For the first time in five seasons, I’m caught up with the finale and one person actually said they were interested in what I thought of it. One person! Hey, that’s an audience. :) Okay, so here are two broad thoughts and a musing on writing in general.
(NOTE: I have not read the books. These comments are entirely about the TV show. I understand that the books are more complex, more layered, more nuanced.)
(Also, WARNING SPOILERS. I am going to be circumspect for a bit but eventually will be talking about things that happened in the finale and the few episodes previous.)
SPOILERS AFTER THIS
In general, I liked the finale as much as any of the other episodes, more or less. Cersei’s walk of SHAME! SHAME! went on probably twice as long as I would’ve liked, but she played it well and I very much appreciated her politicking before and after. Reek/Theon finally did what we all figured he was going to do from about the halfway point of this season, and I guess better late than never (also, that’s how Sansa uses the corkscrew?). Hope that snow is deep enough! And I liked Arya’s segment quite a bit. She may have a little trouble getting to the rest of her list.
As for Castle Black…
There’s a quote from author George R.R. Martin that I saw circulating after the finale.
“Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?”
Well, yes. Absolutely. In James Cameron’s “Avatar,” during the climactic battle at the end when the female lead is in danger, I found myself detachedly wondering, “Is this the kind of story where Cameron might kill her off?” rather than tensely worried whether the character would survive.
For most of the first three seasons of GoT, I was right there with the characters. The deaths meant something. And then came the Red Wedding, which was for me the most emotionally upsetting episode of the whole series. The message I got from that episode was, “Hey, if you invest yourself in any of these characters, sooner or later you’re going to be grieving their death.” And this was with the buffers of watching it a year and a half later, having seen enough spoilers to know that the characters didn’t survive.
With that, I was numb. I have made the mistake of describing it as being no longer emotionally engaged with the show, which made a couple friends of mine say, “You don’t like it anymore?” Not at all. I still like the writing, the acting is top-notch, the sets and costumes and stories are all interesting and compelling. But while I care what happens to the characters, I don’t care about them. I didn’t grieve when any of them died. My main reaction when Stannis burned his daughter was “Even if you really believe you have to do this, did you have to do it in front of all your men? And your wife?” I respected his decision to force himself to stand and watch, but dude, how did you not know how that was going to end?
(Now, the flip side isn’t the same; there are some characters I want to see dead. I have a list just like Arya, and Ollie is on it now, for example.)
So while the ending of the finale was surprising, for me it didn’t have a huge impact (except in a writing sense, but I’ll get to that in a minute). To paraphrase one of my friends: you’ve been watching this show for five years, in which time 80% of the characters you’ve loved have been betrayed and/or brutally murdered. How did you not know this was coming?
Kit’s take on it is that there’s no lesson to be gotten from the show. You stick to your principles, you die. You betray your principles, you die. You’re loyal to your realm/laws, you die. You betray your realm/laws, you die. Or sometimes you don’t (Walder Frey, as far as we know, is still alive). Yes, that’s realistic, and yes, the show isn’t over yet. We shouldn’t judge a thing 5/7 of the way through it. Some people like the anarchy and politics from which a seemingly random winner emerges, and the Game of Thrones showrunners are telling a marvelous story in that world. But we are used to seeing a purpose behind our story, a choice and a reward or punishment. If you’re going to break that rule–if you’re going to break any rule–you should understand what it costs.
Now, to the second point about the Castle Black betrayal. Like 90% of the Internet, I believe that Jon Snow is not going to stay dead, from hints like the focus on the blood after we see Melisandre arrive, from the R + L = J theory, from the story that before GRRM would agree to let Benioff and Weiss adapt his books, they had to answer the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?” But also, there’s this minor brick to add to that wall.
Let’s say you’re Ser Alliser, experienced fighter of the Night’s Watch. You’ve just been humiliated in an election by this nineteen-year-old bastard kid, and what’s more, the bastard has upended everything you think you’ve been fighting for by letting wildlings through the Wall. Also he executed your friend for talking back to him. So you can either swallow your pride and serve the Lord Commander, trusting that this boy (again, Jon is around nineteen at this time) knows what he’s doing better than you, or you can fight for what you know is right even though it betrays your oath to serve the Lord Commander.
We already know which one you choose. So…when Jon Snow appears with the wildlings at the Wall, why open the gates? That’s the moment when you take over Castle Black, when you tell Jon Snow that he can come back in alone or not at all. We can see that struggle in his face in the hesitation before he gives the order to open the gates.
But no. You open the gates and let all those wildlings through, the worst thing this boy can have done. And then–only then, when the damage is done, the metaphorical and literal stable doors are open and the horses are gone–then you lead a small band of traitors and stab him in the middle of his own castle where at least some men are still loyal to him.
What changed between the opening of the gates and the betrayal? Sam left. Was Ser Alliser frightened of Sam? Doesn’t seem like it. In the books, from what I understand, Ser Alliser isn’t even at Castle Black anymore at this point in the story, but I’m sure that whoever it is who leads this party will have reasons for the struggle and it will make more sense. But in the context of the TV show, it feels like the plot drove the characters.
Why would Ser Alliser wait? Because then Jon Snow can be killed in Castle Black after Melisandre arrives. Because then Melisandre or Ghost or some combination of the two can save him.
There are two ways the show could’ve made that more plausible. One: Ser Alliser could’ve intended to leave the gates closed and shut Jon out, but as he hesitates, one of the men loyal to Jon goes ahead and opens the gates. Then at least you don’t have him giving the order. Two, there could be word of some fight with the wildlings after they pass through Castle Black, something that confirms Ser Alliser’s fears about them. That would be something enough to change his mind, to convince him that Jon Snow is dangerous for the realm.
As it stands, though, it feels to me like the whole point was to get Jon Snow to Castle Black to be attacked…and not just because it would be more dramatic for the show.
Hope we start season six with a resurrected Jon Snow personally beheading all of his would-be assassins. See, I told you I was emotionally engaged.