An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 3, 2015

Game of Thrones, Season 5, Final Episode

Joan of Arc and Assorted Other Nods to the Medieval in the Final Episode of Season 5 of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones, Season 5, originally broadcast 12 April-14 June 2015; written by David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Bryan Cogman, and Dave Hill; directed by Michael Slovis, Mark Mylod, Jeremy Podeswa, Miguel Sapochnik, and David Nutter; Season 5 finale directed by David Nutter. Produced for HBO and British Sky Broadcasting by Home Box Office, Television 369, Grok! Television, Generator Entertainment, and Bighead Littlehead.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University

Game of Thrones ended its fifth season on June 14, 2015, with the usual surprises as to which characters live and which die, but what was most significant about the season’s last episode was the startling image of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the  archvillain of the series, sporting a plain shift and, what the French call, a coupe à la Jeanne d'Arc—in an evocation of yet another screen Jeanne, Jean Seberg’s in Otto Preminger’s 1957 film Saint Joan, with a screenplay by Graham Greene from the play by George Bernard Shaw.

Fans of Game of Thrones may debate its fidelity to its source, the Song of Ice and Fire series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which I have not read.  But the HBO series is certainly replete with medievalisms—all of which cater to what readers and viewers alike would generally see as examples of the medieval.  There are castles, dragons, political alliances and marriages, rivals for several thrones, dungeons and torturing, beheadings, burnings at the stake, a clear feudal system, swords, spears, armor galore, an abundance of the Gothic, and more than a dash of orientalism and the exotic. 

What has distinguished Season 5 from its predecessors has been its emphasis on religion—a topic always at the narrative edges of Seasons 1-4.  Indeed, religion seems to propel several of the interlaced plots of Season 5.  In Meereen, attempts by Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to rule the city are undermined by the insurgent “Sons of the Harpy,” whose role model is clearly a mixture of our ideas about what medieval and contemporary Islam Extremists look like and do, thus setting up a clash among three rival religions represented by those loyal to the “Mother of Dragons,” the Unsullied, and the masked terrorists who are the “Sons of the Harpy.”

In his attempt to seize the Iron Throne, the Lord of Dragonstone in the North, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), is coached by the Lady Melisandre (Carice van Houten), often referred to as “The Red Woman,” a priestess of the Lord of Light.  In a series where venues are often either impossibly dark or glaringly bright, her reasons for backing Stannis seem as much to do with religious fanaticism as they do with political ambition.  It is Melisandre who had, in Season 2, established Stannis’s legitimacy to claim the throne by allowing him, in an Arthurian moment, to draw a flaming sword from a statue.  And her black magic, and her lust for royal blood to support it, continue into Season 5 and ultimately prove her undoing.  In a scene that references the story of the death of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia perhaps more than that of Joan of Arc, Stannis’s daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram) is burned at the stake to ensure her father’s victory in his march on Castle Black.

But, in Season 5 of Thrones, religious fanaticism has most run amuck at King’s Landing.  With the marriage of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) to the boy King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Cersei’s youngest son, Cersei has a rival for her son’s affections and a potential threat to her control of King’s Landing.  To counter the threat posed by Margaery, Cersei literally makes a bargain with the devil, the High Sparrow (deliciously played by the always-oleaginous Jonathan Pryce), the leader of the Faith Militant wing of the Faith of the Seven who have unleased their own brand of ascetic fanaticism, in effect introducing the Inquisition to King’s Landing.  The High Sparrow is both Joan’s Bishop Pierre Cauchon and Florence’s Girolamo Savonarola. Cerci has been tricked into implicating herself in a number of sins—but not her incestuous relationship with her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is also father to their children—and is imprisoned and interrogated Joan-like in the dungeons of the Great Sept for blasphemy and heresy, though the two seem to be interchangeable sins. Deprived of food, water, and any creature comforts—again the Jehanne references are fairly obvious—Cersei is visited (more properly tormented) by nun-like members of the Faith Militant who attempt to get her to confess to her crimes.  When, exhausted and on the verge of hysterics, she finally relents,
Cersei is seen kneeling at the feet of the High Sparrow to make her confession. 

Since Game plays fast and loose when it references the medieval, the exchange here between the Sparrow and Cersei recalls that between Joan and her confessor, a character played by Antonin Artaud in Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s famous 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, though the latter is more sympathetic to Joan (played by the stage actress Falconetti), while the Sparrow is simply intent upon getting Cersei to incriminate herself further. 

However, the High Sparrow fails to do so and even, presumably mistakenly (only time will tell), responds positively to Cersei’s appeal that she be allowed to see her son, King Tommen, once she has completed her atonement.  That atonement requires her to be roughly shorn and eventually walk naked through the streets back to the safety of the Red Keep while she is jeered and abused by angry mobs and followed by a Militant nun who rings a bell—in the mode of a leper’s clapper—and calls out “shame,” in a nod to the Inquisition’s auto-da-fé.

Both medievalism and the medieval are the basis for much of the complicated interlaced plot lines of Game of Thrones, and the producers have at times even gone to great lengths to use authentic medieval locations for any number of settings—in Season 5 of Thrones, the palace of House Martell of Sunspear, the Water Gardens of Dorne, is, for instance, actually the Alcázar of Seville built by the Moorish Kings of Iberia (a favorite site for movie makers—scenes for Lawrence of Arabia were filmed there)—but the visual reference to Joan of Arc in the last episode of Season 5 is novel for the series and startling overall.  In the scene, Cersei briefly has become Joan of Arc, albeit à la Jean Seberg.  Previous seasons of Thrones have offered no end of more morally upright women who might have been cast in the Jehanne image, but the writers for this final episode of Season 5 clearly seem to want to make the comparison with Joan ironically.  A woman of vice, not of virtue, a mature woman used to getting her own way no matter the cost, not a young maid receptive to the voices of heaven with no will of her own, is simply the latest in a long line of Joans—for what she will do with her newfound freedom (and to the High Sparrow and his followers) tune into Season 6 sometime in Spring of 2016.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University