No show on television is as yoked to history as Game of Thrones. I mean this in two senses. Every character, every scene, every choice presented onscreen is but the top layer of a seemingly bottomless iceberg of narrative, one that spans five gargantuan novels (so far), an encyclopedia-size tome chronicling thousands of years of a disputed, wholly invented monarchy (The World of Ice and Fire), and great swaths of the Internet, where wildling fans piece together theories, obsessions, and clues with the focus of Arya at a clambake. But after five seasons and 50 episodes, Game of Thrones is also teetering on a remarkable accumulation of filmed story and experience. To see Daenerys once again shivering with fear, alone on the Dothraki plains, was breathtaking to all viewers last night, whether they were versed in the literature or not — not because of the CGI horses or because of the casually mentioned reign of King Aegon V Targaryen, but because we know how far this young woman has traveled only to end up right back where she started. The journey, epic as it’s been, isn’t hers alone.
This was the year when Game of Thrones failed the first history test but, again and again and in surprisingly subtle ways, aced the second. If you think about it, the times the show has gotten into trouble — with fans, with modern sensibilities, with simple logic — have been the times when showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took ill-advised shortcuts through the knotty forest of George R.R. Martin’s text. Ramsay’s hideous wedding-night rape of Sansa functioned primarily as a cheat to set up the redemption of Theon Greyjoy. The murder of Shireen Baratheon was the fastest way to get Stannis from mildly forgivable to utterly doomed. In the abstract (and when compared to other TV shows), Game of Thrones seems limitless: in budget, in imagination, in bravado. But making the show very often seems like a series of small, brutal cuts. Think of novels as the Unsullied parading around with their long, impressive spears. And then think of TV as the Sons of the Harpy, running up out of nowhere to puncture your lungs before you’ve had a second to catch your breath.
You know what? Maybe the better metaphor here isn’t war, it’s music. A season of Thrones can soar like a symphony, a hundred individual instruments somehow combining to play a rousing tune. But if you separate out specific players, it’s impossible to ignore the great gaps in the melody. Stannis was a major character played exclusively in major chords: He loves his daughter, he burns his daughter, he hangs his head in acceptance of death. My greatest frustration with this show isn’t its gender politics or its general air of pessimism and doom. It’s that I’m constantly cheated out of the time necessary to arrive at a place where critical actions feel dictated by critical characters, and not the other way around.
Of course, it’s not always that way — and that’s what I mean by “the second history test.” The apparent extinguishing of Stannis’s flame aside, I mostly loved “Mother’s Mercy.” I thought it was an exceptionally directed, surprisingly feisty episode of television. But its true strength came from the ways Benioff and Weiss used their great tower of story to build bridges between characters and between where we’ve been and where we’re going. After all these years, so many of Game of Thrones’s noisiest moments still feel like the very first: A child we didn’t know was pushed out of a window by people we didn’t understand. It shocked in a way that got our attention. But as the vicious hits kept coming, it often felt as if the powers that be had forgotten that some of this stuff was supposed to keep our attention, not merely bludgeon it into submission.
The biggest story beats for our biggest characters last night were plenty surprising — including the biggest, which I swear I’ll get to in a moment. But, by and large, they were also very much earned. My displeasure with all the time spent in the House of Black and White — really, little more than a glorified mani-pedi salon for corpses — remains. But Arya’s anguish, as the puffed-up vanity of her revenge melted away into childlike petulance, terror, and then something else altogether, was unsettling in the best possible way. The very things that we, the audience, love about Arya — her spunk, her confidence, her literal dedication to the long memory that her native North values so highly — are precisely the traits that compromise her success in the titular Game of Thrones. Killing Meryn Trant — and boy, she really killed the shit out of him — felt good in the moment but did nothing to change either the greater world or Arya’s immediate circumstances. What she was really stabbing was the past.
Zoom out for a spell and it’s not hard to remember that Westeros is a land that demands a near-impossible balance between hot passion and cool intellect. Tip the scales too far in one direction and you’re likely to fall to your death. Consider the fine line between Tyrion, who killed his father and lover but knows when it’s time to toss old allegiances into the sea like so much human waste, and Stannis, who swapped the rigidity of one set of conventions (family) for another (a murderous religious cult). Is it heavy-handed that Arya appeared to go blind as punishment for her lack of foresight? Probably. But like all great classical figures, she’s the one who’s ultimately responsible for putting out her own eyes.
Actually, you don’t need to look back to Sophocles to find good examples of this sort of smart, steady plotting. Just change the channel. What Benioff and Weiss did so well last night wasn’t all that different from what great TV dramas have always done: embed us so deeply with compelling characters that when tragedy befalls them we can’t look away. The post-BBQ board meeting in Meereen between Tyrion and the rest of Daenerys’s abandoned crew — who, by the way, got back safely to the pyramid how? Via subway? — reminded me of those great old episodes of ER when the surgeries were over but the trauma was just beginning. Grey Worm checking himself back into the game like some sort of castrati Willis Reed, Jorah and Daario setting off on a rescue mission that feels an awful lot like the third act of Reality Bites, Tyrion assuming control of the only city in the world that makes King’s Landing look like utopia — all of these moves manage to be smart for the story and sensible for the fan. And Varys showing up on the balcony, midbanter? Well, that’s just a rare gift. (“I did miss you,” Tyrion says. “You have no idea,” says every single person on every goddamn couch in America.)
Even Cersei’s walk of shame, while utterly horrific — you know the way jokes can be repeated into abstraction and then, after awhile, become funny again? This was like that only with abject cruelty — was mesmerizing because of the cumulative strength of Lena Headey’s performance. On a show balanced on the backs of formidable actors, she stands apart for her complexity and grace. The High Sparrow’s humiliation of Cersei was meant to reveal her sins to the larger world. Instead, it revealed something more vital and true: her indomitable spirit. That Headey could gain both our sympathy and our respect in the midst of such misery — and in the face of numerous examples of outright evil — is stunning and a tribute to her five remarkable years of turning bitter lemons into sweet, boozy limoncello. I had predicted that Franken-Clegane was going to Hulk out and smash Cersei to freedom — and perhaps smash that smug nun’s head in the process. But what we got instead was better. The queen has no clothes. And is suddenly all the more dangerous because of it.
I’d even argue that the season’s most maligned plots, Dorne and Winterfell, respectively, came to reasonable conclusions, if not necessarily worthwhile ones. The scene in which Jaime Lannister was finally able to confess his paternity to Myrcella was downright touching in the most Game of Thrones way possible — in that it got me misty-eyed over an incestuous, towheaded child-tosser. And it even retroactively gave some sort of purpose to the Bronn-temporary-poison thing, not to mention that it pushed Jaime further into potential hero mode, as his honesty is the sort of convention-breaking that augurs good, or at least not terrible, things to come. (That all of this was prelude to a young female character we didn’t know dying horribly in order to advance the internal emotional index of a male character we do … well, let’s leave that alone until next season, at least.) And after House Bolton utterly flayed House Baratheon on the battlefield, Theon finally pulled the Return of the Jedi move we’ve long been expecting. That it was Myranda and not Ramsay who crunched on the parapets was surprising and more than a little annoying. But I’m mostly relieved that this season-long kidney stone of a story has now, mercifully, been passed. I’m much more interested in Sansa’s rebirth and Theon’s redemption than in watching either of them suffer so explicitly anymore.
But let’s be honest. You don’t want to hear about any of that. You want to talk about Jon Snow, and I’ve made you wait long enough. So here you go: He’s not dead. There’s simply no way that he is, and I’ll enumerate all my reasons for saying so soon enough. But before I do, let me attempt the impossible and make a case for why it would be understandable if he were. To be clear, I didn’t say it would be OK. But if you squint, and then turn off your TV, and then walk around your block, and then break into your neighbor’s house and drink all of their gin until you pass out in one of their beds, it just might make a certain kind of sense. And here’s why:
All of that unaired history I talked about in the first paragraph, the stuff that fuels Book Reader Twitter and the outstanding columns of my colleague Jason Concepcion? From what I can tell, it’s basically the history of idiots. Sure, there are exceptions here and there — good kings and nice maesters who really did their best before getting eaten by a dragon or decapitated by their nannies. But, by and large, the recorded history of Westeros seems to be a chronicle of unimaginable fuck-ups, from Sea to Shivering Sea. (Remember the noble Dance of the Dragons Shireen was nattering on about last week? It was about social-climbing royal bastards attempting to hop onto the backs of 30-ton, fire-breathing killing machines. It worked out about as well as you’d imagine.)
What was instructive about Ned Stark in Season 1 was that his good intentions were swamped by his unconsidered actions. That’s the prism through which we need to examine Jon Snow. He was the rare player in the Game of Thrones paying attention to the forest — so of course he got shivved in front of a tree. It was heartbreaking, yes. It was appalling. But it was all there, from his rough first arrival at Castle Black to his touching, on-the-nose-like-spectacles farewell with Sam. Jon was simply playing a different game than everyone else. And on Game of Thrones, as in real life, people don’t like freelancers. We admire people who stumble when following the rules far more than those who succeed by rewriting them.
But look: He’s not dead. Call me sensitive, call me emotional — and you’d be right — but I’m sure of it. Here’s why:
- People are resurrected all the time on Game of Thrones. Remember Beric Dondarrion back in Season 3? It even happened last night, though the Mountain wasn’t really looking all that well behind his mask. Melisandre didn’t say much when she arrived at Castle Black — being ignored by your vengeful fire god will do that to a lady — but she must be there for something. And wasn’t she awfully interested in Jon’s blood once before?
- Speaking of that blood: Boy, did David Nutter’s camera zoom in on it in the season’s last shot! People wondering how I called Jon’s fate in last week’s recap should know that I did it only by reading the giant, honking signs the show was throwing at me with Olly these past few weeks. Game of Thrones is many things. Subtle is not often among them.
- The Night’s King epic “Come at me, bro” from a few weeks ago needs to be answered, no? But even more than that dangling plot thread, there is simply too much intranarrative piping dependent on Jon’s presence to believe in his sudden demise. The whole fan-hypnotizing theory of “R + L = J” (Google it, you’re safe) is no longer just a book thing — rewatch the Littlefinger-Sansa scene in the crypts of Winterfell for proof. If Benioff and Weiss don’t care about that theory, why introduce it at all? And why mention that as the deal-sealing point that earned them the right to make this show when they solved it for Martin, as explained in my interview with them here? There are pages and pages of backstory that the showrunners have gleefully shorn. We are at the point where if it’s on the screen, it’s important, particularly for the eventual endgame.
Yes, Kit Harington is out there saying all the right things, but what do you expect? He’s a professional with a new career as a comedian to promote. Besides, loose lips and the reliable ravens of IMDb will reveal if he’s back in Iceland for Season 6 soon enough. The most important argument for Jon’s survival is actually less dependent on actor availability than it is on TV convention. Because let’s be real: There are likely only two seasons of Game of Thrones left. That’s 20 hours to remake a world, fight off a frozen death army, and maybe, just maybe, stage a Stark family reunion. (Don’t worry, party planners: You can book a small room.) And to do all that, we’re going to need heroes — or, in Martin’s parlance, “POV characters” — and there simply isn’t enough time to call for reinforcements. Let’s heed the lesson that Stannis learned the hard way just last night: If you don’t have the horses, you can’t win the war. Daenerys can fly the dragons and Tyrion can crack wise and advise her, but someone’s gotta swing that great big sword, you know? And, real talk, it ain’t gonna be Rickon.
Does this weird outpouring of optimism contradict the central tenet of Thrones — that the bad thing will always happen and, if it doesn’t, something worse likely will? Not necessarily. Getting stabbed to death by your brothers isn’t awesome, even if magic can somehow undo it. And, lest we forget, some truly awful things happened last night separate and apart from Jon. (Jaime’s time as an out-and-proud father was shorter than a shot clock.) I think it’s worth remembering that Game of Thrones succeeds as much for the way it celebrates genre tropes as the way it gleefully murders them. Giving a beloved hero a fake or temporary death may not be Sophocles, but it sure as hell is Spock.
More important than that, it sure as hell is TV. There’s nothing more familiar to contemporary viewers than a stunning cliffhanger at the end of a season, and this was a doozy. So much of this year was devoted to debates about the myriad things that happen offscreen on Game of Thrones, from chapters left out to sensibilities offended. Lost in all of this was the fact that when everything clicks, there’s simply nothing on the small screen as confoundingly, thrillingly big as Thrones. From Stannis and Shireen by the fireplace (I know, I know) to the slaughter at Hardhome, only Thrones can blow our minds and our hearts with such ridiculous consistency. In a perverse way, saving Jon at this point, after everything we just saw, is as radical a move as offing Ned was back in 2011. It’s precisely when we’ve been conditioned to zig that the show ought to zag. A brave TV show might cut off its prettiest nose to spite its face. But a smart and good one — which Thrones has been more often than not, even in the bumpy second half of Season 5 — would know better. A happy ending shouldn’t be expected. But a satisfying one is a different thing altogether. That’s why I am confident in saying that Jon, like my interest in Game of Thrones, will live to see another day.
And if I’m wrong, well, then you can be sure that I’ll be taking a long, public walk with the entirety of Twitter following behind me, fav-ing “SHAME! SHAME!” each and every step of the way. Let me confess to you now: It’s a bet I’m willing to take. See you next spring.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no immediate intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. OK? OK!
Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and come back tomorrow!