Something troubling is afoot in Westeros: The heroes are beginning to outnumber the villains. The sixth season of Game of Thrones has already seen Jon Snow's return from the dead, Arya Stark's vision restored and — courtesy of two Stark children's long-awaited reunion — the show's first-ever tears of joy. (Things are even starting to look up for Theon — he finally made his way back to the Iron Islands, where he's set to help his sister take the Salt Throne.) Only on Game of Thrones could a stretch of episodes that include a woman and her newborn being mauled to death by dogs qualify as anything approaching “upbeat,” but such is daily life in the high-fantasy horrorscape conceived by George R. R. Martin.
So why is all this troubling? We've been conditioned to believe that there's no way it can last. Past is prologue, and every seemingly positive development on Game of Thrones up to this point has ultimately served as cruel prelude to disappointment. Robb's successful military campaign as King in the North ended with the Red Wedding. Oberyn coming to the rescue as Tyrion's champion in trial by combat produced what may have been the most horrific visual in television history. Things never look as good for our heroes as just before they die awful, undeserved deaths. With things as promising as they've been lately, what horror might await the few fan favorites left who have survived into the second half of this sixth season?
Every character on the upswing has something in common: They all belong to the younger generation. One king has died on each season of the show so far, with the Iron Islands' Balon Greyjoy being the latest casualty of Thrones' continuing regicide. (Also dead at the hands of his own kin: Roose Bolton, the ersatz Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. Ramsay sends his regards.) The old guard is dead, being replaced by the Westerosi equivalent of millennials with each untimely passing. Might these sons and daughters learn from their fathers' mistakes?
We can hope so. Clinging to the institutions of yore for their own sake has proven the downfall of many lords and ladies, meaning that only the ruthless and/or adaptable survive. This bodes well for Jon, who bailed on the Night's Watch after his brothers-in-arms literally murdered him for sticking to his convictions. His only allegiance now is to himself and to his family, who are (hopefully) less likely to stab him in the heart when they disagree over strategy.
Littlefinger, the Westerosi Machiavelli, is even more well-versed in self-preservation at the expense of honor — as well as the best-positioned of the characters who have entered middle age. While very close siblings Cersei and Jaime Lannister are treading water in the mire of King's Landing, Littlefinger pulls strings in the Vale as only he can. As long as he draws breath, we can't entirely count out the Boomers and Gen-Xers.
Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have proven masterful at setting Martin's pieces up across the board, and no one thinks as many moves ahead as Littlefinger. On a board as vast as this, though, even big events can feel like small, incremental steps in the grand scheme of things. But now, the endgame is in sight — and it's never been more thrilling to watch the pieces make their moves.
Some of them continue to make Westeros a horrendous and even just plain sad world, though. Among the many dead this season are another direwolf and the kind-hearted wildling charged with protecting the youngest Stark, both of whom met their ends either for or at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. The sadistic upstart is a caricature of evil who at times outpaces the not-so-dearly departed Joffrey Baratheon, his cruelty not always as interesting as it is graphic. (If he's only being built up to such great heights in order to make it all the more satisfying when he falls at the hands of the returning Jon Snow and Sansa Stark, then well-played.)
But we're probably headed for trouble, even among those younger leaders: Jon and Daenerys Targaryen are on parallel paths to the same place, and only one can sit the Iron Throne. Nothing against the Prince Who Was Promised, but the Mother of Dragons has yet another title that's never been said aloud: Best Character on the Show. Dany is responsible for the lion's share of the series' most awesome moments, a word I mean literally: The dance of dragons at the end of last season, and her flame-streaked reemergence as Khaleesi in the most recent episode, both inspire awe.
Not coincidentally, she also represents a fusion of the old and the new. There's something almost cynical about hoping that Game of Thrones ends with Daenerys in the ultimate position of power, as it would mean that all these books and episodes were ultimately in service of a return to the status quo — her family's centuries-long reign only ended when her fire-happy father met a familiar regicidal end shortly before the series began. But growing up with nothing helped her see the world from the bottom up, a perspective that none in her incestuous bloodline had been afford in some time. Dany has learned from her family's long list of mistakes, though, and like Jon seems poised not to repeat them. Her gradual, fiery ascent represents the show's greatest feat of all: making us care so much about these characters that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we're somehow able to believe that things can still work out for the best.