(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
It’s only fitting that Game of Thrones ends its most mercurial season to date with a finale made up almost entirely of exclamation points. “Mother’s Mercy” manages a strange trick; it’s somehow both stunning and underwhelming, shocking and not-at-all-shocking. It neatly encapsulates everything that’s wonderful and sort of terrible about Game of Thrones as it lurches into the television equivalent of middle age.
Where the rest of the season has zoomed in on a few plots at a time, “Mother’s Mercy” spends a little time on everyone, a series of mostly-sadistic payoffs that may – or may not – turn the page on many long-running stories. Have you noticed that I’m using tentative language a lot here? Game of Thrones has reached a sort of breaking point, wherein it is watched and obsessively parsed by so many viewers that its showrunners can’t help but feel the weight of every minute choice. Split-second shooting and editing decisions take on a level of scrutiny and hypothesizing that no piece of televisual art could possibly withstand. Viewers love that anyone can die, but they still need for it all to have meant something. Viewers ultimately demand justice, even as they experience something close to a transgressive thrill when they see the bad guys slit the throats of the good guys and the innocent bystanders for a change.
Perhaps, then, the only way to measure the success of Game of Thrones in current real-life terms is in the amount of rhetorical sectarian violence it inspires within its already-fractured fanbase. Every single one of the endings in “Mother’s Mercy” features death, possible death, or an explicit promise of future death. (With some exceptions; hold up a minute.) The first death is the one that has seemed written on the series’ proverbial wall for the longest: Stannis Baratheon. Season five has seen Stannis meticulously developed as a three-dimensional character, a loving father and conscientious leader betrayed by the unshakeable belief that it is his destiny to sit upon the Iron Throne – a belief that leads him to betray his nature. Stannis’ fate, for however shocking it may be on a surface level, is among the most conventional in Game of Thrones’ history. Unlike, say, Robb and Ned Stark, who simply tried to do their best to honor their own ethical standards in a world gone exceptionally strange, Stannis was a hypocrite and a classically hubristic fiend, one who meets his end only after so many of those around him see the writing on the wall, up to and including his long-suffering wife. Even Melisandre, the architect of so many of these horrors, flees. That Stannis doesn’t exit the Seven Kingdoms whimpering is his only victory. Another would-be suitor for the Iron Throne bites the dust.
“Mother’s Mercy” brings a scattershot season to a brutal end
The next long-running character to meet his end is Meryn Trant. (No, really. 17 episodes!) Again, no surprise here – Arya Stark’s stubborn anti-arc this season has largely consisted of the youngest Stark daughter becoming acquainted with the concept of self-annihilation, and attempting to embrace the idea that to be the best lil’ assassin she can be, she’ll need to let go of the entire notion of selfhood. She succumbs to her overwhelming desire to enact revenge, and she seems to pay the appropriate price: her identity. So far, this feels more akin to simple math than chaos.
One story that it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting too worked up over this season: the Dornish shenanigans. It’s hard not to feel that the only reason this story was contrived was to give Jaime a reason not to be anywhere near King’s Landing, where he’d surely prevent any harm from coming to his dear sister/lover. Would so much have been lost if Jaime had pulled a Bran Stark and stayed offscreen this season? We’d have been spared the awkward horror that was the fight sequence from a few episodes back, not to mention the feeling of general pointlessness that has plagued Jaime and Bronn’s journey. As it stands, the “payoff” – Myrcella’s apparent death by sly Dornish poison – is a tame one. We have zero investment in Jaime as a potential or actual father figure, so to see that role pulled cruelly from him just as he begins to see it in himself doesn’t have anywhere near the impact it’s clearly meant to.
Back at Winterfell, affairs feel similarly half-assed. Seeing an opportunity for escape during the battle, Sansa makes a run for it, only to be stopped at bow-and-arrow-point by Ramsay’s sadistic goomah Myranda, a standoff that finally inspires Theon Greyjoy to leave “Reek” behind and save Sansa, before they apparently Thelma and Louise it off of a castle wall. (Notably, they seem to hop off at a similar height to the tower window from which Bran was pushed.) Should they be dead? According to the height from which they jumped, they should at least be badly injured, but given the rest of the bloodshed in this episode (and given how silly an ending that would be for Sansa), it seems more than likely the snowdrift was meant to have cushioned their fall. This is silly, but marginally less so than dispatching of these characters in this manner.
The least catastrophic ending goes to Dany, who finds herself once again in the company of a Dothraki horde – only this time without her marriage ties to protect her. While the notion of a long hunt for Dany next season is a tiresome one, it at least affords Tyrion and the newly resurgent Varys a chance to try their luck at governance in a foreign land, a prospect-rich with dramatic potential, and it might give Dany something substantially different to do from her multiple-season holding pattern. The fact that this might lead to a series of unpleasantries befalling yet another key female character is…troubling, however.
Speaking of unpleasantries, the very public shaming of Cersei Lannister is every bit as hard to watch and meticulous in its cruelty as was clearly intended. It’s not just the (digitally-assisted) public nudity or the depravity of the howling mob; it’s the fact that director David Nutter so frequently opts for POV shots, reinforcing the physical distance that Cersei must cross to reach safety and reclaim any semblance of dignity. Her increasingly injured, fouled body, ever-weakening as the mob’s taunts and projectiles mount, dares to evoke imagery of martyred saints; for all Cersei’s done, no one deserves this sort of treatment, and Nutter, Benioff, and Weiss locate in this horrible sequence an unusual degree of humanity in recognizing that. Here is a sequence that manages to convey its horrors and lend them the appropriate weight, something the series has been having trouble consistently getting right of late. (The dramatic counterbalance of Cersei falling into the arms of FrankenMountain (Mt. Zombie?) is quietly fantastic, as well, as we can’t help but root for her to enact whatever horrible retaliations she will eventually develop, no matter the new karmic costs.)
Finally, there’s the small matter of Jon Snow. For what it’s worth, Kit Harington claims he’s out for good; the way the scene is shot certainly makes clear that, if nothing else, Jon’s body is without life. Here’s the rub: if Jon is truly gone for good, the sequence is insufficient in terms of making us feel the weight of Jon’s miscalculations. Here is a man meeting an even worse fate than that of his similarly honourable adoptive father and role model: not only is he executed, it’s by the people he swore to protect, unknowingly acting against their own future safety. Perhaps it’s partly because the prospect of resurrection looms too large over the sequence, distracting us from the weight of events – after all, Melisandre is right there, and who knows what kind of magic whatsit Bran will return with – but the loss doesn’t land quite the way it should. It should be devastating, heart-stopping; instead, it’s mostly just confounding, given all it seemed there was left for Jon to learn and do before he met his fate. It’s an appropriately messy final note for the most scattershot season to date, one whose relative forward momentum in terms of plot couldn’t mask its frequently too-well-trod story beats and contrived detours. Now, more than ever, here’s hoping that Benioff and Weiss stick to their seven-season game plan and that the relative proximity of that final act might help the series tighten up and feel consistently fresh once again.
Well hello there. My name is Simon. I have stepped in to cover this finale; I handled the SOS recaps for the first few seasons. Wading back into these waters was very odd indeed, especially given the timing.
Including Benjen Stark in the “Previously On” was some truly inspired, next-level sadism.
I can’t be the only one who feels unusually grateful for this season to be over, much as I’ve enjoyed some significant chunks of it. Not too many shafts of light this time around, even by Thrones standards.