‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5 Premiere Review: ‘The Wars to Come’ Is Best Yet
Recap and review of Game of Thrones – Season 5 Premiere – The Wars to Come:
The season premiere of Game of Thrones always walks a difficult line between offering an exciting standalone experience, and setting up the season to come. “The Wars to Come” is successful precisely because it so deftly navigates those tricky waters, and it does so by telling a story that centers on how the game of thrones isn’t as easy to play as it might seem, especially when politics are this complicated.
The show illustrates the difficulty of such political maneuverings in a handful of scenes in this premiere, and it’s encouraging for the season ahead that the show was able to do this at all. In stark contrast to other premieres, “The Wars to Come” is far less expansive. There’s no Arya, no Ramsay or Theon, no Bran (although it’s not as if he was expected, since the news was confirmed that we wouldn’t be getting him at all this season), no Dornish, a minimal amount of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Pod (Daniel Portman), and a cursory check-in with Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in the aftermath of Tywin’s death. This is a comparatively lean premiere, and it helps the overall narrative immensely, as we can focus on how the game is shifting in light of last season’s developments. For instance, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is finding that setting the slaves free has caused a whole new set of problems. In addition to the issue from last season in which she learned that some of the slaves actually prefer servitude, she now has to contend with the Sons of the Harpy, a radical faction of dissidents looking to overthrow Dany. Worse, aside from freeing the slaves, Dany hasn’t changed all that much around Meereen. Well, except closing the fighting pits, which the citizenship seems to actively resent. Essentially, Dany is stuck in a situation where doing good works isn’t as simple as actually doing them. Goodness to one person is disrespect to another. Hell, Hizdahr tries to explain as much to her, saying that her refusal to keep the traditional fighting pits open (allowing the now-free men to compete and earn fame and fortune at their own discretion) shows disrespect to the culture of the place she’s now ruling.
Basically, Dany doesn’t understand that it’s not a matter of black and white morality. There can be good in something as violent and tumultuous as the fighting pits, just as there is use in listening to the demands of your people as opposed to just dictating how things are going to be. But that’s what’s been interesting about Dany’s storyline over the past three seasons or so. She’s been learning how to rule. From a practical standpoint, she can’t go to Westeros because she doesn’t have the necessary forces or means. But from a more philosophical perspective, she can’t go to Westeros yet because, frankly, she isn’t ready for Westeros. Dany occupies a difficult middle-ground: she belongs neither to Essos nor to Westeros, and so by trying to rule either, she comes across as little more than an interloper, someone trying to impose her will without trying to understand that it takes more to being a Queen than coming from a royal bloodline. Dany is trying to learn that now, but it’s taking longer than she’d probably like it to. On the one hand, she’s shocked to learn that Daario (Michiel Huisman) came up through the fighting pits, since her mind was so closed to the notion of reopening them that she couldn’t see the good in giving men the chance to rise above the meager stations of their lives as slaves. On the other hand, Dany is just as surprised at the resistance to her rule, and to her loss of control over her own dragons, who reject her outright when she tries to visit them. Dany isn’t powerless, but her power is far more tenuous now than it’s ever been. As she herself admits, Dany isn’t a politician, and yet that’s kind of what she’s going to need to be, if she’s going to keep the peace and prepare herself for Westeros, which is far more heavily-entwined in politics than Essos.
For instance, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has until sundown to convince Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) to bend the knee to Stannis (Stephen Dillane), or be burned alive. For Jon, the choice seems clear: bend the knee, join Stannis’s army, and if his side wins, all the wildlings will be granted citizenship in the realm. It seems like a win-win. And yet, Jon is suffering from the same shortsightedness as Dany, in that he fails to recognize that it’s less about the letter of the act and more about the principle. Mance can’t bend his knee to a southern lord without betraying every single thing the wildlings are raised to believe. Sure, he’d live to see another day, but would anyone really respect him anymore? How long until someone came for him in the night, to slit his throat for betraying the wildling cause? Jon sees it as a choice between being remembered in songs for centuries to come, and being remembered as a man screaming for his life as he burns to ashes. But Mance looks beyond the black-and-white notions of Jon’s political approach: as King Beyond-the-Wall, Mance has to protect his people, yes, but not at the expense of negating the sacrifices others have made before him.
To Jon, what Stannis is offering is an olive branch, a way of ending the cyclical nature of bloodshed that has prevailed between the wildlings and the Northerners. While Jon sees it as the prevention of future bloodshed, Mance sees it as the marginalization of all the blood that’s already been spilled. For Mance, you can’t live a principled life and then betray those principles at the 11th hour to save your own skin, and while it could probably be argued that he’d be saving a whole lot of other skins by bending the knee, could Mance really expect that any of his men will willingly fight for Stannis even if he does? So Mance refuses and finds himself accepting his fate. And it isn’t until Mance starts to squirm and suffer that Jon sees the principle in a man dying for what he believes in. The Night’s Watch has fought the wildlings for ages, but Jon respects Mance, and respects that the man has his own code of living. And so he does him the honor of putting an arrow through his heart to put him out of his misery before the flames consume him. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the episode, and it illustrates that although Stannis may hold all the cards, the drive to win the game of thrones shouldn’t turn its players into savages who stand idle through the suffering of other men.
The rest of the premiere offers insight into other political arenas, although they’re of a far more glancing sort. Varys (Conleth Hill) arrives in Pentos with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who despairs of ever getting his life back on track again. And yet, Varys appears to have some larger plan in store that involves Illyrio Mopatis, the powerful Magister of Pentos who gifted Dany those dragon eggs way the hell back in Season 1 (in addition to setting up Dany’s marriage to Drogo in order to earn the Targaryens the support of the Dothraki). No idea what the plan is just yet, but Varys seems to believe he can help restore stability to the realm by pledging loyalty to a new ruler and sitting him on the Iron Throne. But Varys is quick to clarify: “Who said anything about ‘him’?” Also of interest is the first flashback in the history of the series, as we learn that Cersei (Lena Headey) went to a fortune teller as a girl, and learned that she would be queen, and have three blonde children (although not by her husband), but that she would eventually be cast down by someone more beautiful. The de facto answer suggests this mystery person is Dany, although I’m secretly rooting for Sansa (Sophie Turner) in all this. Much like Varys, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is keeping his plans close to the vest, but they involve Sansa…and a long journey to a place that isn’t the Fingers (his homeland, where he told the lords of the Vale he was headed). Could it be Winterfell? Please tell me Littlefinger isn’t going to marry Sansa to Ramsay Bolton in some sort of crazed political marriage. Lord knows, she’s already been used as a political pawn in marriage before, and I don’t entirely buy that Littlefinger would place someone he prizes as much as Sansa in harm’s way.
But then, romantic complications are all over the place on this show: Lancel Lannister is back, and he’s now one of the devout Sparrows, attempting to purify his soul for having helped Cersei kill King Robert, and for also having that pesky affair with her while Jamie was away. Cersei doesn’t take his pledges seriously, nor does she seek any of the absolution he’s offering. Similarly, Margaery is only just settling into her new relationship with Tommen, but it has the potential of getting compromised by brother Loras (Finn Jones), whose sexuality is a major talking point at court. Again, these are all situations in which politics play a big role, right down to how two people love each other. There’s no accounting for the dangers that are presented when you actually become a player in the game of thrones, but it’s considerably worse when you’re not even a player yourself. Loras has no eye for power, but by association with Margaery, and as a Tyrell himself, he can’t help but be pulled into all this…despite the fact that he couldn’t even become king if he wanted to, considering his vows as a member of the Kingsguard. It’s fascinating stuff, and I hope the show digs deeper into the political ramifications of each player’s move. It’s almost like a game of Survivor, in that alliances can be formed and broken, and trust is as difficult to cultivate as ever before.
Game of Thrones is back, and in a big way. This was a terrific episode to kick off the season, as “The Wars to Come” supplants bombast with a more subtle form of storytelling. The politicking, the practicality of rulership, and the weighing of needs all served to make this a fascinating hour of TV. It’s looking like we’re in for one hell of a fifth season. Even if the show diverges from the books more, and even if A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones become more divergent than ever before, I still feel this season will ultimately be a worthy representation of what George R.R. Martin is intending to do with his story in the books, while also being different enough that it feels like its own entity. There are shades of that here, particularly as it regards Mance’s fate, and I’d expect far more divergences to come in the weeks ahead. But I welcome the changes, and even the peeks ahead at future book storylines. I mean, the show is going to finish before Martin anyway. Might as well enjoy the ride, at this point. This premiere illustrates that the show is in good hands, as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seem to have a solid hold on Martin’s world, even five seasons in now.