WHEN YOU SPOIL THE GAME OF THRONES, YOU DIE!
Well here we are again, burning with questions and having to wait another year for anymore from HBO’s Game of Thrones. This time, book readers and show watchers can speculate together since neither camp has significantly more material now. Welcome, viewers! We have lemon cakes and pigeon pie.
Game of Thrones Season 5 is probably going to end up being a mixed bag for a lot of viewers, more so than any previous season. Some of the dramatic departures the show took from the books were well received, others struck out with fans. And this season saw another boiling point in the discussion of the show’s use of sexual violence, tying into assessments of lazy storytelling.
I’ve already said that I was not so outraged by Sansa’s storyline this season for mishandling or careless use of sexual violence, or for her role from the books being changed to subject Sansa to such.
It does feel a bit like Little Finger brought Sansa to Bolton Winterfell only to have her escape by the end of the same season without making much of an impact. We’ll have to see what she and Theon do now. Although, now that Sansa and Ramsay are wed, Sansa could play up her liability and value to the Boltons. Perhaps lure Ramsay away from the safety of the castle to another just stroke from Oathkeeper.
I want to discuss the parts of the show I didn’t like as much or thought could have been improved first.
The Streamlining of Dorne
Season 5 had A LOT going on, even with the condensed plots and character beats. In the books Dorne and its characters are a welcome breath of diversity to Westeros and introduced a whole new political sector to the series, with its own intrigue and ulterior motives. Perhaps it was inevitable that this season’s Dorne arc was going to feel cramped and rushed, but it was still disappointing.
We had no Arriane Martell, Prince Doran’s daughter and heir to Dorne. She hatches an elaborate scheme to secure her birthright and raise Dorne’s power in the Seven Kingdom’s by making Myrcella (who’s older than Tommen) Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Doran foils this plot.
The reason for this is because of another Dorne plot from the books that was cut. Prince Doran has actually been scheming against the Lannisters for years, planning to marry one of his children to the surviving Viserys or Daenerys. Remember that Elia Martell was Doran’s sister and she and her children by Rhaegar Targaryen were murdered by the Lannisters. So Doran has been play peacemaker while secretly rebuilding the Martell Targaryen alliance preparing for long term revenge. He finally reveals the full extent of this scheme to Arianne at the end of Feast for Crows.
After Viserys got crowned and killed, Doran sends his first son Quentin to court Daenerys. He fails and get’s himself burned to death trying to tame Viserion and Rhaegal.
Obviously, none of that has made it into the show. Yet. Doran’s long term plot against the Lannisters with the Targaryens may still come into play. I’ve seen some fans even speculating that Doran might be in on Varys’s scheme to support Daenerys.
What we did get in the show wasn’t as well rounded as it could have been either. Viewers complained that the Ellaria and the Sand Snakes felt like flat antagonists to Jaime, but I didn’t get that impression of them.
They seemed to me like understandably aggressive family out for vengeance, which is not a moral stretch given what we know about Dorne and the setting of the show overall.
I do agree that the Sand Snakes came across as too one dimensional and too functionally similar. Though having one of the female characters take sexual advantage of Bronn was a welcome change of pace. I mean, apart from being fan favorites, they were functionally superfluous to the plot. They probably could have worked it where Ellaria makes her move against and then poisons Myrcella without any more named characters if they really wanted to.
But we have met the Sand Snakes at least and I’m glad they’re in the show. Hopefully next season we’ll be able to get to know them better individually, see them in more action and do more interesting things.
Also, despite the details we get about them in the books due to the door-stopper size of Feast and Dance, the Sand Snakes play secondary roles to the main plot in Dorne. Basically the show swapped the thrust of Arriane’s book plot and gave it to Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. Which is fine by me. It makes sense for the show to introduced new characters that are more closely tied to established characters; the Sand Snakes are at least partially Oberyn’s daughters by Ellaria.
Also it gave us a chance to see more paternal side of Jaime, short lived though it was. I still found it more interesting for Jaime, (and to keep Bronn around) than stamping out Tully holdouts in the Riverlands.
The End of Stannis Baratheon
Stannis’s fortunes did a complete 180, again. We don’t know exactly how his sudden demise will affect the show, but for all his resolve, Stannis’s bid for the Iron Throne ended on a dubious, fatal whimper.
It was over so quickly for Stannis. It really seems like the show decided make Stannis more interesting and sympathetic only just in time for us to feel extra terrible about his crossing the moral-event-horizon and dying.
Brienne giving Stannis the King’s Justice was poetically cathartic but it felt like it came out of the blue almost. The last time we saw Brienne mention her oath to avenge Renly was at least 6 episodes previously and it came across as wrapping Stannis’s arc up a little too neatly. It felt a bit too convenient and the direct repercussions aren’t immediately apparent.
And of course, the show had to fridge Shireen as part of Stannis’s downfall, one of the show’s best minor characters. Fun fact, in the books, both Stannis and Shireen are still alive. Stannis has been smarter, and admittedly luckier, and his campaign in the North is still alive and kicking.
That’s quite a power vacuum. We’ll really have to wait and see what happens to the remaining characters in the North, that depends on Stannis’s death, before we can judge whether the show should have kept him longer.
Davos and Melisandre have the biggest question marks over their heads in this regard. What is Davos supposed to do now with Stannis and his entire family dead? Davos was Stannis’s Hand and there isn’t even an heir to take his place.
Based on clues in Season 6 casting details and as yet unused Book plots, some fans expect Davos to set out and find the all but forgotten Rickon Stark. A fair expectation, though we don’t know if the show plans to continue diverging from the books or when it might start reconnecting.
A crisis of faith in Melisandre might be the most interesting thing to happen to her character. With Stannis and Jon Snow dead, who knows what she’ll do now? Based on what her support has entailed in the past, I almost hope she doesn’t end up helping Sansa or Davos anymore.
High Points, now!
Season 5 was a Banner Season for These Players:
Tyrion. Tyrion might not have been in his element for much of this season but his traumatic season at least gave him a fair excuse to drink as much as he does. Seeing his skepticism reformed by witnessing the potential and the awesome presence of Daenerys was satisfying. Tyrion is finally going to get the chance to do what he does best for a ruler that he believes in. With a little help from Varys and the rough-type heroes.
Daenerys. It was season of hard, important lessons for Daenerys. She erred in publicly executing Mossador and as her inner conflict over the right course for ruling Meereen grew, her command of her dragons waned. Daenerys got Drogon and her groove back in spectacular fashion though. Her scenes with Tyrion had just as much intrigue, nuance and zingers as I had hoped for.
Cersei. Here’s a character downfall that Season 5 did brilliantly. We saw Cersei’s supercharged paranoia and arrogance run amok without the tempering influence of Tywin and we saw it blow up in her face. Season 5 may arguably be Lena Headey’s best acting as Cersei by the time the show finishes. Stripped of her finery, we saw her most fundamental concern for her son and her deeply ingrained sense of superiority.
And the High Sparrow. Season 5’s most interesting new character, in my book. Who would have expected that Cersei would be pulled so low by an earnest, pious, humble man of the people with a savviness for the Game? Jonathan Pryce conveys the Sparrow’s pure and keen sense of purpose expertly. He even manages to be intimidating with his conviction at some points, to Olenna and Cersei even.
Arya. The House of Black and White posed all new challenges for Arya. She’s clearly learned to kill, but fate has dealt her cruel hands for being Ned Stark’s daughter her entire life and her desire for revenge may be her most personally defining trait. Arya came to Braavos to learn to be a faceless man. But if she succeeds in her training, will she even care at all about avenging the injustices of her old life anymore? What role does the House of Black and White have to play in the grand scheme of things? Delving deeper into their mystique through Arya’s eyes continues to be enjoyable. Though, perhaps not through Arya’s eyes, per say, for now.
And seriously, how cool is Jaqen H’ghar?
Jon. Another protagonist character who took strong strides in a leadership role. Although, perhaps Jon Snow wasn’t ultimately cut out to lead. He was a good person with heroic qualities and foreseight that wasn’t very good at commanding the respect and loyalty of his men. That might have been due to the millennia of ingrained tribalism he was working against, but you could still argue that Jon Snow didn’t do enough to make sure his brothers were with him in his decisions.
Slaying a White Walker was pretty epic too.
Nods to characters that got standout moments if not season arcs include, Tommen’s well meaning pubescent naivete, Olenna’s peerless wit, Little Finger’s scheming, Qyburn as Cersei’s hand, Margaery confronting Cersei, Tormen as a force for change, Mance Rayder’s dignity, Barristan’s final stand, Jorah’s suicidal devotion, Sam’s courage.
The Fate of John Snow
I’m not so much interested in discussing how Jon Snow can come back here. As a fiction writer myself I can tell you, even reality and in-universe rules are mutable before the will of the plot. That means that if George R. R. Martin or David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are planning for Jon Snow to come back, they will find a way for him to come back. (By the way, both have given themselves a relatively easy way to bring him back in Melisandre.)
The point is, it’s not an in-universe question of, is Jon Snow dead for good. For me it’s more a meta question of figuring out whether Jon’s role in the story is done, getting into the show-runners heads and trying to imagine how the story can and may continue without him.
Death cannot be cheap on Game of Thrones. The whole show has driven home this understanding that no character is safe from death, especially due to tragic flaws like the Starks’ belief in honor, loyalty and aversion to politics. Much as we hate it, Game of Thrones would not have broken HBO’s ratings records twice in one season if the show didn’t expertly convince us that the characters we care about are in real peril each week.
Jon Snow’s death is the latest, biggest reinforcement of this crucial premise. It was foreshadowed, it’s not unprecedented for the Night’s Watch and Jon Snow did not escape the consequences of his mistakes. From that perspective, it’s a believable end to Jon’s arc. To bring Jon back to life after a death like this would cheapen the suspense and danger of the show.
David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have alluded to this in more thematic terms in their inside-the-episode interview for the finale. “He’s a person that is honorable to a fault and does the right thing even when the right thing is extremely dangerous to him personally.” “It’s one of those great conflicts that makes us love the books and the saga, it’s that ultimately it’s not just about good versus evil, it’s about people of good intentions coming into conflict with each other because they have very different views of the world.”
Although, much with Stannis’s death, we haven’t gotten the chance to see what the consequences of Jon’s murder will be for the rest of the characters. Will there be hostility between Alliser’s band and any brothers who were genuinely loyal to Jon? Will Olly be wrecked with guilt? How will Sam and Davos and Melisandre and Sansa and Bran react? This will be part of how well executed Jon’s death turns out to be.
On the other hand…
The most serious question the show has to answer if Jon Snow is really dead is more of a functional one. We still need to know what’s going on at the Wall and beyond. This season proved beyond a doubt that the White Walkers are coming for us liven chum sacks. Who will be our point of view character for this sector? Who are we supposed to root for to realistically stop the White Walkers now? (At least until Daenerys flies in with Viserion, Rhaegal and Drogon.)
Hopefully, like with Ned’s Beheading and the Red Wedding before it, the show has a plan to follow-through on the repercussions of Jon’s death and make the remaining character’s stories all the more interesting for it.
There’s a significant narrative question that could be a reason for Jon to Live and that’s the issue of his true parentage. The show has given hints that it’s keeping the R+L=J theory consistent between itself and the books. If Jon Snow is dead, then who will the revelation of his true parentage matter to? Ned is dead, Rhaegar and Lyanna are both dead. Seems like a waste to hype up this secret Targaryen ancestry if Jon is just going to die before it ever comes to light.
Season 4 was a tough act to follow. But like I said in my “Mother’s Mercy” review, Season 5 had more than enough good drama, action and intrigue to keep me invested and watching throughout the season. Despite some of the disappointing and cramped change-ups from the books, I will still be waiting eagerly to find out what happens next.
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