Caution: Spoilers ahead.
The “Mother’s Mercy” of the title of the season finale of “Game of Thrones” refers, in its most literal sense, to the beneficence Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) expects to receive when she makes her confession to the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). But this episode is more broadly about families, both those made by birth and those forged by choice and by vows. And just the kindness Cersei imagined turns out to be laced with bitter poison, “Mother’s Mercy” ends a painful season of “Game of Thrones” by reflecting on the agony that our families can cause us.
Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who burned his daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to death in the previous episode of the series, finds that not only has he destroyed the person who loved him most in the world, but he has also pushed his family by marriage and his brothers in arms too far.
“The men. Many deserted before dawn,” a soldier tells him at the beginning of the episode. And in the woods, there’s a worse loss: Selyse Baratheon (Tara FitzGerald ), who converted her husband to the worship of the Lord of Light, has hanged herself in the wood, her faith and certainty shattered by the sacrifice of her only child.
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I wrote last week that Stannis’ sacrifice of Shireen was a hideous act, but in keeping with his rigidity. And while those who wanted to see him suffer a horrible death may have been frustrated to see him presumably cut down by Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), I’d argue that Stannis’ disillusionment was worse than watching him flayed alive, convinced of his own righteousness. Stannis lives to see Melisandre (Carice van Houten) abandon him – though only after he shrugs her off with a brutal nudge of armor to chin. He knows his own failure as a military commander: In a beautiful overhead shot, we see the Bolton forces closing in on the ranks Stannis has just ordered to dig in for a siege. It’s a humiliating failure of intelligence and strategic calculation. He dies alone in the woods, the ruins of his ambition all around him. When Stannis tells Brienne to “do your duty” and kill him, it’s in full knowledge of what a fool he’s been, and what terrible violence he’s wrought.
In the East, another savior is coming to terms with the failure of her own project. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) may have been exhilarated at the end of the last episode when she fled Meereen’s fighting pits on the back of Drogon, who had returned to save her. But having abandoned one set of her children – the slaves she liberated during her campaign – in favor of another, Dany finds that dragons are as difficult to manage as people. All Drogon wants to do is eat and sleep, and given the wounds he suffered, who can blame him?
When another Dothraki khalsaar discovers Dany in the desert, “Game of Thrones” gives us a nice inversion of the image of Dany being lifted up by the former slaves who dubbed her Mhysa two seasons ago. The Dothraki warriors ride around in swirling circles. Dany is on foot, and the men who have discovered her are mounted on horses. The effect is that of a whirlpool, and Dany, a failed mother three times over, appears to be sinking into it.
In striking parallel cinematography, Cersei – who has poisoned her children in all sorts of other ways – appears to travel down a river of humanity as the High Sparrow makes her take her walk of shame. “Game of Thrones” has used nudity casually in previous seasons, but this year has been a marked improvement, and this scene of shame and humiliation is a real high point for the series.
In the march, Cersei’s whole body is exposed on occasion, but in a way that makes those of us watching at home complicit in the violence the Faith is doing to her. When unnamed characters, both men and women – in one of the rare cases of equal opportunity nudity on cable television – expose themselves to Cersei, it’s assaultive to her and to us. This is nakedness as violence towards a character we know, if not love, rather than lovingly photographed nudity, presented for the consumption of both corrupted characters like the former High Septon (Paul Bentley) and those of us watching at home.
North at the Wall and south in Braavos, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) both suffer devastating losses meted out by the fraternities they both hoped would replace their families, and that they both failed to fully commit to. Jon may have sworn his vows to the Night’s Watch, but he never quite stopped being like his father: His entire scheme to integrate the Wildlings into the community of humanity is the sort of noble, doomed scheme Ned Stark (Sean Bean) might have dreamed up. In the same way, Arya told Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) over and over again that she wanted to become no one, but she couldn’t stop herself from hiding Needle and preserving the part of her that wants vengeance for her family. If Jon is a lot like Ned, Arya has her mother’s mix of calculation and sentimentality.
Both of those qualities got Jon and Arya’s parents killed. And on Sunday night’s episode, they got Jon murdered by his brothers – each man declaring that the killing stroke they sunk into his body was “For the Watch” – and Arya blinded by her trainers (a moment that in Martin’s novels made me so angry I hurled a Kindle across the room). It’s not so easy to shake off your old family for a new one. But the costs of failing to break free can be dreadful.
Those ties can prove life-saving, too, though. Back at Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) summons the courage to light a candle in the window of the tower, but Brienne, tempted by the possibility of avenging Stannis, misses it. When Myranda (Charlotte Hope) catches her and threatens Sansa, she delivers a dreadful warning: “Your father was warden of the North, and Ramsay needs you. Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you. Just the parts he’ll need to make his heir …Then he’s got incredible plans for those parts.”
For one awful moment, it seems possible that Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who earlier in the season seemed to have had his ties to the Starks thoroughly shattered by Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) torture, will betray her again. But on impulse, Theon does a brave, stupid, and thoroughly liberating thing. He pushes Myranda to her death, and with it, pushes Sansa to a fatal choice: Does she flee or die?
Earlier in this season, when Theon was forced to witness Ramsay rape Sansa on their wedding night, many critics expressed concern that the scene was setting Theon up for some sort of heroic redemption. I expect we’ll hear that line of thinking again. But to my mind, the act that follows Myranda’s death is one of far greater equality. Theon and Sansa clasp hands, the sibling relationship that once existed between them restored. And then they jump. There’s no guarantee of survival here. Theon cannot cushion Sansa’s fall. All he can do is tie his fate to hers, relying as much on her to save him as the other way around. This is less salvation than a highly risky solidarity.
This was a very busy episode, but “Game of Thrones” made time for two smaller, tenderer stories that wrap up long-simmering plotlines, and add a shot of tender vulnerability to the evening’s familial theme. At the Wall, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) begs Jon to let him take Gilly and the baby and go south to the Citadel so Sam can learn to become a Maester. He makes a good strategic case for why the Wall needs something with learning, but it’s his personal appeal to Jon that really makes the difference.
“If Gilly stays here, then she’ll die. And the baby that she named after me will die,” Sam tells Jon, asking for something for himself, for once. “And our men will, too, trying to protect them. Which means the last thing I see will be the look in her eyes when I fail to protect her. And I’d rather see a thousand white walkers than that.”
Jon gives it to him. How can he not? Jon joined the Watch out of a sense that he’d never truly have his own family, and broke away from Ygritte (Rose Leslie), who might have been his only opportunity for that kind of happiness. If nothing else, the knowledge that Sam is out there somewhere, preserving his own little family, gives Jon something to fight for, a memory that there’s more to the world than the misery of a rotting institution and the “the biggest army in the world” coming after it.
“You know at the Citadel, they’ll make you swear off women, too,” Jon warns his friend. “They’ll bloody try,” Sam, stout in his love for Gilly, shoots back. Watching them share these last few moments together is almost unbearably sad.
And on the boat away from Dorne, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) experiences something he never expected: the love and acceptance of a daughter who knows him not as her uncle, but as her father.
“There’s something I want to tell you. Something I should have told you long ago. So now that you’ve seen more of the world, you’ve learned how complicated things can be, people can be. The Lannisters and Martells have hated each other for years, but you’ve fallen in love with Trystane,” Jaime blunders to Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) belowdecks, drawing inspiration from his chat with Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) “My point is, we don’t choose who we love. It just, well, it’s beyond our control. I sound like an idiot.””I know,” Myrcella reassures him, recognizing that he’s new to this duty. “About you and mother. I think a part of me always knew. And I’m glad. I’m glad that you are my father.”
The embrace that follows is as sweet as the hug that Stannis and Shireen shared earlier in the season, when Stannis told his daughter how he tried to save her. And the outcome is just as sad. The moment Jaime experiences what it is to be loved as a father, he loses the daughter who gives that love to him as she dies from the poison in Ellaria Sand’s lipstick. Back on the docks, Ellaria’s daughters give her a handkerchief and an antidote. But it’s a sour victory; punishing the family who took the person you love from you can’t bring that person back to life.
This is “Game of Thrones,” where at least some of the dead can walk again. Going into the next season, I wouldn’t count anyone, or anything out. “Mother’s Mercy,” though, was a fitting end to a season that asked what we will do to the people we love, and where we go when even family can’t save us.