What a happy, uplifting episode! Arya gets her sweet revenge, Jaime and Myrcella have a bonding moment, and everyone’s OTP is finally reunited. (Varion 4eva!!!!) I feel totally satisfied by “Mother’s Mercy” and fully prepared to go ten months without any follow-up to that final shot. Just kidding! Nothing matters and everyone we love will die and/or have a stranger’s penis waved at them as part of a public shaming ritual one day.
Look: no one still watching at this point expects Game of Thrones to be upbeat. We appreciate the death and despair, or at the very least have come to expect it. But even the series’ most jaded viewers have to be shaken by “Mother’s Mercy,” a conclusion that takes this show’s reputation for relatively downbeat finales and stabs it in the eye. And then the other eye. And cuts its throat.
It’s not just the staggering body count. “Mother’s Mercy” is relentless in its quest to prove to every character, as this show has already shown every audience member, that there’s no triumph too fleeting, nor karmic payback too severe. Finally avenged a beloved mentor? Great, you’ll go blind. Has someone finally accepted, and even celebrated, your most shameful secret? Fabulous, she’s about to die in front of you.
The only person whose demise we might want to see on camera has the gall to die offscreen. Even then, Stannis’ final days are more bitter than sweet. Last week, I predicted that even a rout for the Boltons couldn’t make up for Shireen’s death; their victory means that not only did a little girl die in the most horrific way possible, but she did so for nothing. That rings true as Brienne does her duty, per Stannis’ final command. There’s no joy for either her or the viewer in his execution, an act that’s almost merciful for a man realizing he’s killed his daughter, and effectively his wife, for a lost cause.
On the other side of the battle, Sansa finally catches a break—except, as I feared, the break is less hers than Theon’s. Sansa, after all, makes it to the tower all by herself, only to watch the savior she and Littlefinger were counting on swallowed whole by her husband’s army. Even her attempt to retain some agency after she’s found out (“If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left”) is quickly undermined by Miranda. Instead, it’s Theon who regains some personal autonomy; Sansa merely shifts from one would-be savior, distracted by Stannis’ army, to another.
Perhaps no one experiences a more dramatic bait-and-switch, however, than Daenerys, who goes straight from season five’s emotional high point to roaming the grasslands, filthy and starving. The Meereen storyline was the source of last week’s meta moment, so it’s only natural to read our own struggles with the show into Dany’s struggles with Drogon. Game of Thrones may end an episode with a dragon flight, but it’ll end the season by reminding us that the plot is ultimately a force beyond our control—one that will do what it damn well pleases, up to and including staying put in its hilltop lair.
And because both Drogon’s and the show’s whims are so capricious, Dany can be airlifted out of the frying pan one week and tossed into a Melisandre-sized bonfire the next. Without an army, without a husband, without even a dragon, she finds herself surrounded by the Dothraki once again. Trapped in a whirlwind of horses and riders, Dany’s back to square one, as hapless and subject to chance as anyone else.
Arya, however, experiences the harshest comedown of all, and one that best demonstrates why season five may be the darkest Game of Thrones has ever gone. Remember the closing shot of last season, when she was literally sailing away from her trauma? Arya’s now sabotaged her own, wide-open future of possibilities. The conflict between “Arya Stark” and “no one” is no longer an abstract struggle over her identity and desires. Now it’s an armed struggle with a real body count, and a deeply disturbing one at that.
When Arya ignores her orders, steals a Faceless Man’s disguise, and worst of all, proudly self-identifies as a vindictive girl from Westeros, she finally crosses a line and forces her mentor’s hand. Jaqen—or rather, no one—has been trying to tell her from the start that the House of Black and White is not a place for personal grievances, or even a place for people at all. But Arya never stopped being Arya, and therefore too headstrong to see that the magic she’s messing with is too powerful to be used as a mere tool.
So she gets a look at the true face of the Faceless Men, right before she loses the ability to look at anything at all. I’m skeptical of the implication that Arya’s going to remain at the House next season; in the books, she loses her sight before committing an off-the-clock murder. What’s the point, or the dramatic potential, of keeping her around when she’s proven she doesn’t want to be there? For now, however, the sight of Jaqen’s corpse turning into someone else turning into Arya is possibly the show’s most haunting supernatural image to date, one that perfectly corkscrews the uncanny with the personal drama it’s reflecting.
Cersei’s walk of shame, however, is almost more terrifying for its realism. Her “atonement” reveals the Sparrows’ piety for what it is: an excuse for enabling people’s worst selves in the name of righteousness. Yes, the parallels to online outrage are obvious, and yes, Jon Ronson of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed published something to that effect within fifteen minutes of the closing credits. But what Cersei endures is far more visceral than anything doled out by social media.
In what might be Game of Thrones’ first completely desexualized depiction of a naked female body, Cersei walks from the Great Sept to the Red Keep one agonizing step at a time. Lena Headey manages to combine a slow-motion breakdown with a base of constant determination, a testament to the strength that’s always remained underneath her character’s layers of vanity and self-delusion. It’s all the more heartbreaking for knowing that Tommen is now Cersei’s lone surviving child, and that Jaime’s arrival next season might bring her even lower than taking refuge in the arms of Qyburn’s Frankenstein.
Finally, we get to Jon, whose survival, or lack thereof, appears to be a much less open question than in the books. (I’ll tip my hat to the conspiracy theories by noting that Melisandre’s arrival seems suspiciously well-timed.) Eddard Stark may well not be Jon’s real father, but his inheritance might have killed his bastard anyway. Jon has insistently done the right thing throughout this season, whether it’s take mercy on Mance Rayder or lead the expedition to Hardhome. Like Ned, he’s fiercely moral, and like Ned, he’s allergic to politics. But if you don’t play the game of thrones, you can’t win—and we all know what happens to those who don’t win the game.
Almost no one is leaving Game of Thrones’ fifth season in a better place than where they started, audience included. Even 1200 words of recap hasn’t been enough to adequately summarize the misery: Tyrion, for example, has been left to thanklessly manage yet another flailing city, and as repellent as Melisandre is, it’s disturbing to see the faith of even the series’ most zealous ensemble member shaken. Calling such effectively staged and wildly different forms of misery “gratuitous” doesn’t feel accurate. Suffice it to say that Game of Thrones remains committed to following through on its vision of a fantasy that provides no respite from reality. Next season, I’ll still be watching, in part because David Benioff and D.B. Weiss don’t seem to give a damn if anyone does or not.