With some minor reservations, I enjoyed Season 5. I seem to have enjoyed it more than a lot of fans. And I mostly liked the finale. Mostly. It’s not a surprise that I struggled with my favorite big swordswench doing something that I thought was beneath her. And the more I think about her actions in the finale, the more I realize that I still love Brienne, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the way the show has treated her for the past two seasons. I have complaints about her role in Season 4 as well as 5.
I don’t object to the fact that she doesn’t do the same things on the show as in the books; I don’t mind that D&D have taken her in a somewhat different direction. They gave her more of a presence in Season 4 than she has in the second half of Book 3, and I like seeing more of her. The quest to find and protect Sansa has, thus far in the books, been one frustration after another until it finally leads to her and Podrick narrowly escaping death by hanging (with the situation still being unresolved), so I won’t complain about her not having fulfilled her promise to protect Catelyn’s daughters. The show has at least allowed her to figure out where Sansa is, introduce herself, and interact with her a little bit.
Game of Thrones is full of sympathetic characters who don’t get what they’ve come for. Jaime did his due diligence in Dorne, and Myrcella still died. Stannis is an excellent battle commander, and his army still fell apart. Ned Stark always did the right thing and he paid for it with his life. These “failures” have little to do with the characters’ personal deficiencies and much more to do with Westeros being all kinds of fucked up. I’m not annoyed with Brienne for having been unable to cross off most of her to-do list. As Jaime said in Season 3, “You’ve protected me as well as anyone, and better than most.” She’s performed at least as well as any knight in her position would.
We first met her in Season 2, and in that season, I think what she accomplished was to learn the hard realities of the game of thrones: those who play the game either win or they die. The violence in the game of thrones can do collateral damage to those who serve kings; Brienne gave 100% as Renly’s new Kingsguard, and he still died, and she took the blame, which meant her loyalties were effectively ripped out from under her. She had no choice but to become loyal to someone else. First she was serving her liege lord of the Stormlands, and then suddenly she was involved with the Starks of Winterfell and the Tullys of Riverrun.
In Season 3, she learned that the people she’s been told are the bad guys are not necessarily so. She bonded with Jaime and earned his trust. And I think she figured out that a protection assignment tends to be a lot more successful if her charge trusts her. Mostly, though, she made friends with Jaime, and that connection is a crucial turning point for both of them.
My complaint about her part in Seasons 4 and 5 is basically that it’s difficult to describe what she did accomplish. She reluctantly accepted Podrick into her service, said good-bye to Jaime, and then what happened? I think her encounter with Arya and the Hound taught her that not everyone is going to trust her, no matter how trustworthy she is. She spent all that time assuming that if she could just find Catelyn’s daughters, the rest would basically take care of itself, but it wasn’t that simple. Her friendship with Jaime is important, but it causes problems with some people, including the ones she wants to protect. Catelyn trusted Brienne, but her daughters don’t, and if they don’t trust her, she can’t be their protector. Oh, and also, sometimes telling the truth isn’t a good idea. When she told Arya who gave her the sword, it could’ve gone a LOT worse.
It’s a harsh lesson with Arya, but it keeps her from being blindsided when Sansa tells her to fuck off in Season 5. By that point, she’s figured out that unless and until she earns Sansa’s trust, the protection assignment is a non-starter. And what happens after that? She finally opens up to Podrick, which is a good thing, but after that episode, her screen presence mostly consists of standing around in the snow, staring at a particular spot in Winterfell. For her, it’s exhausting bordering on self-destructive. For us, we’re left to wonder how long this waiting game has to go on. That is, until the finale, when she runs off to kill a guy for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting the weak and defending the innocent. We see so much more of her interrogating Stannis than we see of her doing anything constructive. She promised in Episode 3 to teach Podrick how to fight, and I think she did; I think his grabbing his battle-axe means he was about to use some skills he learned from her, but the training all happened off-camera. I would’ve liked to see her training Podrick! (She most definitely trains him in A Feast for Crows, and it is the sweetest thing that has ever happened in the Riverlands.) Her constructive accomplishment for Season 5 was forging a connection with her squire, but that accomplishment was pushed out to the margins.
TL;DR version: I’m annoyed that Seasons 4 and 5 made Brienne’s negative accomplishments so much more visible than the positive.
With all that in mind, I’m gonna work out my feels by giving the I Enjoy This Too Much treatment to her interaction with Stannis. I may have cheated just a tiny bit by rearranging a few screencaps at the very end, but it’s basically the same stuff happening.
“I just need to do this one thing! Then I’ll come right back here and keep watching over a girl who told me to fuck off!”
I think it’s worth noting that Brienne’s grudge against Stannis hasn’t been nearly so significant in the books. She talks about killing him in A Clash of Kings, but not after that. She gets angry when Jaime tells her she’s said to have killed Renly, yet Stannis’s name never comes up. I can’t think of a single occasion in A Feast for Crows when she even mentions Stannis, even when she has to defend herself against accusations of being Renly’s murderer. (And if I can’t think of a single occasion in A Feast for Crows, there probably haven’t been more than a very few.) She just isn’t thinking of Stannis anymore. Her thoughts are mostly about how she wants to look after Podrick, to get Sansa out of danger, and how much she misses Jaime.
That surely has something to do with my having been so convinced that she wouldn’t go after Stannis when she had the chance. Maybe she does so later in the books! Maybe GRRMartin has told D&D that Brienne does eventually catch up to Stannis, and she does kill him as revenge for his killing Renly and letting her take the blame. But for the last three books, she’s barely given a thought to her king’s killer.
At the same time, I expected Stannis to put up more of a fight for his daughter. If I can be wrong about a character in whom I have so little emotional investment, then clearly I can misjudge a character I love.
It’s really quite amazing, the difference one night of kindness makes in the priorities of an awkward, ugly girl dealing with mockery and abuse on all sides.
I also have to wonder whether Stannis and Melisandre ever gave a thought to how his brother’s Kingsguard would respond to having their king killed out from under them. Did they convince themselves that whoever was in the tent at the time would think they were crazy, and kill themselves? Or did they simply not give the slightest thought to the implications of leaving witnesses?
(Nah, Stannis would never be so touchy-feely. But he might have admitted this much to himself: the way he killed his brother also screwed over the young woman guarding him, and that’s probably a factor in her seeking revenge. Maybe just a little.)
I really don’t know what to expect, in terms of Brienne’s promise to protect Sansa. I WANT her to succeed on that front. I want Sansa to have a protector who won’t exploit her. I want Brienne to get to know at least one of Catelyn’s children. I like the idea of a capable, unconventional woman protecting a defenseless, vulnerable girl! After this fuck-up, though, the only way she’ll be able to gain Sansa’s trust is if Sansa and Theon climb out of that snowdrift and realize they have no other options for staying in one piece. (Which is not outside the realm of possibility.) Even if she and Podrick find Sansa and Theon right away and get them in hand without any further injury, I’m sure Brienne will find ways to punish herself for this lapse in judgment.
Then again, maybe the protection assignment is just a device to get Brienne to the far North with her Valyrian steel sword. Is it so wrong to hope she also connects with Sansa on the way to destroying White Walkers, though?
Remember Season 2, Episode 10? “Two quick deaths?”
Until we see Brienne in Season 6, we won’t know whether her experiences in Season 5 taught her anything useful. I hope she’s learned that revenge is a bullshit reason to kill someone, and that it’s okay if she leaves some of her promises unfulfilled. I hope the ambivalence she experienced in killing Stannis has reminded her of the importance of fighting for the living, and shown her that Renly doesn’t need her anymore. I hope the upheaval from her fuck-up teaches her that she’s only human and she’s not a failure if she doesn’t carry the world on her shoulders.