Game of Thrones wrapped up its fifth season Sunday evening.
The show had a strong finish for the season, but pacing was an issue all season long.* While the showrunners spent two full seasons developing plots adapted from the third volume of Martin’s series (A Storm of Swords), in season 5 they rushed through the material of two books in one season. This frantic pace meant that some plots were rushed — like the situation in King’s Landing, where the evolution of the Faith Militant and the rise of the High Sparrow did not have time to show the ominous, gradual, grassroots growth that shows in A Feast for Crows. And some plots were distorted and rendered unintelligible and meaningless by the process of condensation. The Dorne storyline was never my favorite storyline in the books, but the story on the page in A Feast for Crows was markedly better than what HBO delivered this season. The Sand Snakes fell flat, which is especially disappointing after Oberyn Martell (portrayed by Pedro Pascal) made such a splash in season 4. And whatever the weaknesses of the Dorne plot in the book, it is clear at the end that Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne, is a crafty man and most definitely has a larger plan, as much as Varys or Littlefinger. Basically none of that came across this season — which is almost a waste of an excellent actor.
On the plus side, almost everything having to do with the storyline at the Wall was executed very well.
Anyway, some linkage (SPOILERS at all the links):
1. Dave Schilling, Grantland: “My god, the Sand Snakes. Can we talk about this? Did the writing staff of Game of Thrones add a 12-year-old to the room? I was half-expecting Kevin Sorbo or Louis Gossett Jr. to show up for an episode as Doran’s plot device/bodyguard, which frankly would have been an upgrade. After 10 episodes, the Sand Snakes accomplished two things: helping their mom kill Myrcella and fulfilling HBO’s nudity requirement. That could have taken half of one episode. You could have even skipped the nudity, folks. When was the last time Game of Thrones was even remotely titillating? After the 500th sexual assault and the millionth beheading, I’d be more excited by Dennis Franz’s bare cheeks on a rerun of NYPD Blue than this show.”
2. Jamelle Bouie, on the penultimate episode of the season: “So, my entire thought while watching that scene in the fighting pits with the Sons of the Harpy was ‘I wish dragons existed during Reconstruction,’ since — in the context of Game of Thrones — the Sons of Harpy are basically the Ku Klux Klan, and a world where Union soldiers soared through the Louisiana bayou burning Klansmen is a good world.”
Season five of Game of Thrones is (loosely) based on two George R.R. Martin books that have to do with people trying to govern after war and social upheaval. Cersei tries to consolidate her power through her son King Tommen. Jon Snow tries to control the Night’s Watch. Daenerys tries to rule Meereen, a foreign city she barely understands. Prince Doran tries to keep a lid on Dorne. And various other characters keep seeking power, including Stannis.
So what did we learn about power this season? Basically, we see Daenerys making a nearly endless series of blunders, from executing her most loyal follower to flip-flopping on the fighting pit issue, and this all leads to a horrendous massacre. But at the same time, last night’s episode goes out of its way to show that Daenerys still has unquestioning loyalty from her people. And it strikes a surprisingly hopeful note about the possibility of “fixing” (or at least super-gluing) Meereen.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow is Lord Commander for all of five minutes before he blows it. The moment he decides to try and help the Wildlings, he’s basically toast. He already had the distrust of half his men because of his past as a double agent and his divided loyalties, and taking a big risk to save the Wildlings marks him as a traitor. There’s no hope whatsoever that the Night’s Watch could learn to understand Jon’s decisions.
Although in a sense, both stories share a common element: Daenerys tries to introduce concepts like “rule of law” to the Meereenese, who are still stuck on a justice system that involves crucifying random children. And Jon tries to explain the notion of the lesser of two evils to the Night’s Watch, who can’t see past their old “us versus them” worldview. There’s no point in trying to expand their horizons.
Presumably worried that Game of Thrones’ mass audience might forget the White Walkers’ existence, the show has gone out of its way to periodically remind viewers that they are indeed the real adversary, often with scenes that do not exist in the book — and yet are some of the most stunning scenes the show has filmed. There was the fourth season episode “Oathbreakkeeper,” where one of Craster’s babies was taken by a White Walker for a terrifying ritual, and then, of course, “Hardhome.”
Through these scenes, the show has avoided a problem that has plagued the books — namely, that the Others are in it so little that it is indeed hard for reader to remember them (or take them seriously as) the real threat. Hell, the Others have been in the books so little they’re not really mysterious, just unknown. The Others’ one major attack at the Fist of the First Men happened in A Storm of Swords, the third of the series’ five books, which was published in 2000 — and they haven’t been seen in the books since.
Look, I have zero doubt that Martin won’t fix this in future installments of A Song of Ice and Fire, and that the Others will be formidable, stunning foes. But so far, he hasn’t. Meanwhile, the show has not only reminded viewers of the White Walkers’ omnipresent threat, but made them terrifying, bizarre, and utterly alien in a way the books simply haven’t begun to match.
Where the books are vague and sparse, the show has made the Walkers something so clearly inhuman that they legitimately seem like a threat to all humanity.
Much more at the link.
* Charlie Jane Anders, a few weeks ago: “I’m pretty sure I know why this show is in such a tearing hurry. Readers of Martin’s books will know that neither A Feast For Crows nor A Dance With Dragons contains a big battle scene, at all. Two big battles are apparently coming at the start of the next book, The Winds of Winter. But the makers of Game of Thrones apparently didn’t feel they could end this season without some big battle scenes — and that means that the show needs to move quickly enough to get through books four and five, and into the start of book six.”
Image Credit: Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads, northern England. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, 2007. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.