With the fantasy series two episodes into its new run, I wrestle with what this increasingly dark show must do to save its soul – and allow itself to once again reach the high quality of series past.
NB: Very mild spoilers for series 6 here.
Game of Thrones is back. Everybody’s favourite saga of betrayal, retribution, redemption, dragons, sex and violence has returned for another swing of the sword. But is it up to the challenge? Well, that’s still in the balance. After an often disappointing fifth series where the show frequently seemed rudderless, it needs to regain its crown in my opinion. Now that it’s completely shorn of any proper ties to George R. R. Martin’s books, having covered everything, Thrones is its own independent entity. Only time will tell whether or not that is a good thing, but the signs aren’t completely promising.
The show hasn’t had a vintage episode since the superb series four finale, and has been getting increasingly nasty in its plotlines. Through all the twists, the show has departed significantly from where I originally imagined it might end up. It has taken some quite frankly disturbing turns, not least with the depraved antics of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) or the religion-orientated subplots featuring Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow in series five.
Given this, the show is starting to feel like an exercise in pushing the viewer to their limits as much as an exploration of the consequences of power. I often find myself thinking that if the show continues down its present trajectory (down being the operative word), then I may just give up watching it. Certainly, the series six opener, ‘The Red Woman’, whilst building tension and anticipation for future weeks nicely, did little to quell this sentiment, cutting between deaths, scenes of little consequence and some very dark shocks.
Everything seems restrained and sombre at the moment, and all the colour seems to have drained out of the lands of Westeros. Black, grey and all other manners of dull hue reign supreme. No-one has any fun any more, save for Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), merrily drinking and knowing things in the background. Practically everybody still left alive in Game of Thrones has gone on a moral journey so winding and tortuous throughout the course of the five-and-a-bit-series to date that it’s difficult to recognise them now. That is, to some extent, probably the point, but the show is driving it home with slightly too much vigour at present, whilst losing some of what really matters – being entertaining.
It therefore feels like nothing short of a black magic miracle that, in spite of the ever-growing darkness, I find myself compelled to stick with the show, mainly because of the remaining characters and all that they have been through. For all of the power plays and the pitch-black storylines, it is the characters that keep me watching – and it is this emotional anchor which could save it. If Thrones can get back to the building and developing of relationships that it does so well, then that will be a good thing. More fantasy, and more of a sense of wonder in a world too often bogged down by torrid human politics and gloomy landscapes of late, is needed too. It needs to show its range, and draw on its vast wellspring of past experience, to avoid becoming a one-note quest for power that relies solely on shock tactics.
It is therefore heartening to see that the second episode of this series, ‘Home’, sent the show back to its roots, and to plot threads from two or three series back, whilst continuing to venture down other dark paths. Most of all, it was great to see Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) back in the fray after a series out, and his as-yet mysterious role is perhaps the most intriguing one of all. The reintroduction of the young Stark, one of the few characters whose fate I still care about, could end up being paramount to the future of the show.
But maybe the most gratifying aspect of ‘Home’ is how familiar it feels, showing Thrones reaching back into its past and finding comforting things to assuage fears that it really is all doom and gloom in the fight for the Iron Throne. On this evidence, Game of Thrones needs to head homeward more often, as only through the links forged early on in its TV lifespan will it find the emotional heft to go forwards, and keep people invested in it.
After a dark first week, this is more the Thrones I recognise. How it goes from here, who can say – one thing you can always count on with Games of Thrones is that its next move will be unpredictable. I just hope that it’s now going in the right direction.