Oliver Davis (@OliDavis) reviews the tenth and final episode of Game of Thrones Season Five….
Directed by David Nutter.
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss.
Let’s start with the big stuff. Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the guy we’ve all been placing our hopes and dreams on since Ned and Robb Stark’s deaths, got totally Caesar’d by his fellow brothers of the Night’s Watch (including the young recruit Ollie, because children murdering people is really in this Winter).
To readers of the books, this was the last big event that happened in the most-recently released novel. Like the Red Wedding, we knew it was coming and waited quietly for the outcry. We’re all flying blind together, now.
But, like the book, it didn’t quite hit those Red Wedding highs.
The reason for this is twofold. One because of the show, the other because of its source material.
Firstly, pacing. Personally, I’ve tremendously enjoyed Season Five. Hardhome ranks as one of the shows best ever episodes and the changes David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made from the books are sensible and have been implemented deftly. Sure, the season wasn’t as full of surprises as Three and Four, but the carefully measured political maneuverings, the slow build of the Sparrows, Tyrion and Mormont’s relationship, Daenerys’ situation in Meereen – this year’s strengths were its subtlety. But the placing of some scenes often sapped away at their tension. Structurally, several important moments were bereft of suspense.
The most pressing example of this is Jon’s. His death came out of nowhere. And not in a fun, Red Wedding, ‘holy-crap, The Roose, The Roose, The Roose Is On Fire’ way; more in a dismissive ‘huh, that again’ reaction.
Since Hardhome, Jon’s storyline hasn’t been afforded much exposure, just a few scenes between episodes 9 and 10. Consequently, the Wildlings/Night’s Watch tension wasn’t sufficiently escalated and his brothers’ slow mutiny against him not foreshadowed enough. When they finally murder Jon in the episode’s cliffhanger, it comes on a downbeat in the story’s flow.
Consider how this moment occurs in the books. Receiving note from Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) that Stannis’ army has been defeated, Jon rallies the Night’s Watch to march on Winterfell. It’s a highpoint – the Night’s Watch are united under a hero we adore to fight against a villain we loathe. Things are on the up. It’s optimistic, hopeful, and then…Jon is betrayed by the Night’s Watch’s high command. Up and then down. Highs and then lows. Drama and then laughs. Variation is the spice that gives these moments flavour. Jon’s murder, here, was the pacing equivalent of unseasoned tofu.
Secondly – and more significantly – is an issue with the source material: shock fatigue. Game of Thrones has established a reputation of important, sudden deaths – a reputation that has conditioned bloodlust in the viewer. And an important character suffering a horrible death is the only way to satisfy it.
Like a heroin junky’s hits, they’re always chasing that first high: Ned’s death. The Red Wedding came close. Prince Oberyn’s was more eye-popping gore than anything else. Other visceral moments are peppered throughout the show – Sansa’s rape, Shireen Baratheon being burnt at the stake – but they’re neither instantly shocking enough, nor concern characters developed as much as the others.
Jon’s is the latest attempt to recapture Ned’s death, but his murder just ends up feeling empty. Sure, the aforementioned pacing could’ve been improved to heighten this. But the real reason is shock fatigue.
The Game of Thrones audience’s expectations have been raised to unreachable levels, each viewer eagerly awaiting the next potential death/rape/child sacrifice they can tweet their faux-outrage about. It’s addictive, it’s a high – and one that Game of Thrones can never satisfy until it concludes.
One piece of pacing the show has got right is Cersei’s (Lena Headey) continuing fall. From her methodical dismantling of the small council to her unwise plot against Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), her relationship with Qyburn (Anton Lesser) to her promotion of the Sparrow’s fundamentalism for personal gain. Headey’s performance is so entangled in deceit and manipulative double-crosses it seems even Cersei is unaware over her emotions’ authenticity.
Fittingly for a character so concealed, she is stripped naked and forced to walk through King’s Landing, from Flea Bottom to the Red Keep.
It’s brutal. After the initial hush, onlookers begin to hurl abuse. Every profanity is delivered with incredible venom. The first C-bomb is particularly vicious, almost distorting its compressed audio. People expose themselves, throw faeces, try to cut her. Because of the terrain and distance, the Queen’s feet are covered in blood by half-way through.
These are all edited with close-ups of Cersei’s face, looking forlornly at the Red Keep in the distance. She’s got a long way to go. The sequence seems to go on forever. If her confession and emotions to the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) weren’t completely genuine prior to her atonement, they certainly are now. She’s exposed physically and mentally, and, somehow, the show actually makes you feel a little bit sorry for this bitter, cynical woman. Headey is sublime.
At the end of her procession, following a season long build, Qyburn finally reveals Zombie Mountain, restored to working order with experiments and black magic. Magnificently covered from head to toe in gold armour, his helmet exposes the blue flesh around his eyes. He dwarfs both Cersei and Qyburn as he picks her up off the ground. And then! Nothing. The scene ends.
This is the second-to-last sequence of the season. Cersei’s atonement was brilliant, but now is the time for Benioff and Weiss to play their hand. Zombie Mountain needed to display his power. Have him rip Pycelle’s (Julian Glover) head off after the Maester mumbles a sarcastic remark or something. A simple exit-stage-right isn’t enough.
Unfortunately – with so much debate over Jon’s stabbing and Cersei’s nude photoshoot – people are overlooking the fall of Season Five’s MVOTKW (Most Valuable One True King of Westeros), Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). Not one of his scenes has been below exceptional, he had the season’s best line (“Fewer”), other characters talked about him in awe (Littlefinger’s praising of his military talents in episode 4), and he can lay claim to one of the series’ most shocking moments (and, in terms of emotion and character, most rewardingly and fascinatingly complex). Season Five was Stannis Baratheon’s.
Which is why his treatment in episode ten was so appalling.
Not that he was killed off. The dude burnt his daughter alive, some punishment was in store. It’s the manner in which he expires.
The episode starts strong. His wife hangs herself. Melisandre, the woman he trusted with everything, flees. His sellswords have abandoned him. They’ve taken the horses.
These are fitting consequences to his actions. This is the delicious ‘fall’ part of his ‘rise and fall’ story (from which Stannis’ Season Five narrative is molded). His jaw isn’t as locked as it once was. It’s fuzzier, more shaky. He’s sent Davos (Liam Cunningham), representative of Stannis’ humanity, away. All he has now is his self-destructive determination.
“Get the men in formation,” he commands his Andy Serkis-lookalike general. They reach outside Winterfell’s gates ready for a siege. They’re met by the full, smothering force of Roose Bolton’s army. They’re crushed instantly.
Problem is, that ‘crushed instantly’ is a jump cut. In a fight sequence that screams ‘we used all our money on Episode 8’, the order goes: shot of Bolton’s army charging, shot of Sansa (Sophie Turner) watching, shot of a forest full of dead men with Stannis as sole Baratheon survivor.
It’s horribly unfair to the character and his arc. The events are not at fault. They fit the ‘fall’ trajectory perfectly. Having Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) deliver the final blow is a wonderful touch. But the time devoted to it, and its placing within the episode’s structure (confined to the opening act), most definitely are.
All this is over in the opening 15 minutes. During that first quarter, the show cuts between Sansa, Brienne and Pod (Daniel Portman) and the events at the Wall. Stannis is dead by the first commercial break (on Sky Atlantic, not HBO, obviously).
Compare his plight to Season Four’s MVP, ‘The Hound’ Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann). His and Arya’s travelling was intercut with other storylines throughout S04E10. The Hound’s lengthy fight with Brienne occurs over the half-way mark in an excellently choreographed scene, a fitting send-off, and Arya’s departing exchange with him a few scenes after. That’s how you write off a fan favourite.
In light of that, why not spread Stannis’ scenes out more? Place them throughout the episode rather than cramming everything in at the start. It elevates their importance; makes them feel as though they take place over a longer period. That way, Stannis could be finished off in the last programme part, placed just before Cersei’s atonement. That’s three big hitters to close the season: a Cersei sandwich with Stannis and Jon murder bread. Pair that with Jon’s rallying cry to Winterfell after receiving word that Stannis is dead, and you’ve suddenly completely reinvigorated the pacing for the season finale.
Overall, a poor closer for what has otherwise been a terrific season. Stannis RIP.
SEXINESS TALLY (in lieu of the Hodor Count):
Boobs – 4
Female Bottom – 1
Vagina – 1
Penises – 2
Oliver Davis is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors, curator of its Super Newsletter and Lead Producer of Flickering Myth TV. You can follow him on Twitter @OliDavis. Check back here every Monday for his episode-by-episode reviews of Game of Thrones Season 5.