Game of Thrones season 6 review

This has been the best ever season of Game of Thrones. It’s telling that the first time HBO deviated from the source material of George RR Martin’s epic books, it created some of the most compelling television ever. That’s no slight on the novels - without the rich lore and deep history they provide, Game of Thrones wouldn’t be half as smart or compelling as it is. But as the author struggles to finish off his sixth tome, TV has truly made this wonderful franchise its own. 

It was, to be fair, an easy task to top season 5. The previous series’ rather sombre, plodding tone is Game of Thrones at its lowest - perhaps necessarily so, if you believe the adage about it being darkest before the dawn. And if season 5 is all about death, decay, and an absence of hope then season 6 is very much about rebirth, redemption, and a very new world. 

The most obvious analogue for this is Jon Snow, and his literal rebirth in the second episode. Yeah, it’s a twist everyone saw coming (along with, in all honesty, most of the other reveals this season) but, crucially, it was a victory for fans greater than anything offered by the previous series. And Jon Snow just kept winning and being reborn. Although the show framed it as a fool’s errand, there was no way the Starks were going to lose the Battle of the Bastards… but because Game of Thrones has nurtured a reputation for killing its heroes, there was enough of a doubt in everyone’s mind that he might actually lose. That’s key. That’s the thing that season 6 does better than any other before it: victory, where we’ve previously suffered the bitterest of defeats.

Again, HBO was in the luxurious position of being able to finally give fans the fist-pumping moments, the retribution they’d been (largely) denied from previous seasons. Certain plotlines just needed to be resolved, and the bad guys don’t always get to win. The final episode, which brings the end of Walder Frey, along with his edible sons, is some of the most delayed, anticipated justice ever. Similarly, Ramsay’s death at the teeth of his own hounds is not only long overdue but deliciously fitting. While he was villain enough before this season began, the evil is dialled up to 11 when he murders his father, and feeds his half-brother to the dogs. The way he toys with Rickon to intimidate Jon, and force him to break ranks, is classic Ramsay and one of the reasons that - despite being an utterly horrible person - the show is a little poorer now that he’s not around.

One potential pitfall of season 6 is that Bran had to return (he couldn’t be left in the frozen north forever although, as far as I’m aware, Robert Baratheon’s bastard Gendry is still rowing his boat…), but again he is reborn as something far more useful than a slightly moody teenager with broken legs. Bran has become a plot device, a way for the show to tell time-hopping stories that put the rest of the action in context. Having only a single flashback in the previous five seasons, Game of Thrones used to operate on an assumptive approach to its lore. Did you miss the scene where this character explained their own importance? Too bad. Don’t know who this guy is from the books? Shame. However, Bran changes most of that in season 6.

Now we can flashback to find out what really happened in King’s Landing when Jaime became the Kingslayer. Now we get to see Jon Snow’s true parentage. These things are necessary to the resolution of the whole show, but having a character actually see and influence these flashbacks adds a whole new dimension to the drama. As we find with Hodor. The moment he dies, and we see that his whole adult life has been building up to this singular scene, it’s both a grim realisation and a seriously clever piece of storytelling. It explains one of Game of Throne’s most loved, most light-hearted mysteries, and manages to turn it into one of the highlights of the entire show. I’ve written an entire feature on why Hodor is the noblest character in the whole show, and it’s telling that the guy with the fewest lines became one of the biggest talking-points of this season.

If you’re looking for other examples of characters reborn (or rather, redeemed) you need look no further than Jaime Lannister. The villain of the first series who was first introduced to viewers having sex with his own sister and shoving a child out of a window, has become one of the most likeable and tragic characters of the whole show. It’s an interesting parallel that Jaime’s own son threw himself out of a window, just as the Kingslayer himself pushed Bran at the very beginning. While the books reveal that Jaime has no real feelings of fatherhood towards Joffrey, the show indicates he has a softer inclination towards his secret children. Tommen’s death, much more than the destruction of Baelor’s Sept and half the nobles in Westeros, is likely to be the trigger that sees Jaime finally reject his poisonous sister, and… well, the end of season 6 leaves it wide open, but we see plenty of contempt in his eyes when he walks into Cersei’s coronation ceremony.

The journey of the two Westeros monarchs, this season, has been played out impeccably. Jon’s battles wonderfully hard won provide moments to cheer, especially his final showdown with Ramsay, while Cersei’s ascent is less obvious but results in one of the most beautifully paced and choreographed sequences in the whole show. With most TV shows the temptation is to go big with a series-defining moment like the destruction of half a city and the death of a King, but in Game of Thrones, it’s powerfully understated. It’s the moments themselves that shout loudest, as we watch them unfold - in fact, Tommen’s suicide happens in perfect silence. It’s remarkable restraint for a series known for blood, boobs, and cunning plots.

Speaking of boobs (yeah, I went there), season 6 is incredibly light on nudity and sex, almost to the point of shying away from it in places. Perhaps that’s a result of the fact Game of Thrones no longer needs to titillate its audience to satisfy them, largely because we’re all so invested in the actual plotlines. Although, admittedly, the sex has been replaced by even stronger violence (take your pick: the head-ripping, the face-eating, the whole Battle of the Bastards, the Hound’s axe to the groin… oh stop!). Either way, the only prolonged nudity here comes from Daenerys after she sees off the Dothraki Khals in spectacular fashion. In fact, that’s all she really does in season 6 until the very end, where (after seemingly endless rousing speeches) she shows up to save Meereen, forges a quick alliance with Theon (also in the process of redemption but, let’s face it, Euron is the most compelling Greyjoy of S6) and Yara, and then sets sail for Westeros with what seems like an awful lot of ships.

Tyrion is far and away the most intriguing part of the Meereen plotline but, even for him, there’s a large ratio of jokes to killer lines here. Ever since he left King’s Landing, the Imp has largely been treated as a drunk fool, rather than the cunning and witty character we learned to love in seasons 1-4. However, with the Queen’s Hand badge stuffed into his tunic, maybe we’ll get more heavyweight Tyrion in season 7.

Daenerys, and the water-treading Sam Tarly, are the only ‘merely average’ plotlines of this season. I exclude Dorne because, frankly, you can’t even call that a plot. Even Brienne manages to save a Stark girl, after only five seasons of trying, although both Sansa and Arya have finally become formidable players in the Great Game, having arrived at positions of power from totally opposite ends of the spectrum. Arya seemed to have spent years in Braavos, and her escape - while thrilling - is one of the rare moments where season 6 stumbles. It feels rushed, unrealistic, and it ignores several more interesting ways to extract her from the Faceless Men story arc. However, all’s forgiven at the very end of play, when Arya makes a pie of the Frey boys and finally crosses Walder off her kill-list. Will the Hound be next, having triumphantly returned in an episode that criminally disposed of Iain McShane’s Ray too early? Unlikely, but you can bet their paths will cross early on in season 7.

The return of Clegane junior is a triumph for fans, despite the fact he does very little. But what’s important about season 6 is that it recognises how to push our buttons better than any previous series, and it knows when to push them. It raises up and resurrects our heroes then puts them on its shoulders, and it either crushes our villains or takes them to even greater depths. Game of Thrones season 6 is far from perfect, but as an overall 10+ hours of entertainment it’s one of - if not THE - best thing you can watch on your TV.

If you're looking for an episode-by-episode recap of Game of Thrones season 6, look no further. Here's everything important that happened in each episode. 

Season 6, episode 1 - The Red Woman

A relatively strong start to the current season, and one that clearly demonstrates that the TV show is moving away from the books to do its own thing. Read our full episode 6.01 review right here, or stick around for the condensed version. Sansa and Theon's escape from Winterfell feels like the stand-out moment of this episode, as the hapless pair are rescued by Brienne and Pod. The most shocking moment is probably a tie between Ellaria Sand's assassination of Prince Doran down in Dorne, or the final scene that sees Melisandre reveal her true form (she's a little older than you might think). The scenes at Castle Black are clearly building up to the resurrection of Jon Snow, but HBO wants to draw the tease out a little longer. Finally, the Daenerys plot line is bubbling under - she shows plenty of backbone facing her new captor, Khal Moro, while Daario and Jorah pick up her trail. Oh, and in Meereen... we get a taste of the civil unrest that will likely give Tyrion his latest batch of sleepless nights. Overall it's a decent episode, but not the best you'll watch this season.

Season 6, episode 2 - Home

Surprise! Jon Snow is back from the dead, resurrected by Melisandre. Who knew? Oh, that's right, we did. This is one of the strongest episodes of Game of Thrones yet, and here's our full episode 6.02 review. The fist-pumping end to the episode isn't really the most shocking moment, though, as we lose not one but two house-rules in a single show. Ramsay's murder of his father is disturbing, if unsurprising, and the fact he also butchers his baby brother and step-mother cement him as 'the most evil bastard' in Game of Thrones. Well done, Rammers. Meanwhile, Balon Greyjoy is lobbed off a precarious-looking bridge by his insane brother Euron, kicking off a delicious new plot line for the Iron Islands. The tension ramps up further at King's Landing, when the High Sparrow gate-crashes Myrcella's funeral and picks a fight with Jaime, and in Meereen, Tyrion decides to free the two remaining dragons locked away beneath the city. Overall a great episode with shocks, action, and a nice sprinkling of heart and humour to round everything off.

Season 6, episode 3 - Oathbreaker

After the shocking-not-shocking events of episode 2, Oathbreaker feels a little flat, but compared to the return of Jon Snow, what show wouldn’t? It’s still a solid episode and you can read our full review here, or get a shorter breakdown below. After Jon Snow wakes up and finds some clothes, he proceeds to execute his murderers and leave the Watch for good. Where he’ll go is for another episode, but the news that he’s finally entering the game of thrones is almost as welcome as his resurrection. Bran has another super helpful flashback vision that shows us part of what happens at the Tower of Joy. A young Eddard Stark isn’t as honourable as everyone thought and something is definitely troubling his sister. In this week’s ‘well, duh’ moment Arya gets her sight back… as we all knew she would. Oh, and Rickon Stark’s back. That’s important, must remember that. Not. Also, Dany is in danger for not accepting her boring life as a Khaleesi widow sooner, and Tyrion and Varys find out who’s funding the Sons of the Harpy. Not that it does them much good. Overall, it’s another mostly-strong episode from Game of Thrones season 6, but if it wasn’t for Jon and Arya, you’d feel like not much happened. Time to pick up the pace I think. 

Season 6, episode 4 - Book of the Stranger

In some genuinely shocking news, Stark siblings Jon and Sansa have actually been reunited in episode 4 of Game of Thrones season 6. Read our full review here, or stick around for a short recap. As it turns out, Jon Snow hasn’t left The Wall yet, but just as he’s packing his bag his sister Sansa turns up and gives him a hug. The two Stark siblings reminisce about their childhoods for a while, before turning their attention to the issue of Ramsay Bolton and Winterfell. Jon just wants to get some sun, but Sansa is determined to make Ramsay pay. A well timed threatening note from the new Lord Bolton persuades Jon he needs to retake Winterfell and it looks like the Wildlings will follow. Go team Jon Snow! Daenerys is also on the up as she burns the Dothraki leadership to death and walks out of the fire unscathed (again). Reunited with Jorah and Daario and with a new Dothraki army at her command, now might be a good time to nip across the Narrow Sea. After all, Tyrion and Varys might be managing in Meereen by compromising with the slave masters, but not everyone is happy about the arrangement, and cracks are beginning to show. With both Jon and Daenerys on the road to the Iron Throne this is another super strong episode which sees two of our favourite characters make giant leaps in their storylines, while reminding us of their humanity and the importance of their relationships. More of this please!

Season 6, episode 5 - The Door

It’s here, the mid-season episode. We’re officially halfway through season 6 of Game of Thrones and boy, was it a jumping-up-and-down-on-your-seat-and-then-crying episode (like all of the best Thrones episodes, of course). Enjoy our full review of episode S6.05 here or read on for a shorter breakdown of everything that happened. Let’s not delay any longer - Hodor is no more. One of the most beloved characters of Game of Thrones sacrificed himself to save Bran and Meera while revealing his true origins - “Hold the door”. I’m not going to lie, it was a lot to take in under five minutes at the end of the episode, but it will forever be a classic example of why Thrones gets it so right. That emotional connection we all have with Hodor was exploited so well, fans of the show will be recovering for months. Plenty of other important things happened in this episode as well, with the discovery that is was the Children of the Forest who first created the White Walkers to protect themselves from mankind. Jon and Sansa are building their war council and plan to ask the lesser northern houses for support. Sansa confronted Littlefinger who told her that her Uncle Brynden ‘The Blackfish’ Tully has retaken Riverrun and to sow doubt in her mind as to the support of her half-brother. The Kingsmoot on the Iron Islands showed Theon support his sister, Yara’s, claim only for their Uncle Euron to win and try and murder them, and Jorah admitted to Daenerys that he is sick causing her to show how much he really means to her. Back in Meereen Tyrion and Varys have managed to build an uneasy peace, but request the help of a new Red Priestess in spreading the news. She proclaims she’ll help because Daenerys is the promised one and just like that, Jon Snow has some competition. Phew? You get all that?

Season 6, episode 6 - Blood of My Blood

This episode picks up where the last one left off, with Meera and Bran fleeing the Whitewalkers. It’s a tricky, mid-season show, and little of note actually happens - if you want it, here’s our full review. Aside from the not-so-surprising introduction of Bran’s Uncle Benjen, who slays a few Wights to save his nephew, the rest of the episode is action-free. Sam’s trip to the family home results in one of the most awkward family dinners known to man, but after being berated by his father, he musters up the courage to leave with Gilly, the boy, and House Tarly’s sword, Heartsbane. Elsewhere, Arya finally decides to leave the Faceless Men, after botching another assassination, and Daenerys regains her dragon and encourages the Dothraki to follow her to Westeros. Finally, Jaime shows up to rescue Margaery (with a bunch of Tyrell soldiers) only to find that the High Sparrow has influenced King Tommen into siding with him. It’s a real blow to his bluster - any action would have meant civil war in King’s Landing, but we’re not quite ready for that. Yet.

Season 6, episode 7 - The Broken Man

This episode is all about the return of The Hound. Here’s a full review of The Broken Man, but if you’re hankering after a quick recap… So, even before the credits, we find that a religious healer called Ray has nursed Sandor Clegane back to health, and he’s helping build a church in a rural community. That lasts about 5 minutes, as everyone (except The Hound) is slaughtered by some rogue soldiers. Elsewhere, Arya gets stabbed by the Waif, and - in King’s Landing - Margaery warns her grandmother that the High Sparrow is plotting to imprison her. The other big moment from this episode sees Jaime and Bronn arrive at the siege of Riverrun. The Blackfish parlays with Jaime, and implies that he will never surrender the castle, even if they hang his nephew Edmure. It’s the start of a beautiful plotline. Finally, Jon is trying to gather his army, but meets quite a few obstacles, one of which is a savvy 10 year old girl from House Mormont, who puts the bastard in his place.

Season 6, episode 8 - No One

Given the title of this week’s Game of Thrones we obviously find out what’s happened to Arya after her gut-stabbing. Read our full review for a complete breakdown, or stay tuned for a mini round-up. Turns out Arya has a really tough tummy because she managed to make it to Lady Crane for a quick patch up. She doesn’t get much of a rest though as the Waif eventually finds her, kills Lady Crane and chases Arya round Braavos. After some impressive gymnastics around the city, Arya dispatches the Waif with the help of Needle and delivers her bloody head to the Hall of Faces telling Jaqen she’s going home. Elsewhere Brienne and Pod arrive at Riverrun, say hi to Jaime and Bronn and then try and persuade Brynden Blackfish Tully to give up the castle and join Sansa. He refuses so Jaime threatens Edmure Tully who then walks into Riverrun and commands his troops to surrender. The Blackfish doesn’t make it out alive. The Hound is seeking revenge on the members of the Brotherhood Without Banners who murdered his friends, but before he can hack them all to pieces, he’s reunited with Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr who are hanging them for the same crime. They kill the murderers, have some dinner, and try and talk the Hound into joining them. In King’s Landing, the Sparrows ‘invite’ Cersei to talk with the High Sparrow and the zombie-Mountain refuses on her behalf by popping the head off one of them. King Tommen punishes her by setting a date for her trial and proclaiming trials by combat will no longer be legal. Not looking great for Cleganebowl fans. Finally, the Masters attack Meereen and Daenerys FINALLY makes it home. The end. 

Season 6, episode 9 - Battle of the Bastards

Possibly the best episode of the season, Battle of the Bastards is the long-awaited showdown between Ramsay Bolton and Jon Snow. Here’s our in-depth review of season 6, episode 9. The condensed version is that there’s a big ol’ fight between the two bastards. Jon’s force is smaller than the Bolton army, but he has a plan! Which quickly falls apart when Ramsay murders Rickon in front of Jon, compelling him to throw away the plan and just charge. It all looks a bit grim for Snow’s army until the Knights of the Vale show up and save the day. Jon decks Ramsay, locks him up, and Sansa turns his hounds on him, who eat the Bolton boy to death. Meanwhile, in Meereen, Daenerys shows up to save the city, her dragons roast the Masters’ boats, and Grey Worm slices the throats of two out of three Master rulers. Theon and Yara then show up to offer their ships to Dany. She accepts.

Season 6, episode 10 - The Winds of Winter

The Winds of Winter was almost as good as Battle of the Bastards, but in a different way. You can read our in-depth review here, or if you’d rather the short version, you’re in the right place. I mean, the really short version is that Cersei blows the fuck out of her enemies. Tommen throws himself from a window in response, echoing Bran’s fall from season 1, leaving Cersei to take the Iron Throne herself. Cersei gets some vicious revenge on Septon Unella, but it’s best not to think about that if you don’t want nightmares. Back in the north, Jon and Ser Davos confront Melisandre about the death of Princess Shireen, and the Red Priestess is exiled. Jon is proclaimed King in the North, thanks to an empowering speech from tiny Lady Lyanna Mormont, and the great Houses of the north bend the knee. Oh, and Arya's kill list got a bit lighter, because she slit Walder Frey's throat, shortly after feeding him his own sons. Revenge: delicious. We also see another Bransposition flashback, revealing Jon’s true heritage. Yes, we were right. Elsewhere, an alliance is formed between House Martell and House Tyrell, and finally - finally! - Daenerys leaves Meereen (and Daario Naharis) to head to Westeros with her new Hand, Tyrion. We’ve got 42 weeks to get hype - Winter is finally here. It’s on.

Andy Hartup