Monday, October 26, 2015

The Power of an Editor: Why You Should Read "Go Set a Watchman"

Think of the last book that you read, whether fiction or non-fiction: the compelling characters, the story arcs, the way it did or didn’t quite work out in the end, the conversations. You probably didn’t notice the typesetting or the spelling or any of the technical aspects unless you work in the publishing field. You probably couldn’t read between the lines to figure out what had been added in later, or what had been shaped from an original version. And if you didn’t, that’s good: it means the editor did his or her job.

I’m an editor. Yes, I’m obviously also a writer, but first and foremost, I’m an editor. The reason the episode guides that I write tend to go through each episode and piece together a puzzle is because this type of detective work is what I do every day. That book that you just read: unless it was self-published, it didn’t come off the author’s computer, or typewriter, or handwritten notepad fully formed. There was an editor’s hand at work. An editor who, to name a few of the things I’ve done in the past, perhaps told the author that the ending didn’t work at all and it needed to be rethought or readers would be unsatisfied. Or that a particular character was unnecessary, and then went through the book and carefully stripped out all traces of that character so no one would ever know it had existed. Or corrected a sentence where a character is driving westward on Gerrard and hangs a right to drive to the CN Tower. Or where the editor simply talked a writer through a particularly horrible writer’s block. Or got to the end of editing a mystery book only to realize the killer couldn’t have actually done it, because way back on page 52 we had his alibi, so we’ll need to wipe that out and give it to another character. Perhaps when reading a non-fiction book you marvelled at how interesting the information was throughout. It’s possible an editor had gone through and stripped out all of that uninteresting side information that wasn’t necessary, thus saving you having to slog through it later.

The author is king. The editor is the author’s advisor, the first reader who looks at these works of staggering genius (as an editor, I will sign up nothing less) and does everything he or she can to make it even better. But we stay in the background, because the resulting book is not ours — it belongs to an author who worked tirelessly and brilliantly, with us coaching, encouraging, and giving advice along the way.

Why did I become an editor? On the one hand, I wanted to work with books. But the moment I realized I wanted to be an editor occurred one day in my 20th Century British Literature course in my undergrad at university. We were studying T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, one of my favourite poems, and the professor brought in a facsimile of Ezra Pound’s edit of the poem. For the first time, I saw the hand of an editor at work. Pound had the mind of a genius, and he was working with a friend who was a genius. So here were two men working to achieve a work of stunning timelessness — one was the writer; the other was the editor who gave him new ideas in the margins, or corrected his use of Greek mythology, or suggested a different word that might be more evocative, or threw out entire passages and suggested a different direction. I’d had no idea that an editor had that much input into a book. I imagined the thrill of working with someone who could create such beauty, but working alongside them to make it even better, of making a suggestion and having an author excitedly take it and incorporate it into their work.

That’s what I wanted to do.

In the late 1950s, a young writer named Harper Lee was sending around her manuscript, which was called Go Set a Watchman. It fell into the hands of a brilliant editor named Tay Hohoff, who thought the book was fine, but it could be much better. In 1960, Harper Lee published what turned out to be one of the great literary classics of all time: To Kill A Mockingbird. This book about a young girl in the South who is affected by racism, civil unrest, and a town divided resonated with readers across America. Now, 55 years later, its themes of what it means to be an outsider, of acceptance or rejection, of race and how the actions of the few can affect the lives of the many, is still being taught in schools, and it was voted the most important book of the 20th century by American librarians.

If you’ve read the book or seen the excellent film with Gregory Peck, you know why it’s important. Atticus Finch is a character who leaps off the pages, even though you won’t find a quieter or more restrained character in the book. Told from the point of view of Scout Finch, we older readers chuckle and giggle at her shenanigans as we look up to her older brother Jem. We love their cook/nanny/housekeeper Calpurnia, but most of all it’s the very famous courtroom scene that resonates. When an African-American man, Tom, is charged with having raped and beaten a white girl, Mayella, who lives down near the town dump, all of Macomb County is in an uproar. There are those who simply assume he did it, while others aren’t so sure. Mayella’s father is an alcoholic who’s made more enemies than friends in this town, but on the other hand, the accused is Black. For some, that’s all it takes to assume he did it.

(Warning: Spoilers for Mockingbird ahead.) Atticus Finch is handed the case by the judge, and asked to defend the accused. He takes the case because he has to. But because he’s an excellent lawyer who believes that everyone deserves the right to a fair trial, he gives the man one. Scout and Jem sneak into the upper balcony where the African-American people sit, and listen to the entire case, unbeknownst to Atticus. Through very careful cross-examination of Mayella and her father, and in a reasonable discussion with Tom, Atticus presents a case that no one could deny: Mayella lured Tom into the house and kissed him, and her father came home, saw it, and beat her senseless and forced her to accuse Tom or he’d kill her. The evidence is undeniable.

Unless, of course, this is the South in the 1930s. In which case Tom is convicted. When the verdict is handed down, Scout and Jem are beside themselves. They can’t believe what they just heard, and they’re enraged at the obvious injustice. Atticus, on the other hand, quietly packs up his bag and walks out of the courtroom. As he does so, the children are tapped on the shoulder and turn to see every African-American person in the balcony standing out of respect for their father.

A lot more happens in the book, but this court case stands at the centre, and is the reason we still read and study this book today. Atticus Finch has been hailed as one of the great heroes of literature, a man who stood up for his beliefs and went against the status quo to try to ensure that a man would be treated as an equal, regardless of the colour of his skin.

Harper Lee never published another book. As the years went on, there were stories of an editor who’d worked heavily on the book with her, and tales that her friend Truman Capote had written large portions of it. She and Capote were very close, and it was said that she equally contributed to his development of his own classic, In Cold Blood.

Then, last year, to the shock of the literary community, HarperCollins announced they had the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, a long-lost book that was now coming to light. No sooner did every bibliophile add this new took to their to-read list on Goodreads than the news came out that Harper Lee perhaps wasn’t on board. Reportedly senile and in a nursing home, she was being taken advantage of, reports said, and didn’t want this book to see the light of day. It would be akin to reading someone’s teenage angsty poetry, and no author of the calibre of Harper Lee should be remembered for that. Reportedly her sister had fought tooth and nail to keep the manuscript suppressed, but when she died at the age of 102, there was no one left to fight on behalf of Lee. Enter an unscrupulous lawyer and a money-hungry publisher, said the reports, and you have Go Set a Watchman.

Now I was torn. I really wanted to read more of Harper Lee’s writing, but was the book sanctioned by her? The publisher said yes; the public said no. It was unclear what was true. HarperCollins was touting this as the sequel to Mockingbird, a book set 20 years after the events of the first one, and that we’d see what would happen to the characters. In my excitement on the first day, I’d pre-purchased the book, and then promptly forgot that I’d done so.

Fast-forward to July, when the book came out, and appeared on my doorstep. I didn’t realize I’d ordered the book, and had half a mind to simply return it. Especially now that, in the week before its release, it had come to light through reviewers that the Atticus Finch in this book was actually a racist in his later years, that Scout was flaky, the writing was weak, and this was not the sort of book that fans of Mockingbird would want to read. Not only are the characters disappointing as hell, but there are ENTIRE PASSAGES that are exactly the same as in Mockingbird, said the reports. Who would want to read that?!

But I also discovered something else — this was NOT the sequel to Mockingbird, despite HarperCollins promoting it as such. This was the original manuscript.

Suddenly, this was an entirely different matter. There was no way I was sending the book back now.

And so I read it. And as a book, it’s fine; at times it’s great, and at times it’s lousy, but overall, it’s fine. If this had been Harper Lee’s first foray into fiction, it probably would have done well, and she would have been promptly forgotten. No one would have been studying this book 55 years later.

BUT... as a historical document that sheds new light into one of the greatest books ever written, Go Set a Watchman is perhaps the most important book of the 21st century thus far. Because this is not a sequel — it’s the very book that was handed to Tay Hohoff all those years ago. And when you read it, you can see exactly where To Kill a Mockingbird came from.

Scout returns to Macomb County years after her father had defended a Black man against wrongful rape allegations, and he won the case. But when she goes to town and sees him in a town meeting, where he allows a man to speak shockingly racist things, and seems to back him up, she’s appalled. She can’t believe the very man who’d given her so many values as a child could have turned into this person. And then we get flashbacks to some of those moments of her childhood, with her brother Jem and their friend Dill. After she has it out with her aunt about what she overheard her father saying, she confronts Atticus, and there’s a long section of the book that consists solely of the argument between the two of them, with her offering up every attack against his racism, and him calmly taking those attacks and throwing back something else. Scout comes off as rational, intelligent, sympathetic, and outraged, and Atticus is infuriatingly calm, and in a couple of moments, a little unnerved. I won’t say what ultimately happens, but I will say that when I read the dialogue between the two of them, it seemed like very daring material for a book written by a white women from the South in the 1950s.

And, perhaps, it’s why it wasn’t published. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for a book that was that sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement.

I will warn you now: reading Go Set a Watchman won't always be a pleasant experience. There are moments of abject racism in this book where you'll want to hurl it across the room. And there are moments of outdated sexism that will just make you shake your head. But the thing is, we can't turn away from those moments. Because while the sexism is, as I said, largely outdated, the racism, devastatingly, isn't. There were times in Go Set a Watchman where I couldn't believe how progressive some of Scout's arguments were against her father. And then I had the depressing realization that the only reason they seem progressive is because we're still saying them

Reading this book before Mockingbird — and should you take up both of them, I strongly urge you to read Watchman first, and Mockingbird second, because it’s a much richer experience to see the genesis of Mockingbird than to read it as a sequel, which it is not — I could imagine the editor working with Lee. I imagined her reading it and saying look, I really like what you’ve done here, but I think the argument at the end simply isn’t something the publishers will go for. Why don’t we be a little subtler with how we jar their sympathies? See these little moments where we flash back to Scout’s childhood? I have to admit; that’s where your book really comes to life. Why don’t we simply come up with a way to actually go back to that time and recreate the very summer that she spends so much of this book talking about? She keeps referring to an Atticus that’s clearly not the one in these pages: what if you showed us that Atticus, but let’s not make it easy. We’ll paint him as a hero, but let’s have the judge force him to take the case; he’s not just taking it out of the goodness of his heart. And right here, where you say he won the case? What if he presents an irrefutable case and actually loses? Wouldn’t that garner the sympathies of audiences even more? And since this is the story of outsiders, why not have one closer to home? Like maybe a next-door neighbour who never comes out of his house? I want to evoke that voice of childhood: Scout and Jem are children who don’t see black and white, they simply see people. It’s only in the jadedness of adulthood that racism festers and grows. I want the story told from the point of view of a child. Perhaps that might force the audience — without them even realizing that it’s happening — to realize that Scout is right.

And Harper Lee went back to the drawing board and reimagined the entire book. There are stories I’ve heard of Lee going through serious anxiety while working on the book, of throwing the pages out of the window at one point and then calling her editor to tell her what she’d just done, and of her editor ordering her outside to go and pick up all of those pages. She was encouraged, coaxed, and sometimes perhaps forced to get a better story out of what she’d already written. But reading Watchman, you can see the same wit, style, and sense of humour on every page. I don’t believe Capote wrote this book, because the voice of In Cold Blood is very different than the one we get here, and with the exception of whatever editing actually happened at HarperCollins within the past year to get this book to publication, we can assume that most of this book is Lee’s raw manuscript. And there are moments of brilliance in there.

Right before I started reading this book, I saw a review in Entertainment Weekly that gave the book a D+, if I remember correctly, and it said quite simply: don’t read this. If you do it will ruin your experience of To Kill a Mockingbird forever. After having read Go Set a Watchman, I can honestly say that that review is one of the single most irresponsible pieces of journalism I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Read Go Set a Watchman for a perfect example of a work of fiction that was rejected. Read it to see how much work an author really has to go through to get from Draft A to the finished product. Read it to see just how much input an editor can have in a book. Read it to realize that not everyone can be an author, and the few who do are the ones who have gone through editorial processes like this one. Read it to see how the germ of a great idea may be hidden in a not-so-great one. Read it to see the flashes of brilliance that Lee exhibited even in her unedited first draft. Read it to see what a remarkable writer she really is. Read it to convince yourself that there’s no way Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and that instead, this book is the result of the sweat and tears of one author, working alongside a very encouraging editor.

And then go read To Kill a Mockingbird. And see what the result of all that work can be. Read it to see that it’s not the cut and dried book people seem to think it is. Read it to see that Atticus isn’t exactly a civil rights hero — he was forced to fight the case, and when he lost he simply walked out of the courthouse and shrugged his shoulders because he’d done the best he could and that was that. Read it to see where the good passages in Go Set a Watchman became exquisite ones in Mockingbird. Read it and marvel at what an extraordinary book it still is, and always will be.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Complexities of Internet Grief

Yesterday I posted a photo of Cecil the lion and commented that the internet finally seemed united in their hatred of one person: the man who lured him out of his sanctuary, wounded him with an arrow, and then hunted the hurt animal for the next 40 hours before gunning him down in cold blood and beheading him for a trophy. But I was wrong about the internet being united on anything: because in that very moment a bunch of people thought, "Wait, we're UNITED about something? Can't let that stand" and immediately began suggesting that people who posted about the lion clearly cared more about animal suffering than human suffering.

At first I was annoyed: Jesus, can't we have one single moment of upset that something terrible has happened in the world before we all start calling each other names and guilting each other and accusing each other of not caring about anything else? The two aren't mutually exclusive: being saddened by the death of an innocent animal doesn't mean we don't care about the death of human beings, too.

But instead of being pulled down into typical internet arguing about something, let's ponder that thought and actually look at the issue, because, like it or not, these people are right. This lion was a beautiful creature, innocent, hunted only on instinct, and it was wilfully gunned down by a man who won't be arrested for his act. But ISIS isn't working in secrecy... why are we politicizing it and not spending every free moment of our days fighting it? Why are we not posting constantly about it on Twitter? And why the hell is anyone taking sides on the issue of nine people being gunned down in a church in the States? How is there a side to even take there?!

Is it possible that something about animals is ingrained in us from the get-go? Disney raises us to deal with big human emotions by anthropomorphizing animals and having them act it out for us. We don't mourn the loss of a human mother, but Bambi's mother, or Nemo's mother. We don't mourn the loss of a human father, but Simba's father. Animals are imbued with an innocence that humans can never have. If a lion bites you it's because you threatened him and he acted on instinct. He didn't get together with his buddies, draw up a game plan of how to lure you out of your tent, surround you, and kill you just for sport. When your cat bites you it's because you rubbed his belly wrong or he's trying to get your attention because you haven't fed him in the last three minutes or you just moved your arm after he'd been sleeping on it for the past two hours and you briefly interrupted his sleep. He doesn't plan to hurt you; he does so on instinct. But those of us with pets equate them with unconditional love. Sure, they might nip us or pee on something or make a mess, but sometimes snuggling with a cat or a dog is the only thing that makes the day a better one.

So when a lion dies we all cry out in horror. But just because humans are calculating and never perfect — even the sweetest lady who died in that church shooting could have bullied another child years ago when she was in grade school — it doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for the civil rights of everyone and be outraged that someone could have killed them. We have bumper stickers and posters declaring that Black Lives Matter. Is that even up for debate?! Who the hell thinks they don't?? And why aren't we fighting against anyone who thinks they don't, smearing their business pages with angry rants, shutting down their offices and forcing them to go into hiding like people did with the lion killer?

We as humans are so caught up in disagreeing along political lines or religious lines or ideological lines that we seem to have less and less sympathy for our fellow human beings. We can grieve the cat because he didn't have a different religion than we do, or didn't vote differently in the last election than we did, or didn't make an angry Twitter post one night that really changed our mind about him. He's just a lion. We humans are able to unite to mourn the cat, but we can't do the same about the human beings who are dying, or being tortured, or being mistreated, or being denied civil rights on a daily basis. And we need to.

This is Cecil the lion before he died. This is the photo I posted on Facebook yesterday.

And these are the nine beautiful people who were gunned down in South Carolina.

And this is Kayla Mueller, before she was murdered by ISIS. She was a humanitarian aid worker and human rights activist who was abducted in August 2013 and killed around the beginning of February 2015. She was 26.

Look into all their eyes. Mourn them. They all deserve our support, our outrage, our vow to make things change. Let's stop fighting amongst each other about who showed the proper amount of grief or outrage on Twitter or Facebook, or if you thought they showed too much on one topic and not enough on another. Let's stop pointing fingers and guilting each other and making people feel bad. Support each other in our grief, stand together against the real enemy, and actually turn the internet into a place that could effect change, instead of a place where we just fight amongst ourselves and then walk away to the next issue while leaving these incredible creatures — and their unnecessary deaths — behind.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Stuff for a Monday

Why, hello there! Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of me starting up this blog, and I realized I haven't blogged since Game of Thrones ended and left me a mess on the floor. And years ago I used to do these mishmash blog posts of randomness, so I thought I'd do one of those today just for the heck of it.

Bloom County Returns
As many of you know, I'm a crazy huge fan of Bloom County. When I was a kid, my family went through a bout where we lived in four different places within two years. It was tough, and on the final move I was particularly tired of it, but when we arrived at the new place my dad pointed into my new bedroom, which was empty except for an Opus stuffie sitting on the floor. To this day I have that Opus doll, and he sits on my mantle in my office and just stares into the room. When my brother and I were kids, my dad bought me a Bloom County book, and my brother got Calvin & Hobbes. I ended up getting all of the Bloom County books, and I still tell people that one of my worst book-lending nightmares was when my dad gave me the big Bloom County treasury book and I lent it to a friend, who ended up keeping it all summer, took it away to camp, and then handed it back to me in September, the pages all dog-eared and curled (she'd dropped it in some water at camp at one point) and she laughed and said, "It's well loved!!" I thought I was going to cry.

Bloom County went away in 1989, when artist Berkeley Breathed said the political climate had stopped being funny. And now, over 25 years later, it's returned with this glorious comic that showed up this morning on Breathed's Facebook page:

Yes, he's back! This time I thought I was going to cry again, but it was for only happy reasons. I can't wait to see what he has to say in the new millennium. Opus has never existed in the 21st century, hasn't had any comment post-9/11, hasn't been around at the same time as The Simpsons, for that matter. It's amazing to have him back.

And... Harper Lee Returns
Several months ago, it was announced that Harper Lee had a second novel, one written before To Kill a Mockingbird, one that was going to be published by HarperCollins in July. I was over the moon. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favourite novels. I first read it when I was a teenager, then in my twenties a couple of times, again in my thirties, and was just saying right before the announcement that I'd love to read it again.

But the good news was short-lived. For then it came out that Harper Lee was in a nursing home, not of sound mind, and that it was a greedy agent or greedy publisher or greedy lawyer (depending on the story) who was forcing her to put the book out. One person said she was happy and laughing and chatting at the nursing home; another said she was non-verbal and unresponsive all the time, and there's no way she could have signed the documents. Friends of mine on Facebook began calling it out, and saying no one should buy this book or it would be akin to elder abuse.

I didn't know what to do. Writers have the right to not have their work published if it's something they regret having written. Could you imagine someone publishing your high school poetry? And there's always been so much talk that Truman Capote had rewritten so much of To Kill a Mockingbird that he should have gotten a credit on the cover, but I've often chalked that up to sexism of the day. As if that purty lil' lady could have written those fancy words all by her lonesome!!

And then this week HarperCollins published the first chapter of the book online, and every news outlet picked it up. I went onto the Wall Street Journal site to read it... and I won't spoil what happens, but there's a shocking throwaway line that made my hand fly to my mouth and I gasped in horror. Suddenly I wasn't so sure I wanted to read the rest of the book. This book features the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, but she wrote the book BEFORE her classic. Even though it's technically a sequel — it happens twenty years after Mockingbird — she wrote Mockingbird as a prequel of sorts, one that only she knew about. So when she does certain things to beloved characters in Go Set a Watchman, she wasn't as invested in those characters as children or younger adults as we have been our entire lives.

AND THEN word got out that Atticus Finch is essentially a racist character, not the man who fought for the rights of an African-American man, as we've all upheld him to be. I didn't know if I wanted to do this anymore. Do I want to read this book — a book that Harper Lee didn't want published? That tosses away major characters in the first chapter like they're meaningless? That changes my view of who they once were?

But there have been some very interesting stories written about why we need to question this behaviour. Was Atticus really someone who fought for Civil Rights? No. He just believed the black man did not rape the white woman. But when (spoiler) he loses the court case, he doesn't stand up and rail against the establishment, or lead a Civil Rights parade down the street. He simply gets up, sadly goes home and says, "Oh well. Love thy neighbour, Scout. Even if thy neighbour be a racist piece of shit. You should love him." (This is not a direct quote.) It's not exactly a stretch that he would oppose civil disobedience. I've heard that Watchman is inconsistent — for example, Atticus actually wins the court case according to this book. So this book is not exactly a sequel, per se, but more of a historical document. Perhaps I can go into it not having the original characters changed, but almost seeing these new characters as separate.

Atticus was changed at the behest of an editor when Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird, so by reading Go Set a Watchman, we see what Harper Lee's original vision of him might have been. So I've decided not to cancel that pre-order, and I will be reading that book. If nothing else, I'll look at it as a writer and editor, looking at the process of one of America's greatest living writers, how her vision changed to create her masterpiece, and how, maybe, we need to question our literary heroes and ask whether they were as heroic as we've been led to believe.

Oh, and also...
Ernest Cline has a new book coming out tomorrow. Ready Player One is one of my all-time favourite books as well (it actually sits on the same bookshelf as To Kill a Mockingbird in my living room), and it's coming to me in the same pre-order as Go Set a Watchman tomorrow. So I confess: I'll be reading Armada first.

Grace and Frankie

I began watching this show on Netflix the day it premiered, and by the end of the first episode, I thought it was sort of cute, but the jokes were lame, and I didn't believe in any universe that Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston were a believable couple. Midway through the third episode, I gave up. I kind of hated the two guys — they could have told their wives about their secret affair 20 years earlier but instead kept it from them, let their wives raise their children, and then when those wives were officially senior citizens, they throw them back into the dating scene. It felt so unfair, these men stealing so much of their wive's lives from them, and leaving them alone in their twilight years.

But one day a few weeks ago, I was skimming around Netflix looking for something to watch (it's not a joke that people spend more time browsing the Netflix screens looking for new stuff than actually watching it because Netflix has the WORST search engine in the universe) and it popped up in my Continue Watching list. So I decided to continue watching. And Grace has a complete breakdown in the grocery store when the clerk won't pay attention to her and Frankie because he's too busy looking at a cute young thing in a low-cut top. Suddenly this wasn't the story of two women — played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin — who get dumped by their husbands after they reveal they've been having an affair with each other for 20 years, but the story of two 70-year-old women who have to start over. Grace is stuck-up, and Frankie is the New Age hippie who still sees her husband Sol as her best friend (and he sees her that way back). Each episode you see the women swinging back and forth on a pendulum of despair and joy, as they slump with misery at the thought of being alone for the rest of their lives, followed by the moment when they sense the freedom they now have. Richard is aloof most of the time because he and Grace barely had a relationship anyway, but Sol grapples with the guilt of what he's done to his beloved wife.

With every episode, I enjoyed this show more and more, and thought it began covering off all of the things that made me question it in the first place. The children's roles fell into place, and I couldn't wait to get back to watch what Grace and Frankie were going to do today. I thought it was a brilliant look at how society tends to disregard a woman in her 70s completely, and yet she is as vital and vibrant as she's ever been. AND... I even began to believe that Richard and Sol were in love. I was sad when I got to the end of the final episode and there was no more. If you haven't checked out this show yet, please do.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.10: Mother's Mercy



You know how disappointed we are when finales are dull, with too many threads left dangling, not enough twists, and a ho-hum ending that makes you wonder if you'll even return for the next season? In the future, perhaps I'll be a little more thankful. When the death of character that's been recurring for five years becomes the sixth most shocking thing that happens this week, you know we have a lot to cover.

Oh who am I kidding... as shocking and upsetting as some of these things were, what a THRILLING episode this was!!

Before we begin, however, I just wanted to return one last time to the Sansa scene from a few episodes ago. One of the best responses to our post that I received was from a friend of mine, Deanna, who suggested I read a book called One Hour in Paris by Karyn L. Freedman, about the author's horrifying experience of being raped at knifepoint, and how that one hour of her life has shaped and traumatized the 25 years that have followed since. I picked it up and I'm almost finished, but I wanted to give the book a mention here within the context of what happened to Sansa. If you truly want a real-world version of the rapes we've seen depicted in movies and on television, this book isn't an easy read, but really forces you to look at it from the victim's point of view. Not just the hour of agony she endured, but the repercussions of what something like that does to you. I'll be watching Sansa next season to see what she's like post-Bolton (or what I hope is post-Bolton). Perhaps she and Theon can help each other try to find some peace after what they've gone through.

But on to the finale. As always I'm joined by my loyal knight, Sir Christopher Lockett, who will take my squees and bend them into something comprehensible. Sadly I drew the short straw this week, so I have to begin...

Nikki: I have begun this first pass 15 different times... I don’t even know where to begin. (I even tried one that was simply, “Wow, that was quite the episode, what did you think, Chris?” just to avoid having to go first...)

We’ll get to the ending of this episode in good time, although I can’t promise that I won’t mention it once or twice. I mean, for god’s sakes, I’d invested so much in that character! I thought everything was going to come down to him!! It’s one thing to kill off Ned Stark after one season as a big shocking ending, but to build up Jon Snow as this man of mystery with a big secret in his past and then... ah, we were just kidding folks, sorry you took so much time theorizing who his real parents were: he was just a red herring. Run along, now. I honestly thought he was the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, with Rhaegar Targaryen. I thought he was the last male Targaryen, with lineage leading to the Starks after all.


But more on that later. Let’s open with the fallout of What Stannis Did last week to Shireen. I don’t have to remind you of the horrific action he took in the name of becoming even more powerful than he already was. And even as we were watching it, you couldn’t help but see the look of disgust and horror on the faces of Stannis’s followers. So, despite the episode opening with a triumphant Melisandre, noting that the ice is beginning to melt and that must be a sign from the Lord of Light that Stannis’s sacrifice was a worthy one, he can’t exactly do much fighting if half his army has deserted him. Without sellswords — or horses, for that matter — Stannis isn’t exactly going to be a formidable foe on the battlefield. When Stannis gets the news and darts a look at Melisandre, she looks confused, then closes her eyes as if wondering if she might have made a wee error in judgment last week. When another soldier approaches Stannis with news — “It can’t be worse than a mutiny,” says Stannis naively — he’s led to Selyse’s body, where she’s hanged herself either out of agony of losing her daughter to her husband’s ambition, or to avoid having to tell him that whoopsie, she wasn’t actually your baby and therefore had no king’s blood... or both. AND THEN, while he’s watching his wife’s lifeless corpse get chopped down from a tree, a third messenger informs Stannis that Melisandre has apparently decided she hitched her cart to the wrong horse and has abandoned him, too.

Well THIS is turning out to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Stannis, now, isn’t it? (Maybe you shouldn’t have tied your daughter to a fucking wooden stake and burned her, you dickhead.)

And so, like the Monty Python knights, Stannis’s army marches on Winterfell sans horses — though, sadly, no one thought to click some coconut shells together for mere effect — and think they’ll somehow scare the Boltons into surrendering. Stannis has given up at this point: you can see the look of resignation on his face, the lack of determination as he practically shrugs before drawing a sword to run to his inevitable death.

A few minutes and several thousand deaths later, the Boltons are victorious, but Stannis has somehow persevered, and we watch how, if he just hadn’t been taken in by Melisandre and her Lord of Light voodoo, he could have been unstoppable. But after getting stabbed in the gut and the leg, he’s unable to go any further, and falls against a tree.

And that’s where Brienne finds him.

I’ve been waiting for most of the season for Brienne of Tarth to play a more major role in the goings-on, and instead she’s spent most of the season leaning against a wall, staring at a window for any sign of a distress light (I found it rather cheesy that the very moment she turns her back, the window lights up with Sansa’s candle...) but in this incredible scene, she shows that the name of her sword — Oathkeeper — is an apt one indeed. For not only has she found herself on the edge of Winterfell to keep an oath she made to a woman who is now dead, but she kills Stannis Baratheon in the name of Renly Baratheon, to whom she made an oath that predated the one she made to Catelyn, and she now gets to follow through. Stannis looks up at her, and one can only imagine what is running through his head — My seat on the throne was compromised by that blonde harpy in King’s Landing whose bastard son is now sitting on it. My main foe is a silver-haired mother of dragons in Meereen. I gave up everything I had, everything I loved, for a redheaded madwoman who promised me everything. And now I’m about to be killed by a giant woman in a suit of armour. Well colour me thrilled.

But he no longer has anything to live for; if anything, the sudden arrival of Brienne is merciful for Stannis; his only other option was to lie there bleeding out, or, more likely, to be captured and tortured by the horrific Boltons. With the knowledge of the unforgiveable thing he did to his daughter — her screams still echoing in his head — and the desertion of his men, his wife, and his god, he has been reduced to nothing.

Now, with Stannis gone, there’s one less person in line for the Throne, and the puzzle pieces once again realign. My money would have been on Jon Snow except for ONE LITTLE THING. Later, later.

Meanwhile, over in Winterfell, we finally get the return of Theon and a hint that he just might have some balls after all. What did you think of these scenes, Chris?

Christopher: Like you, I thought it more than a little contrived that Brienne would desert her post just seconds before Sansa’s candle became visible. Of course, once Podrick sees Stannis’ army on the march, you know exactly what is about to happen. Quite frequently the writing on this show has been surperb … this was not one of those moments, but was rather totally hackneyed and hamfisted. I would have preferred Brienne seeing Sansa’s candle just as Podrick brought the news, and having her make a painful choice between oaths—for after all, which one is more sacred to her? Her oath to Catelyn, or her oath to Renly’s memory? How much more dramatic tension would ensue if we’d seen her struggle and then say “She’ll still be there,” and run off to kill Stannis? For a show that, at its best, is often about impossible choices, they missed a great chance to put one to Brienne.

It’s funny that you took so many tries to get started on this post—my principal thought when the credits rolled was “well, thank the gods Nikki has to lead us off.” The one thing that did occur to me as I reflected on everything that happened was that, aside from Tyrion and Varys’ muted but happy reunion, the happiest ending in this episode was Cersei’s. Think about that: though she endured unspeakable humiliation and indeed torture as she made her naked walk from the sept to the Red Keep, she was welcomed with an embrace, the relief in knowing that she wouldn’t have to endure another moment in her cell, and hope. Whereas Daenerys ends up surrounded by a circling Dothraki horde, Arya pays for her assassination with blindness, Sansa and Theon leap off a very tall wall, Jaime Lannister watches his daughter die in his arms, Stannis watches his ambitions crumble before him, Brienne has her revenge at the expense of losing Sansa, and Jon Snow …

Yeah, you’re right—we’ll come to that last one in a little bit.

For a show that has never hesitated to leave us with our stomachs in our mouths and the prospect of spending nine and a half months waiting for the next season in the fetal position, they’ve pretty much outdone themselves. By a magnitude. The number of people in my Facebook feed saying “Fuck you, Game of Thrones!” or something to that effect was quite amazing (if unsurprising).

That being said, I don’t think all things are quite as dire as we may imagine. But I will come back to that thought.

I’m reasonably certain that people will agree when I say that one of the most satisfying moments in this episode was when Theon knocks Myranda off the walkway to her death. In an episode with somewhat uneven writing, I thought they hit all the right notes here. The question until now has been what would shock Reek out of his stupor and let him be Theon again? We’ve seen some of Theon burble up to the surface here and there this season, such as when he’s required to name himself properly at Sansa’s wedding and, more importantly, when he confesses to her that her brothers are actually alive. But these moments have been ephemeral, overshadowed by his betrayals.

But Myranda’s gloating speech to Sansa detailing how dire her future would be once she tattled on her was too. “If I’m going to die,” Sansa says, looking over Myranda’s shoulder at Theon, “let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” But no, Myranda says: Sansa’s father was Warden of the North; Ramsay needs her. “Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you. Just the parts he’ll use to make his heir—until you’ve given him a boy or two, and he’s finished using them. Then, he’s got incredible plans for those parts.”

If anything was to break Reek out of his reverie and bring back Theon, it was this threat. In her moment of sadistic triumph, Myranda inadvertently said the very words necessary to re-masculate Theon, rehearsing for Sansa the very hell he endured at Ramsay’s hands and finally cracking the façade of Reek. After throwing her down to the distant ground below, he and Sansa take hands and make their own leap on the other side of the wall—but theirs is a leap of faith. And though he dispensed with Myranda’s threat, it isn’t a heroic rescue: they jump together, hands entwined, siblings once more.

One only hopes that there is a big-ass snowdrift beneath.

If Myranda’s death was one of the satisfying moments of the show, Arya’s dispatching of Meryn Trant has to be another. This scene was not what I was expecting, not exactly—certainly it was bloodier and more brutal than I’d thought, and it was followed by Arya’s punishment for taking a life she had no sanction to take. Here it squares up with the novel: after killing someone on her own whim, she is rendered blind. But in A Feast for Crows, she merely wakes up without sight. Here, the scene—as she rips face after face off the corpse at her feet, finally coming upon her own—is far more fraught (and indeed terrifying). What did you think of Arya’s scenes in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: And even if you DON’T subscribe to the idea that Jon Snow is a Targaryen, wouldn’t those black locks insinuate he’s perhaps Robert Baratheon’s son? Maybe Robert consummated his love with Lyanna after all? I mean... come on.

Now, I will admit, as soon as it happened, my husband immediately said, “Welp. There goes Jon Snow,” and I simply would have none of it. I said no, there’s no way there goes Jon Snow, he’s going to live through this one because he is too damn important. And then Olly — the one I knew was trouble as soon as first Jon and then Sam dismissed him with a chuckle and a ruffle of his hair when he was trying to explain to them what it’s like to watch his parents be slaughtered in front of him — stuck that dagger right in Jon’s heart (the appropriate spot for it, coming from a boy Jon has come to care about) and my husband went, “Nope. Jon Snow is deader than dead.” I still can’t accept it.

Anyway... let’s not discuss that just yet, of course. (Ahem.)

Arya’s scenes were stunning. First you see the despicable Meryn Trant whipping the little girls while planning to do unspeakable things with them, and the third one doesn’t even flinch. With her head down, her hair swirled around her face, it was clear they were hiding her identity, and I said to my husband, “Heeeeere’s Arya!” in my best Shining impression. And then she looked up, and he said, “Nope.” And I was confused but then at the same time we were like, “Ooh, ooh, what if she’s a faceless person now??” and sure enough... theeeeeere’s Arya! The swiftness with which she leapt on Trant, stabbing him in the eye (which was awesome), before pulling out the knife and stabbing him in the other eye (HAHAHAHA!) and then stabbing him everywhere made me wonder if this was actually a dream sequence, because how often on Game of Thrones does something actually happen that you WANT to happen? But the scene kept going, not pausing to cut to Arya sitting up in bed, covered in sweat. Instead, she continues stabbing Meryn before finally pulling an Inigo Montoya, pausing to tell him, “My name is Arya Stark. You killed my dance instructor. Prepare to die” and then slicing his throat. Wow. Five years of promise that Arya’s character has had, from her lessons in swordfighting to the way she somehow stayed alive all this time despite all the odds, paid off in this one scene.

Not that Jaqen was thrilled about it. 

She owes the Many-Faced God a debt for Jaqen having been her saviour all the way back in season two, and she’s here in the House of Black and White to pay that off. She wants to become a Faceless Person (is it Man? I’m confused by the gendering of this term when the only other person there besides Jaqen is a female) but as long as she has hatred for someone because of what that someone did to Arya Stark, she cannot be No One. And so he takes away the one person to whom Arya still has a tie in this world — himself. (Me: “NOOOOOOOO!!!”) Or so she thinks. As Arya begins flipping the faces off the corpse, one by one — in a brilliant effect that is one of the more startling things I’ve seen on this show — it runs through the people she’s washed, the people whose faces she’s seen, until finally resting on her own. And in that moment she discovers what Jaqen means when he says a debt must be paid — an eye for an eye. She stabbed Meryn Trant in the eyes so he was blind in his final moments, and now she’s afflicted with blindness for the rest of her life. It was horrifying, and something I didn’t see coming. How will Arya survive now? Is it possible she’d have any of the abilities of her brother Bran, who can “see” in a way other than using his eyes?

OK, so. Selyse is dead, Stannis is dead, Myranda is dead, and Arya is blinded. And somehow these are footnotes compared to what happened at the end. So let’s continue this Happy Fun Parade of Death by moving over to Dorne. What did you think of what happened there? Was it consistent with the books?

Christopher: In no way whatsoever. At this point, the Dorne story bears about as much resemblance to the books as Tyrion does to the Mountain.

Last week I suggested that those saying the Dorne storyline was pointless were likely mistaken—that it looked as though, with Trystane and Myrcella’s engagement firm and him promised a place on the Small Council, that Dorne had secured a not-insignificant niche in the story to come. Well … one way or another, I think Dorne has a substantive role to play in seasons to come, but for obviously very different reasons now. Unless Myrcella makes a surprising recovery in season six, the marriage pact between Lannister and Martell is just so much dust; and I doubt it would take a genius to deduce that Myrcella’s poisoning was the fault of Ellaria (certainly not if they’ve ever watched the episode of Firefly when Saffron uses her drugged lipstick to knock out Mal). One way or another, I suspect war between Lannister and Martell is imminent.

And once again, Weiss and Benioff appear determined to one-up their source material in terms of giving and taking away. Last week, Stannis betrayed the loving conversation he’d had with Shireen several episodes earlier. This week, Jaime has all of seconds to rejoice in his daughter’s recognition and acknowledgement of his paternity. It really is a poignant scene, made all the more so by Jaime’s bumbling attempts to preface his revelation. But Myrcella stops him mid-bumble: she knows, she tells him; she’s known for some time. “I’m glad that you’re my father,” she tells him, and the look on Jaime’s face is heartbreaking … or rather, it shortly becomes heartbreaking as Ellaria’s poison takes effect, and she collapses into his arms.

Cut back to the dock where Ellaria and the Sand Snakes silently watch the boat recede in the distance. Ellaria’s own nose starts to bleed, and is impassively tended to by her daughter. Last week we pondered whether Ellaria’s comments to Jaime—in which she said that Dorne cared not a whit that he and Cersei were lovers—signaled a détente or hinted at a deeper threat. Well, now we know … and I have to wonder now if Myrcella’s certainty of her parentage was cemented in Dorne, by Ellaria or similar people who told her in the guise of open-mindedness of her mother’s incestuous relationship.

One way or another: I really, really want to see these characters in future seasons.

After Dorne we move to a dejected throne room in Meereen, where Tyrion, Daario, and Jorah engage in a collective mope. “You love her, don’t you?” Tyrion asks, and it is obvious the question is directed at both of them. “How could you not? Of course, it is hopeless for the both of you—a sellsword from the fighting pits, and a disgraced knight? Neither one of you is a fit consort for a queen.” They are joined by Missandei and a still-wounded Grey Worm, and after a bit more comic banter (my favourite line from this episode is “My Valyrian is a bit nostril”), they get down to the big question, the elephant in the room—what to do with Daenerys gone? How to run the city?

Well, at least they’ll have Varys with them. What did you make of the Meereen scenes, Nikki?

Nikki: Haha! I was texting a friend today and we were both like, “Our Mrs. Reynolds!!” regarding the lipstick scene. I wonder how many other fans noted the Firefly moment there.

Speaking of fiery redheads (didja see what I did there??), I can’t help but think a certain redhead on this show might be the one to change the fate of our poor dead friend at the end of the episode. It can’t be a coincidence that she showed up at Castle Black hours before the guy was killed. (Yes, this is what absolute denial looks like.)

But anyway, as you mentioned, the Meereen scenes were the short moments of humour we got in an episode that didn’t otherwise have much of it. We have here the man who loved her but it was unrequited, the one who bedded her, and the one who wants to help her topple his own family. As they stand up and begin to bicker, it’s like watching a Three Stooges routine. Tyrion’s the only one who doesn’t have a torch for Daenerys, and therefore the other two vote him off their road trip. At first Tyrion looks shocked, until Daario asks him if he’s ever tracked animals (no), can he fight (not really), is he good on a horse (middling). “So... mainly you talk,” Daario concludes. Tyrion nods his head, “...and drink. I’ve survived so far!” Daario illustrates for everyone present that Tyrion simply wouldn’t be an asset to the search party. But he would be useful as someone left behind to govern Meereen in Dany’s place, since, among all of them, he’s the only one who knows anything about actually governing a people. And he’s proven himself to be good and fair (Mormont is pissed that Tyrion had him exiled once again, but seems to have forgotten that he successfully negotiated for Jorah’s life to be spared).

Jorah disagrees at first — “He’s a foreign dwarf that barely speaks the language, why would anyone listen to him?!” — but Daario proves he’s more than just muscle when he continues to convince everyone that this is the right thing to do. He assures them that Grey Worm is the one whom the Meereenese people will listen to. (I agree that the “nostril” line is hilarious, but my favourite line of the episode is Daario saying that Grey Worm is the “toughest man with no balls I’ve ever met.”) Missandei is the woman Daenerys trusts above all others, so she completes the new triumvirate.

I thought at first this was how we were going to leave our favourite imp, until he walks outside and sees the beginning of the Daario and Mormont road show beginning on the road below. And then the line, from behind Tyrion, in an unmistakable voice, “Hello, old friend.” You know, I didn’t know how much I missed Varys until I heard his voice. I squeed very loudly when that happened. Remember: the last time we saw Varys this season was in episode 3, right before Tyrion was captured by Ser Jorah and taken away. When he’s on screen, he’s scintillating, but because he’s not a major player in the game of thrones, we can forget him when he’s not there. Now, I realized the only thing better than Daenerys ruling with Tyrion by her side would be Tyrion ruling with Varys by his side. Tyrion asks for his advice on the spot, and Varys says basically, know the difference between your friends and your enemies. “If only I knew someone with a vast network of spies,” Tyrion jokes. “If only,” Varys echoes, his head tilted comically.

“A grand old city, choking on violence, corruption, and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast?” says Varys with a twinkle in his eye. Tyrion looks at him, and back out over the city with a smirk. “I did miss you,” he says. And so did we. I think seeing these two manage Meereen might be the thing I’m most looking forward to in season six. (Aside from the resurrection of Jon Snow, of course...)

And from there, we see where Dany ended up, and I must admit, her story left me with a ton of questions: were those Dothraki who surrounded her? And why did she drop Khal’s ring on the ground? Was it to hide the fact that she was the Khaleesi in case these were enemies of his, or was she leaving a signal to someone else on how to find her?

Either way, I’m thinking she’ll need some bleach for that dress.

Christopher: They’ve ended Daenerys’ story on a slightly different note than in the novel. In A Dance With Dragons, she’s just sort of along for the ride as Drogon wanders around the countryside. The first indication of the approaching khalasar is a herd of wild horses preceding the riders, one of which Drogon burns and proceeds to eat. Daenerys, at this point starving (she’s been gone from the city for at least two days) helps herself to some of the charred horseflesh. It is in this way, with her dragon beside her, that the Khal and his men find her.

In the novel, the Khal in question is Jhaqo, who was one of Khal Drogo’s lieutenants, and who claimed a sizable chunk of Drogo’s people after he died. Here, we’re not certain: the Dothraki come on Daenerys suddenly, catching her alone. I have to imagine she drops Drogo’s ring so they do not identify her, though it could also be a signal to whoever searches for her. One of the things we learned about Dothraki culture in A Game of Thrones was that a khaleesi was expected, on the death of the khal, to go and live out her years in the Dothraki city Vaes Dothrak as part of the dosh khaleen, a group of widows who also function as seers. That Daenerys refused to do so was a great point of contention with her bloodriders … until she survived the fire and found herself with three dragons, which kind of changed the calculus.

Finding her out in the middle of the Dothraki Sea, rather than in her proper place, Khal Jhaqo will undoubtedly be confused and angry, but then with Drogon beside her, he can hardly complain. But that’s the novel: in the show, they’ve separated Daenerys from her dragon (who has gone from being a fearsome beast to a sulky cat), and we don’t know who the leader of these Dothraki is … or whether any of them are from Drogo’s fractured khalasar and will recognize her. I don’t know where they plan to go from here. I suppose the obvious thing will be that the Dothraki abduct her and ride off, and we’ll have an episode or two that plays out like the chase scene in The Two Towers, with Jorah and Daario playing the parts of Aragorn et al to Daenerys’ Merry and Pippin; during which, presumably, Drogon will be conveniently absent, and they will find Drogo’s ring in much the same way Aragorn finds Pippin’s brooch (if Jorah says something that’s a variation on “Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall!” my head might actually explode).

Or … maybe she’s recognized and something else happens entirely. I’m just spitballing here.

We have, however, come definitively to the end of Daenerys’ story in the novels. Similarly, we’re more or less at the end of Cersei’s as well. Her long, humiliating walk from Baelor’s Sept to the Red Keep is depicted almost precisely as it is described in the novel. And once again the show demonstrates that it is able to shift our sympathies quite deftly: for many episodes we waited eagerly to see if Cersei would get her comeuppance, and it was deeply satisfying to see that smug smirk of hers wiped off. But somewhere early on in her walk of shame, it is difficult not to feel sorry for her and to hate the self-righteousness of the Sparrows (well, hate it even more than we already did).

And kudos to Lena Headey for going the full monty, especially considering that there was nothing sexual about her nudity in this scene. Indeed, this was one of the rare sequences on this show where nudity is employed not to titillate but to engage our sympathy. We’ve written previously about how Cersei has lost everything: her beauty and her name were her weapons in the past, but here she is literally stripped of everything, and however beautiful she is, her exposure before the hateful mob is appalling to watch.

What did you think of Cersei’s ritual humiliation, Nikki?

Nikki: This is a scene that’s really tough for me to write about, actually. The internet exploded in outrage over Sansa’s rape, and you and I tried to write a reasonable piece about how the camera was used brilliantly, not actually showing things but making us realize what was happening, and that it was a representation of a very real thing that still happens today. When Shireen was killed the internet exploded with outrage and once again the cries of “I am never watching this show again!” rang out across the land, and you and I discussed how this was horrifying to watch and changes our view entirely of Stannis, and clearly it set up the massive one-fell-swoop downfall he underwent in this week’s episode.

And then we come to this moment. What a moment it was. It was like something out of Ken Russell’s The Devils, so over the top and almost surreal. The camera angles were different than anything else on the show, right from the moment we join Cersei in her cell and that horrible nun-like woman comes in once again to tell her to CONFESS. (I can’t even count how many films and TV shows I’ve seen where there’s a scene of someone representing the Catholic church or some sort of religious order meant to evoke it, screaming “Confess!” where it’s played out like a horror film.) And Cersei does. (Mostly.) As she prostrates herself before the High Sparrow, there’s a moment, as you said Chris, where we as viewers start to think of everything this horrible woman has done to people around her, and we smirk, happy that she’s finally being brought down off that high horse of hers. In season one she ordered Jaime to push Bran out the window and he did. Then she tried to have Bran killed. She arranged the murder of her husband, then convinced Joffrey to kill Ned Stark, then was absolutely horrible to Sansa. She knew her son was a psychopath, and encouraged his behaviour at every turn. She tried to have her little brother killed, and now she’s stupidly put a religious cult in charge so she can nail Margaery and the Tyrells.

And now it’s come back to bite her in the ass.

There’s another side to Cersei. The woman may have been part of one of the most powerful families in the kingdom, but where her twin brother was lauded as a great knight and her little brother allowed to be a drunken lout, she was married off to a despicable man who never loved her, who pined after Lyanna Stark and openly caroused right in front of her. The man she loved was her own brother, and she’s kept this dark secret close to her chest, having to watch her children grow up and be called bastards by everyone who knows how to add two and two together. And when she finally stands up and gets rid of that drunken, whoring husband of hers and puts her beloved son on the throne, her father arranges for her to marry a man that everyone knows is gay. She loves her children more than anything, and her son is killed in a political manoeuvre, her daughter shipped off to marry an enemy just as she’d been forced to do (and she’s about to get the terrible news of how THAT ended).

And so we come to the long walk of shame. After we see Cersei “confess,” we can’t help but snigger that she thought she was going to shame Margaery and Loras for his homosexuality when what she’s done in her life — murder, conspiracy to murder, attempted fratricide, incest — makes Loras look like the High Sparrow. But we can’t help but think that Cersei has been used and abused by a thoughtless father and culture that doesn’t exactly uphold women, and it’s not surprising that in those few moments where she doesn’t feel powerless, she takes advantage of them to rise up over the others.

And here she is, hoist by her own petard, brought out before the people of King’s Landing, the very fleabags stuck in Fleabottom, who’ve despised her and her family for years as they lorded over them, as Cersei would always hold her hankie over her nose when having to walk amongst them, living her excessive and depraved life while these people are desperate for food and water. Now they get the chance to show the Lannisters what they really think of them — who can blame them for what they end up doing to her? Her beloved golden locks, which have always been such a big part of her character, have been nastily shorn from her head, and then her potato sack is yanked off her and she stands before them, naked.

The walk itself was hard for me to watch. Oddly, it was harder for me than watching the Sansa rape or even... no, actually, I don’t think anything could be harder than watching Shireen’s death. But in a way, it was. Because in both of those instances, the people were acting. The camera pulls away from Sansa so she doesn’t have to actually be in a rape scene. Shireen wasn’t actually burning at a stake. But Lena Headey had to parade down a street filled with extras who were told to throw things at her, and had to do it over and over and over for hours on end. And the scene goes on forever, as Cersei first walks with her head held high, as if to say, “Fuck all of you. Check out my hotness.” And it’s utterly silent, except for that witch behind her ringing the bell and chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Cersei continues along the cobblestone streets, the jagged rocks slowly cutting into her feet, and then finally one person has the balls to yell a pejorative term at her that I just can’t bring myself to type (there are, like, three words in the English language I just can’t say, and that’s one of them, though my British friends are brilliant at using it), and the rest of the crowd unleashes on her. They call her a whore, and a bitch, and a slut. Someone spits on her, then mud comes flying, then various bits of rotten food. By the next street people are dumping their chamber pots on her, and Cersei can no longer hold her head high. She falls at one point, the rocks having cut her feet to shreds. Suddenly her back is slouching, her head dropped, as she tries not to cry but can no longer keep from doing so. This is humiliation beyond anything she could have imagined, and how the High Sparrows and his fucking legions somehow think they’re better than the people they shame is beyond me, but what’s done is done.

Did the scene have to go on so long? I was saying to my husband that by the time it’s in its third minute, I was very uncomfortable. I imagined Headey having to film the same areas over and over. Having to wash off and start over, having to descend those steps. It seemed to be veering into the territory of a Lars von Trier film, the director who’s known for treating his actresses so badly that Björk accused him of sucking out her very soul. What made this scene so vastly uncomfortable was that, unlike Sansa’s rape and Shireen’s death, this was moving from fiction into non-fiction. Sophie Turner wasn’t acually raped; Kerry Ingram wasn’t burned at the stake. But in this scene, we were watching an actress who was actually completely naked, having things thrown at her, people spitting in her face and shouting nasty things at her. And we watched her do it for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, they were abusing a fictional construct called Cersei, but the actress herself had to actually go through the agony of filming the scene.

Now, I should probably say here (because I know 10 people will say so in the comments if I don’t) that I noticed a moment — just a glimmer — at one point as Cersei was coming down the street where it looked like her head moved in a strange way. So I checked online, and sure enough . . . turns out that wasn’t Lena Headey. She has a no-nudity clause in her contract, and refused to do the scene. So a body double was brought in, and that’s who you see from behind and above. When you see her in front, they’ve CGI’d Headey’s head onto her body. And now that I’ve gone back and watched the scene one more time, I think they did a rather brilliant job. With the exception of that one moment where the head bobbed in a funny way that wasn’t consistent with the neck, which was the tip-off for me, you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t, um, been staring at her head. (When I was chatting with a friend, he said he knew it definitely wasn’t her from behind because apparently Headey has a large tattoo on her back.)

So does that make it easier to take? Headey was able to do the scene over and over, probably wearing a nude-coloured bathing suit like the one Maddie Ziegler wears in Sia’s “Chandelier” video. But the body double? She was naked. And that still means, whether it was Headey or someone else, a woman had to actually go through that to ensure that the scene was caught on video for all of us to watch and be reviled by it. So I found the scene very unsettling.

But... there’s always a but... just as I argued with Sansa, it’s because of how difficult it is for us to watch that this scene is just so damn effective. They paraded the High Septon through the streets and he kept his bits covered with his hands, even if they kept whacking his hands away, and his scene lasts only a few seconds. Cersei’s scene, on the other hand — she’s disrobed at the 45-minute mark, when they wash her body (watch how the body double keeps Cersei’s hair in her face the entire time), then her hair is chopped, and then she’s brought out before the people and walks to the Red Keep. When she finally arrives and has a blanket thrown over her, we’re at 53:30. Eight and a half minutes. That’s a really, really, long time. Cersei keeps her head up and never covers herself with her hands because that’s who Cersei is. She believes she has nothing to hide and shows it in her very body language. We, the audience, must endure this scene because we’ve reviled her for so long, but we need to watch the slow destruction of this character. In eight and a half minutes, she’s brought from Cersei Lannister to someone lower than the lowest peasant in Fleabottom. We need to watch her shoulders begin to slump, her feet bleed, the way she begins to trip and fall. Her cries of pain, her whimpering, the constant call of “Shame!” and the bell ringing. Our sniggers turn to sympathy, and we’re made to feel the way Cersei is feeling. And we watch the extraordinary depths of the sadism of the Sparrows. You just wouldn’t get that if they’d shown her descending the steps, going through the first street, and then cutting to her arriving at the Red Keep covered in shit and bleeding. We needed to watch every painful step.

Were they turning Cersei into a Christ figure? Perhaps; there’s certainly something about the way she bears her cross through the streets. The difference is, Cersei never gets a Simon. No one ever comes out of the crowd to help lift her up and carry her the rest of the way. No one in King’s Landing feels a smidge of sympathy for Madame Lannister.

And when she arrives at the Red Keep, she’s a shadow of her former self. Bowed, bleeding, and weeping, she falls into the arms of Doctor Frankenstein, who introduces her to the resurrected Mountain, who doesn’t have much to say, as creepy Qyburn admits, but is dressed all in armour, picks up Cersei effortlessly, and carries her to safety. And the look on her face suddenly transforms to peace and determination. They tried to shame her and break her, but despite it all, she’s just seen a way out, and I have a feeling Fleabottom is about to burn.

Which brings us to the credits. Yay! Thanks for reading our recaps each week and OK FINE. Dammit.

Which brings us back to the Wall, to Jon Snow. Last week when I was sending the last pass over to Chris I mentioned offhandedly that we hadn’t mentioned Jon Snow, but nothing much happened there. He didn’t even respond. I had no idea that’s because he knew something massive was coming and I didn’t know. Thanks for sparing my feelings, Chris, but I can’t remember being so distraught, shocked, and betrayed by a death. Which is why, unlike those who have declared they’re jumping ship and will never watch again, I instead live with my denial that he’s only mostly dead, and he’ll be back. Entertainment Weekly posted an interview immediately following the broadcast where Kit Harington declared Jon Snow was deader than dead, and wasn’t coming back. But he’s also a prankster who’s being paid to say that wherever he goes, so I don’t believe that for one second. You know nothing, Jon Snow!!

So Chris... take it away. I’m leaving this scene for you to dissect while I go off and sob some more.

Christopher: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that Jon Snow is dead; the question, rather, is whether he’ll stay dead. If he does, well, that’s par for the Game of Thrones course (your husband is a golfer, Nikki—would he play a Game of Thrones course?). I find it difficult to imagine, however, especially if the most prominent fan theory about his parentage is correct.

You’re right that I knew this was coming, as did everyone who read A Dance With Dragons. But unlike all the other shocking deaths, I was never convinced that this one would stick. Because Melisandre. We’ve seen the red priest Thoros of Myr resurrect Beric Dondarrion, which apparently he’d done half a dozen times previously. And there are other instances of this particular magic in the novels. Given Melisandre’s particular interest in Jon Snow, I have to imagine she’ll be on hand to breathe life back into him.

Again, this is just speculation, but this episode went a long way to making me more confident in this prediction. In the novel, Melisandre stays behind at Castle Black when Stannis marches. When instead, on the show, she goes with Stannis, part of me wondered “Oh, crap—how’s she going to save Jon?” But instead she deserts her would-be hero and rides back to Castle Black. Why she chose there instead of, well, anywhere else is puzzling … or perhaps not. Perhaps she wants to be on the front lines when the Walkers come; perhaps, losing faith in Stannis, she sees Jon Snow now as the vehicle of destiny. But the fact that she came back just in time for Jon to get all Caesar-on-the-capitol-steps, seems to suggest that she’ll be the one to bring him back.

Anyway … that’s my theory. So sob no more for Lord Snow … weep and wail instead for the fact that we now have to wait nine and a half months to see whether my prediction holds true.

The scene, I must say, was well done—and I think I speak for those of us who knew it was coming when I say knowing made it almost worse. Because it is far more obviously a conspiracy than in the novel. In the novel, a handful of knights stay behind with the queen, Shireen, and Melisandre, and for some reason one of them attacks the giant Wun Wun (and is literally torn to pieces for his efforts). During the commotion, while Jon attempts to cool everyone down and prevent the other knights from provoking the giant further, he is set upon by a handful of the more querulous watchmen, men who have been antsy about the wildlings from the start.

Here, it’s a set-up from start to finish. The scene begins with Jon in his study reading messages sent by ravens, discarding them one by one in a discouraged manner that suggests they’re all negative replies to his requests for more men and supplies. Then Olly bursts in excitedly with a piece of news that is guaranteed to bring Jon running: one of the wildlings can tell him about his Uncle Benjen, who disappeared early in the first season. Outside, they are joined by Alliser Thorne, who says the wildling “saw your uncle at Hardhome at the last full moon.” He leads Jon to a cluster of men with torches, and when Jon shoulders his way through he finds not a wildling, but what looks like a grave marker with “traitor” written on it.

And then Act Three, Scene One of Julius Caesar, complete with Jon’s “Et tu, Brute?” moment as a stricken-looking Olly delivers the final blow.

So: Jon Snow is assassinated, which is consonant with the novel; the difference between how it happens in the book and on the show, however, has huge implications (assuming, of course, that Melisandre resurrects him—always allowing for the Ned Stark factor, in which case I might have to burn down GRRM’s house personally). In the novel his assassins appear to be a handful of panicking wimps who just can’t even with the wildlings. Here, however, it looks as those most of the Night’s Watch are in on the plot—including Ser Alliser, who is effectively the Watch’s second in command. In the first scenario, a resurrected Jon would just have to deal with a few conspirators. In the show’s version, however, what happens if he comes back? How does he face a unified front of antagonists? Does this mean he’s still part of the Night’s Watch? After all, the oath enjoins you to remain in the Watch until you die—does the assassination mean his watch is now ended? Is this the get-out-of-jail card that frees Jon Snow up for a new destiny, one more in line with the most common theory about his parentage? (Sorry to be coy on this front, but I’m not sure if it’s kosher yet to say it out loud).

Again, we must now wait nine and a half months to find all this out.

Just a few more random thoughts before I close things out on my end:

  • I’m not convinced that Stannis is dead. I watched that scene a few times, and I find it suspicious they don’t show him die, but instead cut from Brienne’s downstroke to Ramsay’s as he kills someone. Why would she spare him? Where did her sword go? I don’t know, but killing Stannis at this point is either (1) a MASSIVE deviation from the novels, or (2) a MASSIVE spoiler for what we can expect in The Winds of Winter. Both are eminently possible, but I’m remaining skeptical until the novel comes out or the next season of the show … whatever comes first.

  • I had assumed that the show was simply dispensing with Sam’s journey to the Citadel. It’s one of the main story threads in A Feast for Crows, with Jon sending Maester Aemon along to keep the oldest living Targaryen away from Melisandre and her hankering for king’s blood. Aemon dies on the journey, but Sam makes it to Oldtown, the city at the southeastern end of Westeros, where the Citadel is located. Jon’s premier reason is so Sam can take up the maester’s duties at the Wall. Sam makes the same argument, but the timing at this point is a bit off: one assumes training to be a maester takes several years, but we got pretty powerful evidence two episodes ago that the Walkers’ attack on the Wall will be sooner rather than later. Still, it at least indicates that Sam’s travails at the Citadel will be a significant enough storyline to keep in the show.

And there we have it. What did everyone think of this season? Nikki? Myself, I thought it was, with the exception of a few hiccups (the Sand Snakes’ hackneyed conspiracy, for example), about the best we’ve seen so far. Certainly it pushed the envelope more than any previous season, and almost certainly caused more viewers to wash their hands of the show than ever before. But the flip side of that was its audacity, both in terms of going off script in a host of creative ways, and in the execution of most of the storylines.

And now we wait. Valar morghulis.

I know how you feel, Jon. 

Nikki: And here’s my final expression of bafflement over Jon Snow: where the hell was Ghost? That dog has always been there when Jon needed him to be, and he’s gone. I’m concerned that Ghost jumped the men who were trying to hurt Gilly, and they knew enough to imprison him somewhere... or at least they’d better make that part of the storyline because otherwise it makes no sense that Jon’s direwolf would abandon him when he needed it the most. (And he’s not dead.)

I agree with you on this season. The way the characters have finally begun coming together — Daenerys and Tyrion, in particular — and storylines are crossing over and converging is something we’ve been waiting for for a very long time. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t missed Bran and his merry band one whit, but it’ll be nice to check in with them next season, which I assume we’ll be doing. Arya’s story just took a dark turn; I’ll be interested in how Cersei takes revenge on the Sparrows, and what will be the future of King’s Landing, including Tommen, Loras, and Margaery. I’m intrigued by your suggestion that Stannis isn’t dead! Strange how that never occurred to me, and usually if it happens off-screen, I don’t believe it happened. Now I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of Stannis and Brienne together, and what that could mean.

But perhaps I’m most excited about the Tyrion and Varys Show coming back.

This has been a rollercoaster of a season filled with our typically VERY long posts, and I wanted to thank our readers for hanging in there with us, and a huge thank-you to Christopher Lockett, who manages to do this year after year and lure me back to a blog that otherwise seems to have tumbleweeds blowing through it. Thank you, sir, and here’s to the long nine-and-a-half-month wait! Ours is the fury, indeed.