Game of Thrones

The 10 Best Shows of 2016

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

There was an avalanche of new content that stormed our television screens during 2016, but some shows stood much taller than the rest. Here are the 10 best shows of 2016, in no particular order –

the crown on netflixThe Crown: The Crown traces the life and times of a young Queen Elizabeth as she struggles to balance the monumental responsibility that has been thrust on her, with her once ‘regular’ life. Claire Foy is stunning in her portrayal as a young woman with an immense burden on her shoulders. The show is visually arresting, tightly scripted and is proof that story-telling is, and always will be superior to big budget special effects. {Netflix}

Westworld: What happens when robots created solely for the purpose of human pleasure discover consciousness? Worse, what happens when they realize the magnitude of the abuse that they’ve been put through? A mind-bending storyline with equally confounding twists and a cast that reads like an honour roll, no show this year is capable of making you stay up at night the way Westworld is. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things: The eighties are back with this eerie sci-fi mystery that plays like a Stephen King novel brought to life. Stranger Things boasts of not only Winona Ryder (who is flawless as a distraught small town mother trying to make sense of aliens in her backyard), but also the most lovable 10 year olds in recent television history. {Netflix}

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The Night Of: Dark and gripping, The Night Of is, to borrow from the show itself, a subtle beast. Naz Khan, every bit a good Muslim boy, finds himself accused of a gory murder, and it doesn’t help that he has no recollection of events. Riz Ahmed, John Turturro and Bill Camp are fantastic in this courtroom drama that makes no mince of discussing racial prejudice and Islamophobia in the backdrop of the American justice system. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The Night Manager: John Le Carre’s riveting espionage novel is brought to life by this lavish BBC production which has some sublime acting performances. Hugh Laurie doesn’t just play, but transforms into Richard ‘The Worst Man In The World’ Roper, a billionaire weapons dealer, and Olivia Colman is brilliant as Angela Burke, the very pregnant and very determined British enforcement agent who’s out to catch him. As for Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager may as well be the show which cements his place as the next James Bond. {Amazon Prime Video}

Game of Thrones (Season 6): The sixth season of Game of Thrones premiered this year, with each episode having a bigger revelation than the next. With resurrections, family reunions and sweet revenge, the sixth season was probably the fastest moving in terms of storyline after the first, and the final episodes of the season, ‘Battle of the Bastards’ and ‘Winds of Winter’ were television masterpieces. If you’d abandoned the show a few seasons ago, now is the time to catch up. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The People vs OJ Simpson – American Crime Story: The miniseries that swept the Emmy’s this year, People vs OJ Simpson resurrects the real courtroom drama of the infamous murder trial that shook ‘90s America. The screenplay is such that it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, even though the events that transpired are now history. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Black Mirror: Black Mirror is a compilation of 6 episodes, each narrating a different (horror) story detailing our relationships, and growing reliance on technology. Whether it’s the story of killer robotic bees or a future where your worth is measured in ‘likes’, Black Mirror will have you looking at your phones very differently. {Netflix}

Better Call Saul (Season 2): Better Call Saul might only be two seasons old, but the spin-off has already outdone its much celebrated original, Breaking Bad. The series about a small time lawyer’s path to becoming an ace con-man has excellent story-telling, sharp dialogue, terrific acting, and is one of the best shows on TV right now. {Colors Infinity}

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The Americans (Season 4): The thriller series about two Russian spies living average American lives during the peak of the Cold War only got better this year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give extraordinary performances, yet again, as the show dives even deeper into the complex themes of identity, patriotism and family, with a few wigs thrown in. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

 

You can read the round up of my favourites from 2015, here.

The Great Escape

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The American elections are on Monday, and from what I read in the newspapers, it seems like Donald Trump has a legitimate chance at becoming President of the United States of America, and perhaps the most important leader in the free world. As if that’s not depressing enough, NASA has just released a video which shows how the Arctic ice-caps are on the verge of disappearing altogether, putting a greater question mark over life as we know it. During times like these, you can’t help but wish you were in a different planet altogether. While that’s an impossible task (at least at the moment), I can give you the next best thing: Immersive, critically acclaimed television shows that will pull you into another world, even if it is only for a weekend.

Game of Thrones – The most obvious choice if you’re looking to spend the weekend doing nothing but staying glued to your screen. Game of Thrones, apart from being one of the most talked about shows in the world, is an engrossing fantasy series that takes place in the medieval world of Westeros. If you like the ideas of becoming familiar with evil queens, men who rise from the dead, and giant fire breathing CGI dragons, this is the show for you. {Game of Thrones is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

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Westworld – If you’re more of a forward looking person, then you should try Westworld, which is based in the future. Westworld is about a futuristic theme park that is inhabited by very realistic robots. Inspired by the novel written by Michael Crichton and directed by Jonathan Nolan, Westworld’s premise lies in the very uncomfortable thought of artificial intelligence becoming so human-like, that they begin threatening our very existence. The visuals are stunning, and the show is technically brilliant, but the real success of the show are the questions of morality that form its core.
{Westworld is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things – Stranger Things, technically, doesn’t take place in another world – the story is based in a sleepy, small American town in the ‘80s. The story revolves around four children whose friend suddenly goes missing after a night of board games. The more they try to investigate into the disappearance, the more they realize that something mysterious and terrifying is taking place in their town. Stranger Things is a must watch if you enjoy Stephen King novels or are generally nostalgic about the good old days when kids had to ride their cycles everywhere and played board games instead of playstations.
{Stranger Things is presently streaming on Netflix}

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The Americans – The Americans is another show that takes on the 80s, albeit in a completely different light, for its focus is on the Cold War between Russia and America. The show traces the life and times of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings who are a wholesome suburban couple by day, but Russian KGB agents by night. It’s incredibly fascinating to watch, and that isn’t just because of the wigs, elaborate disguises and 80s spy equipment. The Americans is one of those rare shows which will twist perspectives, make you root for the apparent bad guys, and question your own moral compass.
{The Americans is presently telecast on Star World HD}

Of Awards and Underdogs

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 68th Emmy Awards came to a close the previous Sunday night (Monday morning, for you and me), pulling the curtains down on an another year of television based glitz, glamour and predictability. While most of the awards went to the same people and shows it usually did (Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth straight Emmy), there were a few notable moments from the Awards ceremony.

Rami Malek took home the Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for Mr.Robot, in a ‘surprise’ win that felt obligatory. There’s no denying that Malek was excellent in his performance as the neurotic hacker, Elliot, but it felt unfair to me because some of the other actors in his category (and by some, I mean Matthew Rhys) had given better performances over a longer span of time. Mr. Robot’s second season is already far less impressive than the first, so although the Emmys took the apparently unconventional route with this winner, it didn’t come across as deserving. The Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series was also a surprise, albeit more meritorious – Tatiana Maslany, after three years of being snubbed, took home the award for playing multiple characters in Orphan Black.

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Aziz Ansari also took home an Emmy, although it wasn’t in the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series category. Instead, Ansari, along with Alan Yang, won the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None. While Ansari didn’t get to talk much (the orchestra began playing before he could even finish his thank-yous), Yang made a comment in his speech about how there are 17 million Asian Americans in the United States, and about the same number of Italian Americans. He went on to say that the Italians have The Sopranos, The Godfather, Rocky and Goodfellas, whereas the Asians have Long Duk Dong (an Asian exchange student in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, known for his bizarre behavior and over the top clumsiness). Yang also asked Asian American parents to get their kids “cameras instead of violins”. Yang’s speech was definitely one of the more dramatic ones that the evening saw, but it comes at an important time, after all, it has taken till 2016 for Asians and South Asians to be portrayed with nuance and depth, and not as inhuman parents constantly preoccupied with their children’s grades or bumbling owners of grocery shops.

The final hour of the Emmy’s was as predictable as the final hour of most masala movies – surprise winners notwithstanding, everyone knew who the winner was even before their names were announced. People vs OJ Simpson, which was nominated in a whopping 22 categories, took home the Outstanding Limited Series award. The Outstanding Drama Series went to Game of Thrones. Veep won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Now, People vs OJ Simpson, Veep, and Game of Thrones, are without doubt, studies in television excellence which deserved to win – but why does disappointment linger? Maybe it’s because from time to time, we want a David toppling a Goliath. Maybe it’s because we watch far too much television, for if we didn’t, we would know that underdogs hijacking spotlights doesn’t really happen in the real world.

The Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

Sense Of An Ending

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There is a theory that is often talked about in Behavioural Economics, one that was born out of the research carried out by eminent economists Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman, called the “Peak End” theory. What the theory propounds is that our memories of an event, or an experience are not formed based on the entire duration of said event or experience, rather it is based on specific, intense, moments, or the highlights of it. If, for example, a somewhat dull episode of a television series finishes with a cracking revelation, or a complete twist in events, you’re more likely to remember it as a great episode for that revelation or twist, rather than a mediocre episode made better with a good ending.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the reason why I’ve enjoyed the Game of Thrones franchise as much as I have been, is because of the peak-end theory. The clarity with which I can recall the shock value of the scenes in the first season’s finale where Ned Stark (Sean Bean), who seemed to be a core protagonist, dies an ugly, untimely death, as well as the moment that Danerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) emerges from the fires, naked, holding her baby dragons, far surpass my memory of other events which took place that season. My memories of the other seasons too, are essentially a combination of key turns in the story and particularly gruesome deaths – like a highlight reel.

The sixth season though, has put the peak-end theory to rest for me. Six episodes have come out so far, marking half the season complete, and every episode has had stunning revelations, and every episode plays like a highlight reel. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) rises from the dead after a mystical haircut performed by the Red Priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten). Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), after five and three quarter seasons, finally runs into some good luck and not only escapes the Boltons, but also gets the powerful Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) on her side, and is reunited with her half brother at The Wall. Danerys rounds up an entire Dothraki army, at Vaes Dothrak after setting the local Khals on fire, and inspires her new Khalasar to be completely on her side to take over Westeros, with a stirring speech (the ferocious dragon she was sitting on might have helped, too). Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), bruised and battered by the Boltons has managed to escape as well, and is now back home at the Iron Islands, helping his sister become the rightful leader of their people, after their father was murdered unceremoniously by a mysterious uncle.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has quit the Faceless men (after wasting an an entire season) and looks to reclaim her identity. Bran Stark (Isaac Wright) has made an important comeback, and his abilities to warg, or see into the past, have evolved to the point where he can now interact with the past, thereby affecting the future, all of which bring in terrifying possibilities.

Back in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is plotting her revenge against the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and the Faith Militant which she foolishly empowered, but doesn’t seem to catch a break, as he manages to convert her daughter-in-law, Margery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), and consequently, her son Tommen (Dean- Charles Chapman), the King, into the Faith. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), on the other hand, has been fired as the King’s Hand, and must set aside his ego, and instead, look to quell the rising rebellions against the Lannisters.

The show thus far has not left any room for the audience to catch their collective breath. Every episode makes you think, What now? What next?, and even before you can contemplate an answer, the show gives it to you, along with an entirely new question. It’s doubly exciting because the book on which this season is based on, The Winds of Winter, hasn’t been released by GRR Martin. It is also evident that the show makers have detoured completely from the story line that the book might have adopted (with the blessings of Martin, of course). The official announcement from the producers said that the show would only have eight seasons in total, and given that we’re already in the sixth, there should be some sense of an ending on the horizon, but the way the show is moving now, it feels like it’s only the beginning.


{Game of Thrones is on Star World HD every Tuesday, and is also available on the Hot Star app}

Women on TV

{Previously published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Women’s Day is fast approaching on the 8th of March, but surely we don’t need any one day to celebrate these five fantastic female characters who are on television right now.

Cookie Lyon, Empire – Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P Henson, is one of the most entertaining and over the top female characters we have seen in television in a long time. A former convict who took the punishment for the sake of her husband, she comes back from prison and is ruthless in her pursuit of the wealth and share in business which is rightfully hers. While it’s incredibly fun seeing her do whatever it takes to get to the top, it’s just as heartwarming to see her try to be a good mother to her sons, and make up for the time that she lost in prison.

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Brienne of Tarth, Game of Thrones – Although Danerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister are the first female characters you can think of in the context of Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth (played by Gwendoline Christie), for me, is the most underrated female character in the show, and in the books. She is a ungainly, not feminine in the conventional way, taller than most of the men on the land, and doesn’t give two hoots about any of it. She is a brave knight who values honour and friendship, and isn’t afraid to lay her life down to protect the ones she cares about. Brienne of Tarth is a wonderful character who defies all conventional gender roles and teaches us that being different, is what makes us special.

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Jessica Pearson, Suits – Gina Torres plays Jessica Pearson, the managing partner of Pearson Specter Litt. There is only one word which captures the true essence of Jessica Pearson, and that is bad-ass. Jessica has no qualms in admitting to the amount of work that it took for her to get on top, which is why she’s all the more protective of her position as managing partner in the law firm. She can intimidate and sniff the truth out of anything, and anyone. Years of watching legal television have convinced me that Jessica Pearson is not just a boss, she is the boss.

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Annalise Keating, How To Get Away With Murder – Viola Davis won an Emmy the past year for her portrayal of Annalise Keating, the no-nonsense defence attorney who is also a Criminal Law professor. Annalise is charismatic, intelligent and relentless both in her cases as well as in class. Watching Annalise navigate through the world of criminal law, prisons, hardened criminals, and the minds of her own students is utterly gripping, and makes no surprise as to why this show has so much critical acclaim.

Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation – The inimitable Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a small town government worker whose sole aim is to improve the town she lives in. Leslie, apart from being hilarious also has some amazing feminist zingers in her repertoire including, but not restricted to “ovaries before brovaries”. Leslie Knope works tirelessly not only make her town better, but to also tell the rest of us, that being a woman shouldn’t have anything to do with getting the career and life that we truly deserve.

2015 in Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s time for us to welcome the new year with family, friends, celebrations, and of course, somewhat pointless lists. So without further ado, here are my TV favourites from 2015 (in no particular order):

  • Empire – Empire is a musical soap opera about a Hip Hop mogul, and the lengths he’ll go to stay on top. It’s the television equivalent of the pizzas that have cheese stuffed in the crusts, the kind which oozes yellow, processed glory, on to your fingers. Yes it’s disgustingly over the top, and you can’t really tell people how much you enjoy it, although you know that they’d enjoy it just as much as you do when they eat it, I mean, watch it. {FX India}

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  • Better Call Saul – Better Call Saul was my favourite show this year. Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of recurring characters, but surprisingly, it has an entirely unique tone, and while one is occasionally reminded of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul stands on its own. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Wolf Hall – Wolf Hall is a literary mini series which was produced by the BBC. The cast and screenplay is splendid, and Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece comes alive over the course of 6, hour long episodes. I do hope that more show makers take the hint from Wolf Hall and make more mini series from literary classics – that way I don’t have to pretend like I’ve read them anymore.

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  • Game of Thrones – Dragons! Kings! Betrayals! Dragons! Death! Snow! Did I mention Dragons? The fifth season of the epic fantasy story came to an end this year, with a finale that shook the world, or at least, broke the internet. Game of Thrones is the show whose return I’m most looking forward to in 2016. {HBO}

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  • Daredevil – While I enjoyed both The Flash and Arrow, Daredevil takes the super hero genre of television to a whole new level, the way Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the game for films. Netflix has come out with a winner, yet again, and there is no doubt that Daredevil is the benchmark for super hero television shows to come.

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  • Master of None – If you’re not socialising with your family, and have plenty of time in your hands this weekend, why not cosy up with the entire first season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy for all seasons? It’s one the most relatable shows I’ve watched on international television (and not just because Ansari hails from Tamil Nadu), and the perfect candidate for marathon viewing.

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  • Quantico – This is right on top of my list of unexpected favourites. I didn’t want to like it, I watched it with great prejudice but eventually gave in to the racy screenplay and exaggerated drama. The show is addictive, and Priyanka Chopra has made an assured debut into American television and proved that she is a bonafide star. The penultimate episode before the season finale, and the season finale itself were a tad frustrating and I’m hoping (against hope) that it sorts itself out when it comes back next year. {Star World}

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  • The Affair – One often talks about “mindless television” – The Affair is the opposite. It demands your attention in a manner that is unforgiving, and if you blink, you miss. The Affair follows a story of infidelity narrated through different perspectives, none of which are objective, and leaves it to the viewer to be the judge. I’m a chronic multi-tasker, but The Affair ensured that my attention only belonged to the screen. {FX India}

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  • Mr. Robot – A terrific and well researched show that goes into the psyche and life of hackers. Given the rising coverage with respect to the hacking group “Anonymous” in the mainstream news, Mr. Robot is an excellent way to better understand hacking, and how the right information in the wrong hands could potentially break the world as we know it. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Modern Family – It’s not from 2015, technically, but I have been watching it religiously, all year. I could never tire of this show, or it’s characters, and I am yet to find an episode I haven’t guffawed out loud in. A perennial favourite to end the list! {Star World}

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The Snow On the Wall

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It would seem that George RR Martin, the writer behind the epic books and TV series, Game of Thrones, has a rather curious penchant for killing his characters, more specifically, the good, the brave and the honest characters. Martin, who confesses to have been “killing characters his entire career”, has talked about how he wants his audience to be “afraid to turn the page” when his character is in danger. When you watch the first season of Game of Thrones (based on the book, A Song of Fire and Ice), the narration begins with Eddard Stark, an honourable lord who we are led to believe is one of the key protagonists in the series. He faces death, but given his importance in the scheme of things, you think that there’s really no way that they could kill him, after all, where would the story go without him? The executioner brings his sword to his neck, and you still think, no, a miracle will happen – maybe the evil people will change their minds! Maybe he’ll escape from his shackles and put up a fight! Maybe the executioner is his man! But none of that happens, and Eddard Stark dies a painful death, and it is that death which not only sets the coldblooded tone of the show, but also tells you that Martin was very serious about what he had said about making his audience fear for their favourite characters.

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Game of Thrones, for those who are still unaware, is the television event of this decade. An epic medieval fantasy which has reduced fully grown adults into discussing dragons and dwarves, Game of Thrones cannot be compared to any other show on television right now. Five seasons have passed thus far, and the sixth is due around April next year. The sixth season is the most awaited season yet, simply because no one has any idea of what is about to happen. The past five seasons have followed the books, but the sixth and seventh books are yet to be completed by Martin, which means that no one, apart from the show’s creators, really know what is about to happen next.

The fifth season ended with the death of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow. Characters dying in the show is now routine, and many of my own favourites (Oberyn Martell in particular) have all died gruesome, bloody deaths. Every time Martin killed someone I was rooting for, I remember telling myself that the time has come for me to give up on the show and stop watching it altogether, but the very next week I’ve found myself glued to the screen again.

Now Snow, who had become the audience favourite over the years because of his upright, brave, and stoic character (and also because almost every other character in the show worth rooting for, was brutally killed through the course of the five seasons), was stabbed in the back by his own men. Since there’s really no knowing what happens next, fans quickly recovered from the shock and horror to theorise about a possible resurrection, and a hundred other ways through which Snow could possibly defy death. After six months of heavy speculation, fans rejoiced last week as HBO released the poster for the sixth season, featuring Snow, alive, albeit with a bit of blood on his face. Is he going to be resurrected by the Red Priestess, Melisandre? Or is his Dragon blood going to pull him through? Apart from Snow’s “resurrection”, there is still mystery surrounding the other characters in the series as well. Whatever happened to Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy when they jumped off the castle wall? Did Stannis really die? Is Arya going to be blind forever?
Knowing the show, I would take the worst case scenario for every character, but Jon Snow’s rebirth has given me something that I never thought I would ever associate with Game of Thrones – Hope.

{Game of Thrones presently airs on HBO}