Let’s Talk About ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5

“Unbowed. Unbent. Unbroken” – the words of House Martell. Keenly enough, the phrase is doubly symbolic. It’s the title of THE episode in Season 5 that stirred a lot of online fan fervor. We’re also introduced to the Sand Snakes this season – a widely derided plotline that left much to be desired. Lastly, Season 5 brought about the abrupt conclusion of Stannis’ campaign for the Iron Throne— and the fate of one character that still remains as the show at its most heedlessly cruel, even by Game of Thrones’ standards.

So what happened with Season 5? Was the show stuck in the shadow of Season 4 – resolutely the show at its dramatic best, or was it the breaking away from the source material that proved too great a challenge for creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss?

Season 5 was the rare and only time I had written GoT episode recaps, and, as a book fan, I resisted a great deal of the changes and decisions made. Revisiting the episodes 4 years later, most of Season 5 has surprisingly aged well.

I can say without a doubt, Season 5 starts off strong. It kicks off with the show’s first ever flashback. Creators David & Dan, like all writers at some point, vowed to never use flashbacks. The reveal of Cersei’s prophecy in this rare glimpse into the past tells us a great deal about the very human anxieties hiding behind her viciousness.

With Cersei as the centerpiece character in King’s Landing, the season thrives. Losing Charles Dance could’ve been to the show’s detriment, but Lena Headey is more than capable of carrying the dramatic weight of an entire locale. Part of what makes her so eminently watchable as Cersei; like her or not, you can’t take your eyes off her, because so much is expressed in her walk, the way she holds her hands, even the tilt of her head.

Much has been made about the High Sparrow plotline and how the Sparrows came to overtake King’s Landing so suddenly. I don’t care much about plot holes or logistics as much as I care about the challenge it poses for Cersei, Margaery, and Lady Olenna. They are characters born unto houses of great wealth, who’ve maintained their privilege all their lives, and they’re forced to reckon with a Joker-like character – someone who can’t be bought, bullied, or reasoned with.

Who can reason above the Gods? And who can attest to the God’s justice other than Jonathan Pryce. I wished we had more scenes with Charles Dance and Dianna Rigg. But Dianna Rigg and Jonathan Pryce acting opposite each other? I can dig it.

There is something deeply incisive about Cersei’s walk of shame— a public shaming trial that feels oh so relevant to the rhythms of social media today. Cersei might’ve done unspeakable things, but she’s being slut-shamed by the same mob of people who ripped apart a Septon and tried to rape Sansa (in the books, it’s Lollys Stokeworth who gets raped – and the scale of what happens to her in the riot is profoundly unspeakable).

The hypocrisy is staggering. Cersei is forced to walk naked among the streets because a man decides she must, because he believes he’s speaking on behalf of the gods. And that devout belief justifies city-wide shaming. It’s the fantasy equivalent of being called out, dragged, and canceled, and it feels wrong, even for a character like Cersei.

Lena Headey gets the meatiest part of Season 5. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – another top-notch performer – is stuck in the most throwaway. For a time, Jaime and Bronn’s detour in Dorne is a worthwhile buddy-comedy. (I LOVE that Bronn is the connective tissue between Jaime and Tyrion.) But when they adorn the Dornish robes and “fight” the Sand Snakes in the water gardens, the arc comes to an ignominious end, and we’re left to contend with Ellaria’s murder plot.

I don’t mind that Ellaria wants revenge. What doesn’t sit right, even now, is that Myrcella was the focus of Ellaria’s rage despite Oberyn’s promise that, “we don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” If, say, the Sand Snakes used the threat against Myrcella’s life to lure the Lannisters in a trap, it wouldn’t have been so morally catastrophic for their characters. Then again, that would’ve been entirely predicated on Dorne’s ruler, Prince Doran, wanting said revenge too.

Alexander Siddig has presence as an actor. It’s a damn shame that he nor the Sand Snakes are given the kind of richness to their characters that Pedro Pascal did as Oberyn. Perhaps this speaks to a larger conflict within the show, that unless a character is in a major plot point, they nor the culture of their locale won’t get much screen-time, let alone some interesting lines.

Dany’s plot in Meereen introduces us to the caste system that ruled for centuries and endures us to all this talk of “traditions” that held the city together. Hell, the Iron Islands sat out Season 5 and we still know a great deal about their culture, whereas I know nothing about Dorne other than that it has one palace, terrible guards, and curved swords. Dorne is relegated to an exotic location that gives Jaime and Bronn something to do on the chessboard.

Myrcella dies, which hammers in the Sand Snakes’ coffin, making them villainous over compelling. Don’t get me started on the “conflict” with Bronn. He gets cut by a poison-laced spear, fears death in maybe all of 60 seconds, and is given the antidote *after Tyene Sand fulfills the episode’s nudity requirement. This is a show that features compelling characters even in the most minor of supporting roles: Edmure Tully, the Blackfish, Lysa Arryn, Podrick. Alexander Siddig, Indira Varma and the rest of the Dornish cast do the best with what they’re given. Ultimately, the script lets them down.

The same could be said of Season 5’s treatment of Sansa. Her apprenticeship under Lord Baelish showed promise in the first 2 episodes. Cut to the reveal of Baelish’s proposal to the Boltons. (Narrator: It was not fine.) We might’ve bore witness to a whole season of Ramsay torturing Theon, but for multiple seasons now we’ve watched Sansa tormented time and time again. Trading Sansa from Joffrey to Ramsay is excessive, even for Game of Thrones.

Now, I’m not a fan of the whole, “that didn’t happen in the books” argument because it posits that adaptations are beholden to the source-book as opposed to being free to transcend and exist on its own plane. Because why would I want a faithful page-by-page rendering when I could just…pickup the damn book and read it again.

Humor me for a moment. In the books, Ramsay is betrothed to an Arya Stark look-a-like. Jeyne Poole, one of Sansa’s childhood best friends is paraded in the North as Arya to secure the Boltons’ dominion over Winterfell. Jeyne had grown up with the Stark children and Theon/Reek, and it’s a reminder of this relationship that causes him to break and rebel and escape.

I understand why this arc was condensed and changed to fit in Sansa. Without it, it’s hard to imagine what would make Theon break. But that’s the problem, what happens to Sansa is in service of Theon’s redemption; it’s the show dipping its toes in shock factor. Because the Winterfell plotline doesn’t tell us anything new about Sansa other than what we’ve already known and known porously: that she’s a victim.

The plotline objectively does what it needs to do; it’ll go on to service a rewarding payoff in Season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards.” But I can’t say I disagree with the backlash that followed “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Of course, Sansa’s rape should be offensive because rape is offensive. I suppose our reactions to Sansa’s arc in Season 5 all but affirm our investment in her. We want these characters to have a happy ending. Game of Thrones reminds us that it’s, well, Game of Thrones.

And it does so rather poignantly with Shireen Baratheon. That’s the double whammy of what made Season 5 so polarizing: Sansa’s rape, and Shireen’s death. The difference, and I’ll tread lightly, is that time has been kind to the latter. Again, treading lightly.

Stannis in Season 5 reckons with his conviction to become king. His situation in the North growing dire, he’s forced to ask himself: what is he willing to do to fulfill his destiny? The sabotage at camp, like the Sparrows taking over King’s Landing, doesn’t make a great deal of sense logistically. (Does Stannis employ the same guards in Dorne?) Thematically, it asks him what is the Iron Throne worth?

When he commits Shireen to the stake, he surrenders what made him human. It’s a blunt reminder of what Stannis has always done and what we chose to turn a blind eye to. He burns people alive. He was never a hero, and it was never going to end well for Stannis, but I think the lot of us hoped it would end well for Shireen, that maybe Davos would take care of her, or she’d reunite with Sam and Gilly. We were wrong.

The setup of the kings-blood in Season 3, the increasingly dire situation in the North, Stannis’ stern commitment to the Lord of Light so long as it meant sitting on the Iron Throne. It all pointed to one harrowing end for Stannis and his house. But that doesn’t make Shireen’s death any easier to watch.

This shot right here is all I can stomach. I don’t consider myself squeamish, but the burning of Shireen is too callous, too brutal; unreservedly Game of Thrones at its cruelest. Stannis, at the very end, doesn’t cower or evade. In a truly splendid moment expressed by Stephen Dillane right before the charge, Stannis faces his fate head on.

During my recaps, I preemptively judged the season as the show at its worst. (I even threatened to quit the show like some pretentious fanboy.) Season 5 has its bumps and its share of bruises, but upon revisiting, it remains gripping as ever. The first 4 episodes – the ones that were dubiously leaked – set a spectacular tone early on; the Hardhome sequence remains terrifyingly efficient; Tyrion’s pairing with Jorah is still inspired; and the performances across Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, and Alfie Allen are magnificent. The gorgeous production design and vibrant scores are ever-present; it’s the writing that falters. This wouldn’t be the first time the show would reckon with the choices made in the writers’ room. (*Cough, cough* Season 7)

Season 5’s sins feel no more atrocious as certain TV shows phoning it in currently. Is it the best Game of Thrones had to offer? No, it could and would go on to do better. Does that make Season 5 the worst? Far from it.

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