The name of the final Game of Thrones episode in Season 5 is “Mother’s Mercy”– and, at least in this episode, the mother has none. In “Mother’s Mercy,” the mighty are brought down by the lowliest of people, often women or the transgendered, whom everyone has forgotten or discounted.
“Mother’s Mercy” is truly an event-filled, game changer. It has strong echoes of other game-changing historical events like the assassination of Julius Caesar and Richard III’s last stand at Bosworth Field. In the episode, many characters die (or likely die) – by my count there are at least seven.
“Mother’s Mercy” introduces several possibilities of new wars while ending some attempts at conquest. The episode also focuses on religion and belief systems. Perhaps, most importantly, the war with the Others just became infinitely more complicated.
The Would-be Siege at Winterfell
The snow melted after Stannis sacrificed his daughter Shireen to R’hllor. Yet, things aren’t going well for the man who claims he is the rightful king – and “rightful king” is all a matter of interpretation. (Like Richard III, Stannis’ claim is through an usurper and predicated on the illegitimacy of that usurper’s children.) There are many echoes of Richard III — the man and play — in what comes next.
Nearly half of Stannis’ men have deserted him before dawn – and worse, the sell swords took all of the horses. (A nice bit of irony given the Shakespearean Richard III’s famous line at his last battle, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”)
Just when Stannis thinks things can’t get any worse, a soldier arrives unable to speak. Stannis prompts him to spit it out – after all, what could be worse than mutiny? If Stannis wasn’t so consumed with his personal ambitions – and personal is the key word here, he would realize there are much worse things.
The soldier leads Stannis to a clearing in the woods. Selyse dangles from a noose tied to a tree. Stannis commands his men to cut her down.
Despite last night’s losses and all of these ill omens, Stannis orders his men to prepare for a siege. The prudent thing to do would be to get while the getting is good. But, it’s already too late.
Stannis is now in the same position as Richard III was before his final battle at Bosworth Field: his wife is dead and his child and heir is dead. For both men, this may be the lowest point emotionally in their lives. (It’s worth noting that some historians have argued, despite the traditional portrayal of Richard, the king was confident and upbeat before Bosworth.) But, back to Stannis…
There won’t be a siege at Winterfell. Always full of surprises, House Bolton has decided to meet Stannis on the open field. And, House Bolton has nearly twice the number of mounted soldiers that House Baratheon has (on foot).
Stannis’ men are crying that it’s hopeless. As some of his men in the rearguard begin to flee, Stannis valiantly draws his sword. If he’s going to die, he’s going to die bravely.
House Bolton destroys Stannis’s army in a resounding victory. Most of Stannis’ men are dead. After the battle, we find Stannis in a clearing, wounded.
After Stannis fends off enemy soldiers and collapses, Brienne finds him in the clearing.
Stannis sneeringly asks Brienne if House Bolton now has women fighting for them.
Brienne explains that she guarded his brother, Renly. She accuses Stannis of using blood magic to murder his brother. Brienne points out she saw Stannis’ face on the shadow assassin.
Stannis admits it’s true, and Brienne pronounces a death sentence. She swings Oathkeeper and lobs off Stannis’ head. But, at what price? (More on that in a moment.)
It’s a fitting end for the would-be king Stannis.
Stannis is Richard III’s tale told darkly. Whereas in Martin’s reimagined version of the Princes in the Tower (in which Tyrion was falsely accused of murdering Bran and Joffrey), Tyrion is innocent, the Stannis plot highlights the monstrous interpretations of Richard.
Stannis believed vehemently in justice, and there’s a dark side to that word. Justice entails retribution and revenge for the aggrieved party. It’s about putting things right or back into balance to prevent blood feuds.
Stannis exacts justice even when it should be tempered with some mercy. Rather than absolving Davos (the smuggler who helped him), he takes part of Davos’ fingers. When Ramsay’s men sneak into their camp and destroy the Baratheon food and burn some of their horses, Stannis demands a summary judgment. (He commands that the watchmen on duty that night be hung: they were either bribed or fell asleep.) The idea that Ramsay’s men might be that sneaky and good isn’t even entertained.
The Yorkists (Richard III, Edward IV, Richard of York) professed to believe vehemently in justice as well. They may well have done so and, to give them their due, they certainly stabilized the country after years of anarchy under Henry VI. But, the Yorkists heeded the law when it suited them. And, as at least one historian has noted, it was ultimately the Yorkist dynasty’s disregard for the law (specifically the laws of inheritance) that led to the dynasty’s downfall.
It’s more than appropriate that Stannis, the king who mercilessly administered justice, dies at the hands of justice. This (would-be) king tried to cheat his way to the throne using blood magic to vanquish a rival and sacrificing his daughter to win a battle. He had no qualms about not fighting fairly. He justified his actions on his belief that he was the chosen one destined to vanquish the Others. Yet, instead of staying at the Wall to fight the White Walkers, he chooses to try to seize Winterfell.
As we can see from George RR Martin’s retelling of Richard III’s life, history is all about interpretation. There are many ways to see Richard III. It is possible to Richard in greyer, less absolutely good or less absolutely evil ways than we often do in the polarizing discourse that surrounds him.
Ultimately, Stannis is destroyed by somebody whom he has completely forgotten he even wronged. And, it’s a woman no less — as Stannis implied moments before he died, he sees women as lesser warriors (or, at the very least, not suited to the battlefield). This theme of the powerful undone by the forgotten or marginalized continues throughout this episode.
Brienne & Sansa
The great irony or tragedy in Brienne’s life is that this more-than-competent knight, who only wants to protect and serve, often fails to do so – either through happenstance or perhaps even her own failings.
Brienne and Pod have faithfully been watching the Broken Tower for weeks – and bravo! Brienne is right: Sansa will need to be rescued.
As soon as Pod tells Brienne that Stannis has arrived, both knight and squire abandon their post. Seconds later Sansa lights her candle in the Broken Tower.
Is this negligence? Shouldn’t Brienne be paying more attention to the living Sansa than the dead Renly?
Brienne loses sight of her duty and follows her craving for revenge. And, Sansa may pay the price.
Brienne uses Oathkeeper to fulfill her vow that she would avenge Renly, but when she received the sword she swore to Jaime she would protect Sansa with it.
As Sansa returns from the tower, Myranda and Theon/Reek intercept her on the battlement. At arrow point, Ramsay’s mistress jubilantly orders Ramsay’s wife to return to her chambers.
Sansa refuses. “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there is some of me left.”
Myranda reveals that Ramsay will mutilate Sansa’s “parts” in horrible ways after she has given him the heirs he needs.
Myranda gives Sansa an ultimatum: comply or she will start torturing her.1 Myranda draws her bow tighter, about to shoot.
Theon/Reek pushes Myranda over the interior railing. Myranda crashes to her death a hundred feet below. And, frankly, hooray! The Evil Bitch is dead.
Finally, Reek has started to become Theon again. Perhaps he was buoyed up by Sansa’s act of defiance, infuriated to hear Myranda threaten to mutilate another person’s genitals, or unable to contain his huge remorse over his “great original sin” (as the showrunners put it). But, this is another great moment in this episode when the lowly — who have almost given up – rise up against their foes.
Just as Myranda crashes to the ground, a horn blows indicating Ramsay and his men are back.
Theon has just killed Ramsay’s favorite mistress. NOT GOOD.
Both Sansa and Theon realize that if they don’t get out of Winterfell now, they will suffer an unimaginable fate. They climb over the battlement, hold hands, and jump a hundred feet into the snow below.
Will they survive? The snow is melting, so it is hard to say…
Braavos – at the Brothel
Ser Meryn Trant is looking for a new maiden to savage. Three girls are lined up in front of him. He strikes each one in turn, but the last one refuses to cry out.
“I can see I’ve got my work cut out for me,” Trant sneers. Delighted, he orders the other two girls to leave. He can’t wait to beat the silent girl into screaming submission.
After he punches her in the stomach, the girl bends over to sob. She lifts her face to look at him, but her face has changed and it is now Arya.
Trant is shocked and Arya strikes. She stabs him in the eye with a little knife and the other eye, blinding him. Arya explains she is Arya Stark, and she is avenging Illyio Sorel’s death.
Just before she slits Meryn Trant’s throat, she asks him a question that foreshadows her own fate, “Do you know who you are? You are nothing. You are no one.”
And, that’s Arya’s whole problem in a nutshell. She is supposed to be no one. Instead, she has followed her own agenda – she is still ruled by her cravings for justice from her former life.
When Arya returns to the House of Black and White, she creeps into the room where the faces are stored to return the face she wore in the brothel.
She quietly puts the face back on its shelf. When she turns, she finds Jaqen and Waif waiting for her.
They scold her for taking the wrong life. Waif gloats that she was right; Arya wasn’t ready.
Jaqen then says to punish her illegal theft of life, a life has to be sacrificed. Only death can pay for life. He pulls out a vial of poison. We fear it’s going to be Arya, but then Jaqen himself drinks it.
Arya is devastated. Jaqen was her friend.
When she turns around, a new Jaqen is standing behind her.
“Who is this?” Arya asks referring to the corpse, from which she tears off mask after mask.
“No one at all,” replies Jaqen. “Just as the girl should have been before she took a face from the hall.”
The newly appeared Jaqen explaining that “The faces are for no one. You are still someone. For someone, the faces are as good as poison.”
And, then Arya’s story in this episode comes full circle. Just as she blinded Ser Meryn, she becomes blind.
Goodbye to Dorne
Jaime, Myrcella, and Trystane stand on the dock in Dorne, where a large wood dingy is moored. The Dornish nobility, including the Sand Snakes and Prince Doran, are there to say goodbye to them.
Ellaria says, “Forgive me child. I wish you all the happiness in the world.” Then she kisses Myrcella on the lips.
Before he climbs into the wood dingy, Bronn says goodbye to Tyene, and he encourages her to come visit before he marries his noble fiancé. Despite Tyene’s overly sexualized comments, I like these two together. Let’s hope Tyene visits.
On the ship, Myrcella and Jaime share a sweet moment together when Jaime confesses that he is her father. To lead into this massive revelation, Jaime tells Myrcella that she is “…lucky. Arranged marriages are rarely so well arranged” and that “we don’t choose whom we love. It’s just beyond our control.”
It’s ironic that Ellaria’s words seem to have affected Jaime.
Myrcella accepts Jaime is her father and she’s glad. It’s a surprisingly touching moment given the general ickiness of Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous relationship. Finally, Jaime may get a bit of solace. He may finally get to have a normal family relationship with his daughter.
Myrcella hugs Jaime.
She smiles up at him, but her nose begins bleeding. She starts gasping and collapses.
The Sand Snakes stand on the dock and watch the ship sail away. Blood drips by Ellaria’s feet. She takes a vial of the antidote. The poison was on her lipstick.
Will this mean war with Dorne?
Throne Room in Meereen
Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, and Missandei are safe2. They have other problems though. They need to find or rescue Daenerys, and somebody needs to rule the city.
Although Tyrion assumes that he will go on the rescue mission, Daario disabuses him of that idea. Tyrion is a brave but middling fighter and horseman.
Jorah and Tyrion will go find Daenerys. Daario proposed that the “so mainly you talk” Tyrion remain in Meereen as a ruler/politician along with Missandei and Grey Worm. Daenerys trusts Missandei the most. Without Grey Worm, whom the Meereenese know speaks for Dany, Meereen will sink into civil war.
As Tyrion watches Jorah and Daario leave, he is joined by an old friend: Varys. Varys’ eastern spies found Tyrion.
Tyrion is less than thrilled to be left in charge, yet again, of a city on the brink of war. How will he manage so many seething factions?
Varys wryly cheers up Tyrion by offering some good advice on how to test whom to trust. Knowledge of real agendas is key. Once again, his old friend may save his bacon.
As Tyrion notes, “If only I knew someone with a vast network of spies…”
An Unknown Land
During their flight from the Great Games, Drogon took Dany to an as-yet-unknown land. She urgently wants to return home to Meereen.
Dany tries to coach Drogon to take her home. He is injured and not well enough to fly. In fact, it’s not even clear if he can hunt, despite the pile of charred bones around him. All the dragon wants to do is lie there, sleep, and literally lick his wounds.
When Dany tries to mount the wounded beast, he hisses and growls at her – and then shakes her off his back.
“Well, there’s no food. At the very least, you could hunt us some supper,” Dany tells the exhausted dragon3 .
Dany wanders off. While standing on deserted hillside, an enormous horde of Dothraki descend on her.
Just before they reach her, she drops her ring as a breadcrumb to help others track her if the Dothraki take her.
The Dothraki ride circles around her whooping. The circle becomes bigger and bigger as tens of thousands of riders join it. Did they see the dragon carry Dany? Are these whoops of homage or conquest?
The Septa continues to urge Cersei to confess, as the queen mother huddles in the corner. Dirty, beaten down and fearing for her life, she realizes it’s time.
Cersei has an audience with the High Sparrow. He commands her to confess all of her crimes. She confesses to adulterous incestuous sex with Lancel, but she persuades the High Sparrow that the stories of her incest with Jaime are just lies would-be king Stannis Baratheon spread to discredit her.
Here we have another interesting parallel with the Wars of the Roses. In this case, Cersei is in the Elizabeth Woodville role as the mother of the heirs to the throne whom the king’s brother is claiming are illegitimate. (For more, see our article here.)
For those how know history, Cersei will soon, however, move into the Jane Shore role.
Cersei begs to see her son. The High Sparrow takes pity on her and decides to release her – if she atones.
Her atonement is not unlike a medieval public penance. She must walk naked – and shorn – from the High Sept to the Red Keep.
After the women wash every inch of her body and hack off her hair with a straight razor, Cersei is led onto the steps of the High Sept to begin her walk of shame.
A septa follows the queen mother clanging a bell and chanting, “Shame, shame, shame.”
As Cersei walks, crowds shout obscenities at her “bitch, whore” and throw food, dung, offal, and the contents of chamber-pot buckets. Her bare feet bleed as she walks through King’s Landing’s filthy streets.
She has to walk past her Kingsguards naked as she enters the Red Keep. It’s horribly humiliating.
When she arrives at the Red Keep, Qyburn is the only one to greet her warmly and comfort her. Kevin stands stone faced in the entryway. Even Pycelle appears to disapprove of her.
Qyburn, however, not only supports her, he has a gift: the newest member of the Kingsguard. Finally, Qyburn’s “Frankenmonster” has come to life. He has sworn an oath of silence until all of Cersei’s enemies are dead. I guess this makes him Cersei’s own personal Silent Sister.
What may be one of the most important conversations in the episode is a little oblique (as it should be) and slightly hard to catch. Sam and Jon sit by themselves in a chamber to talk4. He is telling Sam what happened at Hardhome, how the Night King raised his hands and the dead came back to life.
“Tens of thousands of them, the biggest army in the world,” is how Jon describes the White Walker’s Army of the Dead to Sam.
Sam asks about the dragonglass daggers, which Jon had to leave behind when the White Walker attacked him in the elder’s hall. Jon couldn’t retrieve it and there is no way they can go back there now. Jon also points out that there is no way the daggers would help unless they had “a mountain of it.” That’s how big this army is.
Sam is quite intrigued to learn that Valyrian steel killed a White Walker.
Jon ruefully comments that he is the first commander in the Night’s Watch history to sacrifice the lives of his men to save Wildlings – and he is the most hated man in Castle Black.
Sam asks permission to go to Oldtown to study to become a maester. He asks permission to take Gilly and the baby with him. Sam won’t leave without them, and if Gilly stays, he will end up dying trying to (unsuccessfully) protect her. Jon reluctantly agrees to let him go, even though he values Sam’s counsel.
Why is this such an important conversation? Because Sam is the only one (apart from Edd), who knows that Valyrian steel kills White Walkers. He is about to go to Oldtown to do research – maybe he will learn how to make more Valyrian steel or find other such valuable lore. Finally, Sam is the only one close enough to Jon to believe him no matter what he says. If Jon says the army of the dead had tens of thousands, Sam will trust him and believe it. If the Wildlings said this to the Night’s Watch commanders, they would never believe that it wasn’t anything but an exaggeration as part of a ruse.
Davos tries to persuade Jon to send men supplies to Stannis5 . He refuses saying that he doesn’t have enough men and the Wildlings will never fight for Stannis.
Melisandre rides into Castle Black alone. She looks beyond defeated. Jon runs to her and asks about Stannis. The first thing Davos asks her is about Shireen.
She is too grief stricken and remorseful to reply.
Jon is sitting in his chamber reviewing his correspondence when he hears a knock on his door. Olly has a message that Jon’s uncle Benjen may be alive.
As the showrunners note, Jon is not a cautious man – heroes never are. Impulsively charges out – acting on emotion.
Outside, Alliser Thorne greets him and leads him to a circle.
Starting with Alliser Thorne, his men stab him repeatedly saying “For the Watch.”
In an echo of Julius Caesar, the last person to stab Jon is the boy whom he mentored, the one who was like a son to him, Olly. Olly hesitates. He has trouble bringing himself to do it.
Jon murmurs, “Olly…”
Olly’s face hardens and twists in hatred. He plunges in the last knife as he says, “For the Watch.”
All of Jon’s brothers turn their backs on him as he bleeds out in the snow.
First of all, Melisandre’s vision and belief that Shireen’s sacrifice would ensure victory was clearly wrong.
With many of the characters like Jon Snow and Myrcella, it is implied they are dead, but we aren’t absolutely sure. Likewise, even though we suspect that Theon and Sansa are safe, their jump might have killed them. When they took the plunge, they weren’t even sure whether the snow would save them.
Stannis’ war and quest for the Iron Throne is over. If Stannis truly was Azor Ahai reborn (the one who would defeat the White Walkers), then this would make his death could be a problem. Jon’s death, however, is much more likely to cause problems for those at Castle Black. Nobody in command at Castle Black saw the White Walker’s power to raise armies from the dead or witnessed their massive army at Hardhome.
If they had witnessed the power of their enemy, they never would have killed Jon for letting in the Wildlings. As a result, the Night’s Watch leadership is still ignorant and will (probably) be disorganized and unready when they time comes.
Frankly, this was an epic episode. If only I could stop confusing what happens in the books, what fans on forums believe will happen, and what I’m seeing on screen — I could enjoy it so much more. Right now, I don’t truly feel the sorrow of Jon’s death because I believe he will come back to life.
Last but not least, the mighty (Stannis, Meryn Trant, Cersei, Myranda, and sadly even Myrcella) are all undone by women or the transgendered (Theon). All of the people who destroyed these six are those whom their opponents would never expect, have even forgotten they wronged, or are simply marginalized due to their gender. Stannis scoffs at female knights, but he is undone by one and a woman (Melisandre) unwittingly had a hand in his downfall. Meryn Trant has completely discounted Arya Stark being a threat to him. It never occurred to him that this little girl whom he had wronged would ever get her revenge. Cersei finally confesses because of the septa’s abuse of her. Myranda dies at Theon’s hands, whom she had long ago discounted as a weak joke. Yet Myranda contributed to his castration/penectomy, so Theon finally gets a bit of revenge when she goes tumbling off the parapet.