Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale Review: Mother’s Mercy

The bodies have piled up high for the Game of Thrones Season 5 finale, and we sort through what it all means...

Well was that eventful enough for you?

Quite often, Game of Thrones has been critiqued for choosing to end its seasons on muted notes. Usually, the fireworks are saved for the penultimate ninth episode, and the tenth, much like the novels they’re based on, ends with declining action and a denouement looking forward to the next year.

Similarly, the Game of Thrones season five finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” did not feature anything as visually extravagant as when Drogon lit up dozens of people like immolation was going out of style. But it certainly left the sullied and unsullied alike feeling like they got kicked in the stomach. Or perhaps just stabbed.

Indeed, like so many book readers have exclaimed upon reaching the end of A Dance with Dragons for the last four years, Jon Snow is dead! The Bastard of Winterfell who heroically overcame his societal disadvantage to commit his life to protecting the realm from demons, zombies, and other icy monstrosities, was brutally butchered by his own men in the dark as if it were a senatorial going away party for Julius Caesar.

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It is a bitter, bitter pill to end what was categorically Game of Thrones’ darkest (and perhaps most scattershot) year. Yet, before you start reaching for the mouse to unsubscribe from HBO out of disgust, let me just suggest that this is not the last we have seen of Jon Snow…I think.

Aye, now sullied and unsullied viewers alike can breathe the same rarified air with the knowledge that we have caught up with all of George R.R. Martin’s published “A Song of Ice and Fire” books to date. Thus, those who have read the books (such as your humble reviewer here), no longer have to walk on eggshells about spoilers. At this point, there are (probably) no major surprises left to be spoiled. This means that we are finally free to discuss the series with unbridled speculation about not what is to come, but what we hope will be the future.

So to look at the final moment of the night, and Jon Snow’s seeming death in it, we should consider what else happened this episode.

For instance, Jon Snow was completely isolated from any major supporters among the Night’s Watch when he sent Samwell Tarly to Oldtown to become a maester. Between the deaths of Grenn and Pyp last season, and Maester Aemon this year, Jon was left only with that weasley squire named Olly. He also foolishly put his trust in Olly and men like Ser Alliser Thorne (who Stannis warned he should send away), believing that because he was right that he also would be vindicated. But like Ned Stark, his ignorance of the details or personalities around him was his doom. And it was this kid who pulled a full Brutus on his supposedly beloved commander and sent him to go meet Ygritte in the afterlife.

But Jon does have other friends in Castle Black….or at least fans. If you have paid close attention this season, Melisandre was already sizing the new Lord Commander up as another boy with possible king’s blood and vigor. After all, the Starks were once kings in the North, and whatever other secrets lie in Jon Snow’s lineage, he is strong and true. He is also the last leader Melisandre has left to manipulate into fighting the White Walkers for her (more on that in a moment).

So Melisandre is in Castle Black, and Jon Snow is lying dead in it. The same Jon Snow that seemed like he was being groomed to be the titular “ice” in the “Song of Ice and Fire.” Also, it’s the same Jon Snow who has yet to learn the truth about his mother despite heavy foreshadowing in the first season. And finally, he’s the last character that audiences give a damn about still manning the Wall—the same structure that is supposed to obviously play a climactic role in the wars to come between the living and the dead that this series is so gleefully building to.

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In fact, I would dare say that Jon is the only thing keeping viewers from throwing up their hands and saying, “Let the White Walkers take them all!”

So, he can’t stay dead, right? Right.

For those who don’t recall, Melisandre is just one of several red priests/priestess’ we have met in Westeros. There was another in season three in fact, who went by the name of Thoros. And in case you forgot, which Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are likely banking on, Thoros had a little ability that allowed him to raise the dead, assuming of course they were freshly departed. Seven Hells, he’s done it at least a half-dozen times for Ser Beric Dondarrion, the leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Just watch this scene here for proof.

So, Jon Snow is dead. But I don’t think Kit Harington need worry about clearing his shooting schedule for this summer just yet. Maybe this Faustian deal with the red witch might even make her slightly tolerable again. She’ll need that after everything else that happened tonight.

Indeed, the real storyline that had any finality this season wasn’t at the Wall where Undead Jon will soon rise atop, but rather just slightly to the south by his previous stomping ground. For it was on the outskirts of Winterfell that Stannis Baratheon’s mad thrust for glory and crown, as well as supposed messiah status, melted away as quietly as the fading snow.

 I believe that Melisandre did have a vision of herself standing upon the battlements of Winterfell; I also believe that she did see the Boltons’ flags burn in the wind. However, it was not Stannis who will facilitate either prophecy since he is no chosen one. Instead, he chose to damn himself like every mad monarch of fiction and tragedy, and his ambition undid him all.

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Paying more than a passing nod to Shakespeare, Benioff and Weiss squinted long enough at Stannis until they found some Scottish roots to his ambition, as well as that of his wife Selyse. Like the Bard’s most famous medieval warlord duo, Selyse goaded her husband into doing anything to advance their name to king and queen, even an unforgivable sin that she only too late rued (albeit, Stannis’ betrayal of a loved one makes Macbeth look saintly). And like that iconic king and queen who allowed themselves to be led by a witch to ruin, Stannis and Selyse separated when, unable to sustain her guilt, the pathetic excuse of a mother took her life with a rope and by a tree.

Perhaps, it is the Elizabethan connotations, or simply the stunning range of flowing, incredulous emotions crossing Stephen Dillane’s face when he portrays Stannis’ bemused shock at Selyse and Melisandre’s abandonment, but I almost felt pity for the old fool. In his quest for power and righteousness, he doomed everything that could have mattered to him in a black puff of smoke.

So it is that as he faced Ramsay’s rested and fit cavalry before the plains of Winterfell that I was ready to see the proud failure run off the series to a just and ignominious end.

Yet, it is not to be. In fact, I don’t believe for a second Stannis died. While after what Stannis did to Shireen, I was prepared to watch him be flayed alive by Ramsay and smile, this is not where Benioff and Weiss end his story. Sure, this is a legitimate conclusion to his failed grasp for the throne, but it doesn’t mean Stannis himself is no more. If he were truly dead, why would the writers and director David Nutter not show Brienne’s blade penetrate his black heart? Rather, we glimpse Brienne, who predictably left her watch at the exact moment that Sansa Stark lit a candle, strike hard and true in the general direction of Stannis, but not on his head.

Brienne has made a career out of failing to complete her oaths, whether they be for protecting Renly Baratheon, Catelyn Stark, or Catelyn’s daughter, the only thing that Brienne can finish is getting Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing. But by the end of that journey, I don’t think anyone (including Brienne) thought it was achieved because of a love for Cat.

No, for whatever reason, Brienne saw a beaten but human Stannis and chose to spare his life. The full extent of her reasoning we will not see until season six, so I cannot truly judge it, but I will offer my first criticism that could be parroted throughout the night for season five: why are there so many cliffhangers?

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For certain, no season has ended with a sense of finality, because the story is always building, and the game is always going. However, no previous season has ended with so many cliffhangers piling up to the Seven Heavens like this. Not even counting Jon Snow, since his death is an obvious end to seasons of acrimony between him and his sworn brothers, almost every plotline this year finished with things not only up in the air, but ambiguous as to whether a character will go left or right. Did Stannis live or die? How about Sansa and Theon? And let’s not forget whether Dany will live or die in her next moment before the Dothraki revisited (I tend to think we can guess the answers).

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

Unfortunately, most of these rather anti-climactic teases are a cumbersome habit that George R.R. Martin picked up during the writing of his last two books, Crows and Dragons. As a result, I dread the series could not avoid such unsatisfyingly contrived ending points for this episode, but that doesn’t mean they had to create their very own out of whole cloth between Brienne and Stannis.

Similarly, it is wonderful to see that Theon at last remembered his faintest trace of humanity when Sansa’s life was in danger. For two seasons, we have waited to see Theon do something resembling redemption. While that ship might have sold too many moons ago for the boy who now rhymes with meek, his name still also rhymes with sneak.

And Reek was very sneaky when he put on his proverbial Darth Vader mask and sent Myranda on a swan dive into the courtyard during the last minute save of a younger relative. Theon then took Sansa by the hand and jumped the entire length of Winterfell’s walls into what is hopefully very deep snow. Either that or the faintest sprinkling, because it’s better to die from the fall than to be alive when Ramsay finds your broken body.

With that said, we again know for a fact they lived since Game of Thrones would have otherwise shown their tattered and mangled corpses strewn on the ground below.  Still, it was a great moment that even had Sansa standing up for herself in small ways when she broke out of her cell with her own ingenuity. With that said, I cannot help but feel like her entire stint in Winterfell has been a wasted opportunity.

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I still think sending Sansa to the North where she could start playing “the game” was a savvy move by Benioff and Weiss, as opposed to her withering away for a whole season while riding a horse around the Vale. However, she did not play the game like the series promised and her arc demanded. Instead, she was brutally victimized by Ramsay (repeatedly) and then saved by Theon. Sansa did not acquit herself or retake Winterfell. Thus for the time being, this perfectly solid ending to the Winterfell melodrama still feels hollowed out.

At least Sansa’s sister Arya got to finish her season’s plotline in more spectacular fashion. I doubt anyone was surprised to see Arya hidden away among Ser Meryn Trant’s child lovers, nor that she was finally able to scratch another name off her kill list in beautifully bloody fashion. I normally don’t fist-bump the air when a character is physically blinded with a blade or subsequently sliced by a razor across the throat, but this scene could have been done in slow motion.

Of course, however, Arya’s lie about killing for the Faceless Men (as opposed to Arya Stark) fooled nobody, and as a punishment, the man I think is Jaqen took her eyesight. However, this too feels like a temporary punishment, and I’m sure that Arya will have both her eyes when she crosses the Narrow Sea again in season seven, hopefully to make bee-line for Walder Frey.

Farther to the east still, Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, and the rest of the Meereen cast enjoys a more traditional Game of Thrones season finale experience since they are simply dividing duties for season six: Jorah and Daario will go into the wild to track Daenerys, and Tyrion will rule Meereen with the more publicly acceptable faces of Grey Worm and Missandei. Even Varys is back!

I am generally fine with all of this since Tyrion was at his most enjoyable when he had a bit of power and sadism while ruling a grand old cesspool in season two. In fact, my only real criticism of any of this amusing scene, which revolves around all of Dany’s supporting cast learning what a smart mouth the smallest of Lannisters tends to be, is that it telegraphs that Dany’s story will remain in Meereen for at least most of season six. After a season and a half in that town, I am ready to see them all board a boat and head to Westeros. Seriously, if Benioff and Weiss are genuine about Game of Thrones being only seven seasons, they can’t be saving Dany reaching her home continent until the final season. Can they?!?!

Then again, it is hard to imagine Dany getting anywhere near Westeros since she is back in the hands of the Dothraki. This sequence begins wonderfully enough with Dany realizing that she should have studied a tutorial entitled “How to Train Your Dragon” when she climbs onto Drogon’s back. She must learn the hard way that when training a pet, you need to be firm as well as have a reward for obedience. Since Drogon just ate very well from a slew of Dany’s Harpy enemies, she has no carrot, and because his next aspiration is to sleep away the pain of his wounds, she’s out of luck when she climbs on his back.

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She may be the Mother of Dragons, but she really has lost almost all authority with the little ones as they approach adolescence. As a result, Dany appears to seriously be considering walking all the way back to Meereen before she realizes just how far out of Slaver’s Bay she has traveled—such as all the way to where the Dothraki still hold sway.

So it is that Daenerys’ storyline for season five also ends on a cliffhanger, if a cleverer one, since she realizes that she is about to be taken prisoner by the Dothraki once more. The Silver Queen and the Breaker of Chains may be chained herself once more by the horse lords considering the ominous detail that she knows to leave her ring as a breadcrumb for Daario and Jorah to follow.

However, I think (or hope) that we are not going to go back to the powerless Daenerys of season one who was as much a captive as a Khaleesi. She still has Drogon on her side whenever the big guy decides to wake up, and she has an army looking for her. But most importantly, we know that Martin’s original vision for Daenerys was for her to invade the Seven Kingdoms with an army of horse riding Dothraki by her side. I imagine that still might be the end game when she crosses the sea—hopefully next year.

At least, I can say that Daenerys has learned some hard lessons about ruling in season five, and she has watched her ideals and platitudes go up in smoke in the face of violent resistance to her Slaver’s Bay occupation. In short, despite not moving far geographically, Dany’s character went through quite the humbling, and even grew enough to seem to accept Tyrion and Jorah into her employment.

So, any narrative stalling that might have occurred in Meereen, it still felt worthwhile. Which is more than I can say about Dorne. Of all the places Game of Thrones could choose to waste its fifth season, seeing a near 10-episode long build to what could have been a single scene of Ellaria Sand killing Myrcella Baratheon feels like the worst misappropriation of time in the series’ five-year history. Also, despite all that time, the series never gave us much reason to care for Myrcella; her last minute acceptance of Uncle Jaime also being her papa didn’t mean any more than her perfunctory demise in his arms.

There is not even any immediate fallout, such as this sequence leading to Doran executing his sister-in-law for obviously breaking his command, or Jaime seeking revenge. What makes this absurdly more frustrating is that literary Jaime spent this segment of his storyline in the riverlands, returning a favor to Catelyn for sparing his life by successfully taking Riverrun without killing a single person on either side (including Catelyn’s captured brother Edmure). He also further shows his distance by choosing to pursue this mission over helping Cersei in her time of need.

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But on the show, Jaime was given one boring task to do—retrieve Myrcella—and he failed. That was his arc, folks.

It has already been revealed Game of Thrones will be shooting in Spain again for season six. If that means more time wasted in Dorne, I can already feel the stomach turn with queasiness.

However, lest you think this writer a total curmudgeon, there was one last storyline that ended spectacularly on tonight’s Game of Thrones finale. Sadly though, “spectacularly” for Martin means maliciously cruel.

I have written in the past about how it is Martin’s way to give readers (and by extension viewers) exactly what they want in the most subversive and disorienting manner. And this is perhaps nowhere more true than in the shaming of Cersei Lannister upon the streets of King’s Landing.

For almost five seasons, we have watched this vain, self-absorbed narcissist with delusions of brilliance succumb increasingly to her own paranoia and egotism. Just once could someone wipe that smirk off her face, cried everyone!

But when her humbling and humiliation finally came, it was in the most grotesque and unsettling of forms. I know some still took delight in watching Cersei lick water off the floor, but seeing any woman forcibly sheared of hair is an ugly barbarity. But that is just the beginning of her humiliation as Cersei is quite literally shamed for her sexuality and her femininity by holier-than-thou demagogues.

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Undoubtedly, this sequence will be scrutinized for its depiction of a woman humiliated and violently disrobed in public. However, I do not think this scene was gratuitous or sexist at all. Rather, it is a damningly knowing critique of religion and how women are often viewed in it.

While Game of Thrones is a pure fantasy with a fictional version of medieval fanaticism to boot, all too often women are punished for simply having bodies that men subject to their gaze, as well as for urges that men are never equally admonished for. Cersei did commit adultery with Lancel Lannister, however Lancel also committed treason by lying with a married queen, as well as sinned before the eyes of the Seven. But he was not forced to walk naked through the streets and made the object of derision and mockery for all of King’s Landing to gawk at.

No, Lancel is a man, and Cersei is a woman. And for all of his piety, the High Sparrow is just as misogynist as the men who wrote in holy books about not suffering witches to live, to stone adulterous wives, and who throughout the centuries have burned, hanged, or in various ways punished or imprisoned women in their homes, choice of clothes, or very bodies. More directly, it resembles the walk of “penance” (shame) endured by Jane Shore, one of the four mistresses of King Edward IV of England who in 1483, as punishment after Edward’s death for supposed crimes of “witchcraft,” she was forced to walk through the streets of London in her kirttle (underwear).

In a cloak of righteousness, the High Sparrow tortured Cersei in the most vulgar way by turning her into a sexual joke before her own kingdom, and not because she sinned, but because she was a woman who thought she could get away with it. Lancel can. Robert can. Cersei must become synonymous in Westerosi history books with the whore. And this knowledge that Headey is able to convey on Cersei’s face is devastating.

Game of Thrones has had some scathing indictments about the history of religion, medieval or otherwise, this season. But none have been more visceral than watching Cersei scrape her bloody feet across cobblestone while spit dripped down the side of her face. I have written in the past about how the High Sparrow is greatly based on Savonarola of Renaissance Florence. But even Savonarola stopped at merely forcing women to burn their jewelry and clothes—he didn’t strip them of the cloth in the street.

No, the High Sparrow is a nastier piece of work for this fantasy. One that even has us, perhaps for the first time in forever, dreaming of our own violent revenges alongside Cersei and her newly resurrected Frankenstein-Mountain. Martin can still make readers and viewers complicit with the strangest bedfellows after all these years.

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For that reason, along with Theon pulling a full Darth Vader pose on Winterfell’s battlements, and Stannis and Jon meeting their destinies, Game of Thrones season five ended strong if not amazingly.

As a whole, the fifth year of Game of Thrones was the most violent and grimmest 10-hour chunk yet. This could not be ever fully avoided since it was the season where characters like Cersei (for a time) and the Boltons came into complete power, and it was also the year that could not end in any other way than with Jon and a red gush.

Still, even as winter encroaches for next season, I hope that Benioff and Weiss can shake off some of the flaws from A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows that weighed down the fifth year, as well as prove that they can find their own path with the grace and that allowed them to craft that brilliant “Hardhome” sequence…and less the on-the-nose plotting that led to the year’s Dornish thud.

Still, as a whole, season five cleared the series’ stormiest weather from the source material. The show seems a little battered compared to the superior, previous four seasons, but there is no shark in sight yet for it to skip over. Thus, I will be an optimist and hope for blue skies as we sail headlong into winters’ now unavoidable winds.

But that is a discussion for another feature for another day (check back here later this week on that very subject!). In the meantime, I will say for all the bumps this year met, watching and reviewing Game of Thrones season five has been a genuine pleasure. I hope you have enjoyed it too and will be along for the ride again. Until then, at last my watch has ended.

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3.5 out of 5