A brutal, controversial season comes to a brutal, controversial end with most of the cast either dead, distraught or in dire peril; despite flashes of humour and the odd little candle in the darkness, this year’s Game of Thrones finale is the show’s bleakest yet.
“Mother’s Mercy” begins with a smattering of hope for Stannis at first as Winter seems to thaw out a little, but it doesn’t last: suddenly, the sellswords are gone, Selyse is dead and even Melisandre isn’t hanging around to watch what happens next. It’s a measure of how slowly most of this season has moved that Stannis’s death, inevitable though it is, leaves the viewer, or this viewer at any rate, reeling at its speed – I know Brienne’s revenge was for Renly who died seasons ago, but for most of us it was for Shireen who died last week – and confused as to how to feel about it. I spent years learning to appreciate Stannis. Then last week he did something unforgiveable. And this week he’s dead. Should I be glad? Should I mourn the lost potential of a man who let ambition and fanaticism consume him? Or should I just be infuriated that, no matter what happens, RAMSAY INDESTRUCTIBLE BOLTON just will not die?
No confusion as to how I feel about Ramsay, of course. He remains as psychotic in battle as in repose, but at least – thank GOD – fighting Stannis’s army distracts him at last, while Sansa takes the initiative, Theon takes back his spine and the Ramsay Bolton Survivors Group takes a leap out into the unknown. PLEASE let them make it. If only because I cannot watch another season of “Torture at Winterfell: Flayed Man Edition” without losing my mind.
As Sansa escapes her prison cell, meanwhile, Cersei finds a way out of hers too, sacrificing pride and dignity in a bid to make it back to the Red Keep. And it works too, but the price she has to pay is immeasurable: Cersei has been venal, vicious and cruel over the past five seasons, but no one deserves the humiliation of that “Walk of Shame.” An astonishingly callous, horrific punishment designed to strip the victim of their very humanity, watching it was difficult and disturbing, filming it must have been the same and the people out there complaining about Lena Headey using a body double are wilfully and depressingly missing the entire point. If she doesn’t want to, Lena Headey shouldn’t have to take off her clothes and subject herself to public leering, any more than Cersei should. GOT’s messages can be pretty muddled sometimes but this one was crystal clear: FFS stop thinking about women’s bodies, about anyone’s bodies, as yours to exploit and control.
Of course, if you’d told me a couple of seasons ago that I’d be desperately willing poor Cersei on and having to comfort myself with the thought that she will return and she will destroy all these people and they will deserve it, I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you’d told me I wouldn’t give an oyster in vinegar about Arya destroying one of her enemies, I wouldn’t have believed that either, but this has been a strange season. The Arya story has been going round in tiresome circles for far too long now, the killing of Meryn Trant was far too violent and unpleasant to seem in any way satisfying, and whatever happened in the Black and White Day Spa for the Dead…. I don’t understand it and I don’t care to, because Arya is officially the new Bran and needs to take the rest of the series off.
As do Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. Poor Myrcella in her big froofy princess dress – who dresses like that for a long journey by sea? – we barely knew you. Which makes your death sad but oddly unaffecting. And makes this entire Dorne storyline seem even more poorly executed; since Trystane’s also on the boat, I suppose it can’t be over yet but I can only hope he’ll prove less annoying than his cousins, or we’re in for a highly frustrating season six.
On the annoying front, Danaerys is on a hillside, surrounded by somewhat threatening Dothraki and I know it’s too much to hope that we can just leave her to it, but things are so much more fun without her. In the Danerys-less Meereen, Tyrion and Daario exchange quips, Jorah Mormont plays straight man and Grey Worm and Missandei don’t really get the joke, but it’s very funny anyway and particularly welcome in amidst all the darkness and horrors of the rest of the ep. It’s disappointing to see all this fun end as Daario and Mormont set off to go get her instead of keeping the good times going but the show has one last gift for us to sweeten that particular deal: Varys! His reunion with Tyrion is a joy; a delightfully snarky two-minute scene more entertaining and more affectionate than five seasons of anything involving the Mother of Dragons. Varys for King, I tell you. Varys and Tyrion forever!
Not that anything is forever in GOT. Sigh. No, a brief, sweet farewell to Sam, and then it’s all over for the Lord Commander in the greatest blow to the already exhausted, thoroughly demoralised audience’s hopes since the death of one Ned Stark.
But Jon Snow can’t be gone, can he? Have we really spent five seasons building him up to the point where he’s humanity’s last, best, only hope for survival…. only for his story to end like this? GOT kills hugely important characters all the time and they tend to stay dead, but normally the killing (of eg Ned, Robb, Joffrey, etc ) serves the story in some way and surely Jon Snow dying only serves the story if Jon Snow comes back to life? The internet is awash with theories as to how, but a common thread runs through them all: if he’s not to be resurrected, what’s the point of killing him?
No doubt people will remind me that GOT prides itself on its refusal to follow established rules of storytelling, but those rules exist for a reason – they make for good stories. And, while there’s a very big chance this is the denial stage of my grief talking, I can’t see how Jon Snow’s is over yet. He died, yes. But not till a Red Priestess with mad magic skills who’s always been a little too interested in him ever-so-coincidentally popped back into his orbit. I agree with the fans and commentators out there who’re convinced he’s coming back at some point, as some thing. Otherwise nihilism trumps narrative, shock value trumps story and I need a long lie down.
Then again, this is Game of Thrones, so everything’s possible. It’s been a difficult, not entirely successful season; perhaps because the show has caught up with the source material, the writers have struggled to wrangle the characters, whittle the over-arching story back into something manageable and still keep the momentum going. Which is not to say this season has been a failure. There have been plenty of fantastic moments, plenty of wonderful performances and the battle of Hardholme has been a highlight of the entire series. Episodes eight, nine and this season finale have all been astonishingly powerful in their own ways. But the season took a very long time getting to them, with the show’s over-reliance on torture and sexual violence wearing many of us down: the more suffering and killing that we watch, the less it means, and the less it means, the less we care about the characters and the story. I thought “Mother’s Mercy” was excellent, Kit Harington and Lena Headey were terrific, and I still love Game of Thrones, but I love it significantly less now than I did last season, and I’m not alone. For season six, the writers need to take stock of what’s working and what isn’t and focus more on tightening up rather than sexing up the story. And they also need to bring back Jon Snow.