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No Game Of Thrones character is truly safe. The series premiere ends with a young boy being pushed out of a window; nine episodes later, his father, the show’s ostensible protagonist, is beheaded. Descriptions like these make the show sound every bit the meat grinder it’s criticized for being, and an episode like “Mother’s Mercy” provides plenty of fodder for such criticisms. Let’s run the body count for the fifth season finale: Selyse Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Myranda, Sansa Stark (assumed), Reek (né Theon Greyjoy, assumed), Meryn Trant, Myrcella Baratheon (technically Lannister), Cersei’s hair, hundreds of unnamed soldiers on the battlefield outside Winterfell, and Jon Snow. No wonder HBO put a sixth season on the books back in April 2014—Game Of Thrones needs all the time it can get to restock the casting cupboard. And though the ends of so many watches make for the highest-stakes finale in the history of the show—on top of fateful turns for Arya, Daenerys, and Cersei—the timing of it all leaves something to be desired.
Game Of Thrones’ fifth season is a powerful demonstration of the advantages and disadvantages of TV serialization. The past three weeks saw the show delivering three consecutive knockouts, triumphs of Game Of Thrones’ massive scale, sense of suspense, and ability to affect its audience’s emotions. But it could only get to this point after a spell of dawdling and meandering, threads gathered to build up new villains (Stannis’ thirsty devolution into tragic figure; the silent and not-so-silent rises of the Sons of the Harpy and the Faith Militant) and poke at the wounds of old grudges (Night’s Watch v. Free Folk; Lannister v. Martell; Stark v. Bolton; Snow v. Night’s Watch; Ramsay Bolton v. common decency). It never completely lost its way, but season five lost a touch of eventfulness in preparation for the events of the past three episodes.
So “Mother’s Mercy” raises the question: Was it all worth it? Do we accept the Dorne storyline’s dull developments in vivid settings for the devastating payoff in “Mother’s Mercy”? Not really, but it seems as though there was no salvaging that corner of the Game Of Thrones map, a too-inconsequential representation of the show’s basest impulses, best represented in Tyene’s ridiculous parting words to Bronn:
Still, other conclusions justify the wanderings that precede them. I’m thinking especially of Jon Snow’s season-five arc, in which he attempts to lead with fairness and compassion in a world that’s ready to reward neither of those qualities. Kit Harington nails Jon’s downfall in his exit interview with Entertainment Weekly, noting that his character only had an eye on the big picture, preparing for a White Walker assault while more pressing threats rose up around him. “Mother’s Mercy” casts ominous shadows in Jon’s direction, isolating the late lord commander in his quarters and restricting interactions with the men under his supervision. He allows his only genuine ally to take leave of The Wall; when he’s out and about, it’s only to check in with Ser Davos. An intrusion by Olly, Castle Black’s diminutive angel of death, can only mean bad things to come.
Jon possesses neither Dany’s willingness to compromise (nor a dragon to bail him out of a sticky situation), for which he pays the ultimate price. He’s the show’s most symbolic sacrifice on the altar of good intentions, a martyr offering himself up in the name of Not Ready for Westeros ideals. And it’s kind of a relief that he’s gone (though let’s reserve an “until proven otherwise” clause here, since there’s a red priestess in Castle Black), because that position was starting to stick in Game Of Thrones’ gullet. Like nearly every victim of “Mother’s Mercy,” Jon Snow had served his purpose: He was the audience’s eyes on the wall and the good heart that couldn’t change the minds of career warriors and hardened criminals. The significance of the “traitor” sign goes beyond Jon’s oath: his beliefs and his leadership style run counter to the way things are done in the known world. A single person can’t change that—not without at least three dragons.
And I think that’s why every little twist of the knife in season five stings more than it would have in a previous season. There’s a revolutionary spirit to Game Of Thrones, but there’s also the stark recognition that a) revolution is a lengthy, bloody process, and b) these characters ought to have dire circumstances to revolt against. The show’s balance of light and dark is a major part of its complexity, but dark consistently won out this season. Neither quantity will ever be the undisputed champion of George R.R. Martin’s universe, but season five belonged to the darkness—watch as Jon’s blood blots out its white backdrop in the closing shot—and that made it a particularly grueling viewing experience.
In Cersei’s confession and subsequent atonement, “Mother’s Mercy” brings this feeling to its peak. More than any instance of violence in season five, the sequence signals that the dam is ready to burst in Westeros: The people of King’s Landing are furious, and their fury is being stoked by an organization that wants to restore old, old, old ways of thinking and governing. Making us see this from Cersei’s perspective is a massive achievement. Game Of Thrones has always done well to make Cersei a figure of metered sympathy, a selfish, conniving elitist who nonetheless loves her children intensely and harbors a love that dare not speak its name. In the long walk from the sept to the Red Keep, “Mother’s Mercy” does the near impossible: It makes the audience pity Cersei Lannister, full stop.
It’s all about the extremes: The length, the language, the viscera, the nudity. It’s a massive undertaking, requiring hordes of extras and employing an effective blend of filmmaking techniques, with POV shots that put the viewer in Cersei’s place and handheld camerawork that sells the turbulence of the situation. Director David Nutter makes it feel as though all of King’s Landing has turned out to witness Cersei’s humbling, the overwhelming size of the crowd illustrated in wide angles and closeups alike. Marching along to the hypnotic rhythm of a clanging bell and the septa’s “Shame. Shame. Shame” chant, it’d be easy to lose a sense of time, were it not for the escalating unrest of the crowds and the diminishing distance to the Red Keep. The closer Cersei is to her home, the less she looks like her old self, the courtly countenance she holds for her first few hundred steps overwhelmed by insults, projectile garbage, and plain old emotion. The sequence takes up a significant amount of airtime, but it must go long in order to have an impact.
Lena Headey’s work during the walk of atonement impresses even before the sequence’s three-day production is taken into account. Without any dialogue, she must portray Cersei’s journey physically, twisting her face as her character drops the mask of dignity to acknowledge the arduous task ahead. At the center of swirling, angry activity, she gives a performance that would be compelling all on its own, as pride gives way to vulnerability, which in turn gives way to a delirious defiance. It’s award fodder for sure, a full range of emotion tidily compressed into a single, traumatizing march—a more apt analogy for season five than David Benioff and D.B. Weiss may have intended.
Because escape from Game Of Thrones’ hellish existence is its own kind of godsend (with its own god within the Faith of the Seven), the “Mother’s Mercy” Olympics of feature events beyond death. There’s also the loss of one’s senses, the fate Arya now faces after placing a personal vendetta above of her Faceless Men duties. The Starks just can’t catch a break, especially when they’re leaning on the fact that they’re Starks: After pledging herself to a nameless existence, Arya slips up and identifies herself to the dying Meryn Trant. Her final words to the first name on her list should’ve been a reminder to herself: “You’re no one. You’re nothing.”
There’s a lot of Faceless Men trickery in Braavos tonight, beginning with Arya’s disguise in the brothel and ending with Jaqen H’ghar in the House of Black and White. Call me Lucille Bluth, because I fall for this Gene Parmesan tomfoolery every time—but it works well in the momentous context of the season finale. These scenes raise some tough questions, however, including but not limited to “Was The Waif actually Jaqen this whole time?”, “What are the limits of this storytelling device?”, and “Gene Parmesan?” (“Right here!”) But I have to give credit to “Mother’s Mercy” for pulling one gasp after another in the House of Black and White, the most satisfying of season five’s new settings—even though (or maybe because) most of its mysteries remain unsolved.
With Arya blinded, Sansa is facing some tough competition for the title of unluckiest Stark in “Mother’s Mercy.” Fortunately/unfortunately for her, she has that old Winterfell poor sense of timing on her side: While the Boltons rally an army to meet Stannis’ skeleton crew, Sansa dons her finest hood, grabs that corkscrew she stole a few weeks back, and finally makes it to the Broken Tower. Even more so than Arya’s revenge and Jon’s hoped-for reunion with his long-lost uncle, this is where the season finale smites whatever Game Of Thrones viewers come to this show with untempered optimism. Sansa’s candle is seconds too late to catch the attention of Pod and Brienne, who spot the approaching Baratheon troops before they can see the Broken Tower distress signal. Forget the direwolf: At this point, the Stark sigil ought to be a lonely little flame, dancing for a recipient with other things on their mind.
Those priorities give “Mother’s Mercy” some of its meatiest material, thoughts worth chewing on as we continue to sort through the carnage of season five. Even though Arya goes overboard in avenging the death of Syrio Forel—not only gagging her victim, but setting up her own comeuppance by gouging his eyes out—the act receives a triumphant framing. The same can be said for Brienne as she stands over a dying Stannis, confirming the provenance of Renly’s murder and fulfilling a pledge to her late lord. With the mist rolling through the background and Brienne acting out the chivalric motions, her side of the exchange is nothing if not heroic. But her quarry is immobilized and badly wounded, already resigned to defeat when he hears Brienne’s footsteps approaching. His last words are not those of a man willing to die for his cause. Instead, they’re the resignation of someone about to be put out of his misery: “Go on, do your duty.”
So what makes this any different from Ramsay picking off straggling Baratheon knights? Or Olly sticking Jon Snow after several others have stabbed the lord commander “for the watch”? Arya’s treatment of Trant wouldn’t look out of place at the Dreadfort, and there’s an explicit parallel drawn between Brienne and Ramsay, as Brienne’s execution of Stannis is connected to one of Ramsay’s kills by jump cut. After its bleakest, most violent season to date, Game Of Thrones leaves the audience with 10 months to consider the bloodshed. If any character can go at any moment, what makes a death at all significant in this world? With Ellaria poisoning Myrcella, that makes three eye-for-an-eye killings in “Mother’s Mercy.” Does any of this compensate for the people our killers have lost?
Offering up those kinds of questions, and building some ambiguity into their answers, means the cruelty and suffering on display in the show’s fifth season wasn’t just cruelty and suffering for cruelty and suffering’s sake. Game Of Thrones isn’t a premium-cable fighting pit—it’s an epic story that challenges viewers to think hard about their reactions to the brutality that’s a part of that story. Because there’s always going to be more to the show than sword fights and naked bodies; the sword fights and naked bodies are the sugar that makes the political allegory and family power dynamics go down. With Shireen burned at the stake last week and Sansa assaulted on her wedding night, the ugliness of season five tended to monopolize the conversation about the show, even as it made some intriguing points about leading through compromise and the dangers of fanaticism. (And sometimes it’s just easier to dissect and comment on that ugliness. See also: This review.) With so many characters in so many different places, the family stuff kind of took a back seat this season—which might be why portions of it felt so off-center. You know things have gone askew when the Boltons are the ones leading the discussions about family identity and loyalty.
There’s also an advantage of the way season five cleared the decks: It makes room for promising new starts like Jorah and Daario’s search for Dany, Dany’s time within a new (?) khalasar, and the administration of Grey Worm-Missandei-Tyrion-Varys. (Also: Westeros’ answer to Banjo-Kazooie, Hodor and Bran, are still out there.) These episodes were as much of an endurance test as they were a television season, for better and for worse. Fortunately, “Mother’s Mercy” features more of the former, even as it put the screws to the viewers until the very end.
- This is the final version of tonight’s Game Of Thrones (newbies) review. Because our readers are so eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, I’ll post a review that examines a major thematic or story element of the episode, then update throughout the night with further analysis on the episode, screenshots, and stray observations. There’s always so much packed into a Game Of Thrones episode that trying to unpack it all in a timely manner can prove difficult. I hope this method will satisfy those of you who want to read and comment before you go to bed on Sundays, but still want a deeper dive into the contents of any given episode later on.
- And that does it for season five of Game Of Thrones (newbies). Thanks as always for watching, reading, and commenting along—and thanks for putting up with this new, experimental overnight review format!
- In the same way the Brienne and Ramsay’s behavior on the battlefield is juxtaposed, “Mother’s Mercy” does some interesting things with the respective confessions of Jaime and Cersei. Coming clean winds up hurting the both of them: Jaime gets to enjoy being a father for all of 30 seconds, while Cersei has to do her walk of shame. But because Cersei only admitted to sleeping with Lancel (and the High Sparrow promises a trial), graver consequences may be in the offing.
- That said: Frankenstein’s Mountain is alive (He’s aliiiiive), and reportedly sworn to protect Cersei at all costs. We’re only getting this second hand from Qyburn, because Frankenstein’s Mountain has supposedly taken a vow of silence until all of Cersei’s enemies have been defeated. But at least we know what was under that sheet back in “High Sparrow.”
- Let it be said that Game Of Thrones never lost its sense of humor during its bloodiest season: “So, mainly, you talk?” “And drink! I’ve survived so far!”
- Using this quote to explain any Game Of Thrones misinterpretation, now and forever: