A retrospective of Game of Thrones’s Season 5 Jon Snow/Wall plotline
Recently, fellow Fandomentals author, Julia, and I set out to revisit Game of Thrones (GoT)’s various season 5 plotlines, so as to gain understanding of how two professional writers—or two human beings in general—could have created such hot garbage in what was easily the show’s weakest season. These two humans I’m referring to are, of course, GoT’s showrunners Benioff and Weiss (D&D).
Our task was simple at first: to examine the Dorne and Winterfell plotlines, which many point to as being the main reason why Season 5 was such a step down in quality. However, when the two of us set out to dissect the events in King’s Landing, which is (in many ways) the show’s “main” plotline, not to mention the beating heart of the “GoT brand,” we came to a startling realization: the writing for that arc was just as bad, if not worse than Winterfell and Dorne. Nothing made sense at all! Its only saving grace was that it was not quite as actively offensive as the other two.
With that discovery, we felt we had to tackle the remaining three plotlines: The Wall, Braavos, and Meereen (which include Tyrion’s bro-trips). We needed to find out if anything from Season 5 could hold up under a very basic level of scrutiny.
So here we are now, dissecting The Wall plotline, or as tumblr blogger “mcgani” was clever enough to name it, “Jon’s fOlly.”
To analyze this arc, we will be asking the following questions, as we have in our past 3 retrospectives:
- What was the story they were trying to tell?
- Whose story was it?
- What was the result of this story, from a thematic and character perspective?
- What adaptational choices were made?
- Why did they make the adaptational choices they did?
- How did those choices change the story?
- What the fuck were they thinking?
We start, thus, with the recap.
What was the story they were trying to tell?
The season begins where it will end (sorry, spoilers) with Jonny Cardboard, Olly, and weaponry. Jon is giving his little bro the super helpful advice of “don’t get hit with a sword.” They’re really bonding. There’s affectionate face touching.
Also bonding is Showboating Sam and Assertive Gilly. Sam confidently tells Gilly that he doesn’t need to train because he’s a mighty warrior, what with his White Walker and Thenn killing. We both facepalm.
And, oh look, a second happy couple. Allister Thorne and Janos Slynt stroll by and Thorne is also attempting to impress his boo with his toughness. Maybe they’re just guy palsl it works either way, to be honest. Gilly is freaked out by Thorne’s racist glare and is scared that he might be elected Lord Commander and do racist things. Then she assertively demands that Sam not let them send her and the Incredible Shrinking Baby away. We facepalm again.
Back to Jolly (like it?) for more bonding. But, oh no, a wild Mel approaches! She tells Jon that Stan wants to see him. And Jon gets a look, like, “But I need to go number two!”
Maybe Jon had his chance because he’s wearing a different outfit when they hang out in an elevator. And you all know what elevators are for: Sexual harassment! But it’s okay, it’s a woman doing it to a man, so it’s FUNNY. Meli-sans-bra creepily checks him out and then creepily asks him if he’s a virgin. Um, Jon? You don’t have to answer that question, it’s really rude. He does, though, since he… mourns Ygritte so much?
Stan and Davos are also bonding by standing on a precarious ledge 700 feet over the ground. Mel introduces Jon as “The Bastard of Winterfell”; a term that sounds cool and should be used more often, even if it does remind us of our boy Daemon Sand, the Bastard of Godsgrace, and we’re sad to think we could have had his sexy smug face on this show instead of this bullshit.
Stan tries to come at Jon from the angle of: revenge. So refreshing. Doesn’t it suck that Roosey B is ruling Winterfell? Then, kind of apropos of nothing, Davos starts talking about how Jon is a divisive figure among his Night’s Watch bros. Stan is all “whatever”; we think he’s checking Jon out too? Or maybe he’s just chuffed about the telepathy he suddenly developed to already know that Tywin Lannister is dead. He’s really weirdly happy as he talks about conquering back the North. And then he says he wants the Wildlings to fight for him, and in return he’ll make them “citizens of the realm.” We facepalm while laughing. Will he give them social security numbers too?
He tells Jon to convince Mance to bend the knee. Or else he gets burned to death. He has ‘til nightfall. Have fun Jonny!
So we guess everything in this episode happens in one day because we go all over the world before coming back to Jon finally seeing Mance. It’s kind of awkward because they’re already building a pyre outside.
Mance goes on about how he totes respects Stan, but he won’t serve him because… um. Reasons. Well anyway, this conversation is super deep, guys. Jon points out to Mance about how he’s a stubborn idiot who literally has no point to make, but Mance is mostly concerned with proving that Ciarán Hinds can act. Maybe he’s hopeful that he’ll get another job on another show where he’s not totally wasted.
Mance is lead out in handcuffs looking all proud. Stan asks him to kneel, but Mance doesn’t want to look dumb in front of his friends so he just wishes them luck with the ice zombies instead. Then we see that Stan brought his kid to the gruesome execution. What a great dad.
Mel explains how they’re killing Mance because of… religious reasons. Oh course, it’s not like he ever committed a capital crime they could legally punish him for.
Meli-sans-bra lights the pyre and Mance starts to look kind of distressed. Because, we repeat, Ciarán Hinds is too good for this show. Jon runs away, presumably to use the bathroom—this obviously requires an Olly reaction shot. Then the director conveniently codes the good and bad guys for us in a series of other reactions shot. Gilly, Sam, Shireen, Some Bearded Guy: good. Thorne, Selyse: bad. Thanks director!
Jon comes back from the John and shoots Mance in the chest with a bow and arrow. He dies, and so does the episode.
When we tune in next, it’s Shireen’s School for the Conveniently Placed Illiterates, and damn if she’s not effective. It’s only like, a few days after her arrival (maybe?) and Gilly already knows the noise an “s” makes! Kinda makes you wish that instead of burning her, Stan smuggled Shireen into Winterhell where she would then teach the lowborn how to read, thus empowering the masses who would totally rise up against the Boltons and their flaying. Which is actually a smarter strategy to take the place than what ended up happening.
We digress. Gilly sasses Sam for telling her that practice makes perfect because that’s apparently their dynamic. Shireen is a much better adult literacy tutor than Sam; she started reading at 3 (same as Kylie!). But we guess Sam’s not even a highborn who lives in Weisseroff, because he is all “did your mom teach you?” Yes Sam, that’s what highborn women do, read bedtime stories. In case you forgot…Selyse doesn’t like Shireen. Let’s remind the audience of that again. If it inexplicably changed, wouldn’t it be SHOCKING?
Actually, speaking of super clumsy seeding, let’s talk about Shireen’s GREYSCALE! We guess it would have seemed unsympathetic for Gilly to give Val’s whole “she’s unclean” thing, so we instead learn that Selyse abused her daughter for it. And small world! Gilly’s sisters had it too and became monsters! Well, at least she remembered she has sisters. We wonder if they’re all still okay just kind of chilling in the wilderness without food or shelter. Gilly doesn’t.
Then Selyse barges in to show concern(?) for Shireen? Frankly, what she says is pretty irrelevant, but we’re 90% sure it was just D&D taking a swipe at book readers. (Yeah, guys WE’RE the ones who don’t understand how humans behave…)
Jonny Cardboard gets called into Stan’s office, where we find out Stan is very disappointed with him. Specifically for mercy-killing Mance, when the whole thing was just to send a message and had little meaning otherwise. But, like any good boss does, he wants to put Jon on a performance improvement plan, mostly because he’s having trouble convincing a different 10-year old book snob to join him (what is WITH little girls being the only ones with any sense on this goddamn show?).
Stan has a nifty plan in mind: he’s going to turn Cardboard into Jon Stark, Lord of Winterhell. Oh, and to make it seem even more appealing, Davos mentions that Jonny’s a total loser with no friends in the Watch anyway. Also they randomly point out that “Thorne is going to win this election that we’ve totally taken the time to seed.” We think those two thoughts were supposed to be connected, but like every other conversation in Weisseroff, it seems just people arbitrarily asserting things near each other.
Anyway, Sam is all gung-ho about Jonny Cardboard taking the new job, but Jon is going to turn it down. Not because Bran is alive and he knows it, not because he was asked to forsake his gods, not even because he feels uncomfortable at somehow gaining a profit from Robb’s death. Just…because. Because going back on his Night’s Watch vow would somehow make him unfit to rule Winterhell. Despite the fact that he made that vow when he was a bastard with no prospects.
Whatever, let’s just sweep it under the rug it’s ELECTION TIME! Hope you guys really enjoyed all that prime-time election coverage before this scene. We are supposed to hate Thorne because he always uses “bastard” in the pejorative, and we know the other frontrunner must suck because Jon can only muster an unenthusiastic cup clap.
We feel ya, Jonny. Those speeches were not particularly riveting. In fact, Sam realizes the whole room is so bored that he decides to try out his stand-up routine. He makes a bunch of jokes about Slynt being totes afraid of dying (unlike him…he’s a slayer), and while he’s at it, what’s the deal with the name “Castle Black”? It’s not black…it’s barely a castle. It should be called “Random assortment of buildings Grey.”
Oh then he points out Jonny Cardboard’s leadership qualifications: he’s really, really, really good at swinging a sword. Thorne is like, “yeah but he’s a Wildling sympathizer.” Olly looks conflicted.
We guess the introduction of a third party candidate was exciting, because the votes were EXACTLY EVEN between Jon and Thorne. What drama. How well-seeded. It totally makes sense that Jon “you have no friends according to Davos and have the personality of a soggy piece of white bread” Snow would garner such enthusiasm thanks to Sam’s comedy routine.
Oh, Aemon gets the tiebreaker vote, which he puts in for Cardboard. Olly looks happy.
This is SO much better than Book!Sam’s smart political machinations, or how Book!Jon was basically a compromise candidate, which was perfect on a thematic level and indicative of his arc to come. And we’re REALLY happy that this was delayed from Season 4 just to be slopped in for five minutes, blowing up any chance of actually seeing Cardboard navigate this role before he is randomly called in to…wait for it…swing his sword again.
Still, Jonny Cardboard is a mover and shaker, we guess. By the next episode he has already moved into his new Lord Commander digs. Good thinking, buddy, we have a lot of plot to gloss over!
Stan comes to see him and literally the first thing that happens is Jon telling him that Olly will stay because he’s job shadowing him. “One day he might command.” Vomit. Stan is just like, “cute, kid.”
Stan then asks him if he thought about that whole “offering to make him one of the four most powerful people in Weisseroff” thing. Jon says “no thanks” even after Stan tries the revenge angle again. Why do people seem to think that’s super convincing? Jonny goes on about how staying at the Wall is a matter of honor, but Stan tells him “honor got your father killed.” So insightful. Jon then asks him how long they’re going to stay. Awkward. Although, he makes a good point about how much food his army must eat.
Stan says they’re leaving in two weeks at most, and that the Wildlings are officially Jon’s problem now. He suggests a massacre. Or talking to Tormund Giantsbane. (Tormund is on the show? OMG we hope we get to meet him!) Stan also comments on how damn racist the Black Brothers are. Jon agrees, provoking an Olly reaction shot™ after the use of the term “Free Folk”.
Stan leaves and Davos comments to Jonny Cardboard that Stan only acts like an asshole because he likes him. He’s complicated, people don’t get him. We don’t think Stan and Davos’s relationship is healthy. Cardboard tells him he doesn’t want to get involved in politics. So Davos has Olly recite the Night’s Watch vow (with random bits cut out for no reason) and then proceeds to prove he doesn’t understand them at all. Dude, the point is that the Night’s Watch stays at the Wall, okay? That’s what they are for. Mother have Mercy, these guys are all so obtuse.
Then Jonny Cardboard is chilling out at the head table in the dining room looking pensive while his bros have a fun time. Aw, poor Maester Aemon is sick. Jon gets everyone’s attention. First he gives some rando the task of digging a new latrine pit and it’s oh so tense when we think for a moment that he might give it Thorne and/or Slynt. Everyone laughs because it’s not like sanitation is important.
Instead he makes Thorne First Ranger, because he remembers how he was slightly awesome in “The Watchers on the Wall”. Thorne’s boyfriend is so proud. But, oh no! Mean Jonny wants to separate them! Janos won’t have that. Olly is super offended on Cardboard’s behalf. But Sam assertively gets the room to calm down (who the fuck is this man?). Jonny tells Stynt that he doesn’t have a choice. He gets so intense that we need another Olly reaction shot to deal. But Janos tells him to “stick his order up his bastard ass.”
And then, Jon orders Janos to be dragged out then and there and tells his little buddy Olly to “bring me my sword”. Everyone abandons Janos, even Thorne. It’s actually sad to watch. The poor, overgrown baby then gets frog marched out while Cardboard finishes his beer. Then Jon stalks out, grabs Longclaw and asks Janos if he has any last words.
Slynt then begs for his life, confessing that he’s always been afraid. He cries. Jon gets this look you get when you’re constipated, and you really, really hate the turd on a personal level. Then he cuts his head off.
Hey, did you guys forget that Selyse is a shitty mother? Because D&D didn’t! That’s right, she’s even got bastard envy, because at least Neddy managed to produce a strapping by-blow, when all she gave Stannis was “weakness and deformity.” They should totes burn her. And Stan just shakes his head like an exasperated husband whose wife just told him they need to switch from lemon-pledge to pine-sol because her allergies were acting up.
Meli-sans-bra swoops in and is all, “but fun fact: Shireen’s blood is KING’s blood.” And yes, it was that not-at-all-veiled. Speaking of subtlety, Stan then asks Meli-sans-bra what she wants (because she hasn’t been following him this whole time?), and she says “to serve my lord” as the camera ZOOMS to Jonny Cardboard. Wink!
Maybe Meli-sans-bra should rethink that though. Jonny and Sam Seinfeld are doing paperwork together and the new Lord Commander hasn’t heard of the Smallwoods. Maybe Cat made sure he never got riverlands geography lessons, but come on dude! They decorate everything with acorns and it’s fucking awesome!
Then Sam wants to get Jon to ask Roose Bolton for men, and Jon throws a miniature shit-fit (he’s totally not the type of guy who would write to the Lannister king asking for help because a “paper-shield” is better than no shield). Thankfully, Sam reminds him of his vows and duties because it’s bizarro world and Jon needed to be told that.
Then Meli-sans-bra pops in to live up to her name. But don’t worry: it was totally earned. She first asks Jon to ride south to Winterhell with her and Stan (she really thought this was a possibility?). When he rejects her, she says, “but this is life against death.” No, sweetie, this is literally life against life. She walks over to Jonny like the predatory fuck she is and goes “let me show you what we’re fighting for” while disrobing. Is this literally the war for Meli-sans-bra’s boobs, because if not then she should probably put those things away.
She sits on his cock and sort of implies that she and Jonny Cardboard would make a cute shadow baby together, but he’s all, “sorry I’m still into Ygritte” (the only reason that seems to stick actually). Then she vomits out a book line, which in this context makes the least amount of sense possible. See also: Ramsay’s “a feast for the crows.”
Shireen the book snob shows up and is bored. WE KNOW Shireen! We’re really sorry D&D didn’t script in the tension with the Queensmen and the Night’s Watch and Jon’s political machinations and GRRM trolling the New York Giants and Val and the Karstark kerfuffle and…we could keep going here.
But honestly, her conversation with Stan is sort of cute for a little, until Selyse comes up. Hey, hey, hey. Did you guys forget now that she’s a bad mom? Don’t worry, Shireen just up and tells Stan that her mom said “I didn’t want to bring you.” But uh…what about that scene where she and Mel looked into the fire together and were like “LET’S BRING SHIREEN!”
Then Shireen randomly asks Stan if he’s ashamed of her to lay on that guilt. Or to find out if she has one parent that cares about her. And he’s like, “ashamed of you! When those dirty Pornish gave you greyscale through a doll (???) I didn’t send you off to the leper colony, and I even spent money on doctors!” Because 1) it’s totally plausible that the rich elite of Weisseroff would send the few people infected with greyscale (which is now the same as the grey plague) off to a leper colony halfway across the globe to a place where even the pirates were like, “uhhh…no,” rather than say, fucking kill them, and 2) the trader totally wanted to carry out the Pornish tradition of going to excessive lengths to harm little girls. Mayhaps for revenge!
Whatever, then Stan hugs his daughter, saying that she’s the “Princess Shireen of House Baratheon.” OH NOW YOUR LINEAGE AND FUTURE OF YOUR HOUSE MATTERS TO YOU?
This would be a really nice family moment if he didn’t burn her later. How clever.
So when we return to the Wall, Sam is reading a letter to Maester Aemon. From Meereen. Who is sending this letter exactly? Maybe Daario is a Night’s Watch spy! Or a double agent because the information isn’t exactly accurate. Who are these “forces without” exactly? How is she under siege? Aren’t the Yunkai’i her buddies?
Anyway, Aemon feels guilty that his
great-great-niece is all alone. “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.” Because that family has always gotten along together so well!
Jonny Cardboard comes in and says he wants to talk to Aemon alone. Sam skidaddles and Jon says he needs his advice. He wants to do something but it will make a lot of his brothers hate him.
“Fuck ‘em,” Aemon says, “do whatever shit you want. When I rejected the throne, I just flipped them all off because IDGAF.” Like, more or less. We wish we were kidding. That’s pretty much his advice. Except he doesn’t talk about his backstory at all. He tries to justify it with random book dialogue, but, since there is ZERO context it basically amounts to “Kill the Boy, because Men Act! Men don’t conciliate or compromise!”
So then Jonny has a meeting with some tall, bearded, red-headed Icelandic guy. We have no idea who he’s supposed to be. Let’s call him “Beardy”. Beardy doesn’t want to tell Jon where the Free Folk are or who leads them. How he would know this is an even more interesting question, but whatever, he’s on the Weisseroff Twitter.
Jonny Cardboard makes nice, quite reasonably saying that the Night’s Watch’s mission is to protect humans, and the wildlings qualify. They shouldn’t be enemies, since, you know, there’s a really big one out there. He tells Beardy he wants him to go north of the Wall and find the rest of the Free Folk and bring them south, where Jonny will find land for them. They won’t even have to kneel.
When Beardy hesitates Jonny invokes both toxic masculinity AND protective paternalism. He’s super efficient in his ambivalent sexism. Beardy’s all “Dude, you have me chained up, and you’re calling me names?” So Jonny unchains him with the key he happens to have up his sleeve. This impresses Beardy. He says the Free Folk are at
Hardhome Hard-On, and that he’ll need ships to collect them all. No problem, Cardboard says, we can borrow them from Stan. That was easy. Beardy is really into Jon now. He’s like, “I have the best idea ever! Bro Trip!” Jonny’s into it too.
But his actual Bros aren’t. “Rabble, rabble, rabble,” they say.
Head Table Rando #1 says “let them die”. Sam says there’s all this land in the Gift that no one’s using. Head Table Rando #2 says no one is using it because the wildlings killed them all. He makes Olly sad by reminding him of his dead mum and the potatoes he never got to have. Thorne says “they killed lots of us.” Jonny points out “we killed lots of them.” Stannis stands in the back correcting people’s grammar.
Edd (omg! Edd! We love you!) gets up, but he isn’t even snarky. He’s just holding a grudge for Pyp and Grenn. Olly agrees. Jon is like “Dudes, if they die they become zombies. Am I the only one who fucking remembers that?”
“Rabble, rabble, rabble.”
Later, Jonny goes to his solar (not that they ever call it that) and Olly brings him lunch. Jon invites him to express his opinion. Olly says he doesn’t get how Jon can help the Wildings. And, to be fair, they did slaughter his village in a gratuitously brutal fashion. Jon, in a very fatherly tone is, like: “Ice Zombies”. Olly doesn’t seem convinced. Maybe mentioning the White Walkers is like the Silence in Doctor Who, people forget about them as soon as you stop speaking?
Olly leaves, and Jon is sad that he lost the love of his little bro.
Sam and Gilly are hanging in the library. She’s never seen one before so Sam uses this opportunity to drop exposition about how his dad’s a meathead and how the Citadel is in Oldtown. And he’s talking down to her like she’s five. She gets a little pissy about this. Assertive Gilly doesn’t stand being talked down to! Sam then says he wanted to be a maester when he was little. He seem wistful.
Stan comes in. Gilly fucks off without a word. Stan wants to talk about Sam’s dad too. He mentions the Battle of Ashford. At the time we thought this was some kind of challenge the writer set for himself to see how many references to dropped book details be can make in one scene, but it turns out we’ll be going to the Citadel AND meeting Randyll “Rape Apologist” Tarly next season, so there you go.
Incidentally, John Bradley also proves that he’s too good for this show. He’s so uncomfortable talking about this that you can almost believe he’s the real Sam. You can also almost forgive him for how patronizing he’s been to Gilly all season. Almost.
Stan is immune to that White Walker Related Short-Term Memory Loss thing, so he and Sam discuss some tactical stuff about dragonglass. Stan is concerned.
He leaves and finds Davos whittling. Stan is like, “remember how it was super important to me to have an army of wildlings to take Winterfell with me and how Jonny is bringing several thousand? Fuck it, let’s go now!” It’s as random as Carol arming the Faith Taliban, expect it might be worse because Davos is there to point out how stupid this is. There’s some lip service to having a tactical advantage and the weather possibly turning but, considering how this all turns out, we call bullshit. The tactical situation and the weather both operate according to the needs of the scene, nothing more. Oh, and Stan is taking his wife and kid into a warzone. Because there’s rapists here, or something.
Then Davos and Mel have a stare down.
As Team Stan is getting ready to go, Shireen acts like a book snob and bonds with Davos. Selyse is nasty. Gilly says bye. Thrilling televison. Stan and Jonny Cardboard say bye too. And Meli-sans-bra is going with them? What. Well at least she and Jonny get another state down.
And so begins Stan’s super meaningful and in-character march of folly. You can read about that riveting conclusion in the Winterhell retrospective.
But Stan isn’t the only one who has a march of folly! Jonny Cardboard is preparing all the Night’s Watch horses and all the Night’s Watch men to…ride to Eastwatch we guess, where Stan’s ships are waiting. Right? File that in the back of your mind. Jon decides it’s a GREAT idea to make a big show out of removing Beardy’s chains outside, in front of everyone, and Olly looks VERY displeased (and may legit be struggling with PTSD from the sight of him; really. This is no joke).
Thorne then saunters over to Cardboard to tell him “well I don’t approve,” which had just about as much meaning as when Padme (another piece of cardboard!) said it to Qui-Gon (a man so cardboardy he should go work for UPS). Because Thorne, dude, this was decided last episode and did you not hear the part about the mothafuckin’ Ice Zombies?
No clue why the unironic Slayin’ Sam isn’t going to Hard-On, but he was at least nice enough to pack a lunch of obsidian daggers for Jon Cardboard. And rather than divide them up and give them out to his bros, Jon just keeps them in the adorbs brown bag. Maybe Sam left him a “I believe in you!” note.
Anyway, once the Designated Action Men™ roll out, we go back inside Castle Black, where Aemon is dying. We can tell he’s losing it because he’s sputtering book dialogue with no context, and seems to have totally forgotten about that dragon niece-ish chick he heard about before. Then he tells Sam and Gilly to “get south” just before croaking. Totally the same as hearing about how the “dragon must have three heads.”
Sam, at least, mentions the whole dragon-Targ thing in his eulogy. He also says that Aemon came to the Night’s Watch from “King’s Landing” but also the Citadel. Idk, he’s sad. As Aemon burns, Thorne randomly wanders over to Sam and says “you’re losing all your friends, Tarly.” Then the camera pans to these two RANDOS that we have never seen before, who are giving Sam the stink eye.
Oh, but wait, the next scene these two same guys come and attempt to rape Gilly. Holy shit, is this their way of sticking it to Sam? Like the bullshit “damaged property” trope? Because that’s sure as hell the implication, given that it’s the following fucking scene. Great, so just when we thought we could not be outraged enough at this RANDOM rape=drama scene, there’s even more reason to hate it.
The men attack Gilly. Sam runs in and basically gets shit-kicked over and over. Oh, and for a good amount of this it’s just one person beating him up and the other still attacking Gilly, but she’s just screaming for Sam because she’s worried. Then Sam picks himself up and says “I killed a White Walker. I killed a Thenn. I’ll take my chances with you.”
Anyway it looks like these two assholes are about to finish Sam or something that we’re sure is great insta-drama, but Ghost (remember Ghost? This is literally his only scene) comes in and is all, “can we not?” And the two dudes run away. What fun television.
Then we see Gilly tending to Sam’s wounds, and underplaying any abuse she just faced. We shouldn’t complain because this is the first time she acts in character since season 3. She tells Sam that next time, he should just let them rape her. He says he won’t, because then he wouldn’t be a Man. Which we know he is. Because he killed a Thenn. And a White Walker. And he loves to tell us that.
Then they have gentle sex with all their clothes on, because we guess D&D decided they weren’t conventionally attractive enough. Yay.
For something new and different, in the next episode, we see Gilly tending to Sam’s wounds and underplaying her abuse. Olly mercifully comes in and interrupts this scene…words we never thought we’d be saying, but it’s Game of Thrones and here we fucking are.
Anyway, Potato Boy GLARES at Gilly as she leaves the room, ya know, in case we forgot how he feels about wildlings. Olly tells Sam he’s really bummed out that Jonny Cardboard went to Hard-On to actually help a bunch of them out. Sam points out that they’re people too: some good, some bad. Olly’s all like, “okay, but Beardy was the one leading a raid on my village.”
Then Sam realizes that this boy uncomfortably has a point, so he brings up the only thing anyone should ever bring up at the Wall, which is that there’s that pesky army of the dead on its way, and having living bodies is really quite important. But Olly doesn’t look convinced, or he has short-term memory loss, so Sam continues on with a line that we think the kid maybe interprets to mean that the upcoming potato-gate is justified: “Sometimes a man has to make hard choices, choices that might look wrong to others, but you know are right in the long run.”
Idk, who cares, don’t even bother worrying about how that scene basically ended with Olly holding a flashlight up to his chin. It’s now time for HARD-ON. IGNORE EVERYTHING. IT’S GONNA BE EPIC!!!
We’re first treated to some lovely Washington crossing the Delaware imagery. We can tell Cardboard is a *leader* because he’s the one standing up in the boat. This is so clever!
Anyway, it makes so much sense for the Wildlings to make camp at Hard-On, because it’s not like it’s right up against a cliff edge from which enemies could say, chuck things down onto the damn place or anything. There’s not even a Mother Mole to blame for this one.
As they get to shore, Beardy asks Jonny “do you trust me?” Uh…a little late for this Aladdin reenactment, bro. You couldn’t have asked this on the ride over?
The Lord of Bones comes striding over because we guess he’s quasi in-charge (does this mean that he’s playing Book!Tormund, and Beardy is playing Val? So confused). He asks why Beardy isn’t in chains, and Cardboard sassily blurts out “we’re allies.” Um, dipstick, how did you think the wildlings would take it?
Not well. Lord of Bones says that Beardy is a traitor, and then begins to imply that he’s gay for Jon. Then Beardy FREAKS THE FUCK OUT and KILLS THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF HIM because, jeeze! #Nohomo.
Once inside the like, one building, we meet the Wildling…leaders? Elders? They’re kind of young and hot. There’s one chick and a bunch of dudes, and a giant. Nifty. Jonny Cardboard gives a cardboardy speech about how
“if we can’t learn to live together, we’re going to die alone” “together, we can beat the white walkers!” Smurfette disagrees, so then Jon whips out his dragonglass and explains that his slayin’ buddy says it’s totally effective. The new Magnar (?) of Thenn says “nooo way,” because he’s a man of science, not of faith.
Then Jon offers the wildlings lands to settle south of the Wall, because that was apparently what Mance wanted to give them (what happened to the survival angle?). Then they’re like, “oh speaking of, where is Mance.” “I put an arrow through his heart.” Jon, you ASSWIPE. Kylie’s cat has a better grasp on diplomacy than you (well, her cat IS a Prince of Dorne).
Thankfully, Beardy is there to end the unnecessary drama and explain that Jon is alright, as far as Crows go. Then Smurfette reveals that she is an advanced Smurfette: she lost her father, brother, and two uncles fighting them. Cardboard kind of snaps and points out that he lost people too, and that all he’s asking is for the wildlings to “think about your children now.” The camera then just focuses on Smurfette, who as A Mother is very touched by that sentiment. So touched that she forgets about her male family members that she lost suddenly, saying that she’s down with this plan, so long as Beardy gives it the nod of approval. Most of the elders pledge to Beardy, in fact. It’s almost like Jon didn’t need to be there, and really just hindered the entire process. Huh.
Still, the Magnar of Thenn says that he won’t trust a Crow, and that as soon as they all get on the boats the eight Night’s Watch brothers who came to Hard-On will slit all their throats. Seriously dude? There’s thousands of you.
Oh yeah, and we forgot to mention, but if you played a drinking game to the word “fuck,” then you’d definitely be vomiting right about now. It’s how we know the wildlings are folksy and tough. What badass dialogue. Even Wun Wun’s giant-speak was captioned just we’d know that he swears.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, most of the wildlings are packing things onto Stan’s boats. Jonny is all angsty about how many people they’re leaving behind, but Beardy tell him that they’ll come around when they start starving. We guess they plan on multiple trips? Smurfette decides it might be fun to put a big stinkin’ bullseye on her back by suddenly turning into Cliché Mom. She’s telling the little daughter that the big one is in charge and being all “I’m right behind you, I promise”. Lady, haven’t you seen any movies?
Speaking of movie cliches, the wildling’s dogs start barking because they know something is UP. What gives, man? It’s not even nightfall. Not that we are complaining too much about this random rule-change, because at least it means we might be able to actually see something on our screens.
Anyway, the dogs were barking at a fast-approaching snow cloud, and there’s like hundreds of wildlings just standing outside the gate staring at it (there was literally nothing for them to be doing there). The Magnar orders the gate closed, because we need to get every cliché into this damn battle as possible.
Then all the little wildling feetsies at the gate suddenly disappear. Which like…is kind of cool. The Magnar then does that other thing we always see where the *one guy* goes to check if the coast is clear and OH IT ISN’T SOMETHING POPS OUT.
In this case, a zombie that looks uncomfortably like Pirates of the Caribbean. We know the joke isn’t original, but it’s seriously uncanny:
So then there’s a call to “ready arrows,” but not to like, light them on fire or anything. It’s okay, these guys don’t have any experience fighting the wights or anything. Apparently Wun Wun and Edd and a few randos think it’s great to prepare for battle inside the meeting hall, also, because it’s not like this attack is happening *now* and being trapped in a building with few escapes isn’t great.
And like…we don’t even know how to describe it, because the camera is shaking so damn badly that it’s almost making the dimply lit House of Dark and Vague seem crystal clear in comparison. There’s guts, we can kind of tell when it’s the wights attacking because they let out these cliched zombie screech noises, and we think Cardboard does know how to hold that sword real well.
But in general, we’re just kind of reminded of:
The panic of people trying to get onto the boats is good though. Like you see wildlings throwing each other out of the boats and freaking the fuck out, which feels true to form.
Also, we have to say: the Smurfette is awesome. She’s running around like a badass, kicking ass, helping the fallen…but then Jonny Cardboard is like “you should be on one of those boats.” Gotta protect those womanfolk, buddy. At least she throws it back into his face like, “nah, you should be bro, because you’re the damn person this whole boaty arrangement hinges on.” But he’s too busy swinging his sword, so obviously he won’t listen. Even if she might have a very good point about like… “your death kind of dooms us all.”
More fighting. Some of these effects might look cool, but honestly at this point we’re holding in our hurl.
Jon Cardboard spots a menacing wight and charges forward to…choke him?? Dude, you were the one who killed the wight with fire in Season 1. What happened?
No time to reflect on that, because LOOK UP! It’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Or maybe Naxx just accidentally flew over Hard-On too. Either way, it makes Jonny realize that he left the only useful goddamn weapons in the Meeting Hall. …why? They had been like, packing up before this whole kerfuffle started.
Jon wants to make his way there, but suddenly all the action randomly stops as everyone on the battlefield decides to watch Wun Wun pull wights off of his back.
Then Jon and Thenn race into the Meeting Hall that is now, inexplicably on fire (yet don’t even BOTHER fighting with it), and a white walker pops in the backdoor as randomly and nonchalantly as a neighbor asking to borrow a cup of sugar. The sound effects and the way the fire dies out was nifty though. No bullshit.
Anyway, White Walker dude (let’s just call him Lord Mograine) makes short work of the Magnar with his stabby ice weapon that breaks other swords on impact. But then when it comes time to fight Jonny Cardboard, he just tosses him around. What the hell, man?
Still, Mograine BASHING Jon in the chest with his sword instead of like, stabbing him, leaves our Infallible Hero™ really hurt. The injury sound effects worked well. See? We can be impartial. Then Jonny Cardboard manages to grab Longclaw, and ho ho! It doesn’t break on impact when it hits the other guy’s weapon. Mograine seems surprised:
Then Jon finishes him off, while on the hill, Darth Maul, or Kel’Thuzad, or whatever we want to call this dude in his samurai armor (Shogun! We’re going with The Shogun!) is miffed. And maybe checking out Cardboard. We can’t really tell.
Meanwhile, Smurfette’s on a mortal combat killing spree, and she’s basically putting every other fighter to shame. She’s showing no hesitation, and is just decimating. However, then she spots children-wights, and her motherly instincts just CAN’T allow her to raise arms against zombies that are so darn CUTE. So she cries those sensitive, maternal tears and puts up her weapons, allowing them to just go and eat her alive.
Still, it earned her two Golden Carols at least.
Even though Cardboard triumphed over a White Walker, he is still vomiting blood and super injured. But he’s like, trying to stagger to the hut to get the dragonglass, until Edd points out “you’re going to actually literally die if you do that.” But if that wasn’t convincing enough, the Shogun suddenly decides to hurl HUNDREDS of wights over the cliff for a surge that apparently couldn’t have happened at the very beginning. We wonder if he’s a fan of General Pickett.
Anyway, all these wights reform at the base of the cliff (wait, does that mean the zombies they were using arrows and swords against should have been reforming this whole time too?), and suddenly Jon Cardboard is able to sprint like an Olympian to the boats. Wun Wun is the only one with any goddamn sense, because he uses a flaming pole to keep the wights at a distance.
Oh that reminds us though, remember the wildlings panicking and throwing each other out of boats and stuff? Well, apparently, they missed the ONE BOAT that was just waiting for the only people in all of Hard-On that we actually recognize. Like. This goes beyond suspension of disbelief. This requires us to take a stupid-draught because it is that unbelievable that this boat would be here for Jon.
Anyway, then the other people in Jon’s boat row away from Hard-On, except when they don’t. The Shogun somehow got down from the cliff to do a menacing walk to the edge of the wharf and stare. He and Cardboard exchange a meaningful look, we guess. It’s a look at any rate. Then The Shogun raises his arms and that raises the dead, which somehow made the entire thing less terrifying.
But okay. We all got our fill of that Hard-On, right? It was so shiney.
Guys, this is hilarious. So it turns out, Jonny Cardboard, Beardy, Wun Wun and all the dudes from Hardhome sailed those ships of theirs to somewhere north of the Wall, landed, and the walked through zombie infested territory just so they can be at Thorne’s mercy as to getting through the gate. But they all look so cool walking along!
And, aww look, the mini Smurfettes are there!
They make a show of making us think Thorne might not let them in, to which we both both roll our eyes so hard we can see our brains.
Jonny Cardboard goes all Oskar Schindler on Sam, full of angst that he couldn’t save everyone. But Sam knows his Talmud and is all, “he who saves one life, saves life entire.”
Mother have mercy…. we just realized what that visual of all the wildings walking reminds us of… Fuck you, D&D. You are NOT worthy.
Jon chooses to focus on how racist all his brothers are. And, yeah, they’re all hanging around looking pissed. Olly comes out and Jonny is happy to see his little bro, but all he gets is a Racist Glare™. Poor Jonny.
Wun Wun looks sleepy. He did A LOT of walking.
Then Thorne comes up and calls Jonny a n00b. Thrilling.
So in the final episode, Jonny Cardboard is brooding in a dark room. He’s had so much character development this season. He’s tell Sam all about his road trip and how serious the situation with the zombies is. They bond over having no other friends and talk a little bit about trivial stuff, like dragonglass and Valyrian steel, but Sam has real news: “I totally got laid, bra!”
He asks Jon to send him to Oldtown to become a maester, because of course he does. What’s a childhood full of abuse and triggering episodes. Sam’s a man now. Jon is a little: “Dude, Ice Zombies”. But then Sam is like “But… if I stay here I’ll die and that will totes make me look weak in front of my woman!” Jon is convinced by this.
So Sam, Gilly, and the Incredible Shrinking Baby leave. He’s a prediction: they ride that cart all the way to the Reach through more than one war zone with no incident.
Some time later (what even are timelines?) Davos has magically appeared is following Jonny Cardboard around proving again that he has no clue what the Night’s Watch is supposed to be for. Seriously, dude, we know you never went to school, but Shireen (who is now barbecued 🙁 ) taught you how to read. Educate yourself. Though, in his defense, Jon should too, since he starts spouting bullshit about how they have few numbers and how the wildlings won’t fight for Stan because he’s an asshole, instead of saying: “What you’re asking is, legally speaking, impossible.”
But then the door opens and it’s Meli-sans-bra, on the one horse that Ramsay and the 20 Good Men, and also the deserting sellswords, didn’t take. And it apparently put Shadowfax to shame. Or else Winterhell is, like, just down the interstate from Castle Black.
Davos and Jonny run over there and ask her “what the fuck” but she just gets a look, like, “I need a drink. And a bubble bath. And a fuck.” And walks away.
Davos seems sad.
And that’s that, because then we cut to Jonny doing his paperwork. His secretary decided to randomly fuck off to Oldtown so he has to do this shit by himself. The Olly comes charging in look all vaguely pleased and talking about how one of the wildlings from Harm-On knows where Uncle Benjen is.
Most of the audience is probably, like, “Who?” But Jonny doesn’t miss a beat. He runs out of there without even putting on his coat. Throne meets him and is all “He’s right over there. By the brooding group of men holding torches with their backs turned.”
Jonny pushed through the group excitedly until he runs into a sign nailed to a pillar. He squints because it’s too fucking dark to read. He turns to his bros to see if any of them have better eyesight, but OH NO! Thorne just stabbed him in the gut and said “For the Watch.” Because leaving your organization without a leader when there’s Ice Zombies coming is a great idea. And we’re sure those several thousand wildlings whose lives he saved and are kinda into him won’t mind at all.
All the bros get in on the action. “For the Watch” they all say. Because the Watch is all about: obstinate racism. And Jonny does pretty well considering he’s been stabbed a dozen times. But then… the crowd parts and… it’s Olly! OMG D&D ARE SO BRILLIANT! WHAT A SHOCK! THEY BLEW OUR FUCKING MINDS WITH HOW ORIGINAL AND SUBTLE THEY ARE! NO ONE SAW THIS COMING!
Olly is really sad, so sad that they break out the Stark Cello of Extreme Emotional Significance™ (Ramin Djawadi is also too good for this bullshit). He’s super crushed, guys. Jon looks into his eyes and says “
et tu, Olly?”… his super moving and significant last words, before his precious little bro, with whom he has such a strong bond, stabs him in the heart.
So yeah, Jonny Cardboard is dead, and his bros just kind of stroll away like it’s no big deal. Yup he’s dead.
Whose Story is It?
In our previous retrospectives, we sometime had problems deciding who the protagonist of a plotline is. Sometimes because it was, like, not intentional (Ramsay in Winterhell), and sometimes because there is so little actual story that the question was rather academic (Porne).
In Jon’s fOlly, there are at least two completely different plotlines smushed together. And this makes sense, since it’s adapted from two plotlines in the source material that are separated geographically by thousands of leagues.
The first is, of course, Jonny Cardboard. We think this is who D&D intended us to view as the protagonist of the plotline. After all, he was on our screen for the most amount of time. Jon Snow is certainly promoted to us as one of the show’s central characters. And to be fair, we do see him have conversations with a lot of people, and then run around and be an action hero for a bit, before his ultimate demise.
There’s a bit of an oddity in that none of his actions seem to have consequences that actually impact the plot, though. He’s thrown into a room to convince Mance to do the thing, and Mance won’t do the thing. He mercy-kills Mance with no authority, and no one says boo. He says nothing and gets elected Lord Commander. He is thrown into a room with Beardy and maybe convinces Beardy to do the thing, but then when he gets to Hard-On, we quickly realize that his entire presence was meaningless in terms of bringing the wildlings to the table, as they assert over and over.
Oh and there’s also that rather big thing where Jon tells people over and over about the real threat, he faces down the Army of the Dead and lives to tell the tale, and just…no one gives a shit. They stab him anyway.
Still, that kink aside, Jonny Cardboard does seem built up to be the protagonist. We think.
Then there is Sam. He almost has as much screentime as Jon, and sometimes he deals with things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Jon. His relationship with Gilly is central to his development, and so is his coming to the decision to become a maester, something he had always wanted, but had never before had the courage to articulate. His actions make Jon Lord Commander, he proactively protects Gilly and helps Maester Aemon through his final days, his history nerd stuff is, like, kind of helpful at Hard-On, we guess?
It’s hard to argue that Sam is not a protagonist in his own plotline, one that sometimes intersects with Jon’s.
But, really, we would argue that you can make a case for Olly serving as the protagonist too. We know that this sounds like a bizarre claim to make; after all, even if this kid got a reaction shot every episode, he had incredibly limited lines and screen-time. But he also seemed to be one of the only characters actually dealing with an internal struggle. Like…you could see him weighing right and wrong in his conversation with Sam when he was told, “sometimes a man has to make hard choices, choices that might look wrong to others, but you know are right in the long run.”
And then there’s the fact that Jon’s stabbing was much more of a result of Olly acting out his own independant morality, than a result of Jon’s failure to communicate as a leader. It was not a mounting case where each of Jon’s decisions made the internal tensions at the Wall build up that much higher, until the final breaking point was when he arguably rejected his Night’s Watch vows. No, instead it was a coup that based entirely on “we’ve always fought the wildlings,” of which Olly seemed to be the organizer. We mean, the crowd at least fucking parted so that Olly could deliver the final blow.
Should we think of Olly as the antagonist? Afterall, Jon is a popular character, and the only people who sided with Olly were faceless randos we had never seen before, and Thorne who has been a bit of a jerk throughout the series. Still, we find it a little uncomfortable to think of Olly a villain given that he really was the survivor of a pretty horrific attack on his village, and he actually did have a really good point about Jon and Beardy being chummy when Beardy was one of the people who took part in that raid. We’re not saying we agree with Olly’s decision to stab Cardboard, btw. We’re just saying that given what he went through (hell, even seeing Beardy probably triggers him), given his age, and given the circumstances, we get it. And because of the fact that he got a complete arc that included the breakdown of his idealization of Jon, he is a serious contender for the protagonist label.
Are there others we should consider for protagonist? We’re going to scream about this more later, but Gilly sure as hell isn’t in the running. She didn’t exactly have an arc, and she was very much an object to frame Sam’s own journey.
We guess you could say Mance had an arc, which was…retconning his motivations. We think. The Mance Rayder we remember from seasons past seemed pretty desperate to save his people at whatever cost. This one was too proud to bow to Stannis because, um… his principles, so he put his people at risk and basically died to prove a point. But, maybe we’re being harsh and just projecting Book!Mance onto this, because to be perfectly honest, Show!Mance was hardly a fleshed out character prior to this. And given that he died in the season opener, we think it’s fair to count him out of the protagonist running.
Thorne? Maybe had an arc? Of objecting to Jon, then grudgingly following orders, and then stabbing. Um. If you could explain to us how it makes sense or where he was coming from, we’d greatly appreciate it, because it did not translate for us. To the point where considering him to be the central character here makes us giggle. He’s barely even a character. He’s just a dude that stalks around and verbalizes stuff we didn’t need verbalized, like “you’re running out of friends, Tarly.”
No, Beardy is the only actual non-Jon/Sam/Olly contender here. And if you’re really determined to see an arc for him, we guess you could project one onto him where he learned to trust the “Crows.” But it was a bit…abrupt. And conveniently timed to bring us a big battle. So, forgive us for taking a bit more of a cynical view of Beardy here, especially given that this “arc” would have taken place entirely in one conversation. Protagonist? Like…he was the one who actually convinced the wildlings to leave Hard-On. But that doesn’t exactly seem like enough to qualify him over the likes of Jon, Sam, or Olly.
We may have to examine the theme before coming to a final decision on the protagonist.
What was the result of this story, from a thematic and character perspective?
This might seem like a very weird thing for us to say, but we want to quickly note that when we talk about thematic significance, we tend to situate it in a character arc. And that a “character arc” does not just refer to the plotline, which we could think of as the “checklist” of stuff that happens, but rather the journey or trajectory a specific character takes, which causes said character to change over the course of the plotline.
In good television, good narrative of all kinds, the main characters of each plotline have an arc, or at least go through some kind of change. Or the characters can be challenged in terms of their principles or assumptions, and thus learn something about themselves or the human condition. Otherwise, the experience would be like watching a piece of cardboard flop around on the screen. It’s all just stuff that happens.
That’s how fiction is different from real life. In life, sometimes shit just happens, one day is much like the next and there’s no, like, endgame. In fiction, everything happens because someone (the author) decided that it should because she’s telling a story ABOUT something. This “about-ness” is called a theme. Themes are kind of our thing.
Which…is exactly why we just defined this. Because here’s the deal: we thought very hard about this for days on end, and could not come up with any sort thematic depth in Jon’s arc. In fact, we’re at the point where we don’t really think we can call it an arc. A dotted line maybe? It was as if he just jumped from plot point to plot point with no meaning behind any of it.
Sorry, we should qualify this, we know. What were Jon’s struggles this year? From what we could tell, his biggest struggle was figuring out how to swing his sword better than his enemy.
Like…what else did he even try to do? Convince Mance to bend the knee? Mance switched his entire guiding motivation just to contrive this situation (rather than like…using Stannis’s book reason for killing him, which was perfectly fine) so that was never going to be successful. Being offered Winterfell? Cardboard turned it down in 3 seconds flat without hesitation. We can keep going in this question format, but it’s going to get redundant. Jon was elected Lord Commander because his brothers pointed out how good he was at swinging a sword. He hacked off Slynt’s head not after months of the man trying to undermine his authority and even set-up his demise, but just ‘cause.
His communication failure to impart the necessity of saving the wildlings from the books was totally absent; Jon explained to the entire Night’s Watch about how refusing to allow wildlings through the wall would mean a larger Army of the Dead. It’s just that the Watch was randomly turned into a bunch myopic assholes driven solely by xenophobia. Beardy gave Jon the ultimatum to go to Hard-On, and Jon went there and pro’d out. Then he went back and got stabbed ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
What…was…the…arc? The only thing we can think is that it’s the tale of a mighty warrior who was too good for this shitty, shitty world. He didn’t do anything wrong ever, and explained himself pretty darn well. And guess what? That’s not a journey at all. Not to mention “everything is bad and you should feel bad” barely qualifies as a theme. It’s a tone, if anything.
Clearly, they were trying to frame him as a Man™ on a mission to save the wildings and be the best Lord Commander he could be. Right? He felt super guilty for not being able to save everyone, but it’s not really built up or followed up. Maybe his conversation with Mance was supposed to set up this idea about how a leader has to do unpopular things for the greater good? Like, we think they thought that was their theme? That was more or less Maester Aemon’s advice. But this was undermined by how contrived (and simplistic) the situation was, and how cartoonishly pigheaded his brothers were.
So therefore, the result was that D&D essentially sidelined their own protagonist by giving him absolutely no internal struggles or even reason to change. Just a bunch of skeletons for him to hit. Jon was right. Full stop. The Good Guys knew that and the Bad Guys opposed him for no reason. (Olly’s role in this is interesting. We’ll talk about that more below.) But Jon was on our screen a lot, so we guess that’s the same thing as actually being important to the narrative.
Sam’s arc was fairly transparent: he learned to be a Man™. This was rather obviously highlighted in the fact that the sex he and Gilly had was an act bookended by him physically defending her from her would-be rapists and his asserting himself to remove her from the dangerous situation at the Wall altogether.
Aemon died, and Sam was sort of portrayed as being close to him, so we guess you could argue that he “lost a mentor,” as one does in the typical hero’s journey. But all Aemon’s death seemed to impact were external factors, not anything internal to Sam’s arc. Would-be rapists saw a window of opportunity to strike. That’s not quite losing a mentor. That’s losing a chaperone. And we really still have no clue how Aemon was protecting Gilly or Sam in the first place. We guess the dudebros didn’t want Aemon to be all disappointed at them?
Sam also asserted his wish to become a maester. A huge step for him, to say the least, and something book!Sam still hasn’t managed. In terms of character development, it’s hard to argue that Sam hasn’t changed substantially from the self-proclaimed “coward” of season 1. He’s still kind of physically awkward, but he’s now confident, capable, and, well, “manly.” he’s been through shit and it made him stronger, we guess? This is not necessarily all that good. More later.
We already mentioned this above, but Olly actually had an arc with his struggle in figuring out how to proceed with Jon. We saw how Olly looked up to Cardboard, both last season and the beginning of this one (their sword fighting practice, him clapping happily when Jon was elected Lord Commander). Then we heard how hurt and confused he was when asking Sam how it was possible that Jon would ally with Beardy and go on a quest to save the same people who massacred Olly’s family and neighbours. So there was a definite breakdown of the idealization of a mentor there, and that had a marked impact on how Olly proceeded.
This is a theme that is played with in many great plotlines of worthier narratives, such as Harry learning about the “life and lies of Albus Dumbledore,” or Book!Sam seeing the damaging results of some of Jon’s morally ambiguous choices (more on this later). What we’re saying is, Olly’s plotline had the most thematic significance and was the deepest part of this narrative. That was the result of D&D’s scripting here. And given that, we can now safely answer the question we posed in the previous section: Olly is the protagonist.
What adaptational choices were made?
To be fair, this plotline may have done the best adaptational job of any of the plotlines we’ve explored so far. The bar is very, very, very, very low, but still. They did at least adopt some of what happened in the book. The context was horribly warped, but the following happened in both mediums (in no particular order):
- Aemon told Jon to “kill the boy”
- Aemon died
- Gilly and Sam boned
- Jon was stabbed
- Jon was elected Lord Commander
- Jon beheaded Slynt
- Jon refused Stannis’s offer to make him “Jon Stark” and give him Winterfell
- Racist things were sometimes said about the Wildlings
- Mel talked to Jon and seemed interested in him beyond her involvement with Stannis
- Lyanna Mormont wrote a sassy letter
- Sam left to join the Citadel
And given the pattern of the other plotlines, this really is a great many things for D&D to deign to adapt. However, while on the surface this laundry list might look similar, their ther adaptational choices led to these moments having entirely different significances. Well…actually, in most cases having no significance anymore.
For instance, in the books, Aemon told Jon “kill the boy, let the man be born” well before Jon executed Slynt, which made sense; that advice clearly influenced Jon’s leadership style and how he proceeded to deal with disobedience. In fact, everything about Slynt’s execution was different; the Janos of the show, though being a bit of an asshole at times, had not spent months trying to get rid of Jon anyway he could, even going so far as to order him to “treat” with Mance (but really kill him), which meant sure-death for Jon. And he sure as hell did a lot more to undermine Jon’s Lord Commandership than refuse, once, to go to Greyguard.
We could easily go through every single plot point that was adapted to explain how the contexts are different, but this would be beating a dead horse. From what we can tell, everything is different because of D&D’s main adaptational choice: to bring us Hard-On.
They really, really, really wanted a cool battle. Sadly for them, Martin didn’t write one in A Dance with Dragons for Jon. He wrote two others in different plotlines that they could have chosen, mind you (at least ones that were set-up at the end of aDwD…one of which they “adapted” but didn’t show on-screen). But Hard-On was the one they ran with—something that wasn’t even a battle in the books; just a failed rescue mission.
To bring this battle to life, they needed to create a contrivance where Jon would have to go there himself, rather than sending ships and an envoy as he did in the books. To accomplish that, they merged Beardy with the character of Val, and merged Val’s actions with those of Cotter Pyke’s. To change Beardy into Val, they needed to contrive a situation where he somehow would be viewed as a sort of authority figure to the wildlings (or just invent rules where “elders” were suddenly a thing). And so, and so, and so.
Every single change to how characters acted at the Wall was made to get Jon on that boat to Hard-On. Well…kind of. To be honest we can’t figure out why they changed certain things, like the timing of when Aemon gave his advice, or why Sam needed to be held back from his voyage at all. Unless…Beardy needed to become Val to get Jon to Hard-On, which meant no Val, which meant no Dalla (her tie-in to significance), which meant no baby to swap, which meant no need for the voyage. But wait, he still traveled anyway. Fuck.
Sometimes nothing is nothing. But we think it is not exactly radical to suggest that Hard-On dictated the pacing for the season, and it dictated how the broader strokes of the plot would fall. It dictated Beardy telling Jon that he needed to come with him to Hard-On, despite the fact that it accomplished nothing and would never have been viewed as a necessity by any wildling in the book. It dictated that Jon brushed off Stannis’s Winterhell offer in under two seconds, when it was perhaps the most poignant moment of Book!Jon’s A Storm of Swords arc, and one of the most thematically significant moments of the aSoIaF series. And yes, it dictated that the White Walkers just happened to show up when the Night’s Watch was there and attack, en masse, during the daytime, in a sharp contrast to the books.
There was also another major adaptational choice made by D&D, and that was to “correct” Martin’s narrative so that men would behave like Real Men™. This was evident throughout Sam’s scripting as he bragged about his killings, physically fought would-be rapists (even going as far as to say to Gilly “What kind of man would I be if I ran away when I saw someone hurting you?”), and proactively volunteered to leave with her to the Citadel to protect her, though not before broing out with Jon and bragging about the sex. This was evident by Jon being turned into a stock Action Hero™ rather than the Lord Commander that dealt with complex political machinations and was so restrained about his fighting that he actually had a physical tick that Martin used as an external demonstration of his prudence. This was evident when Beardy smashed in the face of the Lord of Bones to prove that he was not one of those dreaded homosexuals.
Even Olly’s moral imperative was framed around the context of what “men have to do sometimes.” In fact, this is probably the only thread that tied everything together in this plotline. That should be unsettling.
So even though they put that spectacular list of “things that happened” on our screens, their two major adaptational decisions, to bring us a smashy battle and to make all the characters “man-up,” completely twisted and warped the way these plot-points occurred. Which, of course, changes the meaning.
And like, yeah…this plotline was at least somewhat recognizable from the books, unlike say, Porne or Winterhell. But we also felt compelled to point out what they didn’t adapt (again, no particular order):
- No Iron Bank negotiation
- No Karstark politics for Jon to get involved in
- No formation of the new Northern House Thenn
- No tension between the queensmen and the Night’s Watch
- No Val, which further fueled these tensions and the way that Jon was perceived by both his brothers and Selyse
- No Mel seeing visions in her fire
- No active efforts to refortify the Wall (only a passing mention)
- No Jon ordering a pair of wights to be kept in ice cells for “science”
- No Satin for Jon to be close to, something questioned by many brothers
- No Leathers (a wildling) as the new master-at-arms
- No leading new recruits to take their vows in the haunted forest, much to the chagrin of some of the brothers
- No Weeper
- No Stannis and his glowing sword getting wildlings to join his cause
- No sending Val to treat with Tormund at great political cost to Jon
- No Tormund passing through the Wall with his group of wildlings
- No wildlings joining the Watch
- No tax on the wildlings passing through (Beardy was just like…already there)
- No giving Stannis advice of substance, causing some to view Jon as not apolitical enough as the Lord Commander
- No being torn about his “sister” suffering in Winterfell
- No sending a “paper shield” to King Tommen (or any real contact in with the south, though those ravens from Meereen were scooting in just fine)
- No warnings of daggers in the dark
- No glamored Mance that Jon had to suddenly figure out how to deal with
- No castle on the Wall manned entirely by spearwives
- No Abel & the washerwomen being sent to save “Arya”
- No Ghost and Jon even interacting, much less warging
- No failed attempt to save the wildlings at Hardhome, who were being slowly picked off by the Others lurking on the periphery (most ships were wrecked by storms on the way; this was a bit of a giant PR disaster for Jon)
- No wildlings being picked up by slavers and taken to Essos
- No dead things in the woods
- No dead things in the water
- No pink letter
Oh, and then there was Sam’s entire voyage and run-in with Arya. We’re guessing this is due to them not wanting to spend money on the Citadel set until next year, and since we’re getting it in some facet next year, we don’t want to harp on it too much.
Why did they make the adaptational choices they did?
So we just told you that there were two major decisions around which their adaptational choices were based:
- Men are Tough™
This section always makes us slightly uncomfortable to write, because we really don’t like to assume the mindset of two complete strangers. But our best guess for #1 is that battles are cinematic and make for “exciting” TV. Given the reception of Hard-On, this is difficult to argue with.
Still, as we mentioned, there were two battles that Martin set up at the end of aDwD that D&D decidedly chose to not bring to our screen. You see, in the books, Hardhome was not an epic live vs. death zombie spectacular spectacular! It was a place where the Wildlings were slowly being picked off by the Others lurking on the fringe; it was the growing sense of doom; it was the mysterious natural disaster; it was the creepiness of Cotter Pyke’s letter:
“At Hardhome, with six ships. Wild seas. Blackbird lost with all hands, two Lyseni ships driven aground on Skane, Talon taking water. Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods. Braavosi captains will only take women, children on their ships. Witch women call us slavers. Attempt to take Storm Crow defeated, six crew dead, many wildlings. Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms.”
If you accept that there has to be a something crazy-huge, shocking, and expensive in episode 8 or 9 every season (Ned’s Dead, Blackwater, Red Wedding, The Battle for the Wall…) the question remains: why did Hard-On become THE battle and not The Battle of Ice (Stannis vs. the Boltons) or The Battle for Meereen? To be fair, in Meereen, they absolutely cut out any reason for a battle to even take place, but that’s a decision we won’t be able to tackle until our Meereen Retrospective: “Deadpan’s Bestest Birthday Gift.”
But like…the Battle of Ice “happened” in Game of Thrones, didn’t it? They just literally showed us nothing of it, and thanks to Stannis’s no good, very bad day, the result was a foregone conclusion (again, a marked change from the books).
Again, we’re well aware that we’re totally guessing here, but the choice to turn Hardhome into something it simply wasn’t and prioritize that over the battle for Winterfell was likely based on the following factors:
- Stannis had never been a prioritized character in the GoT narrative, and getting the audience to be really invested in a battle where he would be the only “good guy” leading the charge would be a challenge (this is the result of D&D’s other adaptational decisions over the years, specifically the ones that painted Stannis in a more negative light. And we say this not really giving a shit about Book!Stannis)
- Jon’s aDwD plotline was not viewed as “cinematic.”
- They wanted to play up the “ultimate” battle and get people to realize that “the game of thrones” was such a narrow focus for the high lords (gee…maybe naming your show after that is what narrowed your own focus, despite the fact that Martin accomplished to set this tone in his first book alone).
- They really liked Pirates of the Caribbean.
There’s also some spoilerly stuff coming out about Season 6 that suggests there may be another Winterhell battle set-up, this time with a bonafide Hero™ we can root for, unlike that major jerk Stannis. So D&D’s desire to show that battle may have also impacted why Hard-On was designated as The Battle™ of the season. Why did there have to be a battle at all? We haven’t the foggiest. It’s their thing now. But there’s no denying that whatever key-jingling effect they were hoping for actually worked, and better than anyone could have predicted.
Then we’ve got the Be a Man™ adaptational change. Why? We don’t really know. All we can say is that time and time again, D&D have demonstrated a pattern where they go out of their way to correct character actions that do not conform to sexist societal standards. Kylie wrote an entire series of meta analyses that examined this, and one that was specific to the “Man Up™” bullshit that clearly shaped this plotline’s adaptation. We really don’t have a wish to rehash that right now.
Why? It’s either that this is how they think people do act, or this is how they think they should act. And neither option is particularly flattering.
In the above section, we glossed over another adaptational decision, yet it was an unmistakable decision at that: the foregrounding of Olly. Given the fact that he was the one to give Jon the final blow, that the Night’s Watch brothers literally parted to let him through as if they understood the significance of it, and that Jon’s final words were literally “Olly,” it is a change that actually had a lot of narrative impact. In fact, it framed the entire “For the Watch” coup as Olly’s idea. We see it originate in his conversation with Sam, we see him be the one to call Jon because of “Benjen,” and the focus is on him and his Brutus tears far more than Thorne and the other stabby randos.
We’re going to be honest. We have no idea why they made this change other than because they simply like this character. And we seriously have no idea why that is. He’s their baby, we guess. Like, don’t get us wrong, we’re not the kinds of people who are rooting for his destruction or anything. Olly is a very fine ball of tropes. We even hope he has a happy ending in-verse. But we don’t see what was so damn compelling about this invented little kid that it justified his foregrounding and the subsequent warping of the narrative, which actually undercut the poignancy of Jon getting stabbed by quite a bit (more on that in the next section).
How did those choices change the story?
Crafting an entire season around an epic battle that was “good vs. evil” and actually “life vs. death” (suck it, Mel) resulted in an incredibly simplified narrative. And the character who was harmed the most by this was Jon, the supposed protagonist.
Jon’s arc, not just in A Dance with Dragons, but from the very beginning, has been about him growing into a leadership role and learning about the essential complexity of life. The Jon who arrived at the Wall from Winterfell had strong and fixed ideals about the honour, right and wrong, the role of the Night’s Watch, and his own place in the world. Slowly, he discovers that things aren’t so simple. His time with the wildlings north of the Wall and his relationship with Ygritte were extremely formative. He learned that there isn’t always a “right” choice, and that his way of seeing the world isn’t the only way there is. This has made him very sympathetic the the wildlings and their desire to preserve their way of life. He respects those of them who have proven that they’re worthy of respect, like Tormund, Leathers, and Mance Rayder.
Some of this is there with Jonny Cardboard. The journey aspect of it is rather undercut by Saint Tyrion just blithely stating in the, like, third episode of the series that the wildings are just like us but on the other side of the Wall (he’s so wise, OF COURSE he just knew what it took Jon three novels to realize). But the thing that is missing from Cardboard’s arc is conflict. Not conflict with his brother, or Stan, or the White Walkers, but the conflict within himself.
The central conflict of Jon’s arc in A Dance with Dragons is him trying to make himself a perfect leader and to live up to what he feels are the real vows of the Night’s Watch. He does so by drawing on his understanding of leadership from what he saw in his father (caring, but slightly detached from his subjects) and on his firsthand experience of life on both sides of the Wall. Jon sends away all his friends and does his damndest to always consider the opinions of those who oppose him.
Throughout, Jon is haunted by his emotional connections, to his friends, to Ygritte, who he is still mourning, and to his family, especially Arya, who he believes is in danger after being married to Ramsay Bolton. But he talks himself out of acting on any of these feelings because “the Night’s Watch takes no part.”
Basically, he sacrifices his identity, makes concessions and makes decisions that he knows are of doubtful correctness because he is trying his best to do the most possible good. And when he finally rejects all these compromises in favour of who he truly feels he is, to deal with a personal threat made by the Boltons, his brothers see this as oathbreaking, and they kill him for it, with tears in their eyes.
Meanwhile, Jonny Cardboard was barely torn about Stannis’s offer of legitimization and lordship. There is a single scene where he’s slightly upset about asking the Boltons for help, but then he does it and never mentions it again. There are not thoughts or mentions of the sister who is now in Winterfell suffering. The central conflict is external: Jonny against the White Walkers, and Jonny against his stupidly stubborn brothers. And, as an aside, even if he does suddenly start caring oh-so-much about this things next season, it doesn’t make his arc this season any less hollow.
These changes have the result that Jonny really has no growth whatsoever. How can he when all of his decisions are unquestionably correct? His brothers oppose him, not because they have concerns about so many mouths to feed for the winter, not because they’re uneasy about military authority being given to very recent enemies, not because of the troubling concession Jon made to Stannis, but simply because they’re racist and can’t see beyond their own prejudices. He is right, and they are wrong. The narrative makes no room for them to even have a point. Especially since, like, there are actual brothers with eyes who saw the entire army of the dead at Hard-On and can tell them about how the true danger is right upon them and that maybe killing their leader is kind of a shit idea right now.
There was also the choice to keep Sam at the Wall, which like…okay, no Oldtown this season. We understand not being able to establish that location, or take the time away for the voyage, even. However, that decision did not necessitate the arc that they gave Show!Sam, which as we said, was for him to “step up” and be a Manly Man™.
Gilly begged Sam to find a way to protect her and baby!Sam (good gods, we almost forgot about that creative decision) in the first episode, Sam got Jon elected to Lord Commander by delivering a stand-up routine about how much of a sissy Slynt was in the third episode, he saved Gilly from rape and was rewarded with sex in the seventh episode, and he volunteered to join the Citadel as a way to continue to protect Gilly (“what kind of man would I be”), and to proactively learn skills for the Watch in the finale. Throughout, he asserted that he had killed a Thenn and a White Walker, even drawing power from that as he fought the would-be rapists.
This “man up” narrative as character growth is disquieting in itself; after all, this is promoting the kind of toxic masculinity that is so harmful to men today. However, even if that is somewhat mitigated by Westeros’s heavily sexist society, the fact is, this “adaptational” choice (it’s frankly just rewriting) is a complete thematic 180° from Sam’s A Feast for Crows plotline. His entire arc in that book was about tearing down the damaging Men are Tough™ trope and finding out that he is strong in the real way.
Book!Sam was forced by Jon to travel to Oldtown and become a maester, which is actually a source of anxiety for him due to his PTSD from his father’s abuse. On this trip, Jon ordered him to “hide his fears.” Sam struggled heavily with this, continually asserting his identity as “Sam the scared,” and doubting his abilities to arrange passage to Oldtown, protect Gilly and Aemon, and to generally live up this idea of a brother of the Night’s Watch that he’s constructed in his mind (largely based on Jon).
Yet what Martin shows is that in his resolve, in his morality, in his ability let himself feel…Sam is fucking strong. And though his self-deprecation is never something that’s totally disappears (and likely never will), the experiences he’s gone through–from killing a soldier in the literal army of the dead (not that Book!Sam ever bragged about it), to losing a beloved mentor (both in the physical form of Aemon and the emotional form with his shedding of his idealization of Jon)–strengthened and shaped him, and prepared him for ambiguity and intrigue that the Citadel has to offer.
Forgive us for thinking that even if Sam gets his Oldtown voyage next season, absolutely none of this will be addressed. It can’t be. Showboating Sam doesn’t have PTSD and anxiety about becoming a maester. He didn’t lose his “virginity” in a situation where he was sad and being comforted. And he definitely didn’t shed his idealization of Jon, the perfect warrior (and therefore the perfect man). None of this happened because D&D wrote Sam to fulfill every single toxic masculine trope…the ones that Martin consciously subverted. So the result was that yet again, GoT only presents one mold for “strong characters,” and it’s a sexist mold at that.
Like…okay, Sam didn’t have his trip this year. But there is absolutely no reason why D&D couldn’t have at least tried to incorporate some of the same themes and struggles explored in Sam’s aFfC arc. But we guess they either didn’t care about them, didn’t understand them, or didn’t like them.
There’s also the fact that the breakdown of Sam’s idealization of Jon, something that was rather important to his character growth, was given instead to Olly. Like we said, Olly’s grappling with morality and evolving views about Jon were the most thematically deep part of this entire stupid plotline. Olly had the closest thing to a character arc. How did this change the story? An invented character became the protagonist here. That’s just…it’s…it’s rude, okay?!
Besides, even if it wasn’t thumbing its nose at the source material, there’s the fact that Olly’s foregrounding significantly undercut what Jon’s stabbing was all about: that it wasn’t just the culmination of one fractured relationship; that it wasn’t a Night’s Watch Brother with a uniquely personal beef against the wildlings. And yes, we know Olly’s dagger was not the only one in the dark, but as we said, the entire thing was framed as his idea, and it was his execution that mattered. In fact, aside from Thorne who from what we could tell, pulled a random 180° after letting the wildlings through and stabbed Jon just for the hell of it, the other mutineers were complete nobodies who we never even saw interact with Jon. We guess they had similar reasons for being upset as Olly did, but like…how is this meaningful in the slightest?
Jon’s last words were “Olly,” for fuck’s sake. It was made all about their relationship. This kid that he had apparently been grooming for leadership for reasons still unexplained (young boys are just malleable maybe?) couldn’t understand his siding with the dude that raided his village, even though the army of the dead was approaching. That’s it. It’s not even like this was well-developed! We just got Olly reaction-shots at every single turn to “subtly” foreshadow the events of the finale.
And then there is Gilly. Another female character whose arc was just tossed out to service a man’s. The Gilly of the novels is going through a horrible ordeal in A Feast for Crows. To start with, she’s a woman (girl, really) who’s been so abused her whole life that she thinks nothing about her own self worth and her own needs. Like, she doesn’t think she’s entitled to warmth. For reasons that are… complicated, Jon forces her to leave her own child at the Wall and take Mance Rayder’s baby with her when she travels to Oldtown with Sam and Aemon (remember when we said the Jon of the novels made some morally ambiguous choices? Yeah). She is mourning this loss while also having to deal with concepts that are terrifying and unfamiliar to her. Like the ocean, and cities. Over the course of the book, she comes out of her shell a little, and very significantly, she makes a choice for the first time in her life; she chooses Sam. And not because he rescued her, just because she wanted him. She’s a minor character, but she has shit to deal with that is entirely her own.
Show!Gilly has always rather mystified us, and never more so than this season. It’s like she’s sassy and assertive most of the time, despite being a sheltered abuse victim who literally never left the house she was born in until she had to run away in terror with a strange man. Yet as soon as the narrative needs Sam to save her, she’s cringing and helpless and so grateful to be save that she will fulfill his sexual destiny and reward him with sex. She existed as a prop to characterize Sam as a man, someone to be protected and talked down to. What we don’t know is why sassy!Gilly even exists, unless a passive abuse victim isn’t ”good enough” for our bro Sam. Jeyne Westerling wasn’t good enough for Robb, so…
Melisandre was changed from a mysterious figure who clearly had her own motives, who uses religion psychology, and vast knowledge to… well, we’re not sure (she’s quite mysterious), into a snake-oil salesman who murders children and sits on the hero’s cock for… reasons. Melisandre’s presence at the Wall gives the plotline a spookiness and gravitas. She knows things. She sees things. Things that the reader doesn’t. Melisandre’s physicality and sexuality are only one tool that she uses, and not the primary ones. Meli-sans-bra literally pops her tits out for no reason. And then she leaves with Stan? Like, why? And then randomly comes back when that stopped being fun?
Everything all together serves to change two stories that are, at their heart, about find strength, power, identity, and meaning through compassion and conciliation, into two stories about how manly these men are with their sex and their sword swinging and their “killing the boy.”
What the fuck were they thinking?
We already guessed at D&D’s motivations when writing this plotline: to have a really, really, really cool-looking battle. But as we just said, that battle basically stripped the story of any nuance, and stripped Jon of any character development. But then wait, Jon’s the “main character,” so we still have to focus on him despite this fact. But nothing means anything because it’s all just to get him to Hard-On and have him swing his sword really, really, really well.
The result of all of this was that we were left with a narrative that just felt…soulless. Recognizable plot-points happened, for sure. But these plot-points weren’t situated in Jon or Sam’s internal arcs of the books, because they were both lacking those entirely. Instead, these plot-points occurred in weirdly warped contexts, and were just utterly meaningless. What did Slynt’s execution do, exactly? Sam was sad about Aemon dying as we saw, but how did that actually affect his character in any discernible way? And seriously, how did anyone think that Jon deserved to be stabbed after he came back with reports of the literal army of the dead?
The answer to all of this is, of course, that “nothing is nothing.” Time and time again, D&D have proven to us that in their minds, as long as a plot-point happens—as long as that box can be ticked off—it has been successfully adapted, regardless of context. And this is incredibly obvious in the way that they discussed the final scene of this season:
“Season five is still very much within the books for the most part. The very first scene of the season and the very last scene of the season are book scenes. It’s more season six that’s going to be diverging a bit.” -David Benioff
Like…they actually think Olly’s Brutus tears were the same thing as what happened in the books. Which just…
What the fuck were they thinking? We actually are of the very boring opinion that they just weren’t thinking incredibly hard. You kind of have to turn off your brain to be of the opinion that “Jon gets stabbed” is the totality of a plot-point.
And this lack of critical thought also explains how there’s so many unfortunate implications of this narrative that they simply don’t think or care about. In this case, there’s the whole “Gilly’s rapists were trying to damage Sam’s goods” thing. Or how this entire goddamn Wall plotline seems to be building a shrine to toxic masculinity.
Though maybe that’s the show.
It’s just…soulless. Like we said. Plot contrivances to let our designated Action Hero™ swing his sword against uncomplicated enemies. There’s been a lot of praise that this plotline showed us the “real stakes” of the series. Well…it certainly showed us that the real intrigue of this show is nothing more than shaky cam and cardboard characters, poetically ending with D&D’s invention being the one to deliver the killing blow.
But we submit that it’s Game of Thrones that has failed to show us the real stakes. It’s not Ice Zombies that may destroy Westeros; it’s the fact that the men and women of Westeros may let it happen because they’ll be too concerned with their own problems to stop them.