Game of Thrones – 50 (Season Finale)

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“Mother’s Mercy”

Well, so much for that quiet and reflective season finale thing.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  1. v

    Here's the first thing that was racing across my mind as Jon laid in the snow dying… no one seemed to be bothered to burn his body. Any chance that he might return as a White Walker but somehow retain his sentience? Maybe team up with the other White Walkers and purge Westeros of all these filthy humans for good?! Okay enough with my crazy theory.

    As always, thank you Enzo for the brilliant reviews! :)

  2. I wouldn't find anything unusual in no one burning the body that quickly. But I suppose the white walker theory isn't impossible – I mean, it is widely theorized that Coldhands is Benjen.

  3. C

    A man can only wait long enough The Winds of Winter…

  4. J

    Kit Harrington has signed for for season six, so he will definitely be around somehow. I'd plump for Melisandre reviving him as well, I'm not sure the warging would work as we didn't see his eyes glaze over (or was that aspect of warging specific to the wildling scout)?

  5. Just remember what Sam told Olly – "Jon Snow always comes back."

  6. G

    It's foolish of the High Sparrow to release Cersei like he did to the "walk of shame". For sure next season she will wipe them all out in revenge. Might have been better to just execute her when they had her.

  7. Well, thanks to Cersei the High Sparrow now has an army at his disposal and massive support among the commoners. How many people do you think are still loyal to Cersei at this stage, beyond Qyburn and his Mountain?

  8. C

    She also has her son, who happens to be King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.

  9. J

    She's been removed from the small council, removed as regent, and publicly outed as an incestuous adulterer.

    Yes, she has her son, but he also still has a wife who he's infatuated with who was freed off screen (as per the books; I cannot recall if the show ever detailed her freedom or if she's supposedly still incarcerated), and thus has had time to work her womanly wiles on him while his mom has been drinking water from the floor.

  10. Sorry, but Tommen will never choose mum over Margaery – he's a 15 year-old boy who's just been introduced to unlimited sex with one of the hottest nobles in King's Landing.

  11. J

    Also Tommen has been pretty terrible at accomplishing anything.

  12. E

    All that talk about Stannis being the one true king and Melisandre deserts him in the end? Looks like the lord of light ain't that great after all.

  13. Meaning no disrespect, I sincerely hope it didn't take till now for you to figure that out!

  14. E

    It did poop out a shadow monster a few years back. I was worried Stannis was going to suffer something similar the Mountain's fate!

  15. N

    Actually I have a different theory, I think the Lord of Light is a more neutral deity with some sort of pre-destined agenda. He guided Melisandre to destroy Stannis and be conveniently placed in this situation. As for why she was associated with Stannis in the first place is because the Lord of Light wanted Stannis's army to defend Castle Black from the wildlings, and more specifically, save Jon Snow from death or imprisonment.

    The Brotherhood without Banners seem to adhere to a different sect of the religion, manifesting the Lord of Light's powers in different ways, to my knowledge I don't recall them ever practicing dark magic or intentional burnings in the show. Nonetheless, it's likely Melisandre can perform the powers of revival, as the Lord of Light guided her there.

    As for what happens next, it's hard to predict, because Jon likely won't put up with burnings and dark magic, but Melisandre is Jon's conduit to the Lord of Light. Perhaps she will reform, or perhaps her role is done according to the Lord's agenda and she winds up dead or cast aside.

  16. E

    It sort of depends on whether you think Melisandre was a genuine follower of the Lord or not, she didn't seem to gain anything from Stannis so I think she might be genuine but the fact remains that she's the most twisted follower of that religion so far. She's one of the more ambiguous characters in this show but I do think it's too late for her to reform at this point.

  17. I never saw Mel as remotely ambiguous. To me she's one of the vilest people in the cast and always has been.

  18. E

    Not morally ambiguous that's for sure, I meant ambiguous motivations…

  19. N

    I believe she is genuine in her faith and truly believed everything she said was true (including believing Stannis to be the One True King). Is she vile from an outsider's perspective? Sure, but it seems to me she was a pawn to the Lord of Light, and it is either due to the fact that her particular version of the LoL faith is based around the darker aspects of the deity, such as blood magic and human sacrifice. Call her a black mage, if you will, with some other LoL followers being white mages. Both come from the same source of power, but with different manifestations. In this case, the religious element means not only different powers, but also different beliefs, ie. sects.

    I mean, it's easy to denounce her actions as vile, but it is probably kind of hard to resist a deity that beams direct messages and images into your head and then leaves your role and meaning up to interpretation.

  20. N

    *"Likely due to the fact", not "either"

  21. S

    Ah, this is encouraging. Pretty lacklustre season, it started with a meh and then settled firmly into mediocracy, except the stellar ep 48 and the really good finaly. I remember that reading the Jon Snow death scene was really tough.There was no point even continuing the series. There was hardly anyone left to cheer on, and plenty of really boring characters and side-plots to fill another 2-3 books.

    Now I have fresh hope of them returning Jon Snow to life and listening to Tyrion, Varys & Daenarys for another season (God I would watch anything with those characters in it. A road trip movie? a teenage romcom?, a Tarantino movie?).

    Cersei's walk of atonement was really gripping, it even made me wince. One of the few scenes where nudity was justified and not exploitative in this season.

  22. b

    In Arya's storyline, why is there more than one face of a single person (eg Jaqen H'ghar)?
    I was under the impression that its the literal faces they peeled off people they killed, not just a fake mask, so how can there be more than one Jaqen face, or an Arya face?

    Thanks for covering the season Enzo!

  23. Not to mention, how can Jaqen make his entire body look like the Waif just by putting on a mask?

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