The penultimate episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones resembled less a song of ice and fire and more like an exclamation of, “Oh shit! Everything is on fire!” But in a show whose bottom line includes the invariable arrival of Winter with a capital W, of course ice still showed up to the party.
Among that ice is Jon Snow, strolling up to the Wall with a couple hundred Wildlings and a giant in tow. The man of the hour at Hardhome isn’t met with cheers and congratulations upon his return. Rather, a disapproving Alliser Thorne waits to let them all through the Wall just long enough to make me (and Jon, probably) wonder if he was going to let them in at all. But the gates open and those Wildlings filter through Castle Black, much to the chagrin of the Night’s Watch. Jon considers the mission a failure, since so many people were killed by the White Walkers, but his voice of reason, Sam, insists that it wasn’t. I always appreciate the never-ending optimism of Samwell Tarly, and to a point he’s right, fair enough a good amount of Wildlings were spared. But Jon’s mission was to get people to fight alongside the Night’s Watch, and the vast majority of what would be good fighters are now the Fighting Dead. The rest of the Crows are rather miffed at Jon’s decision that has forced them to become Wildling allies. Even little, resentful Olly, whom Jon looks to for a smile among the grimaces, is annoyed with his Lord Commander.
Alliser offers his sympathy: “You have a good heart, Jon Snow.” (Aww!) “It’ll get us all killed.” (Oh.) Jon’s usual pout is replaced with a full-on frown at the prospect that his first big decision as Lord Commander was a failure. Optimistically, if he didn’t go to recruit more Wildlings, the Night’s Watch would still be only 50 men strong and they’d have no chance in the Seven Hells at winning the war against the White Walkers. Cynically, Jon gave the White Walkers more numbers in their army. But to be cynical would be wrong, because if Jon hadn’t shown up then the Wildlings that did survive would have never had the means to, since there would have been no boats with which to escape. So chin up, Jon Snow! You have at least a few more people to stave off the dead things when they come to decimate the world’s population.
Meanwhile, in a climate less resembling a snow globe, the most boring plot line of this season seems to have wrapped itself up. Remember when Ellaria was inciting a war? And when Jaime and Bronn were journeying on a dangerous mission to smuggle a pawn of that war out of Dorne? Never mind all that. Let’s drink wine and toast to King Tommen’s reign! Blech. This plot had a climax as steep as an anthill. Even Bronn, who was super close to dying, was saved by the person that almost killed him for seemingly no reason. I appreciate Prince Doran’s levelheadedness, I do, since it is it’s a very rare commodity in this world, but it sustains zero dramatic weight. Doran’s agreed to let Jaime go back to King’s Landing with Myrcella. Jaime’s agreed to bring Trystane with them and make him a member of the Small Council. They’ve all agreed Bronn needs a good elbow to the face. Look how great it all worked out!
Even Ellaria, with her brooding vengeance, comes around once Doran threatens to kill her. The old Ellaria would’ve spit on the lot of them and sacrificed herself for love and honor by throwing herself off a bell tower, landing beautifully but gruesomely among the flowers in Dorne’s gardens. The new Ellaria weeps on her knees for forgiveness. Where did your spunk go, woman?! No matter. If her lame surrender allows this plot line to conclude then I’m all the happier for not having to be dragged back to Dorne in the middle of the other, better plot lines in other parts of the world.
Among the better plot lines, Arya is still pushing around her cart of seafood. (I really hope she gets a new identity soon. I don’t know how much longer I can go on hearing her yelp about her oysters, clams, and cockles.) As she approaches the Thin Man, knowing her mission to give him a gift of liquid poison, Arya actually seems nervous. For someone who used to nightly recite a long list of people she wants to kill, her trepidation seems misplaced. That is, until she sees one Meryn Trant arriving via boat with the jaunty Mace Tyrell. Oh yeah! Remember when Cersei sent Daddy Tyrell to appease the Iron Bank? Initially I assumed it was to get him out of King’s Landing long enough for Cersei to imprison his children, and that was all we were going to see of him. But the link I missed is that the Iron Bank is in Braavos, and Meryn Trant is now in the same city as Arya.
Arya rolls right passed her appointed target, even though he’s yelling after her for some oysters, and proceeds to follow Meryn and Tyrell around Braavos, up to and including the fanciest brothel in the city. Presumably she was going to use the poison intended for the Thin Man on Meryn, but never gets the chance. What she actually did was walk herself right into a trap of her own making; there is a look of recognition on Meryn’s face as Arya sells oysters to his companions. Perhaps he can’t place her face in that moment, but I’m willing to bet there’s a deleted scene of him sitting up in bed in a cold sweat, realizing that the long lost Stark girl is in Braavos.
So how does Arya get away with not assassinating the Thin Man? She tells Jaqen he wasn’t hungry today… and what happens next does not include Jaqen hitting her with a stick. Does he really buy her lie? The lingering shot of him looking over his shoulder at her says no, but why wouldn’t he call her out on lying to him? He’s done it literally every other time before this, even when it’s a mistake as little as saying the wrong street name. If she really did fool Jaqen, Arya may be the best Faceless Man in history.
Though seldom given on this show, I feel that we should all take a moment to award Mace Tyrell the honor of Most Delightful Character, for being the friendliest goofball in all of Essos and Westeros. Greeting people with a shake of both hands, regaling his new friends with banking tales of old, singing from his belly in the middle of the streets. (It’s worth noting that his singing was in celebration, so he must’ve been able to settle the royal debt crisis.) He brought some joy into an episode otherwise drenched in anguish.
To give him some credit, and hear me out, Stannis has had a hard go of it in his attempt to be king. Though he had the most legitimate right to succeed Robert, few people took him seriously. Initially he was one of two Baratheons vying for the Iron Throne, so followers were hard to come by. He had a rough time getting money for an army and other necessary war accoutrement. Stannis’ description in season one by Loras, saying that he has “the personality of a lobster” is not wrong; he does little in the way of inspiring his troops and I’m more than positive he has never smiled once in his life.
And here he is, in the brutal North, supplies dwindling, already losing troops to the bitter cold. And now Ramsay deals him a massive blow by setting fire to Stannis’ camps and several hundred horses. (Did anyone else think of Anchorman when you saw that horse on fire? Would’ve fit right in.) The loss of resources are hard, but what really smarts is the hit to Stannis’ ego. His terrible luck has officially gotten worse, and the worry that weighs on Stannis seems to have aged him about 15 years since we last saw him.
So, yes, Stannis’ journey hasn’t been easy. But come ON, man. You don’t have to be such a dick about it. Where was the person to convince Stannis that it’s time to throw in the towel, send all the freezing and starving troops home, and toast to the fact that you really gave it shot? It could’ve been Davos, but Stannis sent him off to Castle Black to get more people and supplies. It’s certainly not an odd request, because he desperately needs those, but he sent Davos away because Stannis knew he’d prevent him from engaging in the one of the most vile acts anyone has done on this show.
Shireen’s book of choice in this episode was “A Dance of Dragons,” which tells a story of two Targaryen siblings hashing it out over who would be the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. She explains, “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne. When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead. And it was a disaster for the Targaryens, as well.” (Who doesn’t love literary allusions, right?) This anecdote, while contextually having more to do with Baratheons than Targaryens, brought Stannis’ story full circle. And it was a disaster for him, as well.
Stannis labors under the belief that coercing a young girl into saying she’d do anything to help her father, and his feeble “forgive me,” absolve him from the responsibility of putting her to a torturous, miserable death by fire. His cowardice in hiding from her sight as she screamed for him is indicative of his whole ruling ethos: it doesn’t matter who dies as long as it takes Stannis to the throne. Even Selyse, who has resented her child from birth for being a girl and displayed very little love towards her, changes her tune when Shireen begs for her mother’s help. Most importantly, his army looking on showed disgust in the act. If a ruler is meant to garner the respect of his subjects, Stannis has officially lost respect in many of his followers. In this, the most desperate act to change his fortunes, Stannis has sealed his fate. Even if he does become king (which narratively makes little sense at this point), he’ll always be known as the king who killed his own child for the sake of his own selfish goals.
Daenerys, on the other hand, makes it a point to disapprove of any kind of killing that isn’t politically justified, whether it’s killing slaves or killing for sport. Her view is much unlike her betrothed, Hizdahr, who believes murder comes as a “necessary condition of greatness.” (Following that statement, Tyrion says Tywin would have liked him, and we may as well go and put Stannis on that list.) Daenerys doesn’t try to hide her distaste for the fighting pits, and has no stake in its outcome until Jorah shows up. The great Westerosi knight against five seasoned warriors.
The pacing of these final scenes is just outstanding. Jorah isn’t winning the fight. He’s getting stabbed and sliced and beaten down, and the dramatic build leads one to believe the importance of this fight will ultimately lie in Jorah’s poignant death. As the fight proceeds and Jorah’s chances at surviving wane, Daenerys seems to realize she still does indeed care for his wellbeing. In the moment immediately following Jorah’s victory, as the crowd of Meereenese boos him, he launches a spear right at Daenerys’ seat.
Who is he trying to kill?! Daario for sleeping with Daenerys? Hizdahr for marrying her? Daenerys herself for the cruelty she’s shown him? Nope. A Son of the FREAKING Harpy, who unbeknownst to everyone in Daenerys’ camp was creeping up behind them. An audible gasp was heard throughout the country at exactly 9:46 PM.
And the build that we thought was going to end with Jorah’s death proceeds to continue building upon itself, when dozens of Sons of the Harpy emerge from the crowd, killing former slaves and former masters alike. Is this what Hizdahr wanted all along, and that’s why he wanted to reopen the pits? Is that what he meant when he was late and said he was “just making sure everything was in order”? We’ll never know, because among the screams and stabbing and blood shooting everywhere, Hizdahr himself becomes a victim. Soon Jorah comes up to protect Daenerys, and dammit if a tear didn’t form in my eye when he held out his hand and she took it.
Before long, Daenerys and crew, protected by the few remaining Unsullied, are surrounded by an endless stream of guys in gold masks. Jorah, Daario and the Unsullied do their best to stave off the attackers, but things are looking dire. Deaneries takes Missandei’s hand in a moment that felt very similar to the climax of Toy Story 3, and they prepare for certain death.
And that’s when the episode turns it up to 11. Drogon appears through a cloud of fire, roaring and screeching as he comes to his mom’s aid. Though repeatedly stuck with spears, Drogon proceeds to tear several people in half and set fire to most of the rest. Daenerys, though still unsure of her relationship with her largest dragon, tries to help by removing a spear from Drogon’s side. He, in turn, roars in her face. (Translation: “JESUS CHRIST MOM, THAT REALLY HURT.”) Following the grossest smelling breath one can imagine, Daenerys reaches out for some recognition of motherly love from Drogon. When he doesn’t bite her arm off, she climbs atop his scaly back, and commands, “Fly.” And he does. Up and away from the fighting pits. Though the implications here are good news (Daenerys still has control of her dragons), one can’t help but state the obvious: Tyrion, Missandei, Daario, and Jorah are still down there. Whoops.
As the fifth season closes in on its finale, there still remain a fair amount of plot lines that have not been properly concluded. I’m not sure that they can all be tied up in a way that makes sense and is also satisfying, but at least the ninth episode provided us with some literally jaw-dropping final moments. On that note, let’s all appreciate Game of Thrones for its ability to get under our skin. It may be unpleasant at times, but it’s a show that succeeds in putting out some of the most complex, rewarding, and downright ballsiest stories on television. If you care about the show’s characters enough to be upset with it when it puts them through the ringer, it’s doing its job.