Controversies aside -- and there were plenty of controversies this year -- "Game of Thrones" ended arguably it's strongest season yet with a jaw-dropping series of shockers that already make me want to warg on into next year.
And like we've talked about the past few weeks, it's clear that (mostly) untethering from the books has also allowed showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to play with the structure of their seasons, as well. At the end of episode eight, we got the battle at Hardhome -- a huge, epic confrontation that would normally be reserved for an episode nine. Meanwhile, episode nine did have a shocking death, and a big moment -- Dany (Emilia Clarke) finally rides a dragon! -- but it felt like the ramp up to this episode.
Which was one of the toughest, most complex hours of television on the tubes this year, the first season finale that felt less like an epilogue, and more like the beginning of something gigantic and new. This was, without a doubt, one of the most important episodes ever.
Huge, huge spoilers of course past this point, but let's break down every heart-breaking, excruciating moment of the fifth season finale, "Mother's Mercy"
Stannis By Me
Last episode began with Melisandre (Carice van Houten) looking into fire, this episode into ice (though sadly not singing anything). She's promising Stannis (Stephen Dillane) that things are looking up since the ice is thawing... But very quickly, things turn ice cold: half his army has departed, and clearly unable to live with the death of her daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram), Stannis' wife Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald) has hanged herself.
But hey, Stannis is stubborn, so he decides to march on Winterfell anyway! Great idea, Stannis, you're the one true king.
Jon And Sam Happy Friendtime
Jon (Kit Harington) and Samwell (John Bradley) continue their exposition parade, as Jon explains that Valyrian steel -- as well as Dragonglass -- kills White Walkers. Which is great news! Except there's barely any Valyrian steel swords left.
And then Sam explains he's going to head to the Citadel in Old Town to become a Maester, replacing Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan).. It's motivated as much by Sam's desire to protect Gilly (Hannah Murray) from the rapacious denizens of Castle Black; but the bad news is that Jon's one remaining true ally is gone from the Wall, too.
No way that could turn out poorly for anyone.
The Battle of Winterfallen
Hey, turns out Sansa (Sophie Turner) wasn't grabbing that corkscrew to kill Ramsay (Iwan Rheon): she was saving it to pick the lock to her cell/room, which is actually pretty nifty (and where exactly did she pick up her thief skills, exactly)? Anyway, she heads to the tower -- the same one Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) dropped out of back in season one -- to light her candle, ideally alerting Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) that she's in trouble.
Except, as usual on this horrible, horrible show where nothing good ever happens, it's too late: Brienne has left to intercept Stannis' army, which is approaching Winterfell.
Oh, and the army of the flayed man isn't waiting around for Stannis, either. They meet them full on in the field, and it's a rout. In a classic "we're going to cut away from the battle because we put the budget elsewhere" move, Stannis' army is completely destroyed. The would-be-king takes down two men post-battle on his own, but his leg is hurt nearly beyond repair.
...And that's when Brienne finds him. She reveals who she is, reminding him (and us) that he killed Renly. "I was there when he was murdered by a shadow with your face." Stannis admits he killed his own brother. She sentences him to death. Asks if he has any last words.
"Go on, do your duty," Stannis says, in the most Stannis last words a man could have.
Meanwhile, Ramsay is just having a great time, killing men who surrender and just having a laugh. He's a great guy.
Reek, Reek, His Name Is Theon
Back at Winterfell, Myranda (Charlotte Hope) stops Sansa before she is able to return to her room, Reek (Alfie Allen) in tow.
"If I'm going to die, let it happen while there's still some of me left," Sansa says, defiant. And finally, Reek stands up. He throws Myranda off of the battlements and basically dooms both of them. With Ramsay fast returning,
Reek Theon leads her to the walls of Winterfell, they jump... Together.
Justice Is Blind
Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie), meanwhile, continues to be a terrifying, horrible person. He's in the same brothel in Braavos he was in previously, and it turns out he doesn't just want the young girls for sex... He likes to beat the s--t out of them. But one girl, a girl with no recognizable face, stands defiant.
Oh, except, it's actually Arya (Maisie Williams) and she STABS HIM IN THE F--KING EYES. And then in the neck and chest, and stuffs a rag in his mouth. "You're the first person on my list, you know," Arya tells him.
"Do you know who I am? I'm Arya Stark," Arya asks semi-rhetorically, reminding him he killed Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou). "Do you know who you are? You're no one. You're nothing."
And she slits his throat.
Returning to the House of Black and White, Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) tells Arya a life must pay for a life. He sips poison, and dies. Except he doesn't actually, because he's standing behind her THE WHOLE TIME.
She pulls face after face off the body she thought was H'ghar, eventually revealing her own... And then going blind.
Also, is anyone else starting to get a serious Gob Bluth vibe from Jaqen? Just me? Okay.
Oh, Dorne It!
Though the Dorne storyline has been no one's favorite, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has a sweet conversation on the way back with Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free). He explains to her that he's happy she's with Trystane (Toby Sebastian), and that you can't control who you love. He stammers a bit, saying she doesn't know what he's really talking about.
"I do," Myrcella says. "I know. About you and mother... I'm glad... I'm glad you are my father."
They embrace! The music swells. It's really sweet and confusing because yay but also gross!
...And then she starts bleeding from her nose, as poison courses through her body, presumably killing her. Back on shore, Ellaria (Indira Varma) also bleeds from the nose, before wiping it away and taking the antidote. The Sand Snakes triumphantly follow her... But this is far from dorne. I mean, done.
Tyrion Gets A Second Chance
Dany's Dudes argue in Meereen about the next steps to take to track her down after her totally rude dragon escape last episode. And in a surprising twist, Daario (Michiel Huisman) offers some smart advice: let Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) rule while a search party looks for the errant queen.
So the city, which is still torn asunder, is now under the rule of an exiled Lannister and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), a hobbled eunuch warrior.
...And that's when Varys (Conleth Hill) shows up, literally out of nowhere. Maybe he stole some one of Jaqen's tricks*? "A grand old city, filled with violence and deceit. Who could possibly have experience managing such a place?" Varys asks. And so we have our new, surprising status quo, with Varys as Tyrion's adviser -- and Tyrion finally able to govern without an insane king, or his evil sister to stop him from doing the right thing.
*They're not tricks... They're ILLUSIONS.
Dany Horses Around
Speaking of Dany, she's stuck far away from Meereen with Drogon, sitting in a pile of charred bones and unable to get the dragon to do what she wants it to do. She implores him to return, tries to ride him... And fails. So she begins to walk back. Starving and dirty, she's about as far from the Iron Throne as she was in season one... And that's when the Dothraki surround her.
An entire army of them.
In a probably very deliberate way, it's the opposite of when she was surrounded by the freed slaves in Meereen at the end of season three. She's no longer the Mhysa... She's about to become something else.
Cersei's Walk Of Shame
Unable to take another day in the High Sparrow's (Jonathan Pryce) cells, Cersei (Lena Headey) confesses... But of course, not everything. She doesn't confess to incest, or that her children were the product of said incest. She denies it, and the High Sparrow believes (?) her. Begging the Mother's mercy, the High Sparrow allows Cersei to return to the Red Keep... But only after her "atonement."
Cersei is stripped naked and scrubbed all over... And though this probably sounds salacious, this is the first time in five seasons Headey has ever done a nude scene. Which makes the whole thing so much more shocking, horrifying, and cruel to watch. Particularly as her hair is viciously cut short, a scene that ranks up there with the most wince-worthy in the show's history.
Bleeding, she is dressed in rags and taken outside. The High Sparrow announces to all of King's Landing that to repent, she'll walk the miles to the Red Keep.
And so her garments are pulled off. A woman Sparrow walks behind her, ringing a bell and saying, "Shame," constantly, as the crowd (barely) parts. Cersei holds her head high at first... And then the crowd starts shouting at her. "C--t," they call her. "Whore." And worse. And she starts to lose it.
Look, Cersei has been a villain since season one, right? But everything she's done, all of it, has always been to protect herself and her children. It's often -- in fact always -- gone wrong, and caused things to get far worse in Westeros.
...But nobody, no character, deserves what she went through in this episode, as the crowd spits on her, throws mud and feces, reveals their genitals and shames her entirely.
So she's been the bad guy, right? Will this turn her into a good guy? No. But it does get into a far bigger question: if this is how the people react, screaming and yelling at a naked woman, her feet bleeding as she just tries to return to her son... Are they worth saving? Isn't there an argument to be made that they deserve to be taken over by the Night's King? That the world should be covered in icy sameness?
Anyway, to cap things off, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) presents the newest member of the Kingsguard -- a man clad in gold who has taken a "vow of silence." As this man (who, spoiler, is a Frankenstein-ed Mountain) carries a shivering Cersei, her resolve hardens. Yuh-oh.
And it all ends at the Wall. Melisandre approaches, and silently confirms Davos' (Liam Cunningham) worst fears: they're all dead. Everyone. Dead.
Heartbroken, Jon is sitting silently in his office, when Olly (Brenock O'Connor) runs in telling Jon there's news of Benjen Stark. He rushes out... And is instead confronted with a sign that says, "Traitor."
"For the Watch," Alliser (Owen Teale) tells Jon as he stabs him. One after another, the men of the Watch say the same, stabbing Jon. Olly looks at Jon. Silently, Jon begs him not to do this. "Olly," Jon barely gasps. "For the Watch," Olly says, killing Jon Snow.
Jon lies in the snow he's named after, blood leaking out of his body.
Cut to credits.
He's... I mean... No. You know nothing, audience. He can't be dead. He...