Will the Most Heroic Character on 'Game of Thrones' Join the Army of the Dead?
Last night's finale was eventful, to say the least.
Warning: Spoilers of the fifth season abound.
Season five of Game of Thrones ended last night with daggers plunging into the gut of Jon Snow, the one true action hero of the series. As his blood leaked out into the cold snow of Castle Black, I wondered, Would it be so bad if the zombies win?
It was an eventful final episode: Stannis met his just rewards for burning his daughter alive—his wife committed suicide and many of his men abandoned him. Then his remaining troops were obliterated by the Boltons and their allies. The scene of the horsemen of the North surrounding the dregs of Stannis's army across the snowy plain reminded me of just how beautiful and terrifying the show can be. Stannis's death at Brienne's hands felt as just as anything in the history of the show. Unless, of course, the camera cut away because he isn't actually dead.
The episode got grimmer from there. Sure enough, Sansa didn't get to rescue herself, but continues to be dragged around by Reek, the hero of the endless Game of Theons. The other Stark lady, Arya, did better. In a scene relatively free of degradation of women (grading on a curve), she finally crossed the name of Ser Meryn Trant off her rapidly-shortening kill list. Melisandre and Cersei (and a few lesser figures) had better be worried.
Cersei, meanwhile, confessed, lied, was humiliated, and now what will she do? The walk of shame, iconic and terrible, just kept going and going, as Cersei's impassive resolve slowly broke. Will she repent? Because, let's remember, unlike so many other victims in this show, Cersei is responsible for so much of the horror visited on Westeros (Littlefinger is ultimately responsible for the rest). Or will the arrival of Frankenknight (Qyburn's creation from the corpse of Gregor Clegane, now known as "Ser Robert Strong"), send her down the villain's path to even greater wickedness?
And then there's Jon Snow. Is he really dead? Could he rise again as the legendary hero, Azor Ahai, or be raised by Melisandre (who conveniently just arrived at Castle Black). Jon Snow famously knows nothing, but Kit Harrington, who apparently knows more than his character, claims he's definitely dead. Whatever happens, the era of mortal politics is rapidly slipping away, as magic and horror loom in every corner of Westeros.
One of the interesting meta-stories running throughout Game of Thrones has been the slow shift from low fantasy toward high fantasy. For years, the world has been recognizable as medieval-ish fantasy with its intricate, interesting, and yet familiar brands of politics and warfare. The supernatural has always been lurking in the background. The very first scene of the first episode featured a White Walker, after all—but we were really drawn in by the complex personalities, stirring rivalries, and dirty deeds.
Something fundamental changed in the world, though, when Daenerys emerged from the fire with three living dragons. Old magic, dormant in moth-eaten books and formulaic religious rituals, suddenly found new vigor. This is why the the warlocks of Qarth wanted control over the dragons, way back in season two, a quest that ended with them in fire. It's why the fire-priest Thoros, uttering prayers long unanswered, suddenly raises Ser Beric Dondarrion from the dead. Alchemists in King's Landing suddenly find it much easier to make Wildfire, supplying Tyrion with the fuel to burn so much of Stannis's fleet at Blackwater. We're told that Qyburn has been experimenting with corpses for years, but only now has achieved his necromantic masterpiece in Ser Robert Strong. Meanwhile, because fire is always paired with ice in this world, the advance of the White Walkers, the Night King, and the journey of Bran (absent for this whole season, but soon to return I suspect), show a similar entry of the mystical from the North.
This is a very different trajectory than, for example, Tolkien's Middle Earth. By the time the story begins in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the magical world has already lost its grandeur. The elves are leaving even before the One Ring is destroyed, and with it gone, the rest of the elves, wizards, and the ring bearers follow.
There are two complementary kinds of stories about the ebb and flow of magic and the supernatural in fantasy worlds: The "end of magic" arc or the "magic returns to the world" arc (magic's presence can also just be de facto without changing, of course, too). The former is common far beyond Tolkien, of course. You can see it time and time again in young-adult fantasy, a growing genre that has increased sales by150 percent between 2006 to 2015. As fantasy author and friend Marissa Lingen suggested, the loss of childhood wonder and the onset of adulthood brings an easy way for magic to slip from the world (think Narnia).
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, fits neatly in the latter category. Magic has been gone for centuries. Westerosi see it, at best, as belonging to a bygone age—if it ever existed. But now that's changed.
Speaking of bygone ages, read about How Medieval Cuisine Is Saving the UK's Biggest Party Town on Munchies
That's not really good news. Civil wars are, of course, terrible for the "small folk," but that's relatively low stakes compared to the death of the entire world at the hands of wights. This is not a happy magic has come to save the day story, but that magic is a harbinger of a greater threat of apocalypse.
I've spent quite a bit of this season baffled by pointless or poorly crafted changes from the books. Why keep adding new torture and rape scenes? We get it. Why are the Unsullied suddenly so incompetent when they were the greatest warriors in Essos? Why can't the Sand Snakes defeat Bronn and a left-handed Jaime? George R. R. Martin and show-creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have collaborated in crafting an exquisite world, the likes of which we've never really seen in a television series. It has extraordinary depth, an awesome set of plot lines, and so many interesting characters. It's why I get upset when I see Benioff and Weiss squandering these resources, both in terms of the world in which they get to play and the vast sums of money at their disposal. Averaging $6 million an episode, the HBO show dropped $200K for Cersei's walk of shame alone.
I'm a completist and it's very hard for me to break away from a show or a series of books once I've started. I'm sticking out Game of Thrones to the end, so here's my note of hope. The show flounders when it crafts new characters, new plot lines, new twists. But it's always been good at depicting the big story—the enemy from the North, the dragons, and scenes like Blackwater, the deadly weddings, the attack at the Wall, Hardhome, and so forth.
Along with winter, much more of that stuff is coming. In the new high-fantasy world of Westeros, every myth and legend that the Westerosi told each other while sitting around the fire is coming to life. The White Walkers, Wun Wun the giant, the Children of the Forest (with Bran, coming back to the show soon), the mythic hero Azor Ahai, the sword Lightbringer, Drogon and, we hope, his sibling dragons, the dead rising, and hopefully even the righteous avenging nastiness of Lady Stoneheart, who systematically hunts down everyone who has ever done the Starks wrong, which, by now, is basically everyone in Westeros.
Weiss and Benioff have shown themselves adept at handling the supernatural elements of the show, and as they take front and center, season six should be the most fantastical yet.
David Perry is a journalist on disability, state violence, parenting, gender, and the cult of compliance. Follow him on Twitter.