Jon and Sam (Courtesy of HBO, via http://www.vox.com/2015/6/14/8780147/game-of-thrones-adaptation-jon-snow-dead/in/8156066)
Violence, vengeance, fire-breathing dragons, ice zombies, and lots and lots of death. Season five of Game of Thrones really doubled down on the more shocking elements of the show, putting an exclamation point on its thesis statement that this is a cruel, unjust world. The season was rife with scenes of abuse and terror, and the finale alone featured enough deaths (both certain and presumed) to fill an entire season. It turned off many viewers, including Senator Claire McCaskill, who publicly renounced the show after one rape scene too many.
But violence in a TV show, in and of itself, is not a bad thing if it serves the plot. The question this season was whether the violence was justified or gratuitous.
In reaching my own conclusion, I’m going to first examine several aspects of the season as a whole to see what worked and what didn’t. I’ll be judging the season on its plot, characters, and cinematography. From this assessment, I’ll determine whether the violence was a help or a hindrance towards the success of the season.
Spoilers follow from the TV show, but not the books.
In general, the plot was very uneven. For long stretches of time, especially in the early episodes, almost nothing of consequence would happen. Then, suddenly, the pace picked up in the last few episodes. By the time the finale hit, so many game-changing events happened in a row that they lost much of their impact. I understand that the source material is even worse, but I think the directors could have done a better job of evening it out.
That said, some of the arcs worked very well. In past seasons, the events at the Wall had put me to sleep, but now I was fully onboard. The arrival of the White Walker army gave that storyline the sense of urgency it needed. Jon Snow’s election as Lord Commander was a little implausible, but the chain of events leading up to his death I found to be logical, even though I was caught by surprise. One caveat, though, is that if he truly remains dead, and does not come back to life as many predict, then his heroic arc didn’t have much of a point. Unless, that is, the point was for him to die as a martyr for his righteous cause. However, many avid watchers and book readers sound pretty confident that Jon is coming back, somehow, despite Kit Harrington’s claims to the contrary.
Other storylines I mostly enjoyed were Tyrion’s trip to Meeren, and the political power plays going on at King’s Landing. It was fascinating to see Tyrion and Cersei follow opposite trajectories. Tyrion began the season in a crate on a ship, and he finished the season as the de facto ruler of Meereen. Tyrion is at his best when pulling strings and make deals behind the scenes, so I am intrigued to see where this goes next season. Cersei, on the other hand, went from Queen to prisoner, forced to suffer a humiliating, public punishment. That final shot of her in the arms of the reanimated Mountain makes me think that the pendulum will shift again next season, when she begins to take her revenge on all her enemies.
I actually thought Daenerys’s arc in Meereen was well-handled, even though some reviewers found it to be tedious. Previously, I had been frustrated by Dany’s sidequests, eager for her to sail to Westeros and unleash her dragons already. But her rule of Meereen served an important purpose in teaching her how to make difficult decisions, and it was useful to see her agonize over re-opening the slave pits. I especially enjoyed the argument between Tyrion and Hizdahr and wish there had been more discussions of political philosophy as a backdrop to Dany’s decision-making. Finally, dropping Dany in the middle of a Dothraki horde at the end of the season is a fascinating development, because Dany has rarely, if ever, been off on her own without her advisers, forced to rely purely on her wits.
I thought that the plotlines in Dorne and Winterfell were hastily constructed and poorly executed. Dorne looks like a stunning location, but we see very little of it and the people who live there. Half of the season was spent watching Bronn and Jamie riding to save Myrcella while the Sand Snakes plotted, only to have them all suddenly, coincidentally, arrived at the exact same time and all get captured. Mycella’s poisoning at the very end of the season is a shocking development, but it also didn’t make sense. Why would Ellaria and the Sand Snakes be standing at the dock saying goodbye to their enemies? Why would Jamie let Ellaria kiss Myrcella, without suspecting that she might try to poison her? After Myrcella is poisoned, what’s stopping Jamie and Bronn from turning the ship around and coming back to kill Ellaria?
As for Winterfell, plenty has been written elsewhere about Sansa’s terrible rape scene. In terms of plot development, I think it could have worked, if they had not chosen to portray it the way they did. But the larger issue is that Sansa seemed to regress significantly compared to the end of last season, when it looked like she had finally learned how to play the “game of thrones”. Now she is back to being a victim, dependent on Theon to save her. And depending on how she fares after that jump off the castle wall, she might be crawling around with two broken legs in season six.
A plotline that fell in the middle for me was Arya. It was a cool concept to see her begin her assassin training, but the pacing was incredibly slow until the very end. It was obvious from the start that the mission of the faceless men differed from Arya’s, but it is not clear if the show is pushing her towards them or towards her own path. Will she forsake her kill list to become a faceless man, or will she acquire the skills she needs and then leave to attain her revenge? Arya’s dispatch of Meryn Trant, and her punishment by blinding, makes me think that she will have to stick around the House of Black and White for at least a little while longer.
A major theme of the season was the futility of revenge. The desire for vengeance is powerful, but ultimately unsatisfying once it’s achieved. We have been cheering on Arya as she recited her kill list, but when she finally killed one of her marks in cold blood, it felt more like sadism than justice. Meanwhile, Brienne fulfilled one of her oaths by tracking down Renly’s killer, Stannis, and getting a confession out of him. After Stannis told her, “Go on, do your duty”, Brienne raised her sword, but there’s a hesitation, because there is little satisfaction in enacting retribution on a broken man. Similarly, Cercei’s suffering this season should have felt like just desserts for a woman who has done so much evil, but we took no pleasure in her pain when it came to pass. In these cases and others, violence was used not to titillate, but to highlight the pointlessness of a continuing cycle of war and punishment that has been ongoing in Game of Thrones since the beginning.
In Westeros, it seems that bad things always happen to good people. Indeed, many of our favorite characters hit rock bottom this season. But some of the villains did too, and when you really think about it, some of the heroes are not in such bad shape. The question that comes to mind, though, is why anyone would be a good person when the consequences of one’s actions, whether good or bad, are kind of random. Here’s a well-written article that addressed that very question perfectly: http://www.vulture.com/2015/06/game-of-thrones-no-good-deed-go-unpunished.html
The acting overall was superb this season, as we started to gain deeper insights into some of the characters which we had not previously had. The writing at times was weak, but the actors delivered the lines with plenty of conviction to sell the material. Even in silence, I thought that many of the characters expressed wide ranges of emotions with well-executed facial expressions for the given situation.
In particular, I was most impressed by Cersei, played by Lena Headey, who experienced the full gamut of emotions throughout her arc this season. At the beginning, she was still the cartoonish villain, scheming wickedly and heaping condescension on all those around her. After being locked up by the Faith Militant, she became indignant, then enraged, and finally broken, as she suffered one humiliation after another. Cercei was completely stripped, literally and figuratively, and the audience couldn’t help but sympathize with a woman they had previously hated so much. That long, agonizing “walk of shame” to the Red Keep was so difficult to watch because Lena Heady showed so convincingly the level of physical and psychological pain that her character was undergoing at the hands of the sadistic septons and the crowd. One could argue that this scene was just gratuitous violence, but I think it served the narrative purpose of humanizing Cercei’s struggle for legitimacy and power in a man’s world.
I also thought that there was tremendous character development for Jon Snow, Theon, Daenerys, and Jorah this season. Jon Snow wrestling with his new role as Lord Commander, and Daenerys struggling with quelling an insurgency in Meereen, allowed for significant growth in both of their leadership skills. However, I will note that Jon could be more compelling still if we saw more of his internal struggles. His heroism and righteousness often feel out-of-place in a show filled with morally ambiguous characters.
Theon spent most of the season in a tortured stupor, which was frustrating for the plot, but he conveyed his inner turmoil well. Jorah may seem like an unlikely choice, due to his generally wooden nature, but I think this is by design due to the kind of man he is. I thought he had some very strong scenes on the road to Meereen, such as his subtle sadness at learning of his father’s death before having the chance to repair their relationship. For so many characters, we saw a different side this season, and it is credit to the show that it knows how to develop fully three-dimensional characters from initially minor roles.
The low point, again, was everything that happened in Dorne. Prince Doran seemed completely disinterested in everything going on around him. The Sand Snakes were silly caricatures with odd accents. Myrcella was a one-dimensional princess, and it was somewhat disconcerting that she would be not just tolerant but actually glad that her uncle was really her father.
The cinematography was probably the strongest element of the show in a season of uneven pacing and character development. With stunning set pieces, CGI creatures that are fantastical yet lifelike, and dramatic scores that perfectly evoke the mood of each scene, it is easy to forget that this is a television show, not a movie.
In particular, I was impressed by the long Hardhome battle scene in episode 8. Unlike most blockbuster action movies these days, which are filled with quick cuts, monotonous clashes of weapons, and incongruous explosions, the Hardhome scenes was filmed deftly and fluidly, with choreography that could easily be followed. With shots like a horde of White Walkers clambering over the side of a cliff, only to rise again and charge toward their prey, this scene captured their ferocious tenacity and proved beyond a doubt who the true threat is in Westeros. The closing shots were especially haunting, after the White Walkers had raised the slain wildlings to join their ranks. As the gravity of the situation sank in, the music turned down almost to silence, and Jon Snow stared at the Night’s King while the boats retreated.
One other powerful scene to highlight, again, is Cercei’s long walk, which I discussed above. It is interesting how massive the scale of the scene was, even though the central character was just one person.
But the season was not just a collection of big, shocking moments. In fact, the majority of the time was spent in quieter scenes of dialogue, or traveling on roads to new destinations, or lingering on a character’s face to reveal his or her inner turmoil. Violence is the exception, not the rule, when you really get down to it, and even in violent scenes (such as Sansa’s rape or Myranda’s death), the directors avoided too much graphic content. The composition of the scenes indicates that Game of Thrones is a drama with occasional violence, as it serves the story, rather than a violent show with occasional drama to justify the violence.
The strongest parts of the season were the acting, cinematography, and certain of its plotlines. Overall, I would rate the season to be weaker than the previous ones, though it is still better than virtually every other drama on TV, and I am still excited to see where season six takes us.
But what about the question that started this discussion? Has the violence become gratuitous?
Many would argue that the violence has been gratuitous on Game of Thrones since Season 1, Episode 1. I suppose it depends on your individual comfort level. But violence is part of GoT’s DNA, and there is no way around that. To be a fan of the show, one has to have a certain level of tolerance for violence.
I believe that the show has, so far, maintained a good balance and avoided an excess of gore. The violence employed has served a purpose, although it could, in some instances, be toned down or filmed more tactfully. Game of Thrones fans are not sociopaths, and they don’t tune in to delight in blood and guts flying across the screen. They enjoy the show because it offers a window to another world, as well as a window to our own past. This is a world of chivalry and moralistic crusades, but also cruelty and violence, especially directed towards women and the powerless. That is one of the main points of the narrative, and to lose that element would be to lose some of the power and significance of George R.R. Martin’s world.