Watching is The New York Times’s TV and film recommendation newsletter and website.
You may have heard that “Game of Thrones” is returning to HBO on July 16. To prepare for Season 7, we’re reviewing and reassessing the first six seasons of the show, with the benefit of hindsight. Each article will have spoilers for all six seasons. We previously revisited Seasons 1, 2 and 3.
Having run out of Starks to kill (for the moment), the Lannisters spend Season 4 turning on one another instead. Not even the family’s first Valyrian steel swords — two of them, forged from Ned Stark’s enormous one — can bring any harmony. (In fact they foreshadow the internal divisions to come.)
This is not a happy family. Cersei lashes out at Jaime. Joffrey torments Tyrion. Jaime assaults Cersei.
The biggest cataclysm to befall the clan — Joffrey’s assassination — is orchestrated by outsiders, Olenna Tyrell and Littlefinger. But Cersei immediately blames Tyrion for it, Tywin railroads him in his trial and then Tyrion kills Tywin and leaves town.
Joffrey’s death clears the way for young Tommen Baratheon to take the Iron Throne, as Margaery Tyrell leaps from one brother to another before Joffrey’s body is even cold. But the leadership vacuum that callow lad brings to the throne will prove ruinous.
There is also internal strife within the Night’s Watch, as the mutineers turn Craster’s Keep, never the jolliest place, into a den of utter depravity that is also a liability — Jon fears that the Wildling army, inching closer to Castle Black, will squeeze the traitors for intel. Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt send him to deal with the matter, secretly hoping it will result in the death of the bastard, who is emerging as the most popular man at Castle Black. But it doesn’t work out that way, as Jon and friends invade, topple and burn Craster’s Keep to the ground.
Jon’s survival allows him to save the day in the Battle of Castle Black. The victory over the Wildlings, solidified later when Stannis comes swooping in with his brand new army, establishes Jon as the de facto leader of the Night’s Watch. (For a while, anyway.)
Elsewhere in Westeros, three pairs are roving about, keeping things lively even as they keep missing each other. Sansa flees King’s Landing with Littlefinger after Joffrey’s death, traveling with him to the Eyrie in the Vale. There she finds herself caught awkwardly between her predatory patron, who’s actively wooing her, and her nutty Aunt Lysa, who resents Sansa’s “pretty young body” and rages up to the moment Littlefinger shoves Lysa through her own moon door. By season’s end, Sansa is firmly aligned with Littlefinger and seems ready to move past her history of subjugation. (Seems ready, anyway.)
Arya and the Hound have their own adventures as a fun Mutt-and-Jeff combo, eating chickens, debating ethics and killing Lannister henchmen until they run into the third pair, Brienne and Podrick, in the Vale. Brienne bests the Hound in a brutal fight, but her quarry Arya slips away, headed for Braavos.
Up north, Ramsay is legitimized after claiming Moat Cailin for his father, and he continues to torment “Reek,” in a subplot that wears out its welcome but just keeps on going.
Speaking of endless chapters, Daenerys Targaryen arrives in Meereen and holes up in a pyramid for decades. Or maybe it just feels that way, as her story enters morass mode, full of fitful bureaucracy, resentful wise masters and gold-masked insurrections.
Her dragons are growing into untamable, child-torching beasts, forcing her to lock up two of them in order to keep the fragile peace. The dragons seem devastated, but they have nothing on Jorah, whose Khaleesi-loving heart breaks into a million pieces when she casts him out after discovering his spying past. Jorah is a tough, noble knight — a strong-jawed adviser and fearsome warrior. But when you cut him, he bleeds.
The boy-king’s monstrousness finally catches up to him, as Lady Olenna decides she’d rather help Littlefinger kill him than let her granddaughter stay married to him.
Tyrion gets his day in court and it goes about as well as you’d expect. When the normally wry and composed imp finally snaps, he lashes out not only at his hateful family, but also at a city that mocked him even as he tried to save it.
Sleeping with Shae is the final straw. Murdering Tywin is the final bolt in the chest of Tyrion’s split with his family, driving him to flee King’s Landing in a box and eventually join the Targaryen effort.
Joffrey Baratheon — He was a sadistic twit and his death was delicious, but actor Jack Gleeson managed to make it at least a little poignant, too.
Tywin Lannister — This legacy-obsessed patriarch orchestrated a sweeping power grab for his family only to see two of his kids shame his name by sleeping together, and the other kill him on the toilet.
Also read: Nintendo Looks Set to End Two-Punch Strategy
Oberyn Martell — He was a louche warrior whose preening tendencies were his undoing.
Lysa Arryn — The loony breast-feeding zealot was yet another of Littlefinger’s victims.
Ygritte — She taught Jon Snow how to love, and it eventually killed her.
Shae — She had spunk and a good heart, but she was no match for the Lannisters’ toxic resentments.
Styr, the Magnar of Thenn — The ghoulish cannibal existed mainly to traumatize young Olly and give Jon Snow a big monster to slay in the Battle of Castle Black.
Dontos Hollard — The court drunk was a pawn in the assassination of Joffrey, and ended up full of arrows.
Locke — An enforcer for House Bolton, Locke shared his employer’s tendency for terrible behavior, behanding Jaime in Season 3 and trying to kidnap Bran in Season 4. It caught up with him when Bran warged into Hodor and crushed Locke’s neck.
Karl Tanner — During his brief but terrible stint on the show, he led the Night’s Watch mutiny and the ensuing, grotesque occupation of Craster’s Keep. His death was gruesome, with Jon Snow’s sword ending up jutting from his mouth, and it was all the more satisfying for it.
Also read: Ed Sheeran’s embarrassing cameo, a predictable finale, and Jon Snow bickering with Sansa Stark about a castle… The season seven premiere showed Game Of Thrones has lost its edge, by Jim Shelley
• Oberyn Martell takes on the Mountain of his own volition at Tyrion’s trial, but his death nevertheless instills a Lannister death-wish in Ellaria Sand. This will cost Cersei at least a daughter, when Ellaria kills Myrcella, and possibly more. In Season 6, Ellaria will ally House Martell with Daenerys Targaryen.
• “Qyburn? Deplorable man,” Pycelle tells Cersei. “Brought shame on the Citadel with his repugnant experiments.” Qyburn’s masterpiece, the reanimated Mountain, was still to come.
• “Tell me a secret,” Margaery says after sneaking into bed with Tommen, to cavort with him and Ser Pounce. The stones have barely settled upon Joffrey’s eyes before Margaery makes her move on the next king, and her expert wooing of Tommen will eventually lead to plenty of misery for Cersei, as well as Margaery’s own death when the Queen Mother strikes back.
• The murder of Olly’s parents instills in the boy a loathing of Wildlings that will eventually lead him to: 1) betray and help kill his mentor, Jon Snow; and 2) hang as a traitor. On “Game of Thrones,” as in life, violence begets violence.
• “You’ll never marry her,” Jaime tells Loras, referring to Cersei. “And neither will you,” he responds. The Knight of Flowers has thorns!
• “She’s gone. I know you don’t want to believe it, but she is.” — Bronn to Tyrion, regarding Shae.
• “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” — Oberyn to Cersei. (Her response: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”)