The future is shit, just like the past.
Cunning fugitive Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) spends much of the fifth-season premiere of “Game of Thrones” lamenting history’s endless excrement. Finally free from the cramped crate that’s carried him across the Narrow Sea, he is nevertheless bound by the nihilism of dead beetles, as he notes in “The Mountain and the Viper”—bound, after murdering his father and his former lover in “The Children,” by the point of his pitiless parable, which is that there’s no point at all. In Tyrion’s jaundiced view of this mad world, the smashing of “countless living, crawling things” becomes an end in itself.
If the aforementioned pair of brutal, brilliant entries from the final stages of season four marked the culmination of years spent learning to love “Game of Thrones,” and my favorable review of the current season’s initial episodes suggested the series’ potential evolution from a periodically slatternly soap opera into an efficient, controlled drama, more recent installments have, almost inevitably, tested my loyalties.
The main unifying factor among viewers, both newcomers and longtime fans of George R.R. Martin’s fictional universe, seems to be their abiding frustration with the HBO series, even as its position in the pop cultural firmament suggests unshakable allegiance. (Sunday’s episode notched the highest ratings in the series’ five-year run, with an estimated 8.1 million live-plus-same-day viewers.)
Coming at the conclusion of what may be the single bleakest stretch in “Game of Thrones” to date, the season finale, “Mother’s Mercy”—written by series creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by David Nutter—once again exposes this paradox. It is an hour capable of kindling doubts in the series’ most ardent partisan, rending relationships forged over 50 episodes in the span of a sword’s thrust. It is also, for that very reason, a reminder of the series’ enduring strength: the element of surprise.
To its discredit, “Game of Thrones” often mistakes shock—with its suggestion of moral or physical revulsion—for astonishment—with its undercurrent of pleasure—and much of this season’s second half, a sour, flagging affair that featured the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the pedophilia of Ser Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie), and the burning of Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), registered primarily as the former. To rely so heavily on violence against women as a hinge in the narrative is not only to desensitize viewers to its horror, but also to draw attention to the fact that “Game of Thrones” is, in stretches, at best halfheartedly constructed. If a series of lesser renown went back to the same well so frequently, we’d dismiss it as cheaply exploitative rather than lavish it with praise.
What transforms such lurid shock into genuine surprise, as “Mother’s Mercy” indicates, is both the unexpectedness of events and the upset those events cause to the calculus of power. Where the lion’s share of the violence against women in “Game of Thrones” merely recapitulates what we already know about Westeros—that it’s a cruel, unforgiving place, one whose circuits of oppression function much as our own—the reversals of fortune that define the season finale hold out the promise of a profound rearrangement in the state of affairs, for good and for ill.
By episode’s end, Tyrion is ascendant, with Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) once again by his side. Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyne Christie) finally exacts revenge on Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) for the murder of King Renly. Melissandre (Carice van Houten), though not yet defeated, seems cowed by the debts her magic incurs, while another religious figure, the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), appears poised to assert his supremacy in King’s Landing. Arya (Maisie Williams) crosses Trant’s name off her kill list only to be blinded herself. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) escapes the Sons of the Harpy only to find herself unprotected against an army of men on horseback. From the poisonous lips of the Sand Snakes of Dorne to Theon (Alfie Allen) and Sansa’s leap of faith, “Mother’s Mercy” retrieves the season from the depths of narrative stagnation with a reminder that the series in which no expectations are satisfied is also the series in which any outcome is possible.
Though the fans threatening to abandon “Game of Thrones” following the apparent death of Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) might suggest otherwise, it is this willingness to brook the conventional treatment of heroes and villains that has distinguished the series from the start. I’ll admit that there’s no love lost between me and Snow—I’ve made no secret that he’s long struck me as one of the least compelling characters, perhaps because of his essential goodness—but in the context of the episode’s multiple turns of the screw, Snow’s murder is simply another reminder that “Game of Thrones” is still capable of throwing the audience off balance.
Now it appears that “Game of Thrones” might be willing to sacrifice the element of surprise after all. Despite HBO president Michael Lombardo’s assurance, at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, that in “[e]verything I’ve seen, heard and read, Jon Snow is indeed dead,” the Season 6 poster, with an image of the bloodied Snow, holds on the possibility that he’s still alive. (For his part, Harington has been seen in costume on the series’ Ireland set.) Though it’s possible that Snow’s resurrection will be as a mere specter, or perhaps as the leader of an inhuman horde tumbling over the cliff, as in “Hardhome,” his return in any form strikes me as a betrayal of the series’ central narrative principle, which is that no one is safe. “Game of Thrones” serves viewers best when it refuses to satisfy them.
By contrast, “Mother’s Mercy” witnesses “Game of Thrones” replace the easy exploitation, titillation, and high-octane action of the preceding episodes with the tense power of other methods. The finest battle sequence of the season is not a mess of quick cuts but a distant, high-angle panorama of two colliding armies, as if to suggest beetles crawling towards death; the most revelatory depiction of violence against women, in the form of Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) interminable public humiliation, at last pauses to consider the psychological consequences for the victims. By season’s end, “Game of Thrones” had come full circle, returning to Tyrion’s nihilism and, in its own merciless way, rejecting it.
As the amassed commoners of King’s Landing cover her naked body in piss and shit and rotten food, the sheer length of the ordeal strips the sequence of any potential gratification at Cersei’s comeuppance. The moment becomes another complication in the calculus of power, as Cersei, shorn and shamed, transforms from the primary beneficiary of the church’s authority into its primary target. The point of this grim interlude is not, as Tyrion believes, that there is no point, but that there is no progress—no straightforward path to a higher plane. There is only, in our world as in Westeros, the constancy of change.