Season 5 ends with two devastating sequences
Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

Six. Six Game of Thrones characters died in the season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy.” And one of those deaths (maybe) marks the show’s greatest character loss yet (we felt every gut stab). Oh, and Arya’s blind. Shrieen is still dead. Cersei just totally redefined a term for walking home after a hookup. And—

There is so much more. The finale followed two extreme, full-throttle episodes, and some may have expected tonight’s to take a breather and hit the brakes. Instead, Thrones continued the same relentless pace and emotional magnitude for its finale. Taken together, the last three hours of the season are incredible in their scope, ambition, and narrative significance. While Thrones has been playing at a higher level in terms of its production values than the rest of television for years, I have a difficult time thinking of any series that—purely on a storytelling level—has had a triple-episode arc as intense as the past few weeks.

There is much to discuss. And we have a six posts in addition to this recap—revealing interviews with the showrunners, Kit Harington, George R.R. Martin, Lena Headey, and more about tonight’s twists (the first of those links are at the end). So let’s strip down and walk through our final Thrones recap of 2015 with our heads held high…

Stannis’ Camp: Snow is melting, it initially appears that last week’s sacrifice has worked. Melisandre looks all smug, like, See, I told you burning your adorable loving innocent daughter to death was a good idea. But then, Stannis finds out half his men have deserted him. Who can blame them? Who among that group isn’t fleeing after last week’s dad’n’daughter BBQ?

Stannis then finds his wife Selyse hanged from a tree. Well, good. It’s the first sensible thing she’s done. Selyse’s last-minute half-assed run to her daughter’s bonfire end zone last week doesn’t change a thing.

How will Melisandre explain this to Stannis? She explains it by showing her backside high-tailing it to Castle Black. It’s like bizarro Scarface: First you lose the power, then you lose the women. I’m disappointed we didn’t hear that conversation where Melisandre sputters to defend her magic to Stannis.

And why didn’t it work, anyway? Perhaps Stannis’ “king’s blood” wasn’t effective because The Lord of Light is on Team Daenerys? But what about those leeches that “caused” the death of Joffrey and Robb? Well, did they really cause their deaths, in some intricate metaphysical way, like Final Destination: Westeros? Because the third usurper Melisandre cursed, Balon Greyjoy, is still very much alive. So who knows? It’s f–king magic, which in Westeros is apparently no more reliable than anything else. And I love that. This isn’t Harry Potter. And now Melisandre is gone, and Stannis can’t “Accio mistress!” her back.

So, with Stannis’ child dead, his wife dead, his lover having dumped him, and his Tinder app not showing any potential new matches in the area (Osha? Maggie the Frog? Ros’ sister? Swipe left!) … Stannis decides to attack Winterfell anyway. What else, after all, does he have left?

Castle Black: Sam realizes he wants to ditch his army, too. He wants to enroll in the Westeros college—The Citadel—where smart people read books to become a maester, and are eventually rewarded with big heavy metal chains to lug around for the rest of their lives. (“Here’s your 50-pound diploma, now don’t ever take it off.”)

Sam says he’s almost certainly going to die if he stays at Castle Black, and Gilly will too. Jon is disappointed, as Sam’s the only loyal person he has left, and calls himself the most hated man in Castle Black. Jon should really realize how screwed he is just by saying those words—you can’t only have one loyal person on side when ruling a band of criminals. And the more I think about all this, the more I feel Sam really accidentally hosed Jon by volunteering him as Lord Commander. But Jon relents. Sam also reveals he finally lost his virginity. “Glad the end of the world is working out for somebody,” Jon quips. They toast Sam’s eventual return. Right.

Near Winterfell: Brienne has been standing there in the snow watching the tower window for weeks. But then Pod spots Stannis. Internal conflict. Stannis killed Renly. But she swore to look out for Sansa. For once, Brienne decides to do something just for herself.

She tracks Stannis. By the end of his losing battle, he doesn’t have much fight left. She is quite literally putting him out of his misery. “I sentence you to die,” Brienne says.

“Go on,” he says, “do your duty.”

It’s a type of death we don’t often get on Thrones: Stannis is physically okay, but his spirit is so utterly crushed that he’s just totally surrendered.

So Brienne kills Stannis. (Yes, book readers, I know—first The Hound, now Stannis). And boy, did Stannis have it coming. If only she ran into him a little earlier.

Another thought: Who would have ever figured, when the War of the Five Kings first began in season 2, that the last professed king standing would be … Balon Greyjoy! And we haven’t even seen Theon’s dad since season 3. Wonder if this means if he’ll pop up next year….

Winterfell: Sansa uses that stolen corkscrew in a way we did not expect—to escape her room. Sansa knows if there’s ever a chance to escape, it’s while forces are preparing for battle since Ramsay is focused on holding off Stannis rather than tormenting his bride. Sansa finally goes to the tower window to light a candle and signal Brienne.

But Sansa is stopped by Myranda and Theon. Myranda has a bow. “I’d rather die now, just go ahead and do it,” Sansa says, but Myranda has other plans—to wound her. Finally, in the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Theon hits his Vader-like turning point. He grabs the kennel keeper’s daughter and chucks her over the ledge and she hits the stone floor below and goes splat.

Now they really need to escape. Ramsay’s punishment would be … probably unimaginable to anybody but him. They run along the castle walls. With all the snow, the distance to the ground is uncertain. There’s something wonderfully romantic about this moment. Two childhood friends, who have been through hell, coming back together, they take hands, and then taking a leap of desperation and faith, jump … and that’s all we know.

A castle wall may not technically be a “cliff,” but this is like a literal cliffhanger.

True: Ramsay survived season 5. And yes, I’m sure some will be disappointed Sansa didn’t kill him, or at least kill Myranda herself. But at least Sansa escaped his clutches and Theon is on a path of redemption—assuming they both survived that fall. I can’t quite imagine Thrones having them both land in a gentle puff of soft snow and being perfectly okay at the start of season 6, yet I also can’t quite imagine the new season starting with one or both dead on the ground. Something in between then? My hope: They’re found by Brienne and Pod, since they’re reasonable close by.

Braavos: Last week, many of you suspected Arya would pull an O-Ren Ishii on Ser Meryn. And you were right.

We find Ser Meryn back at the brothel and he has three girls lined up, whipping them. Two of the girls keep crying, but one does not. Meryn is confused why his pedo-piano is broken. The silent girl looks up at him. We don’t recognize her face—and she rips it off. It’s Arya in disguise.

Arya scrambles up Ser Meryn like a little murder monkey and shucks eyes out with her oyster knife. This is what crossing off a name looks like! It’s very brutal and she makes sure he knows who she is before she’s done.

Arya returns to the Hall of Faces, but is caught trying to sneak the stolen mask back by Jaqen and The Waif, who’s all, “I told you she wasn’t ready.” Jaqen is angry. Well, not really. Jaqen doesn’t get angry. Like the best parents and teachers, he’s just super disappointed, which is somehow worse. Jaqen explains that because she took a life that wasn’t hers to take, she now has to replace it with another one. He drinks poison and collapses. Arya freaks out, crushed by the thought that she’s lost yet another person she cares about.

But then The Waif transforms into Jaqen. And then the dead body’s face changes. Who is it really? Arya pulls the face off. Then pulls off another, and another, and another. Then last one is her own. Arya, remember your failure at the brothel!

“The faces are as good as poison” to somebody who is not yet no one, Jaqen explains.

That’s when Arya’s vision gets hazy. She’s blind. Arya’s blind. Blind as old Maester Aemon. Zero chance of spotting another name on her list now.

Dorne: Last week some Dorne-mockers were saying in the comments, “But wait! What was the point of the whole Dorne story line if all that happens is that Jaime goes there, picks up his daughter, and comes back?” It turns out that’s not the whole point of the Dorne story line. If it all seemed too simple, that’s because it was.

Jaime, Bronn, Myrcella, and the Dornish say reasonably polite goodbyes. Ellaria gives Myrcella a smooch. We suspect this is bad. Tyene tells Bronn something he’ll think about the whole boat trip back. Later, on the ship, Myrcella is chatting with Jaime. He works up the courage to finally reveal, sort of, that he’s her father. She says she knows, and, in fact, she doesn’t care. “I think a part of me always knew,” she says. “I’m glad. I’m glad that you’re my father.”

We get misty eyed. Jaime is the notorious cold-hearted Kingslayer. Many have feared him, but they don’t typically respect him as a person. Cersei does, but that love has been tarnished in recent years. Now here’s his perfect offspring, and she knows his biggest sin, and loves him anyway. Has he ever felt that kind of acceptance? It’s another heartwarming Game of Thrones father-daughter moment and—

Oh no. Did I did just write a “heartwarming Game of Thrones father-daughter moment”?

Myrcella starts hemorrhaging, then dies.

On the beach, we see Ellaria taking the antidote to her poison and strutting off with the Sand Snakes.

This twist is also an answer for all those a few weeks ago who said, “But what’s the whole point of that jail scene with Bronn and the Sand Snakes?!” Again, patience was rewarded, the scene was a setup to introduce a deadly poison to be used more fatally later on.

Let’s put aside for a moment that yet another young woman just met a terrible death on Game of Thrones (though not nearly as terrible as the fate of last week’s volunteer from District 12, a.k.a. The Girl on Fire). Myrcella’s death have some major implications for next season. How do you think Cersei is going to react toward Dorne when Jaime shows up with their dead daughter? This could easily be seen as an act of war. For that matter, how is Cersei going to react toward Jaime, who seemingly can’t protect anybody? Jaime should just turn that ship back to Dorne and open a beach bar with Bronn.

Somewhere: Dany has flown pretty far. Last week I hoped that she might land on Tommen’s balcony, and she could tell that ineffectual kid to get out of her bed while Drogon munched on Ser Pounce. But we’re still in Essos, somewhere. Drogon drops her off, exhausted. Dany tries to tell Drogon to take her to Meereen, but he’s a dragon, not Uber.

She goes for a stroll, and finds herself surrounded by Dotharaki riders. These guys again!—the nomadic army Dany joined in season 1 is back. But to what end?

She drops a ring, I assume, in order to leave something behind so somebody can track her.

Somewhere, actress Emilia Clarke watches this finale and sighs: Great, now I’m going to have memorize a bunch of Dothraki again.

King’s Landing: Cersei breaks. She’s ready to confess. She’s taken to the High Sparrow. She gets on her knees and tells him what she thinks he wants to hear. Even as Cersei does it, she’s still lying about Jaime. She’s submitting through gritted teeth.

He tells her she will have a trial and he’s willing to release her. But he’s not finished with her yet. She must first undertake an act of atonement. They shave her head (“like Aslan” as actress Lena Headey said). And next, just like the way they treated the High Septon earlier this season, they strip her naked and push her out the door.

So there’s nothing I can say about this sequence that Headey, showrunner David Benioff, and author George R.R. Martin do not say more insightfully in our interviews linked at the end of the recap (Martin’s chapter on this sequence in A Dance with Dragons was absolutely amazing and hugely suspenseful).

But I’ll give it a shot: Cersei is a character who does not deserve our sympathy. She would kill anybody to—not just survive—but to simply get what she wants. Her rule since Joffrey’s death was a platform of paranoia and self-destruction, and her selfishness is setting up her own son, the king, for certain ruin. And yet … how can you not feel for somebody being so utterly and completely abused and humiliated? Stripped, shorn, marched naked through the streets, the insults. Director David Nutter frames the scene from Cersei’s perspective, doing his best to put us in her position. It’s like the anxiety dream of finding yourself naked in front of a group of people, yet amped to an extreme.

Today we use terms like “walk of shame” and “slut shaming” to describe comparatively mild everyday situations—a semi-awkward walk home, a sarcastic tweet. Thrones once again brings the medieval version of a modern idea and shows us the full horror of how humanity treats the powerless (in Cersei’s case, it’s somebody who has lost her power to somebody more powerful). As Martin explains, this sequence was not some fiction writer’s fantasy; the penance walk was a real thing.

The big question here, and it’s a really thorny (Thrones-y?) one, is this: Does Cersei deserve this punishment? Headey has a firm opinion on this subject, as you’ll read in her interview. It might depend on how you answer two questions: Do you believe a murderer deserves to die for killing others? And then do you believe that what Cersei suffered—being imprisoned, starved, beaten, and the Walk—is a fate that’s actually worse than simply being executed?

And yet, even trying to break this “deserve it” question down into a logic problem, it feels like the emotional impact of what we’re seeing spills beyond those parameters. Game of Thrones isn’t simple. This show has prompted more outraged and analytical headlines than any TV series I can remember, particularly this season. Some point to these stories and say, “Look, Thrones is doing something really wrong.” I see all the debate and wonder if any piece of popular art that generates so much passionate discussion isn’t inherently doing something right. Many will disagree with that, as is, I suppose, part of the point.

Cersei walks. It’s a very long way. She’s followed by a woman ringing a bell chanting, “Shame.” The crowd gets increasingly hostile. Headey’s performance in this sequence is riveting.

Cersei eventually makes it to the Red Keep, but not before she breaks into tears. She’s home. She crosses the threshold and collapses—and is grabbed by a mountain of a man. The Mountain, resurrected by creepy Qyburn. Who knows what’s under that helmet now, but his face looks gray. He’s sworn a vow of silence until he defeats Cersei’s enemies, Qyburn explains. That’s handy, and should keep him quite busy for awhile. Cersei is back in protective arms, safe, for the moment.

I sure wouldn’t want to be the High Sparrow next season. And I definitely wouldn’t want to be that ladle-smacking septa.

Meereen: Dany’s small council has made it safely back to the pyramid. Now what? Rule, I suppose. Keep the city running while the boss is on a flight out of town.

Grey Worm is alive and his usual charming self.

Ser Jorah declares he’s going to search for Dany, because that’s what he does. Daario is going to join him, but Tyrion will stay behind and run the city with Grey Worm. “Meereen is ancient and glorious, try not to ruin her,” Daario says.

For all those who have been asking “Where’s Varys?” we get an answer—he made it to the Meereen. Excellent. “I did miss you,” Tyrion says.

Once again I’m struck by how uniformly likable this whole group is, and how rare of a think that is on this show. It’s our first real Heroes Group. Essos Avengers assemble!

Castle Black: Melisandre returns. The typically brash sorceress is unlike how we’ve ever seen her before. She’s uncertain. Davos asks if Shireen is okay and she can’t even answer. Davos, buddy, you really don’t want to know.

We know what time it is—it’s near the end of the season 5 finale. We know something big is going to happen (because, TV). Jon is told to come quick, that his uncle Benjen is still alive. This is not only pranking Jon, but us as well, since one online rumor leading up to the finale was that Benjen would return. Thrones helped push this theory by reminding us who Benjen was in the “previously on” teaser before the finale began. We saw that and thought, “Ah-ha! Benjen is coming back, we’re smart.” But Thrones was setting us up.

Jon finds himself surrounded by his angry Night’s Watch brothers. Ghost is nowhere to be seen. This is very bad. The knives come out. “For the Watch.” Jon’s steward Olly, his family murdered by the Wildlings, is the last to plunge his blade into the Lord Commander. They betrayed him, just like they betrayed and murdered the previous leader, Mormont, at Craster’s Keep. They are mostly a bunch of criminals, after all.

There is a long shot of Jon’s face. Book-readers are waiting to see if they turn white, see if he wargs into Ghost (as one doctored photo that leaked online depicted). But no.

Jon’s death (if he is truly dead; more on that in a moment) is one where you can’t say it was a cheat. Jon has never fit in with the Night’s Watch, and he’s increasingly been looking at the big picture— the threat of the White Walkers— and behaving like a visionary leader and making noble decisions. But one constant theme in Game of Thrones is that gaining power can be relatively simple, but that ruling is very hard. Cersei, Stannis, Jon, Dany … all have struggled with leadership this season. Jon could have made an excellent king, but he lost sight of the feelings of the very lethal men surrounding him.

And yet, while there is all the story-based justification in the world to kill off Jon Snow (as in, it’s perfectly believable his brothers in black would shank him), his death feels like the series’ biggest loss. The only death that’s comparable is probably Ned Stark’s execution, but we only got to know him over nine episodes. Robb Stark was also a major blow, but it’s his half-brother Jon who always felt like a more central character—the overlooked bastard of mysterious parentage, secretly destined for greater things.

Maybe that’s why Jon’s death feels wrong even though it’s also logical. At no point has Thrones ever felt like Jon’s tale would end this soon, and here at The Wall, without ever knowing the truth about who his parents really are, and without ever meeting up with, say, Dany. And it also stings because Jon has grown so much since we first saw him—he has learned how to be a great leader … he just didn’t apparently learn enough, fast enough.

It also feels like—also for the first time since Ned’s death—a major leg from the Thrones table of storytelling has been knocked away. I once asked the showrunners if there’s any character death that would really zap a lot of life from their series. Dan Weiss replied: “There are several characters whose loss will do that. But it doesn’t mean they won’t die.” Thankfully, Game of Thrones still has enough characters to populate several TV dramas, so there is that.

As for whether he’s really dead, or just Princess Bride-ian “mostly dead,” I don’t know. In the books, probably not. In the show … maybe? Like Jon Snow, I know nothing about season 6. I pressed Kit Harington and showrunner Dan Weiss as strongly on this point as I could and both said the same thing—that he’s gone. But Melisandre is back at Castle Black, and there were no wounds above the neck, and it seems suspicious that Kit says nobody got him a goodbye present, since that’s a tradition on the set (unless he’s, like, a jerk or something, and I haven’t gotten that impression…). Certainly book-reading fans overwhelmingly believe he’s coming back. Everything I know about this subject, including the fan theories, are in the links below:


Oh, and one more thing. Below is EW’s cover photo from two years ago. At the time, the image concept was actually suggested by showrunners Weiss and David Benioff (“It’s ice and fire,” they said). I now wonder if this is the only time the two ever appeared—and now will ever appear—in costume together…

Credit: EW

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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