Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.10: Mother's Mercy



You know how disappointed we are when finales are dull, with too many threads left dangling, not enough twists, and a ho-hum ending that makes you wonder if you'll even return for the next season? In the future, perhaps I'll be a little more thankful. When the death of character that's been recurring for five years becomes the sixth most shocking thing that happens this week, you know we have a lot to cover.

Oh who am I kidding... as shocking and upsetting as some of these things were, what a THRILLING episode this was!!

Before we begin, however, I just wanted to return one last time to the Sansa scene from a few episodes ago. One of the best responses to our post that I received was from a friend of mine, Deanna, who suggested I read a book called One Hour in Paris by Karyn L. Freedman, about the author's horrifying experience of being raped at knifepoint, and how that one hour of her life has shaped and traumatized the 25 years that have followed since. I picked it up and I'm almost finished, but I wanted to give the book a mention here within the context of what happened to Sansa. If you truly want a real-world version of the rapes we've seen depicted in movies and on television, this book isn't an easy read, but really forces you to look at it from the victim's point of view. Not just the hour of agony she endured, but the repercussions of what something like that does to you. I'll be watching Sansa next season to see what she's like post-Bolton (or what I hope is post-Bolton). Perhaps she and Theon can help each other try to find some peace after what they've gone through.

But on to the finale. As always I'm joined by my loyal knight, Sir Christopher Lockett, who will take my squees and bend them into something comprehensible. Sadly I drew the short straw this week, so I have to begin...

Nikki: I have begun this first pass 15 different times... I don’t even know where to begin. (I even tried one that was simply, “Wow, that was quite the episode, what did you think, Chris?” just to avoid having to go first...)

We’ll get to the ending of this episode in good time, although I can’t promise that I won’t mention it once or twice. I mean, for god’s sakes, I’d invested so much in that character! I thought everything was going to come down to him!! It’s one thing to kill off Ned Stark after one season as a big shocking ending, but to build up Jon Snow as this man of mystery with a big secret in his past and then... ah, we were just kidding folks, sorry you took so much time theorizing who his real parents were: he was just a red herring. Run along, now. I honestly thought he was the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, with Rhaegar Targaryen. I thought he was the last male Targaryen, with lineage leading to the Starks after all.


But more on that later. Let’s open with the fallout of What Stannis Did last week to Shireen. I don’t have to remind you of the horrific action he took in the name of becoming even more powerful than he already was. And even as we were watching it, you couldn’t help but see the look of disgust and horror on the faces of Stannis’s followers. So, despite the episode opening with a triumphant Melisandre, noting that the ice is beginning to melt and that must be a sign from the Lord of Light that Stannis’s sacrifice was a worthy one, he can’t exactly do much fighting if half his army has deserted him. Without sellswords — or horses, for that matter — Stannis isn’t exactly going to be a formidable foe on the battlefield. When Stannis gets the news and darts a look at Melisandre, she looks confused, then closes her eyes as if wondering if she might have made a wee error in judgment last week. When another soldier approaches Stannis with news — “It can’t be worse than a mutiny,” says Stannis naively — he’s led to Selyse’s body, where she’s hanged herself either out of agony of losing her daughter to her husband’s ambition, or to avoid having to tell him that whoopsie, she wasn’t actually your baby and therefore had no king’s blood... or both. AND THEN, while he’s watching his wife’s lifeless corpse get chopped down from a tree, a third messenger informs Stannis that Melisandre has apparently decided she hitched her cart to the wrong horse and has abandoned him, too.

Well THIS is turning out to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Stannis, now, isn’t it? (Maybe you shouldn’t have tied your daughter to a fucking wooden stake and burned her, you dickhead.)

And so, like the Monty Python knights, Stannis’s army marches on Winterfell sans horses — though, sadly, no one thought to click some coconut shells together for mere effect — and think they’ll somehow scare the Boltons into surrendering. Stannis has given up at this point: you can see the look of resignation on his face, the lack of determination as he practically shrugs before drawing a sword to run to his inevitable death.

A few minutes and several thousand deaths later, the Boltons are victorious, but Stannis has somehow persevered, and we watch how, if he just hadn’t been taken in by Melisandre and her Lord of Light voodoo, he could have been unstoppable. But after getting stabbed in the gut and the leg, he’s unable to go any further, and falls against a tree.

And that’s where Brienne finds him.

I’ve been waiting for most of the season for Brienne of Tarth to play a more major role in the goings-on, and instead she’s spent most of the season leaning against a wall, staring at a window for any sign of a distress light (I found it rather cheesy that the very moment she turns her back, the window lights up with Sansa’s candle...) but in this incredible scene, she shows that the name of her sword — Oathkeeper — is an apt one indeed. For not only has she found herself on the edge of Winterfell to keep an oath she made to a woman who is now dead, but she kills Stannis Baratheon in the name of Renly Baratheon, to whom she made an oath that predated the one she made to Catelyn, and she now gets to follow through. Stannis looks up at her, and one can only imagine what is running through his head — My seat on the throne was compromised by that blonde harpy in King’s Landing whose bastard son is now sitting on it. My main foe is a silver-haired mother of dragons in Meereen. I gave up everything I had, everything I loved, for a redheaded madwoman who promised me everything. And now I’m about to be killed by a giant woman in a suit of armour. Well colour me thrilled.

But he no longer has anything to live for; if anything, the sudden arrival of Brienne is merciful for Stannis; his only other option was to lie there bleeding out, or, more likely, to be captured and tortured by the horrific Boltons. With the knowledge of the unforgiveable thing he did to his daughter — her screams still echoing in his head — and the desertion of his men, his wife, and his god, he has been reduced to nothing.

Now, with Stannis gone, there’s one less person in line for the Throne, and the puzzle pieces once again realign. My money would have been on Jon Snow except for ONE LITTLE THING. Later, later.

Meanwhile, over in Winterfell, we finally get the return of Theon and a hint that he just might have some balls after all. What did you think of these scenes, Chris?

Christopher: Like you, I thought it more than a little contrived that Brienne would desert her post just seconds before Sansa’s candle became visible. Of course, once Podrick sees Stannis’ army on the march, you know exactly what is about to happen. Quite frequently the writing on this show has been surperb … this was not one of those moments, but was rather totally hackneyed and hamfisted. I would have preferred Brienne seeing Sansa’s candle just as Podrick brought the news, and having her make a painful choice between oaths—for after all, which one is more sacred to her? Her oath to Catelyn, or her oath to Renly’s memory? How much more dramatic tension would ensue if we’d seen her struggle and then say “She’ll still be there,” and run off to kill Stannis? For a show that, at its best, is often about impossible choices, they missed a great chance to put one to Brienne.

It’s funny that you took so many tries to get started on this post—my principal thought when the credits rolled was “well, thank the gods Nikki has to lead us off.” The one thing that did occur to me as I reflected on everything that happened was that, aside from Tyrion and Varys’ muted but happy reunion, the happiest ending in this episode was Cersei’s. Think about that: though she endured unspeakable humiliation and indeed torture as she made her naked walk from the sept to the Red Keep, she was welcomed with an embrace, the relief in knowing that she wouldn’t have to endure another moment in her cell, and hope. Whereas Daenerys ends up surrounded by a circling Dothraki horde, Arya pays for her assassination with blindness, Sansa and Theon leap off a very tall wall, Jaime Lannister watches his daughter die in his arms, Stannis watches his ambitions crumble before him, Brienne has her revenge at the expense of losing Sansa, and Jon Snow …

Yeah, you’re right—we’ll come to that last one in a little bit.

For a show that has never hesitated to leave us with our stomachs in our mouths and the prospect of spending nine and a half months waiting for the next season in the fetal position, they’ve pretty much outdone themselves. By a magnitude. The number of people in my Facebook feed saying “Fuck you, Game of Thrones!” or something to that effect was quite amazing (if unsurprising).

That being said, I don’t think all things are quite as dire as we may imagine. But I will come back to that thought.

I’m reasonably certain that people will agree when I say that one of the most satisfying moments in this episode was when Theon knocks Myranda off the walkway to her death. In an episode with somewhat uneven writing, I thought they hit all the right notes here. The question until now has been what would shock Reek out of his stupor and let him be Theon again? We’ve seen some of Theon burble up to the surface here and there this season, such as when he’s required to name himself properly at Sansa’s wedding and, more importantly, when he confesses to her that her brothers are actually alive. But these moments have been ephemeral, overshadowed by his betrayals.

But Myranda’s gloating speech to Sansa detailing how dire her future would be once she tattled on her was too. “If I’m going to die,” Sansa says, looking over Myranda’s shoulder at Theon, “let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” But no, Myranda says: Sansa’s father was Warden of the North; Ramsay needs her. “Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you. Just the parts he’ll use to make his heir—until you’ve given him a boy or two, and he’s finished using them. Then, he’s got incredible plans for those parts.”

If anything was to break Reek out of his reverie and bring back Theon, it was this threat. In her moment of sadistic triumph, Myranda inadvertently said the very words necessary to re-masculate Theon, rehearsing for Sansa the very hell he endured at Ramsay’s hands and finally cracking the façade of Reek. After throwing her down to the distant ground below, he and Sansa take hands and make their own leap on the other side of the wall—but theirs is a leap of faith. And though he dispensed with Myranda’s threat, it isn’t a heroic rescue: they jump together, hands entwined, siblings once more.

One only hopes that there is a big-ass snowdrift beneath.

If Myranda’s death was one of the satisfying moments of the show, Arya’s dispatching of Meryn Trant has to be another. This scene was not what I was expecting, not exactly—certainly it was bloodier and more brutal than I’d thought, and it was followed by Arya’s punishment for taking a life she had no sanction to take. Here it squares up with the novel: after killing someone on her own whim, she is rendered blind. But in A Feast for Crows, she merely wakes up without sight. Here, the scene—as she rips face after face off the corpse at her feet, finally coming upon her own—is far more fraught (and indeed terrifying). What did you think of Arya’s scenes in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: And even if you DON’T subscribe to the idea that Jon Snow is a Targaryen, wouldn’t those black locks insinuate he’s perhaps Robert Baratheon’s son? Maybe Robert consummated his love with Lyanna after all? I mean... come on.

Now, I will admit, as soon as it happened, my husband immediately said, “Welp. There goes Jon Snow,” and I simply would have none of it. I said no, there’s no way there goes Jon Snow, he’s going to live through this one because he is too damn important. And then Olly — the one I knew was trouble as soon as first Jon and then Sam dismissed him with a chuckle and a ruffle of his hair when he was trying to explain to them what it’s like to watch his parents be slaughtered in front of him — stuck that dagger right in Jon’s heart (the appropriate spot for it, coming from a boy Jon has come to care about) and my husband went, “Nope. Jon Snow is deader than dead.” I still can’t accept it.

Anyway... let’s not discuss that just yet, of course. (Ahem.)

Arya’s scenes were stunning. First you see the despicable Meryn Trant whipping the little girls while planning to do unspeakable things with them, and the third one doesn’t even flinch. With her head down, her hair swirled around her face, it was clear they were hiding her identity, and I said to my husband, “Heeeeere’s Arya!” in my best Shining impression. And then she looked up, and he said, “Nope.” And I was confused but then at the same time we were like, “Ooh, ooh, what if she’s a faceless person now??” and sure enough... theeeeeere’s Arya! The swiftness with which she leapt on Trant, stabbing him in the eye (which was awesome), before pulling out the knife and stabbing him in the other eye (HAHAHAHA!) and then stabbing him everywhere made me wonder if this was actually a dream sequence, because how often on Game of Thrones does something actually happen that you WANT to happen? But the scene kept going, not pausing to cut to Arya sitting up in bed, covered in sweat. Instead, she continues stabbing Meryn before finally pulling an Inigo Montoya, pausing to tell him, “My name is Arya Stark. You killed my dance instructor. Prepare to die” and then slicing his throat. Wow. Five years of promise that Arya’s character has had, from her lessons in swordfighting to the way she somehow stayed alive all this time despite all the odds, paid off in this one scene.

Not that Jaqen was thrilled about it. 

She owes the Many-Faced God a debt for Jaqen having been her saviour all the way back in season two, and she’s here in the House of Black and White to pay that off. She wants to become a Faceless Person (is it Man? I’m confused by the gendering of this term when the only other person there besides Jaqen is a female) but as long as she has hatred for someone because of what that someone did to Arya Stark, she cannot be No One. And so he takes away the one person to whom Arya still has a tie in this world — himself. (Me: “NOOOOOOOO!!!”) Or so she thinks. As Arya begins flipping the faces off the corpse, one by one — in a brilliant effect that is one of the more startling things I’ve seen on this show — it runs through the people she’s washed, the people whose faces she’s seen, until finally resting on her own. And in that moment she discovers what Jaqen means when he says a debt must be paid — an eye for an eye. She stabbed Meryn Trant in the eyes so he was blind in his final moments, and now she’s afflicted with blindness for the rest of her life. It was horrifying, and something I didn’t see coming. How will Arya survive now? Is it possible she’d have any of the abilities of her brother Bran, who can “see” in a way other than using his eyes?

OK, so. Selyse is dead, Stannis is dead, Myranda is dead, and Arya is blinded. And somehow these are footnotes compared to what happened at the end. So let’s continue this Happy Fun Parade of Death by moving over to Dorne. What did you think of what happened there? Was it consistent with the books?

Christopher: In no way whatsoever. At this point, the Dorne story bears about as much resemblance to the books as Tyrion does to the Mountain.

Last week I suggested that those saying the Dorne storyline was pointless were likely mistaken—that it looked as though, with Trystane and Myrcella’s engagement firm and him promised a place on the Small Council, that Dorne had secured a not-insignificant niche in the story to come. Well … one way or another, I think Dorne has a substantive role to play in seasons to come, but for obviously very different reasons now. Unless Myrcella makes a surprising recovery in season six, the marriage pact between Lannister and Martell is just so much dust; and I doubt it would take a genius to deduce that Myrcella’s poisoning was the fault of Ellaria (certainly not if they’ve ever watched the episode of Firefly when Saffron uses her drugged lipstick to knock out Mal). One way or another, I suspect war between Lannister and Martell is imminent.

And once again, Weiss and Benioff appear determined to one-up their source material in terms of giving and taking away. Last week, Stannis betrayed the loving conversation he’d had with Shireen several episodes earlier. This week, Jaime has all of seconds to rejoice in his daughter’s recognition and acknowledgement of his paternity. It really is a poignant scene, made all the more so by Jaime’s bumbling attempts to preface his revelation. But Myrcella stops him mid-bumble: she knows, she tells him; she’s known for some time. “I’m glad that you’re my father,” she tells him, and the look on Jaime’s face is heartbreaking … or rather, it shortly becomes heartbreaking as Ellaria’s poison takes effect, and she collapses into his arms.

Cut back to the dock where Ellaria and the Sand Snakes silently watch the boat recede in the distance. Ellaria’s own nose starts to bleed, and is impassively tended to by her daughter. Last week we pondered whether Ellaria’s comments to Jaime—in which she said that Dorne cared not a whit that he and Cersei were lovers—signaled a détente or hinted at a deeper threat. Well, now we know … and I have to wonder now if Myrcella’s certainty of her parentage was cemented in Dorne, by Ellaria or similar people who told her in the guise of open-mindedness of her mother’s incestuous relationship.

One way or another: I really, really want to see these characters in future seasons.

After Dorne we move to a dejected throne room in Meereen, where Tyrion, Daario, and Jorah engage in a collective mope. “You love her, don’t you?” Tyrion asks, and it is obvious the question is directed at both of them. “How could you not? Of course, it is hopeless for the both of you—a sellsword from the fighting pits, and a disgraced knight? Neither one of you is a fit consort for a queen.” They are joined by Missandei and a still-wounded Grey Worm, and after a bit more comic banter (my favourite line from this episode is “My Valyrian is a bit nostril”), they get down to the big question, the elephant in the room—what to do with Daenerys gone? How to run the city?

Well, at least they’ll have Varys with them. What did you make of the Meereen scenes, Nikki?

Nikki: Haha! I was texting a friend today and we were both like, “Our Mrs. Reynolds!!” regarding the lipstick scene. I wonder how many other fans noted the Firefly moment there.

Speaking of fiery redheads (didja see what I did there??), I can’t help but think a certain redhead on this show might be the one to change the fate of our poor dead friend at the end of the episode. It can’t be a coincidence that she showed up at Castle Black hours before the guy was killed. (Yes, this is what absolute denial looks like.)

But anyway, as you mentioned, the Meereen scenes were the short moments of humour we got in an episode that didn’t otherwise have much of it. We have here the man who loved her but it was unrequited, the one who bedded her, and the one who wants to help her topple his own family. As they stand up and begin to bicker, it’s like watching a Three Stooges routine. Tyrion’s the only one who doesn’t have a torch for Daenerys, and therefore the other two vote him off their road trip. At first Tyrion looks shocked, until Daario asks him if he’s ever tracked animals (no), can he fight (not really), is he good on a horse (middling). “So... mainly you talk,” Daario concludes. Tyrion nods his head, “...and drink. I’ve survived so far!” Daario illustrates for everyone present that Tyrion simply wouldn’t be an asset to the search party. But he would be useful as someone left behind to govern Meereen in Dany’s place, since, among all of them, he’s the only one who knows anything about actually governing a people. And he’s proven himself to be good and fair (Mormont is pissed that Tyrion had him exiled once again, but seems to have forgotten that he successfully negotiated for Jorah’s life to be spared).

Jorah disagrees at first — “He’s a foreign dwarf that barely speaks the language, why would anyone listen to him?!” — but Daario proves he’s more than just muscle when he continues to convince everyone that this is the right thing to do. He assures them that Grey Worm is the one whom the Meereenese people will listen to. (I agree that the “nostril” line is hilarious, but my favourite line of the episode is Daario saying that Grey Worm is the “toughest man with no balls I’ve ever met.”) Missandei is the woman Daenerys trusts above all others, so she completes the new triumvirate.

I thought at first this was how we were going to leave our favourite imp, until he walks outside and sees the beginning of the Daario and Mormont road show beginning on the road below. And then the line, from behind Tyrion, in an unmistakable voice, “Hello, old friend.” You know, I didn’t know how much I missed Varys until I heard his voice. I squeed very loudly when that happened. Remember: the last time we saw Varys this season was in episode 3, right before Tyrion was captured by Ser Jorah and taken away. When he’s on screen, he’s scintillating, but because he’s not a major player in the game of thrones, we can forget him when he’s not there. Now, I realized the only thing better than Daenerys ruling with Tyrion by her side would be Tyrion ruling with Varys by his side. Tyrion asks for his advice on the spot, and Varys says basically, know the difference between your friends and your enemies. “If only I knew someone with a vast network of spies,” Tyrion jokes. “If only,” Varys echoes, his head tilted comically.

“A grand old city, choking on violence, corruption, and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast?” says Varys with a twinkle in his eye. Tyrion looks at him, and back out over the city with a smirk. “I did miss you,” he says. And so did we. I think seeing these two manage Meereen might be the thing I’m most looking forward to in season six. (Aside from the resurrection of Jon Snow, of course...)

And from there, we see where Dany ended up, and I must admit, her story left me with a ton of questions: were those Dothraki who surrounded her? And why did she drop Khal’s ring on the ground? Was it to hide the fact that she was the Khaleesi in case these were enemies of his, or was she leaving a signal to someone else on how to find her?

Either way, I’m thinking she’ll need some bleach for that dress.

Christopher: They’ve ended Daenerys’ story on a slightly different note than in the novel. In A Dance With Dragons, she’s just sort of along for the ride as Drogon wanders around the countryside. The first indication of the approaching khalasar is a herd of wild horses preceding the riders, one of which Drogon burns and proceeds to eat. Daenerys, at this point starving (she’s been gone from the city for at least two days) helps herself to some of the charred horseflesh. It is in this way, with her dragon beside her, that the Khal and his men find her.

In the novel, the Khal in question is Jhaqo, who was one of Khal Drogo’s lieutenants, and who claimed a sizable chunk of Drogo’s people after he died. Here, we’re not certain: the Dothraki come on Daenerys suddenly, catching her alone. I have to imagine she drops Drogo’s ring so they do not identify her, though it could also be a signal to whoever searches for her. One of the things we learned about Dothraki culture in A Game of Thrones was that a khaleesi was expected, on the death of the khal, to go and live out her years in the Dothraki city Vaes Dothrak as part of the dosh khaleen, a group of widows who also function as seers. That Daenerys refused to do so was a great point of contention with her bloodriders … until she survived the fire and found herself with three dragons, which kind of changed the calculus.

Finding her out in the middle of the Dothraki Sea, rather than in her proper place, Khal Jhaqo will undoubtedly be confused and angry, but then with Drogon beside her, he can hardly complain. But that’s the novel: in the show, they’ve separated Daenerys from her dragon (who has gone from being a fearsome beast to a sulky cat), and we don’t know who the leader of these Dothraki is … or whether any of them are from Drogo’s fractured khalasar and will recognize her. I don’t know where they plan to go from here. I suppose the obvious thing will be that the Dothraki abduct her and ride off, and we’ll have an episode or two that plays out like the chase scene in The Two Towers, with Jorah and Daario playing the parts of Aragorn et al to Daenerys’ Merry and Pippin; during which, presumably, Drogon will be conveniently absent, and they will find Drogo’s ring in much the same way Aragorn finds Pippin’s brooch (if Jorah says something that’s a variation on “Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall!” my head might actually explode).

Or … maybe she’s recognized and something else happens entirely. I’m just spitballing here.

We have, however, come definitively to the end of Daenerys’ story in the novels. Similarly, we’re more or less at the end of Cersei’s as well. Her long, humiliating walk from Baelor’s Sept to the Red Keep is depicted almost precisely as it is described in the novel. And once again the show demonstrates that it is able to shift our sympathies quite deftly: for many episodes we waited eagerly to see if Cersei would get her comeuppance, and it was deeply satisfying to see that smug smirk of hers wiped off. But somewhere early on in her walk of shame, it is difficult not to feel sorry for her and to hate the self-righteousness of the Sparrows (well, hate it even more than we already did).

And kudos to Lena Headey for going the full monty, especially considering that there was nothing sexual about her nudity in this scene. Indeed, this was one of the rare sequences on this show where nudity is employed not to titillate but to engage our sympathy. We’ve written previously about how Cersei has lost everything: her beauty and her name were her weapons in the past, but here she is literally stripped of everything, and however beautiful she is, her exposure before the hateful mob is appalling to watch.

What did you think of Cersei’s ritual humiliation, Nikki?

Nikki: This is a scene that’s really tough for me to write about, actually. The internet exploded in outrage over Sansa’s rape, and you and I tried to write a reasonable piece about how the camera was used brilliantly, not actually showing things but making us realize what was happening, and that it was a representation of a very real thing that still happens today. When Shireen was killed the internet exploded with outrage and once again the cries of “I am never watching this show again!” rang out across the land, and you and I discussed how this was horrifying to watch and changes our view entirely of Stannis, and clearly it set up the massive one-fell-swoop downfall he underwent in this week’s episode.

And then we come to this moment. What a moment it was. It was like something out of Ken Russell’s The Devils, so over the top and almost surreal. The camera angles were different than anything else on the show, right from the moment we join Cersei in her cell and that horrible nun-like woman comes in once again to tell her to CONFESS. (I can’t even count how many films and TV shows I’ve seen where there’s a scene of someone representing the Catholic church or some sort of religious order meant to evoke it, screaming “Confess!” where it’s played out like a horror film.) And Cersei does. (Mostly.) As she prostrates herself before the High Sparrow, there’s a moment, as you said Chris, where we as viewers start to think of everything this horrible woman has done to people around her, and we smirk, happy that she’s finally being brought down off that high horse of hers. In season one she ordered Jaime to push Bran out the window and he did. Then she tried to have Bran killed. She arranged the murder of her husband, then convinced Joffrey to kill Ned Stark, then was absolutely horrible to Sansa. She knew her son was a psychopath, and encouraged his behaviour at every turn. She tried to have her little brother killed, and now she’s stupidly put a religious cult in charge so she can nail Margaery and the Tyrells.

And now it’s come back to bite her in the ass.

There’s another side to Cersei. The woman may have been part of one of the most powerful families in the kingdom, but where her twin brother was lauded as a great knight and her little brother allowed to be a drunken lout, she was married off to a despicable man who never loved her, who pined after Lyanna Stark and openly caroused right in front of her. The man she loved was her own brother, and she’s kept this dark secret close to her chest, having to watch her children grow up and be called bastards by everyone who knows how to add two and two together. And when she finally stands up and gets rid of that drunken, whoring husband of hers and puts her beloved son on the throne, her father arranges for her to marry a man that everyone knows is gay. She loves her children more than anything, and her son is killed in a political manoeuvre, her daughter shipped off to marry an enemy just as she’d been forced to do (and she’s about to get the terrible news of how THAT ended).

And so we come to the long walk of shame. After we see Cersei “confess,” we can’t help but snigger that she thought she was going to shame Margaery and Loras for his homosexuality when what she’s done in her life — murder, conspiracy to murder, attempted fratricide, incest — makes Loras look like the High Sparrow. But we can’t help but think that Cersei has been used and abused by a thoughtless father and culture that doesn’t exactly uphold women, and it’s not surprising that in those few moments where she doesn’t feel powerless, she takes advantage of them to rise up over the others.

And here she is, hoist by her own petard, brought out before the people of King’s Landing, the very fleabags stuck in Fleabottom, who’ve despised her and her family for years as they lorded over them, as Cersei would always hold her hankie over her nose when having to walk amongst them, living her excessive and depraved life while these people are desperate for food and water. Now they get the chance to show the Lannisters what they really think of them — who can blame them for what they end up doing to her? Her beloved golden locks, which have always been such a big part of her character, have been nastily shorn from her head, and then her potato sack is yanked off her and she stands before them, naked.

The walk itself was hard for me to watch. Oddly, it was harder for me than watching the Sansa rape or even... no, actually, I don’t think anything could be harder than watching Shireen’s death. But in a way, it was. Because in both of those instances, the people were acting. The camera pulls away from Sansa so she doesn’t have to actually be in a rape scene. Shireen wasn’t actually burning at a stake. But Lena Headey had to parade down a street filled with extras who were told to throw things at her, and had to do it over and over and over for hours on end. And the scene goes on forever, as Cersei first walks with her head held high, as if to say, “Fuck all of you. Check out my hotness.” And it’s utterly silent, except for that witch behind her ringing the bell and chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Cersei continues along the cobblestone streets, the jagged rocks slowly cutting into her feet, and then finally one person has the balls to yell a pejorative term at her that I just can’t bring myself to type (there are, like, three words in the English language I just can’t say, and that’s one of them, though my British friends are brilliant at using it), and the rest of the crowd unleashes on her. They call her a whore, and a bitch, and a slut. Someone spits on her, then mud comes flying, then various bits of rotten food. By the next street people are dumping their chamber pots on her, and Cersei can no longer hold her head high. She falls at one point, the rocks having cut her feet to shreds. Suddenly her back is slouching, her head dropped, as she tries not to cry but can no longer keep from doing so. This is humiliation beyond anything she could have imagined, and how the High Sparrows and his fucking legions somehow think they’re better than the people they shame is beyond me, but what’s done is done.

Did the scene have to go on so long? I was saying to my husband that by the time it’s in its third minute, I was very uncomfortable. I imagined Headey having to film the same areas over and over. Having to wash off and start over, having to descend those steps. It seemed to be veering into the territory of a Lars von Trier film, the director who’s known for treating his actresses so badly that Björk accused him of sucking out her very soul. What made this scene so vastly uncomfortable was that, unlike Sansa’s rape and Shireen’s death, this was moving from fiction into non-fiction. Sophie Turner wasn’t acually raped; Kerry Ingram wasn’t burned at the stake. But in this scene, we were watching an actress who was actually completely naked, having things thrown at her, people spitting in her face and shouting nasty things at her. And we watched her do it for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, they were abusing a fictional construct called Cersei, but the actress herself had to actually go through the agony of filming the scene.

Now, I should probably say here (because I know 10 people will say so in the comments if I don’t) that I noticed a moment — just a glimmer — at one point as Cersei was coming down the street where it looked like her head moved in a strange way. So I checked online, and sure enough . . . turns out that wasn’t Lena Headey. She has a no-nudity clause in her contract, and refused to do the scene. So a body double was brought in, and that’s who you see from behind and above. When you see her in front, they’ve CGI’d Headey’s head onto her body. And now that I’ve gone back and watched the scene one more time, I think they did a rather brilliant job. With the exception of that one moment where the head bobbed in a funny way that wasn’t consistent with the neck, which was the tip-off for me, you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t, um, been staring at her head. (When I was chatting with a friend, he said he knew it definitely wasn’t her from behind because apparently Headey has a large tattoo on her back.)

So does that make it easier to take? Headey was able to do the scene over and over, probably wearing a nude-coloured bathing suit like the one Maddie Ziegler wears in Sia’s “Chandelier” video. But the body double? She was naked. And that still means, whether it was Headey or someone else, a woman had to actually go through that to ensure that the scene was caught on video for all of us to watch and be reviled by it. So I found the scene very unsettling.

But... there’s always a but... just as I argued with Sansa, it’s because of how difficult it is for us to watch that this scene is just so damn effective. They paraded the High Septon through the streets and he kept his bits covered with his hands, even if they kept whacking his hands away, and his scene lasts only a few seconds. Cersei’s scene, on the other hand — she’s disrobed at the 45-minute mark, when they wash her body (watch how the body double keeps Cersei’s hair in her face the entire time), then her hair is chopped, and then she’s brought out before the people and walks to the Red Keep. When she finally arrives and has a blanket thrown over her, we’re at 53:30. Eight and a half minutes. That’s a really, really, long time. Cersei keeps her head up and never covers herself with her hands because that’s who Cersei is. She believes she has nothing to hide and shows it in her very body language. We, the audience, must endure this scene because we’ve reviled her for so long, but we need to watch the slow destruction of this character. In eight and a half minutes, she’s brought from Cersei Lannister to someone lower than the lowest peasant in Fleabottom. We need to watch her shoulders begin to slump, her feet bleed, the way she begins to trip and fall. Her cries of pain, her whimpering, the constant call of “Shame!” and the bell ringing. Our sniggers turn to sympathy, and we’re made to feel the way Cersei is feeling. And we watch the extraordinary depths of the sadism of the Sparrows. You just wouldn’t get that if they’d shown her descending the steps, going through the first street, and then cutting to her arriving at the Red Keep covered in shit and bleeding. We needed to watch every painful step.

Were they turning Cersei into a Christ figure? Perhaps; there’s certainly something about the way she bears her cross through the streets. The difference is, Cersei never gets a Simon. No one ever comes out of the crowd to help lift her up and carry her the rest of the way. No one in King’s Landing feels a smidge of sympathy for Madame Lannister.

And when she arrives at the Red Keep, she’s a shadow of her former self. Bowed, bleeding, and weeping, she falls into the arms of Doctor Frankenstein, who introduces her to the resurrected Mountain, who doesn’t have much to say, as creepy Qyburn admits, but is dressed all in armour, picks up Cersei effortlessly, and carries her to safety. And the look on her face suddenly transforms to peace and determination. They tried to shame her and break her, but despite it all, she’s just seen a way out, and I have a feeling Fleabottom is about to burn.

Which brings us to the credits. Yay! Thanks for reading our recaps each week and OK FINE. Dammit.

Which brings us back to the Wall, to Jon Snow. Last week when I was sending the last pass over to Chris I mentioned offhandedly that we hadn’t mentioned Jon Snow, but nothing much happened there. He didn’t even respond. I had no idea that’s because he knew something massive was coming and I didn’t know. Thanks for sparing my feelings, Chris, but I can’t remember being so distraught, shocked, and betrayed by a death. Which is why, unlike those who have declared they’re jumping ship and will never watch again, I instead live with my denial that he’s only mostly dead, and he’ll be back. Entertainment Weekly posted an interview immediately following the broadcast where Kit Harington declared Jon Snow was deader than dead, and wasn’t coming back. But he’s also a prankster who’s being paid to say that wherever he goes, so I don’t believe that for one second. You know nothing, Jon Snow!!

So Chris... take it away. I’m leaving this scene for you to dissect while I go off and sob some more.

Christopher: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that Jon Snow is dead; the question, rather, is whether he’ll stay dead. If he does, well, that’s par for the Game of Thrones course (your husband is a golfer, Nikki—would he play a Game of Thrones course?). I find it difficult to imagine, however, especially if the most prominent fan theory about his parentage is correct.

You’re right that I knew this was coming, as did everyone who read A Dance With Dragons. But unlike all the other shocking deaths, I was never convinced that this one would stick. Because Melisandre. We’ve seen the red priest Thoros of Myr resurrect Beric Dondarrion, which apparently he’d done half a dozen times previously. And there are other instances of this particular magic in the novels. Given Melisandre’s particular interest in Jon Snow, I have to imagine she’ll be on hand to breathe life back into him.

Again, this is just speculation, but this episode went a long way to making me more confident in this prediction. In the novel, Melisandre stays behind at Castle Black when Stannis marches. When instead, on the show, she goes with Stannis, part of me wondered “Oh, crap—how’s she going to save Jon?” But instead she deserts her would-be hero and rides back to Castle Black. Why she chose there instead of, well, anywhere else is puzzling … or perhaps not. Perhaps she wants to be on the front lines when the Walkers come; perhaps, losing faith in Stannis, she sees Jon Snow now as the vehicle of destiny. But the fact that she came back just in time for Jon to get all Caesar-on-the-capitol-steps, seems to suggest that she’ll be the one to bring him back.

Anyway … that’s my theory. So sob no more for Lord Snow … weep and wail instead for the fact that we now have to wait nine and a half months to see whether my prediction holds true.

The scene, I must say, was well done—and I think I speak for those of us who knew it was coming when I say knowing made it almost worse. Because it is far more obviously a conspiracy than in the novel. In the novel, a handful of knights stay behind with the queen, Shireen, and Melisandre, and for some reason one of them attacks the giant Wun Wun (and is literally torn to pieces for his efforts). During the commotion, while Jon attempts to cool everyone down and prevent the other knights from provoking the giant further, he is set upon by a handful of the more querulous watchmen, men who have been antsy about the wildlings from the start.

Here, it’s a set-up from start to finish. The scene begins with Jon in his study reading messages sent by ravens, discarding them one by one in a discouraged manner that suggests they’re all negative replies to his requests for more men and supplies. Then Olly bursts in excitedly with a piece of news that is guaranteed to bring Jon running: one of the wildlings can tell him about his Uncle Benjen, who disappeared early in the first season. Outside, they are joined by Alliser Thorne, who says the wildling “saw your uncle at Hardhome at the last full moon.” He leads Jon to a cluster of men with torches, and when Jon shoulders his way through he finds not a wildling, but what looks like a grave marker with “traitor” written on it.

And then Act Three, Scene One of Julius Caesar, complete with Jon’s “Et tu, Brute?” moment as a stricken-looking Olly delivers the final blow.

So: Jon Snow is assassinated, which is consonant with the novel; the difference between how it happens in the book and on the show, however, has huge implications (assuming, of course, that Melisandre resurrects him—always allowing for the Ned Stark factor, in which case I might have to burn down GRRM’s house personally). In the novel his assassins appear to be a handful of panicking wimps who just can’t even with the wildlings. Here, however, it looks as those most of the Night’s Watch are in on the plot—including Ser Alliser, who is effectively the Watch’s second in command. In the first scenario, a resurrected Jon would just have to deal with a few conspirators. In the show’s version, however, what happens if he comes back? How does he face a unified front of antagonists? Does this mean he’s still part of the Night’s Watch? After all, the oath enjoins you to remain in the Watch until you die—does the assassination mean his watch is now ended? Is this the get-out-of-jail card that frees Jon Snow up for a new destiny, one more in line with the most common theory about his parentage? (Sorry to be coy on this front, but I’m not sure if it’s kosher yet to say it out loud).

Again, we must now wait nine and a half months to find all this out.

Just a few more random thoughts before I close things out on my end:

  • I’m not convinced that Stannis is dead. I watched that scene a few times, and I find it suspicious they don’t show him die, but instead cut from Brienne’s downstroke to Ramsay’s as he kills someone. Why would she spare him? Where did her sword go? I don’t know, but killing Stannis at this point is either (1) a MASSIVE deviation from the novels, or (2) a MASSIVE spoiler for what we can expect in The Winds of Winter. Both are eminently possible, but I’m remaining skeptical until the novel comes out or the next season of the show … whatever comes first.

  • I had assumed that the show was simply dispensing with Sam’s journey to the Citadel. It’s one of the main story threads in A Feast for Crows, with Jon sending Maester Aemon along to keep the oldest living Targaryen away from Melisandre and her hankering for king’s blood. Aemon dies on the journey, but Sam makes it to Oldtown, the city at the southeastern end of Westeros, where the Citadel is located. Jon’s premier reason is so Sam can take up the maester’s duties at the Wall. Sam makes the same argument, but the timing at this point is a bit off: one assumes training to be a maester takes several years, but we got pretty powerful evidence two episodes ago that the Walkers’ attack on the Wall will be sooner rather than later. Still, it at least indicates that Sam’s travails at the Citadel will be a significant enough storyline to keep in the show.

And there we have it. What did everyone think of this season? Nikki? Myself, I thought it was, with the exception of a few hiccups (the Sand Snakes’ hackneyed conspiracy, for example), about the best we’ve seen so far. Certainly it pushed the envelope more than any previous season, and almost certainly caused more viewers to wash their hands of the show than ever before. But the flip side of that was its audacity, both in terms of going off script in a host of creative ways, and in the execution of most of the storylines.

And now we wait. Valar morghulis.

I know how you feel, Jon. 

Nikki: And here’s my final expression of bafflement over Jon Snow: where the hell was Ghost? That dog has always been there when Jon needed him to be, and he’s gone. I’m concerned that Ghost jumped the men who were trying to hurt Gilly, and they knew enough to imprison him somewhere... or at least they’d better make that part of the storyline because otherwise it makes no sense that Jon’s direwolf would abandon him when he needed it the most. (And he’s not dead.)

I agree with you on this season. The way the characters have finally begun coming together — Daenerys and Tyrion, in particular — and storylines are crossing over and converging is something we’ve been waiting for for a very long time. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t missed Bran and his merry band one whit, but it’ll be nice to check in with them next season, which I assume we’ll be doing. Arya’s story just took a dark turn; I’ll be interested in how Cersei takes revenge on the Sparrows, and what will be the future of King’s Landing, including Tommen, Loras, and Margaery. I’m intrigued by your suggestion that Stannis isn’t dead! Strange how that never occurred to me, and usually if it happens off-screen, I don’t believe it happened. Now I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of Stannis and Brienne together, and what that could mean.

But perhaps I’m most excited about the Tyrion and Varys Show coming back.

This has been a rollercoaster of a season filled with our typically VERY long posts, and I wanted to thank our readers for hanging in there with us, and a huge thank-you to Christopher Lockett, who manages to do this year after year and lure me back to a blog that otherwise seems to have tumbleweeds blowing through it. Thank you, sir, and here’s to the long nine-and-a-half-month wait! Ours is the fury, indeed.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.09: The Dance of Dragons

And welcome to the penultimate week of our season five Game of Thrones recaps. I don't know how the season got away from us so quickly, but it always seems to move so fast. We had what is probably the most upsetting death on the show so far, followed by one of the most remarkable moments yet. As always, I'm joined by Christopher Lockett, and this week I'll let him begin. 

Christopher: The past two episodes have really ratcheted up the stakes, haven’t they? It feels like a payoff moment—after almost five seasons of hearing that “winter is coming” and the promise of the “mother of dragons,” finally we’re starting to see the significance of those coinages. Last week, speculating on what if anything could realistically defeat the implacable force of the Night King and his vast undead army, I said—with my tongue only slightly in my cheek—that it would probably involve dragons. Now that Daenerys has fulfilled a crucial element of being a Targaryen and ridden Drogon into the clouds, that does not seem like such a distant possibility.

Or to put it another way, let’s remember that GRRM’s series is called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Last week we got the ice. This week we got the fire.

Unfortunately, we got fire in a number of different ways. First, Ramsay’s guerrilla attack on Stannis’ camp was terribly effective, burning tents, supplies, and horses (the image of a panicked horse entirely aflame was particularly affecting). Secondly …

In my notes for a specific scene in this episode, I’ve written “it’s like the showrunners are trying to turn off viewers.” Several episodes ago, Nikki, we saved discussion of a controversial scene until the end. I think this time we should address it at the beginning. I’m speaking, of course, of the horrific death of Shireen Baratheon, sacrificed by her father at Melisandre’s behest.

Predictably, a lot of reviews and commentaries on this episode have asked the same question they did with Sansa’s rape: Why? Why include this awful, deeply distressing plot twist, especially considering it doesn’t appear in the novels? Why, especially after we were treated to a scene several episodes ago in which Stannis expressed his love for Shireen in terms that humanized him far more than he ever is in the novels?

As my comments on the Sansa scene might indicate, I tend to find this particular line of questioning wrong-headed. The “what ifs” of storytelling can make for interesting speculations on how it all might have fallen out otherwise, or considerations of the authors’ intentions, but it doesn’t make for good criticism. Like it or loathe it (and based on my casual perusal of reactions to this episode, there are many in the latter camp), Stannis has sacrificed a crucial element of his humanity on the altar of his ambition, in the belief that being king is his destiny. And once again we see that the show is playing the long game, that in fact his touching scene with his daughter a few episodes back was not a matter of humanizing Stannis, but humanizing him enough that we are even more shocked and horrified than we would have been otherwise. We really ought to know by now to be on our guard when Game of Thrones gives us moments of sentiment and warmth.

And as with Sansa’s wedding night, the show layers on the dread by signaling what is to come. As soon as Stannis refuses the very possibility of returning to Castle Black, we know something is off. “Forgive me, Your Grace,” says Davos, “I never claimed to be an expert in military matters, but if we can’t march forward and we won’t march back—” He cuts himself off to follow Stannis gaze behind him and sees Melisandre and Queen Selyse standing there. A look then passes between him and his king, who curtly orders him to butcher the dead horses for meat and walks away, followed by the two women. Later, he orders Davos to return to Castle Black for supplies over Davos’ objections, and further refuses to send Shireen with him. We begin to discern Stannis’ design here: remove the one man with conscience and standing enough to protect Shireen.

What is doubly heartbreaking is the sense that Davos knows this—that he has an inkling of the king’s mind, but is perhaps in denial about it. His scene with Shireen, in which he gives her the carved stag and thanks her for helping him grow up, has a certain finality to it. Is he in denial about Stannis’ intentions? Are his feelings too vague for him to act on them? Or is he that steadfast in his loyalty that he willingly absents himself from camp?

Whatever the case, he is now complicit. Stannis’ crime thus compromises more than just his own soul, but those of every one of his followers.

Sansa’s rape was devastating for many viewers because she was perceived as the last innocent. That may be true, but at least Sansa agreed to her marriage pact with her eyes open. She might not have known the abject depths of Ramsay’s depravity, but she knew the Boltons well enough to know she was agreeing to something humiliating and unpleasant. Shireen is genuinely the last innocent of the show, and she has no idea what her father plans when she tells him she’ll do anything to help.

Stephen Dillane is one of the unsung heroes of this show, playing one of the more thankless roles—Stannis is rigid and uncompromising, with an iron sense of right and wrong. His rationale is simple and straightforward: his older brother was king, Robert’s children are illegitimate, and therefore he is the true king. He cannot step away from that fact any more than he could cut off his own limb. “If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all,” he tells Shireen. “He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be … however much he may hate it.”

Fantasy has traditionally had a deep investment in the power of prophecy and destiny; unsurprisingly then, GRRM undercuts its logic. Melisandre, in proclaiming Stannis a prophesied hero—Azor Ahai the Lightbringer reborn—marries her religious fervor to Stannis’ sense of his own destiny. But having come so far only to court defeat in the Northern winter, Stannis does not see any other choice. Not even when his fanatical wife breaks down and tries to save Shireen does he waver, though her breakdown goes a long way to expose the hollowness of his reasoning. It was Selyse who brought Stannis to the worship of the Lord of Light, and if anyone would cheerfully sacrifice Shireen to him, we’d expect it to be her. From a simple, eminently logical starting point of his drive to be king, he has arrived at a place of profound irrationality and indeed madness.

What did you think, Nikki?

Worst. Parents. EVER.

Nikki: The television shows I watch always seem to be rife with shitty parents: Lost was a show about a bunch of people on an island with serious mommy and daddy issues. On Buffy one of the greatest characters on the show was Giles, who for all intents and purposes was a father to Buffy after her own father abandoned her and her mother for his secretary. Fairytales are filled with absentee or dead parents and evil, horrid, stepmothers.

And then there’s Game of Thrones. Where one son kills his father while Dad’s taking a crap; where the best mother on the show is the mother of dragons and slaves, not children; where the strong and determined Catelyn Stark still can’t find it in her heart to love an innocent baby who’s her husband’s bastard; where Craster kills his sons and lets his daughters reach an age where they’re old enough to rape for more daughters and sons;... and where Stannis Baratheon, who gave the most moving speech about the lengths a father will go to save his only child, just had her burned alive at the stake to feed his own ambition.

I hope he and Selyse are haunted by those screams for the rest of their days.

I’ve always seen Selyse as a cold, heartless woman, and at first, when she steps out, she has that same callous face that she’s always had. Interestingly, she seems to be completely on board with everything that’s happening until Stannis says that she has the blood of a king in her, and therefore this must be done. Only then does this look of horror cross her face, and she rushes at the stake. And I couldn’t help but think... is it possible Shireen does not have king’s blood in her? Has Selyse been keeping some secret from her husband all these years and only now does she realize her daughter’s about to be sacrificed for no reason?

The thought was only a fleeting one, however, as Selyse rushes forward and begs for mercy for her daughter. It was a shocking moment — Stannis is the one who’s always treated his daughter like she was worth more than others did, while his wife had nothing but cold words for her, and now he stares at her burning to death and screaming in abject pain and does nothing, while his wife begs for it to stop. Melisandre, on the other hand, is a cold-hearted bitch who doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in her whatsoever, and she stands nearby with that same smug look on her face that she wore when Mance Rayder was being burned alive. But at least someone showed Mance some mercy by shooting him with an arrow. No one was there to save this little girl from the feeling of flames burning her flesh as her heart fell to pieces within her, knowing what her parents were allowing to happen to her.

We can’t forget that Stannis has gone along with hiding this child away all these years; in a dungeon, in an old library in the basement. And even in that scene where he proclaims what he did to save her life, she throws her arms around him with unbridled love, and he stands there, stiff, like he can’t embrace her back. And when he does, he looks like he means it.

But his love for her is no match for his ambition.

Before her horrifying death — the thought of which fills me with so much grief as a mother that I wanted to push my way through the flames just to embrace her as she burned to death, just so she wouldn’t have to die alone — she was reading the Dance of the Dragons, the story of the Targaryen wars, which not only is the second time in as many weeks that the title of a George RR Martin book has been referenced — last week Ramsay said Stannis’s army would become a feast for the crows — but it’s a line that came full circle by the end of the episode. But let’s hold off on talking about THAT moment for a bit.

I wanted to add that when the tents in Stannis’s camp catch fire — fulfilling the “Fire” half of the saga that this episode represents as you demonstrated so well in your commentary, Chris — it’s carrying out the plan that Ramsay Bolton had in the previous episode. Roose Bolton is a formidable military man, and he saw that Stannis’s army had no way of winning with it being so cold, so he figured he could just starve them out. Ramsay, on the other hand, requested 20 men, and with those men he somehow found a way to sneak into their camp with ninja-like precision and light several tents — and people and horses — on fire. It’s a brilliant strategy on so many levels: Roose’s plan would have taken ages, and Ramsay would rather end this now so they don’t have to waste precious time looking over their shoulder in the direction of the Baratheon sigil any longer than they have to. But it also seems to take the very thing that Stannis bows to — the Lord of Light — and throws it back in his face. The night is dark and full of terrors indeed, dude. Ramsay Bolton is a loathsome character in so many ways, but in this moment, he showed that he’s a cunning strategist, which should raise his profile in his dad’s eyes several notches.

Now let’s move over to Braavos, where Arya is playing the oyster girl and about to fulfill the task asked of her by Jaqen when she spots none other than Mace Tyrell... or the Mayor of Munchkinland, as I like to think of him. Oh wait, no, she’s not looking at Mace... she’s looking at Meryn Trant standing behind him. If you’re like my husband, who went, “Who he?” when she started focusing on him and following him through the square, Meryn is one of the people on Arya’s Kill List, and was the man who killed her “dance instructor” all the way back in season 1.

I can’t believe that when Cersei assigned Meryn to follow Mace to Braavos to meet with Mycroft that I didn’t figure out he’d cross paths with Arya. Duh. What did you think of this scene, Chris?

Christopher: I think it confirms what we pretty much knew all along, namely that Arya has a long way to go before she can put aside her identity as Arya Stark and honestly say she is “no one.” One of the things we can surmise from her training thus far is that a girl cannot truly be a Faceless Man if a girl still clings to her own loves and hates, and especially not if a girl still nurses vengeance in her heart. The Many-Faced God dispenses death with equanimity, and his servants must have the same even-handedness.

This is presumably why they seem to hate pronouns so much.

It is something of a relief, however, to know Arya’s still there: the thought of losing her rather distinct personality is distressing, even though it probably means she’s in for some punishment from Jaqen—it’s obvious from his expression he knows she’s lying when she says the thin man wasn’t hungry.

They’ve telegraphed where this is going pretty clearly: Meryn Trant likes his girls young, so I’m guessing Arya will pose as a prostitute in order to kill him. This storyline actually follows one of the sample chapters from The Winds of Winter that GRRM has posted on his website. Unfortunately it has been replaced by another sample chapter, so I can’t link to it, but here is the synopsis on the Song of Ice and Fire Wiki. In it Arya is posing as a girl named Mercy in a theatre troupe, which is about to stage a play loosely modeled on the events of King’s Landing. They have a special guest: an envoy from the Iron Throne in Braavos to negotiate with the Iron Bank (not Mace Tyrell), and Arya sees that one of his guards is a man on her kill list (not Meryn Trant, but a fellow named Raff the Sweetling, who doesn’t appear in the TV show). She tempts him into a secluded alcove with the promise of sex and kills him.

Again, this was pretty clearly telegraphed in the show. The question will be: what will be her punishment? I have a pretty clear idea, as she transgresses in a similar way in A Feast for Crows, so it will be interesting to see if her story continues to hew more or less closely to the novel.

Also, it’s a delight to see Mycroft Tycho Nestoris again, especially in contrast to the buffoonish Mace Tyrell.

Meanwhile, things all seem very civilized in Dorne, compared to the rest of Westeros. I quite enjoyed these scenes, as we’re finally getting a more nuanced sense of the characters involved here. I do still think they’ve done it back-asswards: a fuller understanding of the personalities at work, and the underlying tensions and enmities and loyalties would have improved the Sand Snakes’ story immeasurably and invested us in the fate of their plot more deeply. Instead, we’re getting after-the-fact exposition—still engrossing, but it makes me wonder where they’re going with the Dorne narrative. I’ve read a few commentaries on the episode opining that the Dorne storyline has been pointless, simply a side-journey to give Jaime Lannister something to do, far away from his sister’s plight.

I’m not so sure. With Trystane returning to King’s Landing with Myrcella, their engagement intact, It may be that Benioff and Weiss have some ideas for how to use their Dornish characters in ways that will now necessarily deviate dramatically from the novels.

I particularly liked Prince Doran in these scenes. As I’ve said before, I think Alexander Siddig is a great actor, and it doesn’t hurt that he has ST:DS9 geek cred. But I love the way he plays this character, in such stark contrast to Ellaria and the hot-headed Sand Snakes. He is calm and measured, thoughtful, but radiates command. Not someone I’d want to face across a poker table. His brief moment of ire as Ellaria attempts to storm from the room is more dangerous than all of Cersei’s threats to her captors, as is his later comment that “I believe in second chances; I don’t believe in third chances.” I think we can add him to the running list of characters whose actors endow them with extraordinary gravitas, alongside Tywin, Mance, Olenna, and the High Sparrow.

Perhaps most interesting in this Dorne sequence is Ellaria’s apparent rapprochement with Jaime, in which she tells him she knows the truth of his relationship with Cersei, and the fact that in Dorne “no one blinked an eye.” Social mores about who we’re allowed to love, she says, are constantly changing, but “the only thing that stays the same is we want who we want.”

It’s an odd and interesting moment, considering her previously implacable hatred for all things Lannister. Is she signaling a détente? Or is she reminding Jaime that the man she wants is now dead, at least in part due to Lannister scheming?

What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: I found it a strange scene indeed; she seems to be almost setting up an alliance with Jaime in a sense of, “Hey, bro, don’t fret. You had sex with your sister, gave her a bunch of kids; I’m a bastard daughter of a nobleman and had five bastard daughters of my own with Oberyn, whom I loved to watch have sex with other people. It’s like we were made to work together.” Back in season four, Ellaria and Oberyn were a breath of fresh air, I thought; these people who sweep in from Dorne and seek pleasure where they can get it, who don’t judge others for any sexual proclivities because they’ve tried it all — let’s just say in Dorne, the High Sparrow would have been beheaded by now and Loras upheld as a hero. What is normal to Ellaria and her people is loathed and judged in King’s Landing, a place where Jaime and Cersei have to lie about their children, and where Loras and Margaery are in a jail because one is a homosexual and the other one knew about it.

Jaime is the brother/lover of Cersei, the woman who got Oberyn killed by the Mountain. Ellaria loathes her. What better way to come at Cersei than to bed the man she loves? Things haven’t exactly been hunky dory in Lannister land lately, as we know. The last time Jaime was intimate with Cersei was when he raped her on the floor next to their son’s corpse — not exactly candlelight and roses — and Cersei has shown him nothing but disdain ever since he arrived with one hand fewer than before. But we know that despite Cersei pushing him away, she’s not going to let anyone else come near him. If she found out that Jaime had been intimate with Ellaria, she would fly into a rage of epic proportions.

I’m starting to think Ellaria’s simply moved on to a Plan B.

I agree with you that the Sand Snakes had a spectacular entrance when we first saw them on the beach, and then in their next scene, when they’re summarily beaten by Doran’s guards, I pretty much just heard this:

But since then, as you say, we’ve been watching them develop almost backwards, and perhaps that’s a sneaky way of making them explode onto the scene enveloped by their own legend, only to break down that legend and build them back up again. One thing that I must say I actually like about them — but I know a lot of fans might be up in arms about it — is that they use their bodies and physical attractiveness for their own means. I suspect Ellaria is trying to lure Jaime into a sexual tryst. I could be completely wrong, and, as you say, she’s just telling him this as a frame story to send the real message: I know about you and your sister, and that your children are illegitimate, and by the way your lover killed mine, and I WILL have my revenge.” But it seemed more intimate than that, especially the way she was slinking around the room as she talked to him.

Similarly, Tyene believes she’s conquered Bronn by forcing him to tell her that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, again using her body and sexual wiles to dominate him. In the slapping fight we see in the jail cell, the girls have a lot of sibling rivalry, whether it’s physical, where Tyene smacks Nymeria in the face right after Nymeria brags that Tyene’s reaction time is too short, or verbal, where Obara — the one who seems to have no time for either one of them — simply rolls over to face the wall, muttering “slut” under her breath at her younger sibling. These women will stand together to fight, despite their infighting, because they all believe in a common cause. And, interestingly, when they watch Ellaria groveling before Doran, kissing his hand and begging his forgiveness, they’re united in their repulsion at watching her do so. The question is, watching their reaction to her in this scene, will they continue to follow her commands?

But now it’s time to talk about the scene we’ve both been waiting to discuss: DRAGONS!! I, for one, had no idea that dragon-riding was going to enter into this show, and jokingly said to my husband near the end, “She should just climb on Drogon’s back and get the hell out of there.” And then OH MY GOD SHE DID.

But you must have known this scene was coming, and once again the readers haven’t spoiled dragon-riding for the rest of us! Tell me about your thoughts of the final scenes in Meereen.

Christopher: I don’t think you needed to be a reader of the books to suspect, once the odds looked hopeless, that there was about to be a deus ex draconis. As our heroes grew increasingly outnumbered and pressed back into the defensive circle, I was muttering under my breath “Any time now, Drogon …” And when Daenerys closes her eyes, waiting for the end, and we suddenly hear the dragon’s distinctive squawk in the distance … and as he makes his spectacular entrance in a ball of flame … well, let’s just say there was some fist-pumping happening on my end. I may or may not have shouted “Boom!”

Ahem. Before I get too excited about the final sequence to lose the capacity for speech, I suppose I should outline the differences and similarities with the novel. Toward the end of A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys has married the unctuous Hizdahr zo Loraq and agreed to re-open the fighting pits. There is a great celebration on the first day—much as we see in this episode—with much food and drink in the royal box. Daenerys is unimpressed with the displays in the pit, and after a fight between a female gladiator and a huge boar—which the fighter loses—decides she’s had enough. As she attempts to leave, Hizdahr protests. Meanwhile, one of her men (a former pit fighter named Strong Belwas, who does not make it onto the show) has eaten too many honeyed locusts and is noisily sick on the floor. As it turns out, the locusts were poisoned, likely intended for Daenerys. While Daenerys argues with Hizdahr, Drogon makes his appearance, descending on the dead pit fighter and live boar, and proceeds to eat them both. Spearmen converge on the dragon, with Hizdahr exhorting them to kill the beast. Daenerys leaps into the pit without thinking, and for a moment it is touch and go—she does not know whether he’ll immolate her as well. But of course he doesn’t, and she rides him out of the city.

So … some similarities, but the show has played up Drogon as her rescuer rather than uninvited guest.

There’s a lot going on in the final sequence, which I want to unpack in a moment. But first, a few random points and observations:

  • I love how Daario just doesn’t give a fuck. He’s the honey badger of third wheels, gleefully insinuating himself between his lover and her new fiancée.

  • The next time I find myself talking about ideology and privilege in one of my classes, I am totally going to quote Tyrion’s brilliant line “It’s easy to confuse ‘what is’ with ‘what ought to be,’ especially when ‘what is’ has worked out in your favour.”
  • The Unsullied don’t really seem to be living up to their reputation, do they? The last time the Harpies attacked them in force, they were hardly indomitable, and once again they’re dying in large numbers here. Lestways, this is a complaint I have read in a bunch of other reviews … which I don’t think is entirely fair. The Unsullied were billed as a formidable fighting force, as soldiers who subsume everything to standing in an unbreakable shield wall. Certainly in the novels their prowess has far more to do with standing firm on the battlefield than in individual combat. In both this sequence and the one where we lost Ser Barristan (sob!), the Unsullied are outnumbered and outflanked. They do pretty well, considering.
  • My first thought on watching this scene was “Holy crap, how many Harpies are there?” It seems like half the city owns sinister gold masks, but on rewatching, it occurred to me that this is an illusion created by the relatively small numbers of people present (compared to the city at large). I suppose it’s possible that this is all of them, thinking that if they come out in force at this one event they can overwhelm the queen’s bodyguard. Well played, Harpies … too bad about the dragon.
  • Did you notice that the lineup of fighters with Jorah looked like a model U.N.? There was a Mereenese champion, a Braavosi water dancer (who nearly defeated Jorah), a Dothraki, a bare-chested barbarian type whose origin I can’t guess; and the first person Jorah fights is a black man wielding a weapon very similar to that of Prince Doran’s bodyguard Areo Hotah—which, based on Areo’s heritage in the novel, would indicate that this fellow comes from the Free City of Norvos.

But on to the most interesting stuff: what I liked best about this sequence, aside from DragonRescue 911, was Hizdahr’s rhetorical question, “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” It is a question that underwrites this series, and the books on which it is based. Hizdahr’s question made me think immediately of Orson Welles’ iconic performance as the amoral Harry Lime in The Third Man, in which he famously makes a similar claim:

You asked the question a few posts ago, Nikki, about why Daenerys seemed so queasy about men killing each other in gladiatorial combat when she’d witnessed—and caused—so much death herself. I think Tyrion’s observation that “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it during my leisure time,” serves as at least a partial answer to that. The question of what is unavoidable or necessary violence versus what is cruelty is one of the things that animates this show, not least because we start to become queasy when characters we love, like Arya, start to take pleasure in killing; in contrast, we grow more sympathetic to a character like Jaime Lannister as he sheds his killer’s glee and appears to develop (or reveal) a conscience. And as we see in this episode, what is right may not be the smartest course. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow,” Ser Alliser says as they watch the wildlings pass through the gate. “It will get us all killed.”

Stannis also does what he believes is right, or at the very least necessary in order to attain what he believes is his right. Daenerys negotiates the same fraught landscape. But this show does not reward those who hew to an abstract sense of right or justified, more often than not rewarding the opportunists and schemers like Littlefinger or the Boltons. Whatever good intentions Daenerys has had, she still finds herself surrounded by enemies in the middle of a fighting pit, dead but for the timely intervention of Drogon.

What did you think of this episode’s final scene, Nikki?

Nikki: After this episode was finished, it’s the first time in a long time my husband immediately said, “Back that up; let’s watch that scene again.” We were both freaking out and cheering when she climbed onto Drogon’s back.

Although my favourite Twitter comment was this one:

But let’s back up. My notes, not surprisingly, stop just as the Harpy ambush begins, because even though I’ve watched this scene several times now, I just can’t take my eyes off the screen. I think Hizdahr is — oh no wait, was, heh — a condescending prick. Until now he’s always been a groveller who tries to maintain reason in every scene by explaining to Daenerys the way things were (mostly because he wants things to return to the way things were) but now that she’s betrothed to him, he turns into a holier-than-thou asshat. He scoffs at Tyrion, who he may have recognized is a far more reasonable advisor than he’ll ever be, making comments about how large men will always triumph over smaller men (camera zoom on Tyrion’s unamused face), and pushing his own Machiavellian agenda so much throughout the conversation that Tyrion finally wearies of him and simply says, “My father would have liked you.”

I found it strange that Hizdahr just happened to show up late, then made no move to protect Daenerys, and seemed completely unsurprised when the Sons of the Harpy showed up. But then he got killed in the attack. Did he set it up? Perhaps. And then they realized, “Yeah, Hizdahr may have set up this whole thing and helped us get rid of that silver-haired bitch, but he’s a d-bag, so let’s kill him while we’re at it.”

(That right there is Reason #741 why I’ll never be allowed to write dialogue for Game of Thrones.)

I agree with you on Daario, Chris — you are right on the money by calling him the honey badger of Meereen, haha!! I loved the way he just kept sticking his face between Daenerys and Hizdahr and making his snide remarks, even if he did turn out to be wrong in the moment. But we know that in the long run, comments like where he says large people tend to have nothing but muscle in their heads, and the smaller man has intelligence, will prove to be true.

And I also agree on the Unsullied. As I said in that post for episode 4, the Unsullied are trained to fight in perfect lines in battle, much like the British were. That’s why, when the British were fighting in the American Revolution, they were so outweighed by a bunch of people hiding in the woods with muskets — they were not trained for an ambush. The Sons of the Harpy fight like they’re in a gladiator ring, and perhaps some of them were (though that would suggest they were slaves, and why would slaves want a return to slavery?) It’s not exactly clear how these noblemen became such admirable street fighters, but let’s just suspend our disbelief on that one for a bit, and say there’s a reason the Unsullied always seem to be outnumbered in these instances: it’s because they are.

But now on to Drogon. The last time Daenerys saw him was when he perched above her on her balcony. She reached out a hand to him tentatively, and there was a moment where he seemed to acknowledge her with his eyes before suddenly taking to the air and leaving again. Then Tyrion saw him sailing over Valyria, and it’s the first time he actually sees a dragon. Drogon is the largest of the three, and has always been Dany’s favourite. In the terrible moment where they are surrounded by the Harpies and it appears there’s no way out, Daenerys suddenly closes her eyes, using that telepathic messaging service she used when the dragons were babies, and to her shock — and ours — it actually works. As you said, Chris, that faraway screech is SO exciting that I was literally — and that, kids, is the correct use of that word — sitting on the edge of my seat, gasping and screaming throughout the rest of it. My husband was cheering... it was a glorious moment. From immolating dozens of Sons of the Harpy in one go, to grabbing a man and shaking him the way a dog shakes a stuffy just to get the squeaker out (and, similarly, Drogon makes the man’s stuffing come out), to simply crawling around menacingly and hissing at them the way my cats do when they’re around each other, he was fantastic. When the spears began flying through the air I was worried — if the Sons of the Harpy all began throwing spears at once, could that kill a dragon? My husband was confident that Drogon would be OK. He kept saying there was no way spears could kill a dragon, that their hides are probably like rocks and they are probably nearly indestructible. But Daenerys is still devastated when it happens, because she knows there must be some pain. As he slinks around the ring in a fury, barbequing some of the people while eating others, she walks up to him and pulls the spear out of his side. The looks on the faces of Daario, Tyrion, and Jorah at that point are priceless. They’ve all seen the dragons, but they’ve seen just how wild they’ve become.

In his rage, Drogon could have just as easily turned to her and accidentally set her on fire (though it wouldn’t have actually hurt her at all) but instead he simply screams in her face, turning the fire off momentarily. And then he stops. He tilts his head, and like a wild horse being tamed, sits quietly as an idea suddenly comes to her, and she walks around and mounts his back. The CGI as he lifts her off the ground isn’t so hot — you can instantly tell that was all green-screened and done so badly — but once he gets into the air it’s spectacular.

Though, just like the dude on Twitter, I couldn’t help but think, “Uh, Dany? You, um, forgot three people back there. The Sons of the Harpy aren’t all dead, you know...”

But something tells me they’ll be fine.

Thanks once again for reading all of this! Next week we shall return with the finale! Wherein Sansa lops off Ramsay’s penis and feeds it to Arya’s direwolf, which she happens to find in the woods behind Winterfell; where Daenerys takes Drogon to see Viserion and Rhaegal and the three dragons are reunited and forgive Mama and head off to burn some White Walkers; where Jon Snow rises up to rule the North after the giant stomps on Ser Alliser’s head and Sam and Gilly kill Stannis and Melisandre; and where the Starks are all reunited and rule King’s Landing when Cersei is pecked to death by a crow.*

(*Nik at Nite cannot guarantee any of the above will happen.)