'Game of Thrones' Season Five: What Did We Learn

How these disturbing last 'GoT' episodes gave us big moments and changed the Big Picture

Kit Harrington as Jon Snow, leader of the Night's Watch, in 'Game of Thrones.' Credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Stabbings and sorrow and shame, oh my: On Sunday night, Game of Thrones concluded its already dark fifth season with an episode that ran blacker than Jon Snow's blood on the frozen snow. But a look back at the past 10 hours of television reveals that it wasn't always this way. On the contrary, the show was all about contrasts, rekindling hope and snuffing it out in a cycle of highs and lows that's a far cry from the relentless grind its detractors decry.

Take a look at the political game that gives the show its title. Things may be bad now, but the season began with the possibility of setting up something better, as a quartet of newly minted leaders took charge and tried to shape the system to suit their vision. The Night's Watch elected good-hearted Jon Snow as their 998th Lord Commander. Daenerys Targaryen settled in as the monarch of Meereen, attempting to rule through diplomacy rather than dragons. Stannis Baratheon became the new King in the North, following up his daring rescue of the Wall from a wildling invasion with a plan to defeat the even more dangerous forces of House Bolton. And after a lifetime of playing second fiddle to the men in her life — her husband, her father, her son Joffrey, and her brothers Jaime and Tyrion — Cersei Lannister found herself in almost complete control of King's Landing, ready to rule more or less openly on her own.

But as Lady Sarah of House Palin once put it, "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for ya?" Jon governed nobly, Cersei ruthlessly; Stannis and Dany somewhere in between. Yet all four fledgling regimes ended in roughly the same place — with their leaders dead, deposed, defeated, or stuck between a Dothraki and a hard place. In fact, each was undone by events they themselves had set in motion. Jon fell to the men who'd elected him after ignoring their concerns about the Free Folk in their midst. (Et tu, Olly?) Dany's attempts to moderate and mollify her divided city by reopening its fighting pits led to a massacre that required a last-minute dragon-assisted exit. Stannis executed his own daughter to preserve his messianic image; he then lost his dignity, his army, his wife, his war, and quite likely his life in return. And Cersei empowered religious fundamentalists to eliminate her rivals, only to become their biggest victim.

Indeed, fanaticism emerged as both a key plot driver and a central thematic focus this season. Played by veteran actor Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant turned the previously genteel faux-Catholicism of the Seven into an ISIS-like onslaught of theatrical violence. Their trademark star-shaped scarifications have an emblematic quality that echoes the bronze masks of Meereen's terroristic Sons of the Harpy; they too adopted a symbol of their national religion as an icon of intimidation and fascist conformity. They truly were "faceless men," in a way that the killer priest Jaqen H'ghar's House of Black and White could surely appreciate. Yet even the killings perpetrated by the House's young acolyte Arya pale in comparison to the brutal fires lit by Melisandre and Stannis for the Lord of Light. The Red God's true believers first claimed the life of the stubborn but noble — and strategically valuable — King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, then sacrificed Stannis's own daughter. No matter where you go, nothing's more dangerous than a person who knows they're in the right.

Perhaps that's the reason that, even for a show with Game of Thrones' grim reputation, Season Five frequently felt so savagely cruel, especially to its women. What is Westeros' patriarchal system, after all, if not the fanatical belief in the superiority of men — weaponized to a ridiculous degree? Sansa's heartbreaking treatment by her psychopathic husband, after all, was simply the show's most explicit illustration yet of the similar arranged marriages, which saw female bodies sold to powerful men for use as playthings, all in exchange for alliance and influence. And if the men in charge grow tired of you, good luck, as Cersei learned to her horror during her grotesquely misogynistic walk of atonement — the season's most upsetting sequence, which is saying something.

And when the collision of sex, sexism, and violence eventually impacts the pre-sexual in the form of female children, as it did when Stannis burned Shireen to further his own agenda, or when Ser Meryn Trant bought and brutalized little girls in a Braavosi brothel? In the words of Jenny Holzer, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise." Violence, by definition, inevitably targets those most vulnerable to it, like water flowing downhill until it finds its level. Rendered doubly powerless by a system that has little respect for their age or their gender, girls are made to suffer most severely.

But believe it or not, there's more to this show than mere misery — there's fantasy. Season Five saw the series' supernatural elements at their most spectacular, from the terrifying attack of the White Walkers and their zombie stormtroopers at the wildling village of Hardhome to awe-inspiring arrival of Drogon, the black dragon, to rescue his Mother at the last minute in Meereen. The novels on which Game of Thrones is based are collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire; moments like this are the Song's killer choruses and godlike riffs. These are the points at which we depart the dreary everyday world for the one beyond, where the sights, sounds and stakes at last feel commensurate with the emotional intensity of what we experience but can't articulate. (This includes the almost ecstatic panic we feel when we sit down to watch this show with no clue what the hell's about to happen, currently the case for book-readers and newcomers alike.)

For moments of transcendence to mean something, you have to be crystal clear about what it is you're trying to transcend; if the show pulled its punches when chronicling the evil that men do, its flights of fancy wouldn't have half the impact. Game of Thrones skimped on neither the gore nor the glory this time out — despite the presence of a House of Black and White, this was the season that reminded you this whole saga is built on a rock-solid foundation colored in shades of gray.