Season 5 of Game of Thrones just came to an end with “Mother’s Mercy,” an inconsistent episode with some truly great sequences in some areas but some frustrating moments in others. Unlike last year, when major climaxes were spread over the last three episodes of the season, every storyline reaches its climax in this hour. Obviously there is always more story to tell in the future, and finales have often serve not only to end season-long threads but tease future ones. However, “Mother’s Mercy” leaves many of the conflicts that had been built up to throughout this last season without their resolutions. Even some of the best sequences of this episode leave dangling threads to be explored in the future. The direction of many of the stories we’ve spent roughly ten hours following this year is uncertain – even for one of the seemingly more final fates of the episode! Despite a handful of truly wonderful and well-executed scenes, I found much of this episode frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying.
Let’s talk about some of the afore-mentioned dangling threads in “Mother’s Mercy.” Arya’s training in the House of Black and White not only fails to end in some satisfying way, she is punished in a way so that she will stay in this uninteresting storyline indefinately, with literally no resolution in sight (sorry). Elsewhere, the quagmire of Mereen that has occupied the last two seasons will continue to be a quagmire, with an unclear fate for the Sons of the Harpy, the main threat of the season. The storyline’s central character is gone from the city and stumbles across some Dothraki, even further away from heading to Westeros than she was at the beginning of the season. In Winterfell, Sansa escapes with Theon without making much of an impression on the plot on her own, and with the conflict between her and the Boltons still continuing next season. The big development that did happen here, Theon’s shedding of his Reek persona to save Sansa, felt rushed and unfocused (hopefully they’ll develop that more next season). The cumulative effect on all of these scenes not only hurt the quality of the episode, but it also made much of what has happened in previous episodes feel like it was just taking up time until things really started happening next year.
Some of the other storylines were more conclusive in this episode, although in Dorne’s case, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was good. I appreciated Jaime having a fatherly moment with Myrcella. This brings home the emotional arc for Jaime that had been unclear in previous episodes. In the second episode of the season, Cersei challenged Jaime on his being an understandably absentee dad. His quest to Dorne was not only a mission to redeem himself in Cersei’s eyes, but in his daughter’s also, and that finally made some sense in this episode. I do think that this bonding felt a little unrealistic – to me, it’s strange that so many people believe Stannis concerning the Lannister incest when he’s got a pretty biased perspective, and the supposed Princess of Westeros would be in particularly stubborn state of denial about this relationship, it seems to me. And she seems unbelievably forgiving of her absent father, and accepting of this huge change in the nature of the relationship. This conversation realistically would have been a lot bumpier than it was, and it feels artificially smoothed over – so that her death immediately after would hit us harder. The timing of this felt very manipulative and fake. And while I maybe should be happy that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes left some kind of impression on the larger story, I have grown to be so annoyed by their two-dimensional, underdeveloped hatred of all Lannisters that I probably would have preferred them to be time-wasting, harmless and useless appendages of the story. Game of Thrones is about the brutal consequences of complicated human behavior. But their behavior was simplistic and uninteresting, making the dramatic consequence they have on the story feel disappointing.
Now let’s get to some of the resolutions that I actually liked! Last week, Stannis made the biggest decision of his life when he decided to sacrifice Shireen to Melisandre’s god. Although the sacrifice of king’s blood helped with the weather, it backfired in more practical ways. Half of Stannis’s army deserted him, disturbed by what he had done; his wife killed herself; and Melisandre, losing faith in her own predictions once reality started seeping in, abandoned him. Of course, Stannis stubbornly continued to march, knowing he was marching to defeat. I loved how Stephen Dillane played this thoroughly broken and defeated man moving forward, as his entire life crumbled around him. And the thing is, he put himself in this situation. It wasn’t the weather or even a particularly brilliant strategy by the Boltons that screwed him, it was his putting his ambition for the Throne above those he cared about. That is what makes his eventual death so satisfying. Brienne’s arrival reminds him of the killing of his brother – his first crime committed for the Lord of Light, and I think he sees this execution as a just one for all the similar crimes he’s committed since, especially the murder of his daughter. Of course, I’m just guessing, because of course Stannis isn’t going to bear his heart out to his executioner. Again, the way Dillane expresses so much with his face (without overdoing it) was excellent, inviting us to guess at his thoughts. And Stannis’s refusal to get a good one-liner in before his death was the most Stannis-y thing he could have done. I personally felt this was a great sendoff to one of GoT’s most fascinating characters.
At King’s Landing, we have perhaps the most powerful scene of the episode when Cersei is forced to take a Walk of Shame back to her home. I have seen a little bit of a negative reaction to this scene, which was another very uncomfortable and traumatic sequence in what has been a particularly uncomfortable and traumatic season of Game of Thrones. Perhaps, the argument goes, the walk of shame was a forced bit of trauma to make us feel for a villainous character. If the sequence was circumstance-driven (for example, maybe Cersei just gets captured for no reason and is subjected to this) then I could see myself agreeing with this line of thought. But, like Stannis’s death, and Jon Snow’s fate(more on that later), this was a character-driven sequence. Cersei knew what kind of man she was arming when she recreated the Faith Militant. Remember that the previous High Septon had been put through a similar walk of shame (though much smaller in scale) by the High Sparrow’s followers before Cersei even met the fanatic. But she still allied herself with him, too arrogant to see how he and Lancel Lannister might betray her. And that arrogance leads to the most humbling sequence imaginable, creating the strongest arc for her character since the beginning of the series. This was not a horrible thing that was just inflicted on her for the sake of putting a character through some suffering, it’s the consequence of her own actions.
Not only was the scene a perfect way to cap Cersei’s Season 5 narrative, the sequence itself was perfectly timed, paced, and acted. Lena Heady and the director forced us to see how the emotional and physical turmoil increased step by step, yet at the same time didn’t wallow in it too much. Probably the best executed scene of the episode.
Speaking of execution, let’s talk about Jon Snow!
Before talking about his death scene, I want to point out that his last scene with Sam was one of the best they’ve had since Season One. If this was truly their last scene together, it was a really great one.
With Sam gone, Jon Snow is practically out of friends and allies, the perfect time for the Night’s Watch mutiny. Now, my feelings on this scene are complicated, and of course are different depending on what we think will happen after this scene. Let’s first entertain the possibility that not only is Jon Snow dead (which is pretty clear in my mind) but that he stays dead. The manner of his death made perfect sense under the circumstances. He was pissing off large members of the Night’s Watch, and he was clearly in danger for several episodes. If anything, they were laying it on with Olly a bit thick. However, it seems like, narratively, there is a lot more for Jon to do. His conflict was not only with the Night’s Watch and the wildlings, but with the White Walkers, and with the powerful families south of the Wall that have murdered his family. For one of the most central characters on the show to go off and basically get embroiled in and die in the Night’s Watch/wildling conflict, when he was also invested in the larger conflicts of the show, feels a little disappointing. I also think that maybe this is one very likeable central character too many to die in the show (although I have to admit my bias…Jon Snow is quite possibly my favorite character on the series, so I may still be grieving). If Jon Snow is truly going to stay dead, that would be pretty disappointing for me.
But, of course, I think it is very likely that Jon Snow will be back (despite Kit Harington saying he won’t be back next season). Melisandre knows that resurrection is one of the powers red priests have, and it would be strange for Chekhov’s priestess to come to the Wall shortly before Jon Snow’s death and for her abilities not to be used. However, if this dramatic death comes, but its consequences are erased…I mean, isn’t that a bit of a copout? It would be particularly problematic since they would have put us through the emotional turmoil of seeing one of the best characters on the show dying, just to take back a lot of that emotional punch. So whether Jon Snow is truly dead or not, the sequence is slightly problematic.
Another thing going against this admittedly well directed and well written scene is the fact that I’m unsure what exactly will happen. I don’t know if this is the last I’ll see of Jon Snow, or if he’ll turn up again (probably to die another day). So it’s hard for me to really feel what I felt when Ned Stark died, or when the Red Wedding occurred, because in those cases the characters clearly died and their narratives came to a natural end. Jon Snow’s narrative feels cut short, and with Melisandre conveniently placed nearby I feel perfectly justified in being more confused about the future than in those other instances. Maybe once we’ve seen Season 6, and I know the full consequences of this death, I’ll be able to fully appreciate this moment. I liked the scene, but until I’m more certain exactly what it was I saw, I’m not sure how much weight I can put to the sequence.
“Mother’s Mercy” was a disappointing finale for me, a bumpy final chapter to what has been a bumpy season. We had the end of pretty much every storyline in this episode, and yet I feel like true resolutions were rather few. There are several loose threads left dangling by the end of this episode, conclusions that were built up to this season but have been saved for months down the road. Arya’s training, the Sons of the Harpy, Mereen generally, the Sansa/Bolton conflict, the trials for Cersei and the Tyrells, the Faith Militant…all of these are threads seemed to be heading towards conclusions this season, but they didn’t. Besides Jaime and Stannis, every other character feels like their season ended short of a proper conclusion (even Jon Snow, who died!) There were some truly great sequences in this episode – the Walk of Shame, For the Watch, Stannis’ death – but there were more than a couple disappointing scenes (sometimes very disappointing), and even the strong death scene of Jon Snow, the biggest scene of the episode, doesn’t have a clear impact on me right now. Trying to calculate the effect of the disappointments with what the episode did extremely well, I’m just going to give this episode the same grade I’ve been giving almost every other episode this season, a B. Maybe that’s lazy, but I truly don’t think the episode with such great scenes can be considered a below-average episode, yet at the same time I can’t give a top score to an episode that featured some pretty disappointing non-resolutions in numerous storylines.
Feel free to disagree in the comments!
And make sure to catch my ranking of all the Season 5 episodes! I will also, eventually, be placing the episodes in my ranking of the episodes of the whole series, which I’ve already publsished for the first forty episodes and starts here.
If you liked my thoughts on Game of Thrones, keep an eye out for other reviews! I am in the process of reviewing Daredevil and hope to review-as-I-rewatch Season One of Fargo. If that sounds interesting to you, keep your eyes peeled.