The final episodes of each season of Game of Thrones are always accompanied by a unique blend of anticipation and dread. The book-reader portion of the audience has it easier, insulated as they are from the series’ infamous shocks and plot twists – until now. This season finale had less material from the novels than any episode before it and fittingly enough, took the opportunity to blindside the entirety of its audience. The first quarter of the episode wastes no time racking up a dismayingly high body count, including one of the last remaining candidates still vying for that much coveted title of ‘Lord of the Seven Kingdoms’. It doesn’t end there though; the rest of the episode has enough bloodshed to satiate the most murderous appetites. From sudden betrayals in Winterfell to some serious karmic retribution in Braavos, the episode’s title, ‘Mother’s Mercy’ feels like a cruel mockery of the concept. If this is the show producers’ idea of mercy, then it’s possible they might have colder hearts than the White Walkers.
(I apologize for the lack of pictures this week, my hard drive crashed and I lost my download)
The episode opens with the extinction of House Baratheon, a proud house that traced its beginnings all the way back to the start of the Targaryen dynasty. The house’s downfall is in no small part due to the follies of its final three sons but Stannis’ end, in particular, was just as hard and bitter as he was. There was a sense that after his actions in the last episode, he was truly lost and this episode wastes no time in delivering that point. Mutiny and insurmountable personal tragedy have never been ideal companions for warfare and the two together made the battle’s outcome a foregone conclusion long before the enemy soldiers approached. The irritating thing about this conclusion of Stannis foray into the North is how the audience finds itself feeling sorry for Stannis despite his deplorable actions in the previous episode. We clearly didn’t approve of the sacrifice but we mourn more than Stannis’ death and defeat; we also grieve that Shireen’s death was in utterly in vain. All actions have consequences and it would seem that even cold-hearted mercenaries will balk at serving under a man willing to burn his only child and heir to gain an uncertain advantage. It isn’t clear whether those very sellswords defected to the Boltons but as long as they weren’t on Stannis’ side, the outcome would have been no different. The absolutely insane thing about this entire sequence of events is how it somehow portrays Ramsay as this hypercompetent military man – it is his plan to take twenty good men to burn Stannis’ supplies, and it is Ramsay who leads the charge that deals the final blow to the final Baratheon pretensions to the throne. Given his cruelty and his actions in the past few seasons, it is hard not to feel like Ramsay is being rewarded when he ought to be punished. One can only hope that his victories here are the narrative equivalent of fattening a pig before its slaughter. Apart from that, the only dimly optimistic takeaway from Stannis’ end was the number of dead horses that littered the white snows outside Winterfell – remember, Stannis entered the battle with no cavalry.
There is something both fitting and unsettling about Brienne being the one to actually kill Stannis. This would be the first of her vows that she was actually able to uphold but this particular vow is a selfish one. Her other vows, like finding the Stark girls and serving Sansa, were made in a genuine attempt to help Catelyn and do some good. Her vow to kill Stannis was nothing more than revenge, despite her laughable attempts to mask it as justice. Brienne chooses to kill Stannis over watching out for Sansa and that in itself ties in very neatly with Jaime’s speech about conflicting duties and disappointingly, Brienne proceeds to prove him right by choosing the more convenient oath to uphold. So, is Stannis really dead, then? Is that all there is to the One True King? There are arguments to be made for either possibility. On one hand, death by Brienne would bring Stannis full circle; the first thing of note he really did was confront and then kill Renly and it’s almost poetic that the consequences of that confrontation would lead to his demise. On the other hand, however, it feels wrong for Brienne to be the one sullying her hands with his death. It would be one thing if she kills him in single combat but her killing Stannis when he is wounded and on death’s door cheapens it.
Stannis’ death has other repercussions as well, particularly at the Wall. To book readers and show viewers alike, the writing on the wall, no pun intended, was clear enough and has been for sometime. Martin’s universe has never been one that allows unpopular decisions to go unpunished and the resentment in the Watch has been stewing since the season’s beginning. That Olly should be the one who lures him and delivers the final blow was predictable but no less infuriating for it. This is by far the Watch’s darkest hour; even for a fighting force comprised largely of the worst kinds of criminals, the second institutional assassination of its leader in such a short span is a low point. Even before the assassination though, there was no good news to be found. Stannis’ defeat leaves the Watch without its only real external ally. Davos’ horror at learning of Shireen’s death was truly heartbreaking but curiously mirrored on Melisandre’s face. It was the look of a woman who has lost her faith – at every turn her visions have deceived her and now she has lost her champion. Her presence at the Wall bodes well for Jon however, as does her current crisis of faith. Thoros of Myr had a similar crisis before he first resurrected Beric Dondarrion but Davos’ patience might have reached its limits. It is interesting that John’s death was so very organised where in the novels it came at the end of a violent clash between the Wildings (specifically Wun Wun) and the Queen’s Men. Is the show implying that the aftermath in this case will be different?
Jon’s sisters aren’t having much fun either. Sansa’s suffering seems to have ended for now but it would appear that both she and Theon have nowhere to go once they escape the castle walls. Theon’s redemption came suddenly as well but given how many chances he has had to help Sansa out this season, late is certainly preferable to never. Alone, the two of them haven’t the slightest chance of successfully escaping anywhere – Ramsay has returned, with fresh horses and clear weather. The Wall is no option; even if Jon were still around, it’s simply too far and too vulnerable. Stannis no longer has an army that can shelter Sansa even temporarily. Their only shot, and it’s an uncertain one, is Brienne and Podrick. To call such saviours unlikely would be an extreme understatement but it would Brienne a chance to make good on her oath to Catelyn though it’s difficult to see how Sansa’s chances odds with Brienne are any better than they are with Theon. Meanwhile, Arya, who never really swallowed all this Faceless Man mumbo jumbo, takes a name off her list in a truly vicious manner. There was something simply chilling about watching her frantically at first, but then surgically, take Meryn Trant apart. It seems Sandor Clegane wasn’t far off the mark when he claimed any boy whore with a sword could kill Trant – he puts off little more than a token struggle but survives just long enough to recognise Arya’s name before drowning on his own blood and pain. With the sheer ruthlessness she displayed in murdering Trant, it was actually a little bit of a relief to see Arya cry over the Kindly Man’s ‘death’. It is a sign that she hasn’t become entirely like the men and women on her infamous list though all signs point to her being on the way.
On the subject of cold-hearted murder, it seems that contrary to what Oberyn Martell claimed last season, they do hurt little girls in Dorne. The conclusion to the Dornish storyline didn’t redeem it – if anything, it ensured that the arc would go down in the series’ history as the most pointless storyline in show. Jaime leaves King’s Landing to save Myrcella. He fails despite all his efforts – not because of mistakes he or his daughter made but rather because the plot demanded blood. Changing Ellaria Sand’s character from that of a heartbroken woman mourning her lover but protective of her children’s future to that of a vindictive, vengeful woman incapable of understanding the critical difference between guilt and innocence, was unfortunate. Changing her into a character that was would openly murder a child in cold blood is nothing short of character assassination and bad writing. Yet again Jaime fails to protect something dear to him but with the Dornish Prince onboard the same ship, does Ellaria really think that her plan would end well? It isn’t unreasonable for either of the following to happen: Trystane turns the ship around and demands justice from his father or Jaime holds Trystane hostage and leaves him to Cersei’s mercy,such as it is.
Of course, the Cersei he finds in King’s Landing will be very much a different woman from the fiery blonde he left. The lioness has been declawed, in the most brutal manner possible. Physically, Cersei’s agonisingly long walk to the Red Keep was harsh but hardly unbearable. Mentally, it is honestly impressive that the journey didn’t break her in two. Given her pride and the high esteem in which she held herself, the walk was all the crueller – it revealed her to the world, reduced her to the level of the people she claimed to be better than. The introduction of Sir Robert Strong may have buoyed her spirits but it might take more than that to mend her mind. Margaery was conspicuously absent from the finale, as was Loras but from the looks of things, it would seem that Loras will be facing the resurrected Gregor Clegane. It is a difficult match up when the Mountain was properly alive; undead, the odds seems insurmountably against the Knight of Flowers.
Last but not least, let us not forget those wandering the wilderness in Essos. Last week’s episode established Daenerys’ bond with Drogon but this episode established that she has yet to truly win the dragon to her side. It is noteworthy that she encounters the Khalasar in a position of weakness – dragon-less and unprotected, compared to the novels which had Drogon by her side chomping on what used to be a Dothraki warrior. It leaves her fate much more open ended: will she encounter hostility from the horsemen or something friendlier? The former would be more likely if the tone of this season is any indication. It would also give her not-so-gallant knights, Jorah and Daario, a chance to demonstrate their value by rescuing her. This means that Tyrion’s arc in the early portions of the next season will be very reminiscent of his tumultuous time in King’s Landing.
Looking back at the season, it is difficult, especially as a die-hard fan of the novels, not to feel some anxiety over the direction the story is taking. Even more troubling is seeing how poorly HBO’s producers’ fare without the skeleton of Martin’s plot for them to base their deviations on. In watching Game of Thrones so far, there has always been an assurance that no matter how cruel the cliffhanger, that the plot in the show wouldn’t deviate beyond certain limits. Behind the many knee jerk reactions and accusations of poor writing and character assassination, however, lies something simple enough: a fear of the unknown. It’s a fear that show-only fans are more than familiar with but something book-readers have yet to come to terms with. That is not to say that this season has not had some glaring issues: the Sand Snakes, the unsubstantiated character deaths, the poor fight choreography and haphazard plot and character development all come to mind. Yet, there have been some high points as well – not as many as past seasons – but ‘Hardhome’ was a great example, as was the episode before it, ‘The Gift’. For better or worse, the expectations of the series are high enough that two great episodes are barely sufficient to keep accusations of shark-jumping at bay, but there is enough good in this episode and the season as a whole to be cautiously optimistic about Season 6.