* This article will contain spoilers for Game of Thrones (and Star Wars, if that matters). Proceed at your own risk.
Though it now largely regarded as the best movie in the Star Wars series, when The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, many of the reviews and reactions were far from glowing. Many critics and fans missed the feel-good, trippy ‘70s vibe of the first film. Empire threw that audience for some dark turns, with Han Solo in carbonite, Luke both missing a hand and having his entire worldview shattered by his parental revelation. It wasn’t until the whole story was revealed that the impact of Empire was truly felt, and the generation that grew up with Star Wars as its cultural myth could view it as one of their first examples of great narrative storytelling.
Something similar could happen with Game of Thrones, which kicks off its sixth season Sunday night on HBO. Now, I’m not suggesting that the dark and much-maligned fifth season will one day be held in the same reverence as Empire — simply that when seen within the context of the whole, last year was nowhere near as bad as you think.
Culturally, the series is still a huge force. The fifth-season finale was the show’s highest rated ever. “Is Jon Snow really, really, REALLY dead” has been the pop-cultural punchline of the year (or at least second to the Trump campaign). At this year’s Emmy Awards, the show took home best drama. HBO continues to use the series as its flagship show. This year, like any good dealer, the network will be giving away the first episode for free in the hopes of keeping the ratings chart on an upward swing.
But it is hard to escape the overwhelming online pessimism regarding the fifth season and the show’s future. For some, the Jon Snow cliffhanger was a last straw. After falling for false heroes, some viewers thought they had identified the show’s true center in Ned Stark’s Bastard (and let’s be honest, they weren’t wrong) only to see him lie dead at the fade to black. Others were worn down by the relentless violence, portrayals of rape and perceived sexism. Or, having been drawn in by the promises of strong characters and shocking plot twists, they grew weary of a world in which no good deed goes unpunished. For readers of the books, there was anger that the show didn’t pause to allow George R.R. Martin to finish his next installment (good luck with that).
Media critics, who were once the show’s most ardent supporters, turned on the show with alarming speed. Whether driven by honest feelings or the clickbait success of their “hot takes,” innumerable think pieces were written calling the show to task for not being what the writer wanted. But as the recent success of Batman v Superman has proven, critics can be easily ignored, and the issues they get hot and bothered about, in their writerly bubbles, are not necessarily the ones viewers care about.
Those who claimed that the show was just empty spectacle — all smoke and mirrors with no real point to make beyond saying, “hey look at our dragons and some boobs!” — seemed to overlook the fact that this was a season in which not one, but two candidates for the Iron Throne (including the current de facto occupant) followed religious fanatics to their own doom. Indeed, Cersei’s plotline is the story of an opportunist who tried to harness religion to achieve her own less-than-noble goals, only to have that decision bite her in the ass rather spectacularly. Meanwhile, Father of the Year Stannis Baratheon gave literally everything to his faith, only to die in the snow.
Of course, even the detractors could not deny the power of Hardhome, the eighth episode of the season and, by most votes, the best of the series. From the opening scene of the series, GoT has always been about the petty and vindictive ways in which the powerful vie for control while a larger, global threat goes unheeded. If anything, the show was almost too effective in its mission, allowing the viewers to get so wrapped up in the battle for the Iron Throne that even they forgot it was a distraction from the actual plot. Hardhome hammered that point home in its breathtaking final 20-minute stretch. All the vain struggles for power between Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens merely add to the armies of the dead, and winter is coming. For real.
So, will discouraged and frustrated viewers tune in Sunday night? Chances are the numbers for the premiere will be very big indeed, if for no other reason than people wanting to find out what happened to Jon Snow.
But there may very well be other reasons to tune in. The battle between Cersei and the Faith Militant appears to be heading to a dramatic confrontation (if the trailer is to be believed). Sansa and Theon’s escape from Winterfell could finally give those characters some long overdue payback against the truly despicable Boltons. Arya is blind, Tyrion gets another chance to run a city without the interference of his family and Dany finds herself right back where she started.
If the show plays its cards right, it can quickly put aside at least some of the criticism that followed Season 5 and have us all remember those dark episodes in a new light.
Season 6 of Game of Thrones premieres on HBO at 9PM EST.