After last season and this week’s episode, I’m not sure that the hype over Episode Nines shouldn’t be replaced with hype over Episode Tens. While some big things might happen in Episode Nine, for the second year in a row, it was the season finale that was the best episode of the season. Now that the TV show has reached the end of the books, the story has run out on a number of characters.
I keep looking to Stannis for what the theme of the season is. I’ve thought it might be family. I thought the season was about how far people are willing to go to achieve their goals. In the end, the season might be about the rise and fall of prominent characters. Every character in this episode seems to have risen to great heights this season for it all to come crashing down at the end.
If there’s one character who had a more compelling eleven episode journey than King Stannis Baratheon, I’m not sure which show you’re watching. In marching his army north of The Wall, Stannis rose to the title of Mannis but rather than focus on the wars to come, Stannis’ focus on the Iron Throne and his birthright cost him everything that he held dear.
For a man who was seemingly so devoted to his family, it was his duty (or perceived duty) to take the Iron Throne and become King as is his birthright as Robert’s only remaining natural heir. What we saw is that Stannis was so focused on duty that it was all that he had left in the end. Duty is no comfort when facing the cold taste of steel.
For a man who sacrificed family to the Lord of Light in many a fire, the irony is that it was his whole world that burned around him until he resigned himself to be consumed too. He literally saw his daughter burned alive. Half his company abandoned him after what he did. His wife was so stricken with grief at their actions that she hung herself. Melisandre, the red priestess whose visions informed nearly every action Stannis took, fled and left him to fight his final battle without divine aid. Everything in his life he ever cared about and ever cared about him was undone with one act and in one day.
The Stannis that marched on Winterfell was a broken and defeated man before the Bolton army ever clashed swords with the army of Dragonstone. Despite Stannis getting what many felt was his comeuppance, you couldn’t help but feel for the empty shell of a man Stephen Dillane portrayed. The hollow look in his eyes as one soul crippling event after another happens until he draws upon his inner Mannis to valiantly fight back against the Boltons. The look in Dillane’s eyes in the scenes before the Bolton attack told us how the battle would end before it started but we still got to see what made Stannis so great as he fought off two Bolton soldiers while barely able to walk. That’s why he’s the Mannis.
Stannis meeting his apparent end at the hands of Brienne of Tarth (he doesn’t actually die on-screen but it’s implied he’s missing his head now) also spoke of Stannis. A man who sought to do his duty to his brother in the rebellion, to his Kingdom as its rightful King, to his Lord of Light as his chosen one, falls to a woman doing her sworn duty to the King she loved. A man driven by duty meets his end at the sword of a woman who is driven by her duty. Neither is particularly successful at fulfilling their duties until one finally did.
Perhaps the most painful moment was when Melisandre arrived at Castle Black while Davos was mid-argument with Jon. Asking about Stannis and Princess Shireen and not getting an answer broke Davos’ heart. He’s one of the few good men on this show and if ever there was something that could shake him to his core, it’s the death of his King and his friend. One simple look into the camera showed how good Liam Cunningham can be. The long look into the camera, tired and grief-stricken, spoke more powerfully than seeing the fate that befell the last of the Baratheons.
Meanwhile, in Winterfell, we finally got the long-awaited Theon/Reek face-turn. While Reek wouldn’t stand up to Ramsay, he was willing to help Sansa escape from the clutches of Miranda. I suppose that Ramsay has tortured Reek so much that he can’t stand up to him directly but Sansa has gotten to him enough that Theon is showing out from under Reek. Despite his past sins, Theon is still a stand-up kid as Ned Stark would have raised him to be.
Even if Theon hadn’t pushed Myranda to her death to save Sansa and if he didn’t tell her they had to flee, the real sign that Theon was back in control of his body was when he grabbed Sansa’s hand before they jumped from the ramparts of Winterfell. On the surface, it’s such a small act but so powerful in showing that Theon is in there, not Reek.
And in what seems to be a recurring theme on the evening, we had a cliffhanger with the pair jumping off the top of the wall of Winterfell to the ground outside. Presumably, their fall kills them but the first rule of TV is that if you don’t see them die, they aren’t dead. Wait. Didn’t I just say that?
In Braavos, everyone’s predictions were true and Arya infiltrated the brothel to kill Ser Meryn Trant using a face from the House of Black and White. Turns out that it’s not just boy whores with swords who can fell Trant.
It’s another feel good moment that mirrors Theon becoming Theon once again. But like Theon (and everyone else on this show), good feelings don’t last long. The Disciples of the Many-Faced God drop some knowledge of what it really means to be Nobody. Apparently, Jaqen H’ghar isn’t actually Jaqen H’ghar. Jaqen H’ghar is Nobody. More importantly, we learn that Somebody taking a face, instead of Nobody, turns out rather badly. Arya’s season ends with her being blinded for taking a face while trying to retain her own.
It’s another one of those bittersweet moments in this episode. Just when you think there’s some hope, it ends fairly quickly. Arya being punished for taking a life off her list only to effectively have to pay for her transgression against the Many-Faced God. It’s a rare sense of success followed by the almost expected punishment for feeling happy or satisfied.
Back in King’s Landing, another member of Arya’s list does a little tap dancing around the truth to keep from being executed by the High Sparrow for the crimes of incest, fornication, adultery, the murder of King Robert, et cetera, et cetera. She admits to sleeping with Cousin Lancel but no one else. This scene ironically comes shortly after Jaime admits to Myrcella that he was her father and not Robert.
She wasn’t absolved of the crimes she didn’t confess to and will still face trial for them. But the High Sparrow grants her the mercy of being allowed to return to the Red Keep but not before having her hair cut and being stripped for a barefoot walk of atonement from the High Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep.
One thing that the show has done quite well is make Cersei a somewhat sympathetic figure. While she might be a terrible person, her motivations are largely understandable. Her priority in life is her children and she is willing to do anything to protect and help them. Often, that manifests itself in the worst ways possible but at least we can understand why she does what she does. Empowering the Faith Militant and High Sparrow to help her get her son back from Maggie Tyrell was part of that plan and may have been her undoing.
The walk of atonement makes you feel even more sympathetic to Cersei as she walks naked through the streets of King’s Landing while having insults and projectiles hurled at her. Lena Headey might have turned in the best performance of the season as she tried to look like she was completely in control but stripped of the perfection that Cersei tries to portray to the world. Barely holding on to the visage that she puts on for the world until she can breakdown behind the closed doors of the Red Keep. In an episode of powerful moments, this might have been the best written, acted and directed in the whole season.
Actually, an interesting perspective on this scene came from a friend who watched Game of Thrones for the first time on Sunday. She referred to Cersei’s walk to the Red Keep as slut shaming.
Now, she obviously doesn’t know what happened over the previous 49 episodes to lead the story to this point. But perhaps she’s not as wrong in her interpretation as I thought at first. We don’t really sympathize with Cersei because she’s spent five season being a terrible person but this might be the first time that we do see her in a sympathetic light, even though she lied to the High Sparrow to avoid a worse fate.
But what happened with her walk of shame back to the Red Keep could certainly qualify as slut shaming. It’s easy to think of this as Cersei being repaid for all of the sins of the last five seasons from having King Robert killed to framing her brother for murder to empowering a religious police force to separate the Queen from her King.
However, isn’t she really being put on trial for the crimes of incest and adultery first and foremost. Wouldn’t that, combined with making her walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing while a Septa walks behind her chanting “shame,” be the textbook definition of slut shaming?
I don’t have a problem with the scene as it was put together but I also have a different perspective than my friend. Normally I can pick up on controversy a mile away but I haven’t heard much about this yet.
In Meereen, Daario nominates himself and Jorah to find Dany and bring her back to town. He leaves Grey Worm, Missandei and Tyrion to run the city while Dany and her boys are travelling to the north. As Daario saw it, the city will be overseen by the leader of the Unsullied, the Queen’s most trusted confidant and the former Hand of the King.
This actually would be one of the few feel-good scenes of the whole show. The playful banter between Daario and Tyrion was a much-needed bit of levity between the much more depressing scenes that make up the whole rest of this episode. We also got the return of Conleth Hill as somehow, it’s a lot faster to sail to Meereen and be captured by pirates than to travel over the land.
While I did enjoy Tyrion interacting with everyone else, there’s nothing quite like Tyrion and Varys back together again. At the very least, the return of Varys provides a sense of normalcy to an episode that was largely changing the landscape of the show as we knew it. Putting it in the middle of the episode was also a good way to calm everyone down from what had just happen and so we don’t run into traffic after what followed. It may not have lasted but hearing Conleth Hill’s “hello, old friend” made the world just a little brighter for a couple of minutes.
Tyrion and friends running Meereen might be one of the more intriguing where do they go from here questions. After all, Tyrion did as decent a job of keeping things in check in King’s Landing as the Hand as one could expect serving Joffrey. If anyone could salvage this city, it would be Tyrion but could that complicate Dany’s rule. Could Tyrion ascend to hero status to the former slaves of Meereen which would certainly make rallying everyone to her cause a little more difficult if a dwarf could do a better job of ruling than she.
Of course, it can’t all be good. The Dothraki found Dany when she went foraging for food while Drogon took a nap. Now, Dothraki culture tends to make you concerned for Dany’s well-being but David, Dan and George have probably learned that even implied rape is ground they shouldn’t tread again lest they face more backlash.
But it is a lovely play on David Nutter’s closing scene from Season 3 in which the slaves carried Dany aloft to celebrate their freedom. This is sort of the inverse where Dany isn’t held up as a hero but circled as if prey. I assume that it was intentional that this was very like the closing scene from Season 3.
And the season ends with Jon. After allowing Sam to run to safety, he was betrayed by his own men. For all the mistakes that Stannis made during his fall (and presumed death), the one right call he made was to suggest that Jon should send away Ser Alliser to the Shadow Tower or Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. By leaving him in Castle Black, Jon thinks he’s placating Thorne’s supporters and getting the best man for the job by making Ser Alliser the first ranger and the de-facto second-in-command.
In the end, Jon really set the stage for his own undoing. Old men with long memories for grudges don’t handle people advocating for change well. Jon tried to make peace with the Wildlings before Winter and the Whitewalkers came. Instead, he was branded a traitor and executed in a mutiny “for the Watch.”
In many ways, Jon being stabbed in the heart by his men is analogous to the viewers and this show. So many times, we’ve been stabbed in the heart by the death of a beloved character. As the TV series went on, we were met with thrust in the heart after thrust in the heart from George R. R. Martin’s pen. Another friend suggested that Game of Thrones might be a social experiment to see how much punishment people will take before not coming back. But the world isn’t a happy place. Maybe Game of Thrones is too true to reality for us to truly love. Maybe it’s not escapism into fantasy but escapism into another harsh reality.
According to book readers, this season ended the same way that the final pages of Jon’s tale in A Dance with Dragons ends. Everyone and their mother believes that Jon will live even if Kit Harrington says that Jon is dead. I won’t go over any of the theories here but chances are you’ve either seen them or thought them up.
What surprised me is some of the critics complaining that there’s no purpose in the plot to killing Jon. Ned’s death put Robb on his path to war and effectively set the War of Five Kings in motion. Robb’s death ended the War of Five Kings (regardless of Stannis’ objection to that statement). Tywin’s death is still playing out as the Lannisters desperately cling to power. Who’s to say that Jon’s death doesn’t have some far-reaching consequence that we are yet to see? If that’s a legitimate complaint, shouldn’t we be asking the same about the deaths of Stannis, Theon and Sansa? What about the purpose of Arya going blind? That complaint is extremely short-sighted in a show that often calls back seasons in the previously on montages.
Although, maybe I want to change what I think the theme of the season is. Perhaps it’s not about the fall from grace of characters but this season could be about sacrifices. This season, we’ve seen many characters sacrifice things they value for their own good or the greater good. Look at Stannis. He sacrificed his family for the Iron Throne. His sacrifice resulted in nothing but his own demise. Sansa and Theon sacrificed their lives for freedom from Ramsay. Cersei was willing to sacrifice her dignity for her family. Jorah would have sacrificed his life and freedom for the love of Daenerys. And Jon sacrificed his life for the safety of the Wildlings.
In a show about all the terrible people in the world, there are few characters with a shred of good in their hearts and even fewer now. Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants health, wealth and happiness from life but so few people get what they think they deserve. Doesn’t that make Game of Thrones a painfully accurate reflection of life. You give and you give but there is nothing but take from the world. In this case, the world is taking from any character willing to give. Maybe that’s why Littlefinger is doing so well. Always take, never give.
So this is the longest review I’ve ever done for an episode of Game of Thrones but I think it’s entirely appropriate in the circumstances. While the episode relied on cliffhangers a bit too much relative to what we’ve come to expect, this might be the single best and most must-watch episode of Game of Thrones ever produced. This is actually the first time I ever stayed up to watch the West Coast airing of the show after catching the East Coast’s first run. It was a brilliant and captivating hour of television.
Other random points of note:
- Actually, Brienne, Renly was never the rightful King of anything. In fact, he was part of the problem that caused the War of Five Kings. If he and Robb just backed Stannis as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, none of this would have happened.
- The only disappointing thing about the Myrcella poisoning was that it was so obvious that it was coming. It’s that problem with the previously on videos being a bit too spot-on again.
- Shockingly, that was Hafthor Bjornsson who reprised his role as The Mountain That Rides making him the first Mountain that lasted two seasons.
- You know, during this episode, I had a few #TrueDetectiveSeason3 pairings ready to go. During the episode, there was Sam and Jon, Brienne and Pod, Tyrion and Daario and Tyrion and Varys. As always, I think the nod has to go to Tyrion and Varys even if they teased that Varys might be in it for himself above anyone’s cause.
And that wraps up the fifth season of Game of Thrones. With only two or three seasons to go, the number of characters we have to follow has gone down significantly (if everyone is dead). The number of characters worth cheering for has also gone doing to Team Meereen and… Sam? That’s about it. I suppose next season will have fewer characters to follow so it will be interesting to see how the writers handle bouncing between the fewer stories rather than bouncing between several per episode. I guess we should also hope that next season answers the all important question of where Rickon is.