Kill all your darlings, a famous novelist once advised, and killed them all "Game of Thrones" did, in the fifth season finale, "Mother's Mercy" -- also by happenstance the 50th episode in what has now become the towering triumph of television.
Not all the darlings, of course, but enough.
More than enough certainly to once again establish that those viewers who paid no attention to the books -- or who assumed that traditional standards of TV heroism would both prevail and preserve those heroes who came to represent them -- would once again be bitterly disappointed.
"Game of Thrones" isn't about conventional wisdom or conventional storytelling. It's about hard rights and hard lefts, when opposite directions were otherwise expected. It's about the demolition of viewer expectations or desires. If ever there was a series that demands you take it on its own terms, then this is the one, while Sunday's fifth season finale was possibly the most perfect -- certainly the most difficult, bruising, assaultive -- reminder of this.
Yes, it was shocking, but -- yes -- it is all foreordained, or foreshadowed, or foreseen -- the better word, actually. because "Game of Thrones" is all about seeing: Our seeing, and what the characters chose or chose not to see.
Seeing the future, the past, and above all the present. Think of "GoT" as a TV series about "vision," while recalling how many times eyes, or the act of seeing, was invoked Sunday, becoming an elemental part of a scene, or thought stream: Myrcella finally seeing her father for who he was; or Brienne's parting words to Stannis, or Arya's words and actions during her showstopping moment of retribution, and the consequences (blindness) of those; or even Qyburn's sweeping "behold!" when the fruit of his own unique labor was finally revealed (all 7 feet of it, or him...)
Or especially Cersei's words: 'I can see that now. How can I have been blind for so long?"
Then of course, the very last second: Jon Snow's eyes, staring straight up...into the dark, and nothing.
Why is this vision thing so crucial to "Game of Thrones," why so vital last night? With "Game of Thrones," it's always best to go to the source material for guidance -- or the broad base of source material upon which producers D.B. Weiss, David Benioff and George R.R. Martin have long relied: Namely Shakespeare, where the act of "seeing" is a metaphoric one that embraces everything from eyes to wisdom, and even the whole fabric of reality, where past, present and future are one, and that all one must do is see this to believe it...
After Sunday's gut-punch of an episode, Prospero's closing lines in "The Tempest" seem just about right for this particular occasion:
Our revels now are ended.
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. ...
OK, thanks for your patience, dear reader! And enough with the temporizing and Shakespeare lessons. If you didn't see last night yet, and don't want this vastly important episode spoiled, stop now....(But do remember Prospero's words -- for future reference.)
There were so many game-changers, so many massive narrative wallops, that to have missed it is to have missed one of the four or five most important episodes in "GoT" history:
The abasement of Cersei, the encirclement of Daenerys, the death of Stannis, the re-emergence of Theon Greyjoy (and quite possibly the death of Reek too), the escape of Sansa...And Arya...
Jon Snow: A death that was probably foretold from his very first entrance, in "Winter is Coming," if we -- if he -- had but eyes to see. By the way, Jon's very first line to Bran Stark, about five minutes in the first episode: "Go on," he said as Bran practiced his archery skills. "Your father's watching."
(Hamlet: "For some must watch, while some must sleep [die]. So runs the world away.")
Of course losing Jon Snow was devastating -- a man for all seasons, or at least winter and summer, who had the heart to rise above the self-destructive and internecine squabbles between the Night's Watch and wildlings to see (that word again) the greater dangers behind the wall. But good hearts are not for long in Westeros...And there will be the inevitable "Is he really dead and gone?" posts proliferating over the next few days. I think it is fair to say "dead," but "gone" is another question altogether...
And before another word: Cersei and Lena Headey. What more by this point can be said about the walk of shame, one of those epic "GoT" scenes that we will never, could never, forget. Mostly what I think I want to say is this about Headey, even if she did use a body double for the scene - her courage and equanimity as an actress. Step by step, to jeers, then assaults, then unmentionable acts by the rabble upon her being -- she was stripped literally and figuratively before our eyes and their eyes, but somehow Headey had to sell a scene that would evoke both pity and horror, which are -- you will note -- emotions that have rarely been evoked by Cersei Lannister.
Yet Headey did it. It was absolutely her greatest five minutes as Cersei, who - suddenly -- is a human being. Cut her, she bleeds. And she bled that magnificent scene.
And what else did WE see last night? A remarkable finale in which not one mere game was changed, as mentioned, but a whole slew of 'em, five or six by my count -- all either resolved (Stannis) or destroyed (Jon) or set in motion. David Nutter's masterful direction was like a series of surging waves, with one wave crashing after the next, barely allowing us a chance to regain our footing before the next one came crashing in.
And in between each wave, an almost breathless silence, or an ineffable sense of awe or even peace... As if the very gods were above, watching down on the action and the tiny pieces they were moving around the board.
Watching and waiting.
The gods know what will happen in the sixth season. We can only imagine. But we will be watching, to see what befalls our surviving darlings....