Religion has played an increasingly important role in each consecutive season of Game of Thrones—and in the show’s fifth season, it’s the glue that holds it all together.
Following the death of her eldest son, Joffery, Cersei (Lena Headey), able to control her younger child and now king Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) like a puppet, reactivates an ancient religious order called the Faith Militant, who appear straight out of an Assassins Creed video game. The order, under Cersei’s permission, doesn’t recognize boundaries set by nobility or wealth—all sinners deserve the punishment of God.
In the best editing of the season, the works of the Faith Militant are cut with scenes of the Sons of the Harpy, a religiously coated underground terrorist insurgency cult set on overthrowing the rule of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in the former slave city Meereen. Though less explicitly religious, the cultish devotion to the “harpy,” whose masks they wear, and their tendency towards revolution reeks of religious extremism. The placement of their attacks alongside the kidnapping and murders of the Faith Militant intentionally equates the two. The imposing and restricting aspects of religious fundamentalism and the explicit terrorist of the Harpy are just two sides of the same coin.
The Faith Militant, as an armed wing of the Faith of the Seven, is coded as Catholic, which author George R.R. Martin has readily admitted. The phrase “faith militant” isn’t far from “church militant,” the Catholic term to describe all living Christians in combat against the darkness of the world. One way to interpret the “Faith Militant,” thus, is as Christendom, who are likewise equated with extremism.
This season is all-in-all skeptical of religion. The show’s longest-lasting symbol of religion, the Red Priestess (Carice van Houten), is failed miserably by her visions—leading to the death of King Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and his claim to the throne of Westeros. The price of following religious beliefs, the horrendous burning of Shireen (Kerry Danielle Ingram), was entirely in vain.
Martin and the creators of the show give a little more complicated and confusing treatment of religion in the Free City of Braavos with the assassin cult Faceless Men, who worship the Many-Faced God and appear to stoically deny even their identities. They appear to kill in honor of the god of death, a killing that they see as a gift rather than a sacrifice. And because the innocent Arya Stark (Maise Williams) approves of them, so do viewers. When Arya murders the pedophile, even though technically condemned for it by the Faceless Men, she was only able to do so because of the face-swapping enabled by her time with the cultish group. Ultimately, though, her time in Braavos is the most confusing aspect to season five. Who are these people? Why is she blind now? What’s with the self-denial? Are they even people we can cheer for?
The other major theme of this season was the guiding question “What does it mean to be the child of _.” Arya must become the child of nobody. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) kenotically denies his life-long dream to become a Stark. The mischievous Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) makes the flip decision, with his father Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) giving a similar heir approving speech as Stannis gave to his daughter a few episodes before burning her alive. Almost every remaining main character encounters this question throughout the fifth season.
Changing gears, in one of the best-choreographed fight scenes in the series, Grey Worm and Barristan fiend off the Sons of the Harpy in what appears to be a great last stand. The action is blunter and quicker with more close-ups than most of the action in GOT, and the cut away, before we know of their fates, was most painful. The next best action also revolved around the Sons of the Harpy and it ended with a dragon fight, so it’s safe to say the fifth season has the best action so far.
The season is at its worse in the editing room and in narrative structure. Sometimes having six or even seven different locations, almost every episode leaves one location out on a rotating basis—a rarity in the previous seasons. And if they don’t, the episodes feel too bloated. The clever editing has slowly dissipated as well. No longer are shots edited together based on sexual positions in two different scenes; instead, the editing feels sloppier and it drags. Worst yet, after the finale of season four, we still haven’t seen what’s next for Bran Stark. For an entire season we haven’t seen a character we followed for the previous three. It almost feels like a production mistake.
Despite the shaky editing, the season is one of the best. Each of the last three episodes feels like a season finale because of their dramatic weight and revelations. The deaths of Jon Snow, Barristan, and Stannis are three of the five most influential deaths in the show so far, which only adds to this season’s emotional highs. And with spending more time across the Narrow Sea, the world of Game of Thrones is finally opening up: the stone people and the fallen Volantis, Braavos, Meereen, etc—and GOT is best suited for a big world rather than confining itself to the narrow halls of King’s Landing.