9) The Dance Of Dragons
10) Mother's Mercy
HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
Once again there are spoilers throughout the article for those yet to view the episodes, or who await their release on DVD and Blu-Ray.
And so we come to the last episodes on-screen to date, but they are far from the very last.
With plenty of speculation over what direction the next season will take, it will be a long wait but one that has more material to ruminate over than ever before. Also trying to pinpoint when creator George RR Martin will publish the sixth book in the saga will also be a somewhat tense process for some book readers, but recent news of foreign language translation deadlines would auger well.
These two concluding episodes certainly continue the momentum built up since 'Kill the boy'; a middle segment that overcame early episode weaknesses by planting various seeds, of which many have germinated with good effect.
I will begin my focus on the wonderfully well acted 'super-bitch' Cersei. She has finally got something of a comeuppance after basically being safe from direct threat much of her time in the show. Yes, she did lose Joffrey, and she may well experience the loss of her other two children - if the flashback she had in episode one is accurate - but her administration of the kingdom was always going to be shaky without a figure like Tywin or even Tyrion around. In the short term she put the new Queen and her brother Loras in a very bad place through imprisonment; it only hastened her own period of confinement and humiliation.
And what a further blow to her pride is displayed in Mother's Mercy: a long walk of shame, completely naked in front of a mostly aggressive and embittered crowd of commoners and other citizens of King's Landing, who all have no love for the late King Robert's widow. Lena Headey continues to prove her considerable skill in one of the best roles out of the many this epic show possesses. She did insist on never being naked in the show, and thus we have a brave body double who performed the actual walk in a real life and public setting. This results in small visual glitches if one has the spare time to look for them. It is still one of the great moments on the show, and it remains to be seen just how much Cersei takes away from this. Will she connect with the people and somehow put down the High Sparrow's ascension in status? Or will she just look for the quick and easy path?
Stannis would now appear to be definitively gone - destroyed both in terms of body and soul. Yes, the final shot of Brienne exacting revenge for the murder of his younger brother Renly does not show a beheading, but all the word from the makers and actors would indicate it is indeed the end for him. Whether he will follow a similar fate in the upcoming book The Winds of Winter is still far from certain.
We had at times been tantalising close to liking Stannis despite his lack of empathy and warmth. But the way he ultimately concedes his only heir Shireen - a truly decent person in a dark forbidding world - is horrifying in its intent as much as the manner of the 'sacrifice'. Once the burning alive of the girl apparently helps dispel the sub-zero conditions blocking progress to Winterfell, it is actually the beginning of the end. Stannis' remaining horses are gone, with many of his better fighters in the form of sellswords riding off for better monetary outcomes, and his own wife is a suicide victim; unable to forgive herself for her one surviving child's final moments of pain and fear.
Whilst the culmination of the arc pitting Baratheon against Bolton is done very well, I do have one minor complaint. We do not see Roose in either of these two final episodes, and that is a waste of a brilliant actor in Michael McElhatton. To be fair the character had already behaved knowing he was almost guaranteed the military win - and doubly so against an invasion force without cavalry as it ends up being - but some brief scene showing his reaction to his victory would be welcome. Furthermore the strong scenes with him and Ramsey earlier this season seemed to demand some kind of dramatic pay-off but all we see is more of Ramsey gloating. The despicable (second) husband of Sansa gets a rush of ecstasy killing defenceless men who know their leader is vanquished, and Iwan Rheon is magnetic as always. Perhaps less character development proportionate to screen time was given to Ramsey though this year, apart from his reactions to being told he was the product of rape; when he himself uses sexual violence on women (and men like Theon).
I was thoroughly gripped by the Theon/Sansa sequences in the season finale. We get teased over whether Sansa will use the cork-screw device as a weapon; (she does not ultimately). Brienne notably prioritises chasing down Stannis over helping out the vulnerable Stark girl. A small excuse was the wintry conditions obscuring the candle lit at the top of the tower, but it would seem one oath just was more self-satisfying than another. The oldest surviving female Stark faces a horrible fate at both Myranda and Ramsey's hands, when confronted on the battlements, but she keeps her composure and her dignity. After viewers were misled as to how resentful 'Reek' really was in earlier episodes this year, and whether he would help his 'sibling' it is very gratifying to see him kill Myranda with a dismissive shove. Her death is as deserved as anyone who has met their maker in the entire show. The ensuing decision of Theon and Sansa to jump many feet down into the snow below is a thrilling 'cliffhanger' which will be resolved come spring 2016.
Rather less strong is the Dorne storyline, at least for now. Episode Nine has some half-decent scenes, but the plot thread involving Ellaria's penance never feels quite right. We have no real reason to believe she will let the Viper's gruesome death be forgotten, even if she can emphasise with Jaime about the stigma of loving someone they should not.
The Bronn material is enjoyable enough filler. Jerome Flynn never has a bad moment, playing this loveable rogue and I am happy he has survived for now again. The farewell he receives from Tyene - "You need the bad pussy" - is criminally bad though, and one further instance of the show verging into self-parody.
Whatever the dialogue he is given Alexander Siddig is magnetic and authoritative as the hobbled Prince Doran. The now-cancelled Atlantis' loss is very much this far superior program's gain. I also enjoyed what Areo (DeObia Oparei) brought to the story. As under-developed as the character has been, he still had a real presence and makes us believe that the Dornish have many other formidable soldiers.
The brief bonding moment Jaime and biological daughter Myrcella have demonstrates solid acting somehow being enough to overcome a very weak script. Even if Westeros has its deviant customs, the manner in which this ordinary girl declares how she always knew her parents were siblings and that she is proud Jaime is her father just comes off as awkward. It matters little though, in that her sudden death is another blow to the gut. We know by now this show kills of likable characters with a snap of its fingers, but it still resonates. It also potentially will hopefully make this whole storyline come to life next year. Prince Doran will not accept his son's fiancée being assassinated, and the Small Council will be furious that their 'protected' potential heir has met this fate. It will surely lead to a heated argument, ineffective diplomatic efforts and then war. Whether the Sand Snakes will escape blame is also going to be intriguing.
Daenerys has had a very solid season in terms of character growth. True, actor Emilia Clarke really delivered the goods in her first and third seasons, but then the book source material was also at a peak. Khaleesi's ability to (barely) cope with the mammoth task of overseeing a city steeped in history, as Meereen is, has been a fine arc.
Episode Nine has by far the better material for Dany, her associates and her enemies. We get a shocking end for King Hizdahr, already having a brush with death in the middle of the season when just yards from Dany's dragons. Ultimately he is stabbed repeatedly by several Sons of the Harpy (who may or may not have been connected with him in earlier events). The death also is a fine pay-off to a brilliant scene where Hizdahr in put his place both in terms of wit, and also regarding the place where Dany's romantic feelings lay.
The return of Jorah to Meereen as a slave trying to impress the Queen in mortal combat was very much telegraphed by previous episodes, even if the viewer had not seen any of the major pre-season trailers. Yet it plays out very well, even if we get a 'James Bond cliché' where a lethal opponent gloats and allows the (relative) good guy to turn the tables. The immediate moment after is terrific though. Jorah is not the most stable of people, and is dying slowly of greyscale. So his malicious throwing of a spear at the one person he loves almost would makes sense. As it turns out this action saves her from one Harpy assassin who was poised to strike her, from behind her prized seat in the arena.
The ensuing 'banding together' of different people from various parts of the world, in the face of great danger is a fine moment in a quite solid episode. The Dance Of Dragons still pales in comparison to its equivalents in seasons one to three, and is ever marginally weaker than the all-action 'The Watchers On The Wall'. As well as the arrival of Drogon fits, after weeks of teasing us over his actions, there are some logic issues. Why do the Harpy assassins all stop to gawp at the incoming creature, when they have space and time to succeed in killing Khaleesi? Why does Drogon decide to be in a sitting position on arrival, and not fly around to attempt avoiding spears thrown at him?
But such questions do not prevent an exciting final section of the episode turning into the spectacular; Dany's flight away from Meereen on Drogon's back is both emotionally and thematically fitting.
Once she is away from Meereen for some screen time in the finale, there is not much to really interest the viewer. She decides to stray from her wounded dragon, which probably would endanger them both, and is consequently captured by some Dothraki; possibly including those that deserted her when she lost her first husband. We are made to speculate that she drops her ring both to appear unmarried, and to help pursuers. Indeed she will have two devoted followers after her - Daario and Jorah. One loves the 'rightful queen' and has her love, the other chases intangibility. How they get on together and what they encounter should be a decent mini-arc of its own next season.
Unfortunately the scene that sets up this rescue mission, and decides who remains to try and bring order to the now-chaotic Meereen is pretty weak. We have to assume a lot. How did the others escape the Sons of the Harpy? What are the citizens' reactions, now a lot of them were slaughtered by the fanatics in the arena? Can anyone really see an exiled, disgraced dwarf being a credible ruler, even if he has some dynastic blood in him. There is too much that is vague, and the seasons having to be ten episodes do cause real problems. An episode in between to establish what the state of play was in Meereen may have worked better, but with so many storylines to juggle elsewhere with their own pressing timeframes, it would have been difficult. It must be emphasised that all the material with Jorah and Tyrion first meeting Dany in the fighting pits, up to the end of the season is original and progresses the Meereen arc substantially further than in the last published book. Arguably the showrunners were going to struggle somewhat with no 'solid' source material to fall back on.
Arya had some terrific arcs from the very beginning of Thrones, but arguably her material is mediocre this year. Certainly Maisie Williams is very capable (and I cannot wait for her imminent guest spot on Doctor Who's two parter this month), but what worked as internal brooding and loose chronology in the books has not quite been as impressive on-screen. The big exception though has been the Meryn Trant arc. We already hated him from the opening seasons, and most recently his blatant lies at Tyrion's trial were further insult to injury. So his final comeuppance at the hands of 'Lanna' is more than justified, as he indulges his appetite for abusing female minors one time too often. The violence is extreme even for this show and feels like it belongs to an Eighties 'video nasty'. We have seen Arya be cold-blooded before with a weapon in her hands, but this is more gruesome than what befell Walder Frey's minions or Polliver. The cutting of Trant's throat even recalls a similar fate for a dying Catelyn at the Red Wedding.
Arya's ensuing punishment is not a bad twist to the somewhat tedious plot set in the House of Black and White, but Jaqen continues to be overly dull as a character and performance, given his excellence in Season 2. The exposition over the younger Stark girls' choice to defy the clear 'rules' only produces a striking concept, and the actual scene itself is curiously flat. Where Arya goes next year will hopefully be stronger material, and preferably she is involved with the major storylines again.
The Jon Snow arc will be my last point of focus for this review. For the most part this has been the major trump card of the pack Season Five possesses. Kit Harrington has been very strong, and may end up having an illustrious career for years to come His Commander of the Night's Watch alter-ego had many difficult choices to make, and the consequences of what he opted to do in spite of protest play out well in this final pair of episodes.
In Jon's absence during Hardhome, the remaining Night's Watch and their second-in-command Alliser Thorne have only grown more suspicious of the Lord Commander's intentions and methods. His arrival back at the Wall with the survivors of the massacre is almost stopped dead in its tracks. Things only get worse, once he agrees to send his clumsy but wise friend Sam Tarly away to train as a Maester. Jon has no trusted right-hand man left apart from Edd, and his Wildling allies may offer force of arms but only weaken his credibility given the battles between these enemy forces of yesteryear. Even as Jon makes provision to help Stannis - not knowing it is far too late to save the 'King' - he is letting his guard down about his own protection.
The 'Olly-evil-stare' subplot is the one blemish though as Jon's story reaches a bloody and chilling conclusion. If ever a betrayal was telegraphed in big neon glowing letters it was in this show. The boy actor playing Olly gets to look conflicted at giving Jon a stab to the gut, and that moment is in itself reasonable, but the end product is a weak and belaboured demonstration of how trusting someone can be a liability.
The final ignominious demise for Eddard's 'bastard' son may well not be the end, despite being a real downer to end a season of a long-running show (with long 'off-season' periods). We know that Melisandre is at the Wall, probably having used magic to get there faster than normal people would. And we know she is connected with the Brotherhood who brought Beric Dondarrion back to life multiple times. She has every reason to try and help Jon, given all her interactions with him, and now that Stannis is vanquished. Having Davos surviving is also likely to play a role in Jon getting back into the Game. (Even if it does not, having Liam Cunningham still around can only be a positive for the show).
So does this fifth season work overall? And is it worthy of all these Emmy statuettes and high viewing figures? Certainly the earlier visits to the world of Westeros were stronger overall and benefited from better source material. Yet it can be perceived that the show only gets its full dues now, much like The Return of the King's big sweep at the Oscars. Also by keeping the interest of so many people globally around the world, and sparking further debate, it continues to work as an 'event' series.
But whereas Season Two was previously a relative low point, this season is further inferior. Consequently Hardhome feels like the one true success from beginning to end, with a brace of very watchable but flawed episodes, and one or two episodes that deliver a lot less than they promised.
The original books had many structural weaknesses at this point, so I commend what has been edited out, altered or postponed (as in the case of the Greyjoys' arc). And sometimes the best shows cannot help having a let down, as is the case here after two very powerful seasons. There is still much to come, and I am far from alone in looking forward to the next development of this fantastic saga.