Welcome to the third edition of “Enter the Reel World.” I am your host, Michael Thomas. Read more of my thoughts on film/television here. (I recently ranked the first ten films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the lightsaber duels in the Star Wars films. You can send me feedback on things that I write here.
Season five of Game of Thrones wrapped up on Sunday night, and it was another great season of television. While far from perfect, the show has consistently been one of the most ambitious and entertaining pop culture artifacts that I have ever witnessed. One of the best parts of the show is how much you can debate the elements of the show with yourself or with friends and colleagues. With that in mind, here are eight questions that I have about the season we just watched and the future of the show. The first four questions are only about the show. The last four questions feature spoilers from the books as well. Do not read the final four questions if you have not read the books. Try to be courteous in the comments section as well. There is no need to scream about some major book spoilers in there. Also, I’m not say these are the eight MOST IMPORTANT questions about the show in any way. These are eight questions about the show that I am interested in discussing.
What the Fuck Happened with Dorne?
Dorne was my favorite part of books 4/5, and I was really excited to see how that corner of the world would be portrayed in Game of Thrones (especially given how brilliantly Oberyn was adapted in season 4). Unfortunately, Dorne ended up feeling like a missed opportunity to introduce several characters well. (Unless of course the only goal of this plot was to produce some great banter between Jaime and Bronn. If that’s the case, then they accomplished it very well! I do love the banter.)
Instead of getting to know and understand Doran Martell, he mostly just existed on the margins of the season. Without getting to know him and understanding his motivations/emotions, we have no reason to care about his actions or even have reason to speculate as to why he is doing what he is doing. This all goes quadruple for Areo Hotah who was only there this season to look menacing. I doubt non-book readers even knew his name.
With the Sand Snakes, we at least understood that they wanted revenge for the death of their father. There was not much depth to that motivation though. There was no conflict about why they would try to harm an innocent girl because their father inserted himself into a Trial by Combat and then lost without foul play. There was no sense of them understanding the world in which they live in and how acting rashly like this could have greater consequences than they realize. (For all his heated actions, there was a clear method to Oberyn’s madness.) On top of that, they are all practically indistinguishable from one another. There is the one that looks grumpy all the time, and I think she’s the one that got an Oscar nomination for Whale Rider. There is the one that saved Bronn’s life for no reason and then got naked because HBO expects their programs to have nudity. There’s also the other one. Am I being a bit flippant? Yes, but there’s not really anything of substance to these characters other they’re angry, they’re incompetent, and one of them likes to get naked.
Part of this is so frustrating because we know from last season how well Game of Thrones can introduce a character (Oberyn) because we understand his personality and his motivations from his very first scenes in the show. After a full season of these characters, there’s very little reason to be invested in any of them. I know some non-book readers have questioned whether or not it is just better to scrap Dorne altogether next year, and I cannot blame them.
How is the Show Doing on Portraying Rape?
As a white male, I have genuinely had to appreciate my privilege a lot when I compare my reactions to the rape scenes in this show compared to how other people react to them. (I watched the first season two or three times without even realizing that Daenerys fell in love with the man who raped her in the first episode.) I am grateful for that though, as I think I have developed more of a critical eye for when the portrayal of rape on the screen is exploitative or when it is revealing something about the world or the characters. That is an important distinction and worthy of discussion. (Not that I get to decide what is and not worthy of discussion.)
Now, it is impossible to deny that Game of Thrones has next to no credibility when it comes to portraying rape appropriately on the show. Between Daenerys falling in love with her rapist in season one and the show accidentally having Jaime rape Cersei in season four, this is clearly a show that needs to get its act together in that regard. I think the show did that for the most part with the initial portrayal of Ramsay raping Sansa this season (we’ll see if they pay it off in the show’s future).
Did we need more evidence that Ramsay is an awful human being or that Sansa has a terrible life? No. Would it be more interesting to use a marriage to Sansa as a means to humanize Ramsay in any way whatsoever? Absolutely. I say all of that to make it clear that the show in no way needed to construct this story. However, I do think this story does say something about the world of the show and discusses a very real issue with rape: marital rape is very real and an issue in all societies
As I said, this rape storyline was not needed, but it does not make me think less of the show. By definition, the show is making *some* progress. Yay?
What Was With the Anger Towards the Show for Stannis Burning His Daughter?
Stannis burning his daughter alive was one of the saddest moments in the show for me. I sat there thinking, “There’s no way. They’re not going to have him do that. Wait. Holy fuck. THEY’RE FUCKING DOING IT!” I desperately wanted anyone to rescue her. Shireen was just about the only person to bring out any kindness in Stannis. His relationship with her humanized him in a way that kept him likable enough to care about his journey. That is why it was such great writing to bring him to a point where he was just stupid enough to do what he did.
Since we were introduced to Stannis in season two, we’ve known two things: he believes the Iron Throne is his birthright and that Melisandre is his path to getting there. Season two concluded with him being humbled by the fact that he did not listen to her advice in regards to the Battle of the Blackwater. After taking two seasons to fully recover from his defeat on the Blackwater, he finally has another major battle. It makes perfect narrative sense for him to be put in a position where he must choose to listen to Melisandre or to ignore her again. The life of his daughter was probably the only thing that could have possibly made him ignore Melisandre’s advice again. That is what makes putting his character in a position to make that choice so brilliant, and the choice his character makes so tragic.
The fact that killing his daughter was the final straw to break the will of his army’s metaphorical back and leave him with a depleted force that stood no chance against the Boltons made his fate all the more tragic. That is just good storytelling.
Where Does the Show Go From Here?
After the events of the season five finale, there are two corners of the world that concern me from a narrative perspective: the Wall and Meereen.
If Jon Snow is really dead (I’m not convinced either way), there is no one with any power at the Wall to prepare the Night’s Watch for the invading White Walkers. More importantly, there is no one with any power at the wall that we are invested in as a character and that makes that corner of the world somewhat of a dead end. I do not see Davos, Melisandre, Brienne, or Theon deciding to try to right the institutional wrongs at Castle Black. So, that means this corner of Westeros kind of dies as an area of focus going forward or…
Jon Snow may not be dead since Melisandre is right there and is probably capable of resurrecting him. Game of Thrones has been fairly consistent so far about “dead means dead” in terms of important characters. However, they did introduce this element of magic with Beric in season three, and I cannot imagine they did not have bigger plans for resurrection after introducing it. Otherwise, it would have been better for Sandor Clegane to just have killed Beric outright. If Jon is resurrected, I see it happening towards the very end of season six. Regardless, without Jon in the fold forever or just for now, I see no reason to continue to follow the Night’s Watch until the very moment that the White Walkers invade.
Meereen was a location I was hoping to never see again after season five. The show has a way of “other-izing” the people of Essos, and they have never given us any reason to truly care about these cities and the people of them. It just seems like patronizing filler to give the story an excuse to not bring Daenerys back to Westeros until the end of the show. While they have already invested a ton of time into Meereen, it seems like a narrative sunk cost that will only delay Daenerys’ conquering of Westeros yet another season. I know there are stories from the books that they can do in Meereen. I just do not see how the Meereen story can be properly concluded with one more season, and then we face the same predicament of giving up on that plot or sticking with it all over again.
The next four questions are in regards to the show AND the books written by George RR Martin. This is your spoiler warning. There are parts of the books that have not yet come to pass in the show that are freely discussed here. DO NOT READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM.
Did the Show Do a Better Job of Portraying Cersei?
Cersei’s journey in books 4/5 felt both appropriate and boring. Convinced that Tyrion is the bane of her existence, murderer of her mother and son, it made perfect sense she would grow even madder upon hearing the news that he murdered her father. Between that and her renewed power in the seven kingdoms, her reckless attempts to destroy the Tyrells was a logical path for her to take. It also would not be A Song of Ice and Fire if this reckless, ego trip did not lead to her own demise. It was all just so boring to experience from her perspective in the books though.
Normally, when a character in A Song of Ice and Fire becomes a POV character, we learn more about them and grow to appreciate them on a deeper level. Martin failed the character in the books by making her even less likable and seemingly less worthy of being redeemed in any way. The show deftly avoided by this by not overexposing her character the way she was in the books. She also became one of the few characters to genuinely benefit from not having the insight of her inner monologue, as she seemed ever-so slightly less detestable as a result. I ended up enjoying Cersei’s journey this year, which was a pleasant surprise. Yay, Benioff and Weiss!
[Quick additional note on Cersei: The new High Septon did not mention that Cersei had Lancel contribute to Robert’s death in season one by giving him more wine while on the hunt. I hope that is brought up again in season six, because that is big fucking deal!]
What Other Characters Got Storyline Upgrades From the Books?
Brienne’s story in the books was a slog to get through, as she seemingly traveled from unimportant event to unimportant event while filling the many pages with an inner monologue full of self-doubt. The show improved on that substantially. She was not given as much to do as some other characters this season mind you. She did however have a very clear goal (protect Sansa) and we got more insight into her love of Renley. The fact that she has seemingly finally accomplished something major (killing Stannis) gave her a huge moment worthy of her character. I am hopeful that we will explore next season the idea that she is far better at killing people than she is at defending/rescuing people.
Arya’s path in the book was different than Brienne’s in terms of execution but was similar in effect: boredom. They wisely went with a “less is more” strategy this year for Arya. She appeared in only six episodes, and she did not get a ton of screentime in any of those episodes. They made the most of the time though, and it really revealed a lot about who she is at this point in time. The conversation where Jaqen tells her she is lying about not caring about Sandor Clegane was particularly powerful. The finish of her story was a nice payoff to season one, and the gruesome nature of it was an effective way of showing how deranged Arya has become. They took a tedious story and adapted it very well.
Do Any of the Characters That Have Disappeared Need to Come Back?
A lot of characters have dropped off the face of the Earth without dying or having their arcs conclude in any meaningful ways. A lot of them have popped in and out over the course of the show but have not been mentioned much (if at all) during season five. With only two (maybe three if HBO gets their way) seasons left to go, do we really need to hear from Rickon/Osha, Gendry, The Blackfish, Beric, Benjen Stark, or anyone from the Iron Islands* again? Will any of those characters contribute to the show in a meaningful way when we still need Dany to invade Westeros, conquer the country, and then have everyone deal with the White Walkers?
Oddly enough, I am more interested in the fate of Benjen Stark than any of the other characters despite the limited amount of screentime he received in season one. It feels like he will play a major role somehow in the fate of either Bran or Jon, and I cannot deny that I have a sentimental attachment to him based on his relationship with his brother. I don’t see Rickon, Osha, Gendry, The Blackfish, or Beric having a role going forward that is potentially as important, and I don’t especially care about what happened to them since we last saw them.
*Based on some scoops, Balon and Yara Greyjoy could play a major role next season, and I think their relationship with themselves and Theon deserves some kind of meaningful closure. Yara especially was very interesting in her brief time on the show, as she is a female character that commands respect from the men around her for no other reason that confidence. That is a rare thing in Westeros, and I want to see more of her before the curtain closes on the show. Balon’s brothers might be too much for the show to introduce all at once though. I am a little anxious about their inclusion in the show.
Truther Watch: Will Lady Stoneheart Debut and is Mance Rayder Still Alive?
One of the more disappointing parts of the books is that Catelyn Stark is reincarnated as a vengeful zombie looking to destroy Brienne and Jaime for breaking their oaths to her. This is a world where “dead means dead” for the most part when it comes to important characters. Sure, there is an army of undead snow zombies and the whole deal with Beric being resurrected several times is out there. Those things only exist on the margins of the world though and did not greatly impact major characters in the world. Catelyn Stark becoming Lady Stoneheart was the major exception. It just rang false to me and hasn’t paid off well so far in the books. Can it be done well in the show? Possibly, but I’m grateful I probably don’t have to worry about it give the comments of the showrunners. I say Lady Stoneheart will never show up in Game of Thrones.
I was a tad befuddled when many people assumed Mance Rayder was 100% dead in the show after he was “killed” mostly in the same way in the book. It seemed to me that the very meaningful look between Mance and Tormund right before he was executed was enough to think it was possible that Melisandra switched their bodies. I saw it as being 50/50 on whether or not they decided to just go ahead and kill him. Now, it seems 99/1 that he’s dead, and I am fine with that. I loved Ciaran Hinds’ work as Mance, and the show never took full advantage of him. He got a great scene with Jon Snow and then died with honor. That is as fine a way for that character to go out. At least we get to enjoy him in the books some more.