Game of Thrones Season Five Retrospective: An Age of Uncertainty

Game of Thrones concluded its fifth season with an uneasily plotted episode, it left us with a world where people tortured, killed, and mutilated with impunity and it highlighted just how quickly that world could slide towards anarchy.

It becomes ever more difficult to define who the main characters are in Game of Thrones. The HBO series is quite content to kill people off to further the needs of the story and the finale of season five showed that no character was safe, or noble enough to escape death.

What emerged was a tale of a fantastical realm, a place full of cruelty, of religiosity, and of violence against anyone deemed other. Season five was particularly hard on the female characters. Arya attempted to become no-one, finding out that leaving her past behind was virtually impossible, Sansa tried to reclaim the promise of her Stark name, Dany fought an insurrection, and Cersei battled with the Faith Militant and his terrorist like machinations.

But their stories were never really defined by their actions, they never had true autonomy, and in general the world of Game of Thrones is not a place that allows for female agency. There was the troubling rape sequence involving the sadist Ramsay Bolton and his vicious treatment of his virginal wife Sansa. But that scene also involved Theon, now Reek, and the whole experience was designed to torture him – another example of the female experience being relegated for the needs of a male one.

Sansa’s story is perhaps the most upsetting, as she did nothing to deserve her treatment. Her life hasn’t been hers for some time, if it ever was. Dany on the other hand seems to be much freer in the way that she lives her life but she still has to bend to the will of the majority, which puts her at odds with herself and her own perspective. Cersei is perhaps the most deserving of her fate but even so her final moments in season five certainly ensure that she will be viewed with a degree of pity.

Still a Male Story

But it won’t be the violence inflicted on the womenfolk that audiences will be talking about. The conversation will be shaped around the fate of Jon Snow, a man known for his attempts at nobility, and for his often naïve perspective. Looking back on season five it seems clear that Snow was destined for conflict, not perhaps with the free folk, but certainly with the Knights Watch. His north facing gaze ensured that he never truly understood the people who served under him, the folks who had less of a choice than the free folk they were fighting.

Thematically this season of Game of Thrones considered the idea of freedom, perhaps the illusion of choice, and the restrictions put on people by their place in society. After all of the games have been played, after the swinging swords and political manoeuvrings, there really aren’t many familiar faces left. The people who attempted to be good or just, are dead or captured and those who set out to harm others are still free to do just that.

The show’s catchphrase ‘Winter is coming’ suggests that something worse is on its way, and the battle sequence in the penultimate episode Hardhome does little to dispel that theory. But after the events of season five it seems that perhaps the White Walkers are needed, it seems that their march southward is the purge that the violent world of Westeros needs.

It could be argued that season five was the story of a group of ladies, disconnected but momentarily in positions of power traditionally reserved for their male counterparts. Sansa was poised to reclaim her family seat, Cersei was in almost complete control of King’s Landing, and Dany was ruling with some attempt at fairness across the sea. Of course there was Melisandre too and her influence over Stannis, which peaked when she convinced him to burn his daughter alive.

A Changing World

By the end of season five however everyone that was in a position of power found that their grip wasn’t as strong as they had thought. Fanaticism and the power of religion had destroyed and mutilated much of what they held dear – there was nothing left for Stannis, his daughter and wife were gone. Cersei was brought low, humiliated in front of her subjects, but her gamble had paid off to some extent and there is the promise of future revenge.

Dany’s story ended in perhaps the least interesting way. For some time now her narrative has been stuck, she has been indecisive, and like Brienne she has yet to make a clear and decisive move. After the epic sequence in the fighting pits and her escape with Drogon she found herself kidnapped by the Dothraki. But at the end of the season, two of her loyal soldiers set out to rescue her. Like Cersei, all is not lost for Dany. But Dany’s rescuers are men, and Cersei’s new protector is also a man – for female characters to win out in Game of Thrones it seems like they must find strong male characters to fight for them.

Arya ended her story this season in a disturbing moment where she discovered she didn’t have any friends, and she experienced a confusing and distressing sequence of events that culminated in her going blind. Her sister Sansa jumped from Winterfell with Reek and it doesn’t look likely that she could have survived her fall. But at the end of each of their stories there was a moment of choice, an opportunity to forge their own meaning. Which, like with every other female character, ended with a decisive blow from the prevailing powerful figures in their respective lives.

Religious Extremism in Game of Thrones

A confrontation between King Tommen and the Faith Militant.
A confrontation between King Tommen and the Faith Militant.

By the end of the season it became apparent that the themes of the show took precedence over the characters themselves. This is something seen in other flagship HBO series like The Wire, Oz, and The Sopranos. Fanaticism won out in nearly every single story arc from Cersei’s walk of shame, to Jon Snow’s ignoble wintery end – even Tommen backed down when confronted by followers of the Faith. Hope in the good of people, and belief in supposedly heroic characters was replaced with the uncomfortable feeling that in the world of Game of Thrones everything slides towards anarchy.

There’s no one in charge, and every person in a position of power holds on only by the will of those supporting him or her. There’s nothing more dangerous than a fanatic and unfortunately for the women in Game of Thrones every man seems to be militantly reinforcing the might of masculinity – often heterosexual traditional values too.

Season five of Game of Thrones was cruel, the world was unjust, and there was no one left to fly the flag for heroic values. The age of chivalry, of dashing knights, and damsels in distress doesn’t exist – what does exist is a place where the weak are tortured, families are torn apart, and evil is the norm. It’s not that different a world to the one we find ourselves in.

The death of hope and the seeping knowledge that nothing will work out for the best is what makes Game of Thrones both brave and infuriating. There’s a tragedy inherent in its makeup, there’s the sad understanding that life is anarchic and the illusion of control is something that can be shattered and never repaired. Religious fanaticism threatens to destroy the familiar world of Kings Landing, and it threatens to kill some more notable characters too.

Hope for the Hopeless

But faith seems to be the only truth left in the bastardised and broken world of Game of Thrones. Without supernatural intervention there is no saving Jon Snow, there’s nothing left to unite the disparate and warring factions in Westeros, and the White Walkers look set to sweep through the land of the living converting everyone to their blood thirsty cause.

There’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person. There are simply choices that people make and there are consequences. There’s no guiding light in Westeros, and there are no characters that are enlightened. There are things that happen, things that we wish someone could change, or avenge, but that’s not the way the world works. Our collective horror at the deaths and the waste of life is something that real people in the real world have to face every day.

In Game of Thrones there’s no singular God, there’s no leader that could rescue this world from anarchy, but there are fanatics that believe there is. Those people destroy things, those people are dangerous, and every single atomised character in the show has placed faith in something to help them get through the nightmarish experiences they have experienced. At its core Game of Thrones is a show without a central moral compass, it lacks didacticism. For audiences this uncertainty is terrifying but it’s also honest and in its own fantastical way it’s the clearest reflection of reality on contemporary TV.

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