Five years in, what can meaningfully be said about a Game Of Thrones season premiere? That it looks and feels spectacular. That its cast was clearly picked from the top of the pile. That there’s nothing even close to its scale or budget on television. At this point though, doesn’t all that go without saying?
After four exemplary and expensive seasons, we’ve come to expect great things from HBO’s flagship as a matter of course. Impressive world-building, seamless special effects, forensically choreographed action, scares, laughs, pathos… The season five opener has it all, exactly as anticipated.
(HBO would hardly have tricked out the Tower Of London with all the trappings of last night’s glitzy premiere if the episode was a dud. You could say – to put it in terms that the Iron Bank of Braavos might understand – that Game Of Thrones is simply too big to fail.)
Now though, the show is telling us that it’s time to stop taking all that accomplishment for granted. “The Wars To Come” arrives to shake us out of viewer-complacency and remind us that Game Of Thrones is finite and moving towards an endgame, whatever’s said in the press about ten-year plans, prequels and spin-offs.
This episode is the fulcrum on which the show’s narrative tips from stories of personal rivalries and revenge into a global perspective. “A chain of mistakes” has led them all to this point – what next? “The Wars To Come” asks. The Seven Kingdoms need saving. Ultimately, which of this lot will be the ones to do it?
That explains the absence of certain players in this first, still-crowded hour. Those set on individual courses of mad revenge (the ones that haven’t been killed by it yet) and magical discovery (Bran’s apparently giving the whole season a miss while he enrols in the Hogwarts satellite campus under that tree) are swept to one side while the stories of the real contenders for the Iron Throne are picked up. Like all games, the one of thrones will have winners and losers, and more than any episode that’s come before it, “The Wars To Come” prompts us to start dividing the pack.
(One non-Throne contender is given proper attention here, a character who’s been steadily pursued by their hubris since – we realise – long before the show started, hubris which now threatens to finally catch up with and overtake them.)
A persuasive argument is made by one character that we become who we truly are in combat. If that’s so, then perhaps seasons one to four can be considered Game Of Thrones’ fighting pits, and season five will be about showing us exactly who the people are that those battles have forged. Several characters voice their own opinion on that in the episode. Two jokingly greet each other with a list of the nicknames by which they were once known in a pally sloughing off of old identities. “I’m not a knight” says one, “I’m not a lord any longer” says another, “I’m not a politician, I’m a Queen” says yet another. There’s much talk of respect, justice and mercy.
Characters who’ve dwelt in the shadows and peripheries for years come blinking out into the sun and show their essential nature. One has – quite understandably – lost faith in mankind, declaring all the good men dead and all the rest monsters. Another reveals a surprisingly idealistic vision for the Seven Kingdoms, a world worth fighting for.
If that last part doesn’t sound very Game Of Thrones, don’t worry. The show hasn’t changed form, only shifted slightly in perspective. There are still murders and magic, cursing and drinking, and plenty of bedroom scene bum shots. Varys and Tyrion still get all the best lines.
It all continues to look magnificent too, from the Sept of Baelor in mourning lit like a painting by an old master, to the snow-swept vistas at the Wall and beyond. One sequence – already teased in the trailers – showing an enormous statue crashing down to earth like a Boeing 747 in a glossy disaster movie is a thrilling technical marvel, as is the rest of it, for that matter.
The praise not heaped at the feet of the designers and effects teams goes to writers DB Weiss and David Benioff, director Michael Slovis, and the actors, in particular Lena Headey as Cersei, who continues to tease improbable humour out of her character’s imperious cruelty. Cersei and Margaery have been built up so convincingly thus far that one of their short scenes unfolds as a kind of mime, an entirely silent exchange in which we hear and feel every word spoken.
Game Of Thrones now feels like a show building towards a spectacular climax. It may not arrive for years yet, but be assured, it is coming. Let’s make the most of its world while we still can.
Game Of Thrones starts on HBO on Sunday the 12th of April and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Monday the 13th of April.