Game of Thrones’s fifth season has felt almost oppressively bleak, with characters we love getting raped, stabbed, burnt or betrayed and characters we hate dodging the consequences. This season finale might have been a chance to balance the darkness with a win or two for the good guys—but that isn’t how life in Westeros works. Victories don’t happen just because we deserve them.
“Mother’s Mercy” relished in dealing already-losing characters the heaviest blows yet. Cersei paid for her reckless religious power plays with a “walk of atonement” for her sins; Stannis was abandoned by his own men then defeated by Ramsay in a battle so one-sided it didn’t even merit camera time; Jaime, after a largely pointless adventure in Dorne, watched his daughter Myrcella die in front of him; and Jon Snow, fresh off a crushing defeat against White Walkers, was tricked and betrayed by Olly and his own Night’s Watchmen and stabbed to death.
The episode’s only victories were ambiguous at best. Did Brienne really deserve to kill Stannis, wounded and weak as he was? His gullibility, his narrow-minded focus on his “destiny,” and what he did to Shireen certainly meant we wanted him to die, but Brienne just strolling in post-battle to deal an easy finishing blow felt anticlimactic. Even Stannis sounds half-bored when he mutters his last words: “Go on, do your duty.”
Likewise, Sansa appears to escape from Winterfell with Reek’s help, as he kills Myranda, takes Sansa’s hand, and jumps with her from atop a wall. But is that all we get? When Sansa began dressing in black and playing the game of thrones, we hoped she’d moved beyond her perennial role as damsel in distress. In this episode, she did break out of her room and light that candle, but it was Reek who ended up the hero. He rebels against his abuser; Sansa almost resigns, as she tells Myranda, “I know what Ramsay is. I know what he’ll do to me. If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.”
The other Stark daughter fared even worse this episode, with her gory triumph over Meryn Trant—in which she traps him in a brothel and stabs out both his eyes in revenge for her dead “dancing” teacher, Syrio Forel—ending with appropriate punishment from the House of Black and White: blindness. Jaqen H’ghar drinks the temple’s death-water to make up for the life Arya took, then watches from behind her as she peels face after face off what she thought was his corpse. The last thing she sees before a gray film obscures her eyes is her own likeness, dead on the ground.
And the Sand Snakes, this season’s sorest disappointment, wrapped up their arc with an oddly genteel farewell to Jaime, Myrcella, Trystane, and Bronn. Prince Oberyn’s bastard daughters were billed as fearsome warriors, but Obara, Tyene, and Nymeria have mostly just been bratty and incompetent. Throw in this episode’s painful dialogue (“You want a good girl but you need the bad pussy”) and a cowardly final move—the poisoning of an innocent girl—and these women have turned me fully against them. #TeamBronn.
Good news did prevail in Meereen, at least, where Daenerys’s friends escaped unscathed from Daznak’s Pit (somehow), where they were left outnumbered by an army of bloodthirsty Sons of the Harpy. Jorah and Daario, next season’s most anticipated odd couple, head off together in search of their mutual lady love, Daenerys, who was last seen riding north on Drogon's back. Tyrion, aided by Grey Worm, Missandei, and a recently re-emerged Varys, gets roped into staying behind in Meereen, where he will attempt to “placate a city on the brink of civil war.” As Varys points out, this is a skill he’s already honed quite well in King's Landing.
Drogon, meanwhile, has flown Daenerys straight to his ultra-cool secret hideout, a patch of charred dirt on a hill. Unable to extract a “yes” or “no” from him about whether he’ll fly her back to Meereen or not, the queen makes a hilariously awkward attempt at re-mounting then gets knocked off. (Cue the Pokemon flashbacks to Ash’s stubborn Charizard.) Eventually, Dany wanders off and comes face-to-face with a Dothraki man on a horse—then another, and another, until the entire screen is filled with a thousand riders circling Dany. We won’t know what these riders want until next season, but the Dothraki are never dull—I’m glad they’re back onscreen.
In King’s Landing, Cersei’s walk of atonement seems to unfold in real-time, with minute after agonizing minute ticking by as the nude queen makes her way through throngs of haters and lewd crazies. Her face—no longer framed by those luxurious gold tresses!—remains steely through much of the ordeal, even as peasants begin throwing food and shouting “brother-fucker” at her. Cersei’s pride isn’t enough to hold back tears by the end though. She brought much of this on herself with her shortsighted attempt to piss off Margaery, but it’s hard not to pity Cersei as she locks her eyes on the Red Keep, where she knows friends and her son are waiting.
Friends, her son, and a Frankenstein monster, that is. Qyburn—somehow—has prevailed in reviving The Mountain, the monolithic warrior who squashed Oberyn and died from stab wounds last season. He looks worse than any actual zombie north of the Wall, but lives(?) to vanquish Cersei’s enemies and “drive evil from the realm”—whether that includes the fanatical Sparrows remains to be seen.
And Jon. Poor Jon Snow was so easily fooled by the mention of his missing uncle, Benjen Stark, that he didn’t pick up on the creepiest vibes ever felt at Castle Black. A vengeful Olly and ol’ mister beady eyes, Alliser Thorne, made Jon pay for joining forces with wildlings—a move that, against all common sense, they insist is a betrayal of the Night’s Watch. Never mind that they’ve seen the apocalypse marching at them in the form of White Walkers and wights. And never mind your L+R=J fan theories (cruelly stoked this season by a series of Rhaegar mentions)! Nothing matters; Jon Snow is dead. (While Jon’s stabbing can be construed as something of a cliffhanger in George R.R. Martin’s books, Kit Harington has said the Jon Snow of Game of Thrones is truly, actually dead. If a miraculous, Lord of Light-given resurrection is in the cards, it won't happen anytime soon; Harington says he is not coming back for Season 6.)
The stunned look on Harington’s face as he lay in the snow was a deft way of acknowledging every viewer gaping open-mouthed at the screen, wondering what in seven hells just happened. Jon was a character we considered all but impervious to D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s murderous whims; seeing him stabbed multiple times wouldn’t have been enough to convince us (after all, he survived Ygritte's arrows that one time). No, that last lingering shot of Jon's baby-face, blood pooling silently behind him in the snow, was exactly what it took for this death to sink in. You have broken our hearts, Game of Thrones.
With both Stannis and Jon now gone, no one in Westeros (besides bookworm Sam and maybe the wildlings) is even remotely concerned with the undead threat marching south toward the Wall. This means Tyrion and Daenerys could do more good than ever in Westeros—but are they ever actually getting there? Season 6 will be about what happens to a land once all its heroes are gone. We know a happy ending is far from likely at this point, but for god’s sake, Game of Thrones, give us something to hope for.