The trailer for the second season of Game of Thrones ended with Arya Stark offering a kind of warning to the viewer: “Anyone can be killed.” By the time the fourth season premiered, one of the show’s niftier catchphrases – “All Men Must Die” – had become both a marketing tagline and a macabre mission statement. Going into season 5, the show was so famous for its constant stream of bloodshed that pretty much every late night talk show host had crafted a joke about it. This is a show that kills characters both beloved and loathed so prolifically that it makes Joss Whedon look like a merciful angel. We all know this about Game of Thrones, so why did a major death at the end of last night’s season finale still manage to provoke reactions like this?
Well, the short answer is because the show is effective in its quest to get us to care about its characters, but the longer and more interesting answer is that last night’s finale was about more than the death of one character. It was about cementing one of the inevitable, harsh truths about Westeros once and for all: Honor won’t keep you alive.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
What part of “All men must die,” don’t you people understand?— George RR Martin (@GRRM) June 15, 2015
The slaying of Jon Snow at the hands of his Night’s Watch “brothers” was always going to happen, and not just because George R.R. Martin wrote the same fate for Jon in his fifth A Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Dance with Dragons. In the novel, Martin stops short of actually confirming Jon’s death, giving fans hope that he’ll be back for book six, but according to Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, Jon is really gone (until he isn’t, maybe).
Whatever you choose to believe about the scene, Jon taking several knives in the gut, Julius Caesar-style, for his “betrayal” of the Night’s Watch through his dealings with the Wildlings felt inevitable whether you’d actually read the books or not.
Thinking back on the finale as a whole, it almost feels like Jon’s death was predicted by an unrelated moment: Stannis Baratheon, standing on a frozen battlefield, looking at Winterfell in the distance, and watching as a swarm of Bolton soldiers charges him and his broken army down. In that moment, Stephen Dillane delivers a perfect look of weary resignation, and Stannis draws his sword. He’s dead. He knows it, and he knows it was his own stubborn commitment to an immutable personal code (and his willingness to trust that Crimson Sorceress) that got him here.
Or, maybe Jon’s death was predicted all the way back in season 3’s “The Rains of Castemere,” when his brother Robb and stepmother Catelyn were slaughtered at the Red Wedding. In the midst of a war that Robb entered out of an honor-bound desire to avenge his father’s death, they walked into someone else’s house and asked for and received the customary bread and salt. To the Starks, this was an inflexible sign that they would be treated as guests, and guests aren’t slaughtered at the dinner table. Walder Frey and Tywin Lannister were happy to bend that rule, and so the King in the North fell.
Or, if you like, we could go back even further to the very first of Game of Thrones’ shocking deaths, to the inaugural “This is How Things Work in Westeros” moment: The death of Jon’s father (or not, depending on which fan theories you read) Ned Stark at the hands of Joffrey Baratheon’s executioner. Ned spent the entire first season of the show preaching about honor, and abiding by a code that, until that point, had served him well. He went looking for answers in King’s Landing, not just because he wanted to finish the work of a dead friend, but because to Ned Stark, absolute truth is important. He took his absolute truth, that Joffrey should not be king, and confronted the tangled web of intrigue that is King’s Landing with it. The web ensnared him, because he trusted too easily and believed too quickly that others were as honorable as he. Then, when he finally did see the value of compromise and living to fight another day, it was too late.
Last night’s episode was titled “Mother’s Mercy,” a name that comes not from Jon’s story, but from Cersei Lannister’s. Cersei does not have a code to dictate her behavior, or if she does it’s only “Win and Keep My Family Safe.” She is not burdened by strict morals or honor or the need to prove herself. So, after weeks of wasting away in the High Sparrow’s dungeon, she confessed to some of her sins, lied about the others, and walked free. When she leaves captivity to make her literal walk of shame through the city, she looks up at the Red Keep in the distance, and she knows that if she can only endure this walk, she will have won. She will be humiliated and bloodied and broken, but it’s the price she’s now willing to pay for a return to power. Her honor doesn’t matter, and she almost literally strips it off her body in the finale. For Cersei, the Mother’s Mercy isn’t a gift from a faith she’s suddenly reclaimed. The mercy is that through her compromise, she is free to play the game again.
In contrast, Jon begins the season with power when he assumes the role of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but power doesn’t interest him. He doesn’t want to consolidate his rule at The Wall. He wants to help people. He wants to uphold his vow to protect the Seven Kingdoms at all costs, and in the end it seems to have cost him his life.
It’s easy to peg Game of Thrones as the show that makes you care about heroes and then kills them, but that’s too simple. This isn’t a show about how heroes die and villains win. It’s a show about both heroes and villains surviving through evolution. Daenerys refuses to re-open the fighting pits in Meereen, but once she does it is through those fighting pits that her life, and her potential future power, is saved. Arya wants to avenge her family’s deaths, but the only way she can do it is by leaving her entire identity, including her family, behind her. Tyrion thrived on Lannister wealth and power, but to survive he had to leave that all behind and pledge himself to another great house: Targaryen.
It’s fitting that in a Game of Thrones season where the books and the show had to meet in the middle like never before, the theme of survival through compromise was driven home so powerfully in the finale. On this show, characters who hold honor and truth and chivalry as absolutes almost always eventually learn the hard way: In this world, “All Men Must Die” is the only rule that seems to stick.