Isn’t it great to be back in Westeros? I guess that depends on who you are, as there’s a lot of unhappy characters in this opening episode of Season 5, one that comes at a really interesting time for the show.
As anticipated in last season’s finale, we’re fast running out of material from the books. In addition to that, audiences are faced with the increasingly important decision of George R.R. Martin handing over the reigns of the storytelling to Game of Thrones’ showrunners. What was merely suggested at the end of Season 4 is now entirely obvious in Season 5: only important characters and plot points will remain.
As the most recent two books were bloated beyond need, there seems to be a desire on the show to streamline and unify characters and storylines, bringing everything we’ve seen so far into the beginning stages of the endgame. Which is to say, all the major characters began the pilot episode in one location, and have since been increasingly scattered. Now we’re finally seeing them find their way back to each other, if somewhat tentatively.
After a previously on that ran through all the major players, as well as reminding us that Lancel Lannister is a person and Myrcella still exists, we begin the season in the first ever flashback for the show.
Entirely unannounced, it’s a young Cersei heading into some woods with a nervy friend, spying out a fortune teller in her hut. Important to note that Cersei as a kid is still evil – why does anyone trust blonde-haired people in Westeros? This scene is a key source of motivation for Cersei in the books, and it wasn’t surprising to see this depicted, where Cersei is told that she will be queen for a time but ‘then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.’ There’s also the little nugget from the fortune teller that all her children will have golden shrouds.
So, we can gather that an axe looms over Tommen and Myrcella’s heads, and Cersei fears this almost as much as she fears Margaery Tyrell, who is her choice for the ‘younger, more beautiful’ queen-to-be. The viewer may have other ideas, however.
The scenes with Cersei in King’s Landing position her as the centrepiece of yet another round of power-jostling. While everyone pretends to be in mourning for Twyin – he of the crossbow bolt through the heart on the toilet – it’s an occasion for everyone to take stock and realise how much has changed now that the Hand is dead.
Cersei needn’t marry Loras, who couldn’t care less. Margaery still wants in with Tommen, and thus the throne, but now has to contend with an angrier and far more present Cersei. Jaime finds himself without a brother, without a father, and far more distant from his sister than he’s ever been (including that fun time when he lost his hand). And as we’ve been reminded, Myrcella is in Dorne, where we’ll no doubt visit next week. The Lannisters are as scattered as the Starks, but without the family bonds.
There’s a nice little scene to reintrodue Lancel, newly pious and shorn, as he’s joined up with the Sparrows, a religious movement that’s popped up in response to the ongoing war for the Seven Kingdoms. This is more scene setting for future plots, but it is handled well, and reminds us all that Cersei started much of this when she had Lancel poison King Robert.
The other Lannister, Tyrion, arrives in Pentos, which we’ve not seen since Season 1. There’s quite a nice touch of introducing his journey through the airholes (shit holes?) in the crate he’s occupied since fleeing King’s Landing last season. He’s here with Varys, who appears likely to thankfully replace Illyrio Mopatis (also not seen since Season 1), and maybe later play more of a part in this neck of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s a good move, as more Varys is good for everyone, the Realm especially.
Tyrion is a hard sell on this journey though, telling the eunuch that ‘the future is shit, just like the past’, before vomiting and drinking some more. But eventually Varys talks him round, convincing Tyrion to play a part in bringing peace to the lands, not as a future king, but as one who could bring someone else to the Iron Throne.
And who is Varys talking about? Daenerys, of course, who is still in Meereen. Honestly though, they better do something far more exhilarating with this part of the plot, otherwise it’ll play much the same as it has since she first busted those dragons out of their eggs.
We get a nice introduction to the Sons of the Harpy, a secretive and masked opposition to Daenerys that is quietly slitting the throats of Unsullied in the brothels of Meereen, while she struggles to maintain the respect she earned when she first liberated the city. In addition, Drogon has gone, and she admits she is losing control over her two remaining dragons.
Her visit to Viserion and Rhaegal is wonderfully terrifying. It’s a great reintroduction to the dragons, and their grown stature, reminding the audience that they’re not just a bargaining chip for Daenerys’ power, but untamed and monstrous creatures in their own right.
There’s also a nice little moment between Missandei and Grey Worm, two minor characters that might otherwise sit in the background, but here seem to be adding much needed heart and morality to this part of the story.
Loras is meanwhile enjoying himself teaching the viewers the anatomy of Westeros, until he is visited by Margaery, who seems to have plans for Cersei, as she’s definitely not following Tywin’s plans of marrying Loras.
Up in the Eyrie, we only get a brief couple of scenes, but they’re thrilling enough. And why? Because we’re out of book for Sansa and Littlefinger (ignoring this preview chapter from GRRM), and so any scenes with these two are brand new material. But just in case you thought it might tip the show’s hand in terms of where we’re heading, Littlefinger leaves us guessing, saying only that they’re heading west.
However, literally across the field sits Brienne and Podrick, two characters I didn’t expect in this opening episode. Brienne is unhappy, because Arya didn’t come with her, and she has no mission now as ‘all the good lords are dead.’ Little does she know that Sansa is within sight.
Brienne is an interesting character for the show to stick with, because of their deviations from the books late last season. This means that while we’re not out of material for her from the books, that material is potentially irrelevant if they’re fast-tracking Brienne (and Pod) to a more relevant part of the story. Watch their space with interest.
Finally, the Wall. There’s a bit of discussion between Sam and Gilly about who the next Lord Commander will be – Ser Alliser Thorne, Janos Slynt or Jon – and a reminder that Gilly has a baby and that Sam will follow her. No surprises there for what they’ll do this season.
Jon is summoned by Melisandre to meet with Stannis, who tries to lure Jon into action to reclaim Winterfell from Roose Bolton, but then decides he’ll do it himself anyway. The catch is Stannis wants the Wildlings to beef up his army, and conscripts Jon to sell this deal to Mance Rayder, imprisoned in Castle Black.
As an aside: any scene on top of the Wall is great in my books. Visually wonderful stuff.
Jon’s conversation with Mance is excellent, playing off the strengths of both characters and giving us an understanding of why Mance is the leader he is. Ciaran Hinds is fantastic, in what has so far been a limited role, and he engineers lots of sympathy in a brief amount of time, as he is shortly lead to a funeral pyre for declining to kneel to Stannis, and thus conscript the Wildlings to fight for someone else’s war.
The final moments with Mance on the pyre is excruciating, and played well, all between looks from the main characters. Mance to Jon, to Stannis, to Melisandre, and Shireen and Selyse on the balcony. And, if my eyes don’t decieve me, to Tormund. I think there’s something in this for the book readers, if you watch carefully. Much will hinge on this moment, I feel.
But the pyre doesn’t last, as Jon puts an arrow through Mance, ending his suffering. The scenes at the Wall in this episode have been some of the strongest for Jon Snow, the most defining for him, and that’s including the Wildling assault late last season.
This episode was a strange one, but unsurprisingly so. Much of it was about clarifying the stakes for the characters: Cersei and Margaery battling for the throne, Danaerys for her own legitimacy, and Tyrion for his place in the world. But most importantly, it established clearly that the big enemy is not within, but without – the White Walkers are coming, with the winter, and finally this is something that Jon Snow knows.
- Valar Morghulis: an Unsullied has his throat slit, and Mance Rayder was shot by Jon Snow. Or was he?
- Great to see Pod and Brienne again, as mentioned, because ultimately they are great characters played perfectly, and in adaptation, seemingly improve our understanding of how they fit into the main story.
- Didn’t get to mention, but it was great to see Davos on the Wall with Stannis. Finally the guy gets in on the main storyline.
- Interesting that Shireen and Selyse were there, as it’d be easy to jettison them from the story. This is the point about the show now: given that they are present, one can assume they have a significant part to play in this corner of the story. For my part, I think Shireen’s suffering from greyscale is more than just a character detail.
- Next week: Arya! Alexander Siddig! More Podrick!