Sunday’s finale marks the end of an era in Game of Thrones fandom. Actually, it marks the end of at least eights eras, considering all the deaths and upheavals in the plot, but all of those endings are a part of the greatest death of all, that of the reader/non-reader paradigm as the show has finally caught up to the books. We all know nothing now, Jon Snow.
There have, of course, been a number of narrative changes throughout the adaptation of the series, but this season stands alone as the most jaw-dropping, “WHAT THE FUCK”-inducing web of altered storylines as the show began to truly deviate from its source material. I say deviate, not depart, because the show isn’t departing from the books, it’s changing and evolving as necessary so audiences, new and old, can keep from falling out of their seats.
I had to pause “Mother’s Mercy” three times because my viewing partner had stood up, walked around the room, and thrown himself facedown on to my couch. The wildest aspect of the finale was, for me, less about whom or how many died, and much more how those deaths were (or weren’t) shown.
The allocation of time is interesting; unlike previous episodes where battles and combat have been highlighted in prolonged, devastating sequences, this episode displayed a Jacksonian (Peter, not Andrew) preference for omission, allowing graphic matches in the next shot to stand in for or carry over the violent momentum with visceral effect. There was no need to dwell on the battle outside Winterfell; the wide aerial shot of Bolton’s well-organized ranks crushing in on Stannis’s scattered crowd of men, a third of them already fleeing back towards the woods, made all too clear how the fighting would play out. The death of Stannis himself was similarly omitted, partially to save time, but also because it was perfectly clear how fucked he was— and by focusing on Brienne as she “does her duty,” the scene becomes as much about her and her long-sought vengeance for Renly as it is about Stannis’s demise, allowing a rare moment of closure amongst the cliffhangers.
Most significantly though, the omissions of action in the first half of the episode allow the show to really draw out the long-awaited (by me) sequence of Cersei’s walk of atonement and Arya’s long-awaited (by her) murder of Meryn Trant.
The walk of atonement is one of the most memorable scenes in any of the books; the visual sequence in the finale is even more striking, largely because the scene lasts five entire minutes (which may sound short, but is LONG AF for a single scene on TV). The camera follows Cersei as she moves across King’s Landing from the stairs of the Great Sept up to the walls of the castle, her expression highlighted in close ups as the weight of her humiliation sets in. This is the first time we ever see Cersei in a truly sympathetic, vulnerable light and it stands out as such; we will never be able to see her character the same way, just as the people of King’s Landing will never see her the same way; they have lost their respect, their fear, and she has lost her power. However, an inkling of Cersei’s old self comes back upon the reveal of the new Kingsguard Qyburn frankensteined for her, a promise of power plays and schemes to come in the next season.
I also have a lot of thoughts about Cersei’s walk as a representation of the way women’s bodies and sexual agency are publicly consumed and shamed by society, especially in the midst of a very Gaze-y show; I would be interested to hear someone from the show speak on that in the after-ep commentary.
In another questionable portrayal of violence against women, Arya finally gets to knock another monster off her death prayer. While I’m all for this crazy-ass coldblooded-killer Arya, I don’t know how necessary it was to include Meryn Trant’s dark sexual proclivities. We already know he’s a sadistic piece of shit, and while that fact is driven irrevocably home with this scene, it could have been done through other means. More and more this season, I find myself continually wondering if the show is intentionally highlighting the horrific realities of life as a woman during the Middle Ages to function, as I suggested with Cersei’s walk, as a critique of sexism and misogyny in society now, or if they’re just using nudity and sexuality for the sake of spectacle and tying it into the narrative however they can.
Meanwhile back in Meereen, there is at least one brief moment of triumphant hope about halfway through the episode (thank the Seven, because I was about to pull a Sansa and jump off a wall myself). In the first episode of the season, Tyrion stood in a foreign place, looking out over a balcony at a foreign sea as Varys convinced him to seek Dany in Meereen, and now here he stands, advisor to a departed queen and once again standing alone, looking out over foreign waters in a foreign place. So the stage was perfectly set for Varys to appear again, just in time to help Tyrion wrest the city from corruption and save the day. No explanation needed for how he got there, as Tyrion noted; Varys is enigmatic and incredible as always. If ever there was a reason to keep watching Game of Thrones, this is it. Mother. Fucking. Dream. Team.
And hopeful in another sense, Grey Worm and Missandei are given rule, even if temporarily, which is a huge moment for the show— not only because they are two of the most sane, stable, and genuinely good characters on the show and definitely best suited to rule, but because people of color are finally being raised up in a show that, as much as I love it, has made some regrettable decisions relating to race.
If only the finale had ended there, on a thrill of hope and excitement. But this is Game of Thrones, so instead, they had to go and end the show almost exactly how the last book ended, in only the worst possible ways. Dany is probably fucked (smart move with the ring though, girl does have quick mind), and Jon is probably definitely fucked.
The death of Jon Snow in the book never really felt believable (to myself, or to the other countless fans who have come up with countless conspiracy theories), but the last shot of this episode did not leave room for the same uncertainty. That last, monochromatic image of Jon lying on the ice is stark and unyielding; his wide unseeing eyes, the creeping of dark blood that spreads beneath him in sharp contrast to the white of the ice as the growing pool fills the screen. The ambiguity that edges Jon’s death in the book doesn’t translate to television, and as much as I want to believe the theories, I just can’t see life coming back into those eyes. But it’s possible Melisandre came back for a reason and something something king’s blood, Targaryen blood, funeral pyre…as the book fans are tumbling from the high horses whose legs were cut down by this season’s developments, all Game of Thrones fans are now on the same unknown ground. Let’s just hope we aren’t standing on a moon door.
Equally well versed in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Black Album, Caroline is a Virginia-bred writer/filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is strongly opinionated about French fry variations, Ciara, underrated animals (lemurs, goats), and gender issues. Her personal essays can be found on her website and Femsplain; her shorter and more belligerent musings can be found on Twitter@CPConrad