A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” season finale coming up just as soon as my Valyrian's a bit nostril…
“You were the first person on my list, you know?” -Arya
“Game of Thrones” has had a very complicated relationship with the concept of revenge throughout its five seasons, and particularly throughout “Mother's Mercy.” The show gives us so many terrible villains whom we're eager to see punished for their cruelty, and yet when those moments come, they're rarely presented in triumphant fashion. Joffrey's as despicable as any character on the show, yet in his death throes, he was a terrified boy reaching out to his mother for protection and comfort she couldn't provide. And as Arya has studied killing under Jaqen and the Hound, those scenes are always laced with an element of sadness, because for all that we want Arya to hurt those who hurt her and her loved ones, her travels are bringing her ever-closer to becoming someone not unlike the people on her enemies list.
In “Mother's Mercy,” revenge is a dish served over and over, as one character after another is placed in position to finally wreak vengeance on someone they've targeted since the series' early days. But in nearly every case, justice is more complicated than it may have once seemed. It's not hard to come out of this one wondering what the point of any of it is, whether or not you think Jon Snow is going to stay dead in the snows of Castle Black. (Much more on that in a bit.) Either evil triumphs, or the good guys become bad in the process of stopping them. So, yay?
By now, even those who had forgotten that Meryn Trant killed Arya's beloved “dancing master” Syrio Forel(*) had ample evidence that this is an individual the world is better off without. Yet her method of killing him is so drawn out and sadistic that there's no way to pump one's fist during that scene. And unsurprisingly, Jaqen has been wise to her crimes against the Many-Faced God, and punishes her by taking away her sight. No great victory here for the forces of justice.
(*) The “Previously, on 'Game of Thrones'” sequence had to go with some pretty deep cuts to remind everyone of the origins of Arya's vendetta, and also of the existence of Uncle Benjen, who was the subject of the ruse Olly and Alliser used to trap Jon Snow.
Or look what happens in and around Winterfell. Melisandre's magic turns out not to be powerful enough to justify the abomination Stannis committed, and it should be a relief to see his forces routed and Stannis (apparently) killed by Brienne. The problem is, his loss keeps Ramsay in play, and Brienne's determination to avenge Renly causes her to break another oath by missing the candle that Sansa's finally able to light in the tower window. Executing Stannis won't bring Renly back, whereas Sansa could have very much used the services of Brienne and Pod in the aftermath of the Boltons' lopsided victory.
The mutiny against Jon Snow isn't meant on any level to be satisfying to the audience – Jon is among the show's purest heroes, after all – yet it's not hard to understand why Alliser, Olly, and the others think he deserves it. They haven't seen the White Walkers and their army (and apparently don't trust the word of Jon, Edd, and the other rangers who were at Hardhome), and therefore can't appreciate just how badly they need to set aside the old feuds and unite with the wildlings against this much larger enemy. They think they're saving the Watch, when they're really worsening their odds of surviving what's coming right along with winter.
Of course, not everyone who gets punished this week is someone eager for revenge. Dany has been pretty lackadaisical in her plan to get back to Westeros and punish the people who killed her family and stole her birthright, and where does it get her? Pretty much back where she started, surrounded by a bunch of Dothraki, who may not know (or care) that she was once married to Khal Drogo, and with only a wounded Drogon and the far-away Daario and Jorah as her best hope of rescue.
Dany's reunion with the Dothraki reflects an episode where a lot of things come full circle – not just the various bits of revenge, but Tyrion and Varys again trying to run a troubled kingdom – and one that had a mix of spreading characters further apart and bringing them back together. As much of a pleasure as it was, for instance, to listen to Tyrion and Varys banter again, it felt frustrating to have Tyrion and Dany separated after only two real episodes together, and whatever the Dothraki have planned for her feels like yet another stall tactic to keep her and her dragons away from both King's Landing and the White Walkers until the dramatic final season/book.
But if “Mother's Mercy” offered some familiar frustrations, along with a lot of gruesome and/or morally ambiguous moments, it also offered a lot of great individual moments that let this cast shine. Maisie Williams made a five-course meal out of Arya's revenge on Trant, but many of the episode's other great acting moments were in quick bits of reaction, like Stannis looking at Bolton's incoming army and realizing how many despicable things he had done for the sake of a war he was about to lose, or Davos recognizing the enormity of what Melisandre has done to his king and his princess, or Jaime being thunderstruck to realize that his daughter accepts him as her father (right before she's cruelly snatched from him, because no one even vaguely sympathetic on “Game of Thrones” can ever be happy for long).
And then there's the look on Lena Headey's face(**) throughout Cersei's literal walk of “Shame!” naked through the streets of King's Landing. For years, she's been presented as so diabolical, and so smug in a power that seemed absolute, that an opportunity to see her so humbled – even at the hand of religious extremists like the Sparrow and his people – should have felt welcome. But that walk is so long, and the people's response to her so vile, that it quickly becomes clear that almost no one – short of Ramsay, Craster, or some of the show's most utterly monstrous characters – deserves to endure it. Cersei has brought so much upon herself with her actions over the years, but has even she been bad enough to merit… this?
(**) Headey was far enough along in her pregnancy when this episode was shot that there was a lot of digital manipulation – as with scenes where Dany interacts with Drogon, some of it was more effective than others – to place her head on another woman's naked body. If there's an Emmy category for Outstanding Acting From the Neck Up, though, she's a lock, and her facial expressions throughout that sequence were so powerful that she could well win the real trophy.
And for all that “Mother's Mercy” tried to warn us against the joys of revenge, there's a lot of ambiguity about how many acts of vengeance actually went through. Jaqen seems to poison himself, but is then revealed to be another Faceless Man (or Woman). It's probable that Brienne plunged Oathkeeper right into Stannis' heart, but the choice to cut away from her beginning her stroke to Ramsay finishing his leaves some wiggle room.
And no matter what the “GoT” producers and Kit Harington have to say about Jon Snow's death, I will believe the show is done with him when we get through season 6 – or even the season 6 premiere – without larger forces raising him up out of the bloody snow. Not only has Melisandre – who worships a deity capable of imbuing its priests with the power of resurrection, even if she has yet to receive such a gift – just arrived at Castle Black, but it would be awful storytelling on the part of Martin and/or the showrunners. Jon's not one of the show's more exciting main characters, but he's one of its single most important, given his prominence in the White Walker storyline, which we keep being told (and shown) is what the endgame will be all about. The series could kill off Ned Stark, and even Robb and Catelyn, and still leave us with plenty of access points to the war between the Starks and Lannisters; the only character who could have conceivably replaced Jon as our primary eyes and ears in this corner of the world is Sam(***), and he just hightailed it out of Castle Black with his special lady and her son in tow.
(***) We like Davos, who's also at Castle Black at the moment, but he has no real connection to the White Walker story, and Tormund has only functioned as a foil to Jon and other wildlings so far, rather than a character who can carry a section of the show on his own.
Maybe everyone's telling the truth and Jon is dead, and maybe the show can even recover from that if so, but because (as I discussed last week) he and Dany seem to exist outside the “anyone can die” ethos, I spent most of the episode's closing moments thinking of different ways Jon could be reborn than I did freaking out about the murder of yet another member of Ned's family.
After all, only a few scenes earlier, a bloody and shaken Cersei was scooped up by Ser Gregor Clegane, who was at least mostly dead by the end of his trial by combat with Oberyn Martell. Dead is dead on “Game of Thrones,” except when it isn't, and Cersei seems eager to use the Zombie Mountain to get payback from the priests and nuns who brought her so damn low.
Though if she had a chance to actually watch an episode of this show, she might reconsider and simply ask for a hot bath and some time with her only surviving child.
Some other thoughts:
* Though the finale didn't free us from the monotonous sadism of Ramsay, it did finally free Theon from his master's unswerving service, as he rescues Sansa while Brienne is out in the woods dealing with Stannis. Their leap off the walls of Winterfell so evoked one of the most famous jumps in movie history that I may have to start referring to these unlikely traveling companions (assuming, as I do, that the snow cushions their fall enough for them to survive) as Butch Greyjoy and the Sansa Kid.
* This was perhaps the most consistent season in terms of the opening credits map, in that every episode from 4 on featured the same six locations. In case you missed it, here's producer Greg Spence on the thought process they use to decide which locations to show and when. Since Tyrion and friends will still be in Meereen for a while (even if Dany isn't), maybe they'll actually go forward with the idea to have the Harpy statue topple over.
* How long does maester training take, exactly? I know the White Walkers have been moving slowly so far, but unless Sam is going in for the accelerated two-week semester, I don't know how much he's going to learn and still make it back in time to be of use.
* Ellaria's gambit with the poison retroactively explains why the show bothered with all the business of Tyene poisoning Bronn and then giving him the antidote a few episodes ago. On the whole, the Dorne section of the season didn't work at all, but at least that one bit turned out to be set-up for something, rather than total filler.
Ordinarily, I would put the spoiler warning here, but the show is now caught up to everything George R.R. Martin has published so far. Book 6 could well be out by the time season 6 debuts, but in the meantime, let's remember that we are here to talk about “Game of Thrones” as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, okay?
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org