Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich cover “Mother’s Mercy,” the finale of the fifth season. Murder! Nudity! Sudden-onset blindness! Be sure to check out the recap of the episode by Thrones maestro James Hibberd, then join us as the venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)
DARREN: Hillary of House Hillibuster! I weep, for this is the end of our Game of Thrones TV Book Club. Our TV Book Club is deader than Stannis Baratheon. Except, wait, we didn’t DEFINITELY see Stannis get killed by Brienne, who really has mastered the fine art of accidentally running into important people. But our TV Book Club is definitely deader than Myrcella Baratheon. Except, er, well, we only really saw some blood pouring out of her nose, and it’s hard to believe that Thrones would spend an entire season making us vaguely care about Myrcella just to kill her off for a season-finale Jaime shock. Thrones wouldn’t shamelessly deploy tragedy upon a female character for the sake of a male character, would it?
Regardless, we can all agree that the TV Book Club is deader than Jon Snow. Except, wait: Jon Snow is not dead. No way. I never thought he was dead in the books—maybe just a little bit dead, Dondarrion-style—and I don’t think he’s dead on TV. Actually, is anything dead? Besides our hope that Dorne will ever happen?
HILLARY: Oh, Darnerys Targardarren! What is dead may never die—as the Greyjoy Family Fan Club’s first and only member, you of all people should know that. By the same token, TV Book Club will rise again, harder and stronger—if only in our hearts, minds, and pedantic little nit-picks. (But more on that later.)
By a similar token, I have a hard time believing that every character you just mentioned is really, truly, for sure gone for good… definitive interviews to the contrary notwithstanding. (You know nothing, Kit Harington.) Myranda, Meryn Trant, Queen Selyse? Yup, they’re dead-dead-dead. Stannis and Myrcella’s fates are left ambiguous, though, probably so that Benioff and Weiss have room to renege in case The Winds of Winter actually sees the light of day before season 6 begins.
Then there’s the curious case of Jon Snow, who seems a lot more dead on Thrones than I ever thought he did in A Dance with Dragons. The episode ends with Jon’s body in a rapidly growing pool of blood; his eyes are glassy; he isn’t breathing. And according to the actor who plays Jon, his character is indeed the second coming of Ned Stark—he’s a noble, honorable hero cruelly cut down too soon by a world that doesn’t believe in honor. Is Thrones simply trying to throw us off the scent of Jon’s inevitable resurrection by insisting (with one hand behind its back) that he’s actually gone? Or could it be that the series has actually confirmed something we’ll only learn upon book 6’s release?
DARREN: At long last, this TV Book Club has arrived at the core question that has tormented Book Readers for four long years: Is Jon Snow dead? And if so: Why? We’ve talked a lot this season about how Jon’s role in Book 5 is largely devoted to socio-political minutiae—and even if I groove onto GRRM’s detail-oriented bureaucracy, I can understand why Benioff & Weiss opted to send Jon on an expensive trip up to ice zombie country. And I think “Hardhome” holds the key to how the show views Jon’s arc. That moment with the Night’s King staring at Jon feels like it requires some sort of follow-up, doesn’t it?
A big part of my argument rests on a simple notion that, without Jon, I’m not sure what the point of Castle Black is. Jon’s entire story arc has been focused on the idea of building up the defenses against the terror sweeping down from the North. I guess you could argue that this really IS a Ned Stark analogue: Ned spent the whole first book carefully trying to bring order back to King’s Landing, and the whole brilliant origin story of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is that all his noble attempts at order descended into chaos with a single swing of an executioner’s blade. Without Jon, there’s nobody left up North—unless Martin was planning an elaborate long-con where Alliser Thorne becomes the savior of Westeros, which in fairness is absolutely something GRRM would do.
But let’s move out of the realm of conjecture and into the realm of adaptation. How did you feel about the show’s remix of Jon’s “death” scene? I don’t want to go off on any long impassioned rants; I used that up with Dany and the dragon last week. But I’m a bit bummed that the show didn’t work in the part of Jon’s final aDwD chapter that always haunted me. Jon has always tried to follow the rules—he’s never gone South, even when Robb beckoned, even when Stannis offered him a new identity as Jon Stark. But after a message from Ramsay Bolton sends him into a rage, Jon decides to lead his brothers South. It’s only at THIS point that Bowen Marsh and the other traitorous brothers attack him—and you can totally read that scene as the Brothers doing what they think is right. Tears are running down Bowen Marsh’s cheeks!
I didn’t see any tears on Thrones, which makes the whole thing feel more like Evil Brothers vs. Good Jon. Did you get that vibe? And how do you feel about how the show built up to this moment? Or should I ask: Is Olly’s Bitchface the new Cersei’s Bitchface?
HILLARY: That’s a fair assessment, as well as a fairly unsurprising one—there’s always less nuance on Thrones than there is in ASOIAF, after all, and “Evil Brothers vs. Good Jon” is a lot easier to convey in 10-minute bursts throughout a 10-week season than “Some Loyal Brothers and Some Enemies Have Both Legitimate and Illegitimate Gripes With Jon, Who Makes Both Logical and Understandable But Ill-Advised Decisions” would have been. I agree, too, that killing Jon for real seems like it’d be a misstep rather than a game-changer, like killing Ned was.
I want to move away from Jon for a moment, though, and instead consider the big picture. It’s fascinating to find that after a season filled with changes much more major than the elision of nuance—Samsay and The Dorne Experiment and Dany meeting Tyrion and the zombie battle at Hardhome and on and on and on—”Mother’s Mercy” leaves us, essentially, exactly where we are at the end of A Feast for Crows and ADWD‘s contiguous storylines. Dany’s been deposited on a hilltop in Dothraki country; Theon has leapt into the snow surrounding Winterfell, along with Ramsay’s bride; Cersei has made her walk of shame, only to find an undead champion waiting for her at its end; Jon is ambiguously dead.
Could it be, then, that in the grand scheme of things, D&D’s various alterations didn’t really matter as much as we thought they did, because the show was just taking alternate routes to the same destination? Or should we simply consider this the calm before the storm that is a sixth season potentially covering entirely uncharted territory—and maybe heading toward an ending GRRM never had planned?
DARREN: We may have to replace the Busis Concision Theorem with the Busis Contiguity Paradox. Looking back over our past TV Book Club chats, it’s interesting to see how I assumed that this, THIS would be the season when TV-Thrones would finally reveal itself as a different beast from “A Song of Ice and Fire.” In some ways, it did—and we’ll need to forever ponder the decision to ditch strongwilled Yara/Asha Greyjoy in favor of the nude-baiting Sand Snakes—but following your point, it might be more accurate to read this season as a weird Frankenstein delaying tactic.
The show clearly decided that it had to move faster—Tyrion travels across the Known World in a couple episodes!—but it also wasn’t entirely willing to explore the metaphorical Land of Always Winter that lies beyond the narrative borders of Book 5. You could say that Benioff & Weiss were like Brienne: Sitting patiently, waiting for a candle to guide their way. Come to think of it, this could explain why Brienne and Margaery—two breakout characters played by breakout actresses—both played fifth fiddle this year.
We could play Kremlinologists all day and try to tease out how some decisions in the finale might indicate plotlines for Book 6 and 7. (The show seemed ready to ignore the whole Sam-in-Oldtown subplot—but maybe Oldtown holds the key to Westeros’ future?) But I’d be intrigued to ask a much grander question, Hillario: Where do you think Thrones is going next season, as a TV show? Is it weird that Meereen is still in play? Can we dream of Greyjoys?
HILLARY: I hardly feel equipped to answer such a huge question, but to give it a shot: I see even more long-separated characters finally interacting with one another once more (Theon and Yara, Sansa and Jon, hell, maybe even Brienne and Jaime), and a gradual focusing that leads our scattered cast away from Dorne and Meereen and Braavos and back to Westeros. (Unless that doesn’t happen til season 7.) I see an increased Greyjoy presence and more Tarlys, mostly because I read the same leaked casting breakdown as everyone else. I see more magic—Jon’s resurrection, however it happens, as well as the grand reemergence of Bran Stark, who speaks for the trees—and less magic, since Lady Stoneheart is clearly 100 percent off the table.
And unfortunately, I also see a renewed commitment to this season’s unofficial motif—the perpetual, unrelenting, totally gratuitous violation and degradation of Thrones‘ female characters. None of them—be they queens or warriors or bucktoothed Wildlings—will escape this story without being sexually objectified or damaged or humiliated; far fewer of their literary counterparts will face the same fate. It’s a pessimistic prediction, I know, but one I can’t help making considering all they went through—were forced to go through—this season. What are your season 6 predictions, Darren? And bonus question: At this point, is there really anything left to say about Cersei’s long stroll to the Red Keep?
DARREN: I suspect that Sullied viewers will have a lot to ponder in next season’s depiction of the Greyjoys, who will earn immediate fandom victories by virtue of NOT being Martells. I dream of a season 6 that takes up the idea of Vengeance as a thrilling Standard Operating Procedure: Cersei vs. the High Sparrow, Arya vs. the Lannisters, Sansa vs. the Boltons. Oh yeah, and I see a LOT more Boltons: I always assumed they were the show’s mid-run mini-boss, but now it’s looking more and more like Ramsay Bolton is (for the show, at least) Joffrey with the safety off.
On the topic of Vengeance: I would love nothing more than for season 6 to prove all of this season’s naysayers wrong. I don’t necessarily need to see the show’s female characters topple the patriarchy—although I do miss when that was the subtext of Dany’s arc, before the show got tied up in its own Meereenese Knot. But I have to imagine that the Thrones creative team is aware of how off-key some of this stuff played this season. Tyene Sand’s line about Bad P—y makes Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns look like a subtle portrait of feminist empowerment.
HILLARY: Oh, God, that line deserves to be tried at The Hague as a crime against humanity.
DARREN: And I wonder if they realize how radically it altered the meaning of Cersei’s Shame Stroll. In the books, I read that chapter as yet another example of how well Martin can shift your perspective on a character. Crucially, that chapter doesn’t just victimize Cersei: It also lets you see how the rising tide of zealotry in post-war Westeros is further muddying the line between whatever is supposed to be good and evil. (You read that chapter, and you wonder if Westeros would be better as a frozen wasteland ruled by Others.)
In the show, it was just the climax of a season of degradation. And here again, we circle back around to a fundamental difference between the style of the show and the style of the books. The books are fundamentally subjective: You see things from the character’s perspective. The show is fundamentally objective. And I don’t agree with the idea that it has to be. Film is not “objective.” Like, when they filmed Ned Stark’s death scene, they cut away RIGHT AS THE BLADE fell through his neck. Compare that to the hour and a half we spent watching Cersei’s naked body. It’s the power of suggestion vs. the power of premium cable nudity.
The weirdest thing about this season, Hilltown, is that it felt like such a bummer. Because maybe I’m weird, but GRRM’s books never bummed me out. They might get slow, or weird, or helplessly detail-oriented, but they never felt like a chore. So I want to circle back around to a high note. This season covered the narrative trajectory of two books that came out nine years and four years ago. Was there anything in Thrones season 5 that surprised you in a good way, or that made you excited to finally read The Winds of Winter, which is definitely maybe possibly hopefully coming out sometime in the next year please please?
HILLARY: Clever, wry, damaged audience surrogate Tyrion Lannister was Game of Thrones‘ first breakout character; Peter Dinklage is the first and only actor from the show to receive an Emmy, and with good reason. But the Imp’s popularity among both audiences and critics can be a double-edged sword; the show goes out of its way to keep Tyrion as likable as possible, making TV Tyrion a much softer, friendlier version of his literary counterpart. (He never so much as touched Sansa after their wedding; he murdered Shea in quasi-self defense; hell, he still has his nose.)
That said: After the introduction of Young Griff, Tyrion’s book 5 storyline is a whoooole lotta nothing—a plodding, digressive exercise in frustration made even more interminable by its repetition of the series’ most eyeroll-inducing refrain. (“Wherever whores go” is no “It is known.”) So accelerating Tyrion’s journey to Meereen, introducing him to Daenerys (FINALLY), and positioning him as Meereen’s interim king was a smart, necessary, entirely satisfying adaptive change—one that I expect to see pay off next year. After a year spent in prison and a year spent in chains, Tyrion will finally get another chance to do what he does best by flexing the diplomatic muscles he built back in season 2; even Varys knows that Tyrion’s time as Hand of the King was his little friend’s finest hour.
Yes, I’m sorry the show had to sacrifice Barristan to make this moment possible—but it’s a hell of a lot better than watching Tyrion be passed from captor to captor, and a bazillion times better than watching him watch a bunch of extras die of the poops.
I should say, also, that I loved pretty much everything this season did in King’s Landing up until the 10-minute Walk of Shame, which made me want to tear my hair out. (I should also say that Cersei’s chic new shame ‘do makes me yearn for a taut drama where Lena Headey and Robin Wright play twin Ladys Macbeth.) The Cersei/Tommen/Margaery dynamic is so much more interesting when every party involved has already gone through puberty; I’d gladly spend hours watching Olenna and the High Sparrow verbally spar; Robert Strong is the only zombie on Thrones I can actually bring myself to care about. I really hope there’s no dumb war with Dorne to split these characters’ focus next season, because King’s Landing has plenty going on already—and I want to see how it all plays out sans Sand Snakes.
Okay, DarBear: same question!
DARREN: To repeat my own personal refrain: I love it when George R. R. Martin radically alters my perspective on a character. To declare something I rarely got the chance to say this season: I love it when Benioff & Weiss take a minor character from the book and transform them into one of my favorite things about the show. And this season, two characters popped for me along those lines.
As Stannis Baratheon, Stephen Dillane has always had the most thankless role of any of the potential rulers of Westeros. Stannis is humorless—and whereas some religious zealots burn bright with religious passion, the Red God’s love seemed to just further freeze Stannis’ expression into a perpetual mope. (The Night’s King is the Cheshire Cat by comparison.) And after his expected introduction as the season 2 miniboss, Stannis had to spend seasons 3-4 in the mopiest of mopey shadows. So I’m surprised to look back in hindsight and realize just how effectively season 5 plays as a long, mesmerizing downward spiral for the character. A lot of the plot machinations make no sense—wasn’t he supposed to be a strategist?—but Dillane found lots of ways to convert Stannis’ deadpan into tragedy and self-destruction
I wish he had a better supporting cast—insert Davos gripe here!—but I will miss him, if he’s gone. And I’m excited to get some extra time with him in The Winds of Winter, even if his end is already assured. (Spoiler alert: All men must die.)
Along those same lines: God help me, I love Tormund Giantsbane. Maybe it’s because actor Kristofer Hivju’s role in Force Majeure primed me to notice him more, but the promotion of the Wildling baddie into a new kind of leader for the era of enemy-of-my-enemy diplomacy transformed the big redbearded warrior into thoughtful juggernaut-force to be reckoned with. If Jon Snow is dead—and he’s not, but if—I’d be more than willing to see Tormund become Our Man in the North, leading his force of wildlings in an uncertain landscape between the traitors in Castle Black and the Boltons of Winterfell.
Have we left any Stone Men unturned, oh Hilaerys Targaryen, First of her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms?
HILLARY: Hodor. (Translation: Let’s go to the comments.)
DARREN: Here’s a diplomatic comment that sums up some of my feelings.
I read a theory by a critic somewhere (Hitfix maybe? Vulture?) that because it’s Trant, because we barely remember him, because he “killed” “Syrio”, bringing Tran to Braavos means that “Jaqen” will reveal himself to be a man who is “Syrio”. I like it, but I also know it’s too good to be true. But a gal can dream!
Also…I kind of like that the show is moving away from the books. Yes, it’s rumored that Shireen’s about to get got in the books, but this still doesn’t feel like a spoiler. Everything is widely different (not necessarily better or worse, just different), and I don’t feel worried that the end game of TreeBran vs. Dragon Lady is going to be spoiled by the show which will finish 15 years before the last book. Then again, I’m also the big Harry Potter weirdo that was defending the movies to book fans and books to movie fans. Why can’t we all just get along! They’re different mediums, bro! They’re different!
DARREN: First of all, the Syrio idea is totally crazy, and if it were true, then we will have to credit Martin for a decades-long-con (or Benioff & Weiss for a series-long con.)
But I find I agree with JJ. I know that a lot of Sullied are worried about the show spoiling key plot points, but I have to believe that Books 6 and 7—and 8? Why not!—will have plenty to please me, even if I already know that Shireen burns, or that Dany marries Rickon, or that Tyene Sand winds up riding Viserion against the attacking hordes of the White Walker/Dothraki alliance.
Also, “TreeBran vs. Dragon Lady” is my new favorite “R + L = J.”
HILLARY: When Arya went into her Face-Off frenzy, tearing off mask after mask before Jaqen (or whoever he is!) and the waif blinded her, I was definitely expecting Syrio’s mug to turn up—partially because I’ve heard the “Syrio is Jaqen” theory, partially because the show went to the trouble of including Syrio in this week’s “previously” montage. Side note: Benjen Stark was also in the previouslies, which implied that the show might finally be introducing Coldhands. Except, nope: He was mentioned only so that the Unsullied would understand Olly’s ruse. Alternate theory: Syrio and Benjen both made it into the montage because D&D looove trolling book readers.
I have to end things with the best comment I’ve read in weeks:
S P A C E: FREE DRAGON RIDES !
W00T ! ! !
Highlight of the whole series.
Because hey, admit it – you would LOVE to have a pet fire breathing dragon, flying & riding high through the sky!
HILLARY: Ah, S P A C E: I truly envy your unbridled joy and sincerity. I know a lot of you think Darren and I can be grumpuses when it comes to book vs. show changes, but both of us really do love this franchise—and want to be able to love the series as much as S P A C E loves dragons.
Will season 6 inspire that kind of devotion? Will The Winds of Winter, for that matter? Who knows! Either way, I won’t be dissecting them alongside you, because I’m leaving EW. Before the dragon comes to take me away to new horizons, though, I wanted to let you all know how much fun I’ve had writing Book Club—and to thank you for reading it.
DARREN: I can still remember when you started working at EW as an intern, Hilltown, back when we were both as young as Season One Maisie Williams. And if memory serves, you started plowing through A Song of Ice and Fire about two weeks into your internship. (I’m probably compressing the timeline a little bit—just like Benioff & Weiss in season 5, hohoho!) It’s been one of the incredible pleasures of my pop culture life being your co-conspirator in this TV Book Club. Like, can you imagine trying to unpack the biggest TV show ever—and in the process unpack a thousands-page-long unfinished epic fantasy masterpiece—and doing that on a weekly basis for the best 10 weeks of the year?
I mean, who could POSSIBLY have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast? You need a brave companion, a sworn sibling of the Night’s Watch, somebody with wit, intelligence, infinite patience, and good humor.
What I’m trying to say is:
HILLARY: And I you, Darrenys California-Born, the Unedited, Breaker of Word Counts, Father of Think Pieces. The internet is dark, and full of terrors—but this column’s always been one of the bright spots.
And now my paragraph is ended.