The dust has settled on yet another season of HBO’s mega hit Game of Thrones, following what I believe was the show’s best season. Season 5 had a lot to live up to, as the show continues to set records and set the standard for ambitious television in the streaming age. In this season we saw how the show runners are handling the external influences around Martin’s book publishing dilemmas (will we get Winds of Winter before Season 6??), and as a result the show significantly diverged from the book. Entire plotlines such as the Greyjoys are left out in exchange for new developments in Dorne and the North, and characters have passed on who are still alive in the books. But I don’t dwell on the books, the big fan that I am. I think we can confidently consider the book and the show as two separate entities. Each have their pros and cons, the book allowing for more slow characterization while the show allowing for more creativity in storytelling, but the end result is still a satisfying show in the golden age of television.
To start, let’s talk about the pacing, something I think Thrones has struggled with in the past and hasn’t changed here. In season 5, many have complained that not much happens until around episode 6. This is both a product of the early leak of the first four episodes and the fact that the material covered in the season (split in book 4 and book 5), isn’t the most exciting stuff. But Thrones has never been the type of show to go for broke, as ambitious and expensive it may be. We get exciting action sequences like the battle at Hardhome, but we also get slow burn political dealings in King’s Landing, a unique plotline with Arya in Braavos, and more moments that make Thrones one of the most fervently frustrating shows on television.
What Season 5 excels at is once again making the world of Westeros feel alive as ever. A cliche, I know, but what Game of Thrones does so effectively is interweaving these plotlines and characters into a cohesive narrative. You still have self-contained stories in Meereen and Dorne, but these still have palpable implications on the Thrones universe as a whole. Yes, Daenerys is still stuck in Meereen, but her meeting with Tyrion Lannister energizes the plotline and kicks things into high gear, having noticeable effects on the world around them. The showrunners seem to have noticed the problem areas and done damage control accordingly. It makes for exciting stuff where you miss when your favorite character takes the episode off, because you want to see what they’re up to.
Speaking of characters, our favorites have been up to quite a bit since the explosive Season 4 finale. In King’s Landing, Cersei faces opposition from an extremist religious group, and finds herself imprisoned alongside Queen Margaery. The focus of the season is primarily on the North, but I still think the heart of the show is in King’s Landing, who we have known and loved since season one. Cersei is still one of my favorite characters, and Lena Headey continues to evolve alongside her, giving her best performance of the show. Her conflicts with the High Sparrow played by the excellent Jonathan Pryce show her dedication to her bloodline and stubbornness for the future of the kingdom. The scene I was most eagerly anticipating from A Dance with Dragons was Cersei’s walk through King’s Landing, which didn’t come until the season finale, but boy did it deliver. The outstanding production is coupled with Headey’s expressive performance, and the almost ten minute scene is a doozy. This scene is great because it reminds us of the King’s Landing average joes, the ones who are really feeling the effects of the royalty’s reign. We often forget that Westeros has citizens going about their daily lives, and Cersei must contend with that while grooming Tommen for the throne. This was one of the most consistent plotlines in the season, and was definitely a highlight.
Besides that, the removal of Bran from the season gave new life to the North and at Castle Black, where newly elected Lord Commander Jon Snow (R.I.P.) struggles with keeping his soldiers happy and satisfying the free folk. Complicating things are Stannis Baratheon and his troops, who came to their rescue at the end of last season and are now running the show. Kit Harrington brought his A-game to Snow, a fan favorite, and he had quite a few knockout scenes, principal among them being the battle at Hardhome, where they are ambushed by White Walkers. The Walkers still remain a mystery as far as the lore of the series goes, and these are exciting moments for book readers and non-book readers alike. Episode 8 changed the course of the season considerably, and renewed interest in many who grew bored with the slow burn earlier episodes.
Maybe the uneven pacing is what gave such little weight to the season finale, Mother’s Mercy. Episode 10 has never been the series’s strong suit, instead leaving us with major cliffhangers to ponder over the 9-month wait for the next season, and Season 5 was no exception. While I very much enjoyed the season finale, and found it to be one of the best behind last season’s The Children, there was still a rushed feeling of exasperation as plotlines were sealed with a kiss and not-so-neatly wrapped up. Take Stannis for instance, who hit a new low this season after sacrificing his daughter Shireen to please Melisandre and the new gods. Stannis went from fan favorite to one of the most hated characters in history, but he still didn’t deserve what he got in the finale. Here is one of the most feared and powerful commanders in Westeros, only to be (presumably?) murdered at the hand of Brienne of Tarth, who spent most of the season playing the waiting game with Podrick. It makes little sense from a storytelling perspective, and only serves to wrap things up and end things with the ever-stubborn Brienne, but it comes off as sloppy. Stannis’s army took a crushing defeat at Winterfell, in a disappointingly off-screen battle, but I felt we never got to see the true Stannis we saw at Dragonstone the past three seasons. His chemistry with Davos was non-existent this season, instead he put on a pouty face and clashed with Jon and his family. It’s a disappointing turn for such a well-developed character. Still, Stephen Dillane gives an admirable performance, and I’m hoping this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him.
Staying in the North, we have another problem area in Sansa Stark’s storyline, which takes the biggest divergence from the novels, and the show makes one of the biggest mistakes in Thrones history, that is, marrying her to Ramsay Bolton to secure the North for Littlefinger and the Starks. It’s a mess of a plotline that doesn’t make much sense. Sansa’s material from the books was essentially completed, but here she’s taking the place of Jeyne Poole in a despicable position that puts her in Ramsay’s grasp. By episode 5, after their wedding night, many were ready to call it quits. I wasn’t about to go that far, but using Sansa’s rape as a plot device to energize Theon Greyjoy AKA Reek was simply poor writing and a disappointing turn for a fan favorite. Sansa has always been one of my favorite characters. Her story is a tragic one, a parallel to her sister Arya’s, as Sansa learns to grow up in an unfair world and learn how to adapt after the death of her parents. But it’s frustrating to see the writers ruin her character after she finally escapes from King’s Landing after three and a half seasons. The season finale where Reek breaks and becomes Theon only strengthens my point, as the show’s most pitiful and frankly boring character is miraculously cured after seeing what has happened to his former friend. What a bummer.
The way I’m talking, you’d think I hated this season, but that’d be a complete lie. It had its ups and downs, as we navigate the murky waters of post-season 3 Westeros. The North is still a mess, but the rest of the show remains as engrossing as ever. What I love about Thrones is its ability to make us latch on to these characters and get invested in the living breathing fantasy world of Westeros. Everything is engrossing, there’s rarely a dull moment.
Over in Essos, we check in once again with my favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. She finds herself being challenged by the Sons of the Harpy, a militant group who have set up shop in Meereen and are terrorizing citizens and political leaders. It’s an interesting parallel to Cersei’s plot, as both women face opposition from both within and outside. This plot finds its footing by episode four, after the tragic death of Ser Barristan (another divergence from the book), and it becomes one of the season highlights. Daenerys hasn’t had this much to do since season one, and like I said above, her renewed plotline can be attributed to the placement of the ever charismatic Tyrion Lannister into the mix. The Lannister-Targaryen meeting has been anticipated since day one, and hasn’t been reached yet in the books. But it delivers in spectacular fashion. Episode 8 gives us a great scene between the two, and really shows how far Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage have come in these characters’ skins. Unfortunately, we still have Ser Jorah Mormont to deal with, and her advisors Daario and the new Hizdaar zo Loraq don’t make much of an impact, mostly sitting around and waiting for action to strike. But Daenerys remains the series’ best character, as we consider if she is really ready to rule in the Red Keep. By the end of the season, we’ve caught up with the novels, as Daenerys finds herself surrounding by a khalasar of Dothraki soldiers. Hopefully everyone’s favorite queen will go nowhere but up come Season 6, and I am highly anticipating her eventual rule.
Keeping the action in Essos we find Arya Stark in Braavos after fleeing Westeros. This plotline is difficult to adapt because book details are so indistinct, as the youngest Stark girl transforms into “no one” with the help of mentor Jaqen H’ghar at the House of Black and White. Her training doesn’t get too interesting until later in the season with the appearance of Meryn Trant, conveniently on her kill list, but this is an invigorating plot nonetheless. What stands out here is the gorgeous production, with sweeping Braavos cityscapes contrasted with the eerie faces on the walls of the House of Black and White. Arya’s transformation is an intriguing one, and Maisie Williams is bright as ever, but something about this plot feels off. The mysterious H’ghar isn’t a character who can carry an entire plotline with the help of a little girl, and a lot of the book flair gets lost in translation, instead relegated to vague and ostentatious lines that close out a scene. Still, it’s serviceable fare that will keep fans happy but probably won’t make any new Arya fans.
Touching on Dorne real quick, I know a lot of people were disappointed with this storyline, but I was indifferent either way. They’ve changed so much from Dorne in the books that I almost don’t relate the two together. Sure, the Sand Snakes are a bit overbearing and never really stand out, but sending Jaime and Bronn there has given us some great comic relief and some standout moments between the pair. Jaime has been one of my favorites since day one, and this gives him more to do than wander among the Riverlands like he does in the books. But Dorne lacked the urgency and excitement of the books, and instead features a one-dimensional Ellaria Sand and a decent but forgettable Doran Martell. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Dorne, as the shocking death of Myrcella in the finale may shake things up a bit, and having Trystane along for the ride should reenergize things, but I can’t help but feel very blasé about the whole affair.
That brings us to the end of Season 5, where we find ourselves in a considerably more uncomfortable position than we started in. This season has been a pivotal one for the show, and we’ve been assured the future of the show is in good hands, but Benioff and Weiss have made some mind-boggling decisions about some of our favorite characters, at the expense of making others more interesting. The best episode of the season, The Dance Of Dragons, episode 9, was a highlight, along with Cersei’s walk in the polarizing finale, but Season 5 suffered from poor plotting and pacing throughout. Still, Thrones remains one of the best shows on television, with characters we’ve grown to love (and hate), and a world that feels as engaging as ever. Time will tell, however, if Thrones will be one of the greats.