And thus, it ends. As season five draws to a close, one of its most prominent victims is the ability of book readers to predict what is going to happen. Whereas in places the show doubled back on itself not to race too far beyond the books, in other places it surpassed them or changed them up entirely. This worked more often than not, and if anything, season five gets a strong closure. The many finales of the episode can’t really fail to have an impact, whether you agree with the artistic choices or not, and one thing is for certain – Game of Thrones engages you.
|Look at my works, ye mighty, and despair|
This is even true in places where you didn’t really expect it to happen – after four seasons of Night’s Watch storyline that never really broke the “ok” barrier, season five was strong consistently in the high North, and it ends on the high note it held throughout the season. Sam, changing the character dynamics of the books, asks Jon to be sent to the Citadel, and Jon’s reluctant. By now he knows he doesn’t have any friends left in Castle Black, because whoever can name only Dolorous Edd is truly lost. Jon doesn’t want to see Sam go, but Sam pleads - not only for himself, because they both know that Sam won’t ever finish his maester’s training in time to keep up with the White Walkers, but for Gilly. It’s an incredibly strong scene, and it serves without Jon being a giant dick and forcing Gilly to leave her child behind, a good choice in a season full enough of human agony. It also strengthens Sam and his bond to Jon when they heartbreakingly say their goodbyes. In case anyone wondered after last episode, Davos is not like to give in to Stannis’s dummy demand of men and supplies that was only ever made to get rid of Davos in the first place. So when Melisandre arrives with an empty face after abandoning Stannis, it’s a wonder Davos hasn’t a breakdown or tries to murder Melisandre once again, but for now, they are both removed from our view. We will see whether or not something will come out of this next season.
This ellipse is used to finally show us the downfall of Jon Snow. Olly calling him into the “senate session” of the mutineers works well enough, and with the false hint from the “Previously On” section, you are even wondering for a moment whether or not they really have brought Benjen back*. Of course they didn’t, and Jon gets the full Caesar treatment, beginning, unfortunately, with Alliser Thorne. Why the heck is he part of this? This doesn’t make any goddamn sense. What changed since last episode, when he let an entire army of wildlings in? Why now? Why not let them die outside the gate? At least we get our “Et tu, Brute?” moment when Olly, inexplicably much more torn than Throne is, finishes Jon off. This doesn’t take away from the immediacy of the moment, however. The brothers taking turns in For-the-watching Jon made for a much more visceral image than the sucker punch he received in the books, without either version surpassing the other but aiming for a different effect, in both cases succeeding.
Of course, the episode opened with Stannis, which is where we are now. Melisandre is happy: the snows are melting, the sacrifice worked. Stannis isn’t as happy, having burnt his daughter to death and all, and he shoves Melisandre away. Melisandre’s faith in her own predictions is starting to melt as quick as the snows do when the bad news start piling up: half of Stannis’s army deserted in the night, including all horse, and Selyse has hanged herself. I’m not quite sure why this is enough for Melisandre to suddenly abandon her faith in Stannis, but that is something that needs to be answered in the first episode of season six. For now it’s important that she does, because Stannis is a doomed man.
Thinking about how this plotline turned out, I can’t turn away the image of the crusader knight from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” away, saying “he chose poorly”, because that’s exactly what Stannis did. Someone needs to make a .gif out of this. I have to admit at looking pretty much like an idiot for trying to defend in advance how Stannis’ men could keep faith with Stannis and how this would end up. I was so wound up in the book version of events that I totally expected it to turn out that way, being blindsided by the first fact of film adaptions: you need to adapt, not to recreate the book. That’s what they’ve done. Stannis, facing utter moral ruin, walks on to his political ruin as well. He made the wrong call, and now it’s over. In the process, he also answers the question I posed last week: how would anyone root for him now? Well, no need for that.
Brienne, meanwhile, had to choose as well. Adhere to her mission for Catelyn, trying to rescue Sansa (by staring really hard at the window of the Broken Tower) or to try and honor her oath to Renly’s corpse and try to kill Stannis. Of course, she forsakes the vow to Catelyn in favor of her primal instincts, poetically only seconds before Sansa finally manages to give the signal. When she – unhindered for some reason – turns up like a revenge wraith in front of the wounded Stannis, she is righteousness in person, and it’s only fitting that Stannis would be finally caught up by his first sin: murdering his brother. Justice can be poetic like that.
Of course, we can’t be sure that Stannis really is dead because the camera cut away before he was killed, instead seamlessly cutting to Ramsay finishing off the wounded, being a dick. Good of the show to remind us just what a sadistic ass Ramsay is, I had forgotten. It was a nice cut, though, leaving Stannis’s fate ambivalent and establishing, once again, that the bad guys are winning at least as often as the good guys. Still, you’re overdoing it, Game of Thrones.
With that, we’re going to King’s Landing, where Cersei finally “repents” her sin of sleeping with Lancel (who of course isn’t punished in the slightest), abused by Septa Unella once again and then led naked through the streets in the Walk of Shame. And boy is this a well-crafted scene. Not only did I never once notice that Lena Heady was using a body double and digitally inserted on her, the whole thing was also brilliantly shot. At first, Cersei is walking tall and proud, trying not to let any cracks show. And did you notice the sadistic smile on the High Sparrow’s lips once she started her walk? Hypocrite son of a bitch. The crowd, deferential in the beginning, is starting to abuse Cersei in the worst manner possible, and all the Sparrows are doing is to shove people out of her way so she can continue walking, all the while Unella is chanting “Shame, Shame!” behind her. Yes, shame on you, you zealot hypocrite lunatics. Shame on you. It is impossible not to feel for Cersei in that moment. The High Sparrow is basically in the some moral spot where Ramsey is, trying to destroy the personality of Cersei.
Of course, there is the promise of near and quick retribution burgeoning. Ser Robert Strong is here to take her in her giant arms, away from the unmoved and unwelcoming Ser Kevan and the depraved Grand Maester, filled to the top with schadenfreude. If anyone needed a confirmation of whether or not “Robert Strong” was Ungregor under the helmet, here you have it.
With that, things are going south, as we finally leave Dorne. And good riddance! After the ridiculous session with Doran last week, the Sandsnakes and Ellaria see Myrcella, Trystane, Jaime and a surprisingly well Bronn off to King’s Landing. Ellaria of course is pulling a Poison Ivy, death-kissing Myrcella, who dies in Jaime’s arms after accepting him as her father. After sixteen episodes without losing anything major, Jaime now too has to bear the loss of a loved one, even though it’s a love we’re mostly told about instead of shown. The moment, therefore, falls flat both because of its predictability (Ellaria’s face told everything you needed to know last episode), which didn’t turn it into a real surprise, and the lack of emotional connection we feel, which let it fall short of either Shireen’s or Jon’s demise.
Instead, we finally learn what Tyene’s whole routine in the dungeon was about: we learned that the blue phial contains the antidote to some deadly poison. I mean, really? You wasted all our time because of this? This was the great thing the Dorne storyline was to lead into? Dorne was an utter disaster whenever any Dornish characters were present, and besides the deplorable screenwriting, the fault lies squarely with the Spanish Production Unit. Just look at the scene where Ellaria drinks the antidote again. She’s acting like she’s on a fucking theater stage, taking out the phial in dramatic, over-emphasized gestures, holding it up for the audience to see and then drinking it, throwing away the cloth she used to wipe her nose lips clean of the blood. What moron told the actors to behave like this? Who called it “cut” and thought this was good material after the take? The artistic decisions in Dorne are so breathtakingly wrong, they surpass even season two. Luckily, they don’t nearly take up as much time.
With that, we’re in Braavos, where in addition to being a pedophile, we need Meryn Trant to also see beating the young girls he uses. Come on, Game of Thrones! With the whole Syrio reminder in the “Previously On” section* and the scene from last week, one should think it was enough hate, but no. Anyway, the murder played out gruesomely enough, highlighting Arya’s own downspiral into the moral abyss. When she reenters the House of Black and White, “stealthily” returning the borrowed face (when did she learn to use it by the way?), she is confronted by the waif and Jaqen. What follows now is a full rehearsal of Luke Skywalker and Yoda on Dagobah, with Game-of-Thrones-Edition, where, in an eerily surreal scene, Jaqen dies and returns, finally ripping apart the veil that has separated his persona from the truth Arya didn’t want to see: he’s no one. Faces upon faces. And Arya has no clue (yet) what this even means, she is blind – and they’re going to turn this metaphor into reality.
While it is true that the storyline in comparison to the books kind of backpedals – there it was her murder, then blindness, then assassination contract – it’s also not true, as the dynamic and meaning of the event is very different. I’d be surprised if this turns out to be only a sense training for Arya in the show, but we’re left with this impressive cliffhanger for the next year. Finally, in Meereen, the finale is only wrap-up. Necessary, yes, but also pretty unengaging. Dany’s scene with Drogon and then wandering into the Dothraki Sea has been stripped of all meaning, and I don’t even know what her letting the Targaryen ring drop is supposed to mean. She’s becoming khaleesi again? Was she ever not? No clue. Of course, in the books, this scene plays out for several days’ worth of inner monologue, which always poorly translates to the screen, and it didn’t knock anybody out of the park back in 2011 either. We get Dany to the next point of her journey, not more, and not less. As with several other moments in this episode, it remains for season six to make something of it.
Then we’re in Meereen, where we get a scene that is almost ridiculous in its breaking of the Fourth Wall. Every single character with a name comes into the throne room to discuss what is essentially the content of a Writer’s Room meeting. Who goes where and why? This is a scene with nothing interesting happening at all that goes on for way too long and has me try and suspend disbelief way too hard. Meereen is going to listen to Grey Worm? I mean, really? Was this the meaning of two seasons romance between Missandei and Grey Worm, that they can now (somehow) advise the shit out of Tyrion? No way. And I’m not exactly psyched about the Jorah/Daario-roadmovie, either. This is promising to work about as well as Jaime and Bronn in Dorne.
But the most blatant pandering to audience comes when suddenly, Varys appears behind Tyrion and they have the following dialogue:
Varys: Hey, remember season 2? That was awesome, right?
Tyrion: Yeah, remember season 2? Let’s do this all over again! Only without any interesting character as a foil and without any threat or stakes in it.
Varys: I can’t see how this can fail!
So, let’s take back a step and see where we are at the end of season five. It hasn’t been a bad season, although it had some pretty low points. Dorne was an utter disaster, Meereen didn’t always work out and while the show made some effort to show the consequences of Sansa’s rape, it never reached the same level of impact as Shireen’s death did, and Ramsey remained too much of a supervillain to even be that menacing anymore. His was probably the worst regression from the high season four standards we saw, and Brienne was relegated to the sidelines so much later in the season that she barely registers.
But on the other hand, there has been a lot of good stuff. King’s Landing was, despite some logistical inconsistencies, very good. The Wall was great. Most of the North was good. Braavos was consistently good.
But most surprisingly is how surprising so much of this stuff was. Book readers can’t be sure of anything anymore, and while the showrunner’s choices aren’t always landing their punches, they do so often enough to keep you engaged in it. If I had one which to make for season six, it would be to notch down the gratuitous violence. Keep it for the moments where it matters. The violence on Game of Thrones is always best when it is the casual variety that is inherent to the world, not the one dealt out by villains to make them more villainy. This is something Benioff and Weiss should keep in mind, because the gravest missteps of the season stem from this – not counting Dorne, of course.
*You have to admit, the showrunners gave us some masterful trolling this episode with the “Previously On” segment, hinting at Benjen and Syrio both coming back and disappointing in both cases. Although at this point trying to gain some spoilers for the books out of the show is a mute enterprise, it might finally end some speculation on Benjen being Coldhands and Syrio being Jaqen.