Game of Thrones
By this point, a sense reigns that Game of Thrones’ very unpredictability has in itself become predictable. It wouldn’t be the same show if horrible things didn’t happen to favourite characters, and there have to be at least a few significant scalps taken per season. Likewise, the biggest fireworks tend to bring up the rear, with all the stops pulled out for the eighth episode. Particularly this year, that has given rise to complaints of a slow pace (I watched the season over three nights, so this didn’t really affect me, but I can see how the issues arise). Yet while it becomes increasingly difficult to throw curveballs, Season Five’s biggest problem has been bedding in new plotlines.
The main culprits in this case are Arya’s tenure in Braavos and Jamie Lannister and Bronn travelling To Dorne at the behest of Cersei to secure the return of Myrcella. I’d looked forward to seeing Jaqen H’ghar again, but as it turns out Tom Wiaschiha is delivered a far juicier role in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The Faceless Men plotline is all atmosphere and no substance; Jaqen intrigued as a mysterious, charismatic assassin in Season Two, but as the authoritarian Obi Wan he becomes a bit of a bore.
Arya spends most of the season scrubbing floors and moaning, before being cruelly/justly punished for her appetite for vengeance. But where would a season of Game of Thrones be without the Starks undergoing the nasty? This one particularly so. The slaying of Ser Meryn in the final episode is the first time the season truly engages with the Braavos plotline, and even this is required to remind us that Meryn is a really bad guy who really deserves his fate by making him a sadistic paedophile (I admit, I’d forgotten who he was, so maybe the OTT characterisation was warranted).
On paper Jamie and Bronn ought to have been a good double act. They don’t so much fizzle as fail to spark off each other. The Sand Snakes underwhelm (although I quite enjoyed the repartee between Bronn and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers’ Tyene), and Indiria Varma’s Ellaria seems to be there to hold a vindictive mirror to Cersei. The plotline isn’t quite a snooze, but it devotes a lot of time in aid of a character we have no investment in (Nell Tiger Free’s Myrcella).
On the plus side, the introduction of Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow proved to be the real highlight of the season. I was sceptical at first (I’ve got no further reading the books than midway through the second, and I haven’t investigated the various fates of characters other than as hints in reviews of the season), since it seemed to echo the kind of weak plotlines seen in SF shows that introduce religious sects with a whole lot of waffle. But that gradual way the High Sparrow, seemingly effortlessly, imposed himself on King’s Landing proved a rollercoaster of twists and turns.
First allying himself, tentatively, with Cersei and disposing of Margaery Tyrell in a dungeon, he then turns on the Queen Mother with consummate skill (his only failing is not detaining her in the dungeons permanently). We have seen Cersei build herself to new levels of Machiavellian cunning, bending her foolish and ineffectual son Tommen round her finger. Most remarkably, sympathies don’t exactly shift to Cersei following her confinement and body double-assisted walk of shame, but we’re certainly eager to see quite how she exacts her vengeance.
To be honest, I’m as interested in watching Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell strike back at Cersei. You do not want to fuck with Olenna. Also in King’s Landing, much as I’ve enjoyed Anton Lesser as Baron von Qyburn-stein, the hotchpotch concoction of the Mountain feels like the kind of thing that works better on the page.
The plotline leading to the marriage of Sansa to Roose Bolton, and her subsequent rape, has been by far the most controversial of the season. I certainly get the outcry; after season after season of Sansa being a doormat, she found some mettle during Season Four, so to subjugate her and violate her in this way is particularly bloody-minded (especially so since the producers effectively go this route out of convenience, substituting her for a character in the books who marries Roose).
And we know very well Roose Bolton is the most loathsome of loathsome horrors in all of George RR Martin’s lands, so there’s nothing to prove there (there was a sense of “enough already” with Roose by midway through the last season; his hideousness needs to play out on a larger interactive canvas if he’s to be sustained, as he’s entirely one-dimensional). I also can’t argue with the complaints about seeing Sansa’s rape through Theon’s eyes. At the same time, it feels like the long play needs to be understood before concluding Benioff and Weiss’ choice was wholly unwarranted. And this is a series whose lifeblood is abject cruelty, rape and murder; suggesting something might be too much is tantamount to an incitement for it to go one step further.
We pretty much get that in Episode Nine (The Dance of Dragons) when Stannis sacrifices his daughter Shireen to gain the upper hand against Winterfell. It’s another decision that has not appeared in the books (as is Stannis’ demise), but one that seems inevitable in terms of Stannis’ deal with the devil to get what he so desires.
The crumbling of Melisandre’s powers is particularly interesting when considered in context of the power of religion and faith emphasised this season. With the Faceless Men, the Sparrows and Melisandre’s magic, and two of them (inadvertently or not) bringing down invested power structures. Given Melisandre’s magic is clearly seen to work in previous seasons, one presumes pushing Stannis to kill his own daughter angered the gods.
After all that, Brienne rocking up following the battle and executing Stannis is a bit of anti-climax. Brienne’s one character who has had little (interesting or worthwhile) to do in the season, and it undermines her somewhat that she could have been off saving Sansa rather than exacting vengeance.
And then there’s the demise of Jon Snow, whom no one seems to believe is actually dead (it does seem like an odd one, even given the show’s penchant for sudden bloodshed, to excise his character so definitely after seeming to have told only half his story). Whether Melisandre is to bring him back to life, or he’s a Targaryen, or Skinchanger, or a White Walker, the writers’ “He won’t be back in Season Six” at least gives Jon Snow fans reason to hope it doesn’t exclude him from Seven (then there’s the theory that having him rise from the dead is the main reason Lady Stoneheart wasn’t featured in the show; it could only be a surprise to resurrect an expired character the once).
Perhaps the season’s greatest achievement is to finally make the Daenerys plotline engaging. It only took the arrival of Tryion to do that, but suddenly a really boring place with really boring characters has Tryion and Varys to liven things up. I quite enjoyed Jorah going all Maximus in the arena too, complete with Spartacus spear throw (X-Files vet David Nutter did a fantastic job on the last two episodes, while Miguel Sapochnik’s battle in Episode Eight equalled, if not surpassed, last season’s wall scrap). Although, the bickering between him and Tyrion is a reminder that he can be a noble annoyance (I half expected Jorah to buy it, what with his greyscale, but it looks like he’s set to suffer on for a bit).
It seems bloody typical then, that no sooner have Benioff and Weiss pulled a trump card than they allow Daenerys to be whisked off to Dothraki land for no doubt more scintillating developments in Season Six. Yawn…
I have to admit, I instantly assumed Sansa and Theon snuffed it when they leaped from the walls. Most seem to think they’ll be back, so I’m sure they’ll return nursing broken legs and crushed spines. I was disappointed to see the exit of some fine actors in this run; Ciaran Hinds and Peter Vaughn in particular.
For Season Six, I look forward to seeing the vengeance Margaery and Olenna, can cook up, Sansa dealing with Littlefinger, the return of Theon’s sister, Brienne given something juicy to do. And, if Jon’s not about to resuscitate quite yet, what will Melisandre and Davos do at the Wall? I can’t believe the latter will be very pleased with the former when he finds out about Shireen’s fiery fate. And will Sam rise as a towering intellect with the key to defeating the White Walkers (I particularly loved the Walker’s “Oh, shit!” moment when Jon’s Valyrian blade doesn’t break)?
The theory that Jon and Tyrion will be revealed as dragon riders to accompany Daenerys feels like the wish fulfilment of those with favourite characters (like those who wanted Han Solo revealed as “the other” post Empire Strikes Back) rather than anything plausible, but I guess we’ll see.
I said the series unpredictability has become predictable, but it’s pretty clear a few characters will stay the course until the end; Tyrion could be killed off, but it would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Cersei and Daenerys will also hang around, and I’d hazard that Arya, blind or otherwise, will continue. Anyone else seems like fair game. But with Season Six sailing in mostly uncharted territory from the novels (unless they go back to previously untapped veins) it will be interesting to see if Benioff and Weiss are left trying to hold things together or are able to strike forward as confidently as their work in the last three or four episodes of this season suggests.