Game of Thrones Revisited: 5.10 Mother's Mercy
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros. This time we look back at the high body count of the season five finale Mother's Mercy...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
The season finale of Game of Thrones season five is a somewhat exhausted farewell to the events that have dominated this latest run, while also continuing to set up new storylines ahead of the sixth. It doesn't quite pack a punch like previous season finales, perhaps because, for the first time , there hasn't been a huge ninth episode to feed off. But it is still essential viewing, carrying a degree of class and confidence other shows could only dream up.
Things are certainly grim up north in Mothers Mercy. It might end with that shocking death at the Wall but it also starts off with a sense of despair as Stannis discovers that more than half of his army has abandoned him and wife Selyse has hung herself; while it is sad to see the Boltons rise victorious, it is hard to pity a man that had his daughter burned alive at the stake last episode. While an equally exhausted Sansa plots her escape and watches the conflict end from the parapets of Winterfell, Stannis finds himself and his remaining soldiers swarmed by Bolton horsemen as his campaign for the Iron Throne ends on a somewhat low key affair.
It's a far cry from the dramatic siege of King's Landing in season two's Blackwater. But there is also a delicious irony in the moment the horsemen charging through the snow to cut down Stannis's troops, an almost shot for shot remake of his own forces' routing of the Wildlings in last season finale The Children. As Bolton men slaughter the remaining Baratheon forces, it's Brienne who stands judgement over an injured Stannis. Her grim proclaimation that she was a member of Renly's Kingsguard before she summarily executes him is a fitting closing chapter on the king who died three seasons earlier, bringing a low key epilogue to the War of the Five Kings.
As for Sansa, there is real tension as she plots her escape before Ramsey's victorious return. Myranda plays a great villain, hunting her with a bow and delighting in how Ramsey will destroy her, making Theon throwing her over the wall to her death hugely satisfying. There's more tension again as Ramsey returns, leading to a perilous flight across the parapets, before Sansa and Theon take a leap of faith together, escaping the clutches of a monster that has destroyed both their lives.
There are many notable deaths this episode before we even get to Jon Snow's shocking murder. Joining Stannis and Myranda is Meryn Trant, the cruel King's guard that killed Syrio Forel back in season one. After setting him up as an even bigger monster last episode with his lust for young girls, we are given one last look at his villainy before Arya, wearing another face, exacts her grizzly revenge. We have seen her kill before, but the death of Meryn at her hands is something different altogether, plucking out his eyes, stabbing him in the chest and - after proudly revealing who she is - slicing deep into his throat. It's a gory moment that reveals just how dark a path she has taken. Even so, there is still great sympathy for her as Jaqen H'ghar exacts his revenge by making her go blind, leaving her season arc in a very grim place indeed.
Despite wrapping up the Dorne arc last episode with a peaceful agreement between Doran and Jamie, the season finale does at least offer something of a dark and interesting epilogue as Ellaria takes matters in her own hands, planting a poisoned kiss on Myrcella and enacting his revenge for the death of Oberyn. Poor Myrcella is a victim, but then in Game of Thrones the good guys rarely win. Still, it is heartbreaking to see her die in Jamie's arms after their tender conversation as she admits her love for a father that she could never publically acknowledge.
The scene in Mereen as Tyrion and company lament the loss of Daenerys is a period of reflection, not just for the events of The Dance of Dragons, but their own journies. Tyrion finds himself ruling in Mereen in her absence, the welcome return of Varys offering guidance at his side, while Daario and Jorah head off to rescue their queen. Daenerys meanwhile comes full circle as she finds herself taken by a Dothraki horde and marched away to her home of season one. These small scenes are really there just to set up the sixth season; fortunately there will be greater momentum in these storylines before that year is out.
And then we come to the two momentous moments that - like Hardhome - demonstrates there was still greatness in Game of Thrones this year despite a drop in pace and quality from the fourth season.
Cersei's walk of shame is a huge character moment, one that had fans of the books wondering how it would be translated to the screen. Playing on her love for her son, Cersei remained resolute in defying the unspoken truth about her and Jamie, setting up her escape from the cells by settling for the lesser lie of sleeping with her cousin Lancel. While the High Sparrow through the curveball of the trial to come - something she had no intention of attending - we saw just how far she would go as she submitted to the wall of shame through the capital to safety. In hindsight, letteing her go is the worse mistake the High Sparrow makes, underestimating how ruthless she can be, given the events of the season six finale.
Even so, for a character as cunning and cut-throat as Cersei, there was an element of sympathy as she was marched through the streets of King's Landing, naked and facing verbal and sometimes physical abuse during her long, naked wall back to the Red Keep. While a body double was used, Lena Heady carries everything in her facial expression, first cold and stern and then struggling not to break down and weep as her feet bled and the abuse from the crowds grew worse. By the time she reaches the keep she is on the verge of being broken. For perhaps the first and only time ever, we see Cersei as vulnerable as a child. Lord Robert, the resurrected monster to Qyburn's Doctor Frankenstein, carries her away to safety, a disturbing image to end her story on this season.
At the Wall, Sam convinces a beaten Jon to send him to the Old Citadel to become a Maester and help in the upcoming fight. But his departure with Gilly and baby Sam loses him his closest ally, setting the scene for the shocking final scene of season five. Lured outside with news that his uncle Benjen is still alive, Jon is confronted with a sign labelled traitor and stabbed to death, first by Alliser Thorne, then other members of the Night's Watch and then finally young Olly. It's a grim end to the season; like Tyrion or Daenerys, you couldn't quite imagine a character as important as Jon could die so soon in the show's run.
The sight of Jon bleeding to death in the snow is one of the show's most memorable moments and a true jump into the unknown for the audience and readers of the books by George RR Martin. The death of Jon Snow was of course the last chapter of A Dance of Dragons, the last published book by Martin. And yet, there are clues to his resurrection, namely the timely arrival of Melissandre with news of Stannis's defeat, shortly before Jon's murder. At the time the episode aired, no one knew what was going to happen next. Was Kit Harrington still in the show or had his character really gone the way of Ned Stark? It was certainly a great hook for season six that followed..