Winter's not near, it's here. After suffering through a TEN month hiatus—and Vinyl—Game of Thrones Season 6 is upon us at last. But instead of just the usual feverish excitement, there's an air of trepidation and anxiety hovering over this season premiere like Ned Stark's broadsword. This is still GoT, one of the best shows out (far and away the best scripted show on HBO) but the fact is, there's a lot riding on Year 6.
It's bigger than the fate of Jon Snow, although sticking the landing on that cliffhanger is definitely crucial. For the first five seasons, all showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff had to worry about was bringing fan favorite characters, set pieces, and twists to life in a way that pleased fans who already read the source material and wowed us silly Philistines who thought killing off the protagonist then massacring his avenging family were impossible twists. No small feat, sure, but the roadmap was there, and per every book reader I've talked to, the adaptations have been satisfyingly faithful.
But now we're in unprecedented territory, as the HBO adaptation blows past its source material. In addition to pleasing fans germane to just the TV show, Weiss and Benioff have to assuage a fanbase that now has to experience the conclusion to a decades-long saga in a different medium than they're accustomed to. And even though this isn't the conclusion per se, or even the penultimate season, it's definitely the beginning of the endgame. Fair or not, the legacy of a narrative this serialized rests on the conclusion. Just look at how many LOST fans ended up disparaging great seasons that stand on their own because they weren't satisfied with the sum.
What's more, for book reader or TV viewer alike, Season 5 was easily the weakest year of the show. Granted, even an off year for this show has instant classic moments like Daenerys' Deus ex Dragon or sequences like the White Walker attack in "Hardhome" that completely bodied everything else on the airwaves that month. But it also had the clobbering misery of Sansa's arc and the senseless killing of yet another fan favorite. (Of all the beloved deaths on this show, the circumstances of Jon's betrayal is quite possibly the pettiest act to date.) More confounding: a season's worth of build-up to one of the more truly horrific scenes in the series, Stannis burning his daughter, is followed through with his army quickly being dispatched. He died learning the sacrifice was all for naught, a decent twist that nevertheless landed with a thud and the echoes of Shireen's screaming still ringing in my ears. At least the merits of those storylines can be debated though—there's NO defending the Dorne arc which was just pure—*gasp*—bad storytelling. An ugly first for GoT, but as the narrative ramps up on the mysticism with Bran Stark's return, one wonders if the hokier aspects of magic will expose more stumbling. A dip in critical favor is the last thing HBO needs—the network is still struggling to produce a succeeding hit equivalent to GoT. A total brick from its breadwinner would be devastating.
It seems weird and unfair but this is truly make-or-break. Before Season 5, the show maintained a steadily consistent run of excellence (Season 3 may have arguably been the best thing on TV for that year). The show has already proven itself, but with criticism mounting, the fanbases unified in their anxiety, and everybody including the President watching, now is not the time for missteps. Dave and D.B. told EW that this is, sans hyperbole, their best year yet, bar for bar, episode for episode. And to be honest, it has to be, or the legacy of the series may not recover.
Of course, this is all just Night King's advocate talk that we'd be remiss not to put out there. The showrunners have been heavily involved with George R.R. Martin every step of the way, and are still following his basic outline while giving the novels, whenever he finishes them, room to deviate. And at the outset, two very strong trailers suggest nothing but fire is in store. (Literally. Praise dragons.) And for what it's worth, the anticipation for a new season has never been higher. Is Jon alive? Will Ser Pounce return? Will Thrones survive?