Recap: Game of Thrones, “The Wars to Come” (5×01)

Valar morghulis, fellow Game of Thrones fans, and welcome to season five of our favorite fictional medieval universe. I’m both excited and a bit trepidatious for this season, as this is the point where showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benihoff will finally have to make some firm decisions of the fates of Westeros’ denizens without the guidance of George R.R. Martin’s books. That said, the potential deviations from Martin’s books also over an enticing promise of an alternate destiny for Westeros (perhaps with 50% less authorial trolling?), allowing those who are both viewers and readers to choose which adventure we like best. While this season will ostensibly draw from books four and five, some storylines have already caught up with Martin’s published material. We already know that Bran (and sadly, Hodor) will be sitting this season out, but Sansa has also reached the limits of her literary exploits. To supplement, we have an influx of new characters to divide our attention, but few of them show up in the premiere, as instead the focus remains on established characters trying to rebuild their shattered lives.

(This is the one and only time I will lament the fact that The Winds of Winter is still being held prisoner in Martin’s brain, and now we can all move on with our lives.)

Ready? Well, then, let’s begin.

The Westeros of season five isn’t much removed from the season four finale in regards to time, but that doesn’t mean out characters lives are stable. Indeed, the end of season four upended almost everyone’s best-laid plans, and now the characters must scramble to make new alliances and build new power structures faster than their enemies. Almost every scene revolves around the idea of security, a commodity that is in scarce supply but remains the most crucial element to surviving the game of thrones.

King’s Landing, while still the nominal seat of power in the Seven Kingdoms, is in very real danger of descending into chaos in the wake of Tywin Lannister’s ignominious death. Jaime tries to warn his sister of such as they stand over the Tywin’s barely cold body, claiming that without his presence, “they” can’t wait to tear the remaining Lannister siblings to pieces. Cersei, though, is less concerned with the anonymous “they” and more with Tyrion’s escape and Jaime’s level of complicity.

We get our very first Game of Thrones flashback, to when a preteen Cersei dragged a terrified friend to go see a witch living deep in the woods. Even though mini-Cersei finds the witch’s very ordinary beauty “boring” and not terrifying, she still demands that the witch tell her future. The witch acquiesces and after ingesting a drop of mini-Cersei’s blood, lets her ask three questions. The questions mini-Cersei asks, while childlike in their simplicity, nevertheless get answers that give yet another layer to Cersei’s desperate need to cleave to the throne. Most of the witch’s enigmatic predictions, foreshadowing Cersei’s marriage to Robert, the threat presented by Margaery, and Robert’s prolific bastards, have already turned out true, but it’s the last that eats at Cersei’s soul. Cersei was destined to have only three children, all with golden crowns – and golden shrouds. Having already buried one child, it seems that Tommen and Myrcella have a precarious hold on life.

Cersei may be conniving, devious, and power-hungry, but her love for her children is very real, so with the passing of her father – the only one forceful enough to protect her – she’s in need of another source of support against enemy scheming. Jaime is right; those enemies are everywhere, salivating at the chance to remove Cersei from her rarefied position. Not only is there Margaery, who we see scheming with her very much naked and post-coital brother Loras, after she kicks his lover Olivar out of the room. There’s also a new religious movement, fanatical penitents called the Sparrows, who can count Cersei’s cousin/former lover Lancel among their members. Virtually unrecognizable, the young man approaches Cersei, barefooted and wearing sackcloth, to deliver a carefully worded message that she should throw her support behind the Sparrows and save herself through the Light of the Seven. If not, well, most of Lancel’s horrible misdeeds, the ones he is so devoutly repenting, were done at Cersei’s behest, and I’m sure that fact has been shared in a confessional or two.

Outside of King’s Landing, Brienne, after failing to convince Arya to accept her protection, tries to convince Pod to leave her alone, and refuses to respond to his suggestions of new directions to take their search for Sansa. Cruelly, as the two argue by the side of the road, Littlefinger and his new partner-in-deceit pass by in a carriage, heading for destinations unknown after dropping Lord Robyn Arryn off with Lord Royce, where he takes a hilarious beating from a bored squire in mock combat. Littlefinger continues to tutor Dark Sansa in the arts of misdirection and misinformation; it’s fitting that this scene comes immediately after Brienne declares, “The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters.” The good Stark lords are dead; do the remaining four children stand a chance? Sadly, we’ll have to wait until next week to see how Arya fares in Braavos.

Meanwhile, in Mereen, a golden harpy plummets from the top of the Great Pyramid, only to be honored in the acts of a murderous insurgency targeting the Unsullied. The Sons of the Harpy, made up of disgruntled former slavers, has escalated from civil disobedience to outright violence (RIP, White Rat), threatening Daenerys’ tenuous hold on Slaver’s Bay. There’s a chance to appease the population at hand, one requested by former masters and the population in Mereen and Yunkai: reopen the fighting pits, and give the people their bread and circuses. While Daenerys is viscerally opposed to this type of “human cockfighting,” (not to mention the fact that she needs the fighting pits to house her rebellious teenage dragons) Daario encourages her to give in and open them. After all, he was a fighter, and it was the glory of the pits that allowed him to earn his freedom and eventually, his place by her side. That spot – as well as the spot he’s earned in her bed – are increasingly dear to Daenerys, seeing as she lost Jorah, not to mention Drogon. Like Cersei, she’s a queen grasping at strings, with no clear idea of where to place her trust.

Perhaps Daenerys’ staunchest ally is one that she isn’t aware of yet. We’re treated to a crate’s-eye view of Tyrion’s arrival in Pentos (to the mansion where we first met the Targaryen siblings), where Varys finally releases him. After discussing the rather nauseating particulars of how Tyrion’s excrement got out of the crate and into the ocean, Varys goes to work trying to convince Tyrion to join him in his crusade to serve the “realm,” and put a strong yet gentle monarch on the throne. “Where are you going to find him?” scoffs Tyrion, to which Varys replies, “Who said anything about ‘him’?” Tyrion may have no future in Westeros, but his rank and experience could provide him modicum of security if he were to throw his support behind a Targaryen takeover.

Particularly considering the inauspicious start Stannis Baratheon is getting off to up at the wall. Stannis respects Mance Rayder, now a captive at Castle Black, Mance respects Stannis for his strength and capability, and Jon Snow respects everyone, yet nobody can convince anyone to do anything. Stannis wants Mance to take a knee and rally his Wildlings to Stannis’ banner to help him take back the north, and Jon is charged with convincing him. But if there is one thing it is impossible to do, it’s persuade Mance to give up liberty for security. Ciaran Hinds is wonderful as he reacts to learning how he will die – by fire – but refusing to yield to Stannis’ demands. To Stannis’ entreaty of “kneel and live” he replies, fully upright, “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.” As Melisandre speechifies about the absolute dichotomy of the light and the dark, and the fire begins to lick at Mance’s limbs, Jon has had enough. He leaves the glow of the fire for the shadows, where he pulls out a bow and shoots an arrow of mercy through Mance’s heart. Jon’s draws a line in snow when it comes to torturous executions – Ned Stark taught him well – and the silence following his stunt might as well as serve as a stump speech for his candidacy for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

Odds & Ends

– For the purposes of these recaps, I may reference or compare the show’s storyline to the books on occasion, but I’ll keep it 100% spoiler free, and frankly I’m no longer assuming the storyline will follow the novels exactly. All crazy theoretical asides and grumbling over missing characters (cough Arianne Martell cough) will be relegated to this section.

 How unbelievably perfect was the casting for mini-Cersei? Nell Williams nails Lena Headey’s imperiousness.

– Next Halloween, my costume is going to include a Westerosi wide-eyed death mask.

– There were a lot of callbacks to season one this episode, including Illyrio Mopatis’ manse and Lancel Lannister’s role in King Robert’s death.

– Margaery Tyrell has the best sneer on the show, and considering the side-eye this cast is capable of, that’s saying something.

– Missandei questions Grey Worm as to why the Unsullied frequent brothels. Grey Worm, she’s essentially asking you if your junk works.

Nudity Watch: I timed how long it took us to get gratuitous boobies on screen, and the first set came at 13:52. It took longer for us to get man butt, but there was far more of it, considering we saw Loras Tyrell, Olivar, and Daario Naharis all completely naked. All in all, a balanced episode.

– Death Toll: 1 major character (Mance Rayder); 1 minor character (White Rat)