[WARNING: contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones and all volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, including The Winds of Winter]
Looking Back is a retrospective of Game of Thrones Season 5, location-by-location. Read my take on the storylines of Braavos and Dorne!
I’m beginning to feel like George R.R. Martin himself with the time it takes me to write these.
As Game of Thrones nears its conclusion, the plot moves away from the inner-politics of King’s Landing and more towards the magical elements of the story which are mainly set at the Wall and beyond. The magic and philosophy of A Song of Ice and Fire was always a lot more exciting to me than the conflicts of the Great Houses, and unfortunately the show didn’t manage to quite capture that this season. Previous seasons? Most definitely, albeit a slightly watered-down version of it. However, politics are at the heart of this epic saga, and the tale of the Night’s Watch is not completely free from them, with the source material for this storyline arguably being the most political it has ever been. While Braavos was pretty good and Dorne was pretty bad, the Wall is… well, pretty good still. Let’s take a look back at the season’s events.
The season began with a revelation from Stannis Baratheon: he is going to march on Winterfell and take it back from the Boltons. However, to take the castle he needs more men, and he instructs Jon Snow to convince Mance Raydar to swear allegiance to him so he can add the wildlings to his army. If he refuses then Melisandre will burn him alive as an offering to R’hllor. Jon speaks with Mance, however he cannot be turned. This results in Mance’s live execution, but to save him the pain of burning alive Jon gives him the gift of mercy by shooting an arrow through his heart.
With Mance gone, the elections for the new Lord Commander begin proper. Ser Alliser Thorne is competing against Ser Denys Mallister of the Shadow Tower, with the odds on the former winning. During the voting process Samwell Tarly stands up and puts Jon’s name forward, giving a rip-roaring speech about how Jon is the best man to lead the Night’s Watch. The voting begins, they’re counted, and the final vote is cast by Maester Aemon – for Jon, the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. However, soon after Stannis tempts Jon with the offer of legitimization – and Winterfell. Jon decides to decline, affirming that his place is with the Night’s Watch. Jon later appoints Ser Alliser Thorne as First Ranger, much to his surprise, and tasks Janos Slynt with overseeing the restoration of the Greyguard castle. Slynt disobeys the order and publicly insults Jon, prompting Olly to “fetch him his sword”. Slynt is taken outside and quickly breaks when faced with execution, swearing allegiance and professing that he’s a coward. Jon isn’t taking any of his shit and swiftly beheads him – hurray!
Maester Aemon gives Lord Snow a rousing speech about how he needs to “kill the boy,” prompting him to go and visit Tormund Giantsbane in the cells. They discuss an alliance between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings and agree that, should Tormund gather all the wildlings left north of the Wall, they will be given land on the other side – so long as they fight the White Walkers when they come. He agrees and reveals that most of the wildlings are at a village called Hardhome, wherein lies his one condition – that Jon accompanies him on the mission there. Needless to say the Night’s Watch aren’t too pleased with this deal, citing the thousands that have been killed by wildlings over the years. Jon presses forward with the plans regardless (oh, you stubborn Starks), as Stannis and his army march from Castle Black.
Jon leaves for Hardhome with Tormund and Dolorous Edd (leading Stannis’ fleet of ships to escort the wildlings). Soon after, Maester Aemon falls gravely ill and loses his senses. The faithful maester passes away, the last we see of him being the famous line, “Egg, I dreamed that I was old.” His body is burned in both Targaryen and Night’s Watch fashion, with a rousing speech from Sam. Then Gilly fucks him.
After some wildling fisticuffs at Hardhome, the village gets swarmed by wights led by the White Walkers – oh yeah, those guys! It’s an absolute massacre, with the Wall crew barely escaping with their lives. When Jon arrives back at the Wall with a huge host of now-homeless wildlings (and Wun-Wun!) at his back, Thorne is pissed. Jon sees the Night’s Watch slowly turning against him, all but his loyal best friend Sam – whom he sends away to Oldtown with Gilly (naturally). Soon after, his steward Olly – who has been giving him death stares all season – rushes into his chambers to tell him that one of the wildlings swears they saw Benjen Stark at Hardhome and has information on him. Jon races outside with him, only to be greeted by a wooden post with the word ‘TRAITOR’ scrawled across it, and the infamous ‘For the Watch’ scene begins. Olly is the one to deliver the final blow and Jon is left out in the snow dying, thus closing the season.
Kit Harington was, as always, a highlight. There are many who say that the Winner of Earth’s Best Hair 2013 isn’t that great as Jon Snow, but I’ve never understood the criticisms and this season he only got better. Sure, he isn’t as AMAZING as some of the other cast members however that doesn’t mean he’s bad. Jon Snow is a lot of things; he’s a leader, he’s tactical, he’s wise, he’s solemn and he wants to be a hero, which in the end proves his downfall. There isn’t any of that which I don’t see in Harington.
By-and-large, the storyline at the Wall this season wasn’t bad. At times it was great. Plot-wise, most of the simplifcations from A Dance With Dragons made sense and worked well. At the beginning of Season 5 a lot of fans were complaining about the fact that Sam wasn’t in Oldtown. Of course, as we know he left Castle Black to journey there with Gilly in the finale and I thought this was a smart decision. There wouldn’t have been anything for the characters to do this year aside from sitting around on a boat; the only important events are Aemon’s death, Sam meeting Arya (which is unnecessary) and the sex scene between he and Gilly. That can – pretty much – all be done back at the Wall, so why bother wasting money on huge new sets and locations and characters when Dorne is already playing a major role? The Oldtown storyline will also fit better in Season 6, and it’s actually accurate that D&D left it until then. It hasn’t even properly begun yet in the books but will in The Winds of Winter, which next season is (mostly) adapting. So what were you all complaining about?!
Stannis’ scenes were a delight and it felt like D&D finally understood the character (for a time…), with Stephen Dillane shining as always. Janos Slynt’s execution was perfect; so what if we didn’t get ‘Edd, fetch me a block?’. The line which we did get was only a slight variation and close enough to not cause any trouble. The actor behind Slynt, Dominic Carter, has always been incredibly underrated, as few realise how difficult it is to make a character so unbelievably hateable. Ciaran Hinds was excellent as Mance for the short time we got with him, John Bradley was just as sweet and adorable as Sam as he always has been, and Maester Aemon’s death was incredibly poignant and touching.
Actually, no, Stannis deserves more than one line. In the first half of the season Stannis was perfect – and I mean it. He is one of my favourite characters from the books and D&D actually got him right, with everything from “fewer” to his touching scene with Shireen. It was as if book-Stannis had leapt from the pages for the first time ever, and I cannot tell you how amazing it was to see the One True King finally done justice on screen. As you can guess, it was incredibly painful to sit through what would happen to his character in the second half of the season.
The Night’s Watch features a plethora of great acting talent and there hasn’t been one season where it’s felt disappointing or bad. However, there was one particular storyline this season which really just blew away all the competition. Many fans believe it to be the best aspect of the entire season. Yes, of course I’m talking about Hardhome.
Prior to the season, thousands of fans were bemoaning the writers’ decision to send Jon to Hardhome. They claimed that it was only done “for the sake of action” (a large part of it, admittedly) and was unnecessary as Jon wasn’t present in the books. I’m sure that every single one of them was eating their words after the episode aired. Even without the Beyond-the-Wall battle sequence the episode would have been great. I was certainly worried that the first proper scene between Tyrion and Daenerys would be terrible and nonsensical but it turned out to be pretty good, as did all of the other scenes. However, it was of course said sequence that made it a stand-out.
It wasn’t even the visceral action, gripping sound design, terrifying effects or the fact that some fans have waited almost 20 years to see the White Walkers in full glory. Well, it was exactly all of that, but there are a few other important factors that made it so special. The characterization was completely on point; Jon was a leader, Tormund was hilarious, but Karsi was the standout. “Who?” I hear you say. She was a wildling warrior, only introduced earlier in the episode but a character who made a lasting impression. She was a sympathetic figure as she was a mother, however she was also an independent badass – exactly the kind of character we should have seen more of. Sadly, she met her demise at the hands of some scary kid-wights clawing at her flesh – she just couldn’t bring herself to re-kill the children. Karsi will be deeply missed.
And now onto the other stuff.
The segment starts slow, with lots of talking and discussing between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. This isn’t some easy, one-and-done mission. These people have been fighting each other for literally thousands of years and it’s only now, 998 Lord Commanders later, that diplomacy has tried to be reached between them. Think how many millions on either side have lived and died and been killed during that time – a lot. That gravitas is truly felt during the scenes and you are certainly on the edge of your seat regarding the decisions which the parties will reach. These scenes also featured a character whom nobody really expected to show up, but everybody was glad when he did: Wun-Wun!
D&D didn’t expand into the vegetarian and drunken aspects of his character – but hey, Season 6, right?
The introduction of the wight attack was slow and creepy. The music increased in tempo, the tensions rose – the audience and the characters knew something was up, but only one of them guessed what was coming. Once the wights attacked it wasn’t so much a battle, but a massacre. Wildlings were slaughtered here and there and converted into the undead, quickly smashing down the huge wooden walls that had been erected and killing even more wildlings. People jumped into the sea for safety in what looked like something out of a horror movie, with Jon Snow doing his best to row people to safety on the ships and at the same time slice-and-dice some wights.
We also got our first real look at the Night’s King, in a shot where he looks down at Jon which screams “I’m gonna fight you some day”. For the first time ever, we actually got a scene of a White Walker fighting and it didn’t disappoint. As well as some great choreography it confirmed two fan theories. The first being that the White Walkers bring the cold rather than the other way around. It was unconfirmed in the books with even the characters being clueless, however when the White Walker who fought Jon arrives in the burning hut you see the fire diminish around him. I unfortunately couldn’t find a gif, but if you go back and rewatch the episode then it’s there.
The second being that Valyrian steel can in fact kill White Walkers!!!
(thanks to You Live or You Die for the gifset)
I didn’t mean to post that many gifs, but I really wanted to watch that scene again.
I just love this sequence. Pretty much every ASOIAF nerd screamed out “YES!!!” because while we all knew that Valyrian steel could kill them, it’s nice to have confirmation. The shock on both of their faces is also great – perhaps even Frosty didn’t know that he would be vulnerable to the steel of the dragonlords. Another cool thing to notice is how far the prosthetics have come. For the past four seasons the times where we’ve gotten a good look at the mysterious icy creatures have been very CGI-fied, whereas in this instance it’s quite clearly a guy in makeup. It makes them appear more realistic.
The full introduction of the Night’s King at the end of the episode was astounding. His look has drastically improved since Season 4, which looked like something cobbled together in a dimly-lit VFX studio three weeks before broadcast. He looks suitably intimidating and his final scene clearly illustrates that this is the true end game. Fuck the (king) politics of the Great Houses: the White Walkers are coming.
I have a strange connection to this actor. A close friend of mine’s aunt’s girlfriend (convoluted, I know) is his voice coach and my friend met him at a birthday party. Apparently he’s a very nice kid but is quite shy. I feel bad for him, because he gets so much hate for his character when in reality he’s not that bad an actor. The problem isn’t him, it’s the material. There is an argument for and against the use of Olly. On one hand, it makes a lot of sense. Build up this character to be Jon’s prodigy, effectively, and give him a tragic backstory so he has a reason to hate the wildlings. It makes the events of Season 5 a lot murkier and less clear which is classic-ASOIAF. However, at the same time, Olly isn’t a member of the Night’s Watch. He’s just a kid they took on who hasn’t said his vows yet, but still somehow ended up as a Steward. ‘For the Watch’ wasn’t too bad because it was still started by the experienced Crows and was finished by Olly, so there was a mixture of book and show material there.
I think the biggest problem is his age. It’s easy to hate on a kid which is why all the fans are doing it; perhaps if the character was a few years older and portrayed as a close friend to Jon then the stabbing would have been more heart-breaking. Then again, there isn’t any reason to include a new character when you could just put more emphasis on his relationship with, say, Dolorous Edd. As with every storyline this season the writing was a big issue. I referred to Olly as Jon’s prodigy, but aside from his job as the Steward (Jon’s old position) there isn’t really anything to indicate that he is as such, but what else could he be? We only have one scene where Jon gives him some leadership advice, and one scene where he’s trained in combat. There’s no reason given as to why Olly seems so important at the Wall which is just another instance of the same mistake of this season. Things happen and we’re expected to follow them although there isn’t really any reason for them happening.
While this isn’t true for all aspects of the storyline, a lot of it was rushed with the most notable example probably being the leadership elections. This is something which is so important yet it feels like D&D only threw it in there for necessity; it was a one-and-done deal and it’s not hard to forget that Jon is Lord Commander. In the show, Jon is already pretty much presented as the leader, so perhaps they didn’t feel it was vital to play up the elections. They didn’t have time to do it in the Season 4 finale or the premiere of Season 5, so they had to stuff it into episode 2 and be done with it. It was cheap Because Jon didn’t really feel like a Lord Commander, we lost out on the political themes of the Night’s Watch this season which were incredibly vital to the plot in the books. It was quite a dense and hard-to-follow subplot in ADWD so the writers were right in cutting it down, but they cut so much that there wasn’t really any of it left. It’s a huge shame because it’s important to show Jon’s growth into becoming somewhat diplomatic, even if it doesn’t work out too well for him in the end.
Jon’s death was underwhelming. There, I said it. The actual presentation of it was bad but so were the motivations behind it, albeit a little less so. It was filmed in a way which felt like everybody was taking turns. “For the Watch! Right, your go Larry.” In the books I got the impression that it was a formulated and planned attack but it was still frenzied, which just wasn’t there in the finale. This College Humor video just about sums it up for me.
Yeah, it’s still emotional because it’s Jon and we love Jon and yada yada but the issue is that I don’t think the core of the Night’s Watch are stupid enough to want to kill him over the wildlings. Last season Ser Alliser and Jon reached a stage of mutual respect which was completely thrown out the window this year. Yes, they are rivals and like I said earlier millions have lost their lives over 8,000 years, however Alliser at least is sensible enough to know that unless they reach common cause with them then shit is gonna hit the fan. Sure, it simplifies it if the Night’s Watch are just mad over the wildlings, but it does so at the expense of character, so it’s not something worth doing. If a little rewriting had occured then a version of the Pink Letter could have appeared in the show, making the conflict all the more powerful. Viewers would have been angry that Jon had been killed but they too would have been genuinely conflicted regarding whether he was doing the right thing or not – book fans are still debating about it now.
WHAT I WOULD HAVE DONE
Firstly, Jon needed to start the season as Lord Commander. It’s his big arc and a big change for the character and the Night’s Watch so a big deal needs to be made out of it – just like when Robb was declared King in the North. I would have had the plotline running all the way through Season 4 but somewhat in the background; it would be mentioned frequently but it would be a big mystery as to who will fill the position. The elections would have happened in episode 8, but Mance Raydar would have arrived at the Wall almost immediately after, so the votes wouldn’t get counted until the finale. Have Sam work a little magic and boom, the season ends with Jon as Lord Commander. This would mark a paradigm shift at Castle Black as Stannis would be arriving in the episode prior (why not just include it with Watchers on the Wall?!), getting everyone all excited for how affairs will change for Season 5.
The first scene opens with a wolf dream beyond the Wall, sniffing and hunting and snarling. We immediately believe it to be Bran again, but when the dream stops it isn’t him we see wake up – it’s Jon! He’s confused about what just happens and speaks to Maester Aemon, who tells him that some believe in the power of warging, but also dismisses it as a silly story. This doesn’t need to happen in the premiere, but Jon learns of a wildling known as Varamyr Sixskins who was taken prisoner at Castle Black who’s a warg. He’s one of the ‘better’ ones that knows they need to form an alliance with the Night’s Watch else they will all die. He visits him and Varamyr gives him some guidance on warging. He has a pet dog (similar to Jon with Ghost) whom he wargs regularly. I wonder what that could foreshadow?
I liked that Mance died for realsies – it was just the reasoning which was wacky. Burning him because he refused to bend the knee makes Stannis seem like more of a dick than necessary, and an idiot, since why would Mance bend the knee? Just keep it as it is in the books (and as what makes sense) – he burns because that’s the punishment for desertion. Jon, of course, sees him as being of more value alive, as does Stannis, which unsettles the other Night’s Watch officers. We need to see a meeting between them all to show right off the bat that they’re not too keen on some of Jon’s policies which can set the tension for the season. Here’s our new Lord Commander who wants to save the deserter wildling king and who shares that opinion with a king that’s outstaying his welcome. What are they going to think?
In the second episode, Stannis offers Jon Winterfell and legitimization, which is an incredibly tempting offer (duh). He talks it over with Sam and he affirms that his place is at the Wall, not down south in a castle. Stannis is disappointed but hey, you can’t have everything.
A huge deal needs to be made out of the wildlings-Night’s Watch conflict. There should be scenes which encourage us to sympathise more with the other side and allow us to see where Jon is coming; they’re not all vicious warriors. Most of them are women, the elderly and children who have nowhere else to go if he doesn’t help them. That will kick in Jon’s ‘hero syndrome’ as I call it. I would move the ‘Kill the Boy’ decision and speech to episode 3 (but hint at it beforehand), leading to Janos Slynt’s execution at the end of the episode. He commands Slynt to take some wildlings to live in one of the abandoned castles and oversee its restoration. He of course refuses and the situation plays out as normal, but now it’s more involved with the main plot. Sure, none of the other officers like Janos Slynt, but some may interpret Jon’s actions as a declaration that the wildlings are more important than the people he’s leading.
Stannis and his men leave roughly around episode 5 but he doesn’t take Melisandre, Selyse or Shireen with him because he wants to keep his family safe and he knows that the northmen will be uncomfortable with following him if she’s with him (Davos goes south too). Throw in some scenes that make the viewers sympathise with him while we’re at it – like the one between he and Shireen. The reason Melisandre stays behind is because I think she serves more of a purpose at the Wall. All through the season she has visions of a ‘flayed wolf’ (Sansa at Winterfell) trapped in stone which she tells Jon about. He tries to dismiss it but confides in Sam that he’s concerned about what it means.
Around the middle of the season a fight breaks out between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. All you need is a few rebellious guys (I’m thinking Rattleshirt) to make a fuss over not getting enough food, kill a crow and all hell will break loose. In the carnage Olly and Varamyr are murdered (it’s not JUST fan-service -it has a purpose) which makes this a personal fight for Jon, as he’s so far been training Olly and receiving guidance from Varamyr. The fight stops when the wildlings turn against each other with a ton following Tormund, who manage to subdue Rattleshirt’s party and kill him. This is especially good timing because earlier in the episode Jon agrees to travel to Hardhome. The fallout of this is immediate and unpleasant; every senior officer is now completely against going to the village beyond the Wall, and even Jon is conflicted after Olly’s death. However, he thinks of all the sick, the women, the old, the children and the impending wight army and realises that he needs to. This really pisses them all off.
Maester Aemon’s death is the same as what happened in the show, as I didn’t see anything wrong with it – it was great. Sam does need to have sex with Gilly afterwards but I wouldn’t keep the whole attempted-rape subplot. Meanwhile, Varamyr’s old dog visits Jon and, strangely, immediately bonds with Ghost. This leads him to believe that he is still alive inside the animal – HEY, I WONDER WHAT THAT COULD FORESHADOW…?!
Jon brings Alliser with him to Hardhome as he is First Ranger and he doesn’t want him causing dissent at the Wall while he’s gone. The leaders of the party are Jon, Tormund, Alliser and Karsi – yup, I want her to stick around for the full season – along with a bunch of crows. This plays out pretty much exactly as in the show, too. The wildlings there don’t trust the Night’s Watch or Tormund, wights arrive, Wun Wun, Night’s King, Karsi dies, nearly all the crows die, they escape. Jon had hoped that this mission would warm Alliser to the wildlings, but instead it just makes him angrier. They arrive back at the Wall with a host of mouths to feed and very little remaining crows which sends the wrong message to those who left behind. He sends Sam to Oldtown with Gilly, argues some more with Alliser, Melisandre tells him to ‘keep his wolf close,’ and Jon receives a letter.
It’s from Sansa. She tells him that she’s married to Ramsay Bolton and he’s declared his intentions that, once he’s done with Stannis, he’ll ride to Castle Black and destroy the Night’s Watch for betraying the realm and helping Stannis. Jon is conflicted on what to do; ride south, aide Stannis and rescue Sansa? Or wait it out at Castle Black? Melisandre, Tormund and Selyse tell him he must go to Winterfell, with the wildling declaring that he will ride beside him and bring men. Jon decides to ride south because otherwise they’ll be destroyed. I don’t think I need to say what happens next…
The only difference being, at the end, his eyes turn white.
Honestly, we just needed more of Jon being a leader and trying to be a hero, which is ultimately his downfall. It’s no coincidence that three of the main characters – Jon, Daenerys and Cersei – become rulers during A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, and I think George’s intention was to parallel three different styles of ruling and how they all fail. Jon fails because he believed in himself too much and didn’t listen to those around him.
The Wall in Season 5 was a storyline that could have gone a lot of different ways, and while the path D&D chose wasn’t bad at all – the scenes were always a joy to watch – I simply would have done it differently. Overall, I think this may have been the best plot of the season; for the large part it was tight, entertaining and had one of the best action sequences this show has ever produced (perhaps the best). This has always seemed to be the region which D&D ‘get’ the most and like best; the imagery is always authentic and true to the books, the acting is top notch and the writing is usually good.
Thus concludes another entry into ‘Looking Back’. Join me next time (whenever that will be) where I take a look at another region – battered and bruised by politics, hopeless and not too far from the Wall. Yes, I’m talking about the North.
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