Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
Man, five years in and I still really, really suck at predicting where Game Of Thrones is going. And I continually underestimate its ruthlessness, as “Mother’s Mercy” featured fuck all of its eponymous virtue, with the deaths of at least a half dozen named characters, depending on how big an optimist/skeptic you happen to be. I don’t think anyone is expecting Myrcella, Selyse, Myranda, or Meryn Trant to make a comeback, and Jaqen still seems to exist in some fashion (though the show is likely done with him), but other fates are apparently more ambiguous. I’m actually kind of perplexed that so many people think Brienne might have pulled her killing stroke, as the shot makes it clear that she did not, everything we know about her indicates that she has neither the motivation nor inclination to do so, and Stannis’s story reaching a definitive and appropriate end. On the flip side, there’s no way Sansa and Theon offed themselves in such an offhand fashion so early in the episode. That was an escape, and I’m quite satisfied with how it played out, with Sansa’s determination to die “while there is still some of me left” being what jars Theon out of his Reekness (and his turn inspiring her to take the arm she refused on her wedding night) rather than Brienne swooping in to save the day. But in any case, I’m sure we’ll be seeing them next year, searching the North for her brothers.
That leaves one other death, but we’ll get back to that. First I want to figure out how after writing 29 of these recaps, wherein I’ve examined at length the tactics the show uses to deliver its shocks and twists, I can still be as consistently surprised by it as I was by “Mother’s Mercy”. And perhaps the best place to start is with the fact that it was a finale. For its first three seasons, GOT’s final episodes were unusual beasts. In years past, several of its HBO forebearers (The Wire most consistently, but The Sopranos more prominently) had developed a structure of placing the most violent climaxes in their penultimate episodes, while the finales examined the fallout from those big twists. Those shows, however, still functioned on something more like a traditional broadcast production model, with harder breaks between seasons, which were not guaranteed to be coming when the prior season was in production. So when one of their finales was devoted to falling action, it would be leading into a large gap (in real and story time) between the finale and subsequent premiere, which would then whip up a bunch of new threads more or less from scratch.
Game Of Thrones, on the other hand, was born with the full might of the HBO machine that those shows built behind it, which could reup even such a mammoth production for multiple years at a time. And it had source material as a story blueprint right from the start. On top of which, that source material has such a vast web of rather distinct storylines running concurrently that it would require forcing things rather inelegantly to bring them all to a proper stopping point simultaneously. The result is that with a clearer eye for both its immediate and long-term future, GOT’s finales tended to be more like a traditional premiere, establishing new status quos and reshuffling characters to place them on new paths in the wake of the beheading/siege/wedding massacre du jour.
This was true until last year, when “The Children” included such bombshells as the deaths of Tywin and the Hound, Stannis breaking the Wildling army and Bran meeting his…erm, geriatric raventreewizard? I must be misremembering that, right?
This meant that this year had the most distinct storylines to drum up “from scratch,” like the Dorne misadventure, Arya’s time in Braavos, Tyrion in Essos, and the Sparrow drama. But it also continued to eschew the “9th episode” trend, as the finale is even more packed with incident than its predecessors, even if it lacks the elaborate setpieces that the last two episodes delivered in Mereen and Hardhome. And I give the showrunners all the credit in the world for this, as it seems like one of the sharper bits of adapting the spirit, rather than the text, of the source that they’ve pulled off. Martin’s work is about, in large part, undermining our expectations for how a “fantasy epic” is supposed to play out, and using those expectations (which stubbornly persist even how many years into the narrative) against us. It feels as though Benioff and Weiss have also figured out what is expected of their show as an HBO prestige drama, and tweaked the format to keep us viewers similarly off balance.
One result of all this is that, as I mentioned, the show is light on storylines that start at the beginning of a season and conclude definitively at its end. Which means that I have a hard time judging one season or episode as being significantly better or worse than another. I bring this up because on the boards there has been a decided feeling that this season has been the weakest of the series, and while I don’t necessarily disagree, it’s because I can really only judge the show against itself on a more granular basis. While on most shows you can describe a season by identifying its major antagonist (or Big Bad, in fan lingo), or an episode as “the one where so and so does…”, GOT has too many moving parts for that to tell you what’s going on in the rest of the episode, even in hindsight. For instance, you probably remember “The Mountain And The Viper” as a standout, but do you remember any developments as particular to that episode, beyond the titular sequence? If I told you Jorah was exiled an episode earlier or later, would it raise an eyebrow? Would you be able to tell me what Bran did in his scenes in the Purple Wedding episode without consulting a wiki, or stellar publication like Schwartzblog?
So the best I can do is say that certain seasons were best for certain storylines and worse for others. Like the first season was definitely the best for Dany, who has languished since she marched the Unsullied out of Astapor. Season 3 was best for Jaime and Brienne, but worst for Stannis and Theon, whose highs came in season 2 along with Tyrion. The Wall material only really started to pick up in the 3rd season, and managed to maintain its peak the last two. And Arya’s been pretty darn consistent from the start.
So with that in mind, with a gun to my head, I think I’d say the best season for my money was the second. While the Essos material was a step down from what preceded, I liked Westeros best with the War of Five Kings in full swing and Tyrion as Hand trying to help his family maintain power in spite of itself. And Blackwater was one hell of a climax that the show has topped in presentation, but not impact, as they’ve never packed as many vital characters into another setting as they have with King’s Landing pre-the mass exodus of Lannisters. But for this season? I guess it could be the worst, or maybe the first season, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re less than excellent. I’d say that season 5 gave us the best of Cersei and Jon Snow, a slight upswing in Dany material, and a change of pace for Tyrion that was if not an definite improvement, very necessary at this point. Conversely, it gave us the worst of Jaime (though it was the unripe plotline more than the character or performance) and it did further the show’s one true, unadulterated failure in its increased, intense focus on Ramsay.
I’ve griped about this in previous recaps, and you might have to reach to even remember whether he showed up in this episode at all, but that’s my whole point and beef. Ramsay has very little story and no arc whatsoever this season, and yet we still spend almost a full minute of screentime in a (gloriously) overstuffed finale on an utterly superfluous scene of him stabbing a wounded enemy for kicks. It’s the 46th least striking example of his beyond-established sadism, it serves no plot function at all, and there is no even slightly inventive or amusing twist to the dialogue or situation.
I know that runtime is not really a concern here, and if it were, then Cersei’s interminable walk also could’ve been shaved down, but that sequence did need to be drawn out to make its point. Ramsay’s scene just sits there, between two hugely important ones, adding absolutely nothing. Which is why, more than the cartoonish supersadism, I’ve come to hate Ramsay not just on the “love to hate” level that is proper for hissable villains. Joffrey was every bit the monster that he is, but at least I never rolled my eyes when he showed up on screen. And while it’s nothing unusual for even truly great shows to have characters and storylines that are less compelling than others, on a show so overcrowded with compelling characters and plot, it stands out more than when a slower paced show like The Sopranos took a side trip to New Hampshire, or Breaking Bad focused an episode on a side character’s compulsive shoplifting.
Honestly, what is it that Iwan Rheon has on Benioff and Weiss? Not that it’s the actor’s fault, but Ramsay is an utterly one note character, who only ever interacts with the same handful of others, and for some reason they seem to find every single breath he takes utterly fascinating. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not, and it’s certainly not because he’s just too hardcore for me. I can handle murder, rape, child sacrifice and genital mutilation. What I cannot abide is dead air.
Speaking of dead air, I’ve been hard on Dany’s end of things in the past for being the one part of the show where it really felt like wheel-spinning. Her steady rise has felt like the show’s most foregone conclusion (outside of Jon Snow’s success on the Wall, which…), but the main problem has been the underpopulation of her storylines. Mereen has just as many extras to fill the background of scenes, but in the two seasons we’ve spent there, they added only one recurring character to represent the entire local political scene. And Dany’s entire crew kicked him around without much concern until his unceremonious offing last week. Westeros feels so vast and developed that it is bigger than any one storyline that plays out there, which infuses those storylines with their delicious unpredictability, but after 5 years in Essos, that setting still feels smaller than Dany’s storyline.
But there is hope! The scene in the throne room, with Jorah, Tyrion, Daario, Missandei and Grey Worm finally started to deliver on the promise of a Targaryen Small Council that is livelier than the smattering of Yes Men she’s previously surrounded herself with (special props to Dinklage’s annoyed insistence that he mostly talks and drinks, but “I’ve survived this far!” after all), and Varys finally catching up only sweetens the pot. Plus Dany herself finally has a problem! For the first time since she lost her shit in Qarth, it’s one that she couldn’t just walk away from or dragon her way out of, were she inclined. A khalessar riding into Mereen feels like an actual obstacle, as the one season we spent with the Dothraki 5 years ago still served to make them more vivid and formidable than the Mereenese have been in the last 2 seasons. We know they don’t give a shit about birthrights or titles, and their culture is such that they may relish the chance to hunt a mighty dragon, even if Drogon recuperates enough to come bail mom out again. In any case, anything that gets Dany out of that pyramid is a positive step.
Also positive is Arya’s expulsion from the House Of Black And White. This is the one sequence that went pretty much as I predicted last week, but her dispatch of Trant is even more vicious than anticipated, and worth the wait. Plus it packs in some twists at the end with the wtf-ness of Jaqen’s suicide and apparent Borgness of the Faceless Men, and Arya’s blindness. The former manages a neat trick of restoring/maintaining the mystique and otherworldliness of this fanatical order of magical assassins, after an entire season of a POV character being taken behind the scenes of their operations. The latter may be great or terrible for the character, but was genuinely shocking to me and fits with the series’ ethos that nothing, particularly justice and particularly not for those named Stark, comes easy or without a steep price.
Speaking of justice, Brienne continues to fail in the most awesome ways, as she proves Oathkeeper to be aptly named by killing Stannis, and even procures the confession that Oberyn failed to get from the Mountain, but unwittingly loses Sansa in the process. Stannis, for his part, learns about steep prices. He got the immediate results he wanted from Shireen’s sacrifice in the form a supernatural thaw, but his complete unwillingness to even countenance that his people might react like, well, people, to the horrific spectacle he put on dooms him and his campaign.
Perhaps I am just as guilty of putting too much faith in the Red Woman’s prophecy as he is, because I really thought that Stannis would make it on to the Iron Throne, however briefly, at some point. But it also makes sense that his utter lack of pragmatism would walk him off a cliff at some point. This is not a world that reward principled stands, and principle was all he had in the end. Blood magic and a greater level of cruelty towards his enemies might have taken him further than some Starks, but even dumb old Ned would’ve rolled his eyes at the idea of attacking a fortified castle with a smaller army and no cavalry, food, or siege weaponry. In fact, Stannis’s plan seemed to be less of a siege than a highly belligerent form of camping.
But while it may have been dumber than a sack of marmots, it did look cool as the Bolton army swooped down upon them, and Stephen Dillane acted the hell out of it. His death scene may be the best in a series known for them, and in almost any circumstance, his look when he realizes there isn’t going to be a siege and draws his sword would be the best bit of acting in the episode.
But unfortunately for him, Lena Headey is still knocking around, and she has a tour de force in the form of a tour de shame (SHAME! SHAME!) of King’s Landing. Headey has been an All Star since the beginning, and I’ve sung her particular praises as recently as two weeks ago, but there’s just no way that this isn’t her Emmy submission, and it’s no doubt deserving of a nomination. Heck, just the scenes of her confession and the nuns hacking her hair off may have been enough for that. I’ve always been more sympathetic to Cersei than the most, but even if you started that sequence reveling in the character’s comeuppance, you have to feel some sympathy for her by the end of that long, looooong walk. I’ve heard some complaints about the digital modeling putting Headey’s, um, head on a non-pregnant body double, but I didn’t notice any obvious seams.
What I saw was the cracks in the character’s armor growing steadily wider, to the point that I can’t have been the only one to do a little fist pump at the end when the FrankenMountain showed up, all armored up and ready to eliminate all of the king’s enemies. And between the Sparrows, Martells, Tyrells, Littlefinger, and Boltons, he shouldn’t lack for work.
Oh, and Jon got stabbed a bit at the end.
You guys think he’ll be okay?
And is it 2016 yet?