The highest highs are only outpaced by the lowest lows. It's why we awake from a pleasant dream with a fuzzy head, only vaguely aware of a warm feeling spreading throughout, while, conversely, our nightmares are etched in our memories with a piercing clarity. It is not the triumphs that stay with us, but the tragedies.
For five years, "Game of Thrones" has been built on this foundation. Traditional storytelling tropes would have you believe that the good guys will overcome a conflict in a neat and tidy manner. But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have long opted to obliterate the expectations of your average television show. Red herrings become red weddings and symbolism becomes actuality. As a result, another one of our heroes has been stripped away. Jon Snow's watch is ended.
Every season of "Thrones" has been a varied commentary on the nature of power. Cersei believes true power is force; Stannis believed it flowed from lineage and birthright. Daenerys believes her dragons give her power and Jon, while never one to lust after it, believed his leadership position gave him a modicum of power. And yet none of those were true. In the end, power is just a loose concept, as weak and vulnerable as flesh and blood and equally as disposable. But despite its intangibility, it has led all of these characters to a destination they never thought possible when their journeys began. Danger, death and ruin.
When Daenerys referred to Westeros' hierarchy as spokes on a wheel in "Hardhome,' it was meant to be an inspiring damnation of the cruel ruling elite. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was the true disposition of humanity and a brief glimpse into the eventual ending point of the show; the cyclical nature of tragedy.
But before we look that far ahead, we must first confront what happened last night in "Mother's Mercy."
The show opens with Melisandre staring at icicles, an immediate nod to the overarching struggle between ice and fire. The icicles are melting, as is her grasp over Stannis and his forces. Half of the soldiers deserted in the night. But the true consequence of Stannis' deplorable decision to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light is much more personal. Queen Selyse, unable to live with her guilt, has hung herself.
Stannis sold his soul for a chance at power and now everything around him is falling apart. Even Melisandre flees before Stannis marches forth to Winterfell (more on that later).
Pod sees Stannis' approaching force and alerts Brienne, who abandons her post just moments before Sansa lights her candle in the Broken Tower to signal her.
The battle does not appear to be a competitive one. Stannis' army is cut down easily and the last legitimate male heir of the Baratheon line is wounded grievously. Brienne finds him bleeding in the forest, a defeated man. "I was Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon. I was there when he was murdered by a shadow with your face. You murdered him with blood magic," she says. Brienne sentences him to death by swinging the sword herself.
None of Stannis' sacrifices made a difference. He destroyed everything he stood for (honor and justice) in a selfish quest for power and was ultimately undone by his poor choices. He was a calculating man who mistakenly put his faith into the wrong source. But did Melisandre purposely deceive him or is she just not as powerful as she thought? Either way, Brienne represented true justice as she lived by the ideals that Stannis preached.
Yet in her search for justice, Brienne failed to keep her oath to Catelyn. Myranda (Ramsay's psychotic girlfriend), with Reek in tow, catches Sansa outside of her room during the battle. She aims an arrow at Sansa. "If I am going to die, let it happen when there is still some of me left," Sansa says. But Sansa does not die as Theon finally breaks through the exterior of Reek and throws Melinda off the balcony; his redemption begins. He grasps Sansa's hand and they jump off the castle wall together. Are they dead or on their way to freedom?
Stannis deserved to die. But even though it was a morally sound decision by Brienne, the consequence is Sansa's unknown fate. In that way, Brienne's arc is similar to what happened to Jaime. He betrayed his oath as a member of the Kingsguard to save everyone in King's Landing during Robert's Rebellion. A moral decision met with a dishonorable outcome.
I know that "Game of Thrones" takes place in a cruel universe. But there's no denying that the show too often relies on unnecessary violence against women. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Meryn Trant is a bad person. Do we really need to see him whip little girls on top of that? "Thrones" needs to address this issue going forward.
In the meantime, one of those little girls is Arya in disguise. She removes her face and stabs Trant in both eyes. "You're the first name on my list," she tells him. "Do you know who I am?"
Half of me is excited that Arya can exact some revenge on a deserving target. But the other half of me is concerned. Is this really all there is for Arya? Have we reached a point where her success is measured by her body count? It's a sad thought and a grim reflection on the awful conditions of life in "Game of Thrones."
"You know who I am. I'm Arya Stark. Do you know who you are? You're no one. You're nothing," she tells him before cutting his throat. Her Stark identity will always be present.
She returns to the House of Black and White where Jaqen is waiting. He knows that she stole a face and killed Trant. "Only a life can pay for a death," he says before swallowing poison. Arya is beside herself with grief, but it turns out that person was not the real Jaqen H'Ghar. "The faceless are for no one. You are still someone. And to someone, a face is as good as poison," the real version tells her.
Arya then begins screaming in pain and fear. Her eyes gloss over with grey. Jaqen has taken her vision. The next step in her training begins.
Jaime, Bronn, Myrcella and Trystane are heading back to King's Landing. Prince Doran wishes them a safe journey and Ellaria offers Myrcella an apology and a long kiss good bye.
On the ship, Jaime attempts to reveal the truth to Myrcella. "We don't choose whom we love. It just...well, it's beyond our control," he says. But Myrcella already knows what he is trying to say. "I'm glad that you're my father," she replies as they share a warm embrace. For the first time in his life, Jaime is being accepted and loved for who he is truly is. It is a beautiful moment despite the unsettling circumstances. But in typical "Thrones" fashion, the instance of genuine emotional connection is short lived. Ellaria's kiss was laced with poison. Myrcella is the second child to die in Jaime's arms.
Is this karmic retribution for pushing Bran out that window in the series premiere? Is this a result of all the evils of Tywin and Cersei? I don't know. The heavy losses on "Thrones" are difficult to watch, but it underscores the grim reality of the world we tune into every week. The message seems to be that life is not about living, it's about dying.
Will this lead to a war between the Lannisters and the Dornish? How will Prince Doran deal with this?
Tyrion, Jorah and Daario are alone in the throne room. They need to figure out the next steps after Drogon took Dany North. Mereen is on the brink of civil war and has now lost its unifying power.
Jorah and Daario ultimately set out in search of Dany while Tyrion, Grey Worm and Missandei are left to rule in Mereen. This gives way to the return of a personal favorite: Varys. "A grand old city choking on violence, corruption and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast?" Varys says to Tyrion in one of the best pep talks in "Thrones" history. "I did miss you," Tyrion responds with a smile. The New World Order just received another boost.
Meanwhile, Dorogon has touched down miles away from Mereen in some grassy foothills and is visibly exhausted. Dany goes out to search for food but is soon surrounded by a massive Khalasar of Dothraki riders. Strangers are never a welcome sight in "Thrones" and Dany appears to be in immediate danger. What's ironic is that her dragon, her perceived source of power, is what delivered her to a possibly grim demise. No one ever ends up where they thought they would on these journeys. "Thrones" makes sure to invert your typical beliefs at every turn.
Cersei chooses to confess her sins to the High Sparrow but she is quite selective in her confession. Did she sleep with Lancel Lannister, her cousin, while married to Robert Baratheon? Yes. But did she father her children out of incest? Absolutely not.
"Am I free to go?" she asks. "After your atonement," the High Sparrow responds ominously.
The Faith cuts her hair and marches her out in front of the entirety of King's Landing. She may return to the Red Keep, but not before baring her guilt for all the city to see. The Sparrows strip her naked and force her to make the most humiliating and deflating Walk of Shame in history.
At first, Cersei maintains her façade of strength. But each step brings with it another crack in her face. Lena Headey does an amazing job of both internalizing her emotions in this scene and outwardly falling apart.
Caked in muck and blood, Cersei eventually reaches the Red Keep. But it is no longer the home to her power that it once was. Everything that Cersei has worked for, everything that she has done has delivered her nothing but pain in the end. Her own force was used against her, to humble her and debase her. She'll never be able to overcome this.
Qyburn has her carried to his lab by the newest member of the Kingsguard who has "vowed he will not speak until all of her grace's enemies are dead." The bluish skin and the dead eyes beneath the helm reveal to us what exactly Qyburn has done with the body of Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane.
We all know what happens here so I hope you'll permit me to skip the precursors and just get right to it.
Olly, surrounded by the fiery glow of candles, summons Jon by telling him that a Wildling has seen his uncle Benjen (last seen in season one). Jon pushes through a group of Brothers to a post marked with a single word, "Traitor." The look on his face is tragic; he knows he's been set up.
"For the Watch," Alliser Thorne says before plunging a dagger into Jon. The rest of the men follow suit. The whole scene is reminiscent of Julius Caesar's betrayal and death. "Olly," Jon says as his steward approaches. It isn't so much a plea as it is Jon's "Et tu?" moment. "For the Watch," Olly repeats through gritted teeth before delivering the final blow to our hero.
Jon was right to think about the big picture. He recognized that the White Walkers are the true enemy. But perhaps he should have firmly earned the loyalty of his men before making such a controversial decision. Now, we've lost one of our last reaming heroes.
But...what if we haven't? Bear with me on this crazy theory.
Melisandre made multiple passes at Jon while at Castle Black earlier this season. She is a deliberate and cunning woman and "Thrones" is a purposeful series. Nothing is wasted or just for show. At the time, I wondered if Melisandre's interest in Jon could represent something more about his character. Now, I'm even more convinced. It makes sense why she would risk her life to return to Castle Black.
What if the Faceless Men are not the only ones who pay for life with death? What if Melisandre knows something about Jon, perhaps witnessed in the visions of the flames, which is more important than viewers could possibly know? It would play into the theory that Jon is not actually Ned's bastard, something the show has touched on multiple times this year. Is it possible that Melisandre burned Shireen not for Stannis' war cause, but for Jon's life?
Killing Jon for good doesn't make much sense from a story perspective. With Sam off to Oldtown, Jon is our only emotional link to the Wall's plotline. Why spend so much time making him one of the front and center heroes and getting us emotionally invested if they were going to kill him? It's a different situation then Ned and Robb, who did not receive the same type of screen time that Jon did.
We've seen Thoros of Myr, another follower of the Lord of Light, bring Ser Berric Dondarrion back from the dead. I believe that Melisandre is going to attempt something similar with Jon.
"Game of Thrones" is not a show about good vs. evil. It's a show about good and evil. After everything we've witnessed, I keep coming back to Dany's wheel metaphor. A wheel represents a circle and a circle goes around and around. Maybe that is the end game for "Thrones." All this time, the show has been holding up a mirror to reveal the baser reality of human nature. What we've seen are petty and meaningless squabbles for inconsequential honors mixed with unspeakable atrocities. At no point since the first episode has there been any semblance of peace. Perhaps the showrunners are trying to say that these people are destined to destroy each other forever and that there is no such thing as peace and no such thing as power. There is just the endless and unreachable quest for both.