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Reverting to the Mean

This is a hard review to write. Up to this point in the season, I’ve enjoyed what Game of Thrones has been putting down: after Jon Snow’s inevitable resurrection, which was really just the tail end of the bad hangover that was season five, the show’s sixth season has seen a return to form, complete with political maneuvering around King’s Landing and some great character moments coming out of the Northern alliances. But beginning with Arya leading Lena Dunham on a Terminator-esque chase through the streets of Braavos and ending with Ramsay Bolton’s dog food death, the last two weeks of Game of Thrones have contained some of the most cliched scenes and stories in the show to date, which is a betrayal not only of the audience’s trust in original storytelling but also the precise brand that made the show so popular in the first place.

The cracks in the show began to appear around “The Door,” which introduced the concept of time travel into the Game of Thrones universe. By unhappy coincidence, that episode provided the perfect metaphor for the narrative issues that have now become part of the show’s integral fabric. In my review for that episode, I wrote:

“The danger here is that in a world where time travel is not only possible but has incredible impact on the people in the past and future, all events are predetermined and therefore actions are as meaningless as they are fated. It takes a story that has been driven by mistakes and greed and love and hate and desire for petty revenge and makes it into a Calvinist parable about how the Light will always triumph over the Darkness[…]Once we sail too deep into the seas of prophecy and legends foretold, where there is a god who tells the future from the flames, there is no turning back for a good old fashioned wedding murder. After all, the ink of the future is dry.”

It is this very pre-determinism that plagues the end of “No One” and the whole of “Battle of the Bastards,” because pre-determinism leads to stories made of filler. For example, aside from taking a level in Rogue, Arya’s detour to Braavos accomplished nothing: she has not grown as a character nor learned any lessons about the world or herself. All her badass defiance of their ancient rules is empty because she has always been a rule-breaker and role-defier. It was bad-assery for bad-assery’s own sake because her return to Westeros to begin crossing names off her list was predetermined by the necessities of writing.

This was also the central problem with the titular conflict in “Battle of the Bastards,” though writ much larger and more expensively. Simply put, as “cool” and “badass” as the actual battle looked, every beat was predictable and uninspired. Instead of taking a page out of the excellent playbook for last season’s “Hardhome” and following rank and file soldiers to show what a battle looks like to those involved (and giving it some real stakes), the writers decided to throw Jon Snow into the middle of the melee, resulting in a video game scene where the character with a million hit points runs around a chaotic field slashing faceless grunts to death. The only original part of the scene, where the Bolton soldiers surrounded the wildling army with their phalanx-style shield tactics, was undercut by the inevitable arrival of the cavalry which Sansa failed to tell Jon about the night before for reasons that make no diegetic sense.

The writers had the opportunity and resources to craft a tense underdog battle where the stakes were clear and the inevitable good guy victory felt earned, but instead decided to err on the side of empty bad-assery because it was safer. The “Battle of the Bastards” is nothing more than the Battle of Helm’s Deep with Boltons instead of Orcs and Jon Snow instead of Aragorn (though they have the same hair). Game of Thrones spent its first five seasons making every effort to subvert the stranglehold of cliches that Lord of the Rings has over the fantasy genre, and now in season six it is bending over backwards to copy them whole cloth. I’m disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised.

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The other bit of business in “Battle of the Bastards” was the conclusion of Dany’s return to Meereen. After another all-too-predictable reversal in a siege, complete with Emilia Clarke’s expressionless dragon riding, we get the best scene of the episode, where Tyrion, Dany, Yara, and Theon trade barbs and flirts while doing some honest to goodness diplomacy. These throne room scenes are the meat from which good Game of Thrones episodes are made, and it doesn’t hurt that Yara’s subtle advances seem to bring out just the slightest bit of genuine-ish emotion in Emilia Clarke. Even more importantly, Dany and Yara begin what seems to be the next phase of Westerosi politics, an Era of Queens. Much like American politics, the choice for the first female ruler of Westeros has more to do with ruthlessness and a sense of entitlement than with actual leadership skill, but that doesn’t make Dany any less qualified to sit on the Iron Throne than Robert or Tommen. And even if the only genre subversion from hereon out in Game of Thrones is the portrayal of female leaders as being equally capable of cruelty and arrogance as their male counterparts, I’ll view it as a win.

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