Our annual wandering through the desert of the soul has ended, and Game of Thrones – as usual – follows hot on the heels of the cherry blossoms. It may last a little longer, but 10 weeks sure does seem to go by in a flash. George Martin and HBO would like more than ten episodes a season, and more than seven seasons; showrunners David Benoff and D.B. Weiss are determined that they can do no more than that in a year, and that they’ll wrap up affairs in seven.
We’re at the point now where book readers and new viewers are effectively in the same boat. Game of Thrones has jumped wildly back-and-forth in the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire, and sometimes outside of it altogether. Some characters are more than an entire book ahead of others in their arcs, some have been cut out of the series altogether. Many arcs have diverged so far from their source material that it’s impossible to guess where they’re headed. It seems clear that GoT is going to get to the end long before ASoIaF, that it’s going to largely spoil the ending of the novels, and that everyone in the audience is going to be surprised together.
So as to what’s happening on-screen now, most of it is as unpredictable to me as it would be to one who’d never write George R.R. Martin’s books. A few general trends can be seen – after Season 4 ended with a succession of horrifying deaths and huge battles, Season 5 is beginning in a much more measured tone. Sure a throat gets slit here and there, and a king gets burned at the stake (and shot), but generally speaking this episode is about scene-setting and conversation. And it’s clear that even if the wars to come follow the broad outline laid in the books, the path to them is going through an undiscovered country.
There’s considerable feeling that Jon Snow and Sansa Stark are going to be the featured players this year, along with Cersei Lannister. Generally HBO had built the off-season promotion campaigns around the key players in the next season, and Kit Harrington (Jon) was especially prominent in this one. All three have major roles in the premiere, though Sansa’s is brief. After leaving Robyn in theoretically safe (if dour) hands with Lord Royce, Peter Baelish and Sansa are off on a trip that’s strictly virgin territory for all of us in the audience. What does Littlefinger have in mind here – what’s his destination? Sharp-eyed fans picked up clues very early, and the secret is pretty much out after the S5 trailer…
And interestingly enough, it seems as if their carriage passes within a few yards of an unsuspecting Brienne and Pod (another cruel irony for our poor wandering knight-who-isn’t).
If there’s been a “star” of Game of Thrones over the first four seasons, it’s no doubt been Peter Dinklage as Tyrion – and there’s no doubt he’s going to play a major role in this season too. But that role is very hard to discuss here because although the specifics of his circumstances are very different from the books, they’re still tied in with threads (most of which are still theoretical) which seem certain to be crucial to the eventual ending of the series. Varys’ thinking seems, superficially, to be very different than it is at this point in the books – in part because there’s a seemingly crucial arc in ASoIaF that’s so far been completely ignored by GoT. Some fans speculate that Varys’ intentions in the books may be the same as they seem to be here, beneath a superficial deception; it could just as easily be argued that his stated aims in the TV are the deception, and eventually it will be revealed that he’s in-synch with what book Varys professes to be thinking.
For now, who knows – but we do know that Varys and Tyrion are in Pentos, Tyrion is feeling pretty pissy after spending weeks in a crate and generally pretty sorry for himself. It’s not a spoiler to say that in the TV version, Tyrion is going to be meeting Danerys very soon – Varys suggests it, and it’s been common knowledge for months. In the meantime Danerys continues to do absolutely nothing to convince me why a man as smart as Varys would ever see her as the kind of ruler he describes to Tyrion – she really hasn’t made a single major decision yet that I agree with. There is an element in her that seeks to do the right thing, but she’s so immersed in the fantasy she’s built around herself that her practical ability to rule seems non-existent. If Danerys is the great hope of Westeros, I’m thinking Westeros is pretty fucked. And besides – she’s down one dragon and the other two have tuned her out like teenaged rebels with their mother.
As for the other member of the purported S5 quartet of headliners, Cersei is still the same bundle of joy as ever. We do get a flashback of a very unsettling fortune she received from a witch named Maggy the Frog (Johdi May – as are most of the ugly characters in the books, way too good-looking here) as an adolescent girl – especially interesting being the witch’s words that her three children would have “shrouds of gold”. In the present she’s busy making Jaime feel guilty over their father’s death and scowling at Maergary. A surprise guest at Tywin’s wake is Cersei’s old kissin’ cousin Lancel, who’s now a “Sparrow” of the high church. He’s seen the light, he admits he poisoned Robert on Cersei’s behest, and urger Cersei to find the light and repent her sins. Good luck with that.
Finally we have The Wall, where much of the best action late in S4 happened. And it provides some of the best moments in “The Wars to Come”, especially the conversation between Jon Snow and Mance Rayder. Stannis tries to get Jon to convince Mance to bend the knee and order his wildlings to fight under Stannis; if he does his life will be spared, Stannis will retake Winterfall and mount Roose Bolton’s head on a spike (I’d love to see every Bolton’s head on a spike), and give the Wildling army freedom and land to settle on. If not, he’ll burn Mance at the stake. There’s a lot of subtext when Jon visits Mance in his cell – these are two men who respect and even like each other, and you can see how torn Jon is as to whether he even believes the arguments he’s making to Mance. But Mance won’t bend the knee, memorably telling Jon “You’re a good lad – truly you are. But if you can’t understand why I won’t release my people to fall in his war, there’s no point in explaining.”
Knowing what’s to come at The Wall, I really find myself hoping D & D don’ change it too much, because it’s some of the best material in A Dance With Dragons. I can’t discuss the repercussions of what happens to Mance in detail – I won’t even do it behind spoiler tags – but it’s a terrible and beautiful scene, especially when Jon gives the vile Lady Melisandre a big “Fuck you” and puts an arrow through Mance’s heart before the agony of being burned alive can make him scream. To me this is the most “Game of Thrones” moment in the episode, and the perfect one on which to end. Flaws and all, there’s nothing like like this series on television and it’s great to have it back.
Before I wrap, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Many of you surely know that the first four episodes of the season have leaked online (by coincidence – not – exactly the number that were sent for pre-screening by critics). It’s a tough choice whether to burn through them all immediately, given the long wait we’ve endured between seasons, But for the record I’ve decided to wait – I get ten weeks a season of Game of Thrones, and I want that season to last those ten damn weeks. So I’ll watching – and blogging – those four eps once a week, just as HBO airs them.