Game of Thrones season five recap: Light a candle

If the whole Westeros thing is a bit hazy, get ready for the final season with this recap

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in Game of Thrones. Photograph: HBO

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in Game of Thrones. Photograph: HBO


The final season of Game of Thrones arrives April 14th. Before then, prepare by rewatching the first seven seasons.

Do you doubt me? Still? After all that you have seen? There is only one way. You must binge before the Long Night begins.

You catch up with of past seasons with our ultimate watching guide. Or you can give us a taste of your blood for a vision of season five.

Novices beware: This article is dark and full of spoilers. And now, your watch continues.

How should I rewatch Game of Thrones season five?

Concentrate on the instalments that are central to the famously complicated plot and provide all the feels. Here are four must-watch episodes.

Episode one – The Wars to Come: To savour the show’s first flashback, revealing that there was a time when Cersei actually had friends! To untangle the clues regarding King Robert’s death. To cuddle with the Unsullied. To unpack Tyrion’s crate and Varys’ plan, and to drink to the future of Westeros.

Episode four – Sons of the Harpy: Delves into the rise of radical movements in both King’s Landing and Meereen, provoked in both places by the actions (or inactions) of their respective queens. Bonus: Lots of Rhaegar and Lyanna tidbits.

Episode nine – The Dance of Dragons: An episode thick with emotion, from the intimations of doom surrounding Shireen’s barbecue to the sheer exhilaration of Dany’s takeoff from the fighting pit.

Episode 10 – Mother’s Mercy: This one is jam-packed. Sansa escapes. Arya kills. Cersei walks. And — oh no! — Jon dies. (For now.)

Five things to watch for in season five

In the chaos following Tywin Lannister’s death, many characters attempt to take control, often in the face of intransigent foes — religious fanatics, political insurgents, armies of the dead. Trying to pick apart the intricate plot? Thinking along these themes and settings might help.

Hero logic
Two knights set off to rescue a princess in Dorne. Never mind that she’s feisty and in love and doesn’t want to go home. (She should, though — her life is in danger in ways she doesn’t understand.) A would-be knight and squire set off to rescue a princess in the North; she refuses their aid as well. Both of these rescue attempts fail at first, but later sort of succeed — when it’s too late, unfortunately. (Myrcella gets poisoned; Sansa gets raped.) These things happen all the time in Westeros (and Essos), where the characters are determined to save not just other people but whole classes of people, even countries. Westeros needs to be saved from itself, Varys says.

Jon Snow, an action hero if ever there were one, wants to save the wildlings to prevent them from becoming soldiers in the Night King’s army. But the Free Folk waste valuable time arguing about this, and then the Night King and his minions roll up. Thousands of people die (thus qualifying to join the army of the dead). The dragonglass is lost. The Night’s Watch — not thrilled that Jon’s bringing the surviving wildlings through the Wall — decides to kill him. Rescue attempts will not succeed simply because the rescuer has honourable intentions. After Dany takes off on her first flight on Drogon, her people decide that she needs a rescue from her rescue. Why does it occur to no one in this world that maybe she doesn’t — that maybe she will be the one to save them ?

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Proxy power
What do you do when you need some dirty deed done that you can’t do yourself? In Westeros and Essos, it’s simple: Use a proxy! Hire a Faceless Man to assassinate anyone you like and make it look like an accident. Deploy the Sons of the Harpy to mount violent protests against abolition (not a popular idea among former slave masters). Or empower the Sparrows (now the Faith Militant) to simply arrest your enemies.

Using a proxy has the added advantage of affording some degree of anonymity — something most of these shadowy organisations also prize. The Sons of the Harpy go masked on their terrorist excursions. The Faceless Men require acolytes give up their belongings and their names. And the Sparrows must surrender their worldly possessions as well, even their shoes. The High Sparrow maintains a prudent distance from the violence done in his name, allowing him to put on a kindly and avuncular mask of his own. Of course, the Night King is the ultimate master of proxies — he’s able to compel masses of the dead to do his bidding. He doesn’t even have to ask (or pay) them.

Sally on the side
Sex is a big deal on this show because it’s a form of power. That’s why Margaery crows about consummating her marriage with the king — the sex is what makes her queen. Sex outside of marriage is an even bigger deal this season, as brothels become a key part of the political landscape. Littlefinger’s brothel, managed by male prostitute Olyvar, is raided by the Sparrows not once, but twice. The first time because the High Septon enjoys its services, the second just to shut the place down and make a statement about who’s in charge of King’s Landing now. And let’s not forget that Olyvar’s relationship with Loras Tyrell was only a means of spying on him for Littlefinger and Cersei. Even though Littlefinger also facilitates highborn marriage arrangements, don’t forget that he is actually a pimp. (Or a flesh-peddler, as Lancel calls him. Whichever you prefer.)

There are more brothels across the Narrow Sea, and naturally we visit them, too. There’s the one in Braavos, where Meryn Trant seeks underage girls to abuse; the one in Meereen, where a sex worker lures cuddle-hungry Unsullied to be ambushed by the Sons of the Harpy; and the pleasure house in Volantis, where a slave cosplays as Daenerys, Mother of Dragons. Is this some kind of political statement? Not far from there, slaves gather to hear a former sex slave-turned red priestess preach the gospel of the Lord of Light and herald the Red Temple’s endorsement of Dany as the Saviour. Someone who inspires priests and whores is worth taking seriously, Varys observes.

Dany, as we know, is trying to end human trafficking in Slaver’s Bay; Yunkai’s primary export is bedslaves. The Wise Masters of Yunkai are merely Littlefinger writ large. Dany isn’t fighting a war only against common slavery, she’s fighting a war against sex trafficking, and against a patriarchy that provides few options for slave-born, lowborn or otherwise vulnerable women and men.

The Lannisters made you one of the great lords of Westeros, Roose Bolton tells Petyr Baelish. Yet here you are in the North undermining them. Why gamble with your position? Because, says Littlefinger, Every ambitious move is a gamble.

There is a lot of gambling this season, not all of it paying off. The Iron Bank calls in one-tenth of the crown’s debt at a time when the Bank is backing both Tommen’s and Stannis’ competing claims for the throne. We are not gamblers here at the Iron Bank, Tycho Nestoris insists. Mace Tyrell counters: You are the world’s best gamblers. After all, like Littlefinger, the Iron Bank is hedging its bets by playing both sides.

In Littlefinger’s case, he’s trying to keep the Eyrie in his pocket (via his influence over Robin Arryn); win the North (priming Sansa, brokering the marriage alliance with the Boltons); and retain favour with Cersei (telling her about the marriage, giving her Olyvar as a witness against Loras); and undermine the Lannisters (giving Lancel to the Tyrells). Whoever comes out on top in the North or at court, he should be able to claim the victor as an ally — or so he hopes. At least Littlefinger is thinking several moves ahead, something Cersei and several others should be doing. Arya gambles with her position as a Faceless Man acolyte by ignoring her assignment: to kill one of the biggest gamblers in Braavos, the insurance man who agrees to pay the families of the ship captains and owners should they die at sea. This is a man who is gambling with the lives of other people — apparently something even the god of death cannot abide.

Power to the people
As despicable as some of the High Sparrow’s methods are, he actually has a point — the common people have been much neglected in the games that the high lords play.

The crowds make their feelings known to Dany in Meereen — when they hiss at an execution, when they cheer the contests at the fighting pits — but Cersei has spent the bulk of her time in King’s Landing avoiding the riffraff. (Part of her fight with Margaery stems from the fact that Margaery became a beloved figure of the people.) Varys dreams of a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless, where the ruler could intimidate the high lords and inspire the people. Dany struggles all season with just that, especially when it comes to the high lords. She debates what she should do with the great families and former slave masters of Meereen. Intimidate them, as she attempts by burning one alive? Kill them all, as Daario suggests? Or marry one to build an alliance? She knows she has to do something, and she’s going to have to have a better strategy should she ever hope to rule Westeros.

Here in Slaver’s Bay, you had the support of the common people and only the common people, Tyrion points out to her. What was that like? Ruling without the rich? Her response is that she’s going to break the wheel — stop the endless jockeying for position among the noble families that crushes the people underneath. But how?

How should your sweet summer Child Watch Game of Thrones?

Watching with younger viewers? You might want to just skip this entire violent season. But here are the most egregious scenes:

Episodes one, four, nine – The Sons of the Harpy attack: An Unsullied soldier goes to a brothel and gets his throat slashed. (About 18 minutes into Episode 1, lasts one minute.) More Unsullied soldiers get attacked, and Ser Barristan Selmy joins the fight. (About 46 minutes into episode four, lasts about four minutes.) During a fighting pit sequence, the Sons of the Harpy start their massacre at about 46 minutes into episode nine. (Drogon comes to the rescue four minutes later.)

Episodes one, nine – Melisandre burns folks: Melisandre burns Mance at the stake. (About 52 minutes into episode one.) Shireen Baratheon gets her turn in episode nine — her pleading, screaming and crying might be harder to take than anything visual. (The scene starts around 33 minutes in and is over about four minutes later.)

Episodes three, 10 – Castle Black justice: Jon Snow beheads Janos Slynt for disobeying an order. (About 43 minutes into episode three.) Jon’s own men later kill him during a mutiny led by Alliser Thorne. The stabbing starts a little over 58 minutes into episode 10.

Episodes three, four – The Faith Militant attack: The Faith Militant march the naked High Septon through town. (About 44 minutes into episode three.) In episode four, they go on another rampage at Littlefinger’s brothel, interspersed with a rather disturbing scene of Lancel getting his forehead carved with a seven-pointed star. (Starts about 11 minutes in.)

Episodes five, six, seven – Ramsay gets rough: Ramsay has sex with Myranda before his marriage to Sansa (about 22 minutes into episode five); consummates his marriage with Sansa in a disturbing, off-camera rape (about 52 minutes into episode six); and displays a woman he’s flayed (about 16 minutes into episode seven).

Episodes seven, nine – Fighting pits: The people in Slaver’s Bay might like to watch slaves — sorry, freed men — fight to the death for entertainment’s sake, but your kids don’t have to. The first fighting pit excursion is in episode seven, about 48 minutes in, and lasts three minutes. The second is in episode nine, and the first contest starts at about 38 minutes in, but it doesn’t get lethal until two minutes later. Jorah enters the fray at 42 minutes in, and that might be harder to take. At 46 minutes in, it morphs into the Sons of the Harpy attack.

Episode eight – Wight attack: For the most skittish, you might want to skip the entirety of the Hardhome sequence once the dogs start barking about 44 minutes in. The panic intensifies at 47 minutes in, when the wights start to break through the gate, and by 50 minutes in, it turns into a horror show.

Episode 10 – Arya kills Meryn Trant: This is one of the most brutal deaths on the show, and it’s preceded by a sequence of Trant beating up some underage girls who shouldn’t be at the brothel in the first place. The beatings start at about 22 minutes in, and Arya takes off her face and becomes a little killing machine about a minute-and-half later, gouging out his eyes, stabbing him and slitting his throat. She’s done within a minute-and-half after that.

Episode 10– Walk of shame: Cersei is forced to walk naked from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep. Her walk of atonement starts at about 50 minutes in and includes much verbal abuse as well as men and women exposing themselves to her, throwing things at her, spitting on her and more. The ordeal lasts five minutes. – New York Times

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