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Game of Thrones' best and worst season 5 moments, from White Walkers to good grammar

All hail the Night's King!
All hail the Night's King!
HBO

Every week throughout Game of Thrones' fifth season, a handful of Vox's writers have gathered to discuss the latest episode. Before we wrap things up for 2015, check out our recap of the season finale, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

It's been nearly a week since Game of Thrones' fifth season came to a close with a controversial and overstuffed finale, which means now's the perfect time to look back on all 10 episodes and name the best — and worst — moments. Below, several Vox staffers reveal their picks for highest highs and lowest lows.

Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor: Since I'm first, I get to give the most obvious answers! My favorite moment of season five was easily the entirety of "Hardhome," but if I'm forced to pare that episode down to one scene, it would be the final image of Jon, floating away from the wildling outpost, watching the Night's King raise an army of wights, and realizing how truly and totally screwed he and the rest of humanity are. That moment put the whole show in perspective, and it sharpened and crystallized a sometimes messy season.

Jon and the Night's King face off on Game of Thrones.

Jon and the Night's King face off.

HBO

I think the season's worst moment was the rape of Sansa Stark. There are a great many reasons for this, most of them stemming from how season five could at times feel as if it was forgoing story in favor of an endless string of exploitative and brutal events that didn't add up to a narrative. In spite of the larger problems with the macro story, however, I often liked these moments on their own terms. The sacrifice of Shireen, for instance, worked really well in and of itself; it just didn't really work with everything else that was happening.

Sansa and Ramsay's wedding night was awful to watch.

HBO

But the reason Sansa's rape didn't work for me on any level was that it failed to expand the show's characters or universe. It was a reiteration of the idea that things can be pretty shitty in this world, especially for women, and the only answer to that was to shrug and say, "Yep."

Zack Beauchamp, foreign policy writer: The best moment, without question, was the battle at Hardhome. Not only was it beautifully executed, it also debunked one of the most enduring myths about Game of Thrones: that the show's greatest successes come from its total rejection of epic fantasy tropes.

While it's true that moments like Ned Stark's execution in season one and the Red Wedding in season three are part of what makes the show (and the books) great, Game of Thrones' obsession with trying to replicate those thrills has verged on sadism for sadism's sake. The show needs its moments of transcendence — Daenerys emerging from the fire with baby dragons, Sam discovering that dragonglass can kill White Walkers — to create a real sense of stakes. Setting up an epic battle between humanity and an evil, unstoppable force is exactly the kind of thing that makes the struggle for power in Westeros vital. If the game of thrones is played between vile people like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton, and the fate of humanity isn't at stake, it's very hard to see why you should care.

Is Jon Snow really a goner?

HBO

Which is why my vote for worst moment of season five is Jon Snow's death. Either way it plays out, it's obnoxious. If Jon is permanently dead, as Kit Harington has strongly suggested, then an enormous amount of character work, setup at the Wall, and mythology is utterly wasted. It's really hard to picture what a satisfying endgame would be like without Jon. If he's is revived, most likely by Melisandre, then the death is a cheap cliffhanger. While the books nicely laid a foundation for the political context of the backlash, the show's version was rushed and way less coherent. It's time for Game of Thrones to start retiring its silly shocks and start looking toward an actual resolution.

Andrew Prokop, politics writer: "Hardhome" was cool and all, but I'm going to give my endorsement to one of the most controversial plot lines of the season: Stannis's long march to filicide, defeat, and death. Only in retrospect is it clear how deliberately this setup was woven into the season as a whole — and into past ones as well, going all the way back to season two.

Stannis faces death at the hands of Brienne.

Stannis faces death at the hands of Brienne.

HBO

I think Stannis's fate is best understood as a counterpoint to the downfall of Ned Stark, who died because he was too honorable for this fallen world. Stannis, by contrast, was willing to compromise all his morality to try to win the game of thrones. He believed he was making a clearly rational decision to sacrifice one person for the greater good, but actual moral tradeoffs are rarely so clear-cut, and this one turned out to be a false choice. Rather than winning the Lord of Light's favor, this awful act drove away half his army, spurred his wife to kill herself, and soon led to his own utter failure at Winterfell. Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the true gods of Westeros, were merciless in crafting Stannis's cynical and humiliating downfall — driving home the point that while Ned's approach might not have been a great one, doing the total opposite isn't the best idea either.

Dany and her entourage during the Harpy ambush at the fighting pits.

Dany and her entourage during the Sons of the Harpy's ambush at the fighting pits.

HBO

And though I had various gripes with this season, there wasn't one particular low point for me. I came away most disappointed that the show missed opportunities to adapt some of the books' best moments. Jon Snow's downfall was hugely different and much less interesting. Dany's storyline featured some extra action but sacrificed character development, placing her at the mercy of events (including, bizarrely, in her final scene, which in the books is a triumphant moment where Dany realizes who she truly is, not a Perils of Pauline cliffhanger where she's captured). The Dorne and Winterfell storylines similarly suffered — where was Doran Martell's secret plan and the burgeoning Northern resistance to the Boltons, two key elements that made those plot lines worthwhile in the books? A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were always going to be challenging to adapt, but I strongly believe that in several of Benioff and Weiss's adaptation choices, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

Matthew Yglesias, executive editor: My favorite moment was very high-stakes, story-wise, though it lacked the stunning visuals of some of this season's other high points — the indictments of Ser Loras and Queen Margaery by the Faith of the Seven:

One thing I love about this scene is that it's packed with actual characters, not just extras. The High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Cersei, Olenna, and Tommen all get a piece of the action, and they all reveal something important about themselves. The Sparrow, to me, is the most intriguing character of the whole season, someone who is playing the game of thrones extremely effectively and who appears to be the rarest of all beasts in Westeros — a true believer in something.

Tyene Sand and her poisoned daggers.

Tyene Sand and her poisoned daggers.

HBO

The low point, I think, was the seduction/poisoning/whatever of Bronn at the hands of Tyene Sand. It was poorly staged, awkward, exploitative when I watched it the first time, and, once you know the payoff at the end of the season, boring to boot. The entire Dorne plotline of this season felt like a pointless detour, and this was somehow a pointless detour inside the pointless detour. But boobs! It's not just that it didn't work, it didn't even seem to aspire to anything.

Jen Trolio, deputy culture editor: In the interest of not repeating what everyone else has already said — because duh, "Hardhome" was amazing! — I'd like to recognize a few different moments as high points. The biggest one is probably Cersei's brutal walk of shame; not only was it was tremendously acted by Lena Headey (and her body double), but I'm also eager to see where it sends the character in season six.

Beyond that, season five gifted us with several smaller scenes that deserve shout-outs for their comic relief. Consider Stannis's insistence on the use of correct grammar, even in the tensest of situations:

Or pretty much every time Margaery and Cersei faced off — though I especially enjoyed the scene where Margaery basically called the queen mother a drunk, right to her face.

As for my least favorite elements of season five, I quickly grew bored with a lot of the Meereen/Dany stuff. I know that Dany's a fan favorite, but her story wasn't strong enough this year to warrant the amount of screen time devoted to it. There was just so much debate over those damn fighting pits and so much dawdling on Dany's struggles to rule; Benioff and Weiss definitely could have paced that entire plot line more wisely. Throw in the fact that the Sons of the Harpy essentially came out of nowhere yet somehow operated as an incredibly organized and powerful force, while the Unsullied turned out to be fairly useless in ambush situations, and the entire arc was a bit of a mess.

Read the recap. Come back soon for some predictions on what will happen in season six.

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