So apparently this season’s running on the logic of ‘if the audience is getting pissed off, it means we know they’re watching.’
At least, that’s the impression I’ve had as of this week’s episode, which pulled the rare hat trick of making almost everyone angry for varying different reasons, and all with just one scene.
So let’s just get into that one, shall we?
This week’s episode had a pretty suitably impressive cliffhanger overall. But you wouldn’t know it from the middle portion of this episode where the series took a grimmer than usual turn. His supplies sabotaged and snow piling in, a desperate Stannis Baratheon made the move that pissed off thousands of viewers and sacrificed his daughter to the Red God.
I’m going to be honest right now, I’m simultaneously willing to argue for this scene while also absolutely hating the decisions that lead to it happening as it has.
Within the context of the scene, viewers are now hating Stannis. I don’t even mean like regular hate either. This is full blown ‘Roger Ebert just got out of a screening of North‘ hatred I’ve seen getting flung the guy’s way.
I’ll say this much – within the context of the episode, I’m willing to defend the action. Yes, it’s an incredibly harsh thing to do, both as a leader and as a parent. At the same time, remember the series we’re watching here. One of the rules this series has been hammering in to people from the get-go is that being a ruler isn’t always about being nice and likable, nor is it about making the easy choices. Look to Stannis’s brothers to see examples of where that philosophy can get you (and since someone’s inevitably going to point out how Renly died, let’s be fair here – if Stannis was able to pull that on him, it would have only been a matter of time before Tywin would have planted him).
Outside of the context of the show…THAT’S where I get to join the angry mob. I’d spent a lot of this season talking about how pleasantly surprised I was with the way this season seemed to be interested in showing the human side of Stannis underneath his stern outset. After the last few seasons of reducing him to a largely stock unlikable individual, it felt like the showrunners finally decided to try and bring back the little bits of nuance to the man. Then this happened. Suddenly all of those new moments had a bitter tinge to them on looking back. They no longer felt like the showrunners were developing a new lease on a character they had previously written off – it felt like they just wanted to soften the audience up to make this hit as hard as possible.
And it did. Even though we don’t see the actual burning, the screams are uncomfortably effective at selling the scene. Taken on its own, it’s a well done scene, but in the context of the episode, it sadly cheapened a lot of the earlier arc they had for me by showing just how much it was calculated to make us care about Stannis and Shireen so that this scene would hurt more and make audiences angry at Stannis.
Almost a page and it’s all on this one scene. Which, in a way, kind of highlights one of the problems with how this episode is put together. By making this the center, rather than the climax, they miscalculated the responses people would have to the particular moments. Meanwhile, the big climax in Meereen, while an impressive moment, ultimately still took the backseat to this mid-episode shocker that also drowned out a lot of the rest of the episode.
Not that there’s a whole lot to really write home about besides this and Meereen, that is. Arya’s storyline is starting to harvest plot from preview chapters of The Winds of Winter, and while it presents and interesting moral dilemma, it also risks taking the season back into dicey territory one more time before we duck out for the summer. Meanwhile, Dorne’s storyline largely seems to have stalled for the most part, with the possible diplomatic blow-out resulting in little more than Bronn getting five in the face.
This, of course, could still change. Two Sand Snakes haven’t necessarily given up the fight yet, but it will take a LOT for this arc to really not feel like a lot of puttering around, albeit with some entertaining character banter.
As for the big finish in Meereen, I’m somewhat mixed about it. It’s a great spectacle piece, albeit not one really on the level of some of the earlier ‘penultimate’ episodes (okay, I wasn’t expecting another Blackwater, but The Rains of Castamere, for being a similarly-sized bloodbath, carried more of a sense of chaos and urgency to it than this does). On top of which, as other critics have pointed out, arranging this after Shireen’s death creates a really strange contrast – one little girl being burned alive is treated as an act that, to many in the audience, was an unforgivable sin, while they were then expected to cheer Drogon lighting up faceless Sons of the Harpy like they were birthday candles.
I know Weiss has gone on record as trying to argue this as being akin to the old ‘superhero’ dillema (i.e. individual death being harder to take than droves of people), but honestly, I’m not really feeling like that was an intent here. Especially given we go from the burning to this scene beginning with people’s deaths being played for comedy in the fighting pits.
It feels less like a statement, more like just a bad call in terms of scene placing.
Also, this did highlight something that, the more I think about it, the more I find a drawback to this season – the irritating convenience of the Sons of the Harpy. Yes, they’re an insidious enemy. I can respect that idea. The problem is, too often the show just seems to keep them tucked away until the plot demands someone die. Then BOOM, they’re all right there with next to no set-up required. In this case, leading to a scene that, the more I think about it, reminds me a little too much of the arena scene from Attack of the Clones.
I mean, I could just chalk it up to coincidence if this had been how GRRM wrote it, but outside of an assassination attempt and Drogon appearing, this version was crafted almost wholecloth for the show.
Overall, I think this may be the weakest penultimate episode the series has had so far. For a tradition the show has made an unwritten rule, this one just feels like it doesn’t really come together. It has two big ‘slam’ moments, but they don’t really complement each other well enough in terms of tone or theme to really play off of one another. They almost seem to match the idea of leaders making a hard choice for their people, but when one is reviled by audiences while the other is praised, can it really be said the message got through? Pair those with a storyline that seems to be sputtering out and dying right now, and it feels like, were it not for the infamous burning, this would just be another episode. By comparison, Hardhome felt like more of the ‘game changer’ the ninth episode is traditionally supposed to be than this did.
I mean, say what you will about The Watchers on the Walls (personally, I liked it) it still made its point more clearly and with a better sense of organization than this did.
With one episode left, this has been a pretty wild ride of a season. There’s been a lot of speculation so far about what we can expect from Mother’s Mercy when it airs this Sunday. I’m just hoping it manages to tie all of these plot threads back together in a better manner than this. This wasn’t a bad episode per se, but it was certainly disappointing.
-It took five seasons, but the show is finally learning restraint can be more effective than showing
-Some enjoyable character interactions keeping Dorne from being a total wash this week
-I could do an entire article on the issues with what the show has done with Stannis
-Thematically scattershot with two stories just losing out entirely as a result
Not going to say too much this week outside of this – with Tyene and Obara now released, I’m not going to rule out the possibility there could still be bloodshed in Dorne next week. It may not be as AFFC had it (luckily, I’d rather not see Bronn get offed after this season) but we could still see things take a turn. Otherwise, this will have just felt like an excuse to keep Jaime away while Cersei made the rope to hang herself with. Which was kind of the case in the books as well, but at least there Jaime got more done as a diplomat to the Riverlands. Will have to wait and see.