Rather than inflict my extremely book-based ranting on Salon.com, I decided to write up some thoughts over here. This is going to be a bit rougher than my usual, but bear with me.
Let’s start with what I actually liked about the episode. Jon sending Sam to Oldtown was (before the location and casting news for Season 6) a pleasant surprise. While I found the actual murder of Meryn Trant to be lacking in comparison to “Mercy” in terms of artistic parallels – and I note the stills of Arya retrieving Needle seem to have been cut entirely – I thought the face sequence was really quite bone-chilling, and at least Arya’s blindness is following the books.
The sequence in King’s Landing was an excellent adaptation of Cersei’s walk from the books – in a rare turn for the show, it wasn’t done in an exploitative fashion, Lena Headey turned in an amazing performance, and we got Frankengregor! I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t see Cersei begin to hallucinate – if you’ve already got Maggy the Frog for the season, why not use her? – but that’s a minor quibble. At the same time, however, I’m really disappointed that Kevan and Pycelle remain alive and that we don’t get Varys’ Bond villain speech. Seems like Benioff and Weiss are determined to miss some of the best parts of ADWD (looking at you, Wyman Manderly).
The sequence in Meereen and the Dothraki sea was pretty good, and I could see Tyrion spending some time setting the city to rights after the Battle of Fire while Dany is busy “going back to go forwards” at Vaes Dothrak. I thought Emelia Clarke did good work as someone brought much more down to earth, literally wrestling with her draconic nature. Jon’s sequence was nicely executed – the headfake with Benjen, the genuinely surprising inclusion of Alliser Thorne among the assassins, etc. I am much more worried that Kit Harrington isn’t coming back for Season 6 – leaving aside whether they’re going to do Jon Snow’s resurrection at all, it’s not good storytelling to have an entire season go by before it happens, because it makes everyone else involved in that story (Melisandre, Dolorous Edd, Alliser Thorne, and the rest of the crew at the Wall) spin their wheels for an entire season.
Speaking of which, the Dorne sequence. Well, something finally happened in Dorne, but it’s not very well handled at all. Looking at the entire plot from beginning to end, and it’s astonishing how comprehensively the AFFC plot was butchered – in addition to completely losing the exploration of the costs of vengeance or the father/daughter conflict or the power of nationalism, the ending puts things in a very strange light. Ellaria blatantly poisons Myrcella after having sworn fealty to Doran – which not only renders Doran a complete idiot in comparison to his book counterpart but also means that Trysane’s got no purpose going forward, so there goes any hope of Arianne’s TWOW plotline being continued in any way. Moreover, they completely missed out on their opportunity for the major reveal – that Doran is a secret partisan of the Targaryens and has a master plan for revenge against the Lannisters.
So let’s talk about the North. I’ll get into Stannis (and indeed, Brienne) in some detail in a second, but Theon and Sansa’s storyline was really truncated and didn’t come off that well. To begin with, there really isn’t any escalation that helps to explain why Theon makes a break from his Reek persona to kill Myranda and try to escape with Sansa. Secondly, having Sansa’s daring escape and signalling come to precisely nothing doesn’t exactly answer any critiques that the conflation of Sansa and Jeyne Poole’s storylines has robbed Sansa of much of her developing agency. Thirdly, given that you’ve established that Melisandre’s magic has melted the snows, how exactly do Theon and Sansa walk away from jumping off an eighty-foot wall into a non-existent snowbank? How do they avoid recapture by a Bolton army that’s a few yards away at best?
Which brings us to Stannis, who finds that the blood magic has worked, clearing the snows, that most of his army has deserted, that his wife has committed suicide, that he’s easily defeated by the Boltons, and then gets murdered by Brienne. Needless to say, I think this badly misreads Stannis’ character arc – to begin with, I entirely agree with BryndenBFish that I don’t think Stannis loses the Battle of Ice with the Boltons. Indeed, I would go further and say that, if Stannis is indeed going to sacrifice Shireen in the books (a subject I’m addressing in another essay), it’s pretty much impossible for him to have done so and for the Pink Letter to be true, given that Shireen is 700 miles away at the Wall while Stannis is three day’s march away from Winterfell.
Now, as I have said and I will argue further in the essay I’ve just mentioned, I think it’s possible that Stannis sacrifices Shireen, but only after winning the Battle of Ice. (If for no other reason than it’s going to take time for Shireen and Melisandre to get to Winterfell…) Stannis has repeatedly refused to use human sacrifice to beat the Boltons and those were mere soldiers; he’s not going to sacrifice Shireen for that. But when the Wall falls, and the army of the dead marches on Winterfell, and Melisandre comes to him and says that the salvation of the realm and all of humanity depends on him following in Azor Ahai’s footsteps and sacrificing the person he loves “best of all that is in this world,” to wake the dragon from stone that we know is under Winterfell (that we know Dany has to defeat at some point), that is the precise scenario in which he would actually do that. And to find out afterward that he’s not Azor Ahai, that all his sacrifices were in vain, that’s the tragic realization.
But an important point regarding Stannis as a tragic figure: in tragedies, the tragic hero usually accomplishes something in the process of their downfall. Agamemnon killing his daughter leads to his wife killing him, but before that happens the Achaean fleet sails for Troy and sacks the city; Oedipus solves the mystery and ends the plague; Hamlet kills his uncle for murdering his father; Macbeth actually becomes king. But to have Stannis do what he does and then lose so ignominiously is as if Agamemnon and his fleet sank in the harbor at Aulis, or Oedipus’ investigation failed to end the plague, or if Claudius is alive at the end of Hamlet.
Moreover, I think this does real damage to Brienne’s story arc as well. In AFFC, Brienne comes face to face with Lady Stoneheart, the supernatural embodiment of revenge, and is put in an impossible situation where she’s being made to choose between her knightly ideals – protecting innocents like Pod – and the solely destructive path of vengeance (killing Jaime). Lady Stoneheart’s mission of murder is ultimately a distraction from the better path – i.e, finding Sansa and Arya. And yet in the show, Brienne literally turns away from her mission to rescue Sansa in order to execute Stannis. Yay vengeance?
Ok, rant over.