Season premiere review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'The Wars to Come': Mance marching?
"Game of Thrones" is back for its fifth season. I published an overall review of the early episodes on Thursday, and I have thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as they revoke my nobility...
"And thus began the chain of mistakes that led us here." -Varys
"The Wars to Come" opens with a flashback to Cersei as a girl, asking a witch to tell her of the future. The witch is right on the money in so many of her predictions — including all of Robert's bastards and the three children she'll have with her brother — that it's easy to understand now why Cersei is so paranoid about her future daughter-in-law, whom she's been told will cast her down and take all she holds dear.
Presenting a flashback is a departure for the series, which has often featured talk of the past but never outright shown it to us before. In fact, Benioff and Weiss have said that when they began making the show, they promised themselves they would never present prophecies, dreams, or flashbacks, and have broken all three promises. I don't look at that as a failure, though, but as smart creators learning over time how their show worked and what it needed. As powerful as so many of the monologues about past events have been (Jaime discussing his nickname, or Oberyn telling the story of meeting baby Tyrion), and as wonderfully as I think Lena Headey could have delivered a speech about what the old woman in the cabin told her (if there was someone remaining whom she trusted enough to tell), there's a power that comes from actually witnessing an event that words alone can't always convey, even with actors this great. I wouldn't want the show to go all-in on flashbacks (there's another origin story monologue coming up in a couple of episodes that I wouldn't dream of taking away from the actor who tells it), but on certain key points — and particularly involving a character as pivotal as Cersei Lannister — they can be incredibly valuable. We already understand many of the reasons why Cersei has always been so joyless and paranoid, but this adds substantially to that. Once she wound up with Robert instead of the prince to whom she was betrothed, she had to suspect the old woman was right, and her life since then has kept providing confirmation, and only made given her more reason to throw up her shields.
The flashback quickly leads to present-day Cersei dealing with the aftermath of her father's murder, as she once again finds herself in a sept with Jaime, standing over a body whose death she blames — accurately, this time — on Tyrion. It's a very different kind of encounter than the last time they were together in this setting, and Cersei's fury over Jaime having freed their brother — thus allowing him to commit patricide and put their entire empire at risk — speaks to a theme that will resonate throughout this episode, and has been a big part of the entire series: good intentions gone horribly awry.
Jaime only wanted to protect Tyrion from execution, and had no idea of what he would do on the way to the ship. When Tyrion and Varys arrive in Pentos, Varys recalls the support he and Illyrio threw behind restoring a Targaryen to the throne, and all the damage that inadvertently has done. (Though the events that really set all those fatal dominoes toppling, at least in Westeros, were Littlefinger murdering Jon Arryn, and then Cersei's cousin Lancel poisoning Robert on the boar hunt.) Mance Rayder uniting all the wildling tribes to march on the Wall didn't have unintended consequences; it just failed thanks to Stannis' arrival. But I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Stannis' attempt to use the wildlings to help take back the North goes pear-shaped, given the way this universe works.
And Dany's reign in Essos as the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and Painter of Landscapes has been one long lesson on the perils of having good intentions without the proper plan. She conquered these cities because she believed freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, but now she's stuck in Slaver's Bay because the current status quo only barely works with her in charge, and would fall apart altogether if she took the Unsullied and her remaining dragons across the water to take back King's Landing. One of the episode's most stunning images involves the toppling of the Harpy statue atop the pyramid in Meereen, which evokes many incidents from history both recent and ancient of conquerors taking down a symbol of the previous regime. But as we also know from both recent and ancient history, when you enter a region where you truly don't understand the locals and their customs, and don't have any idea of what to do after the fighting is done, trouble comes — here in the form of a fundamentalist insurgency that's no longer intimidated now that Dany's dragons are out of the picture. (The mess with the dragons — one of whom is missing, two of whom now despise their mother because she chained them up — also comes from Dany refusing to think through the consequences of her actions.)
Varys and Tyrion are on the road to see Dany, and while it's fun to imagine those two livening up one of the glummer corners of the series, the last couple of seasons have given us ample evidence that their target will need a lot of guidance before she can be the benevolent but respected ruler Varys wants so badly to install on the Iron Throne.
Still, their mission promises to contract the show's universe a bit and make Dany relevant to the rest of the series for the first time in a while. And though Brienne doesn't realize that Sansa's carriage is riding right past her, that moment plays less like a cruel taunt than simply a reminder that these two character groupings are still in the same vicinity.
Through the action at Castle Black, "The Wars to Come" demonstrates the value the show is getting by letting different worlds collide. Apart, Stannis can be a stone-faced thug and Jon Snow a bit dull in his suffering nobility. Put them together, though, in a situation where each man respects the other but has a different agenda, and there's suddenly a new charge through both characters as they feel each other out. Jon knows that Stannis saved them all with the arrival of his army, but he doesn't think Stannis understands the motivations of Mance and the other wildlings, while Davos suggests that there are many in this area who still think Jon's sympathies lie with the free folk. That Jon ultimately performs a mercy killing with bow and arrow (Ygritte-style) to spare Mance the agony of burning to death(*) would only support this theory, and generate additional conflict with Stannis
(*) In a moment very evocative of the climax of "Last of the Mohicans," where Hawkeye performs a similar act of mercy.
It's an efficient premiere, featuring a large chunk of the returning cast, but not all (Arya and the new new occupants of Winterfell will turn up later, and Bran and Hodor are sitting out this season), with a nice mix of spectacle, action and character introspection. It's good to be back in Westeros, and to see the world starting to shrink, even a little bit.
Some other thoughts:
* Longtime "Breaking Bad" director of photography Michael Slovis directed the premiere (and next week's episode as well). While he, like fellow "BB" alum Michelle MacLaren, was able to quickly adapt to this show's house style, I couldn't help but notice him throwing the kind of visual flourish that was a signature of his old show, as Tyrion's trip to Pentos is depicted through one of the holes in his crate. Air Hole Cam!
* Also, the show's digital effects get more impressive every year, not just with the toppling of the Harpy statue, but a familiar image like Stannis standing atop the Wall. That looked much better than comparable shots from even a couple of years ago (say, Jon Snow and Ygritte), and in turn allowed Slovis to present that particular location from an angle that made it all look brand new.
* No new locations in the title sequence this week, but Pentos makes its first appearance on the map since very early in the first season, the Eyrie also returns after a long absence (no one is actually there at the moment, as opposed to late last season, but I suppose it's a representation of the characters who are at least near it), and Winterfell is not only no longer on fire, but now decorated with the sigil of House Bolton.
* Nice of Charles Dance to return to play Tywin's corpse. Actors talk about how physically difficult it is to play dead for long, but at least the stones over Tywin's eyes kept Dance from having to worry about blinking.
* Meereen isn't the only locale with fundamentalist sects causing trouble, as we see that Lancel Lannister has joined an extremist order known as the Sparrows. Considering how long it's been since we've seen him (he last appeared in season 2's "Blackwater"), and that I used to confuse him with Loras Tyrell, I'm at least pleased that the Sparrows made him get a haircut.
As usual (though this may be the last season in which we have to do it, as the show begins significantly deviating from and/or passing the books), all comments will be moderated to prevent book spoilers from slipping in. We are here to talk about "Game of Thrones" as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, and if your comment discusses the books, it won't be approved. Thanks. Also, no discussing the other episodes that were leaked online over the weekend.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com