Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Fuck yes
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Season Five – *
Part One: That Little Blip
If you look at a graph of the viewership of any given season of Game of Thrones, certain patterns begin to emerge. Each new season generally begets more live viewers (at least in the US), the first episode tends to attract more viewers than the second, and there might be an occasional dip in the middle of the season, but the viewership remains either consistent or tends to increase from the earlier to later episodes in a season. These are not unusual patterns for a series with an increasing tension that generally retains its quality throughout; Breaking Bad shows similar patterns (although damn if that last season doesn’t suddenly go asymptotic).
Season Five of Game of Thrones shows an odd anomaly in the charts, however. While the variation in viewers from the high point to the low point of a season generally fluctuates only about half to one million views, from the first to the sixth episode, the fifth season show a downward plunge of nearly three million views. While I cannot presume to directly correlate something as faceless as viewer numbers with writing quality, I can subjectively say those viewers didn’t miss much. Welcome to the shitty season.
Part Two: Slow Clap for the Idiot Protagonists
By the opening of this season, we have an overturned table of a plot and about half of our first season cast dead (aside form, you know, the important characters I listed back in that first review). Despite this, the remaining chips are set in places that allow them to enact interesting moves, from the vantage point of the moldy carpet. Arya has crossed the Narrow Sea to Bravos, the home of her first sword teacher and the mysterious assassin she befriended several seasons ago. Jon is set to take up the mantle of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, with the wildlings imprisoned and Stannis at his side, even presented with the opportunity a few episodes in to become ruler of Winterfell. Sansa has come into her own and is now playing the titular “game” with Baelish, employing her utilitarianism and newfound wisdom to keep herself alive. Danaerys has dragons – big dragons – two armies, a throne, and a kingdom that loves her, and what’s more, Tyrion is on his way to become her advisor for the invasion of Westeros.
It doesn’t take long for the series to royally fuck everything up and send those few remaining pieces hurling down the proverbial hallway and under the couch.
As it turns out, the House of Black and White is a muddy mess of vague rules and harsh punishment, and Arya doesn’t have the patience necessary to become an assassin. You know, revenge only ever seems a compelling motivation in stories if the characters driven by it either A) focus solely on their revenge plot without interruption, or B) will go through an entire lifetime of building up a global monopoly and train for years just to reach a petty end result. When a character is too undisciplined to go the long route but too inept to go the short one, you kind of lose any interest you had in them getting their revenge. Oh no, Arya lost her vision. I bet it won’t ever come back and she’ll have to learn the error of her ways. Well, okay, maybe I’m speaking from a bit too far in the future. I did like the House of Black and White in concept, and Arya getting comeuppance for her egocentrism isn’t entirely undue.
Over on the Wall, Jon refuses Stannis’ offer to legitimize his title, is elected Lord Commander, makes some sensible decisions, and gets stabbed for them in the first blatant fake-out death of the series. Jon’s mother has been such a mystery up until this point, and the show has hinted at him ruling Winterfell, being revoked as a bastard, uniting the wildlings and people south of the Wall, and leading the charge against the white walker army. How does the show expect us to believe that he’s going to stay dead for very long? Stannis is dead, so that’s a plus. I mean, the Red Woman isn’t, but, hey, she gets a tiny droplet of character development when she starts to question her faith! It involves her burning a child to death, but I think it kind of works for the series, in a dark way.
Sansa, with all her newfound confidence and Baelish wrapped around her finger, gets promptly married off to the serial torturer Ramsey Snow and raped, repeatedly. I’ll admit, I never really liked Sansa. I found her churlish and annoying, more of a stage prop in many of her scenes and rarely sporting her own opinion, much less acting upon it. That said, over time she does become a much more competent and compelling character (I actually kind of like her in the most recent seasons, actually). There are very few times when showing a character being sexually violated is warranted by the plot, and this is not one of them (and before book apologists come out of the woodworks, yes, the books handle it marginally better by not showing the rape, but when they choose to have Jane Bumfuck Nobody be in Winterfell instead of, I don’t know, one of the fucking main characters who might have some sort of connection to Theon — i.e., Sansa — I’m not exactly going to speak their praise). It’s especially annoying as Sansa is no longer the naive rich girl she used to be, but developing into a character in her own right. There’s a scene in Season Two when Sansa very nearly gets raped during a riot until the Hound comes to rescue her, and while horrifying, I think it does a much better job of illustrating the sort of world this series is set in. At that point, the death of her father had lifted the scales from her eyes, but the riot was the first scene where Sansa realized how bad the world could truly get, and that its horrors weren’t exclusively tied to Joffrey. The point of the scene in Season Five is to further disgust the audience and to point out, “Look at how horrible Ramsey is! Look at how weak Sansa is! Look at how degraded Theon is! Isn’t this world gritty and terrible?” But we already know all that. The scene serves no purpose and is unpleasant in the extreme. I have a guess about what caused that fifth season negative blip.
By the way, care to hazard a guess at what Bran, Rickon, or Gendry are doing? No? Well, neither does the show because none of them are even in this season.
On the other side of the puddle, Danaerys’ people turn against her like they have all the solidarity of wet toilet paper after she makes one sensible decision following a string of bad ones. The dragons remain locked up and do practically nothing until the very end (we’ll get to that), and her progressively worsening rule continues to be blamed on her subordinates and the masses, instead of the person directly causing the issues in the first place.
And Tyrion? Tyrion is kidnapped by a demoted Jorah Mormont who decides to take him to Danaerys, even though he was already on his way there willingly, and promptly fucks it up by getting both of them attacked by lepers and sold into slavery. So, well done, that. They do fuck-all for the story.
Part Three: FIRE! DESTRUCTION! DRAGONS! NYOOM NYOOM!
I make it sound like this season is horrible and a massive step back. It is those things, but perhaps not as much as I make it out to be. This season still has poignant moments, and it manages two major battles, one against the army of the dead at Hardhome, and one in the fighting pits of Mereen against the Sons of the Harpy, both of which are stunning to watch.
I would like to give special attention to the second of these, because despite the general crap of the rest of the season, this one scene was my favorite in the series until season six. It accomplishes three things in a short span of time: the battle itself is fun to watch, the scene finally gives the audience something it wants to see as though to make up for the rest of the season, and it fulfills promises set up in season one, sending Danaerys’ subplot in the direction of Westeros, finally. I still get chills when, in the midst of a bloodbath and surrounded by enemies, Danaerys’ runaway dragon shows up and single-handedly (wingedly?) takes on the entire coup of Sons of the Harpy and burns them to the ground.
The carnage is ridiculous and fun on its own, but when Danaerys climbs onto the dragon’s back, that’s when viewers can give a small bit of their confidence back to the show runners. I could watch the scene of it taking off over and over again – the music, the framing, the lighting, the gorgeous animation of the dragon as it runs through the stadium. This show is going to give us big dragons ridden into battle against armies of ice zombies – that’s the guarantee the show runners make with this scene.