What a bumpy, ugly, gorgeous, weird, and fascinating season it's been. The highs were high, the lows were low - and in some cases very low, but you couldn't say any of it was boring. This was the year that "Game of Thrones" started moving into "off-book" material, and we got a better sense of the storytelling sensibilities of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. And frankly, the show has never felt sloppier or more rushed. Or like more of a grim endurance contest. Horrible things happen all the time in "Game of Thrones," but never have they happened with such alarming regularity to the weakest and most innocent characters - Shireen, Myrcella, and Sansa in particular. It's getting harder and harder to wait for the comeuppances and payoffs that may never come. While the spectacle of Hardhome was impressive, that doesn't make up for the slog through the deeply compromised Dorne storyline. While watching Jon, Danaerys, Arya, and Tyrion gain new victories was invigorating, on the other side of the equation you have Stannis, Ramsay, and Jamie killing the mood. And as much as the creators might deny it, you can tell they're stalling on some fronts to give George R. R. Martin more time to finish the next book.
As usual, it's fairest to go down the list of characters and consider each storyline individually.
Let's get the worst one out of the way first. Dorne, for all its prominence in the preseason marketing, for all the nice costumes, strong acting talent, and the picturesque shooting locations, was a total wash. There was clearly a much richer, more complicated storyline here originally that was boiled down to bare bones and then executed terribly. The new characters were left shockingly shallow archetypes, the narrative felt like a bit of side quest filler to keep Jamie occupied, and Dorne felt weirdly uninhabited next to Bravos, Mereen, and King's Landing. I knew we were in trouble when the Sand Snakes didn't show up until the fourth episode, and then had a sad little scrap with Jamie and Bronn upon their big confrontation in the sixth. Indira Varma, Alexander Siddig, and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers are among the season's MVPs for salvaging what they could of Ellaria, Doran, and Tyene.
Over in Winterfell, it was so frustrating to have Sansa poised as a mature player in the game at the end of the last season, only to heave her tossed into Ramsay's clutches this year for more torture. I suspect that her involvement here was just to give her, Theon, and Brienne something to do, but surely the writers didn't have to make Sansa into such a victim again - haven't they established that's she's learned how to manipulate from Cersei, Margaery, and Littlefinger? Her grappling with Ramsay intellectually would have been so much more interesting than more of the usual sadism. And good grief, but Littlefinger's actions here don't make any sense. I didn't find the depiction of Sansa's wedding night nearly as upsetting as some of the other violence against women and girls we saw later in the season, but I'm glad the controversy happened anyway, because these are important conversations to have.
Arya's training at the House of Black and White has been one of the most consistently strong stories this year, and it finally feels like Arya's getting somewhere in her quest for revenge. I loved that we got Tom Wlaschiha back for Jaqen H'ghar, and the addition of Faye Marsay as the Waif. Personal and spiritual growth can be difficult to depict, and the show's been doing a great job with Arya and the strange religion of the Many-Faced God. The effects in particular, while not as flashy as what we see in Mereen or Beyond the Wall, have been a highlight. And it's been so nice to see Maisie Williams get a few costume changes this year, and acknowledge that Arya's quickly growing up. She's one of the last few characters on this show I can really root for, and I'm glad the creators have been doing right by her.
King's Landing, usually home to the more central plotlines, took a bit of a backseat this time out because most of the action was happening elsewhere. It's been almost comical how quickly things have gone awry without Tywin or Jamie keeping Cersei in check. Her hatred of Margaery prompted her to hand power over to Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow and a pack of religious zealots, and of course it backfired on her. This paints Cersei as a much weaker figure than we've seen in previous seasons, but boy has it been fun to watch her this year. The petty machinations, getting the tables turned on her, and the most jaw-dropping nudity scene in "Game of Thrones" history have been absolutely great for Cersei as a character. The list of power players in King's Landing may be growing short, but there's still the potential for drama in abundance.
If you want to talk about hard downfalls, though, there have been none worse than Stannis Baratheon's campaign against Winterfell this year. It was often difficult to watch Stannis, one of the most promising contenders for the Iron Throne a few seasons ago, brought so low so quickly. After he came to the rescue of Castle Black last year, he won a lot of new fans, but I was never onboard, and wasn't all that shocked when he sacrificed Shireen - a little shocked that they showed as much of the act as they did, but not at the decision he made. It was the people he dragged down with him that really hurt - Shireen of course, Davos, Selyse, and to a certain extent Sansa and Theon. I was really looking forward to Stannis squishing Ramsay like a bug. It may still happen eventually, but I'm still disappointed at how the storyline was tied up.
Let's lump Tyrion's story in together with Dany's, because the really important part of both is that they get together and start making bigger plans toward the show's endgame. Tyrion makes pretty much everyone he interacts with more interesting, so thank goodness he's joined up with the Mereen crew, who have now spent two seasons mucking up the job of ruling the place. Danaerys doesn't come off as incompetent after all this, thankfully, just inexperienced and naive. Tyrion getting shuttled off into a new adventure was a little rushed, but I can buy his newly flippant attittude and eventual conversion to Dany's side - the two shared some great scenes together. I'm still not so keen on the rest of the side characters - Jorah, Daario, and the lovebirds - or where Dany ended up in the finale, but clearly things are getting back on track.
Finally, there's Jon Snow. He's had a great year, becoming Lord Commander, kicking butt at Hardhome, and sticking his neck out for the Wildlings. He may know nothing, but he stands for something now, and has become a character worth rooting for. Too bad about that last bit of the finale, but I'm not convinced that Jon or Stannis are actually dead yet. It's nice that the scenes at and beyond the wall have been some of the most compelling in the show's run. The two storylines that were boring me to tears three seasons ago have become two of the most compelling, and currently driving the show towards its conclusion. Yes, this season of "Game of Thrones" was less satisfying than many of the others (still better than Year Two), but it's doing enough right and clearly going somewhere. And I want to see how it all ends.