For the Watch
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: David Nutter
If there's one way to sum up "Mother's Mercy", the finale to Game of Thrones' fifth season, it would definitely be: game-changer. Even just two episodes removed from "Hardhome"- the episode that finally proved to us why the White Walkers make every other problem in Westeros look tame by comparison- D&D fire up a whirlwind of an episode that contains a series of scenes that, by themselves, could have served as the exciting conclusion to any other given episode. The deaths of Stannis and Jon Snow? Cersei's walk of atonement? Sansa and Theon escaping Winterfell? All of them could have been stellar ways to close out an episode in the beginning or in the middle of a season, but lucky us, we get them all here at once in a gargantuan season finale that comes very close to giving "Hardhome" a puncher's chance for best episode of the season.
Where to start? I don't think it's ever really mattered what order I talk about the events in a given episode. Of course I can't talk about all the events in a given episode all the time: if I did that, season 8 would have finished airing by the time I ever got around to reviewing it. Plus, there are various scenes in several episodes that I don't think can be described as anything other than plot progression scenes, so there's next to nothing to talk about. That's usually for episodes in the middle of a given season; usually, there is a quite a lot to talk about at the start and especially near the end of a season.
But I'm getting off topic. I think I'll kick things off with what turns out to the be worst day of Stannis Baratheon's life. If he immediately became your least favorite character following "The Dance of Dragons", you're in luck, because all the Lord of Light does in response to his sacrifice is clear up the snowy weather. Little good does that end up doing Stannis: half his men desert him, his wife hangs herself, and Melisandre flees back to Castle Black, seemingly having a crisis of faith. None of these setbacks are going to stop Stannis the Mannis though: he and his remaining men charge into battle against the Boltons....and lose. Stannis manages to survive the battle, but Brienne learns of his arrival, and she finds him lying against a tree in the woods, where she executes him and finally takes her revenge for Renly Baratheons's death.
The timeline of Stannis Baratheon's character in Game of Thrones has always been something of a tragedy, one that ought to be titled, Stannis the Mannis: The Biggest Loser in Westeros. Ever since he debuted back in season two, what sort of major victory has Stannis ever achieved? The Battle of Blackwater? Lost. Convincing the wildlings to join his cause? Failed. Taking Winterfell from the Boltons? Another failure, this one resulting in his death. Some of the descriptions that George R.R. Martin has given to Stannis in the books detail him as being completely emotionless, as if his heart and body were made of stone. Game of Thrones frequently showed Stannis expressing his love for his daughter, the only time that he ever came close to feeling true happiness. Aside from that, I think the kind of story line that Stannis Baratheon has had, struggling to obtain power and earn respect, perfectly matches his personality. Stannis has never been a character known for being loving, caring, nor completely honorable. His only desire has been to obtain the Iron Throne, and he was willing to do anything and everything to get it, going as far as to sacrifice his only daughter just to get even a little bit closer to his goal. Unfortunately, Stannis has proven to be simply not good at playing the game, which is why we should have expected his quest for power to end in failure. Part of what makes Game of Thrones so crushing to watch has been that some of the noblest and most ambitious of quests end in travesty, and Stannis Baratheon might be the greatest travesty of all. He was never riding a wave of momentum that came to a crashing halt. He has been grasping at straws since being defeated at Blackwater, and all his efforts, all his planning to take the Throne, not once did it ever let him get a taste of victory. At least he went down swinging, whatever that's worth.
The Boltons are not the only ones in the North to achieve a victory. At long last, Theon is able to dig down inside himself and shake off the submissive, dog-like mentality that Ramsay had forced upon him. As I alluded to earlier about Sansa's character finally starting to receive hope and comfort, the same logic can be applied to Theon here, because he is about to undergo a similar kind of positive change. D&D lined it up quite nicely having Sansa and Theon work together as season five was coming to a close, because their respective character arcs are going through the exact same phase, and their escape from Winterfell should not only signify their escape from the clutches of Ramsay, but their escape from a life of cruelty and despair. Figuratively speaking, Sansa and Theon jump from the horrors that they've known for so long and into a new life of optimism. Of course they are going to survive their fall. Game of Thrones will never do a shock death that's flat out stupid.
Speaking of shock death, it looks like Jaime and Bronn's mission to Dorne will be a failure. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes had one more trick up their sleeves: poisonous lipstick. I'll admit it's heartwarming to watch Myrcella tell Jaime that she's glad he is her father, though this is a death that is hard to get choked up on. The whole Dorne story line has been the most we've ever seen of Myrcella, and if you were paying close enough attention to the Maggie the Frog prophecy flashback back at the start of the season, then you would know Myrcella was going to die at some point. With Joffrey, he was around long enough so that we could feel truly elated when he died, and Tommen's eventual death will also benefit from a reasonable amount of time devoted to the character. Myrcella, unfortunately, is the one Baratheon-Lannister child whose death has little to no emotional impact, simply because she's been away from the main events of the series for so long.
Moving on then to Braavos, Arya gives in to her temptation of remaining Arya Stark by killing Ser Meryn Trant, resulting in her being struck blind. The frustrating thing for Arya is that she basically lives among a bunch of nameless spirits: creatures that have a physical body but no sort of true identity. Arya disobeying the Many Faced God's commands makes her a perversion of what Jaqen and the Waif strive for, and because Arya went against what it takes to become "No One", she therefore loses the ability to see the work of those of who serve the Many Faced God.
There will be plenty more exciting developments for Arya next season, as there will be for Daenerys and Tyrion. Nothing in Essos needs a lengthy discussion: Tyrion finds himself acting as ruler in Daenerys' place, while Daenerys finds her past coming back to haunt her: she is taken prisoner by a Dothraki horde.
Now we come to the two most meaningful events of the episode: Cersei's walk of atonement and Jon Snow's death. The walk of atonement is a pretty fascinating scene, as Cersei is forced to walk naked through a large crowd that insults her and pelts her with food. David Nutter expertly shoots the scene in a way that always has Cersei looking like something that's being attacked. More specifically, Nutter relies on a series of high angle shots to make it seem like Cersei is some sort of miniature figure that's being watched by a crowd of giants, with no two high angle shots looking exactly the same, therefore always keeping the perspective fresh and interesting. The only time Nutter shows Cersei at surface level is primarily to express the sadness that's washing over her face, as now these common people who have spent years hating her, finally have a chance to embarrass her and make her look weak. The hardest thing is deciding on if we should feel ecstatic or depressed that Cersei is being forced to have such a traumatic experience. Either way, it's an incredibly memorable display of how disgusting and unforgiving that the people of Westeros can be.
Jon Snow learns that the hard way, as the men of the Night's Watch who opposed his decision to save the wildlings finally take action. This is the first true cliffhanger that a Game of Thrones season finale has left us with. The season finales of seasons one through four never left us desperate to see just a few minutes more, with a character put into a life or death situation that wouldn't be resolved until the opening minutes of the next season's opener. It certainly appears that Jon dies: his body lies motionless on the ground as blood comes flooding out beneath him. I was not watching the show in between the initial airing of seasons five and six, so I took no part in the ongoing debate of if Jon was truly dead or if he would somehow survive. A lot of people claimed it makes no sense for Jon to get killed off now, as the overall narrative of the show would be thrown out. I think this is an incorrect way to interpret Jon's death. As the next few episodes will show us, this premature death of Jon I think is actually one of the most important moments to his character arc. For starters, no one should have expected the likes of Alliser Thorne to continue letting Jon do what he wanted. The inner turmoil among the Night's Watch brothers was bound to boil over sooner or later. Second, it would be mean far less if Jon had continued to accumulate power without any true setbacks. In my mind, killing Jon Snow as a cliffhanger was a brilliant way to end the season, because D&D knew it would kick off a firestorm of questions of whether or not Jon was truly dead, and that would ensure everyone and their brother were glued to the TV once season six premiered.
I am purposely leaving out further discussion on things like Jon's death and Arya being struck blind, because season six is the better place to have those extended discussions. If it isn't starting to feel like Game of Thrones is starting to come down the stretch, then "Mother's Mercy" at least changes up the game board in such a way that nothing will feel quite the same from here on out. An episode like "The Gift" was jam-packed, but "Mother's Mercy" takes jam-packed and multiplies it tenfold. With memorable scenes left and right, it is a masterpiece closing to the first Game of Thrones season liberated from source material, setting up the wild ride that will be season six. As far as I'm concerned, Game of Thrones is still magnificent television, and that won't change anytime soon.
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