This was meant to be the season that moved Game of Thrones forward. After 40 brutal, breathtaking hours of throat-clearing and neck-chopping, of world-building and skull-breaking, the show at last appeared set to turn the page on the past. Kings had been killed at their weddings; public figures murdered on privies. After years of spinning in circles, key characters were finally making moves: Arya and Tyrion both set sail for Essos, Stannis came crashing into the North, and Sansa skyhooked her morality through the moon door. Even better, all reports suggested that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were making like the pit fighters of Meereen and breaking free themselves, thus giving Thrones a chance to become as gleefully unpredictable as other great shows in their prime. For book readers and TV watchers alike, the future was unwritten — and all the more exciting for it.
So why, then, does “The Wars to Come” begin in the past? Our first glimpse of Thrones Season 5 has nothing to do with how things were left last year but rather with how they were decades ago. Many have posited that flashbacks should have played a larger part in a series this sprawling. Perhaps a quick glimpse of Robert’s Rebellion, provided Mark Addy’s chain mail could be taken in a few sizes via CGI? Or maybe a few scenes devoted to Keeping Up With the Targaryens — especially since the one relative we remember from Daenerys’s past set the gold standard for douchebaggery? Longtime followers of these recaps will know that my own preference would be for a few hours unspooling the backstories of Ser Davos, the Onion Knight, and Salladhor Saan, the Sex Pirate, back in their full-fingered days on the high seas. If you’re going to go back, you might as well go big.
So at first glance, spending a few precious minutes in the company of YA Cersei seems almost wasteful — a masterpiece of casting, sure, but not much else. After all, seeing fine gowns dragged through the mud is basically a metaphor for the entire series. And weirdos both drawing and desiring blood is more common in Westeros than courtesy. It took the witch’s final words to blast the episode out of its wintry slumber: “Everyone wants to know their future,” she hissed. “Until they know their future.” Here was the season’s thesis, for characters and viewers alike, spat out by an unwashed crone with teenage blood still staining her teeth. Is it better to know your fate? Or to reject the idea of fate entirely and hope and claw for a better tomorrow? Those of us on our couches don’t have much say in what will play out — embracing ignorance is our best and most enjoyable option. But it’s not so simple for those on either side of the Narrow Sea. For them, the looming question is more stark than Ned: In a battle between uncertainty and control, who will win? Of course, given what we know of the Seven Kingdoms already, it’s probably worth rephrasing that just a bit: When fear of the unknown stabs at the hearts of people with armies, a battle is more or less guaranteed. Who lives, who dies, and how they’ll manage either remains to be seen.
Macall B. Polay/HBO
For one week, at least, the slaughter stayed at a respectful distance. Instead, this hour, briskly directed by Breaking Bad vet Michael Slovis (making his Westerosi debut), was all about resetting the lines. After an initial glimpse of adolescent Cersei — still only half-sour before decades of self-pickling finished the job — we were confronted with the real thing. Her anguish over the death of Tywin isn’t emotional, of course. The only thing that ever united the Lannister kids was a shared loathing of the old man.1 Rather, it was the skittering of a spider caught out before her web had finished being spun. She’s furious at Jaime, but not for freeing Tyrion. Not really. What truly galls her is that he never plans ahead. “You are a man of action, aren’t you,” she fumes. “When it occurs to you to do something, you do it. Never mind the consequences.” Translation: Prince Valiant makes for a great cartoon, but he’s a lousy strategist. Cersei’s role this season might be the most intriguing. She’s broke, alone, and outflanked by younger, prettier people who are already looking past her. Her betrothed is gay. Her cousin/lover has shed his shoes in search of a higher calling. All she has left is her intellect and an econo-size jug of Dornish Chianti. In other words: She’ll be fine.
Shouts to Charles Dance, by the way, for agreeing to cameo as a corpse! Belfast must be a fun hang.
That’s not necessarily the case for her diminutive brother, at least when we first see him. (Someone add the Transoceanic Crate Cam to the long list of Slovis’s creative POV shots.) Tyrion’s unboxing video is a lot less pristine than this one, and with 100 percent more vomit. The imp isn’t just wrecked by the long journey and its suboptimal sewage system. Thanks to his violent actions at the end of last season, Tyrion’s heart aches as much as his liver. Thankfully, Conleth Hill’s terrific Varys is around to banter him back to health. “There are faster ways to kill yourself,” Varys cracks as Tyrion helps himself to another Cersei-size portion of the juice. “Not for a coward,” is the reply. I’d be happy to pop some corn and settle in for an entire season of these two parrying bons mots like Ping-Pong balls. “I killed my lover with my bare hands,” Tyrion moans through his box beard. “I shot my father with a crossbow.” Says Varys, “I never said you were perfect.” Well, then let me be the first!
As pleasant as all of this is, there’s more to Tyrion and Varys’s Excellent Vacation than small talk in Pentos. At long last, the two are set to join up with Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, the Queen of the Andals and the First Men, and the Lord High Priestess of Narrative Digression. Look, I understand that the postbellum period of Slaver’s Bay, with its microscopic focus on disrupted rituals and street-level uprisings, is precisely the sort of thing that separates George R.R. Martin’s work from all other fantasy epics. But it’s a tough sell on the screen. While it’s plenty unsettling to see a snuggles-seeking Unsullied have his throat cut, it also can’t distract from the fact that Daenerys has basically been parked in neutral for more than a year. (But keep the scenes of Dany trying to wrestle with her teenage dragons coming! I haven’t seen an adolescent tantrum like that since this season of Kroll Show!) Adding wit machines like Tyrion and Varys to her court of snoozers would be like squeezing lemon onto a nourishing if underseasoned horse heart. (Or, to put it in terms a Westerosi peasant might understand, it’d be like putting “anything” on “food.”)
Arya must still be completing her semester at sea, as she was nowhere to be found this hour. (Her brother Bran, of course, is busy warging offscreen until 2016.) In her place, we had brief glimpses of her sister and her would-be protector. As for the former, I was thrilled to see that Sansa has now gone full goth. Her collection of pouty tropes — black hair, dour expression, hanging out with older creeps who should know better — is straight out of High School 101. And her trip with Baelish seems like an awfully long drive for someone with nothing to think about — and no Netflix to watch on her phone. (Honestly, how many ravens do you think can slide into Littlefinger’s DMs between the Vale and wherever it is they’re going? Let’s hope a lot.) But just the feeling of movement is exhilarating, especially surrounding a character who was a prisoner and a sadist’s plaything from the minute she arrived in King’s Landing four years ago. It was a nice touch, too, to have her pass so near to Brienne, even if they never realized it. Just as the latter searches for a leader to believe in, so, too, has a large portion of the audience sought proof that these far-flung characters are actually sharing a universe, not just an hour on Sunday nights. Don’t get me wrong: It takes real skill to create and introduce such finely drawn protagonists. But the longer they stay apart, the more I’m reminded of Steve Carell’s wall of toys in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Enough with the careful display — let’s get these suckers mixed up and dirty!
The loudest volley in the war to come occurred, as it often does, in the North. There, while Jon Snow teaches another accidental orphan how to fight, Stannis and Davos hatch a plan: Convince Mance to join his wildling army to their cause and together they will ride on Winterfell and, ultimately, King’s Landing. Stannis will have the throne, and all of the Free Folk — including, one has to assume, the cannibals and giants — will actually be free. There’s only one wrinkle, and it’s deeper than the lines on Ciarán Hinds’s face: Mance, the self-styled King Beyond the Wall, will never bend his knee to a King From Within It. The scene in which Jon attempts to talk sense (or at least reality) into his rival turned quasi-father figure might have been the best work Kit Harington has done on the show. Jon is so often burdened by things — animal pelts, impossible love, emo face — that it felt downright revolutionary for him to be so loose with his feelings. It helped that he was right: What’s the point of a noble death if it puts your life’s work at risk?
But Mance wasn’t having any of it. He chose “a bad way to go” over a worse way to survive. And while I want to pause here and note that the surprise dispatch of Mance was an example of the frustration that can come from adapting rich source material2 — so much promise, such a good performance, and it all amounted to, what, a handful of scenes in tents? — I can’t because I’m too jazzed on what his brutal end means for the beginning of the second half of Thrones. Mance Rayder was a former member of the Night’s Watch who looked around at the mighty he was protecting and despaired. Sick of Westerosi society and all of its corruption and bloodshed, he hightailed it beyond the Wall with big goals for the tribes he encountered but relatively humble aspirations for himself. As he tells Jon Snow, “the freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.”
If we’re being nitpicky, it was also a surprisingly shameless theft of the end of The Last of the Mohicans.
Now, as everything begins to crumble, it’s possible to look at Mance’s success as a failure of imagination. The most radical thing I’ve seen on Game of Thrones in years had nothing to do with swords or sorcery. It was Varys musing, “Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror we assume there is no other way.” Maybe I’ve been dipping into the milk of the poppy again, but doesn’t that sound like … optimism? Regardless, it’s not something those of us battered by Game of Thrones and its vicious history have heard before, and it speaks to the greater choice facing Westeros and the larger world: Like Mance, should one cling to appearances and accept fate? Or is it time to buy into a new era of, dare I say it, hope and change?
If you ask me, I’d say fortune favors the flexible — but Littlefinger (and Littlefinger’s clients) has known that for years. Instead, let’s set aside religious burnings and bare feet and wonder instead if Game of Thrones is at last suggesting that we are all capable of making our own fortune. I know it’s true for us: All we have to do is set our DVRs on Sunday nights — good things are likely to happen. What’s most thrilling is the suggestion that Tyrion and those like him will spend the next nine weeks testing the limits of Varys’s question for themselves. Enough waiting for winter. It’s time to start lighting fires.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no immediate intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. OK? OK!
Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and come back tomorrow!