Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Game of Thrones review - S05E10 - Mother's Mercy (TV SPOILERS)

Mutinies everywhere


“A grand old city choking on violence, corruption and deceit.”

So, like…winter came…and then went. In, like, 3 weeks. The end of the world is working out better for some but not others – we get suckerpunched into the death of another major character and a definitive answer for other players in this Game of Thrones. Cersei gets “slut-shamed”, Westeros-style, Melisandre is exposed and there are several tales of woe this week. In the bloodiest season finale yet, a whole lot of fortunes get turned upside down. Find out what’s got them Game of Thrones folk so excited - dive into the S5 finale!

Jon Snow is stabbed repeatedly and (probably) killed by Brothers of the Night’s Watch for “betraying” them by bringing surviving wildlings through the tunnel. Samwell Tarly goes to Oldtown with Gilly and her baby to study to be a Maester. Stannis Baratheon’s army is reduced by half when all the sellswords leave, but he marches on anyway, losing badly in the process. He is executed by Brienne of Tarth. Arya Stark kills Meryn Trant but is punished by Jaqen H’ghar by being made blind (unknown if permanent). Cersei Lannister “confesses” to her sins and is released, but not before being paraded naked in front of the whole city. Danaerys Targaryen has been transported by her dragon to a safe zone but soon finds herself surrounded by an unknown Khalasar. Tyrion Lannister, Missandei & Grey Worm are left in charge of Meereen while Jorah Mormont and Daario Naharis go looking for Danaerys. Lord Varys arrives to help Tyrion. Sansa and Theon/Reek jump the walls of Winterfell’s castle, to an unknown conclusion. Jaime Lannister & Myrcella Baratheon/Lannister are travelling back to Kings Landing when Myrcella develops a nosebleed and (presumably) dies, having been poisoned by Ellaria Sand. Episode concludes on Jon Snow’s pained face and his blood spreading out on the floor of Castle Black.

There were several themes to this episode: vengeancefaith, love as a capricious creature, and mutiny. Cersei, Melisandre and Arya are all beholden to a God or to people who are themselves beholden to a God. They do so much to please gods, all false, and still end up back at square one. For love, see Jaime and Cersei, Tyrion and Shae and Myrcella and Trystane, all affairs that have left those involved with varying degrees of scarring. Then there's mutiny: Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow face mutinies from their own soldiers, while Cersei and Danaerys face mutinies from the cities they rule. And finally, vengeance: Brienne chose vengeance over keeping her watchful eye on Sansa, Arya chose vengeance over carrying out her "mission" from the Many-Faced-God and the Night's Watch chose vengeance over the wildling foray instead of uniting against the White Walker threat. 

All said, I quite enjoyed this episode, if “enjoyed” is the right word – it was dark and almost unremittingly grim, but it was also courageous and had one awesome visual after another. Unfortunately, the amount of stuff in the books means that at the business end of a season, Benioff & Weiss are left trying to pack in as much as they can, with not a second wasted. However, telling a story isn't like ticking as many boxes as possible, and consequently, many storylines felt rushed, not least of all the five minutes we spent with Sansa.

It was easily the bloodiest final episode of any season and it served to close off some storylines and leave others on cliffhangers. The only things in this episode that truly surprised me were Jon Snow’s death, Sansa and Theon escaping (I think they're alive) and Brienne getting her revenge for Renly (I assume Stannis is dead).

Like other episodes this season, every scene here looked excellent and it’s obvious that the Cersei, Danaerys and Stannis scenes used a lot of extras and cost a lot of money. The wide pan angles for all those shots looked magnificent and props need to go to the HBO team for giving Benioff & Weiss the resources to pull off these stunts. Given all this mayhem, I feel like Benioff and Weiss are having so much fun along the way that we may never get “there”, to some sort of resolution.

Anyway, as you can see from the summary above, a lot happened in the season finale. Every episode in GoT has shocks and this episode was no different: the massacre of Baratheon troops, Arya’s vicious attack on Meryn Trant, Cersei’s humiliation at the hands of the Faith Militant (although this was painful if nothing else) and so on. However, it was yet another killing off of a Jon Snow, a “safe” character, that really feels daring I’m all for brutality for logical and plot reasons, but killing off too many major characters can leave the audience wondering why they should care for anybody on the show. This death, if it is a death (more below), feels different to the deaths of Ned Stark, Robb Stark or Oberyn Martell. Ned was killed after 9 episodes, we saw Robb for 5mins every other episode and Oberyn was around for only about 5 episodes in total. Snow, on the other hand, has been around for 5 seasons and was the font of so many storylines – the White Walkers, the love between people on different sides of the Wall (Ygritte), the Stark legacy, the friendship with Tarly and so on. This one really hurts, George!

Of course, there are plenty of A Song of Ice & Fire enthusiasts out there who think he’s not really dead and that some sort of magic or Warging will bring him back. Is the presence of Melisandre critical here? Will this be the only good thing she ever does?

“I’m glad the end of the world is working out for someone”

In terms of legacy, the little bit of exposition between Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly may well have been the info Samwell needs for becoming a Maester and coming back to help defeat the White Walkers. It’s quite surprising that despite the turbulence all around Snow, Tarly wants to leave. And strangely, Jon lets him.

I have the sense that the show is more interested in the dramatic elements of this storyline and that a resurrection based on magic will not be forthcoming. This storyline is yet another Game of Thrones morality tale – Jon Snow’s decency and honour are sadly qualities not normally rewarded in Westeros. Snow was so busy looking at the big picture of the coming war between the White Walkers and First Men/Andals that he didn’t notice the small picture and the danger materialising all round him. The Night’s Watch just wouldn’t be able to swallow his exertions with the wildlings. Taken in isolation, Jon Snow’s ending makes sense, in a brutal, old-world kind of way – his people thought he betrayed them and sacrificed Brothers for wildlings. Snow’s second mistake was to ignore Stannis’s advice, which was to sideline Thorne to “Eastwatch by the Sea” so he couldn’t make any trouble for Snow.

This is not to say that Jon Snow was stupid or naïve – at times, he displayed ruthlessness (dispatching Janos Slynt’s head), courage (against the wildlings in S4) and wisdom – upon seeing the Baratheon massacre, I considered how prescient Snow had been to decline Stannis’s offer to lead his army into Winterfell. But it was all just a little too short. Jon Snow did everything right, except know who his friends are, as Varys says later.

Another person who thought he did everything he could have is Stannis Baratheon, the tragic anti-hero of Westeros. We know the showrunners like their Greek history (Shireen’s sacrifice being an analogue of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia), so here’s another comparison: like Sisyphus, Stannis carries a great burden up a hill just to see it fall down the other side. Ser Davos’s heroics, Melisandre’s magic and his daughter’s sacrifice were all in vain, and culminated in his being executed by an unsuccessful Knight (a woman, no less!) in a forest in the middle of nowhere, with no legacy at all. Any other show would’ve let Stannis have a final hurrah, perhaps inflict serious damage on the Boltons, but no. Stannis just hadn’t done the preparation. One of the things I like about GoT is the lack of overt sentimentality – Stannis has no soliloquy before he dies, just a “get on with it then”. Having Brienne kill Stannis was a great way for GoT to recall history, bringing together events from S2 episode 5.

The look of utter bewilderment on Melisandre’s face as she realises the sacrifice was not enough is priceless. Melisandre's cowardly retreat only underlines her villainous credentials - back at Castle Black, she doesn’t mention that Shireen died because of a ritualistic sacrifice rather than in battle. It'll be interesting to see what her role is now that Stannis is (probably) dead. Will it be to revive Jon Snow? It should be said that Melisandre’s predictions may not necessarily be incorrect – Bolton banners may indeed be burning at some point in the future, just not now.

But really, Stannis got here because of a series of tactical and personal errors (sacrificing your only daughter for military victory, anyone?) and his relentless march to Winterfell proved to be his final folly. It’s easy to recap his tactical errors – not knowing about the Lannister-Tyrell alliance that decimated his army back in S3, attacking the North when he knew winter was coming, waiting too long at Castle Black and bizarrely, allowing 20 Bolton men to cripple his army’s base camp. However, the moment when he really lost the Iron Thrones was when he sacrificed his own daughter to the God of Light, in the hope of military victory. This turned not only fans of the show against him but his own soldiers, who ran away before dawn. Battered, bruised and decimated, Stannis was more afraid of shame than death, and this pride is what propelled him and his demoralised “army” towards certain death. Note the resignation on his face when he sees the size of the Bolton army marching towards him. Stannis is not the proudest person in Westeros, however…

“I have sinned – I see that now”
Cersei has been on a tremendous journey this season, starting the season as the venal, capricious, supercilious tyrant who first helps the Faith Militant put away Queen Margaery and Loras. This act emboldens them enough to have the courage to parade her naked around Kings Landing. In a way, the food and effluvia thrown on Cersei is the ordinary city folk rebelling against the only humbled authority figure they could find. And the worst thing about it all? Having to go home to “uncle” Kevan, Maester Pycelle, Maester Qyburn and his abominable Mountain 2.0. Of those four, only Maester Qyburn doesn’t completely detest Cersei, and comforts her with a vaguely disturbing promise that the Mountain 2.0 will kill everybody responsible for Cersei’s treatment. Interestingly Cersei still denies her liaison with Jaime, since it would delegitimise her children, which she would never allow.

 “All hail the royal tits”
As Cersei looks towards the royal palace, the Red Keep seems so far away.
Anyway, when Game of Thrones chooses to take a character down a few pegs, it really doesn’t hold back, even if it’s a major player like Cersei. George RR Martin and the showrunners have extended her the courtesy of keeping her alive, but that doesn’t mean she has to be treated well. So we find ourselves in the strange position of feeling sorry for her, but at this point one of two things can happen – one of which would be interesting and the other even more so: she can either wreak unholy, vicious vengeance on everybody involved with the full force of the Lannisters and Kings Landing City Watch. This could be interesting, but what would be really interesting if Cersei is forced to reconsider her life – should she really repent? Is her way of life the reason that she can’t protect the ones she loves? Next season will be crucial.

Arya / Braavos
One ray of light amongst all this was the heroes of GoT winning out over the villains. All too often, the good guys in GoT are meek, quixotic and merciful. But Arya did not waste her chance – it was served up to her on a golden platter, after all. Meryn Trant, one of the most odious people in GoT, liked raping little girls in a brothel. Arya grabbed this opportunity with both hands, filling Trant’s body with holes. Good riddance. There was excellent acting from Ian Beattie who manages to look surprised despite having no eyes. But of course, this being GoT, the good guys still need to pay…Arya becomes blind as a consequence of disobeying the Many Faced Gods. This scene left me slightly confused, but that was probably the intention. If Arya is excommunicated, does she return to Westeros?

Jaime / Dorne
Jaime - “We can’t choose whom we love”
Cersei (earlier in season) – “We can’t protect those we love”
Tyene Sand: “You want a good girl, but you want the bad pussy”
This storyline seemed quite toothless until this week, when we realise that Ellaria Sand has poisoned Myrcella Baratheon. As usual, Benioff & Weiss wanted the gut punch to really matter, so they made us feel for both characters before they offed Myrcella. Goodbye Myrcella, we hardly knew ye. So House Lannister may well go to war with Dorne, which may leave the door open for an outside force to attack. The Tyrells, perhaps?

Sansa & Theon / Winterfell
“If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left”
Theon is BACK in the building. A lot of people are speculating that Theon & Sansa are dead but I don’t think so, mostly because even for GoT it would’ve been too ruthless to kill them and then just cut to another scene. There must be some saving grace there. Myranda is a little crazy but she does go out with a bang, with a short, sharp death. Nice CGI.

Meereen + Danaerys
While Drogon is doing his sulky teen thing, Danaerys goes off to forage and finds herself surrounded by a Khalasar…again. But this time it’s hard to see it going well. Meanwhile Daario & Jorah, if they manage to not kill each other, are going looking for her. Hopefully they’ll notice her little ring on the steppes.
Back in Mereen, Tyrion has some great lines, as usual:

 “You love her, don’t you?” to nobody in general
“Of course it’s hopeless for the both of you…swellsword from the fighting pit and a disgraced knight…but we always want the wrong woman”
 “My Valyrian is a bit tonsil” Yeah, some Valyrian.

The upshot of all the bickering is, as resolved calmly by (a strangely serene) Daario Naharis is that Tyrion, Missandei and Grey Worm will be left to rule the city while Jorah & Daario, the warriors of the camp, go get Danaerys, who has flown North. Finally Tyrion gets to show his political chops. And so we have the situation that a Lannister dwarf, an Unsullied and a hand maiden are effectively running an ancient and proud city, while the real ruler is AWOL. As Tyrion says, the city is on the brink of civil war, so the stakes are very high for the next episode in Meereen. Varys’s return is a little inexplicable in that he seems to have just skipped past security, but his theatrical tones were much missed.

Tyrion: “How did you find me?” Lord Varys: “The birds sing in the East and the birds sing in the West”
Lord Varys: “Information is the key… know your enemy’s strengths & weaknesses… learn which of your friends are not your friends…”

Anyway, all of that sets up season 6 quite nicely. I’ve enjoyed writing about these episodes, hope you have enjoyed reading! Let me know what you guys think! Season review to follow.


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