Cersei Lannister may have been onto something: In the end, it did feel pretty good. Season 6 of Game of Thrones was brutal. It hacked through plotlines and characters with abandon, and served up the resulting carnage in great, steaming heaps. But you can’t say it didn’t satisfy. Out of deference to the now truly Late Lord Frey, let’s table the question of how the meat pie was made, and savor the taste for a moment.
Arya has returned to Westeros a protean dealer of death. (She by all rights should have a wolf army waiting for her there, but maybe Nymeria is off frolicking with Ghost, wherever it is that horse-sized canines go when there isn’t enough CGI budget to pay for them.) Daenerys has set sail across the Summer Sea, with three battle-tested dragons, the Unsullied, a Dorthraki horde, a master spy, an adroit political strategist, and two-and-a-half of the Great Houses—the Tyrells, the Martells, and a splinter faction of the Greyjoys—behind her.
Two of the remaining four Great Houses are united around the King in the North, whose name is Snow—and who, now that winter has at last come, will presumably be eager to align with anyone packing Dany’s kind of White Walker-melting firepower (especially if that person also happens to be his aunt). The Baratheons are in worse shape than Shireen’s toy stag. And the nominal leaders of the Seven Kingdoms have gotten their incestuous wish of reigning—together, just the two of them—over a smoking pile of rubble.
All of this has been years of meticulous development in the making—decades if you started reading A Song of Ice and Fire when it was first published. (R+L=J, Q.E.D.) And after so many plodding moves, there’s an undeniable gratification in seeing the board come together. Give creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss credit: It’s a testament to the efficiency of the script that, somehow, 13 episodes seem like enough for the War to Come to, well, come.
For book readers, the fear that Season 6 would ruin everything turned out to be misplaced. Most of the big spoilers fell well within the mainstream of A Song of Ice and Fire fan theories—they might as well have revived Jon Snow in the first episode and got it over with. But the show has altered, merged, or outright erased so many plotlines that, even when it ventured into shocking new territory, the path it took to get there was so unrecognizable as to alter the event itself. Rickon Stark may not be a major player in whatever endgame George R.R. Martin has envisioned, but he’s not going to die because he was too stupid to serpentine.
This is where it’s important to look at how the meat pie got made. The same ruthless efficiency that allowed Game of Thrones to go leaps and bounds ahead of the books marked a meaningful break with the underlying narrative. Game of Thrones was always a show written in blood, but in Season 6, Benioff and Weiss swapped Ramsay’s flaying knife for the Hound’s wood axe. Opulent violence—once a jarring, but necessary mainstay of the story they were attempting to adapt—became a blunt narrative instrument to advance that story forward.
One problem with deploying bloodshed out of expediency is that it is a crude tool. Having devoted seasons to peeling back the profound social, economic, and cultural chaos political upheaval creates, the show extricates Dany from Mereen by killing two slave masters and burning down a ship. Now Daario Naharis, a swaggering penis with a sword arm, is expected to facilitate a transition to self-rule in a city miraculously cleansed of its ancient hatreds.
George R.R. Martin catches flak—and more than a few death threats—for the perceived excesses of his writing. But Benioff and Wise are not merely correcting for Martin’s indulgence, as you could argue in the case of the Sand Snakes’ seamless coup in Dorne, a plot line that went around in circles in the books. Benioff and Wise are also correcting for their own. Margaery Tyrell doesn’t get a point-of-view chapter in the books. The talent for machination that defines her on the show is only implied in the text. Game of Thrones was smart to flesh her character out—it found a rose, as it were, between the lines of Martin’s books. Then it roasted her alive, along with the High Sparrow, to clear the decks and justify her husband’s suicide.
Of the many deaths that accrued over the course of the season, like corpses piling up in the mud outside the gates of Winterfell, Hodor’s alone was transcendent. We had mourned heroic sacrifices (Summer the direwolf had made one just moments before) and seen sympathetic characters endure the grizzly consequences of careless mistakes (Ned Stark set the early standard in that category). But Hodor’s end combined the visceral spectacle of him being torn to shreds by ice skeletons with a series of dizzying metaphysical questions about whether he had chosen to sacrifice himself at all.
It was the first time the show had expanded the world it inherited from the books, and it took place in a season dedicated to making Martin’s world smaller. Killing people off is an understandable recourse for a show bloated with characters—you can see why Game of Thrones would follow Cersei’s lead and choose violence. But it doesn’t appear to have learned the lesson it insists on teaching her: that violence doesn’t make things more manageable or lead to neat conclusions. If the books do tend toward sprawl, maybe it’s because the total disintegration of society tends to be a messy affair.
On one thing, though, Cersei and the show are in perfect agreement. Slaughter doesn’t have to be perfunctory and goal-oriented. It can feel good, too. The show wants you to crack a smile, as Arya opens Walder Frey’s neck. It wants you to chew on the irony, when Ramsay’s dogs eat him. All men must die, yes. But it doesn’t have to be enjoyable.