The wait has been long, but — finally, after many months and a devastatingly well-timed Internet leak of four of this new season’s 10 episodes — Game of Thrones is back. Give thanks. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been open about the fact that this season will see the series go decisively past the book narrative, spoiling future events for readers. That this means necessarily changing, truncating, combining, and/or excising various elements of the series’ lore has been obvious, if unspoken, for quite a while.
Still, watching “The Wars to Come,” I was staggered by how ruthlessly those changes have been carried out. And it was then that I actually felt a little bit bad for George R.R. Martin. George is beloved around the world, the books will sell across the generations, and the TV show has him paid in full, but there’s no way he wanted it to turn out like this.
There’s lots of ground to cover. Let’s get to it.
Ankeet asks, “So what exactly did the witch tell young Cersei in that flashback scene?”
One of the recurring themes of the Song of Ice and Fire books — both prequel, proper, and compendium — is that there are often many ways to interpret a prophecy. Which is kind of the beauty of the thing, along with the way it worms itself into the desires, fears, and preconceptions of its various supplicants so that they think the prophecy is speaking to them and them alone. Season 5 of Game of Thrones opens with the shriveled, sylvan witch Maggy the Frog telling a teenage Cersei Lannister that she’ll be cast down by a younger queen, who will take everything she has, and that “everybody wants to know their future, until they know their future.”
You can see the difficulty for Cersei, even if she doesn’t. Which young queen is Maggy talking about? Is it Cersei’s new daughter-in-law, Margaery Tyrell, or is it Daenerys Targaryen, of whom Cersei has thus far taken little notice? Similarly, the line about regretting spoilers could apply to Cersei, book readers being spoiled by the show, everyone being spoiled by the first four episodes of Season 5 leaking onto the Internet, or all of the above.
It turns out that the Internet is the greatest, most ravenous woods witch, every day drinking more of our blood while ruining everything for us in return. But it also said we were going to be queen, so I guess you take the good with the bad.
R.I.P., Mance Rayder. Who was that guy anyway?
Sleep well, sweet King Beyond the Wall. We never knew you. Like, literally, we know very little about him. In the books, the best clues to Rayder’s background are his somewhat incongruous (and completely unexplored on the show) talents as a musician. He has a capable technique on the lute, a passable voice, and a wide-ranging knowledge of Westerosi bangers from all seven kingdoms (with a clear preference for the bawdier ones), such that he’s able to play any song requested of him. Tunes like “The Dornishman’s Wife,” “Two Hearts That Beat As One,” “Fair Maids of Summer,” “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and “The Rat Cook” are old hat to Mance.
When Jon first meets Mance in the books, Mance is rocking out to a version of “The Dornishman’s Wife,”1 and Jon thinks how strange it is to be hearing a song about Dorne while on the far side of the Wall. Perhaps, in Mance’s past life, while singing for coins and supper at the court of some lord, he ran afoul of the local nobility — stole something, bedded someone he shouldn’t have, picked a song that offended someone important — and that’s how he ended up in black. There’s even evidence that Mance, in his wildling leader incarnation, traveled throughout the North under the guise of a traveling singer, scaling the Wall with his lute and enough coin to buy a horse, then singing his way into castles great and small to gain intel on the goings-on in the realm.
“The Dornishman’s Wife” is the go-to Westerosi jam about getting caught sleeping with another dude’s spouse. It is the Trapped in the Closet of the Seven Kingdoms. Sample line: “The Dornishman’s wife would sing as she bathed, in a voice that was sweet as a peach / But the Dornishman’s blade has a song of its own, and a bite sharp and cold as a leach.”
As a member of the Night’s Watch, Mance would’ve been a contemporary of some of the veteran black brothers — we know he served with Qhorin Halfhand, for example — but exactly when Rayder went AWOL is unclear. As for the reason Mance turned into Free Folk Colonel Kurtz, in the books the story he tells goes like this: Once, on a ranging, Mance was attacked and grievously injured by a shadowcat. His brothers brought him to a wildling village, where a young woman healed his wounds and patched his torn cloak with rare red silk from faraway Asshai. Upon his return to the ever-shitty Castle Black, Mance was told that he would have to get a new cloak, as the goth brothers dress only in black. So Mance basically peaced out over the dress code. He was the sixth King Beyond the Wall in Westerosi history.
Why burn him at the stake? Is that a common method of execution?
Nah. That’s all Melisandre. Remember, king’s blood is an important ingredient for the Red Woman’s spell-casting and prophesying. Sacrificing the King Beyond the Wall to the Lord of Light is probably a solid way of keeping Based R’hllor in Stannis’s corner.
WHAT THE HELL IS THE PROBLEM IN MEEREEN?!?! WHAT’S THE HOLDUP? WHY IS DAENERYS CHILLING THERE AND MESSING AROUND TRYING TO RULE A BUNCH OF UNREPENTANT SLAVERS?
It’s a great question. With Tywin Lannister off the board; Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister in the midst of a cold war for control of the naive young King Tommen; Dorne roiling in the wake of Oberyn Martell’s legally sanctioned death by skull-crushing; the Riverlands in ruins and being governed by the Freys, whom everyone hates; and the North in a state of open warfare between Stannis, the Boltons, and the White Walkers, it would seem that the time to sail for Westeros is right about fucking now. Why not make for the Seven Kingdoms right away?
Several reasons, which you may or may not find compelling:
1. Dany, naturally, feels a responsibility to the people she freed. If she leaves, they’ll be clapped back in chains by the slaving elite, or slaughtered by the Sons of the Harpy (more on them in a bit), or tossed into the fighting pits before her sails disappear over the horizon. Staying also allows her to hone her statecraft skills and gain experience in the nitty-gritty of governance. You know, the unglamorous stuff like sewage, patronage, unemployment, where does the food come from, etc. Think of it as SimCity: Meereen.
2. Her dragons, once too small, are now uncontrollable and frighteningly huge. Drogon, the largest, is presumably loose in the countryside. Could she take Westeros without dragons? In its current state, maybe, if she could win enough allies to her banners. But it’s not a great look.
3. George R.R. Martin has previously spoken of what he calls the “The Meereenese Knot”: the self-made structural puzzle of how to get the various players who need to be in Meereen to Meereen so everyone can eventually leave Meereen. Making this work is, to hear Martin tell it, a large part of why there was a six-year gap between Books 4 and 5 of the series. In other words, Martin knows this part kind of sucks.
Who are the Sons of the Harpy and what is their problem?
Their problem is that, since Dany’s emancipation, they are out of work and have to watch in impotent fury as her freedmen Unsullied go all ISIS-at-the-museum on timeless works of Meereenese art — such as the bronze statue of the Harpy atop the Grand Pyramid — and enforce the ban on the fighting pits, which are a traditionally significant center of Meereenese culture. (Have we mentioned this place sucks?) The Sons of the Harpy are a shadowy insurgent group probably made up of former members of the Meereenese ruling class and their supporters. Some ASoIaF readers view Dany’s struggle to govern Meereen as being partially a commentary on the United States’s invasion and administration of Iraq, which was happening contemporaneously with the writing of Books 4 and 5.
Who is Kevan Lannister?
Kevan is the dutiful younger brother of the late Tywin Lannister and the father of the now fervently religious Lancel Lannister. He was perhaps Tywin’s most-trusted confidant and an important commander in the Lannister army during the War of the Five Kings. With Tywin dead; Cersei drunk with power and wine and, at least in theory, going to Highgarden; Jamie bound by honor never to marry; and Tyrion a kingslayer in exile, the future of the family lies with Kevan. It’s his children who will sit at Casterly Rock. He’s no Tywin, but, just as importantly, he knows he isn’t.
Michael asks: “The Targaryens historically were able to harness dragon power to dominate Westeros, correct? If so, how did they do it?”
No one is really sure. Which makes sense, when you think about it. Dragons were the weapons of mass destruction of their day, so any information pertaining to their handling would have been a state secret. A similarly fiery real-world corollary to this is Greek Fire (which probably inspired Wildfire), an ancient napalm used by the Byzantine Empire that was expelled from flamethrowers and even burned on water. Greek Fire turned the tide of numerous battles in favor of the Byzantines and information about its production was a closely held secret — so much so that the true recipe has been lost to history.
Between the time that dragons went extinct — roughly 150 years before current events — and when Dany managed to birth her brood in a blood-magic funeral pyre, the primary question that vexed many a Targaryen ruler was: How does one even hatch a dragon egg? Nobody knew. A Targaryen civil war known as “The Dance of the Dragons” left only four of the beasts alive at the beginning of the reign of Aegon III. They would not survive to the end of his reign. In a bid to restore the beasts, Aegon and his younger brother Viserys (eventually King Viserys II) had nine sorcerers brought over from Essos to try to hatch the Targaryen collection of eggs. That mission ended in failure, and Aegon III was forever known as “The Dragonbane.”
King Aegon V, a.k.a. “Aegon the Unlikely” — Maester Aemon’s brother and the great-great-grandson of King Viserys II — spent the last years of his reign in a futile search for the answers to dragon breeding, sending missions to the far corners of the world. His quest led to his death when attempts to hatch dragon eggs at Summerhall (the traditional Targaryen vacation castle) claimed his life and the lives of an unknown number of his closest friends, family, and advisers.
What we do know is that those with Targaryen blood seem to have an innate affinity for dragons and vice versa. During the Dance of the Dragons civil war, dragonriders were in such short supply that Prince Jacaerys turned to Targaryen bastards and other various non-Targaryen-blood-having knights and men-at-arms, promising lands and riches to any of those who could master a dragon. Many, many potential riders died in their attempts, including those with Targaryen blood, but some were successful, mostly with dragons that had previously accepted human masters who were now dead. Again, the details of how those riders gained their mounts are scant. Dany’s dragons, of course, have never been mounted.
Mark asks: “It seemed like the Weird Lannister Cousin low-key admitted to killing, or having a hand in the killing of, Robert Baratheon. Cersei gave him a curt ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and then the scene just sort of ended. Did he actually kill Robert? If so, does it really matter now? Or does it matter more that he shed his Lannister locks in favor of piousness and shoelessness?”
That’s Lancel Lannister, the son of Tywin Lannister’s brother Kevan, and Jamie and Cersei’s first cousin. Way back in Season 1, Lancel was a squire to Robert Baratheon, which meant that he was basically the Ser Booze Bitch. He was there when Robert had his unfortunate boar-hunting accident, and he surely kept the king’s jewel-encrusted goblet topped off with Arbor Gold, perhaps spiked with something stronger, the better to dull the king’s reflexes during a life-or-death struggle with a huge and dangerous swine. Soon after, Lancel also became engaged in an affair with Cersei, a capital offense. A young and impressionable squire, a queen who hated her husband … it’s not hard to fill in the rest. Later, Lancel was injured during the Battle of the Blackwater, and the wounds obviously went deeper than anyone could have guessed.
Lancel’s piousness matters quite a lot and I’m sure we’ll learn more about this order of Sparrows as the weeks roll on. We’ll talk Sparrows then.
Matt asks, “Given no limitations, who is on your small council dream team?”
Hand of the King: Tyrion. Smart, capable, and a born politician, Tyrion has no ambitions to the throne and would never be accepted as the King even if he did. If you don’t care that people would always think he was running the realm instead of you, I could also see going with Tywin as the Hand.
Lord Commander of the Kingsguard: Brienne. If you swear her to something, she will go all-out keeping her oath.
Master of Coin: Kevan Lannister. Solid and conservative younger brother to Tywin. Consistently a voice of reason, unlikely to let the realm borrow more money.
Grand Maester: Maester Aemon. Oldest person in the realm and a dude who’s seen it all, and, yes, I realize he’s blind.
Master of Ships: Stannis Baratheon. Smashed the Iron Fleet at Fair Isle back in the day.
Master of Whisperers: Olenna Tyrell, née Redwyne, matriarch of the Tyrell family. Exceedingly cunning, with a ready-made web of informants. The Tyrells are currently the most powerful family in Westeros, so giving them a seat on the small council is just smart governance. You want them as close as possible.
Master of Laws: Jaehaerys I Targaryen, a.k.a. “Jaehaerys the Conciliator.” A wise ruler and a skilled diplomat. Outlawed the lord’s right of the first night (as seen in Braveheart) and brokered 50 years of peace between the Brackens and the Blackwoods. (The Westerosi version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.)
Chaelim Choplosky asks: “Varys stated that he was at the house in Pentos of a friend. Is it the same friend from Season 1? The one that Arya overheard Varys talking to in the dungeon at King’s Landing? And if so, is that conversation they had now coming to life?”
The very same friend. And yes, that conversation is coming to life.
Scene of the Week
[Sound of chains softly rattling.]
“Are you a virgin?”
This post has been updated to remove an erroneous line surmising that Mance Rayder was a traveling minstrel before joining the Night’s Watch. In fact, he was an orphaned wildling raised at Castle Black.2