of sorts—has only tightened its hold on the rhythms of television, directing its energies toward extravagant endings as if it were beholden to sweeps. Snow’s confrontation with Bolton, for instance, from the stunning image of horses charging in a staggered line to the encroachment of the latter’s spear-wielding soldiers, manages to combine human scale with cinematic scope. The special effects-aided shot of Jon fighting his way through the scrum, or (even better) the flashing silhouettes and gasping breaths of his slow suffocation, immerse one in the choking horror of the scene, but director Miguel Sapochnik never allows us to lose sight of the battle’s broader movements. The sequence is, in every sense of the phrase, bloody masterful.
The problem is, no amount of mournful music can convince me that Snow’s life is at stake. In killing him off and then resurrecting him, as if in remorse for last season’s dreadful cliffhanger, “Game of Thrones” broke an oath of its own, its long-standing promise that no one was safe. The beheading of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, and “The Mountain and the Viper” now seem entries in another series’ annals, supplanted by the fleeting satisfactions of fan service: Jon Snow lives, Arya (Maisie Williams) returns, Sansa (Sophie Turner) extracts sweet revenge. There’s pleasure to be had, of course, in watching the sisters Stark ascend to positions of power—if the sixth season has a central theme, it’s what Hanna Rosin once called “The End of Men”—but on the level of the series’ most basic mechanics, these exclamation points come at a cost.
For neither “Battle of the Bastards” nor “The Winds of Winter” is a typical episode of “Game of Thrones,” though in the rush to lavish praise on the season’s superlative denouement, the fact that much of it’s been an unimaginative muddle seems to have been swiftly forgotten. Arguably, “The Door,” with flashes of brilliance set against flat expanses of exposition, capped—the word might be “saved”—by an emotional death, is the more telling microcosm of the series’ recent run.
As Sansa confronts Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) and Arya continues her interminable training in the House of Black and White, a sizable chunk of the hour is devoted to two wooden conversations, more stage-bound than any play written by the bards of Braavos. On a grey cliff in the Iron Islands, as on a desert outcropping in the land of the Dothraki, the camera seizes up, frozen in a series of stiff compositions, and the plot follows suit; as Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) lays claim to the salt throne and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) discovers that Jorah (Iain Glen) is turning to stone, the “emotion” of each sequence is, at best, an effect of the insistent score. Even the demise of Hodor (Kristian Nairn), affecting as it is—he was among the last of the series’ true innocents—begins to seem a desperate measure, an admission that death is cheap.
Airing in the midst of Emmy nominations voting, and leaving TV Academy members with the lingering taste of the series at its best, “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter” position “Game of Thrones,” the defending champion, in the driver’s seat for Best Drama Series, not to mention below-the-line dominance. (Dinklage, Turner, and especially Headey, after her tremendous turn in the season finale, are all strong contenders, too.) But in applying its full arsenal to but a handful of magnificent moments, “Game of Thrones” remains, on the whole, a series that spends more time stumbling toward greatness than actually achieving it. No ongoing series of such high acclaim more blithely misapprehends its own strengths.
Still, after 60 episodes in which it’s tested us, even tortured us, the brilliant opening sequence of “The Winds of Winter” suggests that “Game of Thrones” is capable of reinvention. There is no exposition—only the wordless montage of a quartet of characters readying themselves for the climactic trial. There are no uninspired compositions—only the sight of the Sept of Baelor’s doors swinging open as Ramin Djawadi’s stirring tune, “Light of the Seven,” sets goosebumps across the skin. Cersei, clad in the audacious armor of black leather and silver chains, almost smirks with satisfaction as Wildfire engulfs the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) in green flames, but her abhorrent act is not quite fan service. It is, rather, a reminder of what “Game of Thrones” does when it refuses to reward us, which is to explode our expectations, to ensure that its only permanent feature is change. “Sometimes, before we usher in the new,” as Cersei’s advisor, Qyburn (Anton Lesser), says on this point, “the old must be put to rest.”