What season 5 of ‘Game of Thrones’ taught us about Westeros – and ourselves

The crescendo of discussions about the sexual assault of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the burning of Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingraham), the moral trajectory of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and the general virtues of submersing ourselves in a world as grim as Westeros signaled the full-on arrival of a genre of criticism I’ve been practicing for six years.

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I enjoyed some of these debates, which in certain cases helped to clarify emergent ideas about art and ideology.

But every Sunday night for the last 10 weeks, I’ve found myself feeling slightly out of step. I’d never say these conversations were unimportant. But at moments, I wished we could talk about other elements of “Game of Thrones,” too. For all the tangents that didn’t quite pay off, particularly Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn), and for all these 10 episodes largely existed to set up the show’s endgame, this was a year when it felt like “Game of Thrones” reached new artistic heights. And at moments, it seemed like no one noticed.

“Game of Thrones” is a sprawling show, and this year, the show sharpened its use of film editing in a way that tied its storylines together and advanced the plots in the sophisticated use of cuts. It was an approach conspicuous from the opening scenes of the season, when the show’s first flashback, to Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) childhood visit to a soothsayer, transitioned back into the present, as the embattled queen remembered the prophecy as she rode in a litter on the way to her son’s wedding. And the cuts kept coming, as deft — and often as devastating — as Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) flaying knife.

Cersei’s exiled brother Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) wondered “How many dwarves are there in the world? Is Cersei going to kill them all?” only for the show to jump to an image of a dwarf’s severed head being laid rather roughly on a table. In Meereen, a member of an underground resistance group rails against the rule of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who has freed the city’s slaves and is trying to reshape the city-state’s social order; in the next scene, he’s crucified up against a wall, “Kill the Masters” written in his blood by his body.

When Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) tells Ramsay that”The best way to forge a lasting alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off. The best way is marriage. Now that you’re a Bolton by royal decree, it’s high time you marry a suitable bride. And as it happens, I’ve found the perfect girl to solidify our hold on the north,” the cut to Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) on horseback tells us everything we needed to know about the horrors to come before anyone spoke another word.

And in the season finale, when Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) appeared to land a killing blow on Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who she’s sworn to kill in revenge for his murder of his brother, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), the show cuts to Ramsay, engaging in some brutal battlefield cleanup. No one needs to explain what Brienne could become if she allows vengeance to override her finer principles; we see it all in that brief and nasty juxtaposition.

“Game of Thrones” grew in the grand moments, too. The show has never quite transcended Ray Harryhausen’s animated skeletons in its depiction of the dead humans animated by the White Walkers. But if there was intimate terror last season in watching the Night’s King (Richard Brake) transform a human baby with a touch, frost creeping across the infant’s irises, the world’s end in ice was chillingly concrete in the sight of the White Walker raising his hands and legions of the dead along with them.

David Nutter, who directed both the Red Wedding and Dany’s embrace by the slaves she’d freed back in the show’s third season, came back for the last two episodes of this one. Dany’s dragons have always been the best special effect on “Game of Thrones,” and Nutter and showrunners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss put them to particularly good use in “The Dance of Dragons.” Nutter caught the claustrophobic element of fear on the faces of Dany and her counselors when they were ambushed by terrorists in a gladiatorial arena, then gave us an enormous catharsis when Dany flew out of what seemed like an impossible situation on the back of Drogon, her prodigal dragon.

An episode later, Nutter reversed that emotional polarity when Stannis, his army depleted, his daughter burned, his wife dead by suicide, makes his last stand outside the gates of Winterfell. Nutter moves the camera from Stannis’ face when he sees the Bolton forces riding out to meet him, but pulling back provides no relief: an aerial shot of the Bolton forces closing in shows us the sophisticated, disciplined Bolton formations closing in on Stannis’ ragged little column like snapping jaws.

In addition to these accomplishments, “Game of Thrones” managed to accomplish something few television shows even attempt: It improved on one of its long-standing aesthetic weak spots, the throwaway use of female nudity. An early episode in Volantis featured one of the series’ trademark brothel scenes, but nudity found other and more interesting uses as the season wore on.

In Meereen, a prostitute lay down with a castrated soldier, first to comfort him, and then, as it turned out, to distract him from the men who had come to kill him. In Braavos, the sex workers got to stay dressed. And during Cersei Lannister’s ritual humiliation by the High Septon, who is determined to try her for a variety of religious crimes, nudity became a kind of assault as commoners exposed themselves to the fallen queen while propositioning her.

There was even an element of unusual cleverness in what at first seemed to be one of the silliest deployments of eye candy, when Tyene Sand (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) stripped down for Bronn when they were both imprisoned in Dorne. Her nudity seemed like a distraction but it served a purpose: Tyene propositioned Bronn again on the dock when he was leaving for Westeros, distracting the normally watchful former mercenary as Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) poisoned Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free).

Tyene’s behavior might have been ludicrous, but it worked, on both Bronn and us. Bronn ended up thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy at a critical moment. And we got tested: Could we see Tyene’s ruse for what it was? Or would her naked flesh short-circuit our critical faculties, stopping us short on our politics and blinding us to the deception and Tyene’s wiliness, though for very different reasons than those that diverted Bronn?

And for all it was a busy season, “Game of Thrones” paused for the kinds of conversations that action spectacles rarely make room for. Brienne of Tarth’s long conversations with her squire, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), did little to advance the show’s many plots, but they reminded us that humanity’s worth preserving. Stannis Baratheon’s decision to tell his daughter how he fought for her life against a deadly disease only made it more devastating when he decided to waste what he’d preserved in service of his fanaticism.

The blossoming relationship between wildling Gilly (Hannah Murray) and Night’s Watchman Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) provided some motivation for Sam to book it South of the Wall, but it mostly served to remind us that people can find decency and tenderness even as the world’s getting pulled into the widening gyre.

It would be easy for “Game of Thrones” to shuck these scenes off in favor of more sword fights and dragonfire. But it’s these moments, more than another rape scene or killing, that actually juice the show’s stakes. Awfulness doesn’t do it, really; if humanity were all that bad, we might as well root for the Night’s King to take the Iron Throne. It’s moments of kindness and connection that make the fight seem worthwhile.

If “Game of Thrones” finally became a weight that felt too heavy to carry this season, none of these accomplishments will change that for you, nor should they. But political criticism of the show doesn’t necessarily invalidate its aesthetic achievements or render them irrelevant, either. How we weigh these elements of art is up for each of us to decide. We’re a long way from knowing how “Game of Thrones” will end, and whether, as I discuss in part of the video above, it can stick a landing that’s consistent with its critique of the tropes of high fantasy. But its fifth season — or at least in the discussion of this fifth season — we’re getting a glimpse of the legacy “Game of Thrones” might leave us, as we hash out what matters most to us when we look at art.