The Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale: A Bleakness Binge

Our roundtable discusses ‘Mother’s Mercy,’ the 10th episode of the fifth season.


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Orr: [Long pause. Everyone, catch your breath. Maybe a glass of water? Depending on when you’re reading this, you might also want to tour the web for the horrified-reaction videos that will confirm you’re not alone. See? A perfectly normal response to extreme (televisual) trauma. You’re ready.]

So, yes, that happened. Rest assured, non-book-readers, that the mega-stabbing of Jon Snow was the last Big Terrible Moment that the George-R.-R.-Martinized among us knew was coming. For what it’s worth, pretty much no one believes Jon is going to stay dead. The two predominant theories are that Melisandre will raise him with that Lord-of-Light mojo (which we know is possible thanks to Thoros of Myr’s resurrection of Beric Dondarrion back in season three) or that he somehow wargs into his direwolf, Ghost. Melisandre’s conveniently timed return to Wall—in the books, she never left, staying behind when Stannis marched on Winterfell—is certainly in keeping with theory one.

That said, non-book-readers, you have to admit that maybe it wasn’t really that great a surprise. After all, the show has been hinting quite heavily in the direction of a Night’s Watch mutiny for weeks. Olly—a non-book character created for the show—has done pretty much everything but wander around Castle Black in a T-shirt that says “Did You Know the Wildlings Ate My Ma and Pa?”

Indeed, there’s been a notable difference between the major shocks of previous seasons (the Red Wedding, the Ned beheading, Joffrey’s not-at-all tasty helping of wine and pigeon pie) and those of this one (Sansa’s marital rape, Jon’s Ides-of-March moment, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the auto-da-fe of Shireen). The former were genuinely unexpected events (however much sense they made in retrospect), but the latter, however shocking, haven’t been nearly so surprising because they’ve been so heavily foreshadowed. I’ve mentioned this before, but despite their strong eye for drama, Benioff and Weiss lack the subtlety of Martin: They tend to go for bigger, rather than cleverer or more nuanced. This finale offered an awful lot of the former and not much of the latter.

Before discussing the many, many terrible things that happened this episode, let me get the small number of non-terrible things out of the way. First, Sam let Jon know that he had become unexpectedly sexually active, and that having learned to enjoy breaking his Night’s Watch vows, he’d be well-positioned to break his maester ones. “I’m glad the end of the world is working out well for someone,” cracked Jon. Of course, moments later his last friend at the Wall was gone, and we now know how that turned out.

At Winterfell, Theon finally—well, I was about to write “grew a pair,” but I recognize that as tactless under the circumstances—betrayed Ramsay, and he and Sansa either (hopefully) escaped or (quite possibly) broke their legs jumping from the Winterfell ramparts. So … good news, mostly. Two quibbles: First, when Sansa purloined that corkscrew a few episodes back, I assumed it was so she could go all Patricia Arquette on James Gandolfini in True Romance, except with Ramsay as the cork getting screwed. Instead, she used it to open a door? Supremely disappointing.

Second, even though it turned out well, the scene with bow-happy Myranda represented Game of Thrones at its worst. I don’t care who she’s sleeping with, the kennel master’s daughter does not publicly threaten a noblewomen with deadly force while graphically describing the sexual mutilations in store for her. It is perhaps worth noting here that a remarkable proportion of the characters that Benioff and Weiss have invented or expanded for the show are sadists (Ramsay, Locke, Myranda, Meryn Trant) or female victims of horrific violence (Ros, Talisa). Seriously, guys. Enough.

Which brings us to Meereen, where we finally had a nice moment uncluttered by imminent stabbings or threats of torture. Things started out a little unpromisingly, with the proposal of an awfully dubious ruling triumvirate (Grey Worm, Missandei, and Tyrion) and what looked like a truly mirthless buddy road comedy (Jorah and Daario). But then Varys appeared, and suddenly the Meereenese sun offered warmth as well as heat. “I did miss you,” Tyrion confessed. “I know,” Varys demurred. A moment as full of sly joy as this one could make up for a lot of Thronesian horror. Just not as much as this episode doled out.

Begin with Stannis. Just two episodes ago, he was among the most likable characters on the show, and certainly near the top of the more plausible prospects to bring peace and justice to Westeros. Then, last week, in a radical departure from his previously expressed beliefs, he hastily burnt his daughter to death for a red priestess who has now been revealed to be a quack. Tonight, his men abandoned him, and his wife was hanged (or hanged herself? It felt as though they were implying the latter, but given the height and the knot it seemed like an improbable suicide), and he and his shattered army were subsequently slaughtered by Boltons. This arc might have worked—might even have been heartbreaking—if it had been stretched out over, say, four episodes or more. But like several plotlines this season (e.g., the rise of the Faith Militant), it was squeezed to the point where it lost both moral weight and narrative coherence. I’ll miss you tremendously, Stannis; and at the same time, good riddance.

Brienne’s subplot was not a tragedy comparable to the utter collapse of House Baratheon—which is now represented by only two heirs one heir utterly devoid of Baratheon blood—but it nonetheless had a dark underside. Yes, Brienne finally got vengeance for Renly by killing his big brother. But let’s face it, that big brother was already three-quarters dead. And more importantly, she once again failed her vow to Lady Catelyn to protect the Stark daughters. Sansa lit her candle and … no Brienne. Littlefinger’s tavern critique of her usefulness as a bodyguard is ringing truer by the season.

Things were hardly any better in Braavos, where the time spent these past two weeks making Meryn Trant an abuser of little girls—a charming tidbit that is not, again, in the books—could have been put to better use doing literally anything at all. There was a time when “All men must die” seemed like the perfect tagline for Game of Thrones. But that title has been clearly usurped of late—and not for the better—by Cersei’s last-season comment to Oberyn, “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”

About the only thing worse than making Arya pretend to be underage in order to get close to Trant—as opposed to, say, selling him a poisoned oyster at the docks, or slipping Needle into his back in some alley—was turning her into a Ramsayesque avenging angel, slicing out Trant’s eyes and monologuing like a Bond villain. Again, maybe this is an evolution that could have been pulled off over time. But this new psycho version of Arya felt utterly unearned. (Also: foolish and implausible, given that she was dealing with a knight who outweighed her by 100 lbs.) And then she went blind. Good times.

Regular readers of the roundtable will know that I’ve long been convinced that nothing of importance was ever going to happen in Dorne. I fear I’ve been proven correct in the most dramatic fashion possible. The whole Jaime-Bronn trip was occasioned by the idea that Ellaria Sand wanted to kill Myrcella to avenge Oberyn and foment war between Dorne and the Lannisters. And now, after an embarrassingly easy infiltration of the Water Gardens, a cellblock striptease, and the utterly absurd pardoning of a clearly unrepentant Ellaria (Prince Doran is obviously not the one tasked with getting red-wine stains out of his rugs), that’s exactly what happened.

My first words when Ellaria went in for that kiss with Myrcella—I have witnesses!—were “poisoned lipstick?” And the minute Jaime started telling his daughter that she was his daughter, and she said that she knew and was happy about it, I initiated the audible Little Girl Death Countdown. Cue the inevitable nosebleed and subsequent demise. For a moment it appeared that Ellaria might die too, giving her life for her vengeance. But no, not even that. She and the Sand Snakes are the worst. I feel obligated to note here that after a lot of preseason buzz about what strong, formidable female characters the Sand Snakes would be, the most prominent among them, Tyene, has so far a) exposed her body in jail to arouse a man; b) played slap games with her sister; and c) uttered the line “You want the good girl, but you need the bad pussy.”

I don’t have much to say about Dany, except that she obviously needs to find a way to inject subcutaneous caffeine into Drogon. Although I suppose he could be forgiven for his doziness given that he had, to all appearances, flown her to Scotland. When that Khalasar of Dothraki riders came down from the hills, I was moderately taken aback by the fact that they weren’t wearing kilts and painting their faces blue. What does this all portend? I have no idea. But it doesn’t look promising.

Which brings us to Cersei’s Walk of Atonement—a big scene in the books and one that Benioff and Weiss were perhaps predestined to overplay. As former Atlantic roundtabler Ross Douthat noted a few weeks ago, “the image is simply different from the word”—that is, video is a more immediate, visceral medium than print—and this scene seemed like a perfect test case. While it may have seemed bold, the near-constant, full-frontal nudity (and not only Cersei’s) distracted from her shame and horror rather than deepening it. This was an instance in which implication would have been more powerful than direct depiction.

It didn’t help that, unless I’m mistaken, most if not all of the nude shots involved superimposing Lena Headey’s face on the frame of a body double, which is not the way any actor could possibly be expected to do their best work. The result was not a bad scene, but rather one should have been better. (Also, what the hell else is going on in King’s Landing? Where’s Maergery? Lady Olenna? Is Littlefinger still in town? What about Tommen? Kevan? Pycelle? And given that those last two seem ascendant—and unfriendly to Cersei—why have they let her creepy pet Qyburn keep his post? Skipping over the political machinations in King’s Landing is by definition a bad idea.)

Which brings me back to my principal critique of the episode: There was simply too much going on—and, in particular, too many horrible things taking place—for any of the events to carry the emotional weight they deserved. Stannis was destroyed; Arya went berserk (and then blind); Jaime gained a daughter and then immediately lost her; Dany went from being queen to (presumed) captive; Cersei was humiliated in the most appalling fashion imaginable—and then, then, we were still expected to take in, and be brutalized by, the death(?) of Jon Snow.

Now, the fact that Jon’s stabbing didn’t affect me as much as I’d have liked it to have is doubtless in part because, like all book readers, I knew it was coming. But I think that sheer emotional exhaustion played at least as great a role. This episode seemed to be based (like Game of Thrones in general, perhaps) on the thesis that the human capacity for horror is always cumulative, rather than something that can be exhausted.

I particularly felt this in the effort to extend that final scene for a few moments of maximal, but utterly predictable and unnecessary, drama. Jon was stabbed once, twice, three times, four. (Did I miss one in there? Maybe.) Then a pause, before Olly emerged from the crowd. He moved in close, and Jon optimistically uttered his name. Another pause, and then—shocker!—Olly delivered the killing blow. (Figuratively, at least. Jon was obviously already fatally wounded.)

Again, is there anyone who could have been genuinely surprised at Olly’s betrayal? His entire purpose all season has been to telegraph that this exact outcome was in store. Trying to increase the drama of Jon Snow being (apparently) stabbed to death seemed absurd on its face, but doubly absurd when the dramatic kick was so obviously foreordained.

But I’ve gone on way, way too long. What did you guys think? Did tonight’s finale exhaust your emotional capacities too? Or did it simply blow your minds?

Sullivan: Oh, there it is—the feeling of hopelessness and despair that sunk in after I finished A Dance With Dragons nearly four years ago. Usually, turning the last page of a book in a long series brings with it a surge of excitement. You can’t wait to find out what happens next. But if every ray of light and decency in this series gets snuffed out, why bother continuing? Yes, at this point we’ve sunk five years and thousands of pages into the story. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to cut our losses.

It’s incredibly hard to craft a epic series without getting necessarily bogged down in the middle installments. Your protagonists are usually in some long-term predicament or up against an enemy who will keep winning until some resolution is reached in the finale. That’s a lesson I learned early on, when even my beloved Chronicles of Prydain books dragged a bit after the thrilling first few.

So the need to throw in a few shocking moments for the sake of surprise and to keep readers/audiences off-balance is understandable. But there still needs to be something to keep us—and our heroes—going further. Right now, I feel like Tyrion. I’ve lost everyone I ever cared about, traveled thousands of miles, finally met a leader who might deserve my interest, and for what? So I can sort out the internal politics of a desert city to which I have absolutely no connection?

Let’s review our journey. We began the series with the Starks, a handsome family of nobles who are swiftly separated and placed in varying degrees of danger. Ah, so that’s our motivating interest—we want to see them get back together! Except [thwack] Ned loses his head, and [whump whump] Robb and Catelyn get knifed, and suddenly we’re left with a handful, if that, of Starks scattered around the seven kingdoms and beyond.

Okay, fine. Then we’ll be invested in finding out who wins the game of thrones and ends up on the Iron Throne for a long reign. All signs are pointing to Dany, who has been trying to raise an army and sail to Westeros for five seasons now. She finally has a worthy advisor and nearly full-grown dragons, so her homecoming must be near. What’s that? She’s wandering in the wilderness, captive of the Dothraki? Again?

Fine. Then we’ll stick around to find out how Jon defeats the White Walkers, the true threat to the continent. We’re still shivering from that Hardhome episode, and entranced by the clues that have been dropped about Jon’s real origins, which indicate that he’s the prophesied one who can … What the what?!


Tyrion may be everyone’s favorite character, and Arya everyone’s favorite badass—at least before she turned into a murderous psycho in this finale—but Jon is the soul of Game of Thrones. Whether or not he is genetically Ned Stark’s son, he is the heir to Ned’s noble, sometimes flawed worldview, one that gives us moral balance and reminds us of the real stakes in this epic. I suppose it’s ironic that Jon is killed because he was more focused on the threat from the White Walkers than from his own men. But it’s also stupid. The White Walkers just wiped out thousands of Wildlings. Someone in Westeros needs to think that’s alarming.

Instead, the two people who actually worried about the threat from the North are dead. And Ramsay lives to see another season. Who wasn’t rooting for that fan favorite to return? Yippee.

Like you, Chris, I was excited by the ways Benioff and Weiss departed from the books last year and hoped that their creative intervention would be the key to tightening and propelling the narrative. Brienne’s face-off with the Hound in last season’s finale was both an exciting set piece but also an important character moment for Arya and her would-be protectors. Likewise, the expansion of Tywin Lannister’s character lent heft to Kings Landing plots and power to his murder at the hands of Tyrion.

This season’s digressions, in contrast, seem designed simply as ways to keep fan favorites involved—no doubt part of the appeal in those Brienne and Tywin storylines as well—without amounting to much of anything:

  • Jaime travels to Dorne because Cersei fears their daughter’s life is in danger. And now Myrcella is dead anyway.
  • Littlefinger negotiates the worst arranged marriage for Sansa, and she endures rape and other abuse from Ramsay. And assuming she and Theon didn’t just break their necks, we’re either in for a season of them on the run from Ramsay, or she’s free of him and that storyline was pointless.
  • And speaking of Littlefinger, this season took one of the show’s great schemers and had him make two massive blunders—somehow missing Ramsay’s well-known reputation as a terrifying sociopath, and misjudging the relative military skills of Roose Bolton and Stannis Baratheon.
  • Stannis sacrifices his daughter, the only person who loves him, because it’s the only way he can take Winterfell. And now he’s dead anyway, and the sigil of the flayed man still flies over Winterfell.
  • A major Westerosi figure finally makes it to Meereen and forms an alliance of sorts with Dany! And now she’s flown off, ended up back with the Dothraki, and Tyrion is stuck running the dysfunctional city she left behind. Civil government hijinks will no doubt ensue.

The one major exception this season was the Hardhome battle, which departed from and improved upon the books by providing an unforgettable demonstration of the horrors that could befall Westeros when winter arrives. Two episodes later, it seems but a blip in the show’s memory. Jon’s stirring speech in Hardhome convinced many of the Wildling leaders to put aside their longstanding hatred of the Nights Watch in order to fight a more terrifying common enemy. Surely a similar speech—with testimony from his traumatized comrades who saw the White Walkers themselves—could have made some impression on the Watch.

Instead, now we have to spend a year hoping that Melisandre can put Jon back together again. Considering that either her magical powers are seriously on the fritz or she just burned a little girl to death for no reason at all, that’s of little comfort. Winter is coming. Uncle Benjen is still out there. And Jon Snow cannot be dead. Do you hear me, George Martin? He cannot!

Kornhaber: Well. I liked the episode. By which I mean, I share your despair, I share your exhaustion, and I share many of your frustrations. But the hour still had a bit of that old Thrones feeling—making the unthinkable thinkable, and making you feel childish for ever thinking it couldn’t be thought. (Got that?)

Call me naive, or just call me a show watcher and not a book reader. Yes, an attempt on Jon’s life had been foreshadowed for weeks. But I suspected it would just be an abortive shivving from Olly, not a successful and gruesome ambushing from the adults of the Night’s Watch. The jam-packed nature of the episode only heightened my surprise. After one major death—of Stannis—and a bunch of second-tier but individually shocking demises (Selyse, Meryn Trant, Myrcella, Myranda, kinda-sorta Jaqen H'ghar, Arya’s eyesight), plus one of the most vivid set pieces Thrones has served up (Cersei’s walk), I thought—like Stannis before learning of his wife’s fate—it can’t get worse.

In fact, the show had tricked me as surely as Olly tricked Jon, but about the idea that the new Lord Commander is one of three people guaranteed to survive till the final hours of the series (Tyrion and Daenerys are the other two presumed immortals, an idea that sounds ridiculous as soon as I say it). I mean, if you’re going to set the Internet abuzz speculating about the guy’s parentage, he’s got to stick around for the mystery to be solved, right? Right? No? Okay, no.

More importantly, Jon lately had seemed not only heroic but also savvy, a world-weary improvement on the honor-for-honor’s sake stylings of Robb and Ned Stark. But when you step back, was he really so different? Even as he beheaded a sniveling subordinate, bonded with uber-practical Stannis, and led the exodus from Hardhome, Jon was still more focused on big-picture righteousness than on the small-scale politics that ruled the people around him. Maybe the game he set out to play was unwinnable. Imagine you’re a run-of-the-mill Crow, resigned to living a harsh, Spartan, and straightforward existence—and then some nobleman’s son with nice hair starts playing fast and loose with his oath because he thinks he can save the world. I might have felt a little stabby too.

It’s not a fair death, but it’s not a pointless one either. Westeros and Essos are backwards, unjust, and brutal places, and Jon was one of the few people trying to change that—and he did to some extent succeed by getting the Wildlings south of the wall. But change requires bending or breaking rules that have developed over millennia to keep the grim status quo in place, and tonight’s episode reminded of the often-ugly consequences to doing so. Arya went rogue and lost her sight. Cersei’s adultery was punished in humiliating fashion. Jaime, I suppose, broke with the logic of blood feuds and ended up having his father-daughter bonding time cut remarkably short.

And Stannis faced justice for torching his own humanity. I actually liked the brevity with which his downfall was portrayed in this episode. Shireen’s sacrifice may or may not have changed the weather; it definitely changed the army’s opinion of their leader, a fact that Melisandre and Stannis should have foreseen. But magic is, well, magic—you can understand the assumption that the Red God would take care of everything once the pyre was lit. The mistake is so fundamental that both Stannis and Melisandre seem to realize it as soon as they’re told of the soldiers’ overnight desertion. The weirdly beautiful shot of the well-organized Bolton cavalry closing in on Stannis’s ragged band of foot soldiers said it all; I didn’t need the point belabored with (even more) graphic depictions of the Baratheon defeat. At least Stephen Dillane got one last good growl in before being Brienned.

Who’s left to care about, you ask? The King’s Landing plotline turned from tedious to intriguing for the first time in at least half a season once Cersei stumbled into the Red Keep and revenge entered her eyes where terror should have been at the sight of the reanimated Mountain. The preceding march of shame was compelling, though I agree that the camera seemed interested in Lena Headey’s body double to the point of prurience. What really mattered was Headey’s face. It’s clear she felt no actual shame for what she’s done; instead, there was humiliation and contempt, kept mostly in check by the sight of palace in the distance and all it represents. Cersei will never be someone to root for, but her status as a perpetually fierce survivor and the question of what she will do next is enough to make me tune in next season.

As for the rest of the cast: Arya as Daredevil could be cool. It’ll be satisfying to see Alliser Thorne turned into an icicle by a White Walker, or stabbed by fire-resurrected Jon Snow, or stabbed with an icicle by White Walker Jon Snow. By contrast, the prospect of Dany needing to escape from the Dothraki makes me feel as drowsy as Drogon. And I’ve long ached for Jaime to get to display an emotion other than ache, which isn’t going to happen now.

You’re both right to be wary of where things are headed. It sounds like Benioff and Weiss will be mostly unchained from the books next season, which is scary because they made nearly fatal storytelling choices in Dorne, Winterfell, and King’s Landing this season. But the show’s core appeal remains. There’s just nothing like it: cinematically ravishing, continually asking hard questions about justice and goodness and practicality, and totally willing to burn itself down and rebuild as the story requires. Jon might rise up from the snow or he might not; I like that in essence, we know nothing.