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A dance of dragging

When talking about Game of Thrones Season Five with fans and viewers the general consensus is that very little happened this year. Numerous times throughout the season’s run I heard the word “boring”. The show span its wheels until episode eight and then finally pushed forward with some narrative propulsion.

What I find surprising about that reaction is not that people are thinking this, but that it has taken them five years to think it. You could throw that complaint to any and every season of Game of Thrones and it would be valid. The show does many things well, but pacing has never been one of them.

It seems fans have grown accustomed to the narrative lulls and lags and then sudden bursts (usually in episode nine. See Ned’s beheading, The Battle of Blackwater, The Red Wedding, and the war at the wall) and are starting to get a little tired of it. In earlier seasons it managed to get a pass because the audience was so engrossed in the world building going on, but we are well aware of the rules and ways of Westeros now. Perhaps Game of Thrones ability to shock has diminished.

But the show offers more than shock. There is a richness and depth to this universe that goes beyond major character deaths.

Season Five pushed the story forward in a number of interesting directions. First of all, it did something I previously thought impossible: It made Jon Snow interesting. Jon has always been a poor man’s Ned Stark. The character that looks to do the right thing no matter what. A character who stands for fairness and equality in a world that has little to no interest in those ideas. But unlike Eddard, Jon was never in a position of power that allowed him to do anything with those beliefs. That changed this year as he became the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. His attempts to unite the forces of the Night’s Watch with the Wildlings was hugely compelling as Jon had his attention so firmly focused on the big picture (The White Walkers are totally going to kill everyone!) that he didn’t notice the immediate threats rising up from his own camp. Kit Harrington’s performance is still as flat as ever but that detached weariness he brings to the role actually works for the character. He is tired and frustrated but what must be done for the good of the cause will be done, that he will see to. Just like the other surprise star of the season:

Stannis Baratheon.

Stannis and Jon actually have a lot in common, and their story lines this season mirror each other in a number of ways. Both start as leaders who take no joy in leading, it’s simply what fate has thrust upon them. Both make unpopular decisions for what they believe to be the good of the mission. And both pay the ultimate price for those decisions.

Stannis started the year as a somewhat one note character. He is a slave to duty. That is all. But this season explores the tragedy of the character. Stannis has other notes within him but he won’t allow himself to play them. He is a man of honor. A man who sees the value in others (Davos and Jon being the prime examples). A man who loves his daughter. And a man who sees himself becoming the villain but is powerless to do anything about it. Melisandre may speak for the Lord of Light but Stannis knows the path she has sent him down is one of darkness. That is why he has kept Davos around, to tell him what he already knows: This is wrong. But the problem is darkness seems to be the only option for Stannis to complete his mission. And he must complete his mission. It worked against Joffrey and Robb (if you believe Melisandre) and it worked against Renly. So he gives into it completely.

Characters who are staunch in their beliefs about who they are and where they fit tend to suffer greatly in Game of Thrones. That rang especially true in Season Five. Arya is told to give up her identity and to become no one, but by the season’s end she is proclaiming exactly who she is as she takes a life. She is punished for it. Sansa reclaims her name and place in Winterfell and attempts to position herself as a player. She is punished for it. As a girl Cersei is told who she will be and what will come of her, and she spends her entire life fighting that. She builds herself up and holds on tightly to who she believes she is. She is punished for it. Jon and Stannis know who they are and will not bend. So they break.

Some of the character arcs make better use of this theme than others. Arya’s story line this year feels like a training montage that plays out in real time. Some of it is interesting but doesn’t progress quickly enough. Sansa begins to grow into an interesting character with a real sense of agency, only for that to be torn from her and her arc almost completely undone. Brienne clings to the idea she is a knight, a protector, and this is shown by her waiting at a window for the entire season. None of these plots feel like Thrones at its best, but it is Jamie’s arc that is Season Five’s biggest failing.

Jamie and Bronn head to Dorne to bring Myrcella safely home. They are acting as the audience viewpoint to introduce us to a new location and a new set of characters who should have an impact on the world as a whole. But the new characters do nothing. We learn nothing about them or their agenda and so every scene we spend with them feels like a waste of time when there are far more interesting things happening else where. When it is all over it becomes clear that Jamie’s arc was to come to terms with the fact he is a father who loves his daughter. But this is so poorly telegraphed that it doesn’t land. There is one scene of Jamie talking to Bronn about this, and he deflects, then another talking to Ellaria Sand when he comes to terms with it, and then a final scene with Myrcella where he admits the truth. It plays the beginning, middle, and end but doesn’t do any of the work to show how Jamie moved from one point to the next. The entire Dorne plot was a damp squib. We met the Sand Snakes and Doran Martell but we still don’t know who they are.

So yes Season Five was a mixed bag. It had, as always, a little too much treading water in some of the characters stories. But it also had moments of greatness (dragon riding!). The eighth episode, Hardhome (in my opinion one of the best episodes the show has ever put out), was thrilling and emphatically stated what is at stake here. Tyrion and Dani talk about names on a wheel, and how those same names cycle in and out of power. That is why so many of the characters are so desperate to cling to their names and identities. But then along come the White Walkers who show exactly how little those names mean. They strip you of your life, your name, and your sense of self. Which is something Season Five never lost sight of, it kept its identity and remained a typical Game of Thrones season, for better and for worse.

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