"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."
- Cersei Lannister
This entire season we’ve discussed how Game of Thrones is a subversion of the high fantasy genre; how characters tend to be morally gray, how heroes lose, how magic in this world is equal parts wonder and terror. But Cersei Lannister’s fatalistic (if not simplistic) summary of The Game (our true aim) hints at something more basic. The hard truth is that actions have real consequences, and every decision and choice comes with its logically just desserts. Yes, the occasional dragon or shadow-baby throws the narrative astray, but the wars these characters wage, the alliances they make, and the sacrifices given all play out in full.
The audience learned this lesson early, as the honorable and lovable Ned Stark couldn’t outmaneuver his competition in King’s Landing, and it cost him his head. Renly Baratheon’s decision to usurp his brother Stannis's claim to the Iron Throne left him bleeding in the Stormlands. Robb Stark forsaking his vow to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters led not only to his own demise, but to the failure of the entire Northern rebellion. Even Joffrey’s raging cruelty resulted in poisoning by his own advisors, and Tywin’s disregard for Tyrion came back to haunt him in the shittiest way possible.
In this season’s unrelenting finale "Mother’s Mercy", we see the logical end that so many of these character arcs have been building towards. Three in particularly stand out; Stannis Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, and Jon Snow.
What transpired is almost straight out of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy; not only do we witness their demise, but we watch as they are stripped of everything that makes them who they are beforehand (in Cersei’s case, quite literally).
Stannis Baratheon has repeatedly harped on being all-in in this war: "I will risk everything because if I don'
Make no mistake, Stannis lost the war last week. His defeat was clinched the moment he sacrificed the last bit of nobility in him in search for a quick answer to his War in the North. This week simply showed us the consequences of such heinous action. His men deserted, the Lady Melisandre abandoned him, and his wife Selyse took her own life in rather horrific fashion. Stannis wagered everything on the Red God’s power, and all the ice thawing in Westeros could not make up for the men and moral standing he lost in the process.
A few episodes ago, Tyrion lectured Daenerys on inspiring devotion, and we see what happens when you lose that commitment all over this episode; Jon loses the trust of the Night's Watch, Cersei has lost the popular control of King's Landing, and here, Stannis Baratheon loses the men he needs to win the battle. Stannis was prepared to siege Winterfell, but instead, his depleted forces were fell upon by Bolton men, and what ensued was nothing short of a rout. Stannis survived long enough for Brienne of Tarth to find him, and deliver the revenge see had been seeking since Renly’s assassination three seasons ago.
(A round of applause for Stephen Dillane as well, who brought an understated charisma and grit to a charisma-less character.)
Game of Thrones is all about the long game, and Brienne’s quest for vengeance finally ends on the snowy outskirts of Winterfell. Stannis is not a sympathetic character (not anymore, anyway), but that makes it no less comforting to see the total destruction of his person; his moral code, his family, his army, his claim to the throne, all these defining aspects of the man are stripped away from him before Brienne finally delivers the death blow. Stannis risked everything and lost, and with it ends the trueborn lineage of House Baratheon. The House that begun the series perched on the Iron Throne is now relegated to the dustbin of history, a page in someone else’s history book.
The metaphorical disrobing of Stannis Baratheon is more literally echoed in King’s Landing, wherein Cersei Lannisters confesses to the High Sparrow of the treasons she’s committed; at least, to some of the treasons she’s committed.
Confessing the truth of her and Jaime’s relationship and the resulting parentage of Tommen would end the Lannister reign, and likely result in execution for all involved. Because she still denies this accusation, the High Sparrow informs her there will be a trial, but that she is free to return to the Red Keep and her son for the nonce, but not before a "cleansing."
Her luscious Lannister locks sheared and completely disrobed, Cersei is forced to take an actual walk of shame (including a Septa chanting SHAME! as she walks) from the Great Sept of Baelor all the way to the Red Keep, as the people of King’s Landing look on, and later, verbally and physically pummel her. This is Cersei’s prescribed atonement, the price for all the sins she has committed up until this point. She leaves the Great Sept standing tall as befits a lioness of Casterly Rock, but by the time she returns to Red Keep, she is little more than a bloodied, mewling kitten.
Finally inside her castle again, she collapses into the arms of Qyburn, who comforts her while her uncle Kevan Lannister and Grand Maester Pycelle stoically pass judgment. It seems a nadir for Cersei of House Lannister, but Qyburn does offer her one hope: a Mountain-sized Kingsguard all her own, who lifts her up like a rag doll and takes her to her chambers. Her mane may be shorn, but the lioness still has claws, and the undead Mountain may be her path to vengeance.
Not unlike Stannis, Cersei is hardly a sympathetic character to the audience, and is seemingly deserving of this punishment. After all, she brought down Ned Stark, held Sansa hostage, coddled the vicious King Joffrey, and was constantly at odds with Tyrion. Yet all the same, Cersei’s character is far more complex than simply "antagonist."
A prophecy from early on in her life (shown to us in the season premiere) has made her paranoid, constantly forcing her to take extreme measures to protect her children, and defend her own station against younger, fairer queens. We’ve seen her have touching moments with Jaime, and even Tyrion, Ned, and Sansa, confessing how much the burden of ruling has destroyed her on the inside, and the only joy she seems to get aside from her children comes from wine.
Cersei’s atonement is clearly the result of all the treason and scheming she’s done, but the truth is, no one deserves to be shamed and bloodied in the streets. In a traditional fantasy story, moments like this would be fistpump-worthy; "the Evil Queen finally gets hers!" But what Game of Thrones does so masterfully is undermine these very reactions; yes Cersei has opposed our protagonists from the very first episode, but this victory does not fill one with a sense of justice or excitement. It is pyrrhic, just another unfortunate outcome of this brutal, unforgiving universe.
While Cersei often is a major obstacle for some of our heroes, she is the hero of her own story (a theme common in Game of Thrones; the Starks, Boltons, Targaryens, Lannisters, and Tyrells are all the protagonists of their own arc, and the intertwining of alliances and goals between these houses makes it so complex that there is no one side you can truly root for; Blackwater, for instance, pits Stannis against Joffrey, but also puts characters like Sansa, Davos, Cersei, Tyrion, Bronn, and the Hound right in the middle of the action).
Cersei is a victim of a patriarchal society, where the totality of her value is tied to marriage and childbearing. And even though she has mostly been an awful ruler, she didn’t even have a chance in the eyes of her male counterparts, solely because of her gender.
It’s tragic, and another instance where the show toys with our conceptions of villainy, justice, and equality. Season 5 represented the first time Cersei really played the game of thrones of her own; there was no Ned, Tyrion, or Tywin to obstruct her or use her as a pawn. And though she fancies herself a female Tywin, her moves were less than tactful. She ostracized House Tyrell, who the Lannisters require to maintain their hold on power, and she armed the Faith Militant, a band of religious fanatics who imposed their own inquisition on the people of King's Landing. Though she may have played the game poorly, she did survive, which means she isn't done playing yet.
And even with a CGI body double, the harrowing effect of this scene is every bit as memorable as the set pieces at Hardhome and Draznak’s Pit. As opposed to visual splendor, this scene was all about the wonderful Lena Headey and the fire she breathes into the daughter of Tywin Lannister. The transformation she makes from the Sept to the Keep is a gripping metamorphosis that could easily have seemed force in the hands of a lesser actor. For my money, Headey remains the real MVP of the show, and this scene would have made for a satisfying close to the fifth season.
Of course, this is Game of Thrones, and satisfaction is rarely in the cards for the audience. After a brief scene where Davos and Jon discover what happened with Stannis and Shireen, Jon is notified that there is some new information on Benjen Stark, his uncle and First Ranger prior to disappearing very early on in Season one. Jon rushes out to the courtyard into the middle of a gathering crowd…only to find a sign labeled "traitor."
Before Jon can even process what is about to happen, Alliser Thorne drives a knife into Jon Snow, proclaiming "For the Watch." Everywhere suddenly, there are daggers in the dark, as various Nights Watchmen take their turns Julius Ceasaring** Jon Snow, until finally Olly plays the Brutus role, delivering the final blow to the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
The camera lingers on Jon, lying in the snow, slowly staining red until the camera finally cuts to black.
Ever since we were introduced to the men that defend the Wall, we learned that the wildlings and Night’s Watch have nothing but utter loathing for each other. After the initial defeat of the White Walkers nearly 8,000 years ago, the Free Folk have been the main adversary of the crows for generation after generation. We saw in Hardhome how unwilling the wildlings were to trust Jon and his band, and we’ve seen for several seasons what disdain the rangers hold for the peoples beyond the Wall.
Since Olly, Thorne, et al were not at Hardhome, they have not seen the White Walkers or the army of the dead. Most of those that witnessed the massacre at the Fist of the First Men (the wight attack at the end of season 2) ended up being killed at Craster’s Keep or later at the Battle for the Wall. The list of people who are truly aware of the threat to the north dwindles even further, and the order of men charged to protect the Wall is now in flux.
Jon, far more than any other character in this series, is an archetype hero. He’s noble born (albeit with a taint of bastardy), but more importantly he’s a truly noble character. Unlike Ned and Robb, however, Jon has been able to navigate the game well enough to turn enemies into allies, to defend the Kingdom, and most importantly, keep his attention focused on the oncoming Armageddon facing Westeros.
He’s proven a capable soldier, an astute commander, and a deft diplomat. More so than any other character in this series, we have seen him progress from a green, highborn bastard into a paragon of everything the audience believes a fantasy hero should be. Jon’s not only the hero we need, but he’s the hero we deserve in this unforgiving world. He understands the true endgame, and is willing to sacrifice everything (and seemingly does) for the greater good, while nigh everyone else in the series is too consumed with personal glory and revenge as it relates to the game of thrones.
In Cersei and Stannis, we watched as these two characters were slowly stripped of all who they are, until nothing but sadness and grief was left. Jon doesn’t quite suffer in this way, but that emotion is transferred to the audience.
Jon was our last best hope; he may not have dragons or fire gods on his side, but he had the will and ability to mount a defense against the oncoming Winter. With him bleeding out in Castle Black, the audience is left with nothing but despair. Not only do we mourn for a fan favorite, but now the whole fate of Westeros is seemingly sealed to doom.
And so, some will say this is Game of Thrones just bumping off another main character, eliciting shock value and breaking hearts all over again. While this is certainly true, it also allows the story to finally pivot to its final act. The Night’s Watch has lost its commander. The North is ruled by the Boltons. The Iron Throne is essentially vacant. And the Mother of Dragons is lost somewhere in the Dothraki Sea, and otherwise tied up in Meereenese politics. The time is ripe for the White Walkers to march on the Seven Kingdoms, and Seven save us when they do.
Of course, there is one question we should ask…
Is Jon Snow really dead?
Before I proceed: the show is essentially caught up, and in some instances, beyond the source text. As such, there are no spoilers anymore, and everything here is purely speculation.
Personally, I’m not sure if Jon’s story in Game of Thrones is finished, for two main reasons: 1) there may be some magical routes to bring him back, and 2) it wouldn’t quite work as a narrative form to have his arc end here. Let’s briefly look at some of the mystical methods that Jon could have survived his attack:
The children of Ned Stark were all gifted with direwolves in the series pilot, and the connection between child and wolf is something beyond the physical. Most notably, we’ve seen Bran enter the mind of his direwolf Summer and fully control the beast. So much so that Jojen Reed has to occasionally remind Bran that he cannot live inside the wolf forever without sacrificing his humanity.
Too, in Season 3 Episode 9 "The Rains of Castamere" Jon faced off against the wildling warg Orell, who was able to control an eagle with his skinchanging abilities. When Jon drove Longclaw deep into Orell’s belly, Orell was able to warg into his eagle, which briefly attacked Jon before flying away. Could Jon have found himself in the body of his direwolf Ghost before the lights went out? And even if he did, would he be more wolf or man at that point?
The Lord of Light
Dragons aside, the Red God R’hllor has the largest magical imprint on the world of ice and fire.
The red priests have shown some uncanny abilities over the run of the series; divining the future, conjuring shadows, and employing kingsblood to achieve military and political ends. But the most impressive feat was found in the third season, when the red priest Thoros of Myr resurrected Beric Dondarrion, who had fallen in trial by combat against The Hound. After suffering a mortal wound at Sandor Clegane’s sword, Thoros prayed to the Lord of Light, and life was returned to Lord Beric.
As they would later explain to Arya Stark, Thoros had resurrected Beric five times prior, though admittedly Beric felt less and less human with each return. Furthermore, when Melisandre crossed paths with the Brotherhood in her search for Gendry, she questioned Thoros heavily about his resurrection capabilities.
And of course, Melisandre arrived at the Wall not long before Jon was stabbed. The bigger question is if Jon were to be resurrected by the Red God, would he be changed? Would he be "a bit less" as Beric described?
The White Walkers
Forgetting the powers of fire, we have seen the province of ice also dabble in resurrection. Not two episodes ago, we witnessed as the Night’s King sacked Hardhome and raised the resultant corpses back from the dead, reanimating them as wights. On top of that, the Night’s King seemed to have taken an especially keen interest in Jon Snow, the Night’s Watch ranger who was able to defeat a White Walker with his Valyrian Steel blade.
It’s unlikely the brothers of the Watch give Jon a funeral ceremony; if his body were dumped north of the Wall, could the Night’s King make use of it? Would Jon just be another zombie in the army of the dead, or could he be something even more than just a blue-eyed corpse?
Probably the least likely, but worth discussing as we saw necromancy in full effect this week. Qyburn, our attainted maester, was able to reanimate the corpse of The Mountain Gregor Clegane, and put him into Cersei Lannister’s service. While the Wall is currently maester-less until Sam earns his chain in Oldtown, there may be others who are familiar with this dark art and could bring Jon back from the dead.
The above options explore the possible avenues in which Jon could come back, but I also want to discuss why he needs to come back: the story wouldn’t make sense if Jon’s arc is over. While yes, main characters have been killed off before, it has almost always been to move the plot forward. Ned Stark’s execution set up the War of the Five Kings, and the betrayal of Robb Stark ended it (essentially). Jon’s death does little on that sort of front, other than to put an already-hobbled group of men in further disadvantage against the White Walkers.
As a narrative, it simply would be poor storytelling to end Jon’s thread while there is still so much mystery wrapped around his parentage and family. We still need to learn who his mother was, and loose plot points such as the fate of Benjen Stark have no bearing without Jon at the center. I’ve argued several times over that Game of Thrones is a subversion of fantasy trope, but it is NOT a subversion of the narrative form itself. While shocking events in the past have all been paradigm-shifting, they have all felt organic to the story and necessary for the plot to accelerate onward.
This is all just conjecture on my part, but that’s how I feel walking away from the fifth season of Game of Thrones. An altogether excellent season of television that ended with a stretch of three episodes that stand unparalleled in scope and depth. With only two to three seasons left, the story has finally pivoted towards its endgame, and the winds of winter are howling down on Westeros.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- In Braavos, we finally see Arya cross Meryn Trant off her kill list by posing as a child prostitute, then fully exacting vengeance by blinding and mutilating the pedophile Kingsguard. Trant’s death is a direct effect of the violence he enacted against Syrio Forel and Sansa, and few would argue he didn’t deserve to die in a brutal way. But again, like Cersei, the truth is much harder to stomach. There is no moral code, in our world or in Westeros, where a 12 year old girl mutilating a grown man should ever be celebrated. Once more, the victory comes with great consequence; one of the foulest men in this universe has gotten his comeuppance, but at serious cost to the soul of Arya Stark.
Moreover, Jaqen H’ghar has not been blind to what his apprentice has been up to; in fact, it seems that the whole business with the gambler was to test Arya. Would she fulfill her duties and truly become no one, or does she still hold on to her Arya Stark persona, and all the blood lust that goes with it? As punishment for her faltering, Jaqen takes away her eyesight, leaving our young she-wolf blind going into the next season.
- We finally get something resembling substance in Dorne, as Prince Doran, Ellaria, and the rest send Jaime, Bronn, Myrcella and Trystane on their way back to King’s Landing. A goodbye kiss from Ellaria to Myrcella turns out to be a poisoned one, as Myrcella starts bleeding and collapses once the ship is afloat. Moments earlier, Myrcella confesses to Jaime that she knows that he is her actual father; more importantly, she understands and doesn’t care. It’s a great moment for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose talents have been mostly squandered this season, but you can see a substantial amount of relief and pleasure in his face as he can, at least for one instant, be truly open and forthcoming as a parent. Of course this brief happiness is torn away from us seconds later. You do you, Game of Thrones.
The most important narrative aspect of this, however, is the fulfillment of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy from the series premiere. The sorceress had predicted the deaths of all three of Cersei’s children, and now two have fallen. With Cersei already in a feebled state, news of her only daughter’s death can only worsen her madness and grief. And of course, the clock is likely ticking on Tommen, First of his Name…
Also of note is this is clearly an act of war by Ellaria, and will likely pull Dorne into the central conflict for the Iron Throne. Of course, this move wasn’t very savvy, as the Lannisters now have Trystane Martell, heir to Sunspear, in tow.
- Back at Winterfell, Sansa uses the battle between Stannis and Ramsay as a cover to flee. Her candle beacon atop the Broken Tower goes unanswered, but as she descends, she bumps into Reek and Myranda, the latter of whom is pointing an arrow straight at her. Threatening mutilation and worse for her attempted escape, Myranda tries to scare Sansa down, but this time, Sansa doesn’t bend. If she gets killed she gets killed, but she will not sacrifice who she is. Her courage seems to awaken something deep inside Reek, something old, something Ironborn. Reek shoves Myranda into the courtyard below, and then takes Sansa by the hand as they leap from the walls of Winterfell into the snow below as Ramsay’s forces return from battle.
- Finally, in Essos, we get two scenes. The first is in the throne room in the Great Pyramid of Meereen, where the remaining members of Dany’s retinue ponder what to do without her (read: they set up various plot threads to carry into the next season). Tyrion, having experience ruling in King’s Landing, appears to be made Lord Regent of Meereen, with Missandei and Grey Worm as aides. Meanwhile, Jorah and Daario appear to be the next in-line for a buddy storyline, as they volunteer to venture out of the city and find their queen.
Daenerys, meanwhile, has found refuge in the Dothraki Sea with Drogon. He appears to be somewhat injured from the events in the fighting pit, but clearly is not lacking for food. Dany’s exploration of the nearby plains ends in the arrival of a Dothraki Khalasar, though further details about the encounter are withheld from us. The Dothraki haven’t played much of a role since the second season, but the wife of Khal Drogo is likely not easily forgotten. Moreover, the Dothraki favor strength over blood and titles, and there is no greater show of strength than riding a dragon. Dany has Unsullied, ships, and dragons, but now she may also have a cavalry that surpasses anything the great lords of Westeros can muster. Maybe.
- "Hello, my old friend." It was great to see Conleth Hill's Varys show up for in the Great Pyramid. It provided a bit of lightheartedness amidst a very dark episode, and gives the audience something to look forward to next year.
- This season needed more Margaery Tyrell (though, this is true regardless how much Margaery is actually shown).
- Lastly, I would like to thank Danny Russell for the opportunity to put my thoughts to pen, and to the entire community here at DRaysBay and friends throughout the interwebs who have supported me in my first foray into writing about television. It’s a labor of love, so I would do this even without an audience, but the loud clamor for my reviews every week has been incredibly touching and appreciated. I love television as a shared experience, and I am honored to have been able to share it with y’all.
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."