Breaking the Wheel: Game of Thrones Season 5

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington)
Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) | Source

"I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel." --Queen Daenerys Targaryen

This quote from the self-proclaimed queen comes during a conversation with fugitive and former nobleman Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) as they discuss the state of affairs of Westeros, and how the cycle of rulers and rulers keeps crushing the people on the ground. It highlights Daenerys' intention of breaking away from the mold and the way things have been done for years, and doing things in a different way; her own way. But the obstacles she has found just in Meereen shows her that the road ahead is not an easy one.

But Daenerys is not the only one who is trying to break metaphorical wheels and cycles. Bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has risen through the ranks of the Night's Watch and becomes Lord Commander, much to the disdain of a considerable group of opposers. Knowing that the threat ahead of them is worse than those behind them, Snow tries to break away from the way things are done, by making an alliance with the Wildlings in an effort to save them, and gain more men for the wars to come. But this is not well received by everyone.

The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce)
The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) | Source

Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) is another character that's trying to do things in a different way. Accustomed to have power and control, Cersei finds herself without much of both after his young son, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), who has just become King, marries Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), whom she sees as a subtle manipulator. To try to take back the wheel, Cersei enlists the help of a local cult-leader who they call the "High Sparrow" (Jonathan Pryce) to enforce the Law of the Gods in King's Landing, hoping to get rid of the Tyrells that way. But unfortunately, her plan backfires when she finds herself the target of the cult.

Those are just three of the main subplots that unfold during the fifth season of HBO's hit show, Game of Thrones. During this fifth season, the show which is based on the popular books by George R.R. Martin, starts venturing into uncharted territory as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss try to forge their own path without the help of Martin. This is the first season of the show to feature original material not from the books, since Martin is still in the process of writing the sixth book. As a result, Benioff and Weiss find themselves trying to break away from the course to do things their own way, like some of their characters.

Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) and Sansa (Sophie Turner)
Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) | Source

Other subplots during the season are:

  • Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is taken to Winterfell by Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen), so she can marry ruthless Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), who now rules the North along with his father.
  • Meanwhile, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) tries to gain Sansa's trust after vowing to protect her to both her mother and Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
  • Jaime is sent to Dorne by his sister/lover Cersei to rescue their daughter Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) after receiving a threatening message.
  • Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) arrives at Braavos where she hopes to learn the ways of the Many-Faced God from mysterious Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha).
  • Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) continues his march towards the North despite the odds against his favor.

In a way, most of these characters are trying to go against what is expected of them, in order to achieve some goal. Few of them, if any, succeed in their attempt.

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Upon first viewing, I was a bit disappointed by this season. The overall feeling was that it was significantly weaker than the previous seasons, highlighted by the sequences in Braavos and Dorne. To underline the overall impact of it, this is the only season I haven't had the urge to rewatch. Every year, I've had a "ceremonial" rewatch of the previous season during the weeks leading to a season premiere. But this time, I wasn't really looking forward to it, even though I did manage to binge-rewatch all of it by Monday morning.

The rewatch helped improve some things a bit. The truth is that the show is always good, but some of the subplots unravel by the middle of the season. Ironically, characters that had been among my favorites ended up being the weakest, while some that were among my least favorites ended up with my favorite moments.

Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and Arya (Maisie Williams)
Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and Arya (Maisie Williams) | Source

For example, Arya has been one of the strongest characters all through the show. But unfortunately, this season she's stuck in a subplot with a weak pace and execution. Her discovery of the ways of the Many-Faced God led by Jaqen H'ghar ends up feeling dull and uninspired. They do try to amp things up a bit towards the end, but his endgame with Ser Meryn Trant (Ian Bettie) felt rushed and forced.

On the other hand, Jaime's travel to Dorne to rescue his niece/daughter is easily the weakest one the show has had. Most of what happens there is anchored in mediocrity; from the mediocre performances from almost everyone (most notably, Indira Varma as Ellaria Sand) to the clumsy dialogue between all the characters. Unfortunately, a great actor like Alexander Siddig is wasted and underused as Doran Martell.

Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) with the Sand Snakes
Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) with the Sand Snakes | Source

There are other subplots that aren't bad, just uneven or clumsily executed at times. Daenerys Targaryen is one of these. Previously seen as a commanding leader with a powerful army, she seems to be reduced to a hesitant ruler followed by inept soldiers. I can understand the former, because that's the point of the story, but the clumsy way that the Unsullied are portrayed is awful.

To make things worse, there was also the unceremonious dispatch of Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney). Maybe it's because I had read an interview with McElhinney, maybe not, but his death felt forced and abrupt; like an attempt to give some sort of jolt to the show. This is confirmed by the fact that Selmy is still alive and well in the books. In the interview I read, McElhinney was gracious but visibly disappointed for the end of his character.

Cersei (Lena Headey) being carried by The Mountain.
Cersei (Lena Headey) being carried by The Mountain. | Source

Another story that wasn't bad, but had moments of clumsiness in it, was Cersei's. The way she wickedly manipulates things to try to get things her way, even if it means giving the reins of the realm to a bunch of religious fanatics, is great. It is also great to finally see such a hated character get some sort of come-uppance, but I have to say that the way his final scene was directed, right after the "shame" walk was one of the most awkward and clumsiest scenes I've seen on the show.

Someone said on a forum I frequent that this season exposed Game of Thrones as "just another TV show at times". Scenes like these almost felt like a soap opera or even a sitcom. Same applies to the final scene in Daenerys subplot, when Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) leaves Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Missandei in charge of Meereen while he looks for Daenerys along with Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). Mediocre execution.

Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) meets Daenerys (Emilia Clarke)
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) meets Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) | Source

Maybe this review so far makes it sound like I'm being too harsh, and maybe I am, but that's because of how great and flawless I consider the previous seasons to be. But not everything is wrong in the world. Daenerys has her share of great moments, like her meeting with Tyrion, which is where the opening quote comes from. This meeting hasn't taken place in the books and proves that Benioff and Weiss can come up with worthy material on their own, which is the challenge they have for the rest of the show.

Also, Stephen Dillane delivers one of the best performances of the season as Stannis Baratheon. In previous seasons, his character and subplot had seemed one of the weakest for me. But this season really succeeded in conveying his urge for power and sense of desperation to obtain it. The fate of his wife and daughter is probably one of the most shocking and tragic moments in the show..

Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his wife (Tara Fitzgerald)
Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his wife (Tara Fitzgerald) | Source

But no conversation of Season 5 would be complete without addressing the character of Jon Snow. More or less in the background of everything during the first seasons, Snow started to take the lead during the last season. Here, his character continues to evolve after his valiant defense of the Wall against the army of the Wildlings. The battle at Hardhome is one of the most intense moments of the season. Kit Harrington also shows how much he has evolved as an actor since Season 1.

Unfortunately, it is his attempt to do things a different way that seals his fate (or does it?). Snow is looking at the big picture and he knows that the world as he knows it has no chance if they are to hold against old rivalries between "southerners" and "wildlings". This is why he defies all conventions and breaks the wheel, so to speak, to try to bring his former enemies into the fold. But breaking the wheel can bring unexpected and tragic consequences, as we see in the season finale.

The White Walker King after the battle of Hardhome.
The White Walker King after the battle of Hardhome. | Source

Benioff and Weiss have a tough road ahead. Their first attempt to break the wheel and step away from George R.R. Martin's shadow was hit-and-miss, but for the most part, they still delivered quality TV. It's up to the next seasons to see if they can come back from the holes they dug for themselves, and cling to the peaks they reached in this, and previous seasons. Grade: B+

Game of Thrones: Season 5 Trailer

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