The season finale of Game of Thrones was basically a series of vignettes where various characters got their revenge... usually with an ironic twist. It was a lot to take in. But it did disprove once and for all the idea that Littlefinger is a brilliant mastermind. Spoilers avaunt!

So yeah, this was just one shocking event after another, like a dozen Red Weddings all in a row. The takeaway message seemed to be that Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish was wrong when he said that chaos is a ladder — or if it is, it’s one of those supervillain ladders that suddenly turns into a slide leading to a piranha tank.

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Baelish appears to have miscalculated pretty seriously. He was willing to bet everything that Stannis would wipe the floor with the Boltons. And if that didn’t work out, Littlefinger was quite confident that Ramsay Bolton was a sweet boy whom Sansa could mold and control. He also saw no possible use for Brienne of Tarth — a kickass fighter who was sworn to protect Sansa. Not to mention, he thought it was clever to thwart the Tyrells’ plans to marry their kids to Sansa and Cersei, setting off a chain of events that led to (among other things) his brothel being trashed by religious fanatics who pretty much run things in King’s Landing.

So yeah. The television version of Littlefinger, at least, is good at creating disasters that he can (sometimes) take advantage of. But if this show is all about the secret war between Littlefinger and Varys, as we’ve speculated, then Varys may actually be the more cunning player in the end.

Anyway, let’s take a look at all the crazy vengeance that somehow got packed into one episode...

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Stannis learns the limits of prophecy

Stannis was on a mission from God — the Lord of Light — and seemed destined for greatness. But faster than you could say “four fried chickens and a coke,” Stannis’ mission from God was over.

The gif up top is the expression on Melisandre’s face when she realizes she’s been supporting the wrong guy. Obviously, Stannis is not Azor Ahai, aka the Prince That Was Promised, the ruler who will lead the fight against the forces of death. And everything Melisandre has done has been for nothing.

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Melisandre talked Stannis into burning his only daughter, Shireen, alive, promising that this would give him victory at Winterfell. But even though the snows that have trapped Stannis’ army thaw, he’s not saved after all. Half his army has deserted, including all of the sellswords with all of the horses. And his wife, Selyse, is found hanged to death.

(The wholesale desertion is probably largely thanks to Ramsay Bolton, who’s infiltrated Stannis’ army and has been spreading dissension. Later, all of those sellswords on horseback fight for the Boltons, thanks to Ramsay. Also, it seems entirely possible that Ramsay killed Selyse and made it look like suicide. Could go either way, to be honest.)

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In any case, the book version of Stannis balks at burning anybody alive, because he knows half his army are nonbelievers, who would desert. So TV Stannis just proved book Stannis right.

Stannis’ army, fighting on foot, gets completely slaughtered by a superior force on horseback. But Stannis is actually killed by Brienne of Tarth, who watched a shadow with Stannis’ face kill her beloved Renly and swore vengeance.

The ironic twist is that Brienne of Tarth violates one oath to fulfill another — if she had just waited a minute longer before racing off to kill Stannis, she would have seen Sansa Stark light a candle in the Broken Tower of Winterfell, the signal for Brienne to ride to the rescue.

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(And yes, Brienne killing Stannis, at the cost of failing to save Sansa, was pretty heavily telegraphed.)

Although, is Stannis actually dead? He keeps looking off to the side while he’s talking to Brienne, as if somebody might be coming up behind her. And we don’t see him die — she swings her sword, but we don’t see it connect. It’s just barely possible someone stops her, or she opts for mercy at the last moment. (But unlikely, I guess.)

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Theon gives Myranda the shove

Speaking of Sansa... she finally escapes from her bedchamber using the building tool she stole, but the candle thing is a bust. She tries to sneak back to her room before Ramsay gets back, but gets cornered by Myranda, Ramsay’s lover and partner in sadism.

And something about Myranda threatening to maim Sansa — because Ramsay only needs certain parts of Sansa, and only until she produces two sons — finally makes Theon rebel. Maybe because Myranda sexually violated him as well as assisting in his mutilation.

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Or maybe it’s the thing Sansa says, about preferring to die before there’s still something left of her. Sansa’s wilingness to die for her sense of self seems to get through to Theon, a little. It’s hard to tell, though.

In any case, Theon shoves Myranda off a wall, to her death. And then, because Ramsay is coming home, he and Sansa jump off another wall, from a slightly greater height than the fall that just killed Myranda. (But they’ll be fine, right?)

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Arya kills “no-one,” gets an ironic punishment

Keeping on with the theme of revenge and irony, Arya Stark takes out the first name on her list. And after all the time Arya’s spent training to become “no-one,” it’s fascinating that she tells her victim, Ser Meryn Trant, that he’s “no-one” before killing him.

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Ser Meryn was one of the nastiest and most sadistic members of the Kingsguard, and he (apparently) killed Syrio Forel, Arya’s sword teacher, back in season one. Now he’s in Braavos, escorting Mace Tyrell but mostly brutalizing underaged girls. It’s not particularly surprising that one of the girls he’s beating turns out to be Arya — the only surprise is that she’s stolen a face from the Faceless Men to disguise herself.

Arya doesn’t just kill Ser Meryn — she mutilates him, symbolically destroying him, first. She stabs out his eyes, one by one, then pokes him full of holes before gloating and telling him exactly who she is: Arya fucking Stark. She reclaims her identity (which she’s supposed to have discarded) even while robbing him of his own. It’s the opposite of how these assassins are supposed to work.

So in a somewhat confusing sequence, Arya watches her mentor, Jaqen, die to balance the scales for the un-asked-for death of Meryn. Except it’s not Jaqen — after a series of unmaskings that would make Scooby Doo proud, it turns out to be Arya herself, symbolically murdered. And Arya, who stabbed out Ser Meryn’s eyes, loses her own eyesight.

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This, Jaqen suggests, is what happens when you wear a false face without first giving up your own identity (including your old vendettas) completely. (And it’s pretty clear the whole thing was probably a test. They sent her to go kill the random shipping insurance guy, knowing she would see Ser Meryn and face temptation.)

It’s the Kiss of Death!

A number of highly memorable characters apparently get killed this episode. And then... there’s Myrcella. She’ll always be best remembered as the pawn in Tyrion’s elaborate schemes, back in season two.

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Tyrion had packed Myrcella off to Dorne, and promised her in marriage to Prince Trystane. But Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes wanted to mutilate her in revenge for Prince Oberyn’s death, a scheme that was thwarted a few weeks ago. So instead, Ellaria resorts to the good old fashioned poisoned-lipstick kiss, a ploy so obvious that nobody on the crowded pier sees through it.

But wait — there’s still an ironc twist, as with almost all of the episode’s moments of deadly vengeance. Right before she dies, Myrcella tells Jaime Lannister that she’s always known that Jaime is her father instead of her uncle, because of his incest with her mother Cersei. Jaime has been trying very awkwardly to explain this to Myrcella, with a speech along the lines of, “You know, love is a funny thing.”

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Myrcella seems surprisingly OK with being illegitimate (even though this could mean her ignominious death) and tells Jaime she’s proud that he’s her father... right before she dies of a fatal nosebleed.

Now that we’ve seen a whole season’s worth of the Dornish subplot, it seems pretty clear that its only purpose was to get Jaime out of King’s Landing, to remove one more superfluous character, and to give Bronn some hilarious moments with Jaime (and Tyene Sand, who gets to say the phrase “bad pussy” this week.)

Daenerys gets the reunion she never expected

Daenerys sort of comes full circle in this episode — when we first met her, she was being married off to a Dothraki horselord, and she’s gone through half a dozen identities since then. Nobody but Jorah calls her Khaleesi any more.

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But now, for the first time, Daenerys is on her own, having flown away from Meereen on the back of her dragon Drogon, and she’s in the middle of the grasslands to the north. Where Drogon promptly falls asleep and leaves her stranded. Only to be found by a whole Khalasar, belonging to one of Khal Drogo’s replacements (or one of his old rivals.)

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As soon as Daenerys sees who’s riding towards her, she drops her ring on the ground. Either because it can identify her as Khal Drogo’s wife (but it’s not the same as the ring she was wearing at her wedding. See pic below.) Or else because she thinks that her friends who are searching for her will find it and track her somehow.

And luckily for her, she does have people searching for her — Jorah and Daario, who are already putting in a bid to be yet another wacky double act.

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Tyrion and Sam get new beginnings

The episode consists almost entirely of people getting their comeuppance, usually in a horribly fatal manner. Except for two characters, who actually get a hopeful note and a brand new direction, in a way that feels like something that would happen on a season finale of a regular TV show.

Tyrion, who’s barely been in Meereen a few days, has already gotten some cred with Daenerys, just in time to watch her fly away. And even though nobody else quite trusts him, Daario manages to deduce that Tyrion’s the only one with the political acumen to rule a fractious city like this one. So before Daario and Jorah ride off, they leave Tyrion in charge, with Grey Worm and Missandei to help him. (Assuming Missandei doesn’t have grayscale, of course.)

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But then there’s an unexpected, and kind of sweet, upside for Tyrion. He’s reunited with Varys, who was the one who wanted to bring Tyrion to Daenerys in the first place. And Varys, for the umpteenth time, expresses confidence in Tyrion’s ability to govern wisely, and basically offers to help Tyrion figure out who his enemies are, so they can be destroyed.

And in a moment of fanservice that still absolutely works on its own merits, Tyrion admits he missed Varys — to which Varys gives basically the Han Solo response: “I know.”

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And the other character who doesn’t just get completely dumped on and/or murderized this episode is Samwell Tarly, who gets Jon Snow’s permission to go to Old Town to study to become a maester. Now that Maester Aemon is dead, the Night’s Watch needs someone trained in healing and other sorts of ancient learning. Plus Samwell needs to get Gilly and the baby out of dodge, before they’re killed and he dies protecting them.

And in one brief shining moment of levity, Sam confesses he finally did the deed with Gilly, after having been beaten half to death. It’s hard to tell what surprises Jon more: that Sam broke his vows, or that he was able to have sex while he was a mass of bruises and cuts. But Sam’s stance on vows has changed a lot lately, and he says the Maesters of Old Town will have their work cut out for them getting him to give up sex.

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At least the end of the world is working out well for someone, Jon says.

And it turns out Sam got out of dodge just in time, because...

Jon gets the Night’s Watch retirement plan

Back to revenge and betrayal and irony and stuff. The Night’s Watch, who made Jon their leader only a couple months ago, have become disgruntled after he decided to try and save the Wildlings from being slaughtered by the White Walkers. Because some Crows had to sacrifice their lives saving some of the Wildlings — even though Jon gained a few thousand potential fighters against the zombies, at the cost of a few of his own men.

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Ser Alliser, who’s had it in for Jon since season one, finally gets back at Jon for beating him in the Lord Commander election and stuff. But the trap Ser Alliser sets involves betrayal by Jon’s squire, Olly, as well as the false hope that Jon’s uncle Benjen, the old First Ranger, might still be alive out there somewhere.

(Did anybody else get their hopes up a bit when we saw Benjen in the “previously on” segment? His whereabouts is one of the show’s longest-standing mysteries, and just the fact that he’s being mentioned again might mean we could still get an answer.)

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Olly doesn’t just lead Jon to the slaughter — he also turns out to be the final one to plunge a knife into Jon, leaving him to bleed out, apparently to death.

Although there’s still hope. Melisandre, who deserted Stannis right before the battle, rode straight for Castle Black, for reasons that remain unclear. Now that she’s decided that Stannis wasn’t the hero she wanted, maybe she’s looking elsewhere? In any case, she shows up just before Jon gets shanked, and can’t even give Ser Davos an answer when he asks what happened to Stannis and Shireen.

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So maybe having Melisandre around will turn out to come in handy? Stranger things have happened.

And finally...

Lady Olenna’s vengeance is complete

We never actually get to see what happened to the Tyrells, Loras and Margaery, after they were hauled away to await trial for sodomy and lying about sodomy. Are they still locked away in cells somewhere? Once Cersei, who conspired to get them imprisoned, gets locked up herself, the show loses track of them.

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But meanwhile, Cersei’s schemes come to a horrible end, partly thanks to Lady Olenna Tyrell, who apparently turned Cersei in in revenge for her grandchildren. (Although we still don’t know exactly what Littlefinger told Lady Olenna. He could also have told her that Loras’ accuser, Olyvar, was a pimp.)

Cersei finally confesses to sleeping with her cousin Lancel — although not to sleeping with Jaime or having Lancel kill King Robert (that latter accusation somehow doesn’t come up, despite being pretty damning). And as a reward, she’s allowed to go home, but there’s a catch. Her head is shorn, and she’s forced to walk naked from the Great Sept to the Red Keep, while nuns shout “Shame” and the common people throw muck at her and curse her. This sequence goes on and on for an uncomfortably long time, until Cersei is finally a wreck.

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But is Cersei’s scheming really over? When she arrives at the Red Keep, she’s greeted by her one loyal servant, Qyburn, who wraps her in a cloak and introduces her to the newest knight of the Kingsguard — who’s apparently the Mountain, back from the dead. He’s taken a “vow of silence,” but is very, very loyal. (Because he’s a zombie.) So now at least Cersei has a ginormous unstoppable killing machine on her side. That ought to come in handy.

All in all, I want to look back at the me who said that one of the early episodes of this season was hard to watch because of its brutality, and say “You sweet summer child.”

What is power, again?

Season five of Game of Thrones is (loosely) based on two George R.R. Martin books that have to do with people trying to govern after war and social upheaval. Cersei tries to consolidate her power through her son King Tommen. Jon Snow tries to control the Night’s Watch. Daenerys tries to rule Meereen, a foreign city she barely understands. Prince Doran tries to keep a lid on Dorne. And various other characters keep seeking power, including Stannis.

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So what did we learn about power this season? Basically, we see Daenerys making a nearly endless series of blunders, from executing her most loyal follower to flip-flopping on the fighting pit issue, and this all leads to a horrendous massacre. But at the same time, last night’s episode goes out of its way to show that Daenerys still has unquestioning loyalty from her people. And it strikes a surprisingly hopeful note about the possibility of “fixing” (or at least super-gluing) Meereen.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow is Lord Commander for all of five minutes before he blows it. The moment he decides to try and help the Wildlings, he’s basically toast. He already had the distrust of half his men because of his past as a double agent and his divided loyalties, and taking a big risk to save the Wildlings marks him as a traitor. There’s no hope whatsoever that the Night’s Watch could learn to understand Jon’s decisions.

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Although in a sense, both stories share a common element: Daenerys tries to introduce concepts like “rule of law” to the Meereenese, who are still stuck on a justice system that involves crucifying random children. And Jon tries to explain the notion of the lesser of two evils to the Night’s Watch, who can’t see past their old “us versus them” worldview. There’s no point in trying to expand their horizons.

As for Cersei, she seems bored by the mechanics of ruling, and sees power purely in terms of control over her son — either she is going to control Tommen, or Margaery will. She doesn’t stop to think about the larger question of Tommen’s legitimacy as ruler, which all her maneuvering comes dangerously close to undermining. Plus she sends Mace Tyrell, the Dumbest Man in Westeros, to negotiate with the Iron Bank.

But it’s probably Stannis who has the saddest lesson about power this season — he’s the only political figure who recognizes the threat of the White Walkers and is determined to do something about it. He also has arguably the best claim to the throne of anyone in Westeros. But all of his legitimacy is compromised by the horrible things he’s willing to do to people (including finally his own daughter) in the name of power.

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And in the end, what destroys Stannis is that he forgets where he got his army — not from the Lord of Light, but from the Iron Bank of Braavos. That’s who’s giving him the means to fight on, but only as long as he can keep the sellswords happy. So maybe that’s the ultimate lesson of this season: power only lasts as long as you remember where it really comes from.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming 2016 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.

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