This has not been an easy season, and not just for the obvious reasons. As the fifth series of Game of Thrones reaches its conclusion with an episode that will apparently “break the internet” (according to spoiler-filled links like this), viewers are increasingly split as to whether this show is a dark and serious examination of the true cost of war, or a gruesome entertainment with an over-reliance on shocking twists and grim deaths.
For what it’s worth I incline towards the former camp. Game of Thrones is often difficult to watch – this season alone has given us Sansa’s harrowing wedding night rape by her new husband Ramsay and the immolation of sweet, lonely Shireen Baratheon, a child whose only crime was to love her father to the bitter end – but those scenes do not occur in a vacuum. The viewer might find them unpleasant and harrowing to watch (and as mentioned on this week’s blog, I particularly struggled with Shireen’s death) but they are storylines that have been foreshadowed throughout. If there was a grim inevitability to Sansa’s night of reckoning with Ramsay, so too was there a dawning realisation that no one would save Shireen Baratheon in the penultimate episode of season five – just as no one saved Ned Stark in the penultimate episode of season one.
The question then becomes, is Game of Thrones more than a horror story, piling atrocity on top of atrocity and daring us to keep watching? Again, I would say: yes it is, although I understand those who disagree. We all have our lines in the sand and it’s certainly arguable that David Benioff and DB Weiss’s decision to dramatically change Sansa’s storyline will need a pretty big payoff in the final episode to work.
Yet it’s also true that this is a show that delights in challenging audience expectations. Thus, in an excellent article for Salon.com, Steven Atwell makes the case that Martin’s interest lies not just in “what you do when the Gods demand the death of your child … but why?” For Atwell, the key moment in Shireen’s death came not when her pitiful screams echoed through the air, but when her father visited her and said: “Sometimes the world forces [a man’s] hand. If a man truly knows who he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfil his destiny and become who he is meant to be. However much he might hate it.” On reflection, I would agree.
It’s easy sometimes to forget that Game of Thrones is a fantasy drama. That this is an old, dark world where magic matters and kingdoms can crumble and fall. If the burning of Shireen was the most devastating moment of this season, then its most magical came early on as Tyrion Lannister and Jorah Mormont drifted slowly down a river, past the ruins of old Valyria, reciting a poem about that great civilisation’s fall only to suddenly see Drogon flying in the sky – an ancient creature magically alive once more.
For both those moments capture the essence of Game of Thrones. This is the world where a father can burn his daughter to death because he believes he is destined to save humanity (what price one little life, however sweet, weighed against that?) and also one where dragons have returned, where magic can and does happen, but always at a price. Sacrifice is a key component in Game of Thrones, from Dany losing her husband and child to Arya losing her sense of self. In that sense, Stannis’s sacrifice of his child, with its echoes of everything from Greek tragedy to the Bible, is intended as his last step towards his grim reckoning with fate. The nasty twist being that while Stannis trusts in Melisandre and his destiny, we, the audience, are less than sure: what then does it profit a man if he sells his soul and it was all for empty prophecies and an unmourned death?
The longer Game of Thrones continues, the stronger those fantasy and fairytale elements become. It is worth remembering, too, that George R R Martin has always been a writer of horror as much as fantasy. Winter has now well and truly arrived and with it the attendant nightmares, the sense that things can only get worse before the promise of bittersweet spring.
Yet for all that it is possible to applaud this show’s ambition, its commitment to rubbing the audience’s face in the grime and guts and gore of this brutal, bleak world, it should also be noted that this has been an imperfect season. The storyline in Dorne, which has so much potential, has been largely wasted, coming across like a terrible hybrid of Quentin Tarantino’s mythical girl group Fox Force Five and Monty Python’s Camelot. It is a silly place, although had they spent more time with the calm and clever Prince Doran, the human embodiment of the phrase “still waters run deep”, and less with the faintly ludicrous Sand Snakes, they might have avoided this.
Similarly, Arya’s storyline, with its nods to every hero’s journey ever taken, hasn’t quite worked for me. Yes, there’s the traditional Game of Thrones subversion in that Arya is learning to become a faceless assassin rather than a hero, and I appreciate those with more knowledge who say it hews more closely to the traditions of kung fu than other heroes’ tales; however, it’s also a storyline that spent rather too long washing corpses and not enough allowing Maisie Williams to shine.
And while the murky politics remain ever enjoyable – and I’ve particularly relished Jonathan Pryce’s benignly terrifying High Sparrow – and the Battle of Hardhome was the sort of breathtaking spectacle at which this show excels, I understand those who have argued that the pacing this year has been uneven; that while the scenes at The Wall and Winterfell have been largely excellent, other storylines, such as how the Faith Militant became so powerful, have been a bit fudged. This has always been a big, complicated story with many offshoots and with each season that sprawling storyline becomes more difficult to control. It’s also reasonable to say that shock piled on shock tends to deaden the effect, that this is ultimately only a TV show and thus there’s only so much horror one can take before saying enough is enough.
I understand … but I’m not yet in that number. This has been a difficult season, certainly, but not an impossible one. The truly horrific moments have all been placed in context, heavily foreshadowed and coming organically out of the plot (whether you agree with the decisions that lead to those moments is, of course, a matter of personal taste and choice). Will it all end in an orgy of death and despair as Dany flies away from Meereen, Jon struggles to keep the peace between the Wildlings and his own men, the High Sparrow tightens his grip on King’s Landing and the forces of darkness do battle at Winterfell? I don’t know but, like Tyrion Lannister, I’m capable of forgiving a lot simply because this season I saw a dragon fly.