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'Game of Thrones' season 5 appraisal, before 'Mother's Mercy' finale episode airs Sunday

The fifth season of "Game of Thrones" went

The fifth season of "Game of Thrones" went places we've never gone before. Credit: HBO

"So wise so young, they say, do never live long."  -- Shakespeare

"Only the good die young." -- Billy Joel


"Game of Thrones" ends its fifth season Sunday -- "Mother's Mercy," HBO, 9 p.m. -- and before the titanic conclusion, let us pause to assess. What have we learned this past season?

What have we felt?

"GoT" is also richly endowed with classic source material -- George R.R. Martin's epic "A Song of Ice and Fire," which itself is vast store of intellectual and narrative ambition. So, therefore, what has the fifth forced us to actually THINK about?

Did the fifth deliver?

Did it matter?

Do we have a deeper sense of what this all means and where it's all going?

Do we still love "Game of Thrones" -- along with Tyrion, Arya, Cersei (yes, Cersei), Jaime, Dany, and on and on and on?

Well, do we?

To the list!

1.)  "Game of Thrones" is rushing to a conclusion, and really rushed in the fifth. By Sunday, "Game of Thrones" will be 50 episodes in -- 50! -- with a potential 20 to 25 left to go. "GoT" is contracted only for a sixth season at this point, although a seventh is certainly a lock. Beyond that is much like beyond the wall -- a place of peril and mystery and unknowns. Will "GoT" make it to an eighth? This season ferociously consumed not one but parts of two books -- tomes, really, of about 1,300 pages in total. Hardly all of them ("A Feast for Crows," 'A Dance With Dragons") --  and of course there is a sixth season, so obviously there is much more to mine here. But there is still no publication date that I'm aware for  "The Winds of Winter" ( "A Dream of Spring" may be years away) which places "GoT" in the remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, certainly uncomfortable position of being a series about to run out of material.

George R.R. Martin's masterful TV adapters -- David Benioff, Dan Weiss, Bryan Cogman -- certainly know what they're doing, where they are going and how they are going to get there -- abundantly clear from the fifth season. But without the books, what, how and where? Especially if there is a seventh and eighth season, as many fans are now expecting. This is one reason (of many) why "GoT's" fifth season drifted off the "Ice and Fire" reservation, so to speak, many more times than ever before. It's now gotten to the point where even careful readers don't know what's going to happen next. GoT in the fifth became, in many ways, a separate institution unto itself.

2.) "Game of Thrones" really is the War of the Roses after all. Martin has said so many times, but the fifth (with the obvious exception of "Hardhome" and Drogon, etc.) clarified this as clearly as any season to date. To understand this war -- the Roses one -- is to perhaps understand the endgame of the War of Five Kings too. Your thumbnail history of the Roses: a fiercely complicated dynastic struggle that began in 1455, when the House of Plantagenet split into rival houses, Lancaster and York (roughly speaking here, House Lannister and Stark, as parallels).

Claimants to the throne over the many years that followed have many other direct and obvious parallels in "GoT." For example: "GoT's" unseen Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, last of the House Targaryen? He's Henry VI (also mad). Aerys' daughter, Daenerys -- we know and love her as Dany --  that's Margaret of Anjou (Henry's wife) who also pursued Lancastrian claims to the throne after his death, and from France. Dany is pursuing her claim to the Iron Throne from Meereen.

There are many parallels, but the larger point about the War of the Roses as it relates to "GoT": The House of York prevailed for a time, but the war emphatically ended on Aug. 22, 1485, when Richard III, the last king of the House of York, and the very last of the Plantagenet dynasty, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The House of Tudor then took over.

The moral of this story, and perhaps the moral of "Game of Thrones," made increasingly clear this season: After all that struggle, no one wins. Life, war, the spilling of blood, the spending of treasure, the pursuit of power: all utterly meaningless and futile.

3.) Richard III appeared in the fifth season -- but as whom? Another important historic and literary tangent. Martin has also cited Richard III as an inspiration, but this king is actually refracted through a few characters: Ramsay Bolton, Roose Bolton, Petyr Baelish, Tyrion and, most notably for the purposes of the fifth -- poor, dim, doomed Stannis. Stannis especially. Like Richard III, he killed a brother (with the help of Melisandre, of course) to clear his way to the throne. Like Richard III, he infamously ordered the murder of a child. Richard III infamously murdered the princes in the Tower -- two of them, both direct ascendants to the throne that Richard cleared away to secure the crown for himself. Before the deed, he uttered (in Shakespeare's play), "So wise so young, they say, do never live long." And so wise, so young was Shireen -- burned at the stake by Stannis last week in yet another hugely polarizing moment in a season that had a few (see below).

Stannis burns his own daughter at the stake to preserve his army and ultimate victory -- an act of realpolitik that only Richard might appreciate. Meanwhile, Stannis has an epochal battle coming up this Sunday. Richard lost. Will Stannis?

4.) Shakespeare appeared in the fifth season too. As I've pointed out last season, some of "GoT's" source material remains deeply, richly embedded and indebted to Shakespeare, but more so this season than ever before. Easy example: Melisandre as a composite of the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth, or Stannis as Richard III -- whose very last line is "my kingdom for a horse." Stannis' horses were slaughtered last week; he may well have neither kingdom nor horse by the conclusion of this Sunday's episode.

5.) Who has the power? Anyone? Power: That's one of the great themes of "GoT" over five seasons, especially this one. Who has it. How they got it. What they're going to do with it. (Or: Does any of it matter anyway?) The questions roll around in our heads, never quite settling into a coherent answer. The fifth -- more than any season before -- brilliantly captured the unease of power question, and how it relates to human affairs. Cersei drinking from a rancid puddle in her jail cell. Dany failing utterly to anticipate the revolt of the Harpies. Stannis, so desperate -- or so clueless and stupid, all three -- that he would sacrifice his only cherished daughter. And to compound the utter futility of it all: the nattily attired White Walker in "Hardhome," who reanimates his army of wights. He clearly has the power, right?

Martin addressed this core theme in that Rolling Stone interview last year: "One of the central questions in the book is Varys' riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn't the swordsman have the power? He's the one with the sword -- he could kill all three if he wanted."

Let's also hope the swordsman's sword is made of dragon glass, too.

6.) Is Jon Snow, umm ... next? Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark, and perhaps the one and only unblemished hero of five seasons, this season escaped the jaws of death yet again at the battle of Hardhome. But how much longer? "GoT" is and always had been a thick forest of foreshadowing -- with fates foretold (even Shireen's) seasons before. The clues are everywhere, and it is but for us to pay attention. A recent one -- "You have a good heart, Jon Snow," sayeth Alliser Thorne. "It will get us all killed."

Faulkner once had a famous line -- "in writing, you must kill all your darlings" -- by which he meant: Don't be afraid of killing off that which you love ... including characters. "GoT" famously, infamously, does this with abandon, as part of a Martin dictum that even the good and heroic -- in fact, usually only the good and heroic -- die.

But to lose Jon Snow is to lose the sort of powerful narrative life force that TV relies on so desperately: The hero who is also a sex symbol. Yet the fifth ominously taught us that heroes, and especially sex symbols, best watch their backs too.

7.) The rape of Sansa split the fan base. Nothing over five seasons has polarized fans quite as bitterly as this one awful and angry moment -- the rape of Sansa Stark off-screen by Ramsay Bolton. The reaction was immediate and palpable. Book fans were infuriated because This Didn't Happen in the Book. TV fans were horrified because rape is horrifying. Really hardcore supporters pointed to -- yup -- Shakespeare, who did much worse after all, in "Titus Andronicus," where beautiful innocent Lavinia is not only raped but mutilated.

After much thought, I side with those who say this was a mistake -- the sorry outcome of drifting away from the source material to make a TV show. Ramsay is a monster -- that was already clear -- but to compound the fourth season's polarizing rape (Jaime and Cersei) with another in the fifth feels cavalier, gratuitous, wrong. "GoT" made one big mistake in the fifth season. This was the one.

8.) "GoT" has money -- and darnit, it's gonna spend it. There have been magnificent, seismic episodes before, but the fifth season had two in a row: "Hardhome" and "The Dance With Dragons." These spectacular CGI-rich glories put "GoT," as a TV series, in another realm altogether -- the movie one. The bar was raised dramatically in the fifth season. "GoT" is no longer just an "epic TV series," but a spectacle. And spectacles are meant to be topp9ed. The sixth season will be, quick simply, visually insane.

9.) "Game of Thrones" remains the best series on television. The fifth season -- a deep exploration of themes, stories and especially ideas -- was satisfying in ways that earlier seasons simply were not. The tragedy implicit in those themes and ideas somehow feels even more profound -- indicating a conclusion some day in the future that won't just be the battle to end all battles (although it will certainly be that) but a satisfying meditation on what Martin and his proteges have been exploring all along.

Yes, there were bobbles (Sansa), but other breaks with the source material -- notably Tyrion and Jorah Mormont's trek to Meereen -- worked well, and best of all, opened new doors.

This was simply a terrific season.

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