Based on the internet chatter, I predict Season 6 of Game of Thrones will see a significant drop viewership as more viewers get frustrated waiting for a payoff. It’d be the first dropoff in the show’s five years. For my part, I plan to continue watching. Despite my complaints, Game of Thrones has been an entertaining roller coaster ride. I’m also somewhat optimistic about the future.
WARNING: Spoilers for Game of Thrones Seasons 1-5 below!
From its very first episode, Game of Thrones made clear that political squabbling blinded the main characters to the larger threat of the White Walkers. That could have been the premise for a great story (albeit not entirely new, as shows like Babylon 5 had similar setups). Unfortunately, the show spent the vast majority of its five seasons on the political squabbling, doing relatively little to set up the larger threat, aside from occasional appearances of White Walkers. Midway through Season 5, I worried that Game of Thrones would be all setup and no payoff, especially because according to HBO the show will only run for two more seasons. Could it possibly resolve all of the plotlines, as well as begin and end the White Walker invasion in such a short time?
The episode “Hardhome” proved a very welcome attempt to refocus Game of Thrones on the larger picture. After hearing for five years that “winter was coming,” it looked as if winter had actually arrived. The White Walker attack looked like it would change everything. Now there were thousands of humans, including several members of the Night’s Watch, who had witnessed the threat. And what a threat; the White Walkers came across ominous and terrifying. I had chills when I saw the White Walker King resurrect the thousands of dead and add them to his army of wights. I’d assumed that the rest of this season and next would be about persuading everybody else in Westeros to acknowledge and prepare for the threat.
I was somewhat surprised then that the topic of the White Walkers hasn’t come up in any meaningful way since “Hardhome.” The last few episodes were politics as usual in Westeros. So far as we know, the two biggest proponents of preparedness – Jon Snow and Stannis Baratheon – are now dead. So, it looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer for the show to regain its focus on the larger threat. However, “Hardhome” hinted that Martin and the showrunners know where the heart of this story lies. I’m reasonably optimistic that, combined with Bran’s return, Season 6 might be a turning point for the story, when life can never be the same in Westeros.
I’m also hopeful that Martin and the showrunners realize that the payoff has to be big and give meaning to the disparate subplots throughout the series. With so much focus on the political scheming and so much investment in characters who fail, I don’t imagine I’d be satisfied with an ending that simply puts Daenerys, or Tyrion, or even Bran on the Iron Throne. If the whole story boils down to “who gets to be king,” I suspect I’ll be disappointed. But Season 5 showed glimmers of something greater.
For five years, the main houses of Westeros have tried to tear each other down. Now, some people recognize that they have to work across party lines for the greater good. Tyrion joins Daenerys because he believes in her leadership. Jon Snow and Stannis Baratheon didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but they provided assistance to each other. Perhaps I’m naive, but I suspect that the biggest drama next season might just be finding a way to convince the Lannisters, Martell, and Boltons to work together against the White Walkers. It’s almost certain that they will have to cooperate because the White Walker threat is too large for any single realm to handle. How will they overcome the bitterness and animosity? How much damage will the White Walkers do before they devise an effective response? At the least, it would provide for an interesting change of pace on the show.
Season 5 also introduced the risk of popular discontent. The High Sparrow predicted that the masses would rise up against the noble families (and their ridicule of Cersei during her “walk of shame” showed just how much resentment exists against the elites). We’ve already seen the High Sparrow take down Queen Marjorie and Cersei. Daenerys said something similar to Tyrion when she revealed that she planned to break the “wheel” of the political order. Meanwhile, thousands of Wildlings have now fled beyond the Wall, and they will not simply swear allegiance to the Iron Throne. With so much change, and so many of the elites dragged down low (literally, in Cersei’s case), it’s hard to see a return to the status quo. This isn’t simply another intra-elite squabble like Robert Baratheon’s rebellion against the Targaryens. With the White Walkers coming, the elite needs the masses more than ever if humanity is going to raise an army large enough to defeat wights.
What might that mean for the show? I’ll going to go out on a limb and predict that we see major political reform in Westeros. I don’t know if this means some sort of proletariat revolution or a democracy or a Westerosi Magna Carta, but something has to change to distribute more power to the people. The Lannisters and Boltons and Martells will have to do something to prevent a popular revolt. Once that’s settled, they need to give the common man a reason to fight against the White Walkers. If not, they will be swept away. Or perhaps the White Walkers will be the ones to sweep away the old order, allowing the masses to replace it with something new. Either way, I increasingly suspect that “who sits on the Iron Throne?” will no longer matter by the end of the show.
Finally, Bran is poised to return in Season 6. With so much of Game of Thrones bogged down by realistic political squabbles, the more fantastical elements in Bran’s character arc had always been a welcome respite. Season 4 ended with Bran and his companions entering the realm of the mysterious Children of the Forest. Supposedly, they played an important role in defeating the White Walkers years ago. What sorts of new abilities will Bran learn from them? How will their reemergence change Westeros? Will they reawaken magic in the world? Will the Old Gods come into conflict with the religion of the Seven? This subplot more than anything has the potential to truly shake up the status quo.