Last season ended with the magnificent episode ‘The Children’, bringing many characters to a point where they had to commit to a way forward, giving up on the past and investing the show and the audience in the future. Think of Arya boarding the ship to Braavos, leaving her family behind.
This season finale is much more sombre, concerned instead with the inevitable consequences of those long ago decisions. And while there are flickers of hope in certain small corners of Westeros, the characters seem to continually encounter that which all men – and women – must face.
Emblematic of this theme is the opening sequence, which is the final covergence in the North of several characters that has threatened all season. Rather than disssecting them all in turn, it’s worth just following the line of action as it flows from one camp to the next.
Firstly, Melisandre notices the thawing ice, which is the logical conclusion to a fire. Nobody’s happy though, as Stannis rebuffs her for possibly the first time. Half his men have deserted, and though they have a clear march now to Winterfell, everyone has to question what the price of fanatacism is.
We don’t wait long for an answer. Selyse has hung herself, and Stannis – the Westerosi Macbeth – shows no emotion whatsoever. Once his devotion to Melisandre’s Lord of Light brought him a shadow demon that killed Renly, and we’d also witnessed the same magic bringing Beric Dondarrion back to life as well. So we know there’s real power there, one had to speculate what Shireen’s death would bring. But Stannis had long strayed from desiring the throne for the good of the realm, and his ambition has brought only death.
Melisandre leaves, but Stannis accepts he can only move forward. It’s too late now.
Winterfell, meanwhile, is preparing for the attack, allowing Sansa an opportunity to sneak her way out of her locked chamber.
Nearby, Pod sees the Baratheon army approaching, motivating Brienne to move, taking an opportunity to exact revenge for Renly. But as a result, she misses by minutes Sansa’s lighting of the candle in the tower, asking us to question whether Brienne is joining the list of characters who stray from their path to pursue personal interests.
But the seige isn’t going to be a seige, as the Bolton’s ride out for a headlong attack on Stannis. There’s some marvellous wideshots here showing not just the scope of the attack and the insurmountable odds facing Stannis’ army, but the best detail was in seeing those fleeing the Bolton army and heading back from where they came.
We cut immediately to the aftermath, as Stannis stumbles injured through the woods. He’s spent, but still strong enough to cut down two Bolton men, but only until Brienne arrives.
She can only finish him off, but Stannis at least accepts her charge that he has lost his way, having killed his brother with ‘blood magic.’ Brienne assumes the duty of a knight, as she has done previously, and brings to an end the torturous path of Stannis Baratheon. She, though, is juxtaposed immediately with Ramsay doing just the same to a maimed Baratheon soldier, questioning whether Brienne is giviing in to the same base emotions that Ramsay too often does (and that Arya later does): killing because that’s all they know.
But I think there’s something in Stannis’ underscoring of Brienne’s action: it is her duty to kill him, she swore an oath. He sees this in her, and she takes no pleasure in it, despite it being a personal resolution for her. It is also evidence of Brienne holding fast on her loyalty toward some concept of what is good, and what is just. There are increasingly arbitrary ideals in Game of Thrones, as shown way back in Season 1 when Ned Stark as beheaded. Trivial notions of justice have long been simply that, and any character who thinks they will be shielded by the cloak of justice has so far met a bad end.
So there’s nobility in Brienne’s continued pursuit of the right path, navigating her way through the eternal conflict of Westeros like some wandering samurai. It’s a very different final image for her character than what is presented in the books, and one of the most interesting aspects to the finale for everyone, whether they’ve read the books or not.
Sansa is found by Myranda on the walls of Winterfell, but then saved by the revived Theon, and the two take their leap of faith of the wall to the snow beyond. It’s an interesting conclusion for both of them, particularly as Sansa had been the one character where we started the season fully anticipating new material, but instead seeing her assuming the role of a minor character in the books. So for the readers in the audience, we’re none the wiser as to what’s going to happen next, except for speculating that Sansa in the show is a long way from Sansa in the books.
That extended sequence brings to an end the storyline of several main characters this season, some faring better than others in how they were presented, but showing once more Game of Thrones’ ability to unite disparate threads with growing confidence and skill.
So across to Braavos, where seeing Ser Meryn Trant brutalise young girls is literally the worst thing to see. But in keeping with the episode’s swift plotting, we’re suddenly headlong into Arya’s revenge, as she reveals herself from the guise of a faceless girl, stabbing out Ser Meryn’s eyes and torturing him through to his death. Horrific, and we have to wince throughout it, knowing that Arya has taken a backward step on her journey.
Like Ramsay, there is a direct contrast here with Brienne’s earlier actions: she took no pleasure but only served her duty, whereas Arya revels in Ser Meryn’s death, as she abandons her duty to the Many-Faced god.
She took the wrong life, says Jaqen and the waif. It’s literally cloak and dagger stuff in the House of Black and White, as Jaqen pretends to poison himself but then appears in the waif’s place. He shows Arya just how little she has valued taking a life, and we’re completely in the cave on Dagobah as Arya confronts her own visage on a dead body. As punishment, Jaqen takes her eyes.
This is the one plot where they haven’t really managed to connect it to the overall narrative, similar to what we saw with Bran last season. Game of Thrones is clearly leading up to some intersection between the Stark children and the overarching narrative held between Daenerys and Jon Snow, it’s just we’re a long way from seeing how that’s going to happen.
Then it’s off to Dorne, which has fast become the new Meereen of nonsense plotting. Jaime, Bronn and Myrcella are sailing back to King’s Landing, offering Jaime a moment of clarity with his daughter, who promptly dies. It’s pretty indicative of everything in the Dornish plot this season: too rushed, too heavy-handed, and in the end we haven’t really achieved much.
It’s really just renewed bitterness between the Lannisters and the Martells. One has to wonder if they were originally going to cut this sideplot, as they did with the Iron Islands, but were so swayed by the performance of Pedro Pascal as Oberyn last season they had to give him some legacy. Instead we’ve had some rubbish writing, silly accents, and inconsequential time-wasting.
And so to the leftovers of Meereen: all who missed the Goodship Drogon are left licking their wounds and counting their losses. Grey Worm, Missandei, Jorah, Daario and Tyrion are debating what course of action to take in Daenerys’ absence.
Tyrion gets to take care of Meeereen while Jorah and Daario ride off to do masculine things, and search for Daenerys. And then Varys arrives, the two standing once more on a balcony regarding the view, as they did in the season openener. It’s a nice sign of progress: Tyrion then was in hiding and drunk. Here he wants to drink, but is instead charged with the opportunity to have an impact on Meereen, and plan his revenge on King’s Landing.
Daenerys meanwhile has landed with Drogon in his nest. But the Mother of Dragons still has a lot to learn about riding them, or getting them to obey.
But then the Dothraki arrive, and again we have to ask about the progress of Daenerys: is she rejoining them from a position of strength, or weakness? Certainly it’s one of clarity for her character.
In King’s Landing, Cersei leaves her cell and confesses to High Sparrow: she was unfaithful with Lancel Justice Lannister. But only to that sin, she won’t admit anything else. Certainly High Sparrow thinks otherwise, and will put Cersei to a trial. For now, she must serve punishment for what she has admitted.
So the walk of atonement. It’s ugly all round. Nobody comes out of this with any good on them, even those who had for so long wanted Cersei to have a comeuppance. The elegance and gravitas that Cersei approaches her attrition is in direct contrast to the farcical plotting that got Maegary and Loras imprisoned, starting this whole chain of outing sin in King’s Landing. It’s a shame, and an exemplar of this whole season: lazy early storytelling leading to dramatic and powerful conclusions.
Added to that, there’s a shock and power in seeing Cersei confront how ugly she and Tywin before her have made their world. There’s no going back to the old order anymore – how could King’s Landing stand for any royalty after this?
Qyburn is there to greet Cersei at the end of the walk, introducing her to Ser Mountainstein, who has emerged from Qyburn’s laboratory of unnatural horrors, silent and terrible.
This is one of the few parts left with still some material to exhaust (not much, but a few key points), but it will be interesting to see how they adapt this in light of the refinements they’ve brought to other parallel plots, like that of Jaime. Until next year.
Okay. The Wall. Okay. I guess we can all talk about this now. The only last secret the book readers were holding on to, the final piece of GRRM’s fiction where we could watch with glee as the TV audience watches on with horror. But, as with any adaptation to screen, what is subtle on the page is rendered specific as a visual, and there’s enough of a difference between the two versions of Jon’s story to warrant a discussion.
Firstly, Sam has to leave as he should take Gilly with him to Old Town. On one hand he wants to keep her and the baby safe, but also he knows he should become a maester, and embrace his role in the story. So they leave, and Jon is truly alone.
Until Davos arrives, closely followed by the fast-travelling Melisandre, who looks oddly subdued. She won’t answer anyone about Stannis’ fate, or Shireen’s. We know, and Davos and Jon can see the truth in her face. Has she come to claim Jon as her new champion now that Stannis has been revealed as a false hope?
There’s a whole story in the next cut, I feel, in that we go immediately to Jon alone at his desk, called outside by Olly. What has happened between Melisandre arriving and this night-time interruption? This is where the ambiguity lies in the show, given the bluntness of what follows.
Olly leads Jon outside, with the rumour of Benjen Stark as a lure. And Jon is confronted by his Night’s Watch brothers as a traitor, and stabbed. This brings to a conclusion his conflict with Ser Alliser Thorne, drawing out the stabbing far more than it is in the book, shorn of its ambiguity and swift shock, giving us instead a slow, brutal end for Jon. This is shown most in the final blow from Olly, bring to a head this wholly invented character’s arc that started last season when he saw his parents murdered by the Thenns.
Given that readers of the book will swear up and down that GRRM would never kill Jon Snow in a cliffhanger, and that there’s enough in the resurrections that have happened elsewhere in Westeros, and in Jon’s warging abilities to believe that there’s far more than an off-page death to come for Jon Snow. Consider as well how the show cut from the resurrected Mountain to Jon’s death.
This is not to mention the ongoing debate about his parentage, and how that ties in with the overall mythology of the show and its epic Song of Ice and Fire, which were threads very carefully dropped into the show at key moments this season. Despite Kit Harrington’s interview where he swears dead is dead, and how much he will miss the show, one has to smell a large rat and a big sense of misdirection.
We may not get Jon Snow right away, but he will return. The question will be how to return him uncorrupted, as all others have been. The wights of the White Walkers, the Mountain, Beric Dondarrion – Game of Thrones has shown us many times how characters can die and then return, but so far they’ve never done so in a positive way. This is the path for Jon’s character, and for the story. And this is where, if anywhere, Jon’s half-siblings in Arya and Bran can connect their stories with his.
So it’s been an up-and-down season, starting well then becoming rather terrible in the middle, only to be saved by three epic episodes back-to-back. Part of this is an unforunate byproduct of the endlessly spun-out source material, and the show was at its best this season when it cut and streamlined. Given how little of the books still remain unadapted, and how strong these last few episodes were, I think the show will come into its own when it fully embraces its role next season as an adaptation of a future, unwritten book.
- Valar Morghulis: from the top: Selyse, Stannis, lots of soldiers, Myranda, Ser Meryn Trant, Myrcella, and, uh, Jon Snow? Nah. He’s totally alive.
- Maybe Jaime shouldn’t come back to King’s Landing, especially since Myrcella is dead? Can’t say there’s much left for him there.
- Best exchange between Daario and Tyrion: ‘So mainly you talk?’‘And drink. I’ve survived so far.’
- And best comment from Sam, as he provides a summation of how his first time with Gilly went: ‘Very carefully.’
- Has Jaqen been the waif all along? This scene actually raised far more questions than gave answers.