The Mirage of Fortitude
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Game of Thrones reached a momentous occasion in many ways with its fifth season, the season that was going to adapt the (arguably) two slowest books in A Song of Ice and Fire and by most accounts catch up with the final strands of the latest book, A Dance with Dragons. It was also the season that was going to deviate the most from the books, for better and for worse, charting its own course while hitting the major plot points George R. R. Martin had set up on the page. Last season ended on a hopeful note, with Arya sailing forward to the city of Braavos, awaiting the new adventures on her horizon with something resembling optimism. Knowing Game of Thrones, that wasn’t going to last long and it didn’t. The fifth season’s modus operandi was an increasingly bleak one, beginning in a dark forest where a young girl receives an ominous prophecy and ending on a shot of one of the few decent people on this show bleeding out in the frigid snow. There were some comedic bits, courtesy of Bronn’s new album and drunk Tyrion, but season five largely played out as a Greek tragedy with overtones of historical trauma. The tragedy that some argued became overwhelming fit right into this season’s telling thematic construct, however. Thrones’s fifth season was about the utter collapse of the nobility, their seemingly formidable walls crumbling apart in the faces of circumstances that lay far beyond their control.
Season five was the first season where I truly felt that having twelve episodes would have been helpful in giving the story the appropriate room to breathe. The beginning was paced beautifully and the end was thunderous, but the respective strengths of both ends only highlighted the weaknesses in the middle. Two moments from episodes four and six (The Sons of the Harpy, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken), respectively underline the pacing problem the season ran into, a problem reminded with hastily compiled plot thrusts. In episode 4, Cersei meets with the High Sparrow and offers him the position of the High Septon. A second later the Faith Militant break out into the streets, smashing idols and barrels of wine before they start killing people in Littlefinger’s brothel. There’s no buildup, there’s no exploration of the relationship between the people and the Faith Militant, and suddenly they’re on a bloody rampage. The High Sparrow’s spar with the Queen of Thorns gives welcome context, but the montage remains hastily compiled, thrusted in to move the plot along. That tendency exposes itself once more in the sixth episode at Loras’s inquest, where he implodes and both him and Margaery are arrested within the span of about four minutes. Not only was the build-up in the aforementioned montage but it felt like the show was in a hurry to get it over with; nowhere logically does a squire seeing his knight naked ring out of the ordinary. You’re supposed to gasp, but you end up rolling your eyes.
An adaptation’s primary job is not to echo its source material word for word (we have the source material for that), but it is to present it in a new medium while keeping the spirit of its narrative and everything/one within it. The largest casualty of the show’s detours from the books was Dorne, the most beautiful and useless storyline since Reek’s torture porn in season three. The inherent problem with Dorne in the show is that it lacks logic and even the final scene of Ellaria taking the antidote feels like precious time being taken away from Stannis or Jon, characters who are far more vital to the construction of the narrative as a whole. In the books, there is an immediate sense of shrewdness and cleverness in the Dornish plot, an instant feeling of intrigue that the show fails to replicate. Excising the theoretical cast by half is something the show has done before, restricted within the confines of production but by that reality of give and take the characters that do remain have to have an appropriate role to play. Game of Thrones has excelled at character introductions (the High Sparrow and wildling chieftain Karsi are great examples) Alexander Siddig and Indira Varma do their absolute best to bring gravitas to Prince Doran and Ellaria, respectively, but the writing is far too thin for their characters to hold up under scrutiny. The Sand Snakes’ awkward introduction near a tent and an exposition-filled monologue set the stage for little character development that couldn’t be offset by beautifully crafted weaponry. By all accounts, Dorne will be back and hopefully it comes back with an immense overhaul.
The alterations that did work outnumber those that did not by a significant margin and case in point is the Massacre at Hardhome. In the books, Jon remains encumbered at Castle Black, receiving reports of the disaster. It’s a bleak, depressing chapter, but the show’s decision to send Jon into the heat (or, well, ice) of the battle conveys the hopelessness just as well. That twenty minute segment does more than sell the audience on the real threat of the White Walkers and their growing army, it proves the power of an adaptation done right. The Massacre at Hardhome alters the source material for a more cinematic approach but it keeps the heart of Martin’s writing front and center. The streamlining of Daenerys’s conflicts in Meereen work similarly well, crafted in conjuncture with the internal conflict that lies at her character’s center and the external conflict that threatens to truly tear apart her rule. The expanded roles of Margaery and Tommen buoyed the King’s Landing plot significantly, adding a third dimension between the power struggle between Cersei and Margaery. While the King’s Landing plot suffered from a thin version of the real Bonfire of the Vanities and a poorly written inquest, the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow was an absolute steal. Pryce brings a calm demeanor that is instantaneously disquieting and the moment where he narrows his eyes at a Cersei being imprisoned is one of the most terrifying moments in the show’s history. The most significant alteration to the High Sparrow’s storyline that comes to mind is his excellent sparring match with Lady Olenna in episode seven. Not only is it a delight to see two thespians battle with wits, but it crafts an indelible clash between the great nobility of Westeros and the consequences of their heinous actions.
One of the great tenants of A Song of Ice and Fire is its pantheon of complex, strong female characters. In a genre often dominated by men, female characters often get the shaft in nerd culture (see: Gamergate). Game of Thrones, to rectify that monstrosity, offered a pantheon of female characters who are strong in a variety of different ways. Season five has thrust immense cruelty towards its female characters and certain situations have made me feel like the showrunners aren’t paying enough critical attention to their own work, not that they are actively endorsing misogyny. The strict primogeniture in Dorne being removed was extremely disappointing in this regard, where Arianne and her plot was largely thrown out in what was crafted to be the most progressive region in Westeros. The burning of Shireen was the most horrific moment on the entire series and it is amongst the handful of scenes on this show that I will never watch again. The death of Myrcella was an equally cruel moment, which removed the more complex plot of trying to install her as Queen in favor of, whatever. The most controversial, however, might have been the rape of Sansa on her wedding night where the camera wrongly focused in on Reek. Thrones has had a sketchy history with sexual assault and addressing its ramifications properly and the show has come under fire for displaying such an exceedingly traumatic event as a plot point and little else. The aftermath of Sansa’s rape was handled appropriately and the attempted rape of Gilly didn’t bother me within context. That doesn’t mean, however, that sexual assault isn’t becoming something the show has leaned on far too heavily to make a point and if they never went there again, it would be perfectly fine and welcome.
Religion became a focal point this season, with the radicalized Dominican sect led by Girolamo Savonarola during the Renaissance era serving as a historical inspiration that Martin drew from for the Faith Militant. Savonarola rose in an age that was dominated by the deMedici bankers of Florence, whose power grew to heights that at several moments seemed utterly astronomical. At the same time the Borgia family has a hold on the papacy, a family that became infamous for their scurrilous methods of keeping power, including Lucrezia Borgia’s alleged poisonings. These two families presented an opulence that to men and women like Savonarola represented a degradation of Christianity, a faith that was meant to be simple and serve the faithful. That echoes the twice aforementioned “you are the few, we are the many” speech from the High Sparrow. In the same vein of comparison, Savonarola and his followers were extremely concerned with sodomy as religious fanatics have been before them and after. Perhaps that is the exact parallel the showrunners were going for, but either way Loras’s homosexuality crafted an easier plot twist that fits in well with religious fundamentalism (the modern-day parallels help in that case). That storyline reached a fever pitch with Cersei’s Walk of Atonement, in combination with the utter hypocrisy that religion has often dealt with in regards to women. The Faith demands that she be shamed for crimes that include fornication, a punishment that surely wouldn’t be extended to men (the High Septon’s treatment was clearly for a political purpose). Yet in punishing her for her fornication, they’ve turned her body into an object of lust, displayed upon the public stage for all to see. It’s a thundering encapsulation of the walls of misogyny that women have often been expected to live within and I’m eager to see the female characters on the show tear those walls utterly apart.
Season five certainly has been the show’s most controversial season yet, some bemoaning its extreme violence, others its lack of propulsive pacing, while others like me weren’t too fond of contrived logic driving the story at times. Where the finale leaves us is certainly a bleak, bleak place that has by then drained its audience of emotional viability and some would argue that leaving the season with the image of a bleeding Jon was the wrong choice. Game of Thrones, however, has never been about cheerfulness or bleakness. It’s prime offering is that of a complex world that is constructed with the chief tenant of deconstructing typical storytelling tropes. This season stuck to that tenant with an unwavering, merciless commitment and despite my own occasional feelings of being overwhelmed, that commitment has largely worked. At the end of the fifth season, we see the Baratheons be wiped off the map, their lone living descendant a bastard still lost at sea. The Starks are still scattered, Daenerys is surrounded by Dothraki, Sansa jumps off of a Winterfell battlement, and the Lannisters’ grip on power has faded away faster than the emptying of their gold mines. But all of the merciless collapse of power remains true the season’s central thematic structure and I am keen to see how the story continues. Thrones’ most valuable currency is not its production design or its visual effects, but the rich characters that populate its complex narrative. When the focus is on staying true to those characters and the logic of the narrative they propel, the series is rich and rewarding. Season five has been bleak, unrelenting, but after a long night, dawn is surely coming.
Best Episode: Hardhome
Worst Episode: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
Best Writing: Bryan Cogman, Kill the Boy
Worst Writing: Dave Hill, Sons of the Harpy
Best Direction: Miguel Sapochnik, Hardhome
Worst Direction: Jeremy Podeswa, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
Best Performance (Male): Stephen Dillane, Mother’s Mercy
Best Performance (Female): Lena Headey, Mother’s Mercy
Best Soundtrack Piece(s): Ramin Djawadi, “Dance of Dragons”/“House of Black and White”
Best Set Design: Deborah Riley, The Hall of Faces
Image Courtesy: Game of Thrones Wiki