I don’t think there’s any question this has been the most controversial season of Game of Thrones, both for book readers and new viewers (though mostly for different reasons). And I hardly think a season finale like this is going to change any of that. This season has, for my money, been the most inconsistent by far, with some amazing highs and galling lows. “Mercy” was more the former than the latter, but it did suffer from the sheer number of loose ends Benioff and Weiss left for themselves. Some of them were invariably rushed through here, though the episode certainly delivered as far as big, shocking moments.
What’s interesting to me is, for all the changes from the source material this season, how much of this finale was faithful to the book. More often than not the arcs covered here were left roughly in the same place as in A Song of Ice and Fire. Not all of them, certainly, but most of them – which leads to the inevitable conclusion that most of those changes were about making the material work as television more than anything else. Season Five was, as much as anything, about taking a different route to get to the same place as “A Dance With Dragons”. And in the end, book readers and newbies are pissed off largely about the same things, and for more of the same reasons than I would ever have believed.
If you’re interested in the theories about George R.R. Martin’s endgame for ASoIaF – and whether you’ve read the books or not you’ve seen enough to where you should be asking questions, so I’m not going to spoiler tag these musings – the final act of “Mother’s Mercy” was certainly the most important. But Lord knows there was plenty of jaw-droppingly huge stuff coming down before that.
It has to start with Stannis, who paid a very dear – and just – price for his abhorrent actions in last week’s episode. Ironically even as fans jumped off the “Team Stannis” bandwagon in droves, so did his own men – half of them deserted, taking all the horses with them. And so did Selyse, who seems to have realized the folly of her religious fanaticism too late to do her daughter any good. Stannis is alone, abandoned – especially after Melissandre deserts him too, scurrying back to Castle Black and leaving him to die on the plains outside of Winterfell. She’s one of the worst people in a cast full of worst people, but all Stannis had to do was, at some point, say “No”. He listened to her, and he paid a terrible price. And a just one.
That said, we never saw the results of Brienne’s swing of the sword. Is Stannis really dead? Maybe a better question would be, would it make any difference if he wasn’t? Clearly the man was ready to die, to pay for his sins, having just led his remaining men into a battle they had no chance to survive (it’s no wonder the Boltons didn’t bother waiting out a siege under these circumstances). I suppose for Brienne this is a moment of closure, but I’m skeptical after the way the scene was shot – I don’t think he’s dead.
Belatedly, Sam and Gilly and Sam are off to Oldtown, and even if it happened at a different point in GoT than the books, the end of the episode makes it pretty clear why it had to happen. Away down South in Braavos, a girl is indeed not ready – but she sure does seem to enjoy not being ready where Meryn Trant is concerned. Again we see an arc rearranged more than changed here – the sequence of events is different, but materially we’re leaving things in the same place. As vile as Trant was, it’s plainly obvious that Arya’s act was a selfish one, an act of self-gratification – an act antithetical to the followers of the Many-faced God’s view of death. In its way I see the path Arya is on as every bit as dark and terrible as the one TV Sansa is on.
Speaking of TV Sansa, she and Theon are left with yet another “are they dead or aren’t they?” cliffhanger in an episode full of them. Theon gets a measure of redemption here, finally reaching a breaking point and pushing Myranda to her death (or is it?) after she threatens Sansa with a little pre-emptive disfigurement. The snow is thick outside Winterfell even now, and one suspects there’s not much suspense – but this is one of those plots that looks very different from Martin’s, so your guess is as good as mine here.
Another arc full of divergences is the Dorne storyline, which has been arguably the greatest failure of this season. There was a point to it after all, so I suppose that’s a positive, but I’m still not happy with how any of the Dornish were portrayed here (and the book version isn’t that great to begin with). Perhaps, as with Shireen, Myrcella’s fate is simply arriving earlier in GoT than in ASoIaF – D & D haven’t felt the need to defend it, so there’s no way to know. But of all the major characters who died in this episode, her death seems to most certain. And lo, the many repercussions that’s going to have across the Seven Kingdoms.
Meanwhile, Danerys is living out the nightmare version of “How to Train Your Dragon” (she doesn’t even have Craig Fergsuon to cheer things up). Tyrion’s presence here is obviously a headline change, but this arc has surprisingly ended up one of the most consistent with the books – in truth, Tyrion is really a stand-in for Ser Berristan (which explains why he had to die). It’s going to be interesting to see Dany reunited with the Dothraki (though I doubt it feels so good), but even more interesting to see Varys and Tyrion – Season Five’s dream team – reunited in trying to whip Merreen into shape. As for Jorah and Daario Naharis playing buddy cop trying to track Dany down, that one doesn’t excite me too much.
That leaves us with the two banner headlines of the episode – the two climactic moments that book readers suspected might be candidates to end it on. I always thought they’d end with Jon Snow – I mean really, how could you show anything after that happened? – but Cersei’s walk of shame was a close second. And indeed, Benioff and Weiss decided to piggyback these two closer candidates back-to-back to end the season.
Even in the book, Cersei’s walk was a brutal and shocking moment. It was that much more so on-screen, and this time around we were spared no detail – everything was in plain sight (albeit with a stunt double for the full-frontal nudity). And I just want to note here, no – I don’t feel sorry for Cersei. I see a lot of mention of GoT’s ability to make us feel sympathy for dubious characters, but there’s nothing dubious about Cersei to me – she’s a terrible woman, and as brutal and hypocritical as the High Sparrow and his army are, this was a humiliation Cersei brought on herself.
This was a terrible moment – especially with that sadistic Septa with bell and “Shame!” chant. But it wasn’t terrible because it was excessive or unjust. Rather, it was the reality of just what a terrible reckoning Cersei’s terrorizing of everyone around her has brought down upon her. Does anyone suspect the commoners of King’s Landing would have treated Margaery that way if she’d ben forced to make that walk? And rest assured, one can see no repentance of humility in those cold, hateful eyes – Cersei knows only the path of vengeance and she’ll surely resolve to walk it, perhaps with the help of Qyburn’s abomination.
Finally, we have the Wall. Of course, book readers knew this was coming, but I suspect many TV-only viewers did too – it’s certainly been hinted at broadly enough, right down to Olly being the one to plunge the final “Et tu, Brute”? knife into Jon’s chest. Indeed, if Stannis’ fate had echoes of Agamemnon, Jon’s was obviously modeled on Julius Caesar’s. The really terrible thing is that even if Jon knew exactly what was going to happen, he would have made the same choice he did in saving the Wildlings – that’s just who Jon is.
Here, then, is the ultimate trump question of “Mother’s Mercy” – is it possible Jon could really be dead? You can stop reading here if you don’t want to be exposed to theories on ASoIaF’s possible endings, but these aren’t spoilers because they’re not based on anything that hasn’t by now been shown in GoT. Simply put, I don’t buy it – Benioff and Weiss can make all the “dead is dead” statements they want, it won’t sway me. Jon is simply too important to pretty much every endgame scenario that makes sense to be dead here. Both the book and the TV have broadly, strongly hinted that Jon’s parentage is Targaryen – that’s he’s the son of Prince Rhaegar and Ned’s dead sister Lyanna. Could that all be misdirection? Maybe – but I don’t think so. And even if that specific theory is partly wrong, there’s just no way Jon isn’t crucial to the ending. Too much effort has ben put into raising questions about his past for me to believe otherwise.
As for how Jon might have survived an obviously fatal attack, there are two possible routes that are feasible within the series mythology. The first is that he could warg (we already know he can do this) into Ghost before his body dies. This is not a stretch by any means, but it presents some real problems for his future role in the story. As we know from Wildling testimony once a man wargs into a beast his human memories begin to fade, and eventually “only the beast remains”. I’m not writing this idea off, but I favor another – and so do the hints in the episode.
We already know that red priests have the ability to give the “kiss of life” – Thoros of Myr did so for Berric Dondarrion. It should also be noted that this week saw Melissandre conspicuously reappear at Castle Black – indeed, it caused consternation for some book readers when she left with Stannis, because they knew these events were coming. It seems very likely that the vile Melissandre abandoned Stannis as a lost cause and decided to cast her lot with another of royal blood (if indeed that theory about Jon is correct) so she certainly has incentive to try and bring Jon under her sway. This is where my bet lies – it could be a pretty ugly storyline for Jon, but it’s the one that makes the most sense for me.
So now we wait – for another season, and for another novel, with no idea which is going to come first. I suspect D & D would strongly prefer “The Winds of Winter” to release before Season 6, because it’s clear that lapping the books with many storylines proved a brutal challenge for them this season. I’m sure they’re tired of being blamed for doing things Martin was planning to do himself, and I’m sure they’d rather not be hated for spoiling the books. But if I were betting on this, I think it unlikely Martin will publish the TWoW out in the next nine months. If he doesn’t, all of us are going to be in pretty much the same boat next season – and for all of us, including the show-runners, I expect it to be another very bumpy ride.