15th Jun2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×10: Mother’s Mercy’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“…if I might beg just one drop of the Mother’s mercy.”

For all that the High Sparrow likes to talk about the laws of gods and men, the truth is that no life in Westeros or the wider world of which it is a part is lived within an ordered set of rules. Whatever the Mother’s mercy really is, if it exists out there in some pure and undiluted form, the people begging for it sure aren’t getting it. Shireen didn’t, but that doesn’t stop a distraught queen Selyse from seeking an escape from her dead daughter’s specter by hanging herself in a lonely hollow in the northern forest.

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Selyse’s death is just one of many calamities that befall Stannis in the episode’s torturous opening minutes, beginning with the desertion of half his army and ending with his defeat at the hands of the Boltons. Watching Stannis limp through the aftermath, still grumpily unflappable even after everything he’s ever had is gone, is almost as sad as watching him finally fold up when Brienne finds him slumped against a tree. He admits he killed his brother Renly, then tells Brienne “Go on, do your duty.” Fitting last words for a man who spent his whole life trying to do just that.

More depressing yet is the fact that finally, after seasons of smirking and mysterious looks, Melisandre of Asshai cracks. Whatever it is she realizes while Stannis’s army collapses around him, dispersed in horror by the same sacrifice that bought him the thaw he so badly needed, it leaves her speechless by the time she’s reached castle black. Davos is left stricken, knowing that the girl he longed to protect and the king he lived to serve have likely both been taken from him. The failure dogging Stannis and his inner circle finds an echo in the broken understanding that crosses Jon’s face when he finds that his squire has led him to his death at the hands of his own men.

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Director David Nutter knows what he’s doing when it comes to misery. From the Apocalypse Now close-up shot of Meryn Trant’s glowering mug to Selyse’s forbidding choice of suicide spots, the episode never lets you forget how ugly all this human suffering is. When Trant dies there’s no sense of victory in his eyeless, ruined wailing, no sense that Arya has done anything but maim her soul. “Do you know what you are?” she taunted the gagged and dying man. “You’re no one. You’re nothing.” Her attempt to twist the teachings of the Many-Faced God into a weapon are not without consequence, and in the House of Black and White she tastes for an instant the bottomlessness of death when she opens up the world’s grisliest nesting doll.

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The story in Meereen is mostly concerned with pushing pieces into place. Varys, Missandei, Tyrion, and Grey Worm get saddled with ruling the unquiet city and keeping the peace(they’re literally my goddamn fantasy baseball ruling council) while Dany’s captive dragons shriek and roar under the figurative floorboards and Daario and Jorah ride out to find the vanished queen. Dany herself finds Drogon, tired and recovering from his wounds, unwilling to bear her back to her throne. When she sets out on foot, though, she finds herself face to face with a thunderous Dothraki horde. More than a hook for season 6, it’s a reminder of the brutal warrior culture in which Dany first learned to hold the reins of power and a further indicator that her choice to board the Drogon express is a return to her roots carrying with it a buttload of violence and terror.

Myrcella’s tender admission to Jaime that she knows he’s her father, that she loves him, that she’s glad for it, ends in the young woman collapsing like her eldest brother with blood streaming from her nostrils. Ellaria Sand gets her revenge with a poisoned kiss, an example of just what mother’s mercy means in this world. The Dorne plot still feels like a lot of dead air, devoid of energy and hobbled by contrivance and weak pacing, but Ellaria’s kiss shows exactly how close to death this woman is willing to walk to gain revenge. The vicious pointlessness of it is wrenching even after so much other meaningless violence. ‘Hardhome’ made a sharp decision by reminding the show’s viewers that every murder, every war, and every backroom deals is undermining the human race’s ability to fight their real enemy. This is all just pissing into the wind, and that only makes it more miserable.

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It’s in Cersei’s hellish journey though King’s Landing that the episode lands its most brutal emotional body blow. Game of Thrones has a patchy reputation, and deservedly so, when it comes to portrayals of women’s bodies in nude and/or sexual contexts, but the horror show of Cersei’s procession of shame is crushing, unrelenting, and sensitive in its portrayal of human tragedy. Cersei escapes imprisonment by offering herself up in a confession to a still-mild High Sparrow, but the sick old fucker sentences her to be stripped, washed, shaved, and paraded naked back to the Red Keep for all the city to see.

And more than see. The citizens of King’s Landing pelt Cersei, bleeding from her scalp where the septas hacked her hair away, feet torn by cobblestones, with filth and offal. They scream slurs, expose themselves to her, mock her body, and try repeatedly to push past Cersei’s guards and get to her, violence in their eyes. Meanwhile the septa chants “Shame, shame” like that one word encompasses the sum total of Cersei’s life, creating through force of repetition a bite-sized version of a sinful woman that everyone can understand at once and feel superior by ridiculing.

Nutter keeps us locked into the whole 5-minute scene with close, melancholy camerawork. Cersei’s breakdown over the course of the walk is captured intimately and with uncomfortable humanity. When the queen mother reaches the castle’s gates she has dissolved into desperate tears, the most hated woman in Westeros and in the Game of Thrones fandom subjected to such atrocity that you can’t help but cheer when a kindly, solicitous Qyburn hurries to drape a blanket over her shoulders and place her under the protection of the undead ser Gregor, entombed in Kingsguard armor and shrouded by a phony vow of silence. Anything that ends the Sparrows’ grotesque farce of justice is a relief.

It’s ugliness, pure and unvarnished, from the moment the High Sparrow says “After your atonement” to the look of perverse pleasure on Pycelle’s face when he sees Cersei’s nude, filth-smeared, and battered body. You can tell at a glance that the man is having the best day of his declining years. The people who pray hardest and believe most ardently are thugs and murderers. Those who try to salvage peace from war are gutted by their friends. Fathers burn their daughters. Knights beat little girls. No woman, not even the queen, is safe.

There’s no looking away.

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