Thrones claims its crown

Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon, above left) and Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) in a scene from Season 6 of Game Of Thrones.
Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon, above left) and Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) in a scene from Season 6 of Game Of Thrones.PHOTO: HELEN SLOAN/HBO

With its simpler and faster story-telling, the sixth season of Game Of Thrones is the hit HBO series' most entertaining

NEW YORK • Season 6 of HBO's Game Of Thrones had dragon warfare, resurrection and the inglorious end of a b******.

But above all, it had the best "Previously on..." segments in television history.

They came courtesy of a bawdy historical play that Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) visited and revisited while apprenticing as an assassin in Braavos.

It retold much of the series' battle for the Iron Throne as farce - complete with fart jokes and nudity - casting the series' Lannister villains as heroes and some of our favourites as knaves and buffoons.

The theatre scenes were emotional. Through them, Arya witnessed the beheading of her father that she had been shielded from seeing in Season 1. They made a serious point about how history is written by the winners, reminding us that not everyone in this vast fictional universe sees its events from the same perspective.

But, at the same time, the show- within-a-show scenes were sportive, in a way Game Of Thrones, for all its pageantry, has rarely been. They played unashamedly to the cheap seats, puncturing the show's frequent self-seriousness like the stage-prop boar punctured poor Robert Baratheon's guts.

There were more important scenes this season. But few were more enjoyable and none more representative of the new, showman-like voice of the series.

It was as if someone suddenly realised: "You know what? Telling a story about families clawing for power while frozen zombies threaten the world can be fun."

Game Of Thrones has been on TV for six seasons now. But only this year did it become - mostly for the better, sometimes for the worse - a TV show.

This was the first season to almost wholly move past the story from the unfinished A Song Of Ice And Fire novel series by George R.R. Martin. His creation is a richly detailed rethinking of the fantasy genre, meticulously built, morally nuanced and veined with ideas about power and politics.

It is a terrific frame for a pay-cable epic. But the showrunners of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, often seemed weighed down by efforts to reproduce its literary effects, not to mention Martin's increasingly byzantine plotting.

Season 6 was the first in which the producers seemed to ask: How would we write and tell this story if it were conceived first for the screen and not for the page?

The answer: faster, simpler and more crowd-pleasing. If this was not the series' best season, it was its most flat-out entertaining.

After years of holding actions, this season moved like wildfire - literally in King's Landing, where Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) made an incendiary decapitation strike on her rivals. Winterfell's long nightmare under Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) came to an end. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finally got the hell out of that pyramid.

The series also picked up the tempo scene by scene. It once took its time patiently moving Character A to Point B; now it just slam-cuts them across continents. Time behaved according to the laws of TV relativity; Sam took a full season to get to Oldtown, while Varys made it to Dorne and back before you could make and eat a sandwich.

The editing and direction, too, were more highly caffeinated. See the suspenseful build to Cersei's pyrotechnic coup - cross-cutting from sept to keep to the bowels of King's Landing - an old technique in thrillers, relatively new to Thrones.

As the series gained momentum, it lost some sense of the poetic and melancholic.

Jon Snow's resurrection was a simple plot device, with no sense of any spiritual price paid. The Battle of the B******s was visually spectacular, but it was a simple fight between the good guys and the worst guys, complete with an actual cavalry saving the day.

The deaths, human and direwolf, were many - pour out an Arbor wine for Margaery, Tommen, the High Sparrow, Osha, Wun Wun the Giant, Rickon the spare heir and more - but only Hodor's really landed.

That body count may, however, be the side effect of cutting narrative flab and setting up an endgame. The season closed with power and alliances consolidating, banners afurl and dragons on the wing.

Course-correcting a narrative such as Game Of Thrones must be like steering an invasion fleet.

Ultimately, I hope it tacks back a bit more towards the character- and theme-building of earlier seasons.

But I can't say I mind this new, pulpier version's willingness to play to the groundlings. As the late, unlamented archer Bolton might put it, sometimes you hit your target best when you aim a little lower.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Thrones claims its crown'. Print Edition | Subscribe