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How Game of Thrones fell apart — and how it can be great again

We're guessing that hell hath no fury like a Cersei shamed.
We're guessing that hell hath no fury like a Cersei shamed.
HBO

Every week throughout season five, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before we begin, check out our recap of the season finale, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and executive editor Matthew Yglesias. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Jen Trolio: Alas, Todd, my status as a non-reader (of A Song of Ice and Fire; not, like, all books ever, your assumptions of illiteracy be damned) wasn't enough to endear me to the way this season finale was structured as a veritable cliffhanger parade.

"Mother's Mercy" certainly contained plenty of Big Moments™ — some of which were more skillfully executed, gruesome, compelling, and/or shocking than others — but overall, the episode largely felt like showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff were trying to make as much progress as possible on their plot development to-do list as they prepare for season six. Major character deaths notwithstanding, I ultimately came away thinking about how the hour really served to emphasize what a mess season five's pacing has been.

For instance, while I enjoyed Myrcella and Jaime's heart-to-heart about the nature of love and the truth concerning her parentage, their exit from Dorne and her untimely demise could've easily been wrapped up a few episodes ago, allowing the show to focus on the season's weightier plots. Instead, it spent far too long dilly-dallying in the sunny southern locale, wasting precious time on Ellaria's unquenchable thirst for revenge and the Sand Snakes' eternal angst.

In retrospect, while Myrcella's death by the Sand Snakes' trademark "Long Farewell" poison provides a reason for Bronn's brief experience with the stuff in "The Gift," — beyond gratuitous nudity, of course — it also underlines the series' clumsy handling of the entire Dorne arc. Not only does the actual length of the poison's so-called "long" farewell seem to vary according to the whims of the script, but a general tightening of the Sand Snakes' storyline would've afforded some of the show's more interesting stories more breathing room.

I feel similarly about the Winterfell scenes concerning Sansa, Theon, and Ramsay, and the Meereen scenes centered on Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, Missandei, and Grey Worm. The two plots' respective outcomes — Sansa and Theon literally taking a leap of faith toward freedom, and Tyrion stepping up to rule Meereen in Dany's absence — could've come to pass a bit earlier, if not for Game of Thrones' insistence on including so much filler involving the aforementioned banality of Dorne, Arya washing floors in Braavos, and extended debates over the fighting pits in Meereen. (Also, when the episode began with Sansa fleeing her chambers as the corkscrew she squirreled away a couple weeks ago fell to the ground, I assumed we were meant to believe she'd used it to do something nasty and painful to her sadistic husband. Sadly, that turned out not to be the case; Chekhov's gun was firing blanks.)

Finally, I'm bummed to know that Stannis is almost surely dead, even if he did deserve his fate. After so much buildup to really flesh out the character's tortured headspace and complicated motivations, it's a shame that Weiss and Benioff dispatched of him so quickly. I wanted to see how the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days Stannis has suffered through as of late would've affected him going forward.

What I'm trying to say is, if Game of Thrones had put even a little more effort into divvying up its screen time and more shrewdly prioritizing some storylines over others (or perhaps even cutting a couple of the lesser ones), I think both season five as a whole and this incredibly overstuffed finale would've felt quite a bit more successful.

And yet, in spite of all this, I can also see why you're feeling like the series has nowhere to go but up, Todd. I do, too — though for a different reason. While I agree that most of the characters are currently at their absolute lowest point, and that, yes, things will have to get better for some of them, the reason I'm feeling optimistic is that the showrunners' decision to jam so many cliffhangers and character deaths into "Mother's Mercy" has the potential to function as a series reset of sorts. Not only has Game of Thrones crossed a few names off its cast roster (streamlining is a constant necessity on this show), but many of its major players are standing on the precipice of something new, and many of its plot lines could just as easily be ramped up or greatly reduced.

Cersei, fresh off her undeniably brutal (and wonderfully acted; well done, Lena Headey!) walk of shame, did appear to display a glimmer of unflappable, power-hungry moxie as the silent, zombified Mountain carried her off to Qyburn's quarters — and once she finds out what happens to Myrcella, her rage will only increase. Dany's adventures with Drogon and the Dothraki could go a number of different ways, as could the situation at the Wall, with Davos and Melisandre in the mix in the aftermath of Jon's presumed death, however temporary it may or may not be. Jorah and Daario can probably be sidelined for a while, and no one will miss them. Arya, now blind, will have all sorts of new challenges to face. And so on.

Throw in the fact that Game of Thrones' showrunners no longer have any official source material to work from, and we could be looking at a sixth season where we'll at least be free of constant comparisons between the TV series and the novels. It's true that we don't know exactly what George R. R. Martin has revealed to Benioff and Weiss from future plots, and there's a decent chance that book six will be published before the show returns in 2016, but for now, it's thrilling to picture a season of Game of Thrones where debates over what's on the page versus what's on the screen aren't really in play.

Of course, season six will likely bring back some of the folks we haven't seen recently, most notably Bran Stark & Co., and I get the feeling the Hound will make an appearance at some point. Plus Littlefinger probably won't remain off screen for long, and Margaery can't be left to rot in prison forever, so the "active character" count may not actually change all that much. But still, I'm hoping Game of Thrones will recover from its season five stumbles and shake things up a bit to start strong in season six.

Matt, what say you?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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