This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
A year ago, Game of Thrones returned to television like a crimson gush for fans still mourning the slaughter at the Twins. After 10 months of grieving for Robb and Catelyn Stark, as well as the loss of HBO’s flagship series from the airwaves, the anticipation for vengeance and the return of the best show on TV demanded that blood and hype be quenched—and it was, if at least in season four’s second episode.
Game of Thrones season five emerges from the long winter of waiting in a strikingly different context. Following four seasons of Lannister triumph and malevolence, the antagonistic family’s grip has been severely shaken from within, as Tyrion Lannister, unjustly accused for murdering one family member, is now in exile for the very guilty assassination of another. Just as the Lannisters implausibly became (in many respects) the central protagonists of Game of Thrones, our erstwhile villains are suddenly finding the ice breaking beneath their feet like they’re Starks.
So, with Tywin dead, Stannis going off to fight essentially another war that crescendoed into the long anticipated Wildling assault on the Wall, and Arya all but giving up on any sort of Stark restoration by setting sail (like Tyrion) for the far lands of Essos, the board has been reset. The rapid forward momentum created by Littlefinger offing Jon Arryn, Jaime Lannister pushing Bran Stark out a window, and Joffrey ordering the execution of Ned Stark came to a swift end when Tywin received two sharp-looking Father’s Day gifts from his son. As a result, Game of Thrones is in need of rearranging its board pieces for the first significant time in its run.
It is a challenge that tickled George R.R. Martin for more than a decade; glacially penning A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons reminded the author of untying a “Meereenese Knot.” Perhaps for that reason, right from the offset of including Essos and Westeros in this premiere, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are going another way in their chess piece movements. It is not about blood; it’s laying new foundations in the remains of last year’s ashes—with three noticeably new pillars.
Wisely, “The Wars to Come” narrows its sprawling focus to several central storylines as opposed to trying to hit every last character thread still dangling. And in this case, the premiere seems primarily focused on who holds the most power, and those who are gaining. With one notable exception, those without a clear path to game entry are completely absent (sorry Arya and Theon fans) while those who stand the most likely to benefit from the power vacuum left by Tywin Lannister, Robb Stark, and a defeated Mance Rayder take center stage. Thus enter newly invigorated Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.
The first of these, who opens and lords over the episode, is unsurprisingly the one to most directly benefit from Tywin Lannister’s demise. Indeed, Queen Cersei continues to mistakenly believe that she is truly her father’s daughter.
For the first time in Game of Thrones history, we are treated to a flashback of a young Cersei Lannister and a childhood friend named Jeyne Farman visiting Lannisport’s local witch and fortuneteller, Maggy the Frog. Despite being only a child, Cersei shows much of the same arrogance and vanity that informs Lena Headey’s deliciously cruel performance. As viewers, we already know from Prince Oberyn that Cersei hated and tortured her brother when he was still a babe in the crib, and she is just as pompous here in those early years as we might imagine.
The true importance of this flashback comes from learning that much of Cersei’s life appears predetermined by a witch who correctly predicted that she would never marry a prince (Targaryen), but she would become a queen (with a Baratheon king). The witch also makes the curious riddle about Cersei’s children, for which we already know the answer: they’re not of the king’s loins, and at least one of them wears a death shroud now.
I imagine we have not seen the last of these flashback memories, as this sequence more or less plays out as it did in George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows, and I am as apprehensive toward it now as I was then.
If we get down to brass tacks, Cersei Lannister is a terrible human being by any definition. She is spiteful, paranoid, devious, and dangerously ignorant for someone with so much power. In all honesty, Benioff and Weiss have done a better job of humanizing her prideful shadows by adding complexities to her marriage with Robert not in Martin’s writing. However, Martin’s choice to suggest a childhood trauma induced by a witch with dire warnings about the fate of her children (and likely more to come in future flashbacks), feels like a cheat. Cersei is who she is for a multitude of reasons, but a cryptic fortuneteller scaring the Seven Hells out of her has always struck me as a cheap way to justify many of her past (and future) delusions and cruelties.
Luckily, this sequence is immediately followed by Cersei making blunders perfectly in line with a queen that Petyr Baelish once alluded to by saying, “Sometimes those with the most power have the least grace.”
While strolling up the steps of Baelor—which have been remarkably renovated from their more modest appearance at Ned Stark’s execution—Cersei comes to mourn her father in the most unconvincing of manners.
Arriving in the Sept where Jaime stands amusingly as guard of a corpse, one could understand her fury with the brother who let Tyrion run rampant and into their father’s chambers. Jaime is indeed somewhat responsible for this unexpected action by their younger brother, and now he must have his nose rubbed in its assumedly nasty stench (Tywin did die on a toilet). Yet, Jaime is right about Cersei needing him more than ever now, and that she must consolidate her most useful allies with Tommen as but a boy, and Cersei unloved by even much of her own family.
Cersei wants to be Tywin’s daughter, which is ironic since she feared and despised him in life. But she’s already propping him up as a martyr and political tool before the body is cold. Again lacking what Littlefinger called grace (or perhaps simply cunning), Cersei’s immediate political machinations are laced with emotion and a victim complex that Tywin (or his real heir, Tyrion) would abhor. Within hours of Tywin’s death, she is unwittingly using this familial tragedy as not a political leverage, but as a personal aggrandizement at the expense of her brother-lover, who just might be her only true friend in the Capitol this season.
For instance, we have our first taste of the Franciscan styled ascetic life of the “Sparrows,” a new sect of worship to the Seven that is starting to swarm King’s Landing. Meek and pathetic Lancel Lannister has finally found purpose beyond cowering before Cersei or Tyrion by joining their ranks. Lancel even warns Cersei that he is aware of his sin since he “seduced” her both into his cousinly bed and in the “accidental” death of Robert Baratheon during a boar hunt. Cersei’s ambivalence to his newfound religion speaks volumes to her inability to see the actual “weeds” surrounding people in power, as opposed to a phantom dwarf brother whose head she covets like a trophy.
Not that all of Cersei’s preoccupations are wrong-headed. One of the more amusing scenes of the night involves Margaery Tyrell walking in on brother Loras during a love scene that proves Game of Thrones can be equal opportunity about “sexposition.” This scene both serves as proof that Loras is being more cavalier about his attitudes now that his arranged marriage is in the wind, and also intriguingly that Margaery has designs about getting Cersei out of King’s Landing. In a departure from the book, she is actually actively scheming against Cersei, which makes their inevitable clashing later this year all the more tantalizing.
But far away from King’s Landing, another matriarch is facing her latest challenge for choosing to stay in Meereen. After tearing down the city’s sacred monument to the Harpy, Queen Daenerys Targaryen seems a bit perplexed as to why some of her conquered subjects are striking back. The first, but likely not the last, of her Unsullied has been murdered by a new insurgent style of underground resistance, which calls itself the “Sons of the Harpy.”
Meanwhile, Hizdahr zo Loraq—the son of a Meereen master who despite being against mass execution got crucified by Dany’s army last season—has returned with his latest request from the Breaker of Chains: to reopen the fighting pits, which are much like the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. During these sequences, there is some lip service paid to new Daario Naharis apparently having once been a fighting pit champion who won his freedom. It is a new invention for the series to add a bit of sleazy Starz/Spartacus grandeur to a character who at the end of the day is simply remains as Dany’s mistress and queenly consort. In other words, nothing will make Daario interesting, but at least he is laying solid groundwork for a conflict to come.
Honestly, Daenerys’ storyline poses great challenges in the fifth season since her choice to stay in Meereen, much like in A Dance with Dragons, freezes her in a status quo far from the far more interesting and crucial developments in the Seven Kingdoms. For the first time in five seasons, the Stormborn Targaryen is not fighting against the wind on a quest home. Instead, she is continuing to learn the hard parts of ruling that she first experienced in the latter half of season four.
Yet, I have hope that her plot thread can pick up from these sequences. Currently, she feels as though she is dealing with a singular political murder and another barbaric request from a culture she rules but doesn’t understand. With any luck, the increasing ire of this Mhysa’s “children” will create narrative dynamics that allow her to do more than cringe at the thought of fighting pits in future episodes. At the very least, with true advisors like Ser Selmy Barristan around her, she is providing a pragmatic (if still sometimes arrogant) contrast to the Queen Regent across the Narrow Sea.
But by far the most fascinating pillar being buried for the new status quo—far from King’s Landing or the realpolitik of Essos—is right by the Wall. Currently, Ser Alliser Thorne remains the temporary commander of the Night’s Watch. And yet, all the important power plays in the ruins of Castle Black are belonging to the “boy” that held the Wall during its greatest battle.
It is telling that when King Stannis demands a crow to negotiate a potential unification with the Wildlings, it is Jon Snow he turns to. This is partially due to Jon having a history (perhaps too much history) with the Wildlings, be they Mance or Ygritte. But despite lacking any formal aspect of authority, Jon Snow has announced his place as a major force in the power vacuum left from the first half of the Game of Thrones saga. Lord Commander Mormont is dead, and the Night’s Watch is essentially now in an uneasy alliance with Stannis Baratheon, one of the only two “kings” left in this land. Without a real chain of command, Jon Snow is no longer taking orders when he makes the executive decision to end Mance Rayder’s life with a merciful arrow to the heart.
Since Mance had refused to bend the knee and marry the captured Wildlings to Stannis’ cause, Tormund Giantsbane, a squeamish Gilly, a very happy Samwell Tarly (she’s putting her head on my shoulder, Jon!), and all the rest of the remnants from an epic battle watch as one king condemns another to fire. And unlike A Dance with Dragons, which made whether Stannis and Melisandre really executed Mance ambiguous, that is most definitely the King Beyond the Wall stepping onto the pyre, complete with heroic final words and his refusal to scream for as long as possible.
It’s a shame to lose Rome alum Ciaran Hinds on this show, particularly after a wonderfully nuanced performance of pride and fear at the thought of a death by fire. But it is another defiant curve from the book series, and one that promises a potentially more dynamic fifth season than what’s on the page. Already wheels are in motion not only with Jon’s brazenness, but also Melisandre grooming another child with king’s blood (both Stark and possibly another) for her plans. It wouldn’t be the first time she used a bastard for nefarious ends…
Things are changing in the North, and it’s a good thing. Much like we saw in tonight’s episode from the less powerful game players. For instance, at this point in the novels, Sansa Stark is still surveying the Vale like a prestigious babysitter to “Sweetrobin” Arryn. Yet on Game of Thrones, the brat is mercifully dropped off with the Royces, and Littlefinger and Sansa Stark move west to a much more tantalizing plotline. Sansa may be a Stark, but after years of suffering, she is no longer thinking like one. With Petyr Baelish as her Mr. Miyagi in all things deceit, she might even be able to manipulate her way out of following her parents to an honorable end.
Wherever Littlefinger is taking Sansa, it is more intriguing than her literary counterpart’s adventures at the moment. And it’s to the west…which for the record is where the King’s Road would be located from the Vale. Also, that said road can take one all the way from King’s Landing to the Wall. Or somewhere in-between. Like the North.
Finally, the most immediate aftermath of last season’s finale is of course what will become of Tyrion Lannister, whose life has gone to crap—quite literally it would seem, as he spent weeks pushing it out of his air holes in a crate. At least he got a magnificent beard out of the journey. He also earned the right to know about the worst kept secret in all of the season five materials: Varys wants to take the smallest Lion of Lannister to the Mother of Dragons.
It’s on the posters and it’s the sign-off line of the trailers for a reason. Too long has Game of Thrones kept its narrative threads separate. For the first time since season one, it feels like all the threads (some in ways that will surprise book readers) are tying together in a much cleaner knot than a Meereenese one from the past. Tyrion is a drunk, bitter, and angry half-man furious still at his father for not being there to die again. But he now has a purpose that is finally bringing the Daenerys Targaryen storyline into the main narrative of Westerosi conflict.
It is also nice to start seeing all of the pieces falling into place. As devout fans recall, Illyrio Mopatis (played by the always welcome Roger Allam) was the benefactor of Dany and her brother in the very first season, and he also was seen by Arya as cavorting with Varys in season one. Apparently, he has entered into an alliance of secret Targaryen loyalists that predicted Robert’s corruption and Dany’s ascension. Of course, this remains still somewhat fuzzy as Varys sent an assassin to kill Daenerys in season one as well, and her “Fire and Blood” heritage may not be too happy to see the spawn of Tywin Lannister—especially as Tyrion has proven to be a traitor to his own family.
Varys thinks Tyrion is invaluable to Dany, but the only value Tyrion has at this point is to drink. Nevertheless, it is an exciting promise of things to come.
And that more or less sums up the thesis of “The Wars to Come.” Like its title would suggest, The War of the Five Kings is over, and the war(s) for Westeros are about to begin. Dany will have to fight her way to King’s Landing (assuming Meereen doesn’t bury her alive with redundancy), and Stannis will have to carve out a piece of the North for himself if he ever wants to sit the Iron Throne. But most of all, there is a whole other issue beyond all of this fighting that Varys nor Tyrion seem remotely aware about.
Yet, all of these problems were laid bare in the season four finale. This premiere was about setting the stage in that context for a new saga, one that promises to be as spectacular as those pro-Targaryen wars that Varys speaks of with longing—and also just as far away from fruition. Nonetheless, the amount of even pacing between three central storylines and several adjacent tangents shows a clean understanding of how to build to these impending wars, and mayhaps get there in an efficient way.
For so many pieces simply finding their proper squares, all the character (re)introductions were unveiled with a surefooted confidence and the urgency of a raven. We’re entering a new Game of Thrones. Even if no piece has yet moved after an hour, their placement is riveting stuff. Now, let’s just see where they actually land…
The night is dark and full of terrors. But join me to burn them all away on Twitter.