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With ‘Mother’s Mercy,’ ‘Game of Thrones’ Catches Up to the Books. Now It’s Time to Move Past Them.

With 'Mother's Mercy,' 'Game of Thrones' Catches Up to the Books. Now It's Time to Move Past Them.

Game of Thrones'” fifth season finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” found many characters paying for long-past acts, some so far back that we had to be reminded of what they were in the “Previously on…” montage, and often with punishments that failed to fit the relevant crimes. Stannis Baratheon, reeling from his army’s defeat at the hands of Ramsay Bolton’s, was executed not for burning his daughter alive but for the similarly blood magic-assisted murder of his brother, Renly. Cersei Lannister was publicly shamed for her incestuous adultery with her cousin, Lancel, although not for using him to help arrange her late husband’s death, or her more enduring affair with her brother. Cersei’s daughter Myrcella, the product of that union, was murdered by Ellaria Sand as payback for the death of her lover, Oberyn Martell, even though the Lannisters had no real hand in it. Arya Stark slew Meryn Trant, the first name on her kill list, for skewering her fencing master, Syrio Forel. (Remember him? Probably not.) And Jon Snow — poor, poor Jon Snow — was traitorously stabbed for believing that he could force the men of the Night’s Watch to put aside centuries of enmity between them and the Free Folk simply by telling them they had no other choice.

The episode’s victors, what few of them there were, succeeded by ignoring the past: Ramsay Bolton defeated Stannis by taking the fight to him, even though the smart (i.e. traditional) move — as both Stannis and Ramsay’s father, Roose, agreed — would have been to let a siege play out. Sansa Stark put aside her enmity with Theon Greyjoy, and he pushed through his traumatic abuse at Ramsay’s hands, as they jumped from the parapets of Winterfell, once more leaving the place where they both were raised. The show’s various human factions may be preoccupied with their historical differences, but they can only succeed by putting them aside, and by finding a leader, who has yet to surface, capable of convincing them to do so. Both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen have failed at the that task, the latter so conclusively that she flees Meereen on dragonback. When they stop in the hills somewhere in the world, she orders him to take her “home,” by which she means ancient Valyria, but Drogon has already flown them to the land of the Dothraki where he was born (and for whose former leader he is named). As far as he’s concerned, they are home.

Another group that needs to put the past behind them: Readers of George R.R. Martin’s books, who now find themselves, like the rest of us, traveling forward without a road map. There is still plenty of book left unfilmed, but unless Martin finishes book six in the next few months, the next season of “Game of Thrones” will be ahead of him, and we’ll all be finding things out together. R.I.P., book-reader supremacy.

“Mother’s Mercy” felt very much like a finale, and not in a good way: In order to leave plenty of time for the episode’s last two sequences — Cersei’s walk of shame and Jon’s murder — it truncated many of the ones before, leaving so many plot threads dangling and cliffs hanging that the suspense started to be numbing. Shock has been the fifth season’s currency, so much that it’s hard to imagine an episode going by without a would-be “OMG moment,” usually involving death or brutalization or both. As BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur pointed out, there is no measurable “Game of Thrones” backlash; ratings continue to grow, despite the vocal defections of numerous fans. But critics, at least, find the emphasis on plot twists wearing thin. With showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss increasingly charting their own course, and finally going fully off-book in the next two (or more) seasons, the show, like the world of Westeros itself, is at a critical juncture. And like their own characters, Benioff and Weiss will do best the more they put the past, and the books, behind them.

Reviews of “Game of Thrones,” Season 5, Episode 10: “Mother’s Mercy”

Jeremy Egner, New York Times

“You are the few. We are the many,” the High Sparrow told Lady Olenna, a.k.a. the richest woman in this story, a few weeks ago. “And when the many stop fearing the few.…” Things get rough for the few, to finish his sentence for him. Jon Snow was so fixated on thwarting White Walkers — with good reason, it should be noted — he missed the unrest among his own underlings. Daenerys Targaryen’s inflexibility alienated her subjects, and people died. Stannis was so obsessed with his claim on the throne that he overlooked the fact that killing your daughter is appalling, and would drive away his men, the source of his power. Cersei was so terrified of losing her perch she mistook the High Sparrow and his followers for something she could control.

James Poniewozik, Time

You know the saying about three-act drama, where you get your characters into a tree in the first act, throw rocks at them in the second, then get them down in the third? In “Game of Thrones'” seven acts (or eight or however many it takes), it gets them in a tree, throws rocks, then throws anvils and wildfire and death icicles, and then the tree comes to life and eats some of them. (Unless a character is lucky enough to become a tree.)

But I would distinguish between “Game of Thrones” being a dark series and its being a hopeless one. And I saw cause for hope in the season’s best episode, “Hardhome,” though ironically it ended in the defeat and rout of a mission led by a character who is now (allegedly) dead. In that standoff with the Night’s King and his undead army, we saw the reminder that there is an actual greater good–and a greater bad that threatens all life, Lannister, Targaryen and Stark alike. There is something more to the story than hoping that the lesser evil ends up living in the Red Keep.

Myles McNutt, A.V. Club

This fifth season of the show was, for me, defined by the convergence of trust. It was the season where both readers and non-readers had spent considerable time with the show and the characters, each with a firm grasp on the rules of this world, and each with their own opinions of how that world should be handled. And, because of the divergences from — and in some cases expansions beyond — the books, there were large swaths of storytelling in which reader and non-reader were on the same page judging the producers’ plans for these characters.

This is not to say that everyone defines trust in the same way, but the incredibly strong reactions viewers had to this season demonstrated that trust is a scarce resource. Trust is broken down over time, as it was with the show’s engagement with rape and its use in Sansa’s storyline, or in the gruesome context of Shireen’s death. And yet regardless of what happens, the producers are implicitly asking us to trust them: they know what they’re doing, they believe, and wouldn’t be taking these steps for no reason.

Nina Shen Rastogi, Vulture

Judging by my Twitter feed, it seems that last night’s finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” may be the end of “Game of Thrones” for some viewers. A long, drawn-out scene that mingled sex, violence, and voyeurism; intense gruesomeness; a billion plots; the “shocking” cliff-hanger death of a beloved character — it was as if showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff decided to double down on all the things viewers criticize most about the show. I could literally feel people out there recoiling and throwing their remotes.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

“Game of Thrones” has, for me, become a very enjoyable series that has me less emotionally invested in it than I was in previous seasons (yet still eager to see each new episode). That’s a strange turn of events. I liked the Jon Snow character quite a bit, but wasn’t especially sad to see him go because, well, the anvil drop began so long ago. We got a lot of episodes watching it fall and watching Jon fail to move out of the way.

Pacing is certainly an issue that drags down the effectiveness — and often the dramatic tension — of the series. It’s far and away the biggest problem with “Game of Thrones.” I believe now, as I did at the end of season one — and have been blathering on about it at every opportunity since — that “Game of Thrones” would be vastly better if it made 13 episodes a season instead of 10, which would let it breathe more and excise the claustrophobic and frustrating trait of this series, where characters get two or five minutes and then the story jumps somewhere else for two or five minutes and repeats the pattern until you almost want characters to die just to allow for more screen time for those who are left alive.

Andy Greenwald, Grantland

So much of this year was devoted to debates about the myriad things that happen offscreen on “Game of Thrones,” from chapters left out to sensibilities offended. Lost in all of this was the fact that when everything clicks, there’s simply nothing on the small screen as confoundingly, thrillingly big as Thrones. From Stannis and Shireen by the fireplace (I know, I know) to the slaughter at Hardhome, only “Thrones” can blow our minds and our hearts with such ridiculous consistency. In a perverse way, saving Jon at this point, after everything we just saw, is as radical a move as offing Ned was back in 2011.

Dave Trumbore, Collider

This is one of the more sadistic hours of television I can remember in recent history. That’s all well and good since that what makes Martin’s writing so emotionally charged and what gives the show such a rabid fanbase. That being said, with so much death, darkness, and depravity, there’s so little hope to hold onto that I ask myself, what’s the point? As far as I’m concerned, for both the books and the show, I’m invested to the point that I’ll see it through to the end, but that’s not the same as actually enjoying the experience. Lately it feels like sadism for sadism’s sake; I wouldn’t be surprised if an army of S&M-clad warriors showed up next season to scour the Known World of all humanity.

Mike Hogan, Vanity Fair

Man, the stuff with women in this episode. Sheesh. I mean, the Dorne material is barely worth discussing, but I’ll say this much: it was terrible. That “bad pussy” line? Nobody needed that. And Myrcella being (presumably) murdered via a lesbian kiss of death five seconds after telling Jaime the one thing he never dared to imagine he’d hear in his life—Jaime, who pushed Bran off the tower but whom we still like, if only because he’s way more interesting than Bran? That was just cruel.

Seriously, the Cersei walk of shame was hard to watch. I suppose it functioned as some sort of metaphor for the way society, especially online society, shames strong women, but I couldn’t help picturing George R.R. Martin in my head breathing loudly through his mouth while he fantasized about tossing rotten eggs at the naked body of, like, his high-school algebra teacher or whatever.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

If “Mother’s Mercy” offered some familiar frustrations, along with a lot of gruesome and/or morally ambiguous moments, it also offered a lot of great individual moments that let this cast shine. Maisie Williams made a five-course meal out of Arya’s revenge on Trant, but many of the episode’s other great acting moments were in quick bits of reaction, like Stannis looking at Bolton’s incoming army and realizing how many despicable things he had done for the sake of a war he was about to lose, or Davos recognizing the enormity of what Melisandre has done to his king and his princess, or Jaime being thunderstruck to realize that his daughter accepts him as her father (right before she’s cruelly snatched from him, because no one even vaguely sympathetic on “Game of Thrones” can ever be happy for long).

Casey Cipriani, Indiewire

Season 5, all in all, had its ups and downs. There have been epic moments and there have been moments that have caused rage and regretful watching. But successful shows have always been polarizing. Plenty of “Lost” watchers gave up after the death of Charlie. Plenty of “Battlestar Galactica” fans were enraged when… Well, they were enraged a lot. But that’s kind of what comes with watching genre TV, or any TV these days, because TV has gotten so damned good. Fans stick it out for the battles, the White Walkers, the dragons and the hope, the teeny tiny hope, that maybe one of the good guys will make it through all of the death and darkness and snow and either sit on that Iron Throne, or melt the sucker down. We eagerly await the next season, to find out who that might be.

Willa Paskin, Slate

It may seem contrarian (downright #slatepitchy) to call “Game of Thrones” dull after such a harrowing, jam-packed season finale, one that included Cersei’s deeply unsettling walk of shame and the deaths of Stannis and — can it really be? — Jon Snow. (I’m holding out hope that the Night’s King has been keeping an eye on Jon, waiting for a chance to resurrect him as a White Walker.) This episode brutally paid off so much of this season with some sickly gripping story turns. “Game of Thrones” can do twists; it can do turns; it can do gruesome and gonzo. But my point is that this season wasn’t so great at anything else. When it was not airing a “did that just happen?” sequence and sending a hail of wights through the roof, the show was often lackluster, inert because it was so rushed. The show has dealt with its overabundance of source material by undercooking most of it — a chef who needs to make 10,000 meat pies in 10 hours and gets a dragon to brown 100 just right, but leaves the rest scorched or raw.

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