You just finished watching Game of Thrones season 5. You’re probably feeling a lot of things: angry, confused, exhausted, sad. Just another season of the most ruthless show on television!
We’ve finally reached the point where almost all of the stories in the show are caught up with where they’re at in the books, at least the ones that the showrunners have chosen to follow more religiously. Most of what happens next is complete speculation for all parties not named Martin, Benioff or Weiss. There are plenty of fan theories out there to sink your teeth into while you wait for the next season/book to come out!
In the meantime, let’s take one more look back at some of the highs and lows of season 5, possibly the most polarizing season of the show so far.
And it should go without saying: spoilers are included in this entire recap.
GOOD: Jon Snow, the star of the season
In the show, just as in the books, it takes a while for Jon Snow’s character to really pick up. For the first several seasons he is mostly a brooding, entitled witness to everything that happens near the wall.
But as the action at the wall picks up, so does the interest in Jon, and in season five, having been named the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon is finally in charge and has the power to make some decisions for himself that will shape the fate of the seven kingdoms in the fight against the white walkers.
We see Jon make the decision to have Janos Slynt beheaded after disobeying a direct order. His interactions with Mance Rayder and his decision to end Rayder’s suffering at the hands of Melisandre with an arrow straight to the heart made for some compelling drama and showed us his own sense of justice he inherited from Eddard, a sense of justice very different from that of Stannis and his red priestess, one that is consistent for wildling and Westerosi alike.
Jon’s story continued to crescendo all the way through Episode 8, where the sequence at Hardhome gave us perhaps the most intense 15 minutes of the series so far. Kit Harrington hasn’t particularly been one of the best actors in the show in terms of line delivery, but his physicality, facial expressions and overall presence made the Hardhome scene incredibly memorable and powerful.
His murder scene was brutal and devastating, just as it was in the books. Now we just have to wait and see if Jon will be resurrected under some Melisandre/Azor Ahai magic, as is the prevailing theory among fans.
But in my mind, from the first episode to the last, Jon Snow was truly the star of the season, and I fully expect him to be back to play a major role in the future of Westeros after he’s revived by Melisandre (is it foolish of me to allow myself to think so optimistically?).
BAD: Dorne. Just everything about it.
Is there a group of characters more poorly written and clichéd than the Sand Snakes? They aren’t particularly interesting in A Song of Ice and Fire to begin with, but the showrunners managed to take them and extract any ounce of interest the characters ever bore.
Seriously, take a look at the first lines spoken by Obara Sand. When asked if she will chose war or diplomacy in the Martell family’s conflict against the Lannisters, she opts to answer in the rambling form of a story from her past rather than a realistic, direct response:
“When I was a child, Oberyn came to take me to court. I’d never seen this man and yet he called himself my father. My mother wept, and I was too young, and a girl. Oberyn tossed his spear at my feet and said, girl or boy, we fight our battles, but the Gods let us choose our weapons. My father pointed to the spear, and then to my mother’s tears. *Throws spear through head of captain buried in the sand* I made my choice long ago.”
Nobody talks this way. This is an obvious example of the writers trying desperately to give us some exposition about this woman to make her come across as being a badass, but it’s just over the top. The Game of Thrones writers are guilty of these kinds of poorly written monologues every now and then, particularly with characters like Tyrion, but those usually happen with characters who have already been developed. When the first thing you hear from a brand new character is a garbled heap of clichés paired with poor line delivery, the character is basically doomed from the get-go.
And that’s just the first impression we get of the Dornish women. The fight scene with Bronn and Jaime was a mess, and failed to make the Sand Snakes look particularly dangerous. Their interactions with Bronn while locked behind bars were cringe-inducing, not to mention the terrible “bad pussy” line in the finale.
Dorne has a large part to play in the events of Westeros to come, but so far in the television show it’s been a huge bust.
GOOD: The showrunners’ choice to skip through a lot of the extraneous Daenerys junk.
Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire are getting frustrated waiting around for Daenerys to get out of Meereen and actually do something that impacts the part of the story fans are most invested in: the political turmoil and wars of Westeros.
So it comes as a huge relief that the showrunners decided to skip through a lot of the boring fluff that takes up most of Daenerys’s time in A Dance with Dragons, opting instead to fast-forward to Dany’s long-anticipated meeting with Tyrion, a meeting that has not yet occurred in the books. Though Tyrion and Dany have only been together for a few episodes, he already is a perfect counterpart to her. His calculating, political shrewdness and sharp wit play perfectly off Daenerys’s occasionally fiery temper as well as her political inexperience and naiveté.
One can only guess where their partnership will lead in Season 6, because we haven’t gotten that far in the books yet. But it’s definitely something to look forward to.
BAD: Most of the rest of Daenerys’s plot.
Daenerys is, to me, the most tedious out of all of the main characters of both the books and the shows because we’ve been conditioned to believe that none of what she does really matters in the grand scheme of things.
Honestly, how much do you care about the fate of the slaves in Meereen? Are you really interested in figuring out who is the Harpy? Throughout the entirety of the series, sitting in the Iron Throne of Westeros has been built up as the biggest achievement any of the players of the Game of Thrones could accomplish. After five books/seasons, it’s tough to have much patience when Daenerys constantly seems to be getting farther away from Westeros, both geographically and metaphysically.
Compare the way the Sons of the Harpy slaughtered citizens of Meereen to the way the wildlings were hammered by white walkers. The latter produced much stronger emotions, because it matters far more to the fate of Westeros, the part of the story we’re really interested in.
The Daenerys storyline is not helped at all by the acting of Emilia Clarke. It looks as though Clarke is going to be one of the breakout actors of the series, but it’s hard to figure out why—she has about three facial expressions and vocal tones, and when set across from talented actors like Peter Dinklage and Iain Glen, she seems clearly overmatched.
Maybe with Daenerys getting on top of Drogon and flying off into the Meereen sky will signal a turning point for her character, the same way the beheading of Janos Slynt was the turning point for Jon’s. Again, we can’t say for sure, because that’s as far as the books have taken us. But for as much time the show has spent on her, she sure hasn’t had much of an impact on the events we’ve been conditioned to care about.
GOOD: Iain Glen’s tenderness and emotion as Jorah Mormont.
I’ve been a fan of Iain Glen’s throughout the series, but he kicked it up a notch in season 5. When Tyrion first encounters him on his voyage from Pentos to Meereen with Varys, Jorah is a broken, devastated man, and it shows in every minute aspect of Glen’s acting.
When Tyrion informs Jorah of his father’s passing, Glen’s reaction is absolutely heartbreaking. As we know, Jorah and his father had a complicated relationship. Jorah dishonored his extremely honorable father (the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) by being caught selling men into slavery, and chose exile rather than justice at the hands of the lords of the North. Despite having not seen his father for years, he had always maintained some semblance of hope that he’d be able to make amends at some point.
With the death of his father, those hopes are forever dashed. And we see all of that emotion settle into Jorah’s shoulders and face in what was, for my money, one of the two or three most touching moments of the season.
Glen has also been brilliant in his few interactions with Dany this season, from whom he is desperate to earn forgiveness, appreciation and love. While he hasn’t played as significant of a role in this season as others, he has been a scene stealer every time he’s come on screen. It’s going to be interesting to see where his Grayscale story goes moving forward.
BAD: The deconstruction of Sansa Stark’s storyline and character.
I won’t go into detail about this topic, because I’ve already written at length about it in this post. But the most controversial moment of the season (and there were a few), the rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton, was extremely troubling, not even as much for the content of the scene as for the implications it has on the strength of Sansa’s character.
Her entire story arc has been moving toward the point where she has some sort of agency in the Game of Thrones. She already escaped on abusive, evil partner in Joffrey, and had undergone both the mental and physical transitions (the name change, the hair dye, the tutelage) to starting making decisions herself to influence what happens in Westerosi politics.
The decision by the showrunners to have Sansa go to Winterfell and marry Ramsay represents possibly the most significant departure from the books we’ve had in the show so far. Her rape is the third rape of a main female character added to the show that did not occur in the novels.
But the idea of a character being raped isn’t the most frustrating part here—we’ve seen many horrible things happen to beloved characters throughout the entire series. It’s the fact that the decision completely destroyed show Sansa’s character arc and set her back by about two or three seasons.
Based on the events of the season finale, my fears have essentially been confirmed that Sansa’s rape was actually a way to get the gears turning for Theon to finally fight back against Ramsay rather than a way to further Sansa’s storyline, which is awful, lazy writing that could permanently damage the character of a girl who, last we saw her in the books, was quietly becoming one of the most interesting characters of the series.
GOOD: King’s Landing, as usual.
King’s Landing is usually the site of some of the most interesting storylines, which is natural as it is the location of the Iron Throne, the true prize of the series. Season 5 has been no exception. Cersei Lannister’s path of self-destruction has been portrayed beautifully on television thanks to some great writing and brilliant acting by Lena Headey, who has been one of the most consistently outstanding actors on the show.
Watching Cersei make horrible, selfish decision after horrible, selfish decision has been fascinating, and her decision to restore the Faith Militant was the final nail in her own cross. Her Walk of Atonement was one of her most compelling chapters in the books, and Headey portrayed the scene impeccably on television. Finally, her meeting with Ser Robert Strong had a perfect foreboding tone to it.
Meanwhile, Margaery Tyrell’s vastly different relationships with Tommen and Cersei have also been extremely entertaining. Watching her go from sweet and sycophantic with Tommen to cunning and coy with Cersei is fascinating, and the story of her own imprisonment is certain to be one of the biggest subjects of season 6.
Tommen himself hasn’t played a huge role on screen, but his soft nature and political inexperience have essentially allowed Cersei to create the mess she did in King’s Landing, and have given the Faith Militant and the High Sparrow free reign to do what they like in King’s Landing. If Tommen doesn’t take action soon, he could have a civil war on his hands, as the Faith Militant is sure to have much more support from the commoners than the royalty do.
BAD: Stannis’s incompetence and lack of consistency.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of the character of Stannis Baratheon. In the books, he’s one of the most interesting, complex characters with a stake in the primary events of the series. He’s certainly harsh, but also principled.
The scene where he allowed his own daughter, Shireen, to be burned at the stake is going to be most people’s lasting memory of him this season. And that scene was filmed and performed fantastically. But what really stands out to me is the inconsistencies in handling Stannis’s character, and whether we can really take him seriously any more as a contender for the throne.
For example: you’re telling me that Stannis Baratheon, one of the most feared warlords and diligent strategists of the seven kingdoms, would have his camp so easily infiltrated and destroyed by merely 20 operatives led by Ramsay Bolton, a bastard without any real strategic military experience?
You’re telling me that Stannis Baratheon, who famously held out at Storm’s End without food for the better part of a year while it was under siege by Tyrell forces during Robert’s Rebellion, is so discouraged by this act of sabotage that he instantly decides to burn his daughter at the stake as a sacrifice to avoid hunger after just a few days? That same daughter to whom mere weeks before he had just expressed her importance as a Baratheon and his heir?
These are just a couple of the logical problems that have arisen in Stannis’s storyline this year. I fully expect Stannis to burn Shireen at the stake in The Winds of Winter, whenever it’s released, but when it happens, it won’t be the product of numerous character discrepancies or his own incompetence as a leader and warlord.
I don’t think it’s out of Stannis’s character to sacrifice his own daughter for what he believes is the good of Westeros. But I do think it was built up poorly in the show.
Finally, there’s the issue of the way the show handled his (possible) death in the finale. We can’t say for sure that Brienne finished the job, because we didn’t actually see it on TV. But if she did, one has to feel that the pacing for his demise was planned quite poorly. More on that to come.
GOOD: Arya and the Many-Faced God.
I have never been particularly fond of Arya’s assassin training story as it’s written in the books, but I have to say, the showrunners have done a great job of translating it to television. The atmosphere of the temple, the Room of Many Faces, Arya’s reluctance to give up her identity and her selfishness in choosing Ser Meryn as her first target — while her partnership with the Hound certainly had its humorous moments, this is the kind of character progression Arya has needed since she escaped Harrenhal with Gendry and Hot Pie.
Hopefully, though, the show (and books) don’t have her permanently forsake her identity as a Stark, because she’s one of the few characters left in the books who can attain some vengeance and give a positive payoff to readers/viewers for once.
BAD: Pacing for some stories has been very bad.
It seems that as the gap between show and books continues to widen, the showrunners are having more and more difficulties finding the appropriate pacing to handle certain storylines. For example:
- In the span of two episodes, Stannis went from having a fearsome, deadly army heading south toward Winterfell to being embarrassed by 20 Boltons, burning his daughter, having half his army desert him, having the remainder of his army being slaughtered and possibly being executed himself. One can’t help but feel that Stannis’s downfall, though probably inevitable in the books, was rushed on screen.
- Littlefinger once again showed his unique teleportation ability, traveling from Winterfell to a meeting in King’s Landing with Cersei in seemingly a couple days.
- Tyrion gets captured a couple different times and even enslaved for a brief moment and yet still somehow manages to get to Meereen faster than Varys, who had his travels unimpeded.
- Stannis and Melisandre performed the blood magic with the slugs to kill the other kings of Westeros (Robb Stark, Joffrey, Balon Greyjoy) several seasons ago, yet somehow Greyjoy still lives (he dies nearly immediately in the books) and may have, in fact, outlived Stannis.
- Despite the buildup with Olly all season, Jon’s “death” scene was extremely rushed. We knew Olly was upset about Jon’s assisting the wildlings, but we only had Jon’s word to go on about the other people of the night’s watch hating him, especially after his return from Hardhome. It was strange to have Olly built up as Jon’s primary antagonist in the Night’s Watch all season, only for it to turn out that Ser Alliser and the rest of the Night’s Watch was actually in on the plot to murder him.
Season 5 of Game of Thrones will be remembered as an up-and-down season that opened itself up to criticism more than any previous season.
The general pattern seems to be that as the show continues to diverge from the books, the limitations of the screenwriters are getting more exposed. This season had more flaws with pacing and dialog than any of the previous four, and probably more than the first two combined.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best storylines of the season were the ones that still had content from the books to go off. Jon’s struggles at the wall, Cersei’s downfall in King’s Landing, the arrest of Margaery Tyrell, Arya becoming a master assassin, Jorah Mormont attempting to pull himself up from rock bottom. All of these are stories that still had their roots in the books this season.
So moving forward, this begs the question: can Game of Thrones continue to be one of the best shows on television once even more of its plots move past the text, or is the series starting to become too big and ambitious for the showrunners to handle?
The latter question is one we might ask of George R. R. Martin himself, and our answer will only come upon publication of The Winds of Winter.
Season Rating: 69 out of 100, “Above Average”
Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.com