Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale Recap: Facing the Music

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Jon and Sam's last conversation. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Game of Thrones
Episode Title
Mother’s Mercy
Season
5
Episode
10
Editor’s Rating
4/5

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

Judging by my Twitter feed, it seems that last night’s finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” may be the end of Game of Thrones for some viewers. A long, drawn-out scene that mingled sex, violence, and voyeurism; intense gruesomeness; a billion plots; the “shocking” cliff-hanger death of a beloved character — it was as if showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff decided to double down on all the things viewers criticize most about the show. I could literally feel people out there recoiling and throwing their remotes.

The episode begins with what feels like an ending: Stannis surveying the results of his horrible decision to sacrifice his daughter to Melisandre’s visions. The first shot is of melting icicles, which should be a sign of hope — a sign that the thaw has arrived, and that Shireen’s death has had the intended effect of easing her father’s passage to Winterfell. But the shrinking icicles seem to convey how Stannis himself has been diminished by his act. Half of his men have deserted him. His wife hangs herself in the woods — wracked with guilt, presumably, for having felt those first pangs of mother’s mercy a split second too late. Lady Melisandre has ridden out of the camp.

This episode had a curious, fascinating rhythm — enough so that I almost wish I had the stomach to watch it again to pick apart the editing. Despite it being an hour that was packed to the gills with Stuff Happening, there were all these strange ellipses and moments of silence. Stephen Dillane’s Stannis seemed half-dead from the very beginning, his reactions so slow, his face so ragged. His siege on Winterfell arrives stillborn: Just as he announces that they’ll storm the castle at sunrise, he looks up to see the Boltons’ army advancing in one long, snaky line. A long beat, a look down, and then he pulls out his sword to face the fate he knows he must. We in the audience get no big battle scene; the action jumps straight to the aftermath of the rout. (The way the two armies were shot from high above, as if they were swarms of black ants, contributed to a feeling of dreamlike detachment; we’re watching ghosts that have already passed.) By the time Brienne arrives to finish him off, her revenge is just a formality.

Stannis knows he’s got what’s coming to him. When Brienne accuses him of killing his brother with blood magic, he simply confesses. What would be the point of denying it at this point? If the too-many-plots-ness of the finale worked better for me than it did for Vulture’s livebloggers, I think it’s because there was a sense, through many of the story lines, that what we were seeing was the consequence of past actions — not always justified consequences, for sure, but the beats didn’t feel as random as they do in many super-plot-heavy GOT episodes. “Don’t blame me for your crimes, Mormont,” Tyrion warns Jorah the Andal. And indeed, several key characters last night had to look at themselves and face things they themselves had set into motion.

In Arya’s case, she literally had to face herself. Several viewers last week predicted that Arya would find her way into the Braavosi brothel, making use of Meryn Trant’s taste for young girls. I definitely didn’t need to see Meryn actually beat those children, nor did I need to see Arya’s savage attack on him once she revealed her true face to him. (Though I liked, if I can use that word here, which I’m not sure I can, the way her slow slitting of his throat echoed the way her mother died — as if she were subconsciously seeking a poetic revenge for a scene she didn’t actually witness.) But when I take the scene as a whole, something about the awfulness of those moments felt answered, or maybe acknowledged, by the scariness of the ending. (Giving the writers too much credit? Entirely possible.)

Again, there’s a long, silent beat as Arya returns to the Hall of Faces to hang up the skin-face she’d been wearing as a disguise. (Was it the face of the girl she gave the gift of the Many-Faced God to in episode six?) Her smile is short-lived, as she’s quickly caught by the Waif and not-Jaqen, who tells her that “a debt is owed” for taking a life that was not hers to take. (Which brings up the question of how the Faceless Men decide whose lives are okay to dispense with, but that’s another piece.)

It looks for a second like not-Jaqen is going to poison Arya, but then he drinks it himself. For perpetually abandoned Arya, this is a surprising and terrifying outcome — not-Jaqen has not always been warm or kind, but he is an adult who’s sheltered and tutored her. Quickly, though, this lesson dissolves into something uncanny; the waif transforms into not-Jaqen and tells Arya that the dead man now lying before her, wearing his face, is “no one — just as a girl should have been.” Arya frantically pulls a series of faces off the dead body until, finally, her own is revealed. Suddenly, her vision starts failing, and she seems to go blind — shades of Macbeth (“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. / Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?”) but also an echo of the punishment she just dealt Meryn. It was hard to watch Arya, one of the most beloved characters on the show (and, yes, still a child), undergo such a terrifying transformation. But a brutality has been building in her for many seasons now, and this seemed like a fitting outcome of that.

Over in King’s Landing, another character faces “what she had coming,” in no less dramatic fashion. A broken-down Cersei confesses her sins to the High Sparrow — though unlike Stannis, Cersei clearly hasn’t reached total rock bottom; she admits to sleeping with Lancel but flat-out denies those Jaime rumors. The High Sparrow promises a trial that will “prove” her innocence (I suspect something of the if-she-floats-she’s-a-witch variety), but first, to atone for the sins she has admitted to, Cersei must walk from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep … naked. And Lord, it is a long walk. The scene was an excruciating one to watch, what with the septa smugly tolling her bell and chanting “shame,” and the crowd turning into these horrible, brazen participants, throwing garbage and waggling their naked bodies at her.

What kept this scene balanced on the knife’s edge of exploitation, for me, was Lena Headey’s performance. With her long, gloriously blonde hair all shorn, Headey’s face, especially her incredibly expressive mouth, seemed to fill every frame. As with Stephen Dillane in this episode, you could see the enormity of what was happening writ across her face and body; with every step, it became etched more deeply. I haven’t loved a lot of the decisions the writers have made with Cersei this season — she’s been a cartoon more often than she’s been a person — but at least this granted Cersei some humanity within her humiliation. It’s a walk of shame, but also of strength — and not the dragon-lady strength of Cersei when she’s in high-camp villain mode, but that of the real, embodied woman who time and again has shown she can forge steel from pain. (I loved that shot when she finally arrived at the Red Keep, just after she’s finally let herself cry, when Qyburn’s “new Kingsguard” picks her up; she’s so tiny and limp against his massive frame, you can almost feel her sense of release.) I imagine that even viewers who feel Cersei deserves all the retribution Westeros can throw at her felt at least mildly conflicted about that desire, once they were forced to walk a mile in her bare, bloodied feet — which is one more small way I got myself comfortable with that painful scene.

The story line that capped off the theme of actions and consequences was the Big Shocker of the night: the assassination of Jon Snow by the Night’s Watchmen. Olly comes into the Lord Commander’s chamber with news that one of the Wildlings says Jon’s uncle Benjen was spotted alive, and that he knows where to find him. Benjen Stark was once First Ranger; he’s also the one who first advised Jon to take the black, way back in season one. But then he went ranging north of the Wall and was never spotted again. Jon rushes out to hear the news of this illustrious relative — and like a previous Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont, he’s summarily killed by his own men, with a crying Olly delivering the final stab. (Between Stannis’s deserters and Jon’s tribal traitors, we begin and end this hour with a mutiny.)

Did it work for you? Were you surprised? I have to admit, despite Olly basically having a giant neon sign pointing at his head all season that said I’M GONNA KILL JON SNOW ANY MINUTE NOW, I still jumped when that first dagger went in, and didn’t stop gawking till it was over. It came as a surprise, but it didn’t feel like a cheap shock to me, probably because — like Robb and Ned Stark before him — it was clear that Jon’s actions led him to his fate, unjustifiable as it may have been. Though how sad that it came just as his one friend left him — and how sad it will be for Sam when he realizes he unwittingly made a Samwell’s Choice by choosing to save Gilly and Little Sam over his brother. Jon Snow, I was just beginning to believe in you! (For theories on how Jon might still be alive — and Kit Harington’s promises to the contrary — check out Jennifer Vineyard’s post.)

Three final story lines to run through, and then we can rest and recoup for the inevitable White Walker onslaught that’s sure to make a lot of this human Sturm und Drang seem moot, come season six:

Sansa: For all the heat it produced early on, the Sansa story line this season ended on a fizzle-out. Not every woman needs to be a blazing heroine, but it was disappointing to see Sansa grow into this crackling, wily, witchy person — mirroring, in a way, the sort of transformation her sister was undergoing — only to watch her ultimately take a backseat to the main drama. Yes, she escapes her chamber in the confusion of the Stannis-Bolton clash, and when she lights a candle in the broken tower to no avail (Brienne having abandoned her vigil in favor of grabbing the opportunity to kill Stannis), she heads out on her own. But I wanted her to do more than face death (in the shape of Myranda, bearing a bow and arrow) with a stoic, “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” (As a side note, having a character gleefully describe sexual torture of a woman doesn’t get any less gross or more interesting when it’s a woman doing the describing.)

Littlefinger told her to stop being a bystander, but ultimately, it’s Reek/Theon who overpowers Myranda and leads her to the ramparts, from which they’ll jump to their freedom. It’s not just that I think active Sansa is better than passive Sansa — though I do think that, in an episode that was all about characters dealing with consequences, it was unfortunate that Sansa didn’t even get that kind of agency — but that growth and change are more interesting than stasis and repetition. Free Sophie Turner in season six!

Dorne: First off, let’s take a moment to honor the worst bit of dialogue ever uttered on Game of Thrones, and a kiss-off to the incomprehensible Bronn-Tyene business: “You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy.” Seriously. Someone wrote this, and then someone recited it, and then someone filmed it and someone edited it. Think of ALL the people involved in you hearing that line last night.

Okay. Last week, Ellaria Sand seemed to hint at a radical approach to all the fighting in Westeros: What if we just accepted that sometimes people get caught up in things that are out of their control, and we all opted out of the endlessly transitive cycle of revenge? But last night, we saw that this was all for show, as Ellaria’s lingering farewell kiss to Myrcella leaves a slow-acting poison on the young princess’s lips. Just before Myrcella dies, on the ship ride back to King’s Landing, Jaime begins to tell the girl, haltingly, how complicated people can be, and how we can’t always choose whom we love — though Myrcella stops him and tells him she knows that he’s her father, and she’s happy for it. My notes here are all about how gorgeous and frothy Myrcella’s pink gown looks in this scene; caught in an errant sunbeam, the illuminated princess looks like she stepped out of a different type of fantasy story entirely. And there’s something of this other fantasy, too, in the speech Jaime gives her — the undercurrent of which is, “your mother and I couldn’t help ourselves.” In an episode that was all about choices having consequences, Jaime’s attempts to excuse his behavior were noticeable. It’s not as if there’s some bright line between this bit of self-deceit and the death of his daughter — who dies, for maximum feels, juuuuust after their tender reconciliation — but her death is a rejoinder to the notion that anyone in this world can escape the webs they’ve built for themselves.

Now Jaime’s got to be the one to tell an already-broken Cersei that yet another of her children has a shroud of gold. And of course, Trystane is still aboard the ship and bound for King’s Landing — an example of Ellaria cutting off her family’s nose to spite her face? Or part of her continuing rebellion against Trystane’s father, Prince Doran?

Meereen: Total shake-up in Dany-land, now that the Queen and her dragon have flown the coop. Daario and Jorah decide to form a country-music duo search party to find their queen, last seen headed north. Tyrion tries to go along, but Daario argues that he can better serve Dany by holding down the fort in Meereen, along with Missandei and a wounded but walking Grey Worm. I don’t fully understand all the logic here — someone argues that only the Unsullied can keep the peace in Meereen, which is why Grey Worm should stay, but hasn’t the whole Sons-of-the-Harpy revolution thing pretty much proven that that’s not the case? — though I’m eager to see whether Tyrion can revive this plotline, and whether ruling will, in turn, revive his character. We’ve gotten to see little flashes of Tyrion’s old cunning and quick-thinking in the past few episodes, and it’s high time we got more. Varys shows up out of the blue and is like, “Did you miss me, bro?” It was total fan-service ridiculousness, and I, for one, ain’t mad.

Daenerys, meanwhile, has been flown to God knows where by Drogon, who just wants to take a nap despite Dany’s insistence that she has to go back to Meereen. As she heads down the mountain in search of some food, she hears a horse’s neigh, and before you can say, "Out of the frying pan, into the middle of a whooping Dothraki horde," she’s surrounded by what seems like a whole khalasar of Dothraki riders. The scene cuts out before we can see whether or not they come bearing a horse heart of friendship.

Will Drogon come save Daenerys a second time? What was that pearl ring she dropped as the riders approached? And no, seriously, is Jon Snow really dead? Lots of questions to keep us all occupied until season six drops. Until then, valar dohaeris; once again, it’s been an honor recapping for you all.