“He raised his hands, and they all stood up at once. Tens of thousands, the biggest army in the world.”
In previous years, the season finale of Game of Thrones has tended to have the feel of an epilogue, a time to take stock after the tumultuous events of the action-packed ep9. With the last couple of eps having well and truly broken that formula, it was no surprise that this years’ season finale was something quite different; a veritable bloodbath of major characters, and a cornucopia of cliffhangers.
To start with, I should probably eat a bit of humble pie for last week, when I referred to director David Nutter as a “workmanlike hack”. There were some truly impressive directorial decisions on display here, perhaps none more so than Cersei Lannister’s agonising “walk of atonement”. I confess, the account of this in the books was nothing like as harrowing as what we saw here, and credit is every bit as due to Lena Headey as the director.
As so often before, however much of a devious, manipulative, power-hungry bitch Cersei has been in the past, you couldn’t help but sympathise with her. Nobody deserves that. It looked like a brave decision for Headey to play the scene full frontal nude – if it was a body double, then I’m impressed with the CG. But the truly telling and affecting detail was the frequent cuts to close up, as we saw the previously indomitable Cersei crumble from stony dignity to uncertainty to full on weeping humiliation. As she ran the gauntlet of the population’s loathing to crumble, feet bleeding, at the foot of the Red Keep, the direction made it clear – what good was it attaining that safety when the entire population despises her?
Still, Cersei at least made it out alive, which was more than could be said for plenty of others. Never has so much gone to shit so quickly as it did for Stannis Baratheon this week, the show yet again reaching past what we’ve read in the books. Obviously sacrificing his daughter didn’t quite work out, Melisandre proven wrong for perhaps the first time and prematurely buggering off as a consequence. On top of that, half his army deserted, his wife hanged herself, and he faced a way bigger force from the Boltons than he’d imagined, leading to a bloody defeat. And on top of that, Brienne turned up with her Renly-related grudge and lopped his head off.
Or did she? Not for the last time this week, the camera cut away just as she was about to deliver the killing blow. So is Stannis really dead? It’s hard to forgive him for last week, but I would miss Stephen Dillane’s gruff, emotionally repressed pretender. Still, from a story perspective it’s hard to see a reason why he would survive at this point. And with the show’s excision of the (admittedly long shot) ambitions of Balon Greyjoy, that pretty much puts an end to the War of the Five Kings, with the Lannisters clear victors. Probably scant comfort to Cersei right now, though.
At least Ser Davos made it, having been sent to Castle Black to plead for reinforcements last week. I must say though, it’s hard to see what story purpose he’ll serve with Stannis and his retinue wiped out. Again, we’re into uncharted territory here, way past what we’ve read in the books – perhaps Davos has some other purpose to serve. As one of the few likeable characters who hasn’t met a horrific end, I’d like to think so.
At least the more likeable characters in Meereen had a quiet moment to reflect after last week’s dragon-instigated apocalypse. Tyrion Lannister was good value as ever, already asserting himself as a useful political force in a city whose language he barely speaks. Leaving him, Grey Worm and Missandei in charge of the city while Daario and Jorah went off looking for Dany felt like a true victory for, as Tyrion once said, “cripples and bastards and broken things”. And who didn’t let out a little whoop when the Master of Whisperers himself unexpectedly turned up to proffer some help?
Which is another departure from the books, where Varys is… somewhere else entirely. And yet, what else can Benioff and Weiss do? It is, to say the least, unlikely that after having spent six years writing volume 5, George RR Martin will turn out books 6 and 7 in time for the show’s projected season 7 ending. Hilariously, some of the steadfast book readers took dramatic Twitter umbrage at the showrunners’ fairly obvious revelation that the death of Shireen Baratheon was a plot detail from book 6. Since we already know that Martin has given at least a brief outline of the ending to Benioff and Weiss, there’s obviously going to be a fair few more spoilers for the unwritten books yet to come.
One of which, I presume, was the unexpected fate of Princess Myrcella. I thought Ellaria and her Sand Snakes were a bit too easily cowed by Doran last week; this week, we got the dramatic double whammy of Jaime confessing his fatherhood to her just in time for her to go the full-on haemorraghic fever bleeding out, courtesy of a seemingly innocent kiss. Doran Martell is likely to be less than pleased by this turn of events; as am I, since there’s now no logical reason for the eye-candy Trystane Martell to feature any more.
Other plot threads stuck closer to what we already knew, though. Dany, stuck with a broken down dragon, has just been spied by a horde of nasty looking Dothraki; you can’t help feeling that she’s just gone down that really big snake in the game to end up back at the start. Arya, having not unexpectedly taken a very bloody vengeance against the most deserving Ser Meryn Trant, has been struck blind by the magic (or whatever it is) of the mysterious Jaqen H’ghar. Incidentally, now we know the Faceless Men literally do wear other peoples’ faces it may seem a bit less magical, but that shot of Arya tearing face after face off the ‘fake-Jaqen’ was massively reminiscent of the final moments in the original comic of V for Vendetta.
But the biggest shock that had the whole internet exploding in trauma (again) was the final scene, which truly was straight from the very end of volume 5. If you’d read it, it wasn’t much of a surprise; but it seemed plenty hadn’t, and the apparent death of Jon Snow at the mutinous hands of Ser Alliser Thorne and rest of the Watch came as rather a shock to them. Even the book readers, though, can’t have been expecting the “et tu, Brute?” moment when the final blow was delivered by Jon’s young protégé Olly. Again, an impressive dramatic moment, well played by cast and director – and a fitting shot to end the season on.
Sex and Violence
Well, there was a fair bit of nudity; but if you found it titillating, our tastes must be somewhat unusual. It all centred around Cersei’s atonement ordeal; aside from the lady herself, there were equal opportunity full frontals from two of King’s Landing’s less attractive denizens:
On the violence front, we got the aftermath of Ramsay Bolton’s successful rout of Stannis’ forces, as coups de grace were delivered all over the battlefield. Most impressive was a man who was literally legless, and not in the enjoyable way:
Rivalling that, though, must be Arya Stark’s unfeasibly violent take down of the vile Ser Meryn Trant. Starting by stabbing out his eyes, she proceeded to gag him, humiliate him and slit his throat. That apprenticeship should be coming along well, but Jaqen doesn’t seem to approve.
Choice dialogue this week
Stannis, giving us some famous last words :”Go on. Do your duty.”
Jon, hearing of Sam’s ‘careful’ sexual congress with Gilly: “I’m glad the end of the world’s working out well for someone.”
Sansa, defiant to the last: “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.”
The Big Septa, to Cersei: “Confess! Confess!” (I half expected her to follow this up with “poke her with the soft cushions!”)
Daario, of Grey Worm: “He’s the toughest man with no balls I’ve ever met.”
And of course Tyrion, displaying his familiarity with the local lingo: “My Valyrian is a bit nostril.”
So, the game has changed. No longer will those of us who’ve read the books be able to smugly claim knowledge of what will happen next; all bets are off. Consequently, the many cliffhangers we were left with at the end of this rather splendid ep are as much a mystery to me as to anyone else. Will Sansa and Reek survive that precipitous jump off the battlements of Winterfell? Will Arya recover her sight? Who is that giant armoured figure wheeled out by Maester Qyburn (have a guess)? And is Jon Snow really dead (Kit Harington claims yes)? After a slow burning season, these last three episodes have been a tour de force of combining dramatic intrigue with heart-stopping action; I’m looking forward to more of it next year, especially since I won’t know the outcomes!