Valar morghulis, says the famous phrase: All men must die. And in “Mother’s Mercy,” the Season Five finale of Game of Thrones, many of them did. Stannis Baratheon, his army either deserted or defeated, faced justice from Brienne of Tarth. His wife Selyse served as her own executioner, hanging herself for her role in sacrificing their daughter. Meryn Trant, the vicious kingsguard who’s killed and abused his way across the seven kingdoms, died blubbering at the hands of Arya Stark. Myrcella Baratheon incurred a seemingly lethal poisoning from Ellaria Sand, while Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy escaped a victorious Ramsay Bolton by taking a potentially fatal leap from the walls of Winterfell. And Jon Snow fell like Caesar by the blades of his supposed brothers, slain for treason against the Night’s Watch even as the largest killing machine in the world — the army of the dead — marches for their destruction.
It’s possible, even likely, that the Many-Faced God looked at all these potential immigrants to his kingdom and said “Not today.” Bronn, typically as well-prepared as any Boy Scout, may have set out from Dorne with a vial of antidote in his pocket. Brienne’s swordstrike may have been slightly less sharp than the editor’s cut away from it. It’s highly doubtful that Season Six will open on the shattered corpses of Lady Stark and Lord Greyjoy. And an episode that saw Gregor “The Mountain’ Clegane rise again as a blue-faced behemoth leaves open the possibility that Lord Snow — like Daenerys Targaryen facing a Dothraki horde — may somehow ride again.
No one knows, though — not even book-readers. With this episode, the show has caught up with George R.R. Martin‘s books in almost every way; at any rate, it’s departed from the story significantly enough to make the future as hard to predict as Stannis’ loss was in Melisandre‘s fires. This makes it that much easier, and more important, to focus on the events of the here and now, from the stoic surrender of Stannis, a man who knows he has lost both militarily and morally, to the love and acceptance Myrcella showed her father Jaime in her final moments. And then there was the terrible certainty that washes over Jon Snow’s face the moment he sees the sign reading “TRAITOR” — like Sonny Corleone realizing why the toll booth worker ducks before his enemies open fire. Each death was written and shot to feel unique, and uniquely awful.
Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame, however, felt even worse.
The Lannister lioness was shaven and shorn (much like another literary lion of note, Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ fantasy-classic Chronicles of Narnia), then forced to march naked through the streets of King’s Landing for a full five minutes of agonizing screen time. For critics of the series who believe that its repeated depiction of misogynistic sexual violence is, if not endorsement, then at least exploitation, Game of Thrones will have done itself no favors by preserving this punishment, drawn straight from Martin’s books. (Certainly, its track record with regards to female nudity is decidedly mixed.)
But too much art that purports to address uncomfortable topics does so by making them comfortable to encounter, leaving audiences feeling good about their own moral choices without ever asking them to confront anything deeper. This is not that kind of art. Terrible though her crimes might be, Cersei deserved this no more than Theon Greyjoy, murderer and traitor though he is, deserved to be tortured and mutilated. But as a male victim of sexualized violence, “Reek” is an exception; females, from the little girls purchased and abused by the late, unlamented Meryn Trant to the Queen Mother herself, are the rule. The gendered epithets hurled at her along rotten vegetables and buckets of shit demonstrate that as a woman, her fate was guaranteed to be worse than if she were a man. You certainly didn’t see her cousin Lancel, with whom she committed the crime, subjected to the same fate. Game showed us the screeching, leering face of patriarchy in all its ugliness and wouldn’t let us look away.
In doing so, it took one of its most unsympathetic characters and, in the space of five minutes, made her a person most of us would have bodily thrown ourselves in front of to protect. By the time the Queen started crying for her loss of basic human dignity, it’s likely viewers were crying too. Great art will do that to you. Maybe it must do that to you.
Previously: How to Train Your Dragon