Et Tu, Olly?
Game of Thrones‘ 5th season has been a divisive one, to say the least. From unnecessary rape plots to child-burning, it’s felt like the show’s writers have been throwing darts at a board filled with the most shocking acts they can think of and rolling with whatever lands on any given week. “Mother’s Mercy”, the season 5 finale, won’t exactly quell viewers’ rage, as yet another fan-favorite character is seemingly put out to pasture. That being said, it’s still a solid episode that leaves things in an interesting position leading into the annual extended break between seasons. The show has officially caught up to (and surpassed in some cases) George R. R. Martin’s source material, which leaves this as the first time in the history of the series that book readers are just as in the dark as everyone else. If “Mother’s Mercy” is anything to go by, even darker times than usual are ahead for what remains of the show’s characters, but the rate the show’s cast is dropping, it’s getting increasingly difficult to care what happens one way or another.
When we left Stannis last week, he had just finished committing an unspeakable act, burning his daughter at the stake in the hopes of saving his army from death and starvation. As much as Shireen’s death was a horrific act that boringly placed Stannis firmly in the villain camp, the fallout is richly conveyed and fittingly punishes the would-be-king in dramatic fashion. The episode begins by showing the melting ice in Stannis’s camp, an effective piece of imagery used to convey the apparent success of the sacrifice. The weather may be cooperating, but it soon becomes clear that Stannis has many unforeseen problems. Deserted by his wife (who hangs herself), Melissandre, and half his army, Stannis lives up to his status as the most stubborn man in Westeros by leading a futile march on Winterfell.
The true futility of his situation is perhaps best conveyed by the impressive aerial shot of the Bolton army charging at Stannis’s significantly smaller force, as it is clear in that moment that he is doomed. In the aftermath of the battle (which disapoointinly occurs off-screen), Stannis is permanently laid low by Brienne of Tarth. Setting aside the convenient coincidence of Brienne finding Stannis among thousands of soldiers, it’s fitting that Stannis meets his supposed end (it happens off-screen, so who knows?) at the hands of someone who wants to bring him to justice for his first major transgression: the murder of his brother Renly. Credit has to go to Stephen Dillane for his performance, especially in these last few episodes where he’s had to convey a form of grim tragedy that’s effectively conveyed the character’s downfall.
While it’s incredibly disappointing to not have Sansa somehow put an end to Ramsey, Theon’s one-two punch of knocking off pesky Ramesey-lover Myranda (she gives a satisfying splat when she hits the ground) and rescuing Sansa at least provides this storyline with some resolution. Although, it is frustrating to know nothing beyond that they jump over Winterfell’s walls (we don’t even see them land in the snow, which seemingly is deep enough to break a hundred foot fall). Still, Theon’s sudden change of heart felt like a small victory in an episode filled with misery and defeat for pretty much every major character.
While Sansa is in the midst of fleeing from harm, Arya is putting herself right in the thick of it, landing one of the most brutal killings the show has ever done in the process. While Meryn Trant’s abuse of the young brothel girls feels gratuitous at first, it ends up informing the rest of the scene, as Arya reveals herself and proceeds to stab Trant’s eyes out. It’s a viscerally satisfying scene that could have been more effective if Trant’s transgressions against Arya had happened more recently than four seasons ago, but it’s hard not to feel a chill run down your spine when Arya gleefully tells the blinded Trant her name and proceeds to slowly slit his throat. Unfortunatley, there are consequences for Arya, as she is punished for disobeying the Faceless Men by losing her sight (a literal “eye for an eye”). The Faceless Men seem to get more mysterious with each passing episode and Arya’s inability to see (lots of sight metaphors this week) beyond her own thirst for vengeance looks like it will be her major conflict leading into next season.
The absolute best scene of the finale is Cersei’s extended naked march through the streets of King’s Landing. Although a body double was used , Lena Headey deserves praise for her performance, as she convincingly portrays Cersei’s loss of composure, her steely reserve devolving into shame and misery as she is pelted with all manner of insults and refuse by an unsympathetic crowd. Although it’s still mind-boggling how a religious cult with limited weaponry has this much control over the city, Cersei’s walk of shame is a season highlight that conveys how drastically the Queen Mother overestimated her own power and station. As she is carried away in the arms of the resurrected behemoth Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, it’s hard not to want to see Cersei get revenge on the High Sparrow and his flock. That’s effective character development, which is something that has been in short supply this season.
Finally, senseless tragedy arrives at the Wall this week in the form of a Julius Caesar-like assassination plot. Prior episodes haven’t exactly been subtle in foreshadowing dark times ahead for Jon Snow, but his death at the hands of his sworn brothers still hits like a gut-punch — and a frustrating one at that. While closing season 5 on a cliffhanger this dramatic is a good way to keep fans frothing at the mouth with anticipation until next spring, its hard to believe that Jon is truly dead and gone, as this makes no sense from a narrative perspective. Despite the fact that Kit Harrington has said that his role on the show is done, it all reeks of viewer misdirection. There have been way too many hints as to Jon’s true lineage and destiny this season to write him out of the show completely and killing him off permanently negates every one of these developments. Fittingly, Jon’s possible resurrection is almost as heavily foreshadowed as his death, as Melisandre conveniently returns to Castle Black right before his assassination and as we’ve seen earlier this season, the red priestess has a keen interest in Jon and probably (hopefully) won’t let him stay dead for long.
Setting aside the controversy of certain scenes, the main problem with this season is that it stumbled with its storytelling early and often. For every high point, like the series-best quality of the episode ‘Hardhome”, there were countless plots that didn’t progress far enough or were just plain uninteresting (let’s hope we never have to see Dorne again). What’s worse, even though the scale of the series keeps increasing and the stakes feel greater with each passing season, the series is suffering from diminishing returns. Shock and misery are only effective for so long until viewers start to just feel rundown by it.
Ever since its inception, Game of Thrones has been notable for diverging from general storytelling expectations, as its heroes have generally suffered much more than its villains. In the early seasons, this was part of the show’s appeal, as it has made the rare times that the good characters have pulled one over on the bad ones that much more satisfying. Unfortunately, the deck has been stacked so significantly in one direction for so long that’s it getting hard to care anymore. Whether he’s actually dead or not, Jon Snow’s death still means that there is now one less character to root for in a show that’s already suffering in that department. Game of Thrones‘ disdain for its viewers remains admirable, but at some point, it all just becomes violence for violence’s sake. Hopefully, Martin and the show’s writers take mercy on their fans and tell a better story the next go around.
Other Events This Week:
-Well it took a whole season, but the Sand Snakes finally (sort of) lived up to their name. Count poor, naive Myrcella into the group of character deaths that can be seen from a mile away (that extended kiss from Ellaria Sand was way too awkward to not have meaning). It’s a shame too, given the touching father-daughter bonding moment between her and Jaime that immediately precedes it.
-Dany has some tough times ahead too, as she is seen being surrounded by a Dothraki horde. It’s kind of exciting to not know where this storyline may go, but at the same time, we’ve had more than enough Dany plots in the past that have meandered and kept her away from the main action. Count this one as “reserved anticipation”.
-It’s pretty convenient that Sam just so happens to want to get far away from Castle Black to become a maester now when he’s never voiced his desire before. Not exactly an elegant way to get him and Gilly out of there before Jon meets his demise.
-Speaking of which: could that lingering shot on Jon’s blood mingling with the snow be a hint at his “ice and fire”, hero of light destiny? One can hope.
-It’s nice to see Tyrion and Varys together again, but having “The Spider” turn up out of nowhere felt hilariously convenient.
– Given that the Sand Snakes probably just started a war, we definitely haven’t seen the last of Dorne. That might be the episode’s greatest tragedy.
A thrilling finale that privileges shock over character and plot too frequently.