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Game of Thrones season 6 was good TV that shows why the series will never be great

The latest batch of episodes has rendered much of what came before superfluous.

Game of Thrones
Westeros, here we come! Right back where we started from!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Each week throughout Game of Thrones’ sixth season, a handful of Vox's writers have gathered to discuss the latest episode — and now we’re doing the same with the finale. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up in our analysis of "The Winds of Winter" is culture editor Todd VanDerWerff.

Todd VanDerWerff: Game of Thrones sixth season is the show’s best since its third, with a bullet.

In season six, the show regained the momentum that gradually leaked out of it over the course of seasons four and five, and finally clarified just where its story is headed. Seemingly, we’re watching a patriarchy crumble and be replaced by a government that’s run by women along with men who used to be outcasts, like Tyrion and Jon Snow. That’s a thrilling idea.

But I can’t shake the feeling that season six also largely revealed that seasons four and five consisted mostly of busywork, of character arcs that could have been handled just as well in an episode or two, rather than across two seasons. That doesn’t diminish what season six accomplished, but it does make Game of Thrones feel less like a grand epic and more like a long sequence of stall tactics.

The most obvious example of this (and one I’ve discussed before) is the tale of Arya Stark, who disappeared to Braavos for the better part of two seasons, acquired assassin skills, and has now returned to Westeros as a more deadly killer. But what changed about her core character? Nothing, really. She just got more proficient at murder. (There are some intriguing fan theories about her, but placing the burden of the story on a twist that takes place at its end is rarely a good thing.)

The same is true of just about everybody else on the show. Jaime and Brienne’s arcs for much of the past few seasons, for instance, seem to focus primarily on getting them out of King’s Landing so they can’t stop certain events from happening. (Cersei’s character development, for instance, needs an absent Jaime, mostly.) Dorne is a disaster of a story that seems to have no bearing on anything. And what was the point of Tyrion’s struggles with the slavers this season?

Game of Thrones is better than ever at delivering on big, powerful moments. I don’t know that the show will come up with another sequence as hypnotic and stunning as the opening of the season six finale, which paired Ramin Djawadi's piano-heavy score with images of the characters preparing for a moment that would leave many of them dead.

But the stuff between those big, powerful moments feels more hand-wavy than it has in the past, as if everyone involved is saying, "I guess some stuff happens then, and eventually Arya stabs Walder Frey." The stabbing will be well done. The other stuff will feel like a leftover subplot from an earlier outline.

That hand-waving keeps Game of Thrones from joining the great TV pantheon

Game of Thrones
Cersei, u r perfect 2 me.

This, I think, is what keeps Game of Thrones from joining the pantheon of great TV dramas. Compare it with something like Breaking Bad, another series that knew how to blend important themes with pulpy thrills.

Breaking Bad really put a lot of effort into making you question absolutely every aspect of its central character’s life philosophies. By the time that show ended, you had retraced Walter White’s motivations again and again and again, analyzed what his journey said about how the show’s creators viewed life on this planet, and considered every possible impetus for why he did what he did. Even if you’re skeptical about the show (as I was toward its end), it’s hard to miss the thoughtfulness of its construction.

We could also look at this another way, by focusing on the one Game of Thrones character whose journey has been relentlessly detailed at every juncture: Cersei Lannister. Like Walter White, she has some legitimate grievances (the patriarchy has kept her from being her best self) that she uses as a reason to commit incredibly evil acts, and like Walter White, she gradually loses her humanity.

And every step of Cersei’s journey is stunning. She’s a true antihero, in the Tony Soprano sense of the word, and between Game of Thrones’ writers and Lena Headey's performance (the best in the series), the show delivers whenever she’s onscreen. It’s not a coincidence that the opening I praised above is all about Cersei’s plan unfolding around her, nor is it a coincidence that most of season six is explicitly framed by the contrast between Cersei’s journey and Jon’s.

Once you get beyond those two characters, though, is there anyone else on this show whose journey hasn’t been beset for seasons at a time by the sense that the writers have just forgotten about them? Season six’s improvement, in some ways, may stem from how the writers increasingly just stopped writing story for characters who didn’t have it, which is why Sam and Littlefinger appeared in only a handful of episodes.

But Cersei’s arc makes me long for a Game of Thrones we’ll now never get, one that didn’t go full-tilt after big, impressive moments and instead stayed a little quieter, a little more character-focused, and a little more capable of greatness.

Watch: Game of Thrones' time travel, explained