On Sunday, season five of Game of Thrones comes to an end. The show has become, if anything, more controversial, but remains wildly popular. Ratings dipped midseason, perhaps as a reaction to the rape of Sansa Stark, but then surged as people tuned in for episode eight, "Hardhome." The episode ended with Jon Snow and the Wildlings running (and sailing) away, as the Night King lifted his arms and raised the dead.
If nothing else, the Night King's farewell middle finger to the fleeing warrior should remind us that the petty squabbles of mortals means nothing. If we don't end up with Daenerys on dragonback versus the hordes of the undead, Game of Thrones is going to become The Walking Dead, only filmed in Croatia and Iceland. At the moment, given the state of things across Westeros and Essos, I've got my money on the zombies.
Before diving into the final hour, let's take a few moments to review the major plots of the year, the successes and failures of the last nine episodes, and some hopes for where we might go from here. Then we'll be ready for the final dispatch from Westeros, until George R. R. Martin publishes The Winds of Winter in 2016 (hopefully).
The books each present a chapter from a distinct point-of-view, and I find it useful to think about a season not just by who got screen time, but who most frequently functioned as the POV. Four women and four men dominate season five: Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, and Cersei each saw their stories develop in complex and important ways. They are matched by the cross-continental journey of Tyrion, Jamie and his comedy show in Dorne, Stannis going full-fundamentalist apeshit, and Jon Snow, who, of course, still knows nothing.
Any recap of the season has to begin with Sansa. I'm really not over my anger about the way the show-runners have handled her storyline. At the end of season four, she shifted from the endless victim, constantly passive and being tossed about by powerful men to serve their plots (and hence not so interesting to watch), to a strong actor in her own right. She dyed her hair, attached raven wings to her dress, and seemed ready to step forward as a player. Instead, for baffling reasons, Littlefinger (a squandered character this season) decides not to use her in the Vale, but dispatches her to the Boltons. It makes no sense as a move for Littlefinger, but rather functions solely as a plot device. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the show creators, want to put Sansa in the clutches of Ramsay Bolton, so consistency is merely an afterthought.
In the meantime, Ramsay is clearly a sadistic psychopath, but his character remains entirely static and uninteresting, so depicting his rape of Sansa is not only upsetting, but purposeless as well, in that it doesn't serve to advance any character arc, except to turn Sansa back into a victim again. Worse, for reasons best known to the show's creators, we are shown Theon's suffering—he's forced to watch—during the rape, as if his character development is the one that matters. Sansa may still get her revenge, may get rescued by Brienne, may jump out a window, or we may be left unsure of her fate, but rest assured that this storyline has reinforced hundreds, if not thousands, of years of Western rape culture.
The Shireen story was just as hard to watch, but mostly because of clumsy plotting. In episode four, Stannis and his daughter had a long talk about her greyscale illness, how hard he worked to cure her, and how deeply he loves her. That scene worked. It convinced us that Stannis had heretofore unknown emotional depths. And then in episode nine, we were supposed to believe that Stannis burned his daughter alive as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light rather than tough out what was, admittedly, a bad situation—his troops were starving in the cold and his hopes of taking Winterfell were dwindling.
But Stannis is famous for toughing out bad situations—his legendary stubbornness, displayed at the famous siege of Storm's End, is practically his defining trait. For a year, Stannis and his men ate everything down to cats, rats, and glue. Now, in a similarly bad situation, for Stannis to cave so quickly and burn his beloved daughter alive broke believability. I found the dragons and zombies more realistic than this plot point. In the meantime, Stannis's army is still hungry and snowbound, so it will be interesting to see whether the Lord of Light melts the snow and lets him get to Winterfell, or whether the Boltons destroy him. At this point, I think most of us would be happy to see mutual annihilation, but fans of Game of Thrones are never so lucky.
Everything else this season has been better. When the season started, I was most excited about the addition of Dorne and Braavos as major settings. Arya's development in Braavos has mostly taken place in isolation from world events, until Ser Meryn Trant, one of the few living people on her " kill list," showed up in the city. She's done her best to strip herself of her identity and serve the Many Faced God, even compassionately helping a sick child commit euthanasia. Now she's been given her first mission to kill. Meryn's death, though, has taken a higher priority, and she's likely to use his predilection for raping children as a lure (seriously, couldn't just one plot not involve rape or potential rape)? I think she'll kill him, but will she then be cast out by the Faceless Men?
Dorne has provided some much needed comic relief in the sun. With Tyrion so serious of late (the whole murder of his father and lover seems to have sapped some of his joy—go figure), but Bronn remains a bastion of witty banter, irreverent singing, and fine swordplay. Poor old Jamie has gone from the fearsome Kingslayer to Bronn's straight man. Meanwhile, the siren-like Sand Snakes somehow failed to defeat Bronn and Jamie, despite what should have been an overwhelming advantage. But don't fret. So far, despite an attack by an armed patrol of Dornish solders, a lethal poison, imprisonment, the silly fight in the Water Gardens, and defiance in the face of the ruler of Dorne, not a single named character has been seriously hurt or killed in the hot land. So much for valar morghulis.
Then there's the two queens—Cersei and Daenerys—both of whom have offered a clinic on how not to rule. In Cersei's defense, she continues to play, and then overplay, the only hand she's got. She's lost her father and brother, on whom she relied for military force, and she sees that other men are all eager to sweep in and take over. So she blocks, buys, or distracts them all, then empowers the Faith Militant and the High Sparrow. Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of the religious leader, so humble and terrifying at once, is one of the best characters of the entire series so far. His conversation with Diana Rigg, as the Queen of Thorns, is certainly my favorite scene of the entire season, and top five all time. Sadly for Cersei, the High Sparrow cannot be cowed or bought. Since she's one of the most morally corrupt figures in Westeros, her true-believer ally wastes no time in imprisoning her once he learns of her crimes.
Daenerys's arc is more hopeful. It begins with mistakes. First, she's too lenient, and the people are not grateful, as they want vengeance. Then she brings down fierce justice on a freed slave, and the people are not grateful, because she's being harsher to their own than to the former masters. It turns out that ruling a conquered city in which one has flipped the social order is hard. Moreover, when she locked two of her dragons in the basement and Drogon flew away, Daenerys cut herself off from the one thing that made her truly unique. But her story is moving in a positive direction, despite all the bloodshed.
Tyrion and Jorah have arrived. Their scene in the ruins of Valyria, followed by the battle with the Stone Men, may have been the best shot sequence of the season. After a slow voyage through ruins, the two men found themselves in a claustrophobic space under a bridge, as plague-spreading enemies dropped down from above. Somehow, they had to fight them off without being touched, a task at which Jorah failed. Still, Tyrion did make it to Daenerys, and his hushed conversation with her, a discussion about power, foreshadows her possible emergence as a queen truly worth following. And now she's riding a dragon.
One quibble—remember when the Unsullied were the greatest warriors in the world? Do you think the greatest warriors in the world might, first, realize that spears are not optimal weapons in close quarters, and second, be able to fight a bunch of amateur guerilla soldiers wearing masks that limit their vision? At any rate, it's clear that Khaleesi's potential is not bound up in her soldiers' prowess, but her ability to command dragons to breathe fire on her foes.
And from fire to ice, we finally arrive at the North. Jon Snow remains heroic, which is to say he resists temptations of sex and power, clings to his principles, takes on dangerous and foolhardy missions, defeats lieutenants of the Big Bad, and is prepared to do anything in order to find allies. On the bright side, his wolf, Ghost, is back. On the dark side, it doesn't seem likely that the uneasy peace between Wildlings and Nights Watchmen can hold.
And if the Wall falls, if Stannis's army is obliterated by the Boltons, if King's Landing dissolves into a radical theocracy, if Daenerys loses all her supporters, then what will stop winter and the undead from covering the whole world?
The season finale to Game of Thrones airs this Sunday on HBO.
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