Game of Thrones is famous for its shocking deaths and plot twists — Ned’s Season 1 beheading; the Red Wedding; Jon’s Season 5 death. It’s unsurprising, then, that the show has been accused of relying on shock value. And while it does occasionally tread into that territory, lingering on torture scenes with too much relish (good riddance to Ramsay Bolton), the Season 6 finale did something curious: Its shocks came from events that weren’t shocking.
All its big moments were predictable. We knew ahead of time that Cersei would go nuts and burn King’s landing, we’ve known for years that Jon is a Targaryen and his real mother is Ned’s sister Lyanna Stark, it was obvious Arya would kill Walder Frey, and it was easy to guess that the season’s closing shot would be Daenerys sailing to Westeros.
In that regard, the Season 6 finale was the most predictable one yet. It was also one of the most satisfying. Just because these events were not surprising, it didn’t make them any less impactful. The Wildfire sequence took a good twenty minutes of screen time to build, and it was screen time well spent. We knew it was coming, and yet by giving the scene room to breathe to a fantastically ominous score, the story allowed the dread to build. If the Sept had just exploded quickly with little build up — the way Ned was beheaded, Jon was stabbed, Ramsay killed Roose Bolton — then its impact would have been dramatically diminished.
The viewer was put directly in Margarey’s place, realizing what was happening but powerless to stop it.
Similarly, in Arya’s storyline, we realized what would happen as soon as the camera lingered on the serving girls and Jaime and Bronn took time out of the season finale to discuss them. Clearly, they weren’t just trivial serving girls, and as Arya pulled a similar trick with Meryn Trant in Season 5, it was easy to see where that scene would go.
“The Winds of Winter” was a spectacular episode, and it proved that predictability isn’t always a bad thing. On the other hand, shock for the sake of shock is. When Game of Thrones spent too much time demonstrating Ramsay’s cruelty time and again, that was it at its weakest impulse.
The Wildfire explosion was the show at its strongest, because even though the event itself was not surprising, we couldn’t have predicted it would lead to Tommen’s suicide or Cersei’s ascension to the throne. Storytelling that feels inevitable but still manages to delight is the strongest kind. So, bring on Game of Thrones’s new era of unsurprising plot turns. If they’re as well executed as the Sept explosion, we’ll say good riddance to the era of shock value and feed it to the dogs.