June 14, 2015, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
At some point, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss lost me. Season five has been a very divisive season of television, not just for me but in the larger cultural conversation. Some people see this as the obvious continuation of the story we’ve been watching all this time; others have seen one of this season’s many atrocities as the bridge too far, the jumping off point for them, the point at which the show broke its contract with the viewers. I am not really fully in either camp, but watching “Mother’s Mercy,” it became clear to me that I am much closer to the latter than the former. I will almost certainly be watching when this show comes back next year. I may even be writing about it again, though I am not sure I will be (and not sure I even should be, an issue I have long had with my criticism of this show, though for shifting reasons). All I know is that this episode of television left me feeling like I am out in the cold, no longer a part of the audience this show is interested in serving.
I have no problem with violence, even relentless, graphic violence (if you doubt that, check out my reviews of Hannibal, my current favorite show on television, and one of the most gruesome series on television right now). Yet I have problems with how Game of Thrones handles violence. I have no problems with a dramatic narrative tackling sexual assault, or the oppression of women. Yet I have problems with how Game of Thrones has handled its female characters and what it has chosen (and make no mistake, it is making choices on this front, even as an adaptation) to subject them to. I have no problem with A Song of Ice and Fire. My problem is with Benioff and Weiss, and what they seem to have taken from a book series I quite enjoy. The lessons they learned are starkly different than the ones I did, and their Game of Thrones has become such a parade of relentless cruelty, it has lost most of its effectiveness for me.
I can’t cleanly draw a line to the moment the show lost me, but I can talk about some of the reasons it has, and why “Mother’s Mercy” was salt in the wounds this show has inflicted on me this year. I think it largely comes down to exploitation for me, and the fact that at this point, I do not trust the motivations of Benioff and Weiss beyond a desire to shock the audience again, and again, and again, by going further and further and further. I see no purpose to the lengths they go, and thus, the savagery doesn’t serve the story to me, not remotely. I don’t tune in for torture porn, and if you do, you’ve been watching a very different show for me for very different reasons. But unfortunately, it seems like you’ve been watching the show Benioff and Weiss are making.
I knew the show had lost me tonight when several sequences that are taken directly from the books played out on the screen and yet I felt very differently about them. Cersei’s walk of shame happened on the screen pretty much exactly how it happened in the books, and yet, it is impossible for me to not read that scene in the different context of this show. It is hard for me to not see this act of a woman being humiliated and degraded as something other than the end of a season that has used the humiliation, degradation, and oppression of women again and again to get its rocks off. Jon Snow’s stabbing also happens in the books, and in largely the same way (and for largely the same reasons). It’s not even a particularly brutal or violent scene, at least not by this show’s standards, but Game of Thrones has turned the violent deaths of major characters into something so enervating, I felt little at watching Jon’s assassination (or assassination attempt, anyway).
And the death of Meryn Trant, which is wholly invented by Benioff and Weiss, is another perfect example of how this show has traded in pretty much everything else it tries to do for an endless attempt to create scenes of shocking violence and emotional cruelty. Did Meryn Trant need to be a pedophile for us to hate him? No. Did we need to see him whipping little girls for us to hate him? No. Even Arya’s actual murder of him comes off as sadistic in a way that feels unearned, or at least that read to me as excessive. Not because it was excessively violent (again, I have no issues with excessive violence), just because it felt gratuitous to me in a way more and more of this show has in recent weeks. Again, I’ll freely admit, the show has lost me at this point, and perhaps if you are someone who still loves everything (or even a lot) of what it is doing, Meryn Trant’s death probably didn’t strike you as all that distasteful or unnecessary. But to me, it felt constructed for maximum shock value (Pedophiles! Child whipping! Blinding! Lots of stabbing! Throat slitting!) rather than something that emerged organically out of a story designed to do anything other than shock.
Of course, even in this episode, at the end of this season, there were things I liked here. The idea of Tyrion and Varys running Meereen together is incredibly exciting, and it seems the show has figured out a way to make the endless time this narrative spends stalled in Meereen far more entertaining (even as this new status quo indicates we probably won’t be leaving Meereen behind anytime soon). But even that felt like a small reprieve from an episode that was otherwise mostly just a parade of bodies piling up, bodies that “Mother’s Mercy” doesn’t even seem interested in making you care about. We see Meryn and Myrcella and Myranda killed (really not a good week to have an “M” name, I guess). We watch Selyse’s body turn up, and Stannis’ possible death, and Jon Snow’s possible death. I understand that Game of Thrones is a brutal show that takes place in a brutal world, but what once made it good television was the time it spent laying out that world’s brutality, and the care it gave to making sure those emotional beats landed. That time and care has dissipated over the last two seasons, to the point that the show seems to care only about the next extreme thing it can do to grab headlines, or to keep viewers talking about it.
There’s an argument that George R.R. Martin caught “twist fever” after pulling off the Red Wedding and has been trying to top that ever since, but if that’s true of the source material, its certainly even truer of the show, which has been pulling itself apart in an effort to recapture the dark glory of its early twists and turns. The value of a twist, however, is inherently tied to the story around it, to the characters and how they are changed. Ned’s death is the inciting event for all that follows, as well as the moment we understand this is a world without standard fantasy genre rules. The Red Wedding is a huge upheaval to the status quo, changing the rooting interests of the audience and complicating every single character’s journey in some way or another. Many of the events of “Mother’s Mercy” lack that punch, and feel instead like just more awfulness on top of a sundae that is growing increasingly inedible.
I don’t think I have given up on this show forever. I have a feeling I will watch season six when it comes, and especially if it happens to arrive after The Winds of Winter (fingers crossed). But I used to consider Game of Thrones as among the best things on television, and I am not sure I do anymore. It isn’t impossible for this show to turn it around. Plenty of shows I love have had bad seasons and then come back strong. The difference here is I just don’t trust Benioff and Weiss anymore. I have lost faith that they aren’t steering this ship into the cliffs. And so it is hard for me to put much faith in some strong resurgence when all the evidence is for a continuous devolution. It may happen. It may yet surprise me. The show may find me again, may pull me back into its camp, may even convince me that some of the worst moments of this season weren’t just exploitative or gratuitous. But for now, it’s lost me. Winter is coming, and I’ve been left out in the cold.
- “You’d just been beaten half to death, how did you…?” “Very carefully.”
- “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there is still something of me left.”
- “Does he always talk so much?”
- “If I ever kill you, your eyes will be wide open.”
- “So…mainly you talk?” “And drink.”
- “I thought we were so happy together, until you abandoned me.”
“Mother’s Mercy” was salt in the wounds this show has inflicted on me this year.