Note from the author: doing a second, bonus scene from the dramatically loaded “Mother’s Mercy” was always on the drawing board, to help make up for the fact that only eight episodes would have been tackled otherwise (nine being the standard), but its existence is made all the more meaningful given the large amount of time that has transpired between the fifth season finale’s airing and now. All that can be said is that both articles, individually, are the longest Anatomy of a Throne to date, and I hope this certainly helps to make amends for the long delay – and the possibility that this column may not be returning for Game of Thrones’s final seasons.
Please to enjoy.
HBO’s Game of Thrones (typically, and before this current season) brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.
This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.
Episode: “Mother’s Mercy” (510)
Scene: Jon Snow’s assassination
Despite some outward appearances (and a generally slow pace), there are few storylines as densely packed as Lord Commander Jon Snow’s in A Dance with Dragons; in order to condense it to fit the 10-episode constraints of season five, showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff had to strip some 90% of the developments, machinations, and sub-plots that swirl around the fifth-youngest commander in the Night’s Watch’s history.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Jon’s final scene of the season (and, possibly, of the series, should the cast and crew’s comments be true) is similarly decompressed, boiled down to just one story thread (his brothers’ extreme unease over the bringing of wildlings back from Hardhome [“The Dance of Dragons,” episode 509]), told primarily through the eyes of just one character (Olly) – a character who just so happened to be created from scratch for this express purpose. As such, rather than expending a great deal of energy on dissecting and analyzing the changes in the ramp-up to and overall context of the assassination – an endeavor that would take up several columns all on its own – it would better behoove us to simply concentrate on the specifics of the scene itself.
Except for one brief aside, to illustrate how, in George R.R. Martin’s handling, the reasons for the Night’s Watch to mutiny against their commander are both more plentiful and robust, allowing for a more nuanced level of characterization – and, possibly, of understanding in the reader’s mind, if not actual sympathy or approval of the conspiracy.
In the midst of preparing the ranging to Hardhome to save as many wildings as possible, Jon Snow receives a letter from Ramsay Bolton, the “trueborn Lord of Winterfell,” stating that King Stannis Baratheon and his army have been slain (a claim which still, to this day, remains to be verified in the novels) and that, now, Ramsay requires several individuals for execution, including Stannis’s wife and daughter and the Lady Melisandre (all of whom remained behind at the Wall instead of marching off to war with him). Should he not get his way, the lord of Winterfell makes a general threat of violence against the Night’s Watch. Given the savage cruelty of the missive, the looming menace that now is House Bolton, and the fact that Jon’s sister – it’s Arya who is supposed to marry Ramsay in the books, not Sansa – who he essentially believes to be the last surviving member of his family, may now be in danger, Lord Snow decides to essentially forsake his vows of noninterference in the politics of the realm and ride south to Winterfell in order to make an end of Ramsay, taking along as many wildlings and black brothers who wish to accompany him as possible:
“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words… but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless…” Jon paused. “…is there any man here who will come stand with me?
This proves to be the last straw for the men of the Watch – the assassination occurs right afterward.
Given the speed with which the deed takes place – and given the fact that a number of the characters and sub-plots at the Wall have, of course, been reduced for the adaptation – it is no surprise to see that its staging is substantially different from what is depicted on Game of Thrones, though still fundamentally similar. The ruse here is an attack on the giant Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun, who is residing at Castle Black along with hundreds of other wildlings. One of the knights who had stayed behind to guard Queen Selyse Baratheon apparently attacks Wun Wun, slicing his belly and arm, and then is literally torn to pieces in response. As Jon arrives at the scene and attempts to simultaneously subdue the giant and keep the ever-growing crowd of observers back, he notices that men start drawing their blades.
“Keep back, the rest of you. Put away your steel – we’re scaring him.” Couldn’t they see the giant had been cut? Jon had to put an end to this or more men would die. They had no idea of Wun Wun’s strength. A horn, I need a horn. He saw the glint of steel, turned toward it. “No blades!” he screamed. “Wick, put that knife…”
…away, he meant to say. When Wick Whittlestick slashed at his throat, the word turned into a grunt. Jon twisted from the knife, just enough so it barely grazed his skin. He cut me. When he put his hand to the side of his neck, blood welled between his fingers. “Why?”
The answer he gets, of course, is “For the Watch,” which ultimately gets accompanied with stabs to the gut and back and gets repeated at least three times.
In contrast, there is no run-up to Jon’s murder in “Mother’s Mercy”; the lord commander is simply sitting in his quarters, pouring over paperwork, when he is summoned outside to be gutted. Jon’s victimization is made all the more complete in that he doesn’t have his sword at his side and that, furthermore, he doesn’t fight back against his attackers (he manages to swiftly disarm Wick before the others can fall on him).
There are two forces at play here. Firstly, the showrunners have resolutely attempted to portray their Jon Snow always as the hero; rushing off to punish the wicked mutineers who (ironically enough, now) slew Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (“First of His Name,” 405) is perhaps the prime example, but there’s plenty of other instances, including his following Craster out into the woods to investigate what the wildling is doing with his male children (“The Night Lands,” 202). By not having Jon make any potentially reckless and certainly questionable decisions about suddenly rushing off to war at Winterfell, it manages to preserve his pristine track record, much in the same way that Joffrey Baratheon was made responsible for the attempt on Tyrion Lannister’s life (“Blackwater,” 209) instead of it being his mother, or how Tyrion himself manages to lose the pile of bodies and emotional trauma he tends to leave in his literary wake.
Having Jon attempt to fight his way out of the ambush would certainly play into this heroic angle (though the fact that he manages to stay on his feet for as long as he does as he’s repeatedly stabbed can certainly be described as being heroic in and of itself, if not also borderline silly [he goes down after just one stab in the book]), but then there is the second issue at work. In keeping with one of the series’s main themes, generally, and from this past season, specifically, the way the scene unfolds makes the bad guys all the worse (just as Joffrey and, one can argue, Ramsay are rendered into even bigger monsters). While one can certainly assume that the crows had been planning their Julius Caesar for quite some time, it may very well be that they weren’t fully settled on their course until the Pink Letter – as it has come to be known in the fandom – forced their hand; their actions can be argued to be more defensive than aggressive, more focused on preventing Jon from doing any more damage to the honor of the Watch than attempting to punish him. And the fact that none of his attackers have tears in their eyes, as at least one of them does in Dance with Dragons, is just icing on the sinister cake.
Then there’s the ruse. Changing the deception from an attack on Wun Wun to a wildling who supposedly has information on Jon’s Uncle Benjen Stark is not only an interesting decision, it’s also an insightful one, to boot; it’s the showrunners doing more with less, simultaneously condensing the overall narrative and helping to keep all the myriad storylines fresh in the viewer’s mind – a potentially even more salient point, given the final stretch of the show that we’re shortly to embark on. And the inclusion of the “traitor” sign is a nice visual touch, as well, adding a certain beat of tension that would be missing without the spectacle of a giant throwing a grown man about like a rag doll. It also makes Jon’s vulnerability – the fact that he doesn’t get to defend himself at all – certainly plausible.
But that sneak attack must needs be addressed. For starters, the drama of the moment is played to the hilt (no pun intended), with the scene being significantly more drawn out than its literary counterpart. And its climax is nothing if not histrionic; Olly’s staring down of Jon plays out for something of an eternity in and of itself, and Jon’s utterance of his young protégé’s name – despite being veritably skewered – feels contrived. Still, despite Benioff and Weiss’s tendency to occasionally dip into the cliché, there is a certain purity of simplicity at work here that the series has been rather effective in leveling in other storylines at other times throughout its run.
Finally, the last alteration of note is, without question, the most important: the lack of Jon’s last word (or, rather, its change into Olly’s name). Here is the moment in the novel:
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air, the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold…
The mention of his direwolf, who is locked up in one of the buildings in what might as well be a million miles away, is not arbitrary, as the recalling of his advice to Arya regarding sword fighting (“The Kingsroad,” 102) was – at several key instances throughout A Dance with Dragons, special mention is made to wargs’ abilities to have their consciousnesses leave their bodies upon death, ultimately being deposited in their chosen receptacles (which, of course, in this case, would be Ghost). Furthermore, Melisandre – who, again, never leaves the Wall in this version of the story – sees the “daggers in the dark” swirling around Lord Commander Snow in her flames, and she cautions Jon to keep his wolf close at hand at all times. That’s a suspiciously large amount of foreshadowing, which has led many readers to believe that Jon may be dead – which that intractably long final shot is meant to convey in no uncertain terms – he won’t remain that way for too terribly long at all.
And, oh, that last shot! It’s easily one of the most beautiful, haunting, and powerful of the series to date. The changing of the light to reflect either the loss of blood or Jon’s soul leaving his body (appropriate, that), the blood slowly, fatally pooling in the background, the glacial stillness of Kit Harrington’s face… all of it combines to create something that will indelibly go down in the annals of television history.
Such an occurrence is, in and of itself, a rarity. The fact that this specific episode had two such moments – Queen Cersei Baratheon’s walk of shame being the other – makes for a mind-boggling feat.
Season six, even with all its many uncertainties, can’t come soon enough.