This must have been TV’s equivalent of the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi: waiting all that time to discover whether Jon Snow (Kit Harington) had survived being literally stabbed in the back by his sworn brothers at the Wall.
Happily, Game Of Thrones doesn’t waste too much time answering this question, instead quickly circulating around the globe as it plots the progress of its massive cast. Mainly, it’s a case of tracking down the main characters after their misfortunes in the previous season: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is the prisoner of a Dothraki horde; Cersei (Lena Headey) remains under house arrest after her humiliation in the Season 6 finale at the hands of the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce); Arya (Maisie Williams) attempts to come to terms with her blindness, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) returns to King’s Landing with his tale between his legs, having failed to save his daughter; and Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Theon (Alfie Allen) are on the run from their sadistic former captor, Ramsay (Iwan Rheon).
It’s been much publicised that the end is in sight, and the body count is ratcheted up accordingly, with supporting cast members left, right and centre meeting unexpected ends. But – and this hasn’t always been the case – they feel like they’ve occurred for the right reasons. It all comes across as organic, nothing is too gratuitous (by Game Of Thrones’ standards), and they result in some of the best moments in the entire show’s chronology – ‘The Door’ for instance, remains one of the best episodes of television we’ve seen in a while.
While last season’s early slow-build wasn’t always conducive to great viewing, there are enough standout moments to keep everyone happy: the return of Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) is a welcome piece of fan service; Daenerys’ fiery takedown of the assembled Khals is wonderfully executed, and David Bradley steals every scene he’s in as the thoroughly loathsome Walder Frey.
As ever, however, Season 6 stands out by virtue of its final two episodes. ‘Battle Of The Bastards’ presents not one, but two of the most memorable fight scenes in Game Of Thrones history: first, Daernerys takes to Drogon to destroy the invading slaver fleet, leaving Tyrion to deliver some of his best one-liners. But it’s all about Jon versus Ramsay. Visceral and brutal, it perhaps better than anything we’ve seen for a while encompasses the horror of war, with its raining arrows, suffocating mass of bodies and doomed, dying soldiers.
Then there’s ‘The Winds Of Winter’. Cersei ushers in the cold season with her own brand of explosive justice, proving that ‘The Rains Of Castamere’ isn’t just a catchy tune. In one fell swoop taking out most of her enemies, she finally gains the power she has always craved – waiting for the other players to head in her direction, which by the final shot they are all proceeding to do.
This is what Game Of Thrones has always been about: moving its assorted chess pieces into place for the main event, despite their unwavering unwillingness to do so. But for it to manage this with so much style and aplomb is a sight to see. And with the end unavoidably nigh, it has set a high benchmark to surmount.