It’s a bittersweet moment when you realise that a Game of Thrones season has ended. On the one hand, it’s a time to rejoice in all the great moments that have occurred throughout the 10 episodes and to speculate on what’s to come, but on the other hand it now means yet another long year of waiting before the show returns. And after a finale like “The Winds of Winter”, this will truly be one hell of a long wait. There were a lot of unknowns going into season 6 of the acclaimed HBO series, mainly because this was the first season where the show has proceeded without George R. R. Martin’s books as a roadmap (the author is taking his sweet time writing the damn things, and TV production can’t wait). Yet, this proved to be nothing but a good thing, as it allowed the writers to propel the plot forward, bringing together characters and plotlines that have been gestating for years.

As a reader of the books, this season was very interesting in the way it chose to ignore complete plot threads that occupy a place of importance in the novels. Euron Greyjoy, for example, is a lot more prominent in the books, and so are the many characters in Dorne who were either absent from the show completely or, in the case of Areo Hotah and Prince Doran Martell, unceremoniously killed off. Dorne was all but ignored during this season except for a scene in the premiere and the finale, most likely a reaction to the negativity last season’s Dorne storyline gathered from fans and critics. But one thing the show has done well at is taking those characters that appear only in the books and giving their purposes to characters we know better in the show. So, instead of Euron Greyjoy going to meet Daenerys with a fleet of ships, it’s Asha and Theon, and instead of it being Quentyn Martell who allies Daenerys with Dorne, it’s Varys (who has clearly learned how to teleport considering how quickly he traveled from Dorne to Meereen in the finale) and Lady Olenna Tyrell through an alliance with the Sandsnakes.

As always with a Game of Thrones season, the standout episode was the ninth, as “Battle of The Bastards” delivered one of the most brutally realistic medieval battle scenes I have ever seen put on film. The battle perfectly captured the chaotic mess of war, with soldiers being trampled by horses and suffocating under piles of dead bodies. All credit needs to be given to the stunt coordinators and effects team who managed to bring that scene to life; because it was one of the greatest things I have ever seen on TV, it even rivaled battle scenes from The Lord of The Rings. The episode overall was one of the greatest hours of TV I have ever witnessed, a true testament to the scale and resources the show has at its disposal. Ramsay Bolton has functioned as a particularly detestable villain over the course of the past few season (and for Game of Thrones, that’s saying something), and what separated him from other evil characters like Joffrey or Walder Frey is that Ramsay was actually a good tactician, and he could have easily beaten Jon’s forces were it not for the eleventh hour intervention by the knights of the Vale. Jon’s stupidity during the battle made his later defeat of Ramsay in one-on-one combat feel a little hollow as he didn’t really deserve to be the one to kill Ramsay. Thankfully, it is Sansa who sends Ramsay to deserved end, as she lets loose Ramsay’s starving dogs to eat their master alive as she watches. Sansa’s character development in general this season has been spectacular, as she has completed her transformation from bright eyed teenage girl, to cunning and strategic political player. She’s the reason Jon’s forces won the battle, despite Jon impulsively rushing to save Rickon from an inescapable death, something that could have been avoided if he only would have listened to Sansa. Now that Jon has been named King in the North, he would do well to listen to her council more often.

Bran has never been my favorite character in the series (I didn’t miss him one bit when he was absent from the previous season), but this year improved his storyline drastically as his freshly trained powers allowed him to give us something we haven’t seen on the show very much: Flashbacks. As Bran was able to see into the past, we got some clarifications on mysteries that have surrounded the show since episode one. The most emotionally heart wrenching of these was, of course, the revelation of how Hodor got his name and that it is a mumbled amalgamation of the last words he would hear before he dies. I will never here the phrase “Hold the door” without feeling a pinch of sadness ever again. It was also through these flashbacks that we got confirmation on the long running fan theory that Jon Snow is not the son of Ned Stark, but of his sister Lyanna and Reaghar Targaryan, Daenerys’ eldest brother. Although Bran is the only character to know this for now, I have a feeling that this piece of information will have a huge effect on who sits on the Iron Throne when the show ends. Could Jon Snow go from King in the North to King of Westeros?

Season 6 was also marked by a bunch of great moments for minor characters; the two that most quickly come to mind are the all-too-brief appearances of Lady Lyanna Mormont, AKA the most hardcore little girl you will ever meet. Bella Ramsey, the young actress who plays Lady Mormont, delivered every single line of dialogue as if she was a grizzled, battle hardened warrior, and she commanded the respect of every adult she shared a scene with. It’s amazing that this is Ramsey’s first acting role, but I’m sure she will be in demand after this scene stealing role. Season 6 also gave us the return of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, who was presumed dead at the end of season 4 when Arya left him to die after he had lost a fight against Brienne. I’m slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see him face off against his zombified brother (the banning of trial-by-combat put an end to that hope) but seeing him rip apart a few members of The Brotherhood Without Banners with an axe was a delightful consolation prize. His return episode, “The Broken Man”, was a great exploration of what it means to be a soldier, especially the scenes he shared with guest actor Ian McShane, whose character showed that even the most violent and monstrous of men can change their ways. But as we see from his death, this is a world where monsters are sometimes needed, a lesson that Sandor takes to heart.

Some of the plotlines this season didn’t work as well as others though, with the King’s Landing storyline in particular leaving a bad taste in my mouth for most of the season. I particularly hated it because of what it was doing to Jaime’s growth as a character. For the last couple of seasons, he has really changed from the evil rogue who threw a child off of a tower and has become a complex and layered character. But, once he was reunited with his lover/sister Cersei, he basically became her lapdog and didn’t do anything interesting until he was finally sent away to deal with the Blackfish at Riverrun. The High Sparrow storyline was also getting repetitive, but just when I was really getting tired of it, the finale happened and a healthy dose of wildfire blew that tiresome storyline to pieces, literally. Although I’m a little sad to see Margaery Tyrell go, especially seeing as how all her scheming this season was for naught, it was a very entertaining way to clean house on a bunch of unnecessary characters, and the whole scene leading up to the eventful explosion was beautifully filmed by director Miguel Sapochnik and scored by Ramin Djawadi. With this single act, accompanied by the suicide of her son and king Tommen, Cersei has finally taken her seat on the Iron Throne, a mad queen if there ever was one.

The season had its share of bumps in its opening episodes as well, most of them due to the poor way the show handled Jon Snow’s inevitable resurrection. Any Game of Thrones viewer with an internet connection knew that Jon’s death in last season’s finale was only temporary, and why it took two whole episodes for him to be brought back I’ll never know. But, once he did make his return, things started to pick up. Arya’s storyline also felt a little overly long, as her stay in Braavos far exceeded the amount of time it took for her to hone her assassination skills. It wasn’t all a waste though, as seeing the theatrical troop re-enacting events from past seasons was fun in a very mock-Shakespearean kind of way. But still, seeing her feed Walder Frey a pie made out of his dead sons (another Shakespeare reference) and slice his throat was incredibly satisfying and well worth the wait. I’m excited to see how killer Arya will proceed now that she’s back home. I’m guessing the remaining names on her list will soon be paid a deadly visit.

Game of Thrones continues to be one of the best shows currently airing on TV, and each season raises the quality threshold higher. With season 6, we got everything we could have possibly wanted: Answers to long brewing mysteries, deaths we have long anticipated and characters finally becoming the versions of themselves we have been waiting for. That final shot of Daenerys’ army crossing the narrow sea, dragon’s in tow, was absolutely breathtaking, and I can’t believe we now have to wait a whole year before seeing her finally land on Westeros. There are only 15 more episodes of the show left split across two seasons, and with so much left to be done, I am confident the next seasons will prove to be even better than this one.