Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones Explained: The Harsh Truths of The Season 5 Finale

By  · Published on June 15th, 2015


Another season of Game of Thrones has come and gone. And with it, numerous seemingly major characters have departed in a hurry. It’s part of the plan for Thrones, which has spent 10 weeks out of each of the last 5 years dominating Sunday night television with shock and awe storytelling. If you’re not clear on what this show is about – rape, murder, torture, betrayal and the impending doom of all mankind – then as Ramsay Bolton might say, “you haven’t been paying attention.”

This was also reinforced by an eventful season finale, capping off one of the most tumultuous finishes in show history. Every previous season has had their big moment – the Ned Stark, the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the Mountain and the Viper – but no season yet has closed with three consecutive episodes that were as monstrous as season 5. That alone will be the great achievement of season 5: it closed long and hard and ultimately doubled down on the brutality.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is a discussion for another day. I’ll spend the rest of the week discussing season 5 from a wider angle. Today’s column is all about the finale and the hard lessons that we, the audience, have learned. As per usual, this Monday Game of Thrones column is intended for anyone. It does not include book spoilers, but is informed by some handy book-related backstory. Though as we’ll discuss with our first topic, the era of book spoilers is pretty much over (at least for now).


1. The Era of Book Spoilers is Over (for now)

If you follow Game of Thrones closely, you’ll note that plenty of experts, book reader types and pundits (myself included) have spent a large portion of season 5 talking about how this season has gone “way off book.” Show creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss have begun to walk their own path and much of that path has diverged from that of author George R.R. Martin.

This is true to an extent. In the books, Sansa Stark is still chilling in The Vale incognito as Littlefinger’s niece and Tyrion Lannister has not yet met Daenerys Targaryen. Those are deviations from the book, but both can be pretty objectively seen as efforts to streamline some of the bloat that exists in Martin’s final few books. There’s no need for Sansa and Tyrion, two characters that have engaged show watchers tremendously, to remain as stagnant as they have in the books.

However, when it comes to the big moments – in particular the cliffhangers at Castle Black and with Daenerys – the books and the show are still in lockstep. Many of us anticipated that the show wouldn’t dare end with the stabbing of Jon Snow before cutting to credits. Surely the show can’t let that cliffhanger linger for an entire year. Especially considering the fact that many book readers have spent years conjuring theories as to how Jon Snow might survive his ordeal. But no, the show saw fit to stop in exactly the same spot as the books. Which means that everyone is now on equal footing. None of us know for sure if there’s any future for Jon Snow. We won’t know until one of two things happens: the Season 6 premiere or the release of Martin’s “The Winds of Winter.”

I can tell you this: book readers still believe. And until Kit Harrington shaves his head and books a Pompeii sequel to film this year, show watchers would be wise to hold out hope, as well.

Game of Thrones: Arya


2. Even a Badass Act Has Consequences

Arya finally got to cross a name off of her list. And in doing so, Maisie Williams delivered her most fierce performance yet. This is the Arya Stark moment that we’ve been waiting for since Ned Stark’s head was removed in season 1. The only thing that could have made it better was having it set to the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” (get on that, Internet.)

Yet even this most brutal, well-deserved elimination of the spectacularly dishonorable Meryn Trant is not without consequences. Arya went outside the rules of her summer internship in the House of Black and White. And for her violation, The Many Faced God gave her a number of somewhat confusing gifts in quick succession: Jaqen is dead! Well, maybe not. Arya is dead? Nope, just blind. Am I dead? It’s hard to say. Either way, Arya did not get much time to celebrate crossing someone off of her list. Such is life on Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones: Stannis Dies


3. The Lord of Light is Screwing With Everyone

As far as we can tell thus far, Melisandre has been very good at guessing what’s going to happen. She’s not quite as powerful as she may have seemed several seasons ago. We learn this early in the finale with Stannis’ No Good, Terrible, Very Bad Day. After watching him burn his daughter, much of his army leaves him to be slaughtered by an alarmingly large contingent of Bolton soldiers.

Somewhere along the line, Melisandre got it wrong. Either she picked her champion, her Azor Ahai reborn, incorrectly in Stannis, or her visions were the makings of madness and The Lord of Light is a complete fraud. Based on her distraught look upon arriving at Castle Black, it’s clear the even the Red Woman herself has begun to doubt everything she’s believed throughout the entirety of this story. What we do know, as an audience, is that there is some truth to the magic. Thoros of Myr was able to resurrect his friend Beric Dondarrian in season three’s “Kissed by Fire” episode after he is killed by The Hound. So The Lord of Light’s magic isn’t complete nonsense, it’s just that Melisandre has been gravely wrong in choosing her champion. Perhaps she’ll choose another. Perhaps this is a fact that will haunt show watchers as it has haunted book readers for years. Perhaps this has something to do with item #1 above. I don’t know for sure, but I’m not ready to write anything off completely.


4. Even Cersei Didn’t Deserve That

In a season that has been unkind to female characters (to say the least), the brutality of Cersei’s punishment will loom large over everything else. To their credit, Benioff and Weiss alongside director David Nutter did a wonderful job executing this particularly difficult sequence. At first, it’s natural to want Cersei to receive ample punishment for the horrible things she’s done to others from her Iron Throne-adjacent position. She was mostly responsible for the death of Ned Stark, she tormented Sansa, she’s been trying to kill our beloved Tyrion for a while now and even more recently, she set up Margaery and Loras to be tried by the Faith Militant. Oh, and she orchestrated the murder of King Robert. Comeuppance has been on its way toward Cersei for some time.

But as her walk of atonement wore on, it was difficult not to feel bad for Cersei. As characters on Game of Thrones go, she’s one of the most easily understood in her motiviations. She is, above all other things, fiercely protective of her children. And every act of cruelty or cunning has been about protecting herself (Robert was a pretty terrible husband), her children (Ned’s truth-spouting would have nullified Joffrey’s claim to the Iron Throne) and her family legacy (Tyrion did kill their father, after all). Cersei is not a good person, but she’s also more of a short-sighted survivalist than the personification of pure evil. A lifetime of power has left her smug, but a single stroll through town has brought her crashing down to earth again.

What’s disconcerting about it all is that right there at the end, just as Cersei begins to break down (thanks in large part to another fantastic performance from Lena Headey), just as we’re all feeling bad for her, we’re reminded of the fact that despite all the odds, somehow Cersei keeps winning. Everyone has given up on her, except for her creepy Maester Qyburn and his new friend, the resurrected meat-stack of The Mountain. As he picks her up and silently vows to vanquish all of her enemies, the old Cersei starts to creep into Lena Headey’s expression. She’s down, but not out. Also, Zombie Mountain!


5. Dorne is Terrible and The Show Should Feel Bad

I’ve written extensively on what is wrong with the Dorne storyline on this show. In the end, what was the point of this entire diversion? So that Jaime could have a warm moment with his daughter/niece right before the life is sucked out of her by some evil Dornish poison trickery? That’s cold blooded, even for Game of Thrones.

Perhaps there’s something salvageable about the Dorne storyline in season 6. Perhaps there’s nothing more to say other than some glowering between King’s Landing and the Water Gardens. Is there going to be a war over the death of Princess Myrcella? Will Jaime just turn that ship around and go right back to Dorne? It sure doesn’t seem as if they made it very far off the coast before the poison kicked in. Also, why is that poison called “The Long Goodbye” if it works so quickly?

I have questions. Dorne has no answers. Until I see something amazing in season 6, I’m going to continue recommending that those frustrated with the show’s Dornish Diversion read Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” and like me, create a shrine to Book Dorne somewhere in their house. In the fantasy world of my shrine, we get Zombie Oberyn instead of Zombie Mountain, anyway.


6. The Walls of Winterfell Aren’t That High, Right?

Bonus question: Did Theon and Sansa just Thelma & Louise off the outer wall of Winterfell?

This was perhaps one of the more interesting sneaky cliffhangers of the episode, as we don’t ever really see them survive the jump. I was asked this morning by our own Chris Campbell whether or not Winterfell has a moat. To my knowledge, it does not. And with all the other chaos of this episode, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Sansa and Theon just made a jump from about the same height as the crippling fall Bran had in the show’s pilot. If season 6 arrives and they have survived their escape, I’m confused as to how. I suppose we’re meant to assume that they jumped into a large snow bank and will survive enough to run away very quickly from Winterfell and the terror sphere of Ramsay Bolton.

It’s also just as likely that season 6 opens with a shot of their dead, frozen bodies at the base of that very high wall. To me, this was all very Radio Flyer – that moment of courage and acceptance that masks the horrors of double suicide.


7. Jon Snow Really Didn’t Know Anything

In their “Inside the Episode” segment this week, showrunners Weiss and Benioff addressed the death of Jon Snow. The overwhelming reasoning as to how Snow was so easily duped into walking into a mutiny circle is that his heroic nature often prevents him from being cautious. He heard that his uncle Benjen, who has been missing since the show’s pilot, is alive and someone knows where to find him. This prompts him to run our into a courtyard full of people he knows hate him without grabbing his super sword or bringing along his Giant Feminist Direwolf. How was he to know that all these men (and young boy) who had been giving him side-eye ever since he returned from the Massacre at Hardhome would do him harm?

In the end, Ygritte was right. Jon Snow wasn’t very smart. And while it all happens a bit differently in the books, the message is the same: his love for his family and his blindness to the facts of his situation caused him to walk right into his own death party.

Part of me is glad he’s gone.

The rest of me wonders where heroism might survive in the realms of Westeros and Essos. We still know that an army of ice zombies is closing in on the Seven Kingdoms. Who will stop them now? The champion of the Lord of Light has been killed (ever so politely by Brienne), the only man of the Night’s Watch who can stand up to the White Walkers was just left bleeding to death in the Castle Black courtyard, and the show just burned up a bunch of king’s blood so that he sun would come out and shine upon the slaughter of Stannis’ army. Oh, and Dany’s big dragon has gone into tired puppy mode, leaving her to be picked up by the largest army of Dothraki we’ve ever seen.

As dour endings go, this one takes the cake. And in line with the way George R.R. Martin ended his most recent book, we’re presented with a story that feels unfinished. With every cliffhanger, Game of Thrones reminds us that this is far from over. The biggest question that remains: Will things ever get better, or have we begun a further descent into darkness? While most fantasy epics have taught us that the night is darkest before the dawn, Game of Thrones continues to remind us that darkness is all there is.

Stay tuned for more Game of Thrones coverage as the week moves along.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)