This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books.
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
Trust is the currency of serialized television. The producers should, in an ideal situation, trust that the audience is able to follow the complex plot developments and characterization that comes from telling a long story across multiple seasons. In return, the audience should trust that the producers understand the story they’re telling, and will do their honest best to do it justice.
Trust is a complicated currency with Game Of Thrones, and has been from the beginning. It’s complicated because it means something very different for the two sides of the audience articulated by the way we’ve separated our reviews of the show. For new viewers, trust was something that could be built over the course of the first season, before being obliterated by Ned’s death—for them, Game Of Thrones became defined by their inability to trust that their favorites would be alive, and stood out as a result. But for those who had read the books, trust boiled down to something different: basically, “don’t fuck it up.”
This fifth season of the show was, for me, defined by the convergence of trust. It was the season where both readers and non-readers had spent considerable time with the show and the characters, each with a firm grasp on the rules of this world, and each with their own opinions of how that world should be handled. And, because of the divergences from—and in some cases expansions beyond—the books, there were large swaths of storytelling in which reader and non-reader were on the same page judging the producers’ plans for these characters.
This is not to say that everyone defines trust in the same way, but the incredibly strong reactions viewers had to this season demonstrated that trust is a scarce resource. Trust is broken down over time, as it was with the show’s engagement with rape and its use in Sansa’s storyline, or in the gruesome context of Shireen’s death. And yet regardless of what happens, the producers are implicitly asking us to trust them: they know what they’re doing, they believe, and wouldn’t be taking these steps for no reason.
“Mother’s Mercy” is a culmination of this narrative, a very typical finale for Game Of Thrones in its conscious look ahead to next season. This is a structural choice designed to serve the trust relationship, acknowledging to the audience that whatever might have happened in the previous episodes, and however this episode might end, the show is steadily marching on. But it’s also a structural choice designed to acknowledge that the trust relationship with the readers in the audience is distinct—you can’t have a finale of cliffhangers in a show where a significant portion of the audience knows what’s about to happen. Creating a finale with one foot in one season and the other in the next has been a way to fuel both newbies’ blind speculation and experts’ specific anticipation in equal measure.
What’s different about “Mother’s Mercy” is that it’s serving informed speculation as opposed to anticipation. Although there are obviously butterfly effect changes and some shifts in timeline, this is by and large a very familiar finale for readers despite the changes that occurred this season. Even in the case of Brienne’s storyline with Stannis, which is completely off book, the show very consciously—and cheekily—recreates and inverts the final scenes of Brienne’s “final moments,” this time with Stannis potentially—but not definitively—dead by her blade. And the episode consciously recreates almost every single cliffhanger: Theon and Sansa jumping from the parapets of Winterfell, Cersei completing her walk of shame, Daenerys surrounded by the khalasar, and then finally Jon Snow lying in yard of Castle Black having been stabbed repeatedly by his own men for his alliance with the Wildlings.
There have been some who have argued that the show and the book are now similar enough that two different reviews are not necessary, but here is a perfect example of where the book reader perspective still matters. All of these storylines were distinct for readers in that—despite being part of a season of misdirection and shifting due to changes in the story—there was never any real doubt any of them were going to take place. Once it was clear Sansa was heading to Winterfell, and when the show introduced the High Sparrow, and as the storyline in Meereen continued to angle toward the fighting pits, and Olly emerged as Chekhov’s embittered orphan, book readers could easily go down the list and start checking off where those stories were going to end this season, because they’re ripped right from A Song Of Ice And Fire itself.
In a perfect world, this might not be as obvious, but it goes to the challenges of adapting a living work. Benioff and Weiss have officially bought George R.R. Martin another 9 months in which to finish and publish The Winds Of Winter, a choice that takes some of the bite out of this finale. Although I’m still not convinced the show needed to have Sansa and Ramsay marry and push Sansa’s servitude into the realm of sexual assault, the Sansa storyline going off-book was still a big part of what brought the season together, and so it was honestly disappointing to see it veer back abruptly to where we left Theon and Sansa’s book equivalent. As gruesomely satisfying as it was to see Theon toss Myranda over the balcony, it all happened very quickly, and gives me nothing to really talk about given that their likely path—Yara? The rumored-to-be-cast Greyjoy?—has been discussed for years now. It also deprives us of any kind of justice for Ramsay Snow, who we see here murdering a surrendering man as one more reminder that he needs to be cut down sooner or later, and I had hoped this would happen as Theon and Sansa made their escape. But it couldn’t happen, because the show seemed committed to avoiding going too far beyond Martin’s existing “endpoint.”
This is perhaps most frustrating with Arya, whose story here moves by so quickly it’s hard to register that they’re actually going backwards in order to stall her storyline. I was honestly convinced Arya’s attack on Meryn Trant was a dream sequence we got dropped into it so quickly, and so it took me a while to realize just what I was seeing. What resulted was as opaque an existential conversation as this story has been delivering to this point, reaffirming the goal of “no one” and using Arya’s blindness—which, of course, happens earlier in the books and becomes a lengthy section where her blindness is part of her training—into a season climax. It’s frustrating because this is by its nature a somewhat ponderous storyline, and so to see it end on something we already know happens makes this doubly frustrating than for new viewers, who at least have reason to be concerned about her eyesight.
By comparison, though, I thought the other three cliffhangers did a nice job of building and living up to a sense of trust, even moreso than Martin himself in some cases. In the case of Cersei’s storyline, the walk of shame was easily the biggest point of anticipation for book readers this season—while the path was a bit different, every sign pointed to Cersei being faced with her “sins” and walked amongst the common people, the same people she walked through to speak to the High Sparrow and ultimately seal her own fate by spotting an opportunity to assert her power. It’s a viscerally depicted scene, very slightly diminished by the use of a body double but no less effective for what it does for the character. Headey, when caught in closeups or clothed, breaks down Cersei layer by layer as the walk progresses, drawing out some messy combination of regret, guilt, humiliation, and determination. It’s a clear arc, and Cersei’s and Cersei’s alone (to the point the episode omits Margaery and Tommen, whose roles are increased in the show compared to the books). Benioff and Weiss make no effort to deviate from Martin’s work here, right down to the reveal of Qyburn’s experiment as hope for Cersei that there is a chance her fortunes have not faded entirely. At least from my perspective, Headey and director David Nutter lived up to the trust placed in them, and this goes down as an incredibly fine season for this character.
In the case of Meereen, you have an instance where the characters are in slightly different positions but the situation is the same. As Tyrion replaces Ser Barristan—which explains the latter’s death, moved out of the way to make room for the Imp—as the source of stability in Meereen, Jorah and Daario head out to find Dany, who ends up stranded by Drogon and surrounded by a Dothraki khalasar. None of this is all that surprising, but it’s the small details that make it. There’s Varys showing up magically as Tyrion takes power, promising yet more of their great dynamic (and helping us accept that more time with the politics of Meereen is in our future). There’s also the sheer scale of the khalasar, which was a huge sticking point in the depiction of the Dothraki in the first season, and demonstrates how the expansion of the show’s budget gives them the opportunity to better realize this world and those within it. It may offer the same cliffhanger from the books, but it’s realized in a way that has more to invest in, and greater clarity than Martin’s love of vague and open-ended cliffhangers.
Jon’s “death” was easily Martin’s greatest offense in this regard, as it never had any teeth—“R + L = J” was more or less presumptive canon by the time A Dance With Dragons was released, and so the idea of Jon dying was just preposterous. But technically speaking, Martin had done very little to foreshadow his likely resurrection, trusting that his audience could pull the pieces together (or trusting that they were used to his bait-and-switch writing style, engaging as it often is, by that point in the books). But the show, by comparison, more or less canonized “R + L = J” through some carefully chosen history lessons earlier this season, and moved pieces around such that Melisandre—she of the same magic that resurrected Beric Dondarrion—happens to arrive at Castle Black right before Jon’s “death.” Moreso than in the books, there are some blinking neon signs pointing any engaged viewer to the unlikelihood that Jon Snow is dead for good, which I think helps engender the kind of trust the show needs as it goes deeper into this story.
“Mother’s Mercy” opens with a trust gesture, in the swift dismantling of Stannis Baratheon. It more or less marches him down the metaphorical streets of flea bottom so that the audience can spit on him—his camp may have been released from the snows, but his sellswords abandoned him, and his wife hanged herself, and the woman who pushed him to burn his own daughter alive rides off understanding that the Lord of Light has abandoned her charge, perhaps—if we want to read into her likely role in Jon’s future—believing he has chosen another with King’s blood inside him. There was a lot of speculation after last week’s episode that no group of men would follow a leader after they did that, and it turns out those people—often framing this as a criticism of the show and an indictment of Shiren’s death—should have trusted the show that Stannis’ actions would not be taken lightly. Justice is swift as the episode opens, and trust is built.
I would ultimately make the argument that of the season’s most divisive moments, Sansa’s rape and Shireen’s death, the show ultimately handled the aftermath of those stories effectively—Sansa’s rape was also not taken lightly, and her desire to take action while some part of herself is still alive demonstrates the toll it has already taken on her. But the season’s biggest issue has been Dorne, which has meandered its way through character introductions to serve an unknown purpose, which was for me the greatest measure of trust going into this finale. Was there a point to the show’s engagement with Dorne that could justify the time spent there as opposed to fleshing the story out elsewhere?
I was disappointed that “Mother’s Mercy” had such an unsatisfying answer. It makes the case that there were two points here. For Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, this was a story of revenge for Oberyn, a logical continuation from last season, but a difficult one to articulate when you’re trying to build three new characters from scratch (which requires shorthand like Tyene’s bad girl routine, which does more for Bronn than it does for me). The finale also argues that this was a story about Jaime coming to terms with being Myrcella’s father, an arc that—because of the action and politic-heavy Dorne stories—more or less amount to Bronn and Jaime’s scene on the boat, Jaime’s scene with Ellaria last week, and then Jaime’s scene with Myrcella here. All the procedure in between was just window dressing, with Prince Doran completely and utterly marginalized and—arguably—pointless. This was all about Ellaria and Jaime, which is clear when fortunes reverse and Myrcella seemingly dies at Ellaria’s hands having only just before accepted her uncle as her father.
I see the poetic tragedy they were going for, but that arc was not legible enough for the Dorne story to cohere throughout the season. When the season began, the biggest trust moment came in the choice of Dorne over the Iron Islands—doing both would never be feasible in this adaptation, and so when the producers chose Dorne, that became their greatest test. But it felt at times like they regretted the choice almost immediately, having either misjudged the dynamics they wanted to explore or—more likely—struggling in the midst of breaking the season to give enough time and attention to make the Dorne story work when they knew in their heart of hearts that it was at the end of the day one of Martin’s substantive tangents that might not be worth diverting from the locations that resonate most in this story. It ends up having taken up too little time to matter and too much time to fade, placing doubt in how any of what we saw this season will pay off in the future.
These finales are not always elegant. Just look at Sam expositing the reasons he should go to Oldtown, something the show has never really articulated that clearly but more or less makes sense. I appreciated that it was Sam’s idea, and I liked how the formality of their goodbye can be read as the tragic parting of friends ahead of Jon’s “death,” but it still doesn’t feel like the resolution to a real character arc. The show simply has too many characters, operating in too many circles, and there is a fundamental limit to how many of those stories will feel as though they have “come full circle” by the time a season ends.
“Mother’s Mercy” works well because it focuses its attention on those that do, and in the process serves the many-faced god of trust bearing down over them. But it also signals what is, definitively, a crisis of trust. The showrunners know that trust is crucial to the show’s future if Martin does not release The Winds Of Winter before next season begins—just look at how Shireen’s death was framed in terms of “George told us it was going to happen” in interviews, lest people hold them exclusively responsible for Stannis’ heartbreaking and difficult-to-accept decision. I don’t think that the showrunners want to take on the burden of trust that comes from the audience of book readers who have spent years waiting for Martin to write another book, and whose expectations are exponentially beyond that which newbies will develop over the next ten months.
They want trust to remain as it is: difficult but manageable, as this season and this finale capture effectively. Season five neither transcended the show’s challenges to date nor ran away from its strengths: it continued the delicate balancing act the show has been on since the beginning, and once more asks us to carry our trust—whether weakened or strengthened—into the next chapter.
Which, for the show if not the books, we can be confident will happen sooner rather than later.
Edit: So, a few things now that I’m done my review and can read other coverage. First, the show is doubling down on Jon being dead, complete with a postmortem interview with EW and Weiss explicitly arguing “dead is dead.” But can’t we just chalk that up to semantics, in terms of those who are resurrected never really being their true selves again (which is the point with Lady Stoneheart, and arguably the point with Arya’s quest to become “no one” as well)? Or, to the point in the review above, is the trust relationship with the audience strong enough that the definitiveness with which Harrington is discussing this exit mean that they wouldn’t go so far as to con them? Only time will tell, but it adds a wrinkle (perhaps exclusively to put doubt in our minds after delivering a finale without any major revelations).
- Thanks to everyone for reading our reviews this season—it’s been an interesting one to experience as a book reader, and thus I hope a compelling one to read and discuss here at the site. There were obviously some flashpoint moments that we’ll continue to return to, but in general I’d make the case that watching this through the eyes of a reader has been a singularly rich experience that I doubt I’ll ever experience again. Thanks for being along for the ride.
- The one “spoiler” for the books in the episode is Stannis’ defeat at Winterfell, and what we could take as his ultimate downfall and death—I’m not convinced he’s dead, though, so there’s a possibility that they’re off-book so far that Stannis’ defeat plays out very differently in the books. Either way, I’m curious how those chapters play out, dead or alive.
- The need for Cersei’s body double could be chalked up to both Lena Headey’s pregnancy and her lack of desire to do full frontal nudity, but I will say that face-mapping technology has come a long way—there was still a stiffness to the wide shots, and the closeups were conspicuously stayed above the neck, and the angles and hair placement on the hair cutting scene were obvious, but I don’t feel it ruined the impact of the walk itself. I imagine “Hardhome” is the show’s effects showcase, but this is a good example of supporting effects work (and there was scale here as well, what with the very brief battle for Winterfell).
- We’ve talked a few times this season about the failings of the Unsullied, and so I laughed when Daario suggested that Grey Worm had to stay in Meereen because the Unsullied were the only people who could keep the peace. Daario, you explained earlier this season that the Unsullied were terrible at spotting the Sons of the Harpy, and they’ve been woefully ineffective on multiple occasions! It’s hard for me to accept they’re the glue holding Meereen together.
- Troll in the Dungeon: I’m all for a good troll, and putting Benjen in the “previously on” as a setup for their setup of Jon was just wonderfully cruel for Coldhands Truthers. Same goes for Syrio truthers, actually. Just mean all around.
- “Well, there’s Edd…”—Sam did not do a great job of making Jon feel like he had a lot of friends, although this does raise the question of where Edd was during the attack. Way to throw Edd under the bus, Sam.
- Open question for book readers: Given that Stannis’ storyline has been spoiled, do you think you’d skim through those chapters (however they manifest) once The Winds Of Winter is released? I know some might find this to be against the whole purpose of reading the books, but I’m wondering how knowledge of plot shifts our understanding of chapters’ value, a question we’ll confront when the book is released before the next season (or so I’m predicting, if we wanted to start some kind of pool).
The Night Is Dark and Full of Spoilers (Explicit book spoilers, or what’s left of them):
- Training your audience to pay too much attention to the credits meant I spotted Conleth Hill right away, but that also left the door open for A Dance With Dragons’ epilogue, which is one thing they didn’t explore here, and thus a rare bit of uncertainty in a fairly predictable finale. Putting him into what appears to be a permanent position in Meereen would seem to take that off the table entirely, right? Or will they wait until we get a clearer sense of Kevan and Pycelle’s plans for leadership and ship him across the Narrow Sea on Littlefinger’s magic carpet?
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: So do we think we can put this one to bed now? If they weren’t going to pull it out as a surprise now, and if they’re working overtime to set up Melisandre’s involvement in Jon’s resurrection, can we chalk her absence up to the show not wanting to double up on resurrected Starks? I’ve always been on board with the decision, but it seems particularly sensible in context for me.