Game of Thrones' recap: 'Mother's Mercy'

After last week’s sacrifice blew up in the Internet last week, my favorite response came from Slate’s Amanda Marcotte: “Don’t be surprised by the deaths on ‘Game of Thrones:’ The Show is a Classical Tragedy.” Marcotte makes a very strong point, even though “Game of Thrones,” arguably more of a melodrama, doesn’t entirely fit the criteria. Many of the shows ill-fated characters lack tragic flaws, unless trusting Littlefinger or Walder Frey counts as a flaw. And where most tragedies follow the rise and fall of a single person, “Game of Thrones,” if anything, qualifies as an ensemble tragedy.
Tragedies play for huge stakes and aren’t afraid of terrible outcomes, which is exactly the way viewers should approach the HBO fantasy epic. Think of it not so much as The Lord of the Rings with T&A as King Lear with dragons and zombies.

Stannis, for instance, perfectly follows a tragic arc worthy of Macbeth (who had witches citing prophesies and an ambitious wife). Lest we forget, the show introduced him allowing Melisandre to burn people as sacrifices. Having to sacrifice his daughter in the name of his obsessed belief in his own destiny merely brought a chicken home to roost.

“Mother’s Mercy,” the season five finale, begins like last week’s episode, with Melisandre at Camp Stannis. She sees melting icicles and puddles — there’s a thaw! Maybe burning Shireen at the stake was more than just an inhumane waste of human life! Stannis is notably chilly toward her after the whole killed-his-daughter thing, but he’s ready to attack Winterfell. But one messenger reveals that half the men and most of the horses are gone. Another messenger shows up — can it be worse? Well, yeah, kind of: Stannis’ wife has hung herself over grief for Shireen’s death. Oh, and Melisandre has apparently fled on horseback. Stannis seems on the verge of quoting Hamlet’s, “How all occasions do inform against me.”

His army arrives in sight of Winterfell, dead on their feet, and Stannis says they’ll lay siege tomorrow. But he speaks too soon, as a fresh, mounted army — stretching from one edge of the screen to the other — charges out to meet them in a spectacular overhead shot. Stannis’ army, meanwhile, looks like it couldn’t withstand a stiff wind.

After the massacre we find an injured Stannis in the woods, using his sword as a crutch and ready to declare, “My kingdom for a horse!” He fights two guys and prevails, but takes a grave leg wound. And who should show up, having been alerted by Podrick, but Brienne of Tarth? She introduces herself, gives him an Inigo Montoya greeting, and in Renly’s name, sentences him to death. She’s about to stab him when it appears that she gets struck down. Is she OK? Is Stannis even dead? Wha’ happened?

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Ramsay stabs a surrendering soldier and says, “Let’s head back — my wife must be lonely.” But Sansa has been busy. She uses the little tool she stole to pick the lock to her room, sneaks to the broken tower and lights a candle, hoping to signal her allies. (Does she have any allies left? Brienne, distracted by Stannis, doesn’t see the light and fails her oath to Catelyn Stark once more.)

Sansa gets caught by Theon and Myranda the dog woman, who threatens her with bow and arrow. Sansa is uncowed: “If I am to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” Myranda seems about to give her a ghastly but nonfatal injury when Theon saves her, pushing her fatally to the courtyard. (Good riddance — what a lousy character.) He might have saved Sansa out of fear of what Ramsay would have done, if he'd allowed Sansa to be injured. Nevertheless, Theon silently agrees that they both have to flee . Looking from the castle wall to a snowdrift below, they jump.

In Braavos, Ser Trant whips a trio of servant girls, probably as foreplay to something even worse. One of the girls, her face covered with hair, doesn’t cry out. She shows her face, but it’s not Arya. Then she removes her hair and her face — it is Arya, who’s learned one of the Faceless Men’s tricks. She stabs out Ser Trent’s eyes and relishes in identifying herself as Arya Stark (almost Inigo Montoya style) before finishing off the blinded man.

She returns the disguise to the chamber of faces, but is confronted by Jaqen and the Waif. “That man’s life was not yours to take,” Jaquen says, adding that only life can pay for death, holding up a vial of poison. Will he make Arya drink it? No, he drinks it himself. Arya cries, heartbroken, as he collapses — but Jaqen’s standing behind her! Arya removes the dead Jaqen’s face, and a series of masks come off, ending with Arya’s own face. (It’s very Luke Skywalker seeing his own face in Darth Vader’s helmet.) And then Arya gets inexplicably struck blind, like many characters in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy before her.

In Dorne, Jaime and company bid farewell to the Sand Snakes and Ellaria, who kisses Myrcella goodbye. On board the ship, Jaime has a heart-to-heart with Myrcella, saying that love is unpredictable as a prelude to a big revelation. But Myrcella reveals that she already knows, and that, “I’m glad you’re my father.” And it’s a nice, lovely moment until Myrcella starts bleeding from the nose and collapses. On the dock, Ellaria, also bleeding from the nose, wipes off her lipstick and drinks an antidote. Those Dornish know their poisons.

In Mereen, Tyrion, Jorah, and Daario sit in the throne room, pining for Dany in their separate ways. Tyrion points out that, “Neither of you is fit consort to a queen, but we always want the wrong one.” (It’s almost the same sentiment his brother Jaime was just saying.) A little surprisingly, Daario takes charge, arguing that he and Jorah should track Dany, and that Grey Worm, Missenei, and Tyrion should run the city in their absence. And then one scene later, at a Mereenese terrace, Varys pops in, offering Tyrion his services.

Where’s Dany, anyway? She’s up on a green mountain with Drogon, who’s licking his wounds. (Judging from the bones around, it’s his favorite spot.) She tries to get him to take her back, but Drogon balks — it’s like a scene from How to Train Your Dragon. We don’t get a sense of whether Dany is considering quitting Mereen and her destiny entirely — instead, she starts walking back alone and on foot. She sees a guy on horseback, and then another and then a whole horde of Dothraki — Khal Drogo’s people! Will they treat her has a prize, or as the Khaleesi? She disappears in a sea of horses.

In King’s Landing, the imprisoned Cersei surrenders and agrees to confess to the High Sparrow. But she’s not completely beaten. As if under advice of a crafty lawyer, she only admits to sex with her counsin Lancel, which she knows they can prove, and denies the other charges. The High Sparrow says she can return home to the Red Keep and await trial, but first she has to make her atonement.

What follows is more Biblical than classically tragic. The Queen Mother has her hair shorn, like Samson (Lena Headey’s stubble kind of makes her resemble Renée Jeanne Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc, although no one gets burned at a stake this week). What follows could be called the Passion of the Cersei as she’s forced to walk, completely nude, from the church through the city’s slums to the palace gates, like every “naked at school” nightmare you ever had. (Apparently a body double was used to replace Lena Headey, but I never noticed any CGI trickery.)

The boss nun calls, “Shame,” every few minutes, ringing a bell. The crowd’s silent at first, but starts jeering and throwing stuff at her. It seems like an incredibly harsh punishment for what Cersei confessed, but perhaps the High Sparrow knows that she’s lying. Her actual crimes over the course of the show include complicity in the attempted murder of Bran Stark and the successful murder of King Robert but the walk of shame still seems pretty extreme. It also feels like one of "Game of Thrones'" instantly iconic moments, to be evoked when social media turns against future celebrities and politicians who humiliate themselves.

Cersei maintains her dignity for awhile, but ends up back at the Red Keep, staggering, feet bleeding, and in tears. She enters the gates and sees her Uncle Kevan, Grand Maester Pycelle, and various guards, but no one seems very sympathetic . By unleashing the Sparrows, Cersei literally brought this on herself. Qyburn shows up, covers her with a blanket and introduces a huge new member of Kingsguard, who he says has taken a vow of silence and an oath to protect Cersei. The giant, who has to be a Frankensteined Gregor Cleghane, picks up Cersei, who seems traumatized but slightly comforted.

At the Wall, Jon Snow tells Sam about how dire the battle of Hardhome was, and how they may have no real defenses against the White Walkers. By sheer coincidence, Sam asks permission to leave, saying that he wants to go to Oldtown, learn to be a Maester, and maybe research a means of stopping the walkers. He mentions that he can get Gilly and the baby to safety, and Jon picks up on the fact that they’re doing it. For once, Jon is amused: “I’m glad the end of the world’s working out well for someone.”

Later, Davos petitions Jon to send men, or Wildlings, to help Stannis (not knowing of his king’s defeat). Melisandre shows up, looking desolate. Davos knows immediately that something happened with Shireen, but Melisandre says nothing.

That night, Jon gets a message that one of the Wildlings knows about his missing Uncle Benjen. He goes to a corner of Castle Black that looks a little like a stable and sees a dummy bearing the sign that says, “Traitor.” Alisher Thorne steps forward and stabs him, saying , “For the Watch.” More the Night’s Watch stab Jon in turn, with young Olly the last one. Like Julius Caesar, Jon keels over in spreading pool of blood. And now his watch is ended?

- So is Jon Snow really dead? I’ve read the books, but they’re no help. The most recent one, A Dance of Dragons, pretty much leaves Jon in the exact same place. There could be an out: Melisandre just showed up at Castle Black, and if you remember Beric Dondarrion from the third season — a freedom fighter brought back to life multiple times — fire-magic can resurrect people. So not only is there precedent, Melisandre could probably work the spell, so why would they show her arrive at Castle Black without a good reason? And why all the speculation about Jon Snow’s real parentage if it’s just going to drop? Here's some speculation.

- On the other hand, Kit Harrington says he’s not coming back for the sixth season. Does that mean he won’t be back the following season, either? It’s probably best to assume that, yes, Jon Snow is dead, and take a resurrection if it comes, than invest much emotion in his being alive.

- Melisandre predicted the sight of Bolton banners in flame, which doesn’t happen this week — she seems to have backed the wrong horse. I was hoping this episode would have ended with the Boltons defeated, ideally at the hands of Sansa, Brienne, and the Stark loyalists. Obviously, it didn’t go that way, and, given the arc of Sansa’s character, it would be a leap for her to go from Littlefinger protégé to scheming mass-murderess. But I’m really not looking forward to more of Ramsay’s tedious sadism next season.

- Normally in my notes, I point out who was offstage in the new episode. “Mother’s Mercy” checked in on all the major plotlines, and even Varys showed up in Mereen. We didn’t see Tommen or Margaery and, perhaps most importantly, Littlefinger made no appearance. It’ll be another year before we learn what he’s been up to.

- Overall, season five has been a highly contentious one. Partly the show has been a flashpoint in a larger cultural conversation over violence and the depiction of woman. And because the show has diverged from the books more than ever, the debate over the choices in adaptation has been occasionally fierce. (I admit, I have no patience for people who assume every decision they don’t like is a departure from the books. I know several people who actually read the books, but forgot about Jon Snow’s assassination scene and thought it was an HBO invention.)

- I think the show makes mistakes — the Sansa/Ramsay subplot was ill-conceived and ugly by even the show’s standards — but it’s still a landmark television series creating archetypal moments in twenty-first-century media. At a time when happy endings seem constant in pop culture and no one stays dead, “Game of Thrones” strikes a chord because it plays for keeps.

- Unless George R.R. Martin publishes The Winds of Winter before, say, next April, season six will be completely on its own, with very little book material for fans to compare it against. For once, readers will have no more idea than non-readers about what’ll happen. We’ll all be equally in the dark.

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