[This is a review of the Game of Thrones season 5 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Several good rules of thumb have come and gone over the course of five seasons of Game of Thrones. While the rule of "never talk to Tywin Lannister while he's seated at his desk" no longer applies, thanks to the bolt Tyrion gave his father at the end of last season, the rule of "never share a laugh and a drink with friends" and "never show that you are an honorable person" still stand as great rules to live by. And I do mean live in the sense that breaking either of these rules will generally be a one-way ticket to deadsville – the most populated place in all of The Seven Kingdoms and beyond.
And with that, after a banner season for the character, in which he rose to command the Night's Watch, wisely sidestepped an inter-office relationship with Melisandre, and killed a White Walker, we bid Jon Snow a bloody, mutinous goodbye, as his men line up to stick a knife in his chest, and to tell him "For the Watch" in a harrowing moment that strangely resembled the "Calm down, get a hold of yourself" scene from Airplane.
Alliser Thorne said it last week when Jon Snow was bringing a herd of Wildlings through the gates of Castle Black: "You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It will get us all killed." Apparently, what Alliser meant was: Jon's good heart was going to get him killed. Alliser's deceptive use of pronouns aside, the meaning was clear: Jon broke the rules. Not only did he break the rules of the Night's Watch, he broke the rules of the Game of Thrones. And he paid for it with his life…maybe.
Those two elements – the idea of breaking the rules, and the idea of "maybe" – sum up 'Mother's Mercy' fairly well. Season 5 ended what has been a rough season with a series of compelling cliffhangers, in which the fates of several characters were left tantalizingly uncertain. Remarkably, the finale managed to make those threads fit under the umbrella of a concurrent theme. This time it was the broader notion that the groups these characters belong to or have belonged to, either due to a vow that has been taken, or simply as a means of helping them define their place in the realm – i.e., the Night's Watch, the Faceless Men, or the Faith Militant, etc. – all abide by a strict set of rules and regulations that keep them functioning. When those rules are broken, the entire system threatens to fall apart; it will seek to repair the malfunctioning portion, and to do so often means correcting or eliminating what has become faulty.
Some systems, like the Night's Watch and the Faceless Men, operate in a way that is easy to see and understand. His brothers murdered Jon because his idealism led him to believe he could broker peace between two groups of people separated by a wall of ice and a way of thinking for centuries. It was the kind of noble effort that gets one marked as having a "good heart" as well as being a traitor. But the Night's Watch doesn't reward its members for noble efforts that radically change a familiar dynamic; it murders them in the night for daring to upset the system by which the group is able to understand the world and its place in it.
Like her brother, Arya found solace in a group scenario that was ruled by its own rigid set of codes and regulations. The would-be assassin told Jaqen H'ghar that she was ready to become no one, but couldn't commit herself fully to the notion; she couldn't toss Needle into the drink any more than she could discard her thirst for vengeance. After taking it upon herself to kill Meryn Trant, using a face from the Giant Pantry of Faces, Arya had her sight taken from her. Like her brother, Arya broke the rules, and was met with swift punishment that feels part of a three-step process for the series at this point. 1) Build to a turning point, 2) offer a character a rare win, and 3) penalize them for taking it.
Sometimes, breaking the rules can mean finding a way back to an original starting place. At least that was the case with Theon, who finally broke the rules he'd been bound to under Ramsay by pushing Myranda to her death, and then taking a massive leap of faith with Sansa that reinstated their former relationship as siblings. It's a risky move that leaves their fates uncertain, but also suggests that breaking the rules can lead to something positive – though how that leap from the wall will amount to anything but the negative effects of gravity is beyond me.
Overall, the finale is a bustling episode that balances the emotional weight of horrible things befalling characters we like and care about with the inevitable reciprocation of horrible actions being brought upon those who have wrought death and destruction in the first place. Stannis burned his only daughter (and presumably the only person who loved him) at the stake last week, and as it turns out, audiences weren't the only ones to turn on him. After having half his men abandon their posts in the middle of the night, and his wife hang herself, Stannis is humiliated by Roose Bolton's army, and them seemingly struck down by Brienne after telling her to "do your duty," knowing how he brought this end upon himself.
Cersei, on the other hand, must face the High Sparrow's walk of shame, in which she is stripped naked and forced to walk the streets while the "good people" of King's Landing lob insults, food, garbage, and the occasional flasher her way. Although it depicts a wicked character getting some form of comeuppance, the scene is disturbing and difficult to watch nonetheless. The assault on Cersei lasts for what feels like ages and as it progressively worsens, it asks the audience to really contemplate the show's use of violence and nudity.
Of all the horrible things that happen throughout the episode, Dany's fate is almost as up in the air as Sansa's. Her escape on Drogon at the end of last episode has left them both stranded far from Meereen, and her caught in a churning mass of Dothraki warriors. It's a return of sorts to where she began her journey, but the circumstances have changed dramatically. For a character that, not long ago was seen riding atop a seething mass of bodies, watching Dany disappear inside a vortex of hooves, ponytails, and swords feels distinctly more ominous.
But as Qyburn's newest recruit alludes, some characters can come back from almost anything; we've seen it before. While it's too late for someone like Myrcella, who broke the rule of having a good heart and telling Jaime she was glad that he was her father, it may not be too late for Jon Snow or even Arya. Horribleness befalling beloved characters may be a rule for Game of Thrones, but if the seemingly pessimistic 'Mother's Mercy' has taught us anything, it's that rules are made to be broken. And in that, perhaps we can find a reason to be optimistic.
Game of Thrones will return in 2016 on HBO.
Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO