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 Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up this week is energy writer David Roberts.
David Roberts: The first three books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series were utterly gripping. They spiraled out from a few small events into a bigger and bigger tapestry. As Ned Stark died, and then Robb Stark, you realized you'd been focused too narrowly, that the story was bigger than you thought, and bigger than that, and bigger. It became epic.
And then it ... kept going. And going. As it expanded further and further, it lost energy and momentum, becoming diffuse, aimless, and, by the end of book five, plain boring.
The great question for fans is how Martin is going to take a narrative that's been picking up new threads for five books straight and weave them all together in a satisfying way in the two books remaining. It seems almost impossible, given how many subplots there are and how many knots he'll have to untangle. If he succeeds, it will be a grand feat indeed.
A similar dilemma has replicated itself on Game of Thrones. Though showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done a great deal of trimming and consolidating, the show post–Red Wedding has felt like it's moving sideways; stuff is happening, but it doesn't serve any particular purpose. (See: Dany's adventures in Meereen.)
Benioff and Weiss have tried to compensate for this with regular Shocking Moments, but they have mostly been shocking viscerally, not in ways that advanced story and character. (For instance, were you aware that Ramsay Bolton has a mean streak?) If a narrative is not going anywhere, it's hard to care much if it lurches this way and that.
With season six, however, the showrunners are officially beyond Martin's books, and now we know exactly how they plan to pull everything together: quickly!
There has been no dilly-dallying of late. Extraneous characters get offed unceremoniously, right and left. Jon Snow is revived with a few words. Bran learns everything about history and the White Walkers. Dany gets her dragons and her army and (soon) her ships. Sansa finds Brienne; they find Jon; Littlefinger finds Sansa. Arya becomes a ninja and decides to head home.
And so on. Everyone has a purpose, a destination, and/or an army, and they're all hurtling toward one another, heading for a big clash.
The show's sudden acceleration has been vertiginous
As storytelling problems go, I'll take too much, too fast over too little, too slow anytime. So far, season six has been a kick in the pants.
Still, it also feels a little rushed, as though Benioff and Weiss, who finally have an end in sight and a finite number of episodes remaining (presumably — HBO has yet to put an official count on Game of Thrones' remaining seasons, but the rumor is 13 episodes total), are cramming as much story as they can into every scene.
Sometimes season six almost feels like a trailer for a much longer series. Characters traverse the allegedly vast North in no time at all, traipsing from the Wall to the Vale to Bear Island in what seems like days. Events that really ought to be momentous — Jon coming back from the dead, the demise of the ageless Three-Eyed Raven — fly by, with little time to contemplate their significance.
And the pace is sometimes pushing characters in directions that serve to advance the story but don't make much sense on their own terms. Arya, we are meant to believe, has spent months (years?) in intense training, to the point where she would voluntarily give up her eyesight, but she throws it all away because her first target is a nice lady? Just decides to go home instead? And then lets her guard down and gets herself stabbed? It all seems ... undermotivated.
As Matt Yglesias asked, why do the Dothraki agree to abandon their home and way of life to help Dany get revenge? Why is Sam suddenly abandoning his plan and endangering his family? Why are the Ironborn at all? Without the implicit richness that came with Martin's fiction undergirding it, Game of Thrones is coming to seem, as Todd VanDerWerff says, much more like a conventional drama, rushing from crowd pleaser to crowd pleaser.
It's hard to complain too much about that. I am pleased! But I can't help looking forward to Martin's books and all the shades and depth they will add to the events unfolding at a gallop on the show.