It should have ended on “Hardhome.”
As far as TV-viewing experiences, this episode, number eight in the Fifth Season run of HBO’s Game of Thrones, is solidly in the top five. When the final scene wrapped and the credits dropped, I, like the rest of the pop culture world, frantically sent out texts and status updates, transmitting my ecstatic bewilderment over what I had just witnessed. What a great episode. But as was the case for this season as a whole, for every high like the final 20 minutes of Hardhome, a series of lows lurked just around the corner.
So a couple of notes before we get rolling here. I am a “show-only” Thrones fan. Haven’t read a word of the books. Also, I think this series deserves every molecule of cultural cachet it’s received. It’s not overrated. The hype is not overblown. Since the opening moments, when Sean Bean wandered about in his fur cloak, whacking off the heads of deserters, Game of Thrones sucked me in. Heck, I’ve been a HBO subscriber solely because of this show. It is the killer app.
As such, it is minus any semblance of “haterade” (or haterale?) that I render this verdict: Season 5 is the most uneven in the show’s life.
Now, point of fact, “uneven” doesn’t mean “bad.” I’m not sure if Game of Thrones can ever be a bad show; the layers of plot and character and mythology that have been built up over all these years almost guarantees that anything short of some Russell Brand stunt-casting couldn’t damage the show’s quality. Season 5 isn’t bad — it’s just frustratingly all over the place.
Our storylines remain myriad: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, Elf), no the run from King’s Landing, makes for the Narrow Sea and a much-anticipated meet-up with Khaleesi (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys); Cersei (Lena Headey, 300) makes a deal with the devil to regain control over the capital; Arya takes on a demented apprenticeship; Stannis makes his move on Winterfell; Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes on a trip to Dorne; and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington, Pompeii) sets social media on fire.
Too amorphous? You know how it is: it’s impossible to piecemeal out these storylines without suddenly finding yourself hip-deep in a 900-page treatise. I’ll follow the HBO synopsis writer’s lead and keep things vague. Just know, that if deep-diving into branching narratives is your game, Game of Thrones once again delivers.
Where I got tripped up was the quality of these storylines. Again, I’m not speaking from book experience, but friends who have read the series notified me about all the deviations (for good or ill). Sticking strictly to what was put on screen and not was ought to or ought not to have made the cut, I’m left with this inventory of the ups-and-downs of Season 5. (Light spoilers ahead.)
Tyrion: no matter his situation, Dinklage makes him compulsively watchable.
Jon Snow: as our only eye to the insanity of what’s coming from the North, Snow is becomes the de facto hero of the saga and the stakes he deals with makes the throne squabbling trite.
Cersei: her deal with Sparrows backfires gloriously and the much-talked about final sequence pushes her into some crazy new territory. Headey continues to imbue Cersei with sneering malevolence.
Arya: It’s slow going, but Arya’s storyline is the most unpredictable of the lot…and I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on.
The Giant: there’s a giant in this. And he’s fantastic.
Dorne: Sorry, but buddy comedy aside, I found Jaime and Bronn’s excursion pointless.
Stannis and the Red Woman: the characters are great, but these two are responsible for probably the worst scene in the series (as in “they went too far”). Not helping is the fact that this moment was part of an episode featuring what should have been the most triumphant sequence in the series, leading only to a clumsy juxtaposition of awful feelings.
Khaleesi: let’s be honest here. Our Mother of Dragons has been a bore for the last couple of seasons and she doesn’t fare much better this go-round. And her big moment was crapped on by Stannis and some shoddy CGI.
The Night’s Watch: after coming across as total studs last year in defense of the Wall, the Men in Black fell victim to some hasty, sloppy writing and a final sequence that was way, way more irritating than bold and jarring.
I’m left then with mixed feelings. This remains premium television — so far above its peers, the gap is laughable. But, man were there problems this season, most of them self-inflicted. Perhaps it’s to be expected; juggling that many characters and stories with that huge a production on that tight a turn-around, there’s going to be some scuffling.
Then again, I absolutely cannot wait for Season 6. Can. Not. Wait. And, even better, no more posturing from the book people!
HBO knows its flagship show require the best home video treatment and Game of Thrones: The Complete Fifth Season (Blu-ray) receives the king’s treatment: beautiful, sturdy, packaging, giving way to some of the finest looking visuals (1.78:1/1080p) I’ve ever seen my Blu-ray player spit out. Supporting the gorgeous picture quality is a brilliant Dolby 5.1 and Dolby Atmos (TrueHD compatible) audio mix. An enormous amount of extras awaits: “The Dance of Dragons” animated history, in-episode interactive guides and histories and lore, an anatomy of an episode (“Mother’s Mercy”), a sort-of interesting featurette called “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones,” a look at the new characters and locations, a behind the scenes segment on “A Day in the life,” 12 audio commentaries on select episodes and four deleted scenes.