Here’s an irony: Game of Thrones’ season five deviated from George R.R. Martin’s source material more than any previous season. That’s understandable, given how deeply flawed the fourth and fifth books are. Yet at the end of it all, the season finale moved heaven and earth to stay faithful to Martin’s narrative.
The result is rather weird: season five contained both some of the best and worst episodes of the entire series, reworking and reimagining the books in sometimes remarkable and thrilling ways, while at the same time being ultimately dragged down by them. Last night’s “Mother’s Mercy” felt like a final mad scramble to bring it all past the finish line.
It also brought another threshold: we are now officially out of books to adapt. The chances that Martin will be able to stay ahead of show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in terms of writing are now basically nil. Word is Martin’s given them the broad sketches of what happens next. So hopefully season five was a pallet cleanser, and Benioff and Weiss will have more freedom to shape the narrative going forward. If the uneven pacing and wildly uneven quality that characterized season five and its final episode are an indication of things to come, that would be a tragedy.
As glad as I was to see the show do something different with Jaime (And to bring back Bronn no less!) Ellaria’s last minute poisoning of Myrcella felt like a mercy killing of the single worst subplot of the entire show. Which is a shame, because Myrcella’s embrace of Jaime as her father was something he clearly needed. Between the mammoth weight of emotional backstory and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance, the scene almost worked. But the speed with which it occurred and the silliness of the entire subplot still made the moment feel like the melodramatic indulgence of a lesser show.
Another letdown was Cersei’s long walk from the Sept to the Red Keep. I was actually surprised by the audience backlash to Sansa’s rape earlier this season. I thought that event emerged in a justifiable fashion from the story logic, and was handled effectively and with taste – unlike season four, which really did crassly indulge in sexual violence against women as a lazy trope. But given all that, it seemed pretty important for the show to get things right if it was going to walk a woman naked through a city while the population hurls sexual epithets at her.
Cersei’s walk wasn’t a disaster, but the constant full-body nude shots were unnecessary and smacked of directorial laziness. This moment is about Cersei – her endurance in the face of an unspeakable personal trial, and the way the audience, which has desired her comeuppance for so long, is both forced to respect her and implicated in the city’s cruelty. The show should have stuck mostly to shoulders-and-up shots, and relied on Lena Headey’s performance to carry the weight of things.
Sansa’s own most powerful moments came earlier this season, so last night felt like something of a denouement for her. (It should also be pointed out that, in the books, Martin’s makes it very clear that the snow embankment outside the wall is deep enough to make jumping a plausible choice. That didn’t seem obvious last night.) Another victim of the season’s rushed ending was Theon’s conversion: his initial betrayal an episode or two ago was egregious, and last night seemed too quick to make up for it. Though, thank God it actually happened.
On the positive side, this season gave us Arya’s creepy-yet-magisterial journey through the House of Black and White, along with a wicked twist ending last night.
It’s not clear what, if any, morality the Faceless Men have: Do they dispense justice? Or just chaos? So it’s never been obvious just how cut out Arya is to be a Faceless Man. The general audience hope for her to come into her own badassery is exactly the sort of instinct George R.R. Martin seems to rejoice in upending. Arya lied to herself about feeling compassion for the Hound in the end, she held onto Needle even when ordered to cast aside all vestments of her previous life, and in last night’s most moving moment she wept over Jaqen’s apparent death. All of which seems far too, well, human for this batch of assassins. As such, one thing the Faceless Men clearly don’t deal in is personal vendettas: Arya’s murder of Meryn Trant was grizzly and cruel, however worthy the target, and she paid a price for it.
Another bright spot was Danearys. In the book, her handling of Mereen is grossly incompetent, and her escape on Drogon’s back feels like a childish abandonment of responsibility. But this season, Game of Thrones presented her efforts at ruling as honorable if insufficient, and her final exile last night as more a matter of temporary miscalculation than anything else. It was good to see the Dothraki again, and their arrival felt like a welcome bit of narrative balance, and cyclical return. Let’s hope they don’t simply operate as a deus ex machina to get Danearys out of her bind next season.
Finally, the divvying up of responsibilities between Tyrion, Missandei, Grey Worm, Jorah and Daario was also a strong and fun bit of character negotiation, and set us up well for next season. (Though Varys’ return seemed too cute by half.)
Which brings us to Stannis. As monstrous as his actions were this season, Stannis deserved a better send-off than this. Part of the problem was that his wife’s suicide, the desertion of his men, and Melisandre’s abandonment all happened in a rat-a-tat fashion, without the time for the Shakespearean weight of the tragedy to truly build. There’s also the fact that, probably more than any other character on the show, Stannis challenges us with the contingency of our own moral principles. By modern moral standards, he seems unforgivable. But by the standards of the world he occupies – where life is short and brutish, rigid adherence to tradition can hold back chaos, and where magic is real and human sacrifices actually work – he is at least defensible.
But kudos to Stephen Dillane: that long resigned sigh as the Bolton horsemen topped the ridge was as pitch-perfect a character moment as the actor has ever delivered. And the same can be said for the final line Benioff and Weiss gave him. There is no more fitting way to go than for Stannis to be executed by Brienne of Tarth for murdering her king. And no more fitting last words than telling her to “Do your duty.”
Stannis Baratheon was Game of Thrones’ nod to the tradition of classic tragedy: he was a prisoner of his nature to the end. And I confess that, given the weird way the camera cut away from his beheading at the last moment, I hold out the vain and foolish hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
As for Jon, well, what can I say? As someone who read the books, that was a hell of a secret to hold on to. (And one of my co-watchers nearly threw a pillow at me for it.) I won’t get into theories as to whether Jon is really dead – you can peruse google for that. We all loved him, which is about as guaranteed a death sentence in Martin’s world as anything. It’s all the more poignant given the spectacular trial Benioff and Weiss put through Jon through at Hardhome – an event found nowhere in the books.
Unfortunately, this is also an example of the show actually falling short of the books in the interest of speed. Martin sets up the betrayal of the Night’s Watch very well: Not only has Jon brought the Wildlings into the South, but he’s sending another expedition of his men back into the North to rescue more of them, while committing the remainder to march on Winterfell. Jon is a moral visionary, but the case can also be made in the books that he pushes so hard and so fast at the end that something had to give. In the show, the betrayal feels far more decadent and pernicious, as all those pressures are absent.
But there was Olly. My impression from both friends and Twitter is that Olly is now rapidly headed for “most hated character” status. But if anyone actually had some semblance of good reason to kill Jon, it was him. The Wildlings raided Olly’s village and murdered his family – part of a campaign of mutual violations and atrocities by both sides that stretches back further than either can remember. In fact, one of the best riffs of this season was juxtaposing scenes of Olly with scenes of the Wildlings, and the way both sides found it unthinkable to do anything other than continue killing one another for all eternity.
If Olly becomes a target of the audience’s wrath, it would be an odd testament to the show’s power. Placed in the comforting confines of a fictional fantasy, we are free to recognize Olly’s logic as the dead-end tragedy it is. Yet, in different contexts, and without the benefit of the empathy forced upon us by the show’s choices of narrative perspective, we might very well be standing beside Olly holding a knife of our own. For all of this season’s stumbles, this remains one of Game of Thrones’ greatest strengths: the quiet, clawing, certainty-crushing reminder that everyone – Olly, Stannis, Melisandre, Arya, Jon, Cersei, Ellaria and more – has their reasons.