GAME OF THRONES: “Mother’s Mercy”

It won’t surprise you to learn the body count is actually quite high.

For the watch.

–The Lord Commander’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Ah… okay. Where do I start? [shuffles notes absent-mindedly]

Well, I’m not going to talk about changes to the books, so let’s put a pin in that. We’re going to save that for our big team roundtable later in the week. (That’s something we did last year, and it was a great deal of fun, so I hope you’ll come back for that.)

Let’s look at where we’re at: Sansa and Theon have escaped Winterfell. Sam is off to Oldtown. Dany is stranded. Cersei is humiliated. Arya is blind. Myrcella is dying. Stannis is dead. (OR IS HE?) And Jon Snow, 998th Commander of the Night’s Watch and All-Around Good Guy, is, like his predecessor, a victim of mutiny, bleeding out into the snow, eyes staring vacantly upward. JON SNOW. DEAD. DEAD? Hold that thought. I’m going to close with that, obviously.

This season of Game of Thrones has been… weird. There’s no other way to put it. When it’s working, there’s not much on TV that’s better, or more exciting, or more beautiful. But partly due to George R. R. Martin’s over-extended narrative, and partly due to just unusually bad execution, the seams have been showing. Its unpredictability, which used to be its greatest strength, has become sadly predictable indeed. It’s clear there were four main plots the show was interested in this year: King’s Landing, The Wall, Winterfell, and Meereen. Most of that has worked really well. I don’t think anyone will argue that “Hardhome” isn’t an all-time Top 5 episode, and perhaps even higher. (Why? STAKES.)

But with those stories — which entangled the majority of the cast — pulling focus, the other characters were scrambling for the crumbs under the table. Arya’s Jedi training in Braavos sounds really cool on paper, but Jaqen’s kind of a doof and the whole thing feels like wheel-spinning. She can’t stay at the House of Black and White forever. Next season, we need to get her back in the game. And don’t get me started on Dorne (I know, I got myself started on Dorne) — which, as I’ve said, is just a big ol’ misfire with questionable storytelling, directing, and acting choices. Then there are the ongoing controversies about the show’s obsession with sexual violence in particular, and worldwide misery in general. The finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” did little and less to alleviate any of that. We witnessed horrible things. Often, we cheered at those horrible things, as we are slowly turning into horrible people.

BUT.

This hour was also incredible in a lot of other ways. In fact, a lot of it felt like fan service, as we zipped from point to point at breakneck speed, killing off a major character every ten minutes. You want Stannis Baratheon to suffer for having his daughter roasted last week? Oh, you’ve got it. You want Theon to regrow his balls and rescue Sansa? You’ve come to the right place. You want Arya to finally stick Meryn Trant with the pointy end? Guess what — the most horribly, absurdly graphic scene of the night goes to her. You want Jon to answer his critics and find out who his real mother is? Um… wait, sorry. I’ll get back to you on that one.

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“If this doesn’t work, there’s a spike with your name on i–WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
But first, Stannis Baratheon’s Awful, No Good, Very Bad Day. In a turn of events that NO ONE SAW COMING, his army was not a fan of his last-ditch effort to win the war. Lo and behold, the snow is melting — did it actually work? — but half his men are gone. And ALL of the horses are gone. Oh, and his wife hung herself. OH, and Melisandre, who’s suddenly gotten a very bad feeling, just left the camp. (Wait, on a horse? I thought they were all gone?) THANKS, MEL. So she has a vision of Stannis conquering Winterfell in glorious battle, but if his men desert him the jig is up? Why not just find another kid to sacrifice? Or, more likely, she’s been making this all up as she goes, and if this were Arrested Development, this is the part where she says “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

It won’t be the last time “Mother’s Mercy” has me thinking of Arrested Development.

But Stannis is in too deep now; he grinds his teeth and sets his men to marching. Over in Winterfell, as the Bolton army assembles for battle, Sansa realizes she’ll have no better opportunity to make her move. She heads to the Bran Stark Memorial Tower, hoping no one will see her, ready to finally light that candle. But because this is Game of Thrones and we can’t have nice things, Brienne won’t be there to see it. She’s been staring at that tower for what feels like years now, wasting away on the sidelines, not even letting the maids in to turn down her bed, and the moment Pod tells her Stannis is coming, off she goes. Literally seconds later, the light appears in the window. YE GODS.

Stannis, on foot like the rest of his army, lets out a weary sigh as a full company of Bolton soldiers comes out to meet them. I don’t think he has any hope of victory. He knew, the moment Melisandre left him, that he’d been played for a fool — lost his family and his honor for nothing. All he can do now is die a soldier’s death. And sure enough, it’s a slaughter; Sansa can only watch horrified from her tower window as Stannis’s men get routed by Ramsey’s. But Stannis fights on to the bitter end, even wounded, until he slumps against a tree, more frustrated than in pain. What was all of this for? His downfall was swift and sudden. Maybe if he doesn’t sacrifice his daughter, they all freeze to death anyway… but maybe they don’t. We’ll never know now.

Then suddenly, Brienne is there. “I was Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon,” she begins. “Oh, you had to bring that up? Now?” Stannis doesn’t say. (It would have been funny, though.) “You murdered him with blood magic,” she accuses. “I did,” Stannis admits. Why not tell the truth now? So many regrets at the end. Finally, like The Wire’s Stringer Bell, Stannis tells her to just get on with it, and she does.

But we don’t actually see it, which leaves the door open for all the Stannis truthers out there. You know who you are. You’re almost certainly wrong, but you’re allowed to think otherwise until next season.

Meanwhile, poor Sansa’s caught in the open. Myranda, with Theon at her side, has her at arrow-point. Sansa tells her to get it over with, too: “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” “Who said anything about dying?” Myranda responds. Ramsey still needs her alive, so she can bear sons. He doesn’t need all of her, though… but before the horrible girl can release her bowstring, Theon, like the one-handed Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, FINALLY gets his s–t together and TOSSES MYRANDA OVER THE RAILING. Crunch. Wait, why are we so happy about this? That was awful!

No time to think about it, however — Ramsey just got back, and now they’ve got to run. Theon and Sansa sprint to the outer castle wall, where they find an immediate drop several stories below. But it’s die there, or die here, and at least there’s a lot of snow at the bottom, maybe it’ll cushion their fall, it worked in “Frozen,” so Sansa takes Theon’s hand, and they jump. Do they make it? Find out next year on The Dukes of Winterfell.

The more we learn about A Man, the less interesting he becomes.
The more we learn about A Man, the less interesting he becomes.
Okay, where do you want to go next? I know where I want to go next: Braavos, and the Continuing Adventures of Arya Stark! Speaking of horrible men getting their just desserts (give or take a Ramsey Snow, still at large), we’ve being anticipating for a while — well, ever since he was sent to the city with Mace Tyrell — Meryn Trant receiving his from Arya. And it comes quickly, with only a few precious minutes spent watching Trant beat young girls for pleasure. (Like I said, I’m not letting the show off the hook.) But one of those girls doesn’t react to those blows… because she’s used to it. She pulls away her hair, and it’s… Not Arya! We and Trant are confused. But then Not Arya removes her mask, revealing Actual Arya! And she’s got a dagger! And she’s going for the eyes! SO MUCH BLOOD! You can’t say he didn’t deserve that, but GOSH. “You were the first person on my list, you know,” she tells the blind, five-times-stabbed man, before slitting his throat like Sweeney Todd. “For killing Syrio Forel.” Is this the right way to process that, though? What a mess.

And Jaqen knows immediately, and probably for longer than that. “A girl has taken a life. The wrong life.” Arya starts, like a child caught with her hand caught in the face jar. “I was right about her,” the Waif says, smugly. “You weren’t ready.” “And now a debt is owed,” Jaqen continues, backing Arya into a corner. He holds up a phial. “Only death can pay for life.” Is he going to poison Arya? NO. HE DRINKS IT HIMSELF. HE DIES. Arya freaks the seven hells out, but — wait, hang on — false alarm. Just kidding. Jaqen’s not dead. That was some random guy wearing a Jaqen mask, and this whole thing was a J. Walter Weatherman-style lesson. (“That’s why you don’t take from the Many-Faced God!”) Arya peels away mask after mask, trying to get to the real dead person underneath, and stops when she reaches… her own face. (Now shades of Dagobah. We’re hitting all the marks today, people!) But before she can absorb that, her vision becomes cloudy. She’s been struck blind as punishment. Ruh-roh. See ya next season, Blind Arya!

Speaking of narrative dead ends, Dorne! Last week saw something actually happen, even if it rendered everything that came before pointless. And at first, it seems like the final check-in this season will be more of the same, as Jamie, Bronn, Myrcella, and Trystane say goodbye to the Sand Snakes (giving us one more chance to laugh at Tyene’s accent) and board their ship for home without incident. Ellaria even gives Myrcella a kiss! How sweet. She’s really come around.

Anyway, it’s time for an uncle-father/niece-daughter chat about Love, and how we can’t always choose the object of our affections. Ho boy. This’ll be weird. Jamie starts to stammer, so Myrcella picks up the thread: “I know what you’re trying to say.” (No you don’t, honey.) “It’s about you and mother.” (WELL, OKAY. MAYBE YOU DO KNOW.) “I think a part of me always knew,” (DID IT? WHICH PART?) “and I’m glad you are my father.” Jamie, like us, is too dumbstruck to respond, but he is thrilled to finally embrace her as her real dad. It’s actually quite lovely, which is why her nose IMMEDIATELY STARTS BLEEDING. She collapses in his arms. NOOOOOOO. ELLARIA’S LIPSTICK. AH GEEZ. NEVER HUG YOUR DAD, KIDS.

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Look, Frodo — it’s Mr. Bilbo’s trolls.
Way over in Meereen — you remember Meereen? With the dragons? Two of them still chained up? Is anyone guarding those? — things are uncomfortably quiet. After Dany’s Great Escape, the city is in anarchy, and someone’s got to step up and do something. Her three advisors sit dejectedly on the steps to her throne. Tyrion breaks the ice: “You love her, don’t you?” It’s even funnier because it’s not clear which one he’s speaking to. Daario and Jorah bicker, but before someone can go get a ruler, Grey Worm hobbles in on Missandei’s arm. A complex but wildly entertaining scene ensues:

  • First order of business: go get Dany from wherever she is.
  • Tyrion doesn’t want to bring Jorah, who’s a traitor,
  • but Daario doesn’t want to bring Tyrion, who’s a liability in the field (“So mainly, you talk.” “And drink! I’ve survived so far!”).
  • Also, Tyrion’s the only one with any experience actually governing a city, so he basically has to stay.
  • Grey Worm also has to stay, because he’s not 100%, and “Only the Unsullied can keep the peace.” (O REALLY? YOU GUYS HAVE ACTUALLY BEEN PRETTY DISAPPOINTING SO FAR.)
  • Missandei’s also staying, because she is.
  • So it’s just Jorah and Daario searching for Daenerys. Another bro-tastic road trip! I bet Jorah would just love to infect him with Greyscale.

Later, Tyrion is greeted by another old friend: Varys, who made his own way to Meereen after all. The Spider is pleased about the in-roads Tyrion has made in such a short time (seriously, he literally just got here, and now Daenerys is gone?), but he needs intel if he’s going to manage this city. “If only I knew someone with a vast network of spies.” “Oh, if only,” Varys titters. And that’s a season wrap for those two.

Dany, on the other hand, has made it out of the fire and into a larger fire. The wounded Drogon has flown her somewhere far away (that doesn’t look anything like Slaver’s Bay; are those fjords?), and won’t listen to her orders to take her home. That’s an awfully large pile of bones he’s sitting on — is this Valyria, maybe? Where he’s been spotted before? — and with few other options, Dany goes walking. Unfortunately, she is almost immediately found by a large (and getting larger with every shot) clan of Dothraki warriors. Oops. She lets her ring fall to the ground, perhaps as a bread crumb (not idly does the ring of the Khaleesi fall, Daario-as-Aragorn would say). Or maybe she doesn’t want to get caught with it. Either way, Daenerys is back where she started.

As the Last Targaryen stands alone, Cersei Lannister finally steels herself for her own judgement. Whether her confession is genuine or not really doesn’t matter — she’ll say whatever she has to get out of her cell. And the High Sparrow smells something fishy about Cersei’s newfound piety, too, but he goes along with it because he has more and larger humiliations in mind. Cersei confesses to sleeping with Lancel, but not with her brother — that’s “a lie from Stannis Baratheon,” she spits, but if she cops to that her children are doomed, and then all of this was for nothing (fun little parallel to Stannis, there. Even when you try to protect your kid, you can’t win.) So because she denies a few of the charges, there will still be a trial, but the High Sparrow permits her to return to the Red Keep… after her “atonement.” Feigning contrition to a single man is one thing. Walking as a sinner before the eyes of the whole city, naked as her name day, is quite another, and Cersei never expected that in her darkest nightmares.

And so, with her prized blond hair roughly cut, the High Sparrow trots her out in front of the Sept. “A sinner goes before you,” he intros. He has to be Westeros’s worst emcee. If the walk — uphill, in the muck, and in the nude — wasn’t bad enough, she’s got that Septa ringing a bell every five seconds, crying “SHAME! SHAME!” like the old woman from The Princess Bride. (Bow to the Queen of Slime!) The crowd starts to get into it, hurling insults. Cersei keeps a brave face. (The Queen of Filth!) They they begin to hurl more than words — food,  mud, and something else that definitely isn’t mud. (The Queen of Putrescence!) This goes on for an agonizingly long time, until it seems like Cersei(‘s body double) has circled the whole city twice, leaving bloody footprints. But just when she can stand no more, her journey finally reaches its end. Yeah, she’s been bad, but did she deserve that?

Within the Red Keep, Uncle Kevan is there, with Maester Pycelle, staring silently. Qyburn is there, too, and he throws a robe around Cersei’s shivering, defeated form. (Can’t say enough about Lena Headey, both this week and all season.) “It’s good to have you back,” he says, almost lovingly. And there’s good news: “May I have the honor of presenting the newest member of the Kingsguard!” A HUGE knight — dare I say, Mountain-sized? — picks her up as gently as a baby, but Cersei can’t bring herself to look into his dead eyes. “Ser Robert Strong,” as Qyburn calls this abomination, has taken a vow of silence. Convenient. Guess who’s about to call up her own trial by combat?

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“Dear Jon, lock your door. Sincerely, Future Jon.”
Finally — yes, finally — The Wall, and Jon, and utter despair. And we can’t say we didn’t see this coming; the show’s been flashing a giant neon sign over Olly for weeks now. First, however, we have to get Jon entirely alone. “How does it feel to be friends with the most hated man in Castle Black?” he says to Sam as they talk of Walkers and Valyrian steel. Sam’s at a bit of a loss there, but hopes to make Jon’s life easier in the long run by asking if he can take Gilly (and little Sam) to Oldtown, where he can become a Maester. This is actually a legitimately great idea, and Jon can’t say no to it. Sam can increase his knowledge exponentially, but more than that, if he stays, Gilly will die, and he’ll die protecting her. Jon reads into this in a heartbeat. “I’m glad the end of the world’s working out for someone,” he says as they joke about sex like teenage boys. (Hope you enjoyed that comic relief. That’s literally all we get this hour.) They toast to Sam’s return, which is usually A VERY BAD SIGN ON THIS SHOW.

After Jon sees Sam, Gilly, and the baby off, he has Davos to deal with. The Onion Knight — who has NO CLUE what has happened since he left Stannis’s camp — demands supplies and Wildling fighters of Jon, but Jon’s not in a position to grant either. Then, literally out of nowhere, Melisandre gallops in. (Seriously, how did she get there so close behind Davos? Is her horse magic? Is she a Time Lord?) Wait, what is she even doing here? Davos immediately knows something is wrong, and grabs her: “Stannis? The Princess?” he asks. But Mel is silent. Shell-shocked. She completely blew this one, and she knows it now. Hard to say what she’s going to get out of returning to Castle Black. If she just wants to hide, there are better places to go. And does Davos just hop back on his horse and head back to Stannis, or what? We don’t know, because he’s not important right now.

That night, Jon is interrupted in his chamber by Olly. Hey, remember Uncle Benjen? There’s a Wildling here who says he knows where he is! (And if you saw the “Previously On…” this week, you’re thinking “Oh, cool! Uncle Benjen!”) But that, like so many other things, is a red herring; Olly leads Jon not to any Wildling, but to a group of his own men, and a post with a sign that reads “Traitor.” WAIT. NO. NO. Thorne strikes first: “For the Watch,” he says in Jon’s ear, while plunging a dagger into his side. Then another man. Then another. Then another. “For the Watch.” Then Olly. Surely not you, Jon seems to say with his eyes. YEAH, DUH, OLLY. PAY MORE ATTENTION NEXT TIME, JON. “For the Watch.” Stabbed, again. Jon crumples to the ground. Ceasar’d. (WHERE YOU AT, GHOST?!) The men walk away, silently. The camera holds on Jon. And holds. And holds. Is something going to happen? Is he going to — ah, never mind. Cut to black.

Now, first the bad news: Kit Harington is already saying in interviews that Jon is definitely, permanently dead. The producers are, too, though a little bit more coyly. And at this point show viewers and book readers are now literally on the same page, so we can all freely speculate together: either Harington is lying (remember, HE IS AN ACTOR), or he’s been lied to, or the show is going a TOTALLY different direction from the books.

Consider how important Jon is to the overall narrative: he’s the “Ice” in “Ice and Fire,” after all. We haven’t even cleared up the mystery of his parentage, a potentially world-shaking reveal. There’s the fact that if he’s dead, with Sam gone, we don’t really have a POV character at The Wall anymore. Also, and most critically, the show contrived to bend time and space to get Melisandre back in Jon’s vicinity tonight. Remember that other servant of the Red God, Thoros of Myr? And how he was able to keep bringing Beric Dondarrion back to life?

This won’t be new to most of you; Mel using her powers has been readers’ chief operating theory for years now. And here on the show, there’s the added ingredient of her possible redemption. Maybe nothing can truly make up for all the damage she’s caused, but seeing Jon for who he is, and bringing him back, would be a great start. And like Sam said two weeks ago, “Jon always comes back.” He stared down the Night’s King, for Pete’s sake.

Of course, given the way things have gone, it’s just as likely that Jon is actually dead, ha ha, that’s what he gets for being forward-thinking, forget about R + L = J, we don’t care what Martin is doing because the show will end with everyone dead and just silent nature shots of the continent as Frozen Mordor.

But God, I hope not.

Because if that’s true, what is there to root for?

Season Grade: B+

 

Thanks for reading my recaps this season; please come back on Wednesday (I think) for our big season-ending FOTS roundtable discussion, where we’ll talk the highlights, lowlights, what could be coming next, and whether it’ll all be worth it. [EDIT: It’s here!]

Twitter: @dav_mcg

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