There’s a certain irony to this episode – this is the most off-book a Game of Thrones season finale has been to date. Despite that, it was probably the most predictable finale the series has had since the first season (and even then, that was only if one had read the book).
I feel kind of harsh saying that after I started this season legitimately excited for the idea of the show straying from the path, but from the sound of other people, it’s not like I was alone in feeling this way. Which is a shame, since I still maintain this year’s run started off strong with a lot of potential to it.
But as it started to round the corner and come into the home stretch, things started coming apart. What was initially new and exciting had begun to feel like either clumsy misfires or treading water. That all came to a head last night in the wake of this season’s fandom-angering penultimate episode.
Actually, I’ll be fair before I go on. The finale wasn’t all bad. In fact, the final third of it is pretty well put together (for the most part; I have some issues there, but I’ll save that for discussing the season as a whole at the end). The big problem is that much of the first two-thirds of the episode feels varying levels of rushed, predictable, or just uninspired. I saw a lot of this coming last week, and wanted to believe I would be proven wrong, but…sure enough.
The Stannis storyline appears to have been laid to rest in a rather less than dignified fashion this week. This is now two weeks in a row where bad things have happened in Stannis’s camp that his watchmen were completely oblivious to. Only the first of these can be credited to/blamed on the almost supernatural good luck the showrunners have apparently gifted to Ramsay Bolton. Two of these in a row is just getting ridiculous.
But then, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Stannis’s storyline this week can be best described as a mad dash to the graveyard. Normally, when you have a character carry out a hugely polarizing act like what happened to Shireen last week, you want to take some time to really parse out the consequences of that decision and how it effects the players involved. Because this is the season finale, however, the show doesn’t have the time for that, so Stannis basically gets the final act of Macbeth with the fast forward button broken to make his peace before the end.
I stress that ‘fast forward’, by the way. Despite all the build-up this season has made to his marching down to wage war against House Bolton, the actual battle is cut away from in a cost-cutting move we’ve not seen the likes of since season 1. It sort of further highlights the bad luck of the last Baratheon brother in a lot of ways – despite being the battle that had the most build-up, he gets dealt a ‘cut to the aftermath’ as the earlier sudden battles at Hardhome and Meereen drained the budget faster than a drunken Robert Baratheon.
…okay, last one of those, I swear.On the plus side, Stannis isn’t alone in getting anticlimactically written off here. After spending the entire season recovering from the verbal burns doled out on her by Sansa and Littlefinger, Brienne finally gets to do something this season. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the task she’s made her goal for the past two seasons now, and instead renders her a human Chekhov Rifle to fall back on her revenge vow in season two.
Which, in this light, feels rather underwhelming for both parties involved. When Brienne finds Stannis, he’s an absolutely broken character – his army is defeated, he’s wounded, and he’s lost everything. I will give Stephen Dillane some points here for selling this well, but the fact is, he’s basically been destroyed by the time she finds him. So even the one thing they decided to set her up for this season feels like they had to hand it to her on a platter.
Before I go on with the rest of this episode, I do want to again reiterate – the show REALLY needs to reel in Ramsay next season. This is nothing against Iwan Rheon, he’s done well with what the part gives him. The problem is, the character is just too ridiculously overpowered now. EVERYTHING goes his way, no questions asked. Just about every other sadistic character in the series has had to deal with some obstacles while he just keeps breezing through. I really, really don’t get it.
In the last thread of the North storyline, Sansa and Theon wind up on a rail that is rather awkwardly reset back to where it left off in the books. This is a little rewarding and a little frustrating in turns. On the one hand, this is probably one of the better turns Sophie Turner has had over the course of this season, going so far as to decide she’d choose death over having to face Ramsay again, and Theon’s story finally stops turning into a repetitive loop. On the other, like so much of this episode, it feels like they just skipped ahead in order to get everything where it needed to be.
Likewise, Dorne started off this season as an interesting change to its book plot. Sending Jaime and Bronn had the potential to make for a really good storyline. As it is, however, it winds up amounting a large chunk of mostly nothing here before culminating in a rather sloppily executed twist. It doesn’t bode well for your writing when the response to Myrcella’s fate, a moment that’s supposed to be a huge shocker is instead met with a lot of confused speculation as to who was or wasn’t in on the plan and whether or not Myrcella was the only target.
In a season where a lot of stories had to rush for time, this one feels like it could have taken up far less screentime than it did while still getting the point across. I enjoy Jerome Flynn as much as the next person, but his banter with the Sand Snakes is something we could have cut pretty guiltlessly.
Speaking of time mismanagement, Arya’s plot this week is one where I’m torn between whether to be disappointed at how much it indulged in things we REALLY didn’t need, or just feel relieved it only went as far as it did. Yeah, I realize this is kind of inspired by a preview chapter from The Winds of Winter, but the entire ‘Meryn Trant is a pedophile’ storyline is something that wasn’t really essential to the series and they could have found ways to work out an Arya hit without scenes of him beating young girls to set them up.
And much as I enjoy seeing Arya get revenge, the actual kill here was…kind of excessive. After the cold-blooded take-down she started season four with, this seemed like an uncharacteristic step backwards. The follow-up scenes back at the House of Black and White were at least well done and in keeping with the book, but man, that lead-in was a lot of “was this necessary?”
Which is a question that applies to a lot of Meereen this week, albeit for different reasons. After its big finish last week, this week largely just turns into everyone asking ‘Where’s Dany?’ before sending Jorah and Daario to retrieve the errant plot thread. With Barristan dead, Tyrion now gets his spot and Dany’s last scene with another Dothraki khalasar surrounding her. It’s accurate to the book, but also a scene that doesn’t play quite as strongly without all the introspection and really doesn’t carry the time it’s given here.
In fact, damning as this may be for the showrunners, the parts of this finale that worked the best were the ones where they were just going off of what the book told them. Cersei’s walk of atonement was easily the highlight of the episode, with some sharp direction and some of the best work Lena Headey’s done all season. The scene is another on the list of scenes that give the sense the show is finally starting to learn how to handle shocking scenes without feeling exploitative. It’s enough to give some hope for the future.
Of course, the big shocker of this finale was…a little bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the now infamous ‘For the Watch’ was a scene from the original book, and its execution here is largely pretty good. The problem for me is one of the overall season – thanks to streamlining a lot of Jon’s tenure as Lord Commander, the show never really builds up the full laundry list of bad calls he made that eventually turned the Night’s Watch against him. Instead, it just makes the whole thing a matter of being sore at the Wildlings. Which one could almost sympathize with…were it not for the fact the show has already played the Others, which makes their still hanging on to this petty grudge after being more aware than any other faction in play about how much of a threat the walkers are, seem REALLY needlessly spiteful. I mean, say what one will of Alliser Thorne, the man’s a jerk, but he’s a pragmatic jerk. This was not a pragmatic call.
All in all, if I had to sum up this finale in one word, and I realize this is going to sound cruel, I think I would have to describe it as ‘unearned.’ A lot happens, but not enough of it feels like it was properly built up so much as it was a conclusion that was arrived at for necessities of the plot. Even with the departures from the book, many of the stories still forcefully rerail themselves for The Winds of Winter.
Which, in a way, is a problem with this season all around – as the first season without George R.R. Martin on-hand to consult with, the show really does hurt for his lack of guidance. They make some game attempts to try and strike out on their own, but ultimately wind up returning to the path he’s laid for them despite that.
I’m going to need to take more time to really process where I’ll place this season. The first half had put it ahead of the fourth season for me (while the second is on the lower end, it at least gave us Blackwater to make up some of the difference). This second half, however, has really counterbalanced a lot of the good that first half gave us.
Ultimately, I feel like it will be tough to properly rank this until we get season six and I can really see if some of the clumsier things set up in this episode were done with the long-term in mind or simply poor writing.
All in all though, it’s a shame to see a season that started this promising go out on this note. It certainly wasn’t all bad, but it really fumbled the ball quite a bit near the end here.
George, I hope you get the next book done soon. Both for its own sake and because this show seems to be really hurting without you.
With that in mind, I still plan to be back here this time next year. There’s good still in here, it’s just finding it among the missteps that becomes the challenge.
Till next season.
-Some solid direction and acting on the King’s Landing storyline this week
-Nice to see the show giving Sophie Turner and Alfie Allen something new after being in ‘beaten dog’ mode for the last few episodes
-D&D don’t have Stannis to kick around anymore!
-Brienne ultimately wasted this season – yeah, her book plot wasn’t intensive, but it still served more purpose than this
-The payoff in Dorne clumsily carried off
-Thanks to streamlining The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Jon Snow, the mutiny feels poorly set up
-Though more of a season complaint, getting pretty tired of Ramsay the SuperPsycho
Overall season score: 3/5 (cumulative – 3.5 for the first half, 2.5 for second)