A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Note Two: This review is explicitly about the finale itself. Some of the things that worked here did not necessarily work for the whole season, but that will be addressed in the Season 5 review that will arrive later in the week.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
One of the most profound questions in all of literature arrived in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and as often happens with profound statements, this one was quite simple at heart. The heart of Portia’s iconic speech of plea to the merchant Shylock is her belief that the more privileged in society ought to be able to display a greater sense of mercy. On one hand, that makes a fair amount of sense. The more ability, wealth, and or power you possess, the more generous you ought to be. But as Tyrion noted dryly last week at Daznak’s Pit, there’s a fair amount of difference in what ought to be and what is. Portia is right, but her righteousness arrives from an understanding of what ought to be the equivalency of mercy. The reality of the world more often than not, however, arrives from what is. The world of Westeros and its corresponding continents has drawn an unfair amount of criticism for presenting such unrelenting darkness, but our own world doesn’t represent Portia’s view of humanity. It represents not the equivalency of mercy, but the equivalency of cruelty, of greed, of injustice. The great noble houses of Westeros may have great banners and fastidious words that sound powerful, but hiding behind their incredible power is the reality of the devastation they have wrought, the wheel Daenerys spoke of crushing all the commoners underneath its sharp spokes. In that vein, Mother’s Mercy is an ironic title to the darkest episode in the show’s history, the “mercy” that ought to be instead overwhelmed by the inevitable sense of what is in comeuppance and revenge.
One could argue that Stannis received the merciful end to his increasingly dire circumstances, but the final blow that ended his life was revenge for the murder of his brother. Stannis of the House Baratheon, a more maligned figure in the show than in the books, nevertheless has been cloaked in the aura of doomed tragedy from the very beginning. The introduction to Stannis in the flesh was a bonfire of burning people on the beach in service of his new god, the Lord of Light and as is apropos to the tragedies of Game of Thrones, the most promising heft to his pursuit of power became his undoing. The sacrifice of Shireen was the moment Stannis stepped over the line and he is duly punished for it. Half of the men had deserted him, which was devastating enough considering that a decent number of his sellswords had already deserted him on the onset of the winter storm. He lost his last full-blood family with Selyse, who commits suicide out of the guilt for what happened to their daughter. And Melisandre deserts him, forlorn at realizing that she misinterpreted the fires. There’s absolutely nothing left for Stannis to fight for and the increasing haunting in his eyes gives way to a last, suicidal attack.
The shot of the Bolton army rising out of the deeper shadows of the snow with Winterfell rising like a ghost was an eerily beautiful one. As the camera pans over the snowstorm, the Boltons overwhelm the diminutive Baratheon force and it’s wiped off the map. A winding, raggedly breathing Stannis makes his way blundering through the forest, the bodies of what remained of his army lying morosely in the snow. He takes care of two Bolton soldiers but for all intents and purposes the fight has been utterly sapped from his bones. There simply is nothing and no one left for him to fight for anymore (the severing of his tendons doesn’t help with the whole walking thing) and he simply collapses against a tree. Brienne arriving at the cost of being too late to notice Sansa’s candle gave Stannis the mercy of death, but even then it was enshrouded by his murder of his younger, foolish brother. To his death, Stannis remained true to what he believed was the role of everyone to play. There was no light left in his eyes, none of the former bravado of the Lord of Light’s supposed chosen Azor Ahai. Stannis had always been a man who believed in duty above all else and knew as he was dying that he had failed in the duties that were the most important, the duties to his family. “Duty” being his final word before he dies at Brienne’s sword is appropriate. Now the future of the stag and the Baratheon name lies within the hands of a single bastard still lost at sea.
Winterfell reaches a breaking point as Sansa’s attempts to give Reek the mercy of becoming Theon reach their breaking point. Ramsay’s charge into battle gave Sansa the slim window of time that she needed to make her escape and her corkscrew opening the door was an instant indication that she had no intentions of letting any more time fly out of her hands. The candle being lit seconds after Brienne had departed to exact her revenge only solidified that she couldn’t rely on anyone to help her. Unbeknownst to her, Myranda was standing on the Winterfell battlements with a crossbow, threatening to mutilate her unless she went with her to her chambers with a sniveling Reek standing beside her. Sansa doesn’t cow to Myranda’s threats, which frankly don’t phase her much considering everything she has suffered from. As Myranda readies her bow, Sansa gives a glance towards Reek and in a split second of a moment, the arrow flies off in another direction and Myranda falls to her welcome death. Sansa, having succeeding at rescuing her former brother of sorts despite her trauma, gets about a second of reprieve before her husband and his remaining troops are back. Considering that literally anything is a better alternative to spending a single second with Ramsay, the two grasp their hands together, staring down into the vast snowfall and we leave them with their leap of faith. Theon and Sansa in that moment buck the episode’s thematic trend by choosing what ought to be instead of what is, grasping the opportunity to make their own fate versus continuing to allow someone else to further eradicate their existence.
To matters that have been genuinely not thrilling, the whole Dornish plotline has been excruciatingly awful, like someone grabbed a plethora of Charlie’s Angels: Demons Go South cut scenes and stuck them into this season. The past couple of episodes set up the intrigue well and it felt like after what amounted to a pretty horrible introduction to Dorne that lasted about two minutes (we had more shots of Olly looking pissed than genuine dialogue from Prince F***ing Doran, so there you go), we were actually going to get somewhere. There’s no grand speech from Doran (book readers, you know what I’m talking about) and instead we get Tyene’s immeasurably stupid dialogue followed by Jaime and Myrcella bonding over her being her true father right before she dies of Ellaria’s poison kiss. It’s genuinely thrilling for a moment because it is so remarkably surprising, but in hindsight it doesn’t make sense. Displaying no semblance of mercy, she doesn’t recognize that her revenge attempt isn’t helped by harming Myrcella, whose greatest crimes may have been some of the dresses she wore and being a genuinely nice person. As a mother herself, it was expected that she would spare the young child who happened to be born to fairly crappy parents and have something genuinely intelligent as a plan. Instead we end on her looking satisfied at having murdered a young, teenage girl like Melisandre did last week. At least she had the religious fanaticism as an angle, but what does Ellaria have besides Indira Varma’s incredible acting abilities that almost transcend the shitty writing she gets?
As her dragon had flown off into the north (how could they tell?), Daenerys now finds herself with a teenage-angsty Drogon who couldn’t have done his mother the decency of flying off to a more tropical area after he saved her life. Or at least he could have flown somewhere that wasn’t bursting at the seams with hundreds of Dothraki horsemen who look like perfectly pleasant chaps to have a cup of tea and a plate of crumpets with. Daenerys has been torn between two different destinies ever since her conquest of Astapor, what she ought to be as Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen and whom she is as Daenerys Stormborn, Mhysa and Breaker of Chains. But after that great Astapor moment, Daenerys had seemingly lost her way, confounded by the unknowability of the roads that lay ahead. In her dressing this week, Daenerys more than ever before resembles her former self as Khal Drogo was descending further and further into death. Emilia Clarke’s body language and voice also paralleled the young Dany of old and if to cement where the narrative is pushing Daenerys, the Dothraki make a thundering comeback. As the horses begin to converge all around her, she drops her wedding ring from Hizdahr onto the ground. But more so than it being a potential clue to her two trackers (which sounds like a fairly impossible mission to begin with), it’s a symbolic image of her leaving behind an integral part of what had connected her to the city now ruled by the triumvirate plus Varys. If she can truly choose what ought to be her destiny now becomes the greatest question she has ever faced.
Arya’s relation to mercy, outside of it being a nod to her recently released chapter from The Winds of Winter, is one that is inherently tied to death. Her identity struggles have been more obvious, the struggle between remaining to some degree at least Arya Stark and becoming no one. The contradiction here is that she needs a bit of both to accomplish what she truly wants to be, as evidenced by the brutal murder of Meryn Trant at her hands. The murder wouldn’t mean anything if there wasn’t a bit of Arya Stark within her and the murder wouldn’t be plausible without the House of Black and White. When she brutally stabs him in the eyes before stabbing him throughout his torso and then slitting his throat, Arya in that sequence is explicitly leaning towards the former while channeling the spirit of Quentin Tarantino. She’s giving Trant the comeuppance he deserves while giving herself the mercy of crossing the first name off of her list. Her punishment for disobeying the orders of the Faceless Men and by extension the Many-Faced God was imminent, since no one for a second believed that Jaqen couldn’t see through Arya’s lies before she even spoke them. Her going blind was less expected, yet it comes across as the perfect symbolic punishment they could have given Arya, removing the easiest tool for her to commit another transgression for the sake of her true name, binding her to who she is rather than who she ought to be.
The titular Mother’s Mercy comes into play with Cersei’s confession of sleeping with her cousin Lancel, but vehemently denying all of the other charges that she is absolutely guilty of. The High Sparrow, the benevolent religious lunatic that he is, allows her to return to the Red Keep. But like all villainous figures, there is a price to pay for the mercy that he offers. The High Sparrow’s motivations for that specific punishment for Cersei arises from his acute knowledge of just how much Cersei is hated amongst the populace of King’s Landing. Her constant scorn for the poor was well-known, evidenced in just two scenes where Margaery is defending the poor at dinner while Cersei at Joffrey’s wedding decides to take the leftovers from the wedding and throw them into the kennels instead of giving them to the hungry. Outside of the one massive riot in the second season, the commoners have always been afraid to approach the Queen Mother, a distant figure guarded by all of the finery and knights gold could buy. When the High Sparrow strips her down, that fear and trepidation falls to the wayside and what the common folk see before them is not a Queen who could kill them at her whim, but a woman who in that moment is far less powerful than any of them and has nothing to hide behind.
Cersei’s Walk of Atonement was based on the humiliation of King Edward IV’s mistress Jane Shore after his death and the cutting off of her hair in a bloody fashion was an echo of Joan of Arc. The show echoes it as the most terrifying chapter of Cersei Lannister’s existence. She begins her walk in a regal quiet, ignoring all of the insults and debris being hurled on her. Her descent into the slums of Flea Bottom, ironically where she gave the High Sparrow the proposition of power in the first place, is where she truly begins to crumble apart. Her pride evaporates slowly from her face until she literally falls to her knees. The moment Cersei raised her tearful, sobbing eyes was the moment for me at least that Lena Headey clinched another Emmy nomination if not a win. In one expression she captured the internal utter loss and pain evident in the external detritus and blood that’s covering her body. As she stumbles into the Red Keep, she finds Kevan looking at her with no sympathy and Pycelle leering, but the only one who comes to her aid is Qyburn, ironically the man everyone seems to disdain.
A forlorn Cersei is presented with Ser Robert Strong and as she looks upon Qyburn’s creation, she finds herself faced with the choice between what ought to be and what is and in doing so she has to discover where her ability for mercy lies. From Cersei’s point of view, it seems that she is in the constructs of accepting her humility or capturing her power once again in a bloodier, more vicious way than ever before. What Cersei is is exceedingly vindictive, combined with an unfortunate knack for seeing things in the extreme short-term. What she is not is someone who ought to learn from her mistakes and the consequences that result from them, mistakes like installing the High Sparrow as the High Septon for example. The High Sparrow himself would have had a greater ability for mercy if he was of the same mind as Portia, yet he chose his baser instinct of cruelty for the sake of power. Cersei’s cold, silent fury leaves a plethora of questions, but if nothing else, the word revenge is clear in her eyes. And once again, the common folk of King’s Landing will be crushed beneath the wheel of those whose ability for mercy ought to be the greatest.
Sometimes those who espouse the mindset of Portia find their mercy to be the very thing that undoes them. For Daenerys it was abolitionism that has now landed her smack in the middle of a Dothraki khalasar. For Jon, it was his care for the wildlings. His imploring of everyone that the White Walkers are the true threat seems to have fallen on deaf ears, his fellow Watchmen who would testify with him imminently being thrown into the “Jon and wildling lover” camp. As soon as Olly bursts into Jon’s holdings with the news of Benjen’s survival, the bells of doom that have been ringing all season suddenly grow louder and louder until Jon arrives before a sign that reads “TRAITOR”. A horrifying, inevitable look of grief envelops Jon’s face before he turns around. Ser Alliser Thorne is the first one to drive the knife through his gut, uttering the words “For the Watch” as he did so. Several others follow him, but the knife that stabs his heart is from Olly. Jon falls into the quiet, snowy backdrop, the camera rising over his dark silhouette. The blood slowly pools around him as his empty eyes gaze into the darkness that lay above. When Julius Caesar fell to the knife of Brutus, there was at least the possibility that they were murdering a tyrant. When the final twist of the knife tore through Jon’s heart, there wasn’t even that consolation. There was only darkness and cruelty for a man who saw the world not as something to subjugate but to protect. And now his watch is ended. Till next spring, bannermen.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The opening shot of the ice melting was a nice misdirection
+“Long may they sneer.”
+Sam, Gilly, & Little Sam are off to Oldtown
+The cutting between Stannis/Sansa/Brienne & Pod
+“If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.”
+“I’m Arya Stark. You’re no one. You’re nothing.”
+“So mainly you talk. And drink.”
+Varys in Meereen
+“I want absolution.”
+“His sins do not pardon your own.”
+The Walk of Atonement calling back to The Walk of Punishment
+The haunting mix Rains of Castamere during Cersei’s walk
P.S. How dead is Jon? Let your theories fly below.
Title: Mother’s Mercy
Written By: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed By: David Nutter
Image Courtesy: WetPaint, HBO