I said last week that I hope season five is Game of Thrones halfway point, as opposed to its two-thirds-over point. And appropriately enough, last night’s “Kill The Boy,” the fifth episode, felt like the halfway point of the season. Problems that have been simmering all season in Mereen and at the Wall crystalized last night into two massive, thrilling, terrifying gambles by both Daenarys and Jon.
The former decided to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq, the representative of Mereen’s most powerful families — as well as of the slave powers Daenarys just crushed — in a bid to unite the city and end the border-line civil war between the families and the newly-freed slave class that threatens to engulf it.
But not before retaliating for the killing of Barristan Selmy; itself a massive deviation from George R.R. Martin’s source material that cut short the life of a fascinating character all too soon. We’ve gotten impressions of how the dragons feed before, but watching them torch and then rip in two one of leaders of Mereen’s houses was an unusually spectacular and gory moment even for this show. It was also interesting to see Daenarys’ regal mercilessness and her (sort of) command over the beasts, juxtaposed with Hizdahr’s quiet dignity for the few moments when he thought Daenarys might execute him in exactly the same fashion.
In the books, Hizdahr is an unctuous man and an oily player. But in the show’s rendition, while he remains foppish, he also seems to genuinely care for the good of the city, and to advise moral compromise out of an earnest belief that it is the road to peace. When Daenarys tells him she will reopen the fighting pits to freed men (“You were right and I was wrong.”) it didn’t feel like she was getting played. So it will be very interesting to see how the writers play that thread out over the next five episodes.
As for Jon, he remains stuck with the same problem he had in episode one: winter is coming, the Wall is ill-prepared to face the white walkers, and the Free Folk remain north of the barricade, where they will all surely die. His solution is both elegantly simple and breath-taking in its audacity: full integration of the Free Folk back into Westerosi society. Open the gates, bring them south of the Wall, and give them the North’s unused lands.
It’s a testament to the show’s world-building that we feel what a shocking move this is, casting aside hundreds of years of bitterness, violence and recrimination. As Aemon tells Jon, half the Night’s Watch hates him already. This may secure the hatred of the other half.
But it’s also a necessary move. There’s something bracingly modern about Jon’s decision that also feels organic to the Game of Thrones world, like this is the moment when enlightenment and humanitarian ideals begin breaking their way into Westerosi civilization. Jon’s logic for why the Free Folk should be brought into the circle of moral inclusion actually mirrors the way Americans have used the language of the Declarartion of Independence to slowly extend legal equality to blacks, women, LGBTQ individuals and more. “For eight thousand years we’ve sworn to be the shield that guards the realms of men,” Jon tells Tormund. “And for eight thousand years we’ve fallen short of that oath.”
Last night’s episode wasn’t just about risks, though. It was also about the people leaders lean on when taking those risks. As Varys said a few episodes ago, Tyrion may never sit on the Iron Throne himself, but he could help the right person climb those stairs.
Daenarys may have lost Barristan, but she still has Missandei, who has quietly watched her queen haggle over questions of state with her advisors and has her own thoughts and the dynamic. (And then there was also Missandei’s tender moment with Grey Worm last, which brought to a head the quiet romantic tension the show’s been drawing out between them this season and last. Grey Worm is a eunuch, which makes the relationship both of a piece with Game of Thrones damaged world, and yet also a weird act of incredibly idealistic defiance in the face of the despair the show so often dabbles in.)
And of course, while Daenarys doesn’t know it yet, she has Jorah and Tyrion on their way to her as well. Game of Thrones has tended towards a kind of hyper-realism version of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but last night’s boat ride through the ruins of Valyria brought a welcome element of the ancient and the fantastical back into the show’s world. And wasn’t it great to see Tyrion, whose remorseless intelligence and pragmatism has always been his most formidable weapon, struck utterly dumb by the sight of a dragon winging by overhead?
Meanwhile, at the Wall, Jon has been relying on Stannis, who himself is evidence of the importance of choosing your advisors wisely. It would go too far to call Stannis a good person, but he does seem to be able to recognize good people, and has the self-awareness to keep them around: Davos, Jon, his daughter Shireen, and Samwell Tarly, whose interest in history and books — so often ridiculed and undervalued in this society — Stannis quietly honored last night.
But Stannis is also leaving for Winterfell, where he may be unintentionally joining the ever-upright and loyal Brienne of Tarth and Podrick in helping Sansa Stark cut the down Roose and Ramsey Bolton — still as psychotic and poisonous as weber — and retake Winterfell. Even Theon’s reintroduction to Sansa provides the Stark daughter with another possible ally; a connection to the past that is at the same time as changed as she is by what was happened since. While its hard to imagine what kind of alliance Sansa could forge with Theon compared to what she has in common with Brienne, Pod and even Stannis, the simple fact that they know of each others’ presence feels like a strengthening of the bonds in a weird way.
Still, that leaves Jon more alone than anyone at the Wall. Even Ollie and his other friends are doubting or even raging at him over a decision that, while entirely keeping with Jon’s blunt and unwavering ethics, goes beyond what even they can comprehend or imagine.
The risks taken last night weren’t merely big plot twists. If Daenarys is to reclaim Westeros, she must be able to rule, and Mereen is her test case. And if Westeros is to survive at all, once winter and the white walkers come, it will have to unite every last human soul behind the cause. These were morally-driven acts of world-building, done in the knowledge of what is to come, and may well be what sets the stage in the coming seasons when all of Game of Thrones plot threads finally come to together for whatever the final reckoning may be.
“Kill the boy, and let the man be born.” No shit.