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Review: Game of Thrones Sixth Season Finale Redeemed an Uneven Start

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Game of Thrones is and has for several years been the show on top of the TV heap—winning Emmys, blocking out late-spring Sunday nights, and defining Monday mornings in the office and on social media. And it’s done it all by denying the pleasures TV traditionally grants.

The series, which ended its sixth season Sunday night, has always saved its heaviest artillery for season’s end, but never did the result feel quite so lopsided as this year, as the show prepares for what has been speculated will be a final winding-down. The early going was consumed with world-building that could as easily be seen as wheel-spinning: the revelation that Melisandre was dozens of years older than she appeared to be by day, or Jon Snow coming back from the dead, as though the force that defines all lives were a punchline that came with take-backs. Or Cersei’s having been largely sidelined—a strange result for the character who’s traditionally been the show’s best-acted—or Daenerys’s imprisonment, before she freed herself in a manner that felt ripped from previous seasons’ playbooks: Just how often was the Mother of Dragons going to get out of peril by lighting it all up?

And then the final going was filled with (at times literal) fireworks. Perhaps we should work backwards from the season’s final episode, which began with an unusually artful sequence leading to the destruction of the Sept—and, with it, the High Sparrow, his soldiers, Loras, and Margaery—by Cersei. This action, underscored by a level of music and montage unusual for such a usually dead-literal series, did as much as it could to justify the absence of a crucial character from much of the season. And, in the nature of the best twists, it only served to open up new questions. Cersei got what I’d argue was a self-consciously campy moment sipping wine as she watched the Sept burn, but her son’s subsequent suicide and the combination of plots against her by Olenna Tyrell and Daenerys’s sailing on Westeros made the question of what, exactly, she has left to defend as queen a muddy one indeed.

And about Daenerys: The season ended, for the third time out of six seasons, with a scene asserting her particular power. Or something like that. This time around, Daenerys seemed less like the conqueror (a stance that has historically pushed her into an unfeasably oppositional mode) than like a figure tempered by experience. That this temperance, of the sort that could bring a would-be queen finally into her own after years of dithering in the desert, came thanks to the wise counsel of a man is… perhaps less than great. It would appear that the story Game of Thrones is working toward is one of a young female leader with wild potential who needed an elder man to shape her. While this is not the alley I’d have chosen, I’d argue that the mere fact it’s a story—one with narrative potential beyond “more, again”—is incredibly promising.

Elsewhere in the season’s final going, the penultimate episode made Jon Snow’s situation—one that strained TV’s standards of credulity for a major character, even if it passed muster in Westeros—into a full-blown character arc. His nihilistic willingness to face down a horde of horses was perhaps the series’s single most beautiful shot, and crowned the majestic episode “Battle of the Bastards.” That same episode saw Ramsay Bolton—whose point, that evil exists, had been made, and made, and made—killed by Sansa, a character who similarly came into her own this season. The stage-setting for a showdown between a newly empowered Sansa and Littlefinger, who’s eager to take credit for his role as her savior, was impeccably done. I mean it in the best way when I compare the Sansa-Littlefinger pairing to a particularly good Survivor final two, in the sense that it’s impossible to tell who’s riding whose coattails.

In the end, Game of Thrones‘s frustrations come not merely in equal measure to its moments of transcendence, but tied to them. I, along with millions, sat through episodes that felt like scene-setting and arcs that felt as though they’d gone on too long (and a few legitimately did). But the scenes that were set, laboriously and at times inartfully, were among TV’s most wildly ambitious.

Does Game of Thrones have anything to say about the nature of power? Early in the season, I’d have said only a conditional yes—that any meaningful argument was far outside of the weeds in which we were mired. After an assertive and confident conclusion to a show that’s always moved with dispatch but hasn’t always moved quite so decisively forward, I’m eager to see where the show brings us. I’d argue, though, against extrapolating any meaningful arguments about contemporary politics from this season: Though it ended with great strength, it stopped short of what seems likelier than ever to be a boldly made conclusion, one about which we can now theorize for all the Thrones-less Sunday nights until next spring.

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