Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
When Ned Stark was executed at the end of the First Season, reactions from viewers went viral on YouTube and we could all relate to the shock of it. He was the supposed to be the story’s hero—a good and just man in an unjust and dangerous world. We could watch the most over-the-top of those videos and laugh because we’d come to terms with the idea of a TV show that promises no one is safe. Raising the stakes worked. We’d tune in week after week knowing that no one was going to swoop in the last second to save Ned. And there were plenty of other heroes in this story.
Like his son Robb, a charismatic if in-over-his-head leader who found love in the midst of war. Robb would carry on the Stark tradition of ruling the north justly when every other part of the kingdom was under the thumb of a sadistic little psychopath. But then the Red Wedding came and we had to find others to cheer for.
Thankfully by the end of last season, it looked like there was a pattern to all the death George R.R. Martin wrought in his pages. The strong and noble would die, but the wicked would always be brought low and the most innocent, though put through dark trials, would be spared. Oberyn Martell’s death would be tragic, but he lived and died by the sword. Things were looking up for Ned Stark’s children. Arya was free of Westeros. Sansa was with Peter Baelish, a schemer but one who loved her mother. Bran would no longer walk, but now he would learn to fly. And Jon Snow was the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. These would be the characters to bring about new hope when Daenerys Targaryan ended the struggle for the Iron Throne.
But this season has not been so kind. Jojen Reed had already proved that children weren’t safe in this world when Stannis Baratheon sacrificed his own daughter, the sweet and kind Shireen. Sansa was married off to a sadistic rapist.
Now, as the season comes to a close… things are really bad, Shane. Arya crossed another name off her list, sparing young sex slaves throughout Braavos, but her punishment was the loss of her sight. She’ll never be a no one; she was always using the temple as her training ground to be the assassin she’s lain awake every night pledging to be.
Stannis is dead. The Red Woman’s magic ran out, making Shireen’s death all for nothing. With half his men deserting, his wife hanging herself in grief and Melisandre fleeing back to the Wall, his army is easily routed. Brienne has the satisfaction of avenging Renly for one of Stannis’ many crimes, but does so at the expense of another oath—to rescue Sansa. Ned’s eldest daughter is forced to jump off the castle wall with Theon into what hopefully was a forgiving snow bank.
Daenerys is captured by Dothrakis. Tyrion is stranded in Meereen. Cersei is paraded naked through the streets of King’s Landing. And poor Myrcella, the beautiful, forgiving princess in love is poisoned on her way back home.
But I write all that just to avoid facing the final scene of Season Five. We all wondered, would Jon Snow end up with Daenerys, riding on a dragon alongside the Queen and helping her rule the kingdom? Or would he die in the final battle, protecting Westeros from the White Walkers as they stormed the Wall? No, Shane, he’d die at the hands of his brothers of the Night’s Watch, each stab a damning judgment on his leadership, the last coming from his own apprentice.
Jon Snow had progressed from a brooding boy seeking his father’s love to a wise and kind leader of men. He’d faced more hard decisions than anyone in the kingdom, always doing his best to serve the people around him. He’d fallen in love and seen the object of that love killed in battle. He’d saved the lives of his historic enemies when a greater threat required it. And in his final act, he’d permitted his only friend in Castle Black to leave and pursue his life’s calling. His reward for all this was a series of stabs from those he’d called brothers.
I’m glad no one was taking a video of my reaction, Shane. Game of Thrones has swept me up in its story, which at times has felt like a wonderful place to be. But not tonight. Tonight I mourn the loss of a fictional character. I poured a finger of my best Scotch for the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
So we can talk about the satisfying reunion of Tyrion and Varys and what had to be a traumatic filming experience for Lena Headey. We can talk about the horror of what happened in Braavos to Arya, or the wicked murder of a lovely young lady. But all I really can think about right now is the look on Jon Snow’s face as Olly plunged the final knife in his gut.
This one hurt.
Sweet hell, this was dark. This was dark, dark, dark, and all I want to do is echo everything you say. However, there’s something I need to get off my chest as a book-reader, and I can get it off safely, because the show has officially caught up to the books in almost every aspect I can think of, and I no longer have any secrets. But when I finished the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, and did my own bit of mourning about the death of Jon Snow, I quickly went online to read the reaction of others. Before long, I found this interview, and I want to copy and paste the key excerpt:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So why did you kill Jon Snow?
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?
He goes on to discuss the ambiguities in his work, and so I’d advise everyone to hold back for a moment until we know his true fate. When we think back to the old deaths you mentioned, Ned and Robb, as well as others like Joffrey, there’s no question that they’re gone. Jon, on the other hand, is left bleeding out, and his death is not quite a certainty. Couple with that the fact that Melisandre is back at the Wall, with all her dead-raising voodoo, and I’m not so sure. That’s all I want to say about that—I’m not so sure.
Of course, we’ll have to wait until next year for the television show to decide all that, because if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not getting the next Martin novel anytime soon. And as a rule, we shouldn’t believe anything we don’t see with our eyes, which also—call me crazy—gives me a bit of doubt as to the fate of Stannis. We never saw the killer blow from Brienne, and Stannis’ eyes seemed to be wandering past her at the moment she struck. We’re given to believe she delivered the mortal blow, but again, there’s no certainty.
Moving on. The Boltons sure know how to fight, don’t they? Ramsay’s sneak attacks disheartened Stannis’ men, and when Roose saw the paltry strength they brought to Winterfell, he said to hell with a siege and routed them where they stood. It was a decisive defeat for the aspiring king, and proof positive that murdering his daughter and trusting a glorified witch isn’t good for business.
And we have to talk about Cersei. In that same interview linked above, Martin noted that the scene was based on the trial of Jane Shore, a real-life mistress of Edward IV who took her own walk of shame following her king’s death, due to charges of promiscuity. I’m very curious to see what the Internet thinks of this scene, because it can really go both ways—was is it more degradation aimed at a female character in a show that has not taken pains to hide female indignities, or did Cersei bear up under her penance in a way that is decidedly strong and somehow redeeming? Personally, I’m anxious to see what changes it wrought in her next season. Will she have become wiser, or will it only stoke her rage, and will she fulfill the many promises of revenge uttered in the dungeon of the sparrows?
And yes, the bad news just keeps on compounding. Arya is blind, which I can only pray is not permanent. Daenerys is surrounded by Dothraki riders, and their intentions are super far from clear. Bran is a mystery, Sansa and Theon have undertaken a desperate escape, and everywhere you look, the bad guys seem to be on the rise. Only Tyrion and Varys, reunited at last, redeem this episode in any way.
Looking back, Josh, I think we have to conclude the following: In a very dark show, Season Five was as dark as it got. Unless Ramsay Bolton wins the game of thrones, I really can’t see it getting worse than this, can you? We have white walkers threatening to destroy the world, Daenerys in dire straits, Arya blind, Bran unaccounted for, Tyrion stuck ruling a strange city, and Jon Snow possibly dead. Those are the five main characters I’ve always assumed would make it to the end, and they are not doing well.
Nevertheless, on the topic of this season’s legacy, I have to say I enjoyed it. HBO deftly managed the timing of the major events in a way that even Martin struggled with, and aside from a few missteps (DORNE!), they capitalized on the really big climaxes. This was never more true than the Battle of Hardhome, which will forever stand up as one of the greatest scenes in Game of Thrones history, but the runners-up weren’t too shabby either. When you look at the arc of the show, a season like this—where hope seemed in dangerously short supply—had to happen. It’s the dark hour before dawn, and with 20 episodes left in this great series, I think we can expect better times ahead.
I know I’ll be back, Josh. How do you look at Season Five today, and do you think that’ll change as time goes on?
With the night to sleep on it and your sliver of hope that death isn’t always permanent when winter is coming, I can look back on this season in a more favorable light. I can’t forget the beauty of Old Valyria, its ruins haunted by stone men. And this is the season where the Mother of Dragons gave Tyrion purpose again. And the Battle of Hardhome wasn’t just the best fight scene in Game of Thrones, it was part of the show’s best episode. So let’s hope this is the darkness before the dawn for the characters who we’ve grown to care about over the course of five seasons and novels.
But before we take a break for 10 long months, I want to talk a little more about that long unbearable walk of shame. One of the first things I wrote about this show four episodes in was about the strength of its female characters in a genre known for playing up to teenage boys’ fantasies and a setting filled with the worst kinds of misogyny. And while HBO has certainly been guilty of catering to those desires by using body parts as set dressing, there was nothing titillating about seeing the very beautiful and shapely body of Lena Headey paraded through the streets of King’s Landing. Cersei has been the worst, conniving to cause misery to all around her save her three children, though she did plenty of that with her incompetence and pettiness. As Jaime, who we first met when he pushed a young boy out a tower window, or Theon, the traitor of Winterfell who burned the bodies of two young farm boys, any sort of redemption for the Queen Mother seemed impossible. And it remains unlikely for Cersei, who’s likely to double down on her efforts to burn everything around her to the ground. But on that horrific walk back to the castle, we could pity her—and admire her strength.
Even Sansa, who has had little agency or will thus far, took a brave stand last night. She needed no rescue from Brienne, the knight in shining armor. Just a little push from Theon. She stared into that arrow and hardly hesitated on that crazy plunge into the snowbank.
George R.R. Martin is ruthless when it comes to his characters. But I’m not sure that means he doesn’t love them like we love them. I’ve had friends stop watching Game of Thrones because they’re pissed that he kills off their favorites—or the loves of their favorites. Or have come back to it with a willful detachment. But I remain all in. Like you said, if Ramsay ends up on the Iron Throne at the end of all this, I’ll feel betrayed, but even as dark as things look right now, there’s no way I could quit. I care deeply about these characters, and that’s a wonderful feat for a TV show. Season Five was indeed a dark one, but it’s full of episodes that will stick with me for a long, long time.
What’s your take on Mr. Martin’s habit of killing or torturing his best characters? Closet sadist or effective storyteller? Looking back at what’s happened to Sansa, to Arya, to poor little Shireen and the rest, did he and the screenwriters go overboard?
I like that perspective—I didn’t realize until your email how many of the female characters were left on their own, or in some state of isolation, last night. It’s uncanny. Arya with her blindness, Sansa with her escape, Cersei with the walk of shame, and Daenerys with the outriders, and Melisandre friendless at Winterfell come to mind. And as rough as things are looking for all of them, I suppose they can take comfort in the fact that they’re not dead… like Shireen, Myrcella, or Ramsay’s little bench-woman. You could almost see “Mother’s Mercy” as a declaration of independence for the female characters. Sure, it’s mostly dictated by circumstance rather than a choice, but one way or another, they are now fighting their own battles, and taking their destiny defiantly in their own hands.
As for Cersei, I had an instant debate when the show ended with my friends, and I’m on your side—I thought it was weirdly empowering, and I thought it was done with great impact by HBO (who, like you said, are not always dealing with a surplus of good taste). Headey apparently used a body double, but that doesn’t detract very much from her insanely strong performance in my book. Which leads back to something we’ve been saying for a while—it’s easier to forget this, because Cersei is such a despicable character, but Headey is easily one of the best actors on the show for the way she manages to depict Cersei’s frailty in between the moments of hatred and evil. It’s been happening since the first season, though last night was obviously the most prominent example.
Of course, some will think the scene was unnecessarily demeaning, or that it continues a trend of misogyny, and my friend fell at least slightly on that side. It’s tough to argue the point, because it’s a subjective measure, and I’ll be very curious to see where the Internet falls on this debate—I imagine some will land on the side of outrage simply because that’s the currency of our time, but I’m looking forward to reading the more intelligent takes on why it might have been a misstep.
Getting back to the plot, I have to say there was ZERO sense that Cersei was changed by the walk. That’s a testament to her strength, and also the deep roots of her anger and hatred. At the close of the action, she seems to take solace in the presence of her new mega-warrior, and Qyburn, schemer that he is, makes sure he’s the first one to comfort her, which will only heighten his influence. And while I’m no Cersei fan, I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind watching her take her revenge on the annoying nun who kept shouting “shame!” on the walk. (By the way, strong take coming your way—Myrcella’s death will not help Cersei’s disposition in any way whatsoever. The only child she has left is a whiny king who won’t leave his room.)
Looking at the series as a whole, I’m sad to report that our time as smug book readers has come to an end, Josh. The walk of shame and the stabbing of Jon were the last major events TV audiences hadn’t seen, and next year, we’ll have no friggin’ clue what’s happening, especially since HBO has gone off the reservation in several regards, but most particularly with the Dorne drama. The throne is still up for grabs, but it feels like the evil forces are on the ascendancy, and all our favorites are either lost, in danger, or dying. Here’s hoping the darkest hour is just before dawn, and that Season Six brings at least a dash of hope.
Josh, it’s been a pleasure as usual, and as much as it pains me, it’s time to bring our correspondence to a close for another year (or at least until Walking Dead returns). And while I want George R.R. Martin to live forever and write 100 more books, I think there’s a more pressing need as we close out our Season Five reviews. I’m taking a bold step here, but I think it’s necessary. Say it with me, everyone:
Please don’t die, Jon Snow.
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