I started replying vanimy here and LJ told me that my reply was too
So this was vanimy’s statement:
Admittedly I loved Book 5 so can't agree with you on that one, if only because it made me sob at the end and because I loved Harry in this one, and of course Hermione.
which was in response to my earlier comment that Book 4 was the last good Harry Potter book. In the process of typing out a response, I started thinking about why exactly Book 5 at the time of its publication was a good book, and now in retrospect became the first of the bad trilogy that ended the series. Hence this meta.
It is long. Bathroom breaks are not optional.
The bad but not the deal-breakers
These are the flaws in Book 5 that one could have lived with. It’s not the Cho Chang-ification of Ginny Weasley. It’s not the host of new characters that contribute zilch to the story – Hello
And these are the names I even remember.
The most relevant new character was Regulus Black and he was dead.
It’s not the lack of variation of certain elements of the story – wow, Gryffindor wins the House Cup and Quidditch Cup again and still remain the underdogs! – or - isn’t it considerate of Voldemort to always attack Harry at the end of the school year?
It’s something else. Something I can’t really explain without a lot of rambling but it began with the universal pearl of wisdom – “don’t make promises you can’t deliver on” and the press releases that heralded the advent of Book 5.
It was the darker tale that really wasn’t
Words like ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, ‘grimmer’ were used a lot in those press releases. I didn’t have the skepticism that I do now towards Harry Potter but I remember thinking that if the whole world and its brother already knew that somebody was going to die at the end of the Book, it would really take a lot of the bite from the darkness of the story.
Then Book 5 finally came out and funny enough, it wasn’t even dark. It was grey.
It wasn’t the pyrrhic victory at the end of the book that marked it grey. That was better done with Book 3 when Harry saves Sirius’s life but not his freedom and a dangerous enemy escapes free. Or perhaps even nearer in Book 4 when Harry escapes from his own death but only after the death of a fellow student and the resurrection of Voldemort.
It was marked grey because of a statement that Sirius Black made, a statement that (at the time) I thought was going to be the over-arching theme of the rest of the series:
The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.
Unlike the previous books, where (with the exception of Snape), the good guys were unfailingly good and nice, and the bad guys were unfailingly evil, mean and unattractive, Book 5 introduced the concept of good guys not always doing the right thing, doing out-and-out evil things now and then; and bad guys being even more humane and sympathetic than the good guys. Book 5 introduced the concept of good guys and bad guys being a great deal more alike than they (or at leas the good guys) think they are.
Harry Voldemort, Hermione Umbridge & the two faces of Godric’s heirs
This was the book that really told us why Voldemort chose the half-blood baby as his nemesis but more importantly, this was the book that showed us why he chose Harry Potter.
Harry Potter starts the book by trying to pick a fight with Dudley and threatening him with magic, and it goes down hill from there. He exhibits megalomania to rival Voldemort: begrudging and belittling Ron for his prefect’s badge (his best friend who Harry knows has an inferiority complex), turning against friends who refuse to give him 100% unconditional loyalty (Seamus, Cho), a serious temper problem that gets him so frequently into trouble with Umbridge that after a while, he stops being a martyr and becomes an attention seeker; his blind refusal to learn Occlumency, and finally the arrogance of his decision to rescue Sirius (instead of say, using the Floo to alert the Order or even speaking to a member of the Order still in the school) which led to Sirius Black’s death.
Then there was the arc of Hermione Granger and all the parallels (I thought) Rowling was drawing between her actions and loyalty to Harry and Dolores Umbridge’s actions and loyalty to Fudge. Neither of them was above using violence (unleashing dementors, disfiguring traitors) or blackmail (Fletcher, Rita Skeeter) to further and protect their respective hero’s causes. And to remove all ambiguity from this, we have the scene in the Forbidden Forest where both women arrogantly attempt to manipulate the centaurs – Hermione with a great deal more success – and the centaurs turn against both of them for this. (And though this happens in Book 7, it’s interesting to compare Umbridge who is clinging so desperately to a false pureblood ancestry to Hermione Granger whose Muggle parents have no first names, and who after her first year, spends all her Christmases and Summer holidays with magical people, and has had her heart set on marrying into a pureblood family since she was eleven).
Then the rest of the Gryffindors – the Weasley twins and their dangerous ‘tricks’ who defend themselves against the loss of House points by attacking another student two to one and nearly cause his death by shock and near-starvation. The older Gryffindors are no better. The rest of the Order barely ‘tolerating’ Severus Snape who as a spy is probably the most valuable asset that they have. They are quick to forget that the only known traitor of the Order was a Gryffindor. Then you have Sirius Black acting like an irresponsible teenager, and the worst kind of bully to his family’s house-elf. And to show us (or so I thought at the time) that there is a lesson in all this, Sirius Black is the scapegoat who gets punished for his wrongdoings. Dumbledore himself has never had a greyer moment (yes, even his posthumous love affair with Grindelwald included) than the scene in his office where in a heartbeat he ‘defends’ his student from being physically assaulted and then personally assists an Auror in mentally crippling her. “Only I may harm my children”, is what I believe he indeed thought. And as usual, there’s Hagrid – the only Professor who never completed his own magic training but got his job for being loyal to Dumbledore – who brings in a wild giant to a school for children. Even the usually sane McGonogall & Flitwick encourage open rebellion in the school, and cheer on Peeves as he lays potentially fatal traps.
Slytherins, Marauders and what really makes the bad guys the bad guys anyway?
The Sorting Hat sang a new song, a song about House Unity. Harry thinks mockingly to himself that there would never be a day when there’s unity between Gryffindor and Slytherin and the reader believes that those are words to rue by as they say.
The first Quidditch match ends with a cliché of a fight: Good vs. Evil, two physically imposing opponents – one is older – against one scrawny kid. The tag team throwing the first punch, one boy sitting on the kid while the other one punches him with a ball. But the kid is not an underdog Gryffindor, and the thugs are not cheating Slytherins. It’s the other way around.
Before then, we find out that Sirius Black was almost a Slytherin, that he turned his back on his family when he was sorted into Gryffindor to the extent that his younger brother was left without guidance and ended up as a Death Eater. We find out that there’s a blood connection between the Gryffindor Weasleys and the Slytherin Malfoys and that sometimes it’s not a question of choosing to be good or evil but of being born into a particular family. And though the majority of the Inquisitor Squad are Slytherins, it’s the not the Gryffindors and the rest of the school who are admitted into the hospital wing with cases horns, boils and death from shock and near-starvation.
Then there is the Pensieve scene where Harry and the readers’s four years perception of James and his generaton is shattered. We find out that the Marauders were not heroes but rather the villains that their name really means. James Potter is not an icon, but a vain, bullying braggart who picks one-sided fights to show his best side. (Harry is so horrified at his father that he wonders if he was conceived in the same way he will later discover that Voldemort was.) Sirius Black is not an amiable trickster but a manipulative sociopath and James’s leash-holder. Remus Lupin is a coward who unlike the much-mocked Neville Longbottom, doesn’t have the courage to stand up to his friends. Pettigrew is a sycophant the likes of whom Harry himself would never have tolerated. And Severus Snape is not the jealous, cowardly troublemaker that Harry had cast him as, but a friendless half-blood with a background uncannily like Harry, who was their punching bag and turned to Dark Arts to defend himself in a school where a bully like James Potter becomes a Head Boy.
Don’t make promises you can’t deliver on
So after all that build-up, what happens in Books 6 & 7? Does the Boy Who Live ever realize that it takes more than Parseltongue to become the next Tom Riddle and that he has what it takes? Does he make a conscious effort to, to put it crudely, get over himself? Does Hermione Granger curb her ruthlessness, reconcile with her Muggle heritage or at the very least shows some remorse for what she did to Marietta? Do we find out why James Potter is a good man? Do the Slytherins and Gryffindors bury their long-standing hatchet and form a united front against Voldemort?
You would think that that would have happened, right?
Harry is universally acclaimed the Chosen One and every single not-good action he’s ever done, down to the Sorting Hat considering him fit for Slytherin, boils down to a piece of Voldemort residing in his soul. (Except when he uses an Unforgivable Torture Curse to retaliate against spitting because then it’s gallantry.) He and Hermione have a good laugh over Marietta’s scars, Hermione violently attacks a boy for not liking her, and she Obliviates her Muggle parents and goes on to marry into wizarding royalty. James Potter was really the first generation Draco Malfoy right down to being Sorted into the House of his Fathers. And the only good Slytherin is a dead Slytherin who was in love with a perfect Gryffindor and should really have been sorted Gryffindor in the first place.
So in a nutshell, this is why Order of the Phoenix succeeded as the 5th book at the time of its release, and ultimately began the first of the failed trilogy that ended the series. It showed us a many-colored Potterverse, forced us to scratch beneath the surface of our characters and really ‘see’ them and judge them for their actions and not just the perceptions of good/evil we had had before. It introduced themes of loyalty, and questioning authority and being careful not to become the dragons we slay.
And it dashed them.
The books following Book 5 did not deliver on the promise of Book 5 and thus, the Order of the Phoenix became a cheat. The Potterverse is divided into good people and Death Eaters: you are either Dumbledore’s man – the Supreme Authority’s man – or you are evil. The good guys are never, ever wrong. Eighteen years into the future, grown men will point at the children of Slytherins and instruct their children on the Fine Art of Social Ostracizing.
And all these will be Good Things.