Game of Thrones' recap: 'The Wars to Come'

The fifth season of “Game of Thrones” begins, once upon a time, with echoes of familiar fairy tales. The HBO fantasy series has always evoked medieval romances and timeless epics, with all the knights and dragons and whatnots, but the first season of the season premiere, “The Wars to Come,” riffs on very specific storybook tropes, as if digging even deeper into archetypal narratives.

We open on two little girls journeying into the woods until, like Hansel and Gretel, they find a witch’s cottage, but it’s definitely not made of casting. By her arrogant bearing, one of the girls is clearly a young Cersei Lannister, the other one of her childhood sidekicks. Li’l Cersei wakes up the witch and demands a prophecy. Threatened, the witch (who reminded me of Rickon Stark’s Wildling friend Osha — wonder if we’ll ever see her again?) takes a drop of Cersei’s blood and offers unhappy predictions of the girl’s future marriage and children — which we know will come true. She also suggests that Cersei will be supplanted by another and might as well call her “the fairest of them all,” with Cersei cast at an early age as Snow White’s wicked queen.

So, after last season, where is everybody?

Cersei: In the present, Cersei is busy with Tywin’s funeral in King’s Landing, and seems more broken up by the fact that her brother Tyrion escaped — thanks to her twin/lover Jamie — than her father’s dead. Cersei disses Jamie for being a man of action heedless of consequences. (Fortunately, there’s no controversial sex in the presence of a relative’s body, unlike the last Lannister funeral.)

Later, at a gathering that must be the Westerosi equivalent of a wake, Cersei mingles with the guests, encountering Tywin’s younger brother Kevan as well as her cousin and former boy-toy Lancel. (Wait, his name is “Lancel Lannnister?” That’s terrible.) Lancel, you’ll recall, was King Robert’s cupholder and played an instrumental role in the hunting accident that killed him. Now, though, Lancel claims to be part of an aesthetic religious sect called the Sparrows, and suggests that he’s above courtly intrigue and Cersei’s charms. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, we see Cersei’s probably-ex-fiancee Loras having sex with some guy, and in a typical “Game of Thrones”-style kind of foreshadowing, they notice that one’s birthmark looks like Dorne — the Southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms, which we should be visiting very soon. Margaery Tyrell barges in and talks to her brother about the post-Tywin dynamic. Loras probably won’t have to marry Cersei, but Margaery should still be wedding young King Tommen, with Cersei free to hang around King’s Landing. Margaery says, ominously, “Perhaps.”

Sansa Stark Lannister: Technically still Cersei’s sister-in-law and a fugitive from justice, Sansa seems comfortable enough in the Vale to make appearances among various Vale bigwigs. Sansa and Littlefinger watch the Vale’s heir apparent Robyn Arryn flail about at a sword-fighting lesson, then take a carriage ride. Littlefinger says they’re going “To a land somewhere so far from here even Cersei Lannister can’t get her hands on you.” They happen to pass right by …

Brienne: Possibly Westeros’s greatest knight, super-bummed that Arya rejected her last season, is now denying that she’s even a knight, or that Podrick is a squire. (She has a point about Pod.) Podrick tries to cheer her up, and they follow the carriage. So not that much going on in the Vale.

Tyrion Lannister: We catch a cleverly economical glimpse of Tyrion’s flight across the Narrow Sea, from the point of view of his crate’s air-holes, until Varys unceremoniously frees him at a seaside villa. The imp and the eunuch trade quips about how Tyrion disposed to his, uh, leavings while crated up. Tyrion’s not in a good humor after his figurative and literal trials, and seems intent on drinking himself to death, if he doesn’t spew the wine back up first.

Varys gives him a pep talk and asserts that Tyrion’s an effective leader with a part to plan in “the wars to come.” Tyrion: “I killed my old lover with my bare hands. I shot my father with a crossbow.” “I never said you were perfect.” Varys also intimates that the heir to the Iron Throne may not be a man. We’re going to Mereen!

Danaeyrs Targaryen: At our first sight of Mereen, we see the toppling of the harpy statue from atop the pyramid, and the winged monster seems to fly, if only straight down. We segue the brothel district, where one of Dany’s Unsullied soldiers (who are castrated, you’ll recall) visits a prostitute, who holds him and sings him a lullaby. It would be kind of sweet, until Unsullied gets his throat slit by a gold-masked assassin.

The gold masks go by the Sons of the Harpy, who represent the city’s old power structure lashing out against Danerys’s usurpation. Some of her advisors suggest she acknowledge Mereen’s traditions by reopening the fighting pits. Daario, as a former gladiator, argues the case, but Dany draws the line against blood sports.

At night, she pays a visit to the two of her dragons — Viserion and Rhaegal — who she locked in the basement at end of last season. The chamber’s pitch black until the dragons, totally pissed off, light them up with their fire. Which does Dany find more difficult, ruling the dragons, or ruling the city?

Jon Snow: Back at The Wall, we get a brief cameo of Jon’s direwolf gnawing on a bone. Yay, Ghost! The Wall is adjusting to a complicating new status quo, with the Wildlings defeated, their king Mance Rayder imprisoned and King Stannis in residence. Melisandre and Jon share an awkward elevator ride to the top of The Wall (it only lacks “Girl From Ipanema” Muzak). She asks if he’s a virgin, and approves that he’s not, and says that “The Lord’s fire lives within me.” Stannis still intends to claim the Seven Kingdoms’ throne, but needs a bigger army and wants the Wildlings on his side, and asks Jon to make it happen. Jon, with his complicated relationship and strained loyalties to the Winterfell, the Night’s Watch and even the Wildlings, has a bigger perspective than most of the characters on the show.

Jon proposes – quite reasonably – that Stannis’ deal will both save Mance’s life and secure the Wildling’s safety, and even mentions the impending threat of the White Walkers. (Remember them?) Mance refuses to argue for his people to fight another king’s war. For a terrific character actor playing a pivotal role on the show, Ciarin Hinds hasn’t been on camera much, but he does a great job of conveying Mance’s ill-concealed pride, his concern for his people and the fact that he really, really doesn’t want to be burned to death. But he’s ceremoniously condemned, tied to a stake and starts to ignite when Jon shoots him with an arrow. In the “Game of Thrones” setting, killing someone with an arrow counts as merciful.


Offstage this week: Arya and Theon/Reek. Incidentally, Bran and Hodor will apparently be offstage for all of Season Five.

The opening credits include Winterfell, which is no longer a smoldering ruin but displays the “flayed man” banner of House Bolton. You have to wonder if Bolton bannermen look at the logo and wonder if they’re the bad guys. It’s like the Nazi sketch from “That Mitchell and Webb Look.”

I like the parallelism in the training scenes. First we see Jon instructing a young fighter, repeatedly ordering “Shield up!” In the next change of location, we see Robin Arryn practicing his swordsplay, his teacher repeatedly ordering “Sword up!” It’s a telling difference between Jon’s practical, defensive approach that could keep his colleague alive vs. a more aggressive, showy approach that would probably get Robyn killed.

For readers of the books, it’ll be fascinating to see how show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss stray from and stay faithful to George R.R. Martin’s original novels. While Seasons Three and Four covered the third book, A Storm of Swords (my favorite), Season Five could encompass huge quantities of the fourth and fifth books – most of the Brienne and Sansa material has already been covered.

Martin’s approach to the story seems to keep expanding, adding an increasing quantity of characters and plotlines, like ever-branching fractals. Benioff and Weiss, constrained by making 10 episodes of television each season with regular actors on the payroll, must keep the established characters involved with the action. So if you’re invested in the Stark children, the Lannister siblings, Danaerys, Brienne, etc., the show going forward just might be more satisfying than the recent books have been. We’ll see.

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