War, As Usual, Is Coming To Westeros

The title of Game of Thrones’ season 5 premiere, “The Wars to Come’ betrays the fact that, like the premieres of past seasons, this 1st episode is primarily concerned with setting up events that will play out in the weeks to come. The episode jumps around to most of the important players still miraculously drawing breath in the troubled land of Westeros, but something else is happening this time out that goes deeper than merely setting up another exciting season of television.

It’s no secret that the Game of Thrones TV series is fast approaching the point where it will move past author George R.R. Martin’s source material, as Martin still has 2 novels to finish to complete the series. This unique conundrum is riveting and terrifying in equal measure. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have proven themselves more than capable, especially last season, of deviating from the source material when needed to strengthen their visual storytelling, but it’s still unknown whether they can guide the series to a satisfying conclusion without Martin’s ample prose to draw from.

Only time will tell whether the show will benefit in the long run from Martin’s absence, but “The Wars to Come” is a strong, if largely workmanlike start to the season. The episode begins in strong form with an ominous flashback to Cersei Lannister’s childhood encounter with a fortune-teller, who speaks in what seem to be riddles to young Cersei about her future as Queen. With her oldest son Joffrey murdered, father Tywin slain by her brother Tyrion, and the younger queen Margaery Tyrell quickly gaining influence, Cersei is finding herself to be like a caged lioness as the season opens. However, as she makes clear during her threatening speech upon her father’s deathbed, caged animals are the most vicious and she will not be giving up her power without drawing blood first.

Speaking of the murdered Tywin Lannister, his son and executioner Tyrion begins season 5 as an exile, now across the Narrow Sea and out of the reach of his vengeful sister Cersei. Tyrion’s scenes with Varys, who helped him escape, offer the most tantalizing prospective storyline of the premiere, as Varys has plans for Tyrion that he believes could save Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms. Actors Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill have always played well off each other and hopefully will get to spend more time together this season.

Much like Cersei, the exiled rightful Queen Daenerys Targaryen is struggling to hold her grasp on power in the far eastern city of Meereen. Although she has freed its people from slavery, Dany now finds herself dealing with the hardships of rule, especially in a culture that is foreign and strange to her. We also see that her power could be tenuous for other reasons: a secret group of assassins are targeting her soldiers, while her dragons, the key to her ascension in the first place, may be beyond her ability to control. As usual, it’s not necessarily clear where Dany’s story trajectory is heading in relation to the more centralized characters of Westeros, but the setup this season for the Mother of Dragons is promising.

Continuing the theme of outsider statuses are the loveable odd couple of Brienne “I’m not a knight” Tarth and her would-be squire Podrick, who show up briefly. With Arya Stark now beyond her ability to protect, Brienne has lost her sense of purpose and doesn’t know how to proceed. As one of the only truly noble and heroic characters left in the hellish landscape of Westeros, Brienne’s quest has always had an air of significance about it because she operates from a position of moral superiority in relation to most of the other characters she encounters. Here’s hoping that she regains her sense of purpose as the season progresses.

The one plotline that doesn’t really work in this episode is Sansa and Littlefinger’s. There are some hints (as there always are) to the latter character dreaming up a grand scheme to further solidify his power, but that is all they are – hints. We see the characters leaving the Eyrie for parts unknown, a comforting sign that shows that there is a plan in place for where this story is going next. Right now,  it’s safe to assume that this storyline is going to get very interesting as the season progresses (especially considering it’s already reaching beyond the plot of the novels), but right now it hasn’t quite hit the mark.

The last significant events that need to be touched upon are the ongoing struggles of Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch. At the end of last season, the Night’s Watch was saved at the 11th hour by Stannis Baratheon and his forces, still determined to seize the Iron Throne from the Lannisters. Stannis wastes no time forcing his influence upon Jon, pressing him to convince the captured “King in the North” Mance Raydor to swear allegiance to him in exchange for freedom and a pardon for the entire Wildling army. Things don’t go according to plan and the episode ends with Mance seemingly dead – a massive divergence from the book. Weiss and Benioff are wasting no time in carving their own path, making this end scene the best part of the episode because of how shocking it is.

“The Wars to Come” is a table-setting episode, as its title makes abundantly clear. With so many characters and events introduced in the span of an hour, it’s almost impossible to talk about all of them (shout out to the scene where Margaery walks in on her brother Loras in bed with another man, which doesn’t seem to faze her in the least). Game of Thrones is such a high quality show that even its lesser episodes are superior to most other programming. Season 5 is poised to begin diverging significantly from its source material and that prospect alone is enough to elevate an episode like this. Game of Thrones is about to dip into uncharted territory, where readers of the books will be just as in the dark as everyone else as to where it’s all heading. That is a thrilling prospect.

Other Events This Week:

-The revelation that the Unsullied are visiting brothels in Meereen is kind of heartbreaking, considering the implications that they do so for female connection (AKA, mother surrogates) since they lack the parts to engage in sexual activity.

-Flashbacks aren’t used very often on Game of Thrones; hopefully Cersei’s is evidence of the writers wanting to try this device more. Here’s hoping for some Ned Stark action!

-Arya is the most obvious missing character this week (it seems safe to assume that the next episode will heavily feature her). While she’s definitely missed, it’s good to see the show not trying to cover everybody in a single episode.

8
Excellent
Not a classic, but still a promising start to Game of Thrones' 5th season.