I've gone on record a few times saying Game of Thrones is amongst the best that television has ever offered, but even the strongest programming suffers from the occasional misstep, right? Well, this once sturdy production gave way to something far more rickety in season five, which is a shame considering that batch of episodes also produced some of the coolest, most shocking moments in the series to date. Simply put, it just didn't feel like the showrunners knew what to do next. They spent the entire season dragging what's left of the cast through the mud, and while this show has never shied away from putting its characters through pain and suffering, this was the first time it all felt so unnecessary. How many times did we really have to be reminded that Ramsay Bolton was a bastard, and not just in the literal sense? Why spend an entire season with Arya in Braavos, only to provide zero answers as to what she's doing there? Did they really have to telegraph a significant event with all those dirty looks from Olly? More importantly, why were the showrunners taking their sweet time when there were only a few seasons left to wrap things up? I thought, "Well, this is it. The writers are running out of published material to adapt, and now they're hitting a wall. Is it all downhill from here?"
Fortunately, Game of Thrones returned in its sixth season with refreshing ferocity, and better yet, finally provides the previous batch of episodes a reason to exist. If season five was about breaking everyone's spirits - and boy, was it - this season is about watching everyone come to grips with what they've gone through so they can, for better or worse, rise from the ashes of their tarnished pasts and fulfill their destinies.
And it's about time.
During his time at Winterfell, Jon Snow trained feverishly to become a great warrior. Not only to earn whatever respect he could, but to be genuinely useful and part of something greater. As a bastard, however, opportunity wasn't likely to ever knock on his door. So, to Castle Black he went, hoping to forge a destiny there. Unfortunately, those helping to guard The Wall were little more than petty bureaucrats set in their ways, and what kind of future was that, taking orders from men who would rather die than seek help from unlikely allies? So, regardless of what traditions or men in power had expected of him, Jon - much like Eddard Stark - always did what he felt was right, no matter the peril which would inevitably come… and come it did. While this comes with the sting that everything Jon had worked for has basically amounted to nothing, he's also come to the realization that his commitment to the Night's Watch has come to a close, and he's finally able to pursue the position of leadership he's always sought. But with everyone across Westeros as divided as they are, will everything he does at this point be too little, too late?
In direct contrast, Sansa never trained to be great at anything. As the daughter of a Great House, she expected to one day marry a wonderful man and live happily ever after. So after her more resourceful sister, Arya, managed to escape King's Landing after their father had been beheaded, Sansa had little choice but to do whatever those around her had demanded. So, she became less a human being and more of a pawn. For a time she was to marry King Joffrey, who tormented her every chance he got. When he was dazzled by another woman's beauty, Sansa was shuffled off to be Tyrion's bride, and the proposition of marriage was just as uncomfortable for him as it was for her. She was eventually saved by the silver tongued Littlefinger, but quickly found herself being handed over to Ramsay Bolton, who has proven to be a far more abusive ‘suitor' than Joffrey ever was. For years we watched this poor girl go from bad situations to worse, to the point where it was difficult to predict if she was truly broken, or would emerge someday a stronger person because of what she's been through. In season six, Sansa finally finds herself in a position where she's not in the company of dangerous men that would do her harm, and so begins to flex the only tool she's had the opportunity to sharpen: Her mind. Her role at this point has yet to be defined, but after seeing the most devious characters in Westeros play chess with the lives of her and her loved ones, she's not delayed in making moves of her own, proving she is most definitely the daughter of Catelyn Stark, and will stop at nothing to get Winterfell back under her control.
But Arya's arc this season isn't quite as ‘night and day' as Jon's or Sansa's. She traveled through a fair chunk of Westeros to find her family, only to come up short every step of the way. Because she's young and still desires a sense of belonging, she traveled to Braavos to link up with Jaqen H'ghar, the only friend she had left in the world. Fortunately, he and the ‘Many Faced God' can train her to become a deadly assassin, which suits her lust for vengeance just fine, but she's also being asked to flat out forget who she is and where she comes from. Throughout a majority of this season, she's more than content to do so… until someone gives her the stink-eye, loathing Arya precisely because of where she came from. Everything about the whole ‘Many Faced God' storyline is rather ambiguous, and not in a good way. Sure, after all is said and done, Arya does decide on how to best fulfill her destiny, but everything leading up to that moment is still a huge question mark for me. Hopefully the final two, and shortened seasons to come shine a better light on this stuff, but if they don't, it'll ultimately leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.
After Daenerys' stunning escape from Meereen, she lands, and is met and taken by a small army of Dothraki to Khal Moro. At first they believe she's a helpless woman that will amount to little more than a slave, so of course she informs them of her past with Khal Drogo, hoping that will gain her some respect and even a little help in rising to power again. Unfortunately, widowed khaleesi are not treated as equals by the Dothraki, and are instead herded into a single building - a ‘Temple', if you will - to live the rest of their days as ‘respected slaves'. Daenerys has her faithful followers though, of course, and help is on the way... but will the mother of dragons even need it?
In Daenerys' absence, Tyrion has begun playing politician in Meereen. Obviously, things are far more complicated than ‘kill all the slavers, and the city's problems will go away'. So, he calls some prominent slave masters to a meeting and offers them a truce… as long as they promise to abolish slavery within seven years. The slave masters are disgusted by the proposal, but Tyrion explains that he's trying to be reasonable, and that an accord cannot be met if the slavers are not willing to give anything in return. Understanding that slavery is a major component of their economy, Tyrion feels that giving them seven years to find another trade to make a living off of is fair. They do not agree, and while Tyrion is hopeful they'll come to their senses, everyone else in Daenerys' council knows better. Question is, will Daenerys be able to return in time to help clean up the mess Tyrion is making before things get too out of hand?
The most interesting plot threads this season though, out of the numerous others I simply do not have time to mention, are that of Cersei Lannister and Brandon Stark.
Brandon was absent from the previous season, but his return brings forth danger and some of the biggest revelations the show has ever seen. I'll refrain from going into more detail about his story this time around, because everything he sees and encounters are some of the juiciest parts of season six, and best left for you to see for yourselves.
But in the most important part of the land - King's Landing - Cersei has been working hard to ensure her family maintains control of the Iron Throne. However, this has become more and more difficult as members of her family have been dropping like flies. And if that wasn't enough to deal with, The High Sparrow rose to prominence in season five, leaving Cersei completely helpless for, as far as we can tell, the very first time. At this point, the city's people respect religion - or at least fear it - more so than the Lannisters, so if she were to use the city's army against the religious arm of King's Landing, the people would revolt. With little choice but to sit and wait for what things may come, she's been locked up and humiliated… and that wasn't enough. Now she's supposed to stand trial for her sins. Cersei has some tricks up her sleeve, but the High Sparrow accounts for all of them, leaving her virtually zero chance of escaping whatever fate he has cooked up for her. What the High Sparrow doesn't know though, and in fact, what even the audience hasn't known prior to season six, is what Cersei is like when she's out of options. Well, you're about to find out.
I've always been appreciative of Game of Thrones' slower pace. Each season started as something of a slow burn - allowing the characters time to come alive and interact with one another - but the pace usually picked up in the final few episodes so that all pertinent arcs that season could reach a satisfying conclusion or cliffhanger. Now that we know Game of Thrones is destined to end after two more seasons, and shortened ones at that, I'm glad that season six has instead opted to move things along much quicker. The characters and plot threads have all been fleshed out at this point, and all that we need to see as the audience is whatever conclusion George R. R. Martin and the showrunners have planned for us. As a result of what feels like a breakneck pace for the show, as well as the intriguing stories that permeate it, this is up there as one of the best seasons the series has offered in its entirety. If the fifth season had given you pause, move on to the sixth without fear. Despite having to present a bunch of material that's never been published in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the showrunners seemingly have a plan, and have delivered the same high caliber execution we've been used to for years.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: This series looks and feels like a major motion picture in every perceivable way, and this 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) preserves those production values quite well.
HBO is known for releasing some of the best looking products that Blu-ray has to offer, and Game of Thrones' sixth season is no different. There's no edge enhancement or noise reduction to muck up the presentation, so detail is always impeccable no matter what challenges the source might present. We're often treated to a picture that provides a great deal of depth and dimensionality as a result, especially considering black levels and contrast are spot on. Skin tones come off as natural as they're able, but the show's gray and blue color timing can mess with those a bit at times.
This time around, it's worth noting that compression has taken a minor hit, as there's noise detectable in darker shots and sequences, and may be a result of having all episodes and all supplements crammed onto a four discs. Still, considering the show's varied locations and effects, this is still quite the looker.
I feel entirely comfortable using the word 'flawless' here. HBO has utilized Dolby Atmos, although my listening environment allows me to listen to it as 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, so that's what my impressions are based off of.
The lossless tracks that have been provided once again show off the high production values that HBO bestowed upon what's arguably their best series in recent memory. Every sound... and I mean every sound... is delivered with a pinpoint precision that takes depth and audible range into consideration. This has always been true, but it's been even more so since they stepped things up from 5.1 to 7.1. The best word to use for the use of directionality would be 'natural', because the sound design had enough attention paid to it so that we would actually feel like we're in the show. Sounds range from subtle environmental effects to roaring with armies or even the oceans. Also, the LFE doesn't disappoint - It shakes the ground and rumbles on command, but never sounds as if it's being pushed too hard... it always matches the events on screen and never seems like it's being loud just for the sake of being so. Dialogue is always easy to understand, and... what else is there to say? This, again, is HBO's finest presentation to date. Want to feel like you're in the show and amidst the murder and betrayal? HBO has made it so.
-Ep. 01 - Director Jeremy Podeswa, Director of Phography Greg Middleton and Daniel Portman
-Ep. 02 - Writer Dave Hill, Michael McElhatton, Iwan Rheon, Liam Cunningham and Ben Crompton
-Ep. 03 - Director Daniel Sackheim, Production Designer Deborah Riley and Dean-Charles Chapman
-Ep. 04 - Nathalie Emmanuel, Iain Glen and Jacob Anderson
-Ep. 05 #1 - Gemma Whelan, Pilou Asbaek, Ellie Kendrick and Kristian Nairn
-Ep. 05 #2 - Prosthetics Supervisor Barrie Gower, Camera Operators Chris Plevin and Ben Wilson, and Executive Producer Bernadette Caulfield
-Ep. 06 - Director Jack Bender, Director of Photography Jonathan Freeman, John Bradley and Hannah Murray
-Ep. 07 - Producer/Writer Bryan Cogman, Ian McShane and Natalie Dormer
-Ep. 08 - Director Mark Mylod, Essie Davis and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
-Ep. 09 #1 - Director Miguel Sapochnik, Sophie Turner and Kit Harington
-Ep. 09 #2 - Director of Photography Fabian Wagner, Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback and Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer
-Ep. 10 #1 - Executive Producers/Writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage
-Ep. 10 #2 - Special Effects Supervisor Sam Conway, Camera Operator Sean Savage and Producer Chris Newman
-Histories and Lore - Numerous short pieces which were crafted to provide us with detailed information on the allegiances to Winterfell, Vaerys' ‘Little Birds', House Tarly, House Vale, Riverrun, and much, much more.
-Recreating the Dothraki World - We probably have more Dothraki on-screen in season 6 than we've ever seen, and a lot of painstaking detail went into resurrecting their world which had originally been introduced in season 1. This featurette tells us how it was done in roughly 20 minutes.
-The Battle of the Bastards - This half hour featurette details how one of the largest battles in the series entirety had been made.
-18 Hours at the Paint Hall - A nearly half hour featurette which shows what a day on-set can be like.
After a season that went nowhere, I was concerned the showrunners might be in over their heads. But Game of Thrones returns triumphantly in its sixth season, allowing the characters which have suffered for years to finally take control of their own destinies, and with magnificent results, at that. With formalities dropped and things moving at a breakneck pace, I'm now more confident than ever that the final two seasons will keep our jaws firmly planted on the floor. If you needed any other reason to pick up this set, the A/V presentation is flawless, and as always, there's plenty of supplements to keep you busy for hours. Highly Recommended.