Game of Thrones Season 5 Premiere Recap: Jockeying for Power

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Crowd scenes are always menacing on Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO
Game of Thrones
Episode Title
The Wars to Come
Season
5
Episode
1
Editor’s Rating
3/5

Game of Thrones cold opens do not usually turn out well for young ladies in dark forests. So even if the eerie music and the spooky cave didn’t tip you off, the mere sight of two girls walking alone through dense, black woods probably triggered that anticipatory stomach burble you’ve been missing these past ten months. Welcome back, GoT!!!

As in Bran’s encounter with the three-eyed raven, the girls enter the cave in search of wisdom from a creature on the edges of humanity — in this case, a witch rumored to have “cat’s teeth and three eyes” who turns out to be pretty normal-looking, as cave-witches go. The blonde demands to hear her fortune and the witch concedes, sucking a fairy-tale drop of blood from the girl’s thumb and telling her that she will not marry “the prince,” as she expects, but will instead marry “the king” — a king who will have 20 children, though the girl will only have three. Gold will be those three children’s crowns, and “gold their shrouds.” She will be queen for a while, and then a younger, more beautiful queen will take her place.

The episode’s title is “The Wars to Come,” but this flashback reminds us that, in Westeros, war is both perpetually always here and always on its way. The girl is, of course, Cersei, getting a fateful glimpse into the battles that lie ahead of her. (Thank the Seven she’s honed her zingers since then: Li’l Cersei was not the most inventive of mean girls.) Even the most powerful, ruthless, and tireless players don’t have the luxury of stopping to catch a breath. After all, as last season’s finale reminded us, you can wake up one morning as the Hand of the King and find yourself dead on the privy before the next sunrise.

The question of what happens now that Tywin’s gone looms over much of the season-five opener. Cool, cold Tywin Lannister was a lot of things: the architect of the family legend, the wellspring of its pain, and the pin in its grenade. He kept the volatile Lannister elements in a sour, bitter suspension, but with him gone it seems entirely possible that his house could fall apart and go the way of House Reyne — and then what happens to the Iron Throne? Tywin’s left no real scraps of power for his children — though they’ll be saddled with his legacy of resentment and estrangement for the rest of their lives — and, well, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of his grandchildren tip into the “golden shrouds” portion of the witch’s prophecy.

The cracks are visible in the first scene after the opener. To arrive at the Great Sept of Baelor, where Tywin’s corpse lies in state, Cersei must pass through a massive, formal throng of people, including the sweetly aggressive Margaery, the younger queen of the prophecy. The gathering recalls the pomp and splendor of the King’s Landing wedding scenes, but with a different sheen of menace. (All crowd scenes in Game of Thrones, I would venture, are menacing; they just vary in their flavor.) The crowd represents everything the Lannisters have accomplished, but also the scale of the risk they now face. As Jaime tells Cersei, in yet another angry tête-à-tête over a relative’s corpse, the people out there are their enemies, just waiting to strike once they see Tywin is really dead.

In another room at King’s Landing, a second pair of beautiful siblings contemplate what Tywin’s death means for their fortunes. Margaery walks in on Loras cavorting with Olyvar, and as she shoos the prostitute out she wonders, archly, whether her brother ought to be more discreet. “Everybody knows everything about everyone,” Loras says, lying back like a postcoital cat. “What’s the point in trying to keep a secret in a place like this?” (Don’t buy too much into the Loras the Cool act, though — note the way he tripped over himself earlier, trying to console his icy fiancée. Cersei responded, in turn, with the most brutally withering sniff Westeros has ever seen.) Loras assumes his engagement is off now that Tywin is dead. Which sucks for Margaery, he points out, because now instead of shipping off to Highgarden, Cersei will be left to skulk around King’s Landing and loom over her daughter-in-law. To which Margaery responds, eating a piece of fruit in typically languid but suggestive fashion, “Perhaps.”

Tywin’s death has already opened the doors to one portentous shift, and it comes, surprisingly, in the form of Lancel Lannister, the cousin who once warmed Cersei’s bed even as he set her teeth on edge. Last seen in season two, in the Battle of Blackwater, bland Lancel is the last person you might think would herald a sea change in the capital. But in his rough-spun robe and bare feet, his luscious locks shorn to stubble, Lancel is the vanguard of the sparrows, a movement of “bloody fanatics” (his father’s words) that looks set to further complicate GoT’s already-byzantine religious canvas. If Lancel’s quivering face is anything to go by, the sparrows’ zeal may rival Melisandre’s. His newfound fervor may also spell trouble for Cersei, given the casual way he mentions Robert Baratheon’s drunken boar hunt.  

But for now, let’s leave the viper-and-sparrows’ nest that is King's Landing. Over the Narrow Sea, the last Lannister child is tumbling and vomiting his way out of a crate he’d been hidden in by Varys, Master of Whisperers and also, apparently, Master of Packing Men in Crates. (Note the nice symmetry between Tyrion’s journey in the dark, cramped box and Cersei riding in her dark, small litter.)

Tyrion is drunk and miserable — as you might be, too, if you’d recently killed your father on the potty and then, in an appropriate bit of comeuppance, spent several days in a box on a ship shoving your shit through an airhole. (This is a family very big on the symbolic importance of poop.) Sweet-talking Varys refuses to let Tyrion wallow, however. After all, Tyrion, you have this noble new beard that cannot go to waste! With great facial hair comes great responsibility! Varys has determined that Westeros needs a ruler stronger than Tommen but gentler than Stannis, who is loved and has the right family name. “Good luck finding him,” Tyrion sulks. “Who said anything about him?” Varys says, at which point you should close your eyes and imagine an extreme Dr. Evil–style zoom-in.

Varys is, of course, talking about Daenerys over in Meereen. And goddammit if I’m not really excited about seeing Tyrion and Dany together! Tyrion’s brand of snide élan would be a welcome jolt to Dany’s stuffy inner circle, and if Dany’s mix of fire and vulnerability can bring out the inspired side of Tyrion, so much the better — I’m ready to see him back at his best.

Daenerys’s occupation clearly needs some juice, or guidance, or something, because things are not going well for the Mother of Dragons in Slaver’s Bay. The Meereen scenes open with a giant brass harpy, girded with ropes, that’s either being erected or pulled down — the close-up camera angles make it hard to tell at first. But soon it becomes clear this is the harpy atop the Great Pyramid of Meereen, where Daenerys now resides. The young queen once draped a monstrous flag over this monumental mother, but now, it seems, the simple presence of this mighty, winged woman is too much competition for her own nascent mythology. Once the harpy hits the ground, a close-up reveals the soft, stern facial features of a classical Buddha — queasily echoing examples of colossal religious iconography destroyed in our own world.

But icons are iconic for a reason: They have staying power. After the demolition, one of the Unsullied overseers makes his way to a brothel. Skipping over two white women proffering their wares, he chooses a woman with a kind face whose dark skin matches his own. He has clearly been here before. The man lies down and the woman cradles him, stroking him and humming a lullaby. The camera closes in on the man’s face, which, at rest, echoes the harpy’s relaxed features. Outside, we can hear the ruckus of people and the barking of dogs but here, in this room, it is quiet and still — like the safe, set-apart cave that sheltered Jon Snow and Ygritte. It’s one of the sweetest moments I’ve ever seen on the show. My notes here read:

Soothing. Maternal. Have we ever seen a scene like this b/w a man and woman OH DAMMMNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN

Because just then, the guy gets his jugular slashed. Just as a quarrel of sparrows is circling King’s Landing, the aggressive and shadowy flock known as the Sons of the Harpy is here to resist Daenerys’s rule. While Daenerys may insist that she’s a liberator and not a conqueror, it’s not really the conqueror’s call to make, is it? In an episode full of aggressively low camera angles, the shot that looked up at the grim prostitute standing next to a figure in a gold, horned mask was the most gripping. Daenerys pulled down the Mother Harpy, but she clearly failed to uproot her.

The most evocative sign of Dany’s vulnerability comes when she descends into the crypt-kennel to visit her two remaining dragons (Drogon, the big one that killed the goatherd’s daughter, is still MIA). It’s a chilling scene: In the dark, you can hear Dany’s frightened breathing and the rattle of heavy chains before a dragon lunges out at her, casting fire and snapping his jaws. As she runs back out and into the open air, gasping in terror, you can almost hear Tywin tsk-tsk that the love of a mistreated child can never be regained.

Viewed in this light, the final major piece of the episode can be seen as a rare example on GoT of a parent-child relationship coming to something like a respectful ending. Mance Rayder is being held as a POW at Castle Black, following his surrender to Stannis in last season’s finale. Stannis wants the wildlings to join his army, so he sends Jon Snow, the son Mance never had (and would only begrudgingly admit to maybe wanting), to convince the big man to bend the knee. The two former comrades volley lofty arguments back and forth about freedom, pride, legacy, and duty, but Mance is not convinced — which is how he ends up strapped to a pyre in the courtyard. As the fire is lit and Ciarán Hinds’s face begins to play endless riffs of pain, horror, and hysteria, the camera lingers on each witness: Selyse predictably enrapt; Tormund pained; Gilly overcome.

And then an arrow shoots in from out of frame to strike Mance in the heart. The big man looks up to see Jon Snow, his almost-son, holding the bow that put him out of his misery. It’s a gruesome but almost heartwarming end. Tywin should have been so lucky when it was his turn to meet the business end of his boy’s arrow.

Some stray thoughts, and then I’ll see you back here next week. Until then, you throw your own shit overboard.

  • Littlefinger and Sansa leave newly orphaned Robyn Arryn with Lord Royce as they set off for the Fingers … at least, that’s where they tell Royce they’re going. In the carriage, Sansa (smart girl) notes that they’re actually headed west, and Littlefinger tells her that they’re going someplace so far that even Cersei won’t be able to get her hands on Sansa. I love the quickness with which Sansa speaks now; I can’t wait to see where her story line goes this season. Meanwhile, what’s off to the west? A potential answer, and spoiler, here.
  • I’m always sad when an episode gives us just a taste of Brienne, but we got a good one tonight. Humbled by Arya’s rejection and trying to shake off Podrick, she snaps at the squire, “I’m not your mother.” I love this little exchange for what it points out about Brienne’s unique model of feminine protectiveness: Unlike a protector like Catelyn or even Dany, the framework Brienne operates within isn’t maternal, but chivalrous. But wouldn’t it be kind of fun to see Brienne with a baby?
  • There was a lovely, sad moment between Missandei and Grey Worm, once she realizes that White Rat’s assassination means some Unsullied do indeed sully themselves with women. It ends with Grey Worm playing dumb and brushing her off. Missanworm shippers, rectify this situation!
  • Jon Snow doesn’t stand a chance in seven hells against Melisandre, does he?