Spoilers for recent Game of Thrones episodes follow.
Much of these first three episodes of Game of Thrones’ new season has been devoted to remembering the great mess of characters and places that is the show, and trying to unwind the knot of narrative Christmas lights that’s been tangling in the box since last season. Has it been a rollicking process? It has not.The only breakneck thing about Season 6has been Wun Wun the wildlinggiant swinging a Night’s Watch mutineerinto a wall. It took Jon Snow two full episodes to go from corpse to crow, and at least as long for the show itself to come back to life.
Granted, it was nevercompletely dead, though its honey-slow progress has sometimes felt like shaking off the effects of hibernation. Partly, that’s because the last of the published source materialthe two concurrent novelsA Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragonsbest resembles one of those Family Circus comics where li’l Billy takes the most circuitous path possible back home (though lengthy delays by author George R. R. Martin have inspired significantly less confidence that the heroes will reach their destinations).
And partly, it’s because Game of Thrones is a show that is not here to satisfy you. The relationship between Game of Thrones and its fans has always been a withholding oneand, some might argue, a manipulative or even sadistic one. It delights in our disappointment; it pulls away the football right as we’re about to kick it; it promises to take us to Disneyland for our birthday and then cancels at the last minute.
But faith has grown thinner among the fans of fire and ice; where the shocking deaths of archetypal heroes like Ned Stark and Robb and Oberyn were once startling subversions of fantasy tropes about noble heroes and happy endings, they’re now just par for the course. Now, when Game of Thrones zigs towards a stereotypical moment of triumph, we instinctively expect it to zag.
As the series moves towards its endgame, what lies beyond the Wall of Withholding, beyond the shadow of shock?
The resurrection of Jon Snow, then, is something of an anomaly for Game of Thrones: an anticipated, hoped-for moment that actually comes to pass. The show’s greatest thrills tend to revolve around its shocking surprises and disappointments, and it’s almost a relief to finally have a major moment that does not seem determined to be contrary. It suggests a potentially more interesting question for the series, as it moves towards its endgame: what lies beyond the Wall of Withholding, beyond the shadow of shock? After all, when your stock in trade is surprise, even this can become unsurprising, and worse, uninteresting.
Take Ramsay Bolton. His sadism was shocking, at first: the flayings, the rapes, the castrations. But he’s always been a bit of a one-note monster, particularly on a show that has encouraged us to sympathize with incestuous killers who throw little boys out of tall buildings. His evil is flat; it turns sideways and disappears. When he kills his father in a murderous hug, it’s hard to even bother raising an eyebrow; when he feeds his stepmother and baby brother to the dogs, it’s easier to roll your eyes than widen them. Overkill is seemingly Ramsay’s sole character trait, and after more than three seasons, it’s now the least shocking thing about him. He’s an instructive example of how evil isn’t the same thing as interesting, even when you turn the volume all the way up to eleven.
But hey, at least he’s doing things. Other major plotlines are showing similarly lethal signs of life: not only does Lord Bolton get murdered by a family member, so do Prince Doran and Balon Greyjoy. The old guard is being wiped from the thrones of the Seven Kingdoms, for better or worse, leaving Winterfell, Dorne and the Iron Islands in far more volatile hands. Jon Snow just quit his post as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, while King’s Landing, of course, has been roiling in the chaos caused by Cersei’s political ineptitude for some time now. All in all, the Seven Kingdoms are fractured and wildly unstableperhaps the perfect time for a strong Targaryen heir to reclaim her family’s historical throne.
Unfortunately Daenerys, Queen of Wandering in Circles, Lengthener of Chapters, The Unhurried, Destroyer of Momentum, and Mother of Dragging On has somehow managed to end up further away from Westeros than ever, held in captivity yet again at the fabled Dothraki city of Vaes Dothrak. If you groaned when you saw her fleet of ships burn to the ground in a recent episode, you’re not alone; her return to Westeros is perhaps the greatest unfulfilled promise of the series.
Still, there’s some hope her eastern purgatory could translate into forward progress, especially if you consider a counterinuitive prophecy from the books. Back when Daenerys was in Qarth, the masked shadowbinder Quaithe offered her some enigmatic advice: “To go north, you must go south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back.” As frustrating as it is to see Dany move further away from her destiny, her forced march to Vaes Dothrak did take her east, and with any luck, all this wandering backwards will finally lead her back to Westeros. There’s something so perfectly Game of Thrones about this idea: that the only way you can arrive at your destination is by traveling so far in the wrong direction that you come all the way around.
Elsewhere, the main-character diaspora is finally starting to coalesce as Jaime returns to King’s Landing, while Sansa finally joins forces with Brienne and heads North for a reunion with Jon at the Wall. Farther afield, Arya’s Karate Kid moment at the House of Black and White comes after what has essentially been a two-season-long training montage, while Tyrion’s decision to unchain the two dragons chained in the pits of Meereen suggests that more dragon action is imminent, and of course this is to be desired.
Still, Game of Thrones hasn’t entirely stopped screwing with us. If there’s any character who serves as an analogue for George R. R. Martin, it’s the Three-Eyed Crow, the elderly man who lives in a tree beyond the Wall and is currently teaching Bran to be a mind wizard. These lessons include the ability to psychically travel into the past and observe important events, aka Super Flashback Powers.
This has allowed Bran to visit the Winterfell of his father’s youth, where we finally get to see Ned’s beautiful, doomed sister Lyanna Starkaka the Helen of Westeros, whose kidnapping inspired the rebellion that deposed the Targaryens. The precise events around her disappearance and death have always been shrouded in mystery, as has the much-mythologized battle between Ned Stark and the legendary night Arthur Dayne at what the books call the “Tower of Joy.”
When Bran finds himself standing on a rock outcropping near the Tower, finally observing the moment that fans of the books have been anxiously awaiting for nearly 15 years, it seemed that one of the most anticipated scenes of the series was finally coming to pass. When Ned finally defeats Daynea bit less nobly than the legends rememberBran immediately starts running for the Tower, as anxious as the fans to find out what is inside. But right before he can throw open the doorthe Three-Eyed Raven steps into his path pulls him back into the present, like a mystical George R. R. Martin determined to dangle the carrot of satisfaction and snatch it away at the last moment.
“Why did you do that?” shouts Bran when he awakensjust as countless Game of Thrones fans, at countless moments, have done. He begs the man who controls the way events unfold before his eyes, the psychic showrunner of his most beloved stories, to show him the thing he so desperately wants to see.
“No,” the Three-Eyed Crow replies simply. This is Game of Thrones, after all.