The finale of Game of Thrones Season 6 was slow yet strong, with muted tension and eerie grace. Off-camera action, skewed angle shots, and long silences made uncanny tones, while a string-based accompaniment made for a satisfying Coppola nod. The long length meant it was well paced, but this betrayed issues with previous episodes. They’re two or three scenes too short.
Still, it was a cathartic seventy minutes. Arya – now in Westeros – bled Walder Frey’s throat, Grand Maester Pycelle was murdered, Cersei took power by setting wildfire to the Sparrow cult and their Highgarden vassals, Lady Olenna allied with Dorne and Varys, Daenerys set sail to King’s Landing, and the Stark bannermen named Jon Snow – now Jon Stark and maybe Targaryen – King in the North.
The direction was unique enough to highlight how distinct Season 6 episodes have been, thereby extending a growing auteurism in television. As the medium becomes more cinematic and pulls more money, television commentators are taking on the movie critic’s seventy-year old habit of treating directors like authors. Auteurists argue that directors sway the final edit more than any other individual. Some see this as reductive and unfair.
Reviews have spoken less of writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff since ‘Hardhome’, the penultimate instalment of Season 5. Helmed by Miguel Sapochnik, it saw Wildlings and the Night’s Watch slog with undead masses in their screen-filling hordes. Battles had previously been big by the implication of a few dozen fighters or the aftermath, but Hardhome had epic, top-down framing, which makes sense given Sapochnik’s storyboarding career (see Trainspotting).
This works for Benioff and Weiss, who have faced abuse by fans that see Game of Thrones as theirs. Focus has been drawn by Sapochnik and Co, and the attacks have lost their aim. Angry fans at their desk don’t know who to lambast. The direction has issues, but it’s exciting. The writing is lazy at times but technically competent. The acting was stilted at first, but, half a dozen seasons in, every performance engrosses.
Not many could predict auteurism being the friend of production units, but it reveals something to which anti-auteurists must admit: it means artists and technicians can get on with it without forums braying down their napes. It’s not a deliberate technique, but Game of Thrones hasn’t had the same conformism issues as Doctor Who and Sherlock, because their showrunner Steven Moffat pandered to a loud fanbase while overseeing everything.
It began in television with Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad, while, thanks to Seth Rogen and David Fincher, recent shows like Preacher and House of Cards take fixed commentary. Critics have even extended the flaws of auteurism by discounting non-famous directors as well as writers, particularly with House of Cards. This means daring shows are hedged into using orthodox tropes, whether it be deus ex machina plot twists or overt crowd-pleasing.
Thrones is dense nihilism though. Season 6 features too many last-second rescues, veering more into the Tolkien-esque, but part of why so many are still watching the show is the realistic approach to war, the futility of power, and the subjugation of women and the ‘lower’ classes. It doesn’t matter how central the character in trouble is. When Jon Snow faced Ramsay’s cavalry charge, audiences were worried.
The artists mimic their work here. Diluted auteurism – it only occurs as far as one episode goes – allows showmakers to practice positive nihilism. They accept the futility of individuality and take their time doing what they want in the knowledge it won’t matter anyway, so there’s no point in letting viewers make the show. And they’re still addressing issues.
Halfway through, Season 6 mocked the pointless nudity in those before it with a full-screen penis and scrotum. “There’s a wart on it!” Then, there was a segue into unconnected dialogue. It was a funny, self-aware shot that proved producers can take criticism without propitiation. A later scene saw Sandor Clegane urinate on camera, thus binding the show’s new direction. Albeit lazily, Season 6 has only used female nudity for plot-based or characterising reasons.
Other complaints haven’t been addressed, but this is just. When told a book is being adapted, most fans hope it will be good. That’s fine. Others hope it will be faithful, forgetting that different media tell different stories. There are even complaints that Peter Dinklage is too attractive. It’s unfair, because adapting something faithfully is an empty act. Most stories reuse the same tropes, so spin should be applied when the chance rises. That novelist George R.R. Martin produces the show proves this.
Game of Thrones Season 6 reveals that directors are becoming more vocal in television. If it continues, they must adapt to dispel systemic issues like sexism, but they must also avoid conformism. Directors find this easier than writers, from whom there has been a shift of focus and responsibility. The issue is that hundreds of people make every television show. Thousands make Game of Thrones. What about them?