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The one thing Game of Thrones must do if it wants to keep shocking us

Sansa and Theon hiding out, shortly before Brienne and Pod come to their rescue.
Sansa and Theon hiding out, shortly before Brienne and Pod come to their rescue.
HBO

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of the season premiere, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, culture writer Caroline Framke, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Zack Beauchamp: Right after I watched "The Red Woman," I went back and watched Game of Thrones' pilot. This began as a quest to give my girlfriend a sense of the show, so she can understand why Sunday night has all of the sudden become my favorite night of the week. But it ended up shedding a lot of light on the show's current stories.

That very first episode is suffused with something that's been absent from Game of Thrones for years: hope. It's easy to forget now, but at the beginning of the series, things in Westeros are pretty good. The kingdom is at peace, and it really looks like Ned might be able to set things right in King's Landing. That's how things are supposed to work in the fantasy genre, right?

Game of Thrones has succeeded by repeatedly subverting this expectation. Ned's execution, the Red Wedding, Oberyn Martell's death-by-Mountain — all of these moments shocked us because their outcomes didn't unfold the way they were supposed to unfold.

Jon's murder at the end of season five seemed to fit this pattern. Indeed, we're one episode into season six, and Jon is still very dead.

And yet, nobody believes Jon is going to stay dead. Mainly, that's because he's too important to the show: Issues surrounding Jon, most notably the question of his parentage, seem like critical parts of Game of Thrones' endgame. If he remains dead, resolving the narrative in a satisfying manner seems impossible.

The show's central trick — dramatic and shocking deaths — has run out of gas, at least temporarily. And a lot of its current characters must remain alive for the time being if it's ultimately going to achieve a satisfying narrative. If, say, Arya were to die in Braavos, it wouldn't be shocking or interesting, nor would it open up new story possibilities in the way Ned's death did. It would simply reveal that we've wasted a lot of time following her on a pointless side quest.

So we're at a point in the Game of Thrones plot cycle where the show needs to restore expectations by bringing people together in a somewhat fulfilling fashion.

That, I think, is the best way to explain the developments in "The Red Woman." Melisandre is trapped at Castle Black? That's because she's going to use her magic to revive Jon. Sansa and Theon are now united with Brienne and Pod, who've promised to protect them on the way to the Wall? They're going to make it, so Jon and Ramsay Bolton can have at it.

Consequently, I think all your favorite characters are actually safe for awhile — and maybe for even longer than they otherwise would be. Right now, Game of Thrones' cast is too spread out for any kind of shocking death to have a real impact. Story-wise, the show needs to get back to the state it was in when it debuted, where not every situation appeared to spell total doom — only then will it be able to truly sucker punch us yet again.

And that means season six might, for the most part, be full of happier moments than we've grown accustomed to. Scenes like Brienne saving Sansa are necessary for Game of Thrones' broader arc to work — and the show must produce quite a few more of them for its overall story to make sense.

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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