Stannis marches. Dany is surrounded by strangers. Cersei (Lena Headey) seeks forgiveness. Jon is challenged.
It’s a mild word, in some circumstances. In many circumstances, really. Disappointment that the show you’ve had the greatest hopes for lacks the qualities you thought it had is a fine example of a “first world problem”. And yet when you’re a person who is obsessed with a series, disappointment can feel much more significant: it can be painful to be disappointed, it can be depressing to be disappointed, and it can in fact make you angry to be disappointed.
There’s a point where the feelings that that disappointment engenders are simply no longer, on the balance, positive. You can always say, “Yes, but…” and find good things to point out about a piece of literature, a TV show, a game, but those may not sum up to outweighing the negatives. At that point, all those various emotions may appear. Doubtless the various twists and turns of this episode, packed as it was with numerous momentous events, led many viewers through a spectrum of emotion.
For us here, however, mostly the emotions were those of disbelief. Disbelief that the writers of the show really thought that a laundry list of tragedies following Stannis’s fateful decision to sacrifice his daughter to save his army—a decision that, however horrifying, seems to work—could be anything but farcical black comedy. Or that the “greatest commander” in Westeros (hailed as such, repeatedly, in the show itself) would proceed to march his army without sending a few men forward to scout ahead, to get the lay of the land, so that he might perhaps avoid running into a massive cavalry that could envelop and destroy him. (A cavalry led by Ramsay—Roose was nowhere to be seen—who apparently can fight without armor and get by with nary a scratch.)
Neither Linda nor I are “fans” of Stannis, as such—we think him an interesting character, with some admirable qualities and a few significantly unpleasant qualities. His existence makes the story better. But Benioff and Weiss, in their Inside the Episode, boiled him down to a man driven by “ambition”, and that this heaping mound of disaster was the punishment for that ambition. This reading of the character is, however, very sharply veering away from the character as depicted in the novels. By forcing their take on the character into the equation, it may feel that what happened was “right”... though it was so unsubtle, with such a heavy thumb on the scale, that we can’t quite see how anyone could really have enjoyed it. Mostly, those who took glee in it had been firmly led to view Stannis as simply a terrible person who wasn’t worth keeping alive.
A sad end to a character who was so beautifully played by Stephen Dillane, and all at the hands of writers who took a crude ax to his storyline.
We disbelieved as well when the Dornish story turned out to end with a whimper and not the bang that we had assured ourselves had to come (despite the awful scenes that had come before). I myself could not, at first, believed that that too-obvious kiss was really Myrcella being poisoned. Wasn’t her lover’s nephew on that ship, after all? Wouldn’t she be severely punished, maybe even killed, for her revenge—and wouldn’t Trystane, too? Couldn’t Jaime just turn the ship around and call for Prince Doran and show him the handiwork of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes?
And on the ship itself, the terrible cliché: a heartfelt father-and-daughter talk (about the fact that they are, in fact, father and daughter) and a moment of joy snatched away 10 seconds later by a bloody nose and a terrified gasp. Coster-Waldau seemed uncertain as to just what he was playing at the start of the scene, and so Jaime’s talk with Myrcella felt inorganic and inauthentic, motivated by the desire to set up the twist of the knife in the viewers’ hearts than to cement any kind of character growth or change.
Though we had steeled ourselves for the Olly “heel-turn” (to borrow wrestling parlance), because the show was blaringly obvious about it, we thought in the end that at the very least the Jon Snow scene could come out all right, more or less. After all, if Davos is at the Wall, Jon could make the mistake of agreeing to help out of a personal desire for revenge on the Boltons for his family, or in any case make some mistake. “As in the novels,” detractors might sneer, but why is something that is so obviously superior an approach to the narrative of Jon Snow’s downfall be dismissed simply because it’s from the source material?
As it is, the show sloppily opens questions about just why Alliser Thorne did what he did when he could simply have refused Jon and the wildlings to pass through the Wall (in that ridiculous scenario they arranged the previous episode; as noted, if they landed at Eastwatch, they would surely have walked on the far safer south side of the Wall) and leave them stranded on the wrong side.
Now, Thorne let thousands of wildlings through to no evident purpose. Except that the writers could not bring themselves to have Jon misbehave and do the wrong thing, it seems. The death of Jon Snow struck them as being more readily discussed as simply being the result of institutional bigotry and a little boy’s personal tragedy. Are they right? What does it say of the audience if they are right, tha that’s all that story needed to motivate that final big twist?
The litany of disbelief could continue, easily: Daenerys doing nothing to advance her character, to grasp what her destiny is, instead leaving a “breadcrumb” of a ring a thousand miles away in the middle of nowhere because she’s “smart” (as Dan Weiss professes in the Inside the Episode); one supposes she is, truth be told, and so is smart enough to know Benioff and Weiss will contrive to have Jorah and Daario find that ring despite the mad improbability of it.
Were there good things in the episode? Sure there were. Sansa and “Reek” make their fateful leap, and though this is a very condensed and compressed version of the narrative in the novels, at least it felt like that moment was earned. But even there, we have reasons to quibble: so much of Reek’s personal development across A Dance with Dragons is barely seen, as they simply boil his choice down to Sansa pushing him, while Sansa… what was that about her becoming a “player”? That’s what the producers said. But other than that one promising, tantalizing hint when she unsettled Ramsay about his position, she was in fact mostly just a victim.
We had urged viewers to wait and see before judging the show based on the wedding night scene alone, to see how the story developed. We made the mistake—I, really, because Linda has always been much more dubious than I have—of thinking that when they indicated there was a real plan for her arc this season, that they meant it would happen this season. Doubtless they will follow through in the next season on their plans, but this means that the development of Sansa this season was heavily disjointed, brought to a close abruptly with… well, with another “shocking moment” as she and Theon leap to their potential deaths (not that they’re dead, of course; director David Nutter felt it important to note this in a post-episode interview).
The best thing of all in the episode was Cersei, and Cersei’s walk. Our views on Lena Headey’s interpretation of the character are fairly well-known, and not liable to change; for the most part, we think she was the wrong actress for the part, and that her portrayal is much less interesting than the jagged, ugly, broken original character. But in these last episodes, at least, Headey has shown why she’s established her career, because she has brought some spirit into the role that was so-often lacking in previous seasons. In extremity, Cersei becomes brittle and sharp and dangerous, and that’s how the character works best.
The walk of shame, or of atonement, was harrowing… but, alas, the visual effects technology was not all there to sell the idea that Headey herself was walking through that crowd in the nude; the digital face replacement onto her body double often looked quite overworked, its expression far too fixed and dead. For once, the show’s production ambitions outreached its grasp. It would have been better if they simply used Headey throughout, shooting from shoulders up or her upper body from the back, with only one establishing nude shot—it would have kept everyone “in the moment”. But then again, this is Game of Thrones, and nudity is a part of why some people (the “perverts”, as some executive producer perhaps now wishes he hadn’t said) watch the show.
“Shocking!” seems to be the refrain of this episode, more than any other that came before it. It’s not as if these shocks are from nowhere: they exist in the source novels, many of them. But it was not just enough to have the strong turns of those books, it seems—more, more, more was the recipe of the day. And so the narrative hits us with nigh on half-a-dozen character deaths in various areas of the story, one after the other, to create a sense of tremendous shock. The producers and cast members both speak of an audience that they see as insatiable for surprise, action, and shock, and obviously this episode caters to them.
But in doing so the show lodges itself firmly in the realm of spectacle over substance, because to get all those turns so rapidly in such a brief span of time means stripping away the depth and nuance and realism that has often given the series its best moments, and instead hand-waving action and consequence. To the writers, it doesn’t really matter if their writing holds up, so long as the events that they think the audience craves..
In the grand scheme of things, no one’s views on Game of Thrones really matters at the end of the day. They’re all just, like, opinions, man. But then in the grand scheme of things Game of Thrones doesn’t really “matter” either. It’s just a show, a show based on some books, and it brings a few hundred people some jobs, it drives merchandising of fun but useless collectibles, it sells subscriptions to a packaged set of entertainment, documentary, and sports programs, it entertains, infuriates, and excites millions.
And among those millions, too, there are those who are disappointed. Like us.
So it goes.
Book to Screen
The episode covers elements from the following chapters: Samwell I (AFfC) / Jon II (ADwD), Theon I (ADwD), Mercy (TWoW), Cat of the Canals (AFfC), Daenerys X (ADwD), Cersei I (ADwD), Cersei II (ADwD), and Jon XIII (ADwD)
Other scenes of note:
Stannis: In the novels, Stannis and his forces are stuck in a village just three days from Winterfell but unable to advance for weeks because of the snow. The situation becomes desperate, and Stannis allows the burning of alleged cannibals to little effect. However, events in Winterfell appear to lead the Boltons to prepare to move against him instead. In a chapter released from The Winds of Winter, Stannis appears to be preparing plans for a battle, although the details are unclear. It’s true that in A Dance with Dragons, a letter apparently from Ramsay Bolton claims that Stannis is dead, but the veracity of that is as yet unknown. Shireen and Selyse, both left at the Wall in the books, are both alive at the end of A Dance with Dragons.
Sansa: As noted previously, Sansa is not in Winterfell in the novels.
Brienne: As noted previously, Brienne is not in the North in the novels. While Brienne in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords did want to avenge Renly, by A Feast for Crows events have carried her past that.
Dorne: Dorne ends very differently from its story in the novels, with the poisoning of Myrcella by Ellaria apparently defying Doran’s will. In the novels, after disrupting his daughter’s plot, Doran instead reveals to her that his apparent lack of action since the murder of his sister Elia and her children was part of a long plan to wed her to Viserys and bring back the Targaryens, but with the death of Viserys he has instead sent his son Quentyn to Daenerys to be her suitor and to bring her to Westeros. From what we can see on the show, Prince Doran on the TV series has no aspirations. Also, in the novels, Doran is aware that Cersei means to kill Trystane while he travels overland to King’s Landing with Myrcella, and acts to stop it by delaying the return of Ser Balon Swann of the Kingsguard, who was dispatched with the large skull said to be Gregor Clegane’s and with the task of bringing Myrcella and Trystane back. On the show, Doran himself insists Trystane travel to King’s Landing, with no apparent concern for his safety. In the books he determines to send Nymeria to take Oberyn’s council seat, and Tyene with her to give him an ear among the Faith.
Meereen: In the novels, the chaos following Daenerys’s departure focuses on King Hizdahr. He removes many of Daenerys’s closest advisors from positions of influence and seems determined to secure peace with the Yunkish at whatever cost. Barristan Selmy, convinced that Hizdahr was likely involved in the attempt to poison Daenerys by Skahaz, agrees to arrest him and hold him for trial. Later, having achieved this, Barristan acts as Hand of the Queen with a council of freedmen and others to assist him. He determines to have Daario, Jhogo, and the Unsullied second-in-command Hero—hostages to the Yunkai’i - released by sending the survivors of Quentyn Martell’s ill-fated expedition to Meereen to the sellsword captain called the Tattered Prince, offering him Pentos (his native city) if he will find and release them.
Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister, on the other hand, are outside the walls of Meereen at this time, recently placing themselves on the books of the Second Sons while Tyrion promises them vast wealth if they support his claim to Casterly Rock. Barristan dispatches Daenerys’s bloodriders Aggo and Rakharo (Jhogo is also a hostage among the Yunkai at this point) to find her, in the meantime.
Tyrion and Varys: At the end of A Dance with Dragons, Tyrion is in a Yunkish camp having recently registered himself and Jorah Mormont as a member of the Second Sons, and having promised the company enormous wealth in support of his claim to Casterly Rock. Varys, on the other hand, appears to have remained in King’s Landing following Tywin’s death and Tyrion’s flight, and appears unexpectedly in the novel’s epilogue where he murders Grand Maester Pycelle and Ser Kevan Lannister to sow further chaos ahead of the arrival of Aegon Targaryen.
Davos and Melisandre: In the novels, Davos is in the south—at the Three Sisters and then White Harbor—for much of A Dance with Dragons, having been sent by Stannis to try and win support for his claim. He ultimately receives an offer of the support House Manderly and those they influence, but he must take a dangerous journey to recover Rickon Stark. Melisandre, on the other hand, is at Castle Black throughout the novel, having been left there by Stannis; Queen Selyse and Shireen, left at the Wall, are also alive and well at Castle Black at the end of the novel.