Life can be nasty, brutal and short in Westeros – particularly if you're an adorable princess whose power-obsessed father has forged a murderous pact with the Lord Of Light.
As poor Shireen Baratheon burned at the stake in the latest Game of Thrones it was clear that the series is moving towards an end game. Stannis – that would be Shireen's homicidal dad – prepares to take the North while across the Narrow Sea Daenerys' world conquering designs received a boost as she demonstrated her dragon-riding skills for the first time.
But, with just one episode of the fifth season left, not everyone's grip on power is as assured. Cersei and Margaery rot in the dungeons; Jaime and Bronn's Dorne buddy movie has turned into a bloody drag – and Sansa remains prisoner of the Seven Kingdom's answer to Patrick Batemen, Ramsay Bolton (if Huey Lewis and The News were a thing in Westeros Ramsay would so be there).
As the action hurtles toward denouement here is our assessment of who is winning and who is losing on Game of Thrones this year.
The Night's King.
The Lord of the White Walkers can raise the dead simply by waggling his arms and flaring his death-nostrils. Also, his skull is shaped like a crown – if that doesn't mark him for rapid advancement, we're not sure what does. The glance he directed at Jon Snow at the end of the Battle of Hardhome conveyed a simple, chilling message: 'tell your friends – the Walkers are coming and nothing is going to be the same again'.
Come on – she just climbed on a dragon and soared free of a Sons of the Harpy ambush. Granted, Daenerys has had an awkward reconnection with Ser Jorah of Castle Platonic and, ooops, her fiance has been murdered. But… dragons! Daenerys' mission to roll back centuries of barbarity in Meereen remains very much a work in progress – and yet with a giant fire-breathing lizard to whoosh about on, suddenly she has the upper hand.
Winter is coming – actually it might already be here. Which suits the traitorous Boltons fine – they're dug in at a fortified Winterfell while Stannis is lost in a snowdrift somewhere to the north. If things continue as they are, Roose Bolton might even venture a smile before the end (probably not).
The High Sparrow.
Playing the bare-footed innocent has reaped dividends for this religious radical. He allowed Cersei to believe SHE was manipulating him when all along the opposite was the case. Now she's stewing in the clinker and he is de facto ruler of King's Landing, with only the quivering boy-king Tommen in his way. The gods are truly smiling on him.
Granted, he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy this week. And that followed a kidnapping courtesy of Ser Jorah and capture by slavers. However, the Lannister prince has struck a potentially fruitful alliance with Daenerys (you remember Daenerys: blonde, dragons) – so the outlook could be worse.
The Bastard of Winterfell watched helpless as dozens of Wildlings were slaughtered by the Walkers last week – and he's alienated most of the Night's Watch to boot. Not quite the honeymoon period the new Lord Commander of Castle Black might have expected on being voted into office.
Oh how the mighty have suffered an ironic reversal and ended up whimpering in a filthy cell. An expert at the short game, the Queen Mother out maneuvered despised daughter-in-law Margaery but in so doing so put herself in the firing line of the fundamentalist High Sparrow. She's presently locked away and slurping water off the dungeon floor and not even her uncle Kevan seems terribly bothered. Don't you feel even a teeny bit sorry for her?
The Stark princess just can't catch a break. Her biggest mistake, in retrospect, was trusting creepy Littlefinger – considering he a) ghoulishly holds a candle for her dead mother, Catelyn and b) thought it was a good idea to marry Sansa off to crazy Ramsay Bolton. Now, Sansa is captive in a tower of perpetual horror where Ramsay visits unspeakable humiliations on her every night. Most bittersweet of all, help lies just beyond the castle gates in the form of Brienne. Alas, the Lady of Tarth might as well be in Dorne for all the good she can do.
Across five seasons, Game of Thrones has not been a good advertisement for monarchal government. Robert was a pot-bellied womanizer; Joffrey leering and sadistic. And then came Good King Tommen. With his wife and mother bundled off to jail, this whimpering wet blouse has shown us that his idea of regal retribution involves blubbing in his room and not eating dinner.
With one episode left, we're calling it – Stannis made a dreadful error in sacrificing Shireen at the behest of the Red Witch. It may win him Winterfell (or not) but he's lost his soul in the process, and, as a fundamentally decent sort, expect the long-term damage to be incalculable.
Until this week's zombie-crammed episode, Game of Thrones fans could be forgiven for worrying their favourite show was journeying to a strange new realm: The Kingdom of Mediocrity. With the TV storyline outpacing George RR Martin's books – in the novels Tyrion and Daenerys have not yet clapped eyes on one another - there were grounds for fretting HBO was all of a sudden making it up as it went and not doing a particularly convincing job.