How 'Game of Thrones' Got Its Groove Back

After a hit-and-miss season last year, HBO's mega-popular fantasy (and Jon Snow) is back — and better than ever

Liam Cunningham, Carice van Houten, and Kit Harington in this season's 'Game of Thrones.' Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

As Dr. Frankenstein would say: "It's alive!" Like Jon Snow, Game of Thrones has gone through a resurrection from the dead, and like Jon Snow, it's permanently changed by the experience. The excellent new season is a drastic improvement over last year — it's moving faster than ever, finally pushing past the timeline of George R.R. Martin's novels and pushing the story forward. Season Five ended with a sorry sight: Jon Snow lying on the ground, a bloody pulp ventilated with knife wounds at the hands of his own men, who'd lined up to take turns stabbing him with the words, "For the Watch!" After a year of rumors, denials and heated fan debate, Jon Snow got his vengeance, brought back to life by one of Melisandre's magic spells. Then he hung his rebel betrayers and announced: "My watch has ended." But for Thrones fans, the watch just got a lot more exciting.

Jon Snow's rebirth was a shocker of a twist that nonetheless seemed inevitable. The show has ventured through the Wall and out the other side, leaving the original novels in the dust and venturing into unknown territory. As Davos says, "You were dead. Now you're not. That's completely fucking mad, seems to me." Yet completely fucking mad is the new normal on Thrones. Bran is back, having mystic time-travel visions that suggest his father Ned Stark might not be the noble and virtuous hero that he (and we) remember. Arya has gotten her sight back, after acing her battle tests at the House of Black and White. Tyrion is making friends with Dany's dragons. The Mountain has gone through a Snow-like revival, coming back as the Zombie Mountain killing machine.

On some level, obviously, this is cheating. In the world of fantasy and magic that Thrones occupied until now, death is a big deal. The series has always shocked us with who gets killed and who doesn't, but up to this point, it's obeyed the house rule that the dead stay dead. But now that Jon Snow walks among the living again, this isn't the case anymore, which makes GoT a different kind of story. There's no way to un-bang that gong. All bets are off. At this point, the season finale could end with Myrcella and Robb Stark snorting Brienne's ashes off Stannis Baratheon's naked ass and nobody would have any reasonable grounds for complaint.

And yet Thrones made the resurrection work on an emotional level. It might have been narrative oath-breaking, but it had to be done. Last season was the grimmest and dreariest chapter to date, the one that toned down the gratuitous nudity in favor of pompous violence and couldn't even get that right. There was a "moving the goalposts" element that made it seem like there was no internal logic to the story, and therefore no emotional stakes. The season had its moments, but it kept the grandest characters (Tyrion, Dany, Arya) in check while indulging tedious subplots like Jaime's dalliance in Dorne with the Sand Snakes, or Cersei's tangle with the Sparrows in King's Landing. It looked like Game of Thrones seemed to be in danger of turning into True Blood: a predictable one-note satire of religious fanatics, with regular sex-torture breaks.

All the terrors of last season turned out to be nothing: Jon Snow came back to life, while Arya got cured of her blindness instantly by drinking some magic water. Sansa escaped the clutches of Ramsay Bolton safe and sound, just by jumping off the roof of the castle — even though she and Theon had just killed a guy by throwing him off the same damn roof. Yet these twists have all been handled with a sense of adventure and forward motion that seemed lost a year ago. Even the Snow resurrection has been presented with real emotional tact and restraint. He emerged back to life extremely tired, groggy, stumbling in agony from his wounds. Snow 2.0 is no superhuman, much less a god — just his usual none-too-bright self, after suffering through a resurrection nearly as traumatic as his death was. He doesn't feel triumphant or even particularly grateful. He didn't gain any magic powers or learn any cosmic secrets. He still knows nothing.

It's not like on The Walking Dead, which pretended to kill off a fan-fave character only to rescue him miraculously. Instead, this was the kind of miracle that brings genuinely credible emotional and physical suffering in its wake. After his "turn me on, dead man" revival, Neo-Snow isn't a conquering superhero — just a wearier, more battered version of the dim bulb he used to be, racked by grief. He really wishes he didn't have to go through this. And now he just wants to be left alone to recover from it. Game of Thrones has been breaking all the rules of TV storytelling since the first season, back when Ned Stark lost his head, a twist that seemed unthinkable right up to the final seconds before the axe came down. The revival of Jon Snow is in the same category — and like the rest of us, he's unclear about what might be coming next in the story. But that's because at this point, it really is a whole new story.

Watch here for a 'Game of Thrones' Season 6 refresher course on who's who and what's happening from Westeros to the Wall.