In these days when so much television programming is dominated by mindless and repetitive crime procedurals, it’s kind of amazing that a show as labyrinthine, ambitious and often difficult as ‘Game of Thrones’ has stayed on the air for so long, much less that it continues to be hugely popular. HBO brought the series back for its fifth season this week, and I already feel lost in its world again.
As is often the case with this show, the fifth season premiere (called ‘The Wars to Come’) spends most of its time re-orienting us in the narrative and laying the groundwork for storylines that will play out over the season. Like the first chapter of a novel, it’s all about introductions and set-up, without any significant action or plot twists of its own. Fortunately, fans should be used to this show being a slow-burn by now.
That said, the episode opens uncharacteristically with a flashback. Young Cersei and a friend trek through the woods to the cabin of a supposed witch. Cersei thinks that the woman is a fraud and demands that she tell her fortune. The witch tells the girl that she will become queen for a time, but will have no children with her husband. Instead, the king will have 20 children of his own, and she will have three, all of whom she’ll watch die. Young Cersei is rattled by this news.
Here’s where all of the characters stand in the current timeline:
Adult Cersei has already seen one of her children die, and is gravely worried about the other two. She now also has to deal with the funeral of her father and the fallout that will ensue from the power vacuum created by his absence. She’s furious at Tyrion for killing Tywin, and also really pissed at Jaime for having helped him escape (which led to the murder). Of course, being furious at Tyrion and mad at Jaime are normal states for Cersei, so there’s really no net change in any of that.
Cersei’s cousin Lancel, whom she had taken as a lover in previous seasons, has joined a religious order and dresses exclusively in an old blanket. Cersei finds him pathetic.
Tyrion has spent the past few months hiding in a crate on a ship, shoving his shit out through air holes in the box. By the time they arrive in Pentos and Varys finally releases him, Tyrion has grown a beard and is very cranky. Varys tries to get him to think about the future, but Tyrion declares that he’s done with Westeros. He insists, “The future is shit, just like the past.” All he wants is to get drunk and be left alone.
Varys, however, has plans for the Imp. Tyrion may never sit on the Iron Throne, but he can help put Daenerys Targaryen on it.
Across the Narrow Sea
In her new capital of Meereen, Daenerys has her men topple an ancient statue from the peak of the pyramid. In the streets below, discontent with her rule is brewing. A rebel faction has murdered one of her Unsullied warriors. Dany demands blood.
When she receives word that the former Masters at Yunkai have requested permission to reopen the tradition of the gladiatorial fighting pit, Dany is incensed and refuses. Her lover Daario counsels her that a queen needs to learn how to compromise.
He also advises her that she needs to remind people of her strength by bringing out her dragons again. “A Dragon Queen with no dragons is not a queen.” Unfortunately, her strongest dragon has run away, and she can no longer control the other two she’s kept chained in a dungeon.
After successfully disguising his wife’s murder as a suicide, Baelish is now Regent in charge of the Eyrie. Technically, his stepson Robin is heir to the kingdom, but Baelish dumps him off on a swordmaster to train him how to fight. Baelish knows full well that the boy is a hopeless cause, but this will keep the kid out of his hair for a while.
Meanwhile, having lost the trail of Arya Stark, Brienne falls into depression and tries to push her squire Podrick away. She’s a knight with neither a kingdom nor a cause to fight for. “The good lords are dead and the rest of them monsters,” she bemoans. Little does she realize just how close she comes to crossing paths with Sansa Stark.
Self-proclaimed King Stannis Baratheon tells Jon Snow that he wants to take back Winterfell from Roose Bolton, but in order to do that, he’ll need the Wildlings to join his army and fight for him. In exchange, he will promise them citizenship south of the Wall. Snow tells him that he doesn’t think “King Beyond the Wall” Mance Rayder will go for that deal, especially not when Stannis requires that Rayder “take the knee” and swear allegiance to him.
Indeed, Rayder is too proud to submit in such a fashion. Snow tells him that, “You’re afraid of looking afraid,” but Rayder insists that he will not sell out his people. He asks Snow how he’ll be executed, by beheading or hanging? Snow tells him that he’ll be burned alive. It’s a bad way to go. Clearly terrified by that prospect, Rayder nonetheless sticks to his principles.
That night, Stannis gives Rayder one last chance to “Kneel and live,” but Rayder again refuses. The witch Melisandre lights the pyre at his feet. As the flames creep closer and closer, Jon Snow can’t watch this man he respects suffer, so he shoots him in the heart with an arrow.
This show has so many characters that a number of them couldn’t be squeezed into this episode. I expect that we’ll catch up with the likes of Arya, Bran and Theon Greyjoy soon enough.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t miss Bran Stark at all here. I kind of hated all the cheesy crap involving walking skeletons and magic fireballs and the Gandalf wannabe that took up so much screen time in last season’s finale. I would love it if we could go a whole season without revisiting any of that.
Back to the subject at hand, this is generally a very good finale that has me excited to see where the new season will go. My only qualm is that I still feel that Daenerys’ storyline has been treading water for a very long time, and hasn’t made much progress here. We get it already; being a queen isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It’s time for her to finally cross the Narrow Sea and integrate with the rest of the characters.