Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 1 – The Wars to Come

“Things have gotten worse, not better. Westeros needs to be saved from itself.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

And so, Game of Thrones is back for its annually much-anticipated new season, now bearing the dubious accolade of the world’s most downloaded TV show. In fact, all of the first four eps of the new season have already been leaked to the internet; but in standard definition only. Like the AV snob that I am, I’d prefer to wait to see it in shiny HD, so I’ll be posting my thoughts on here at the same intervals as usual, thanks very much.

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This season opener’s title, The Wars to Come, is guaranteed to get fans salivating for a forthcoming battle without actually providing one; the wars aren’t here yet, but they’re on the way. With this in mind, this solid but not especially spectacular episode had a ‘calm before the storm’ air, along with the show’s frequent resemblance to the positioning of pieces in a particularly complex game of chess.

Last season having not ended with any great cliffhangers, there wasn’t a great deal of tension to be answered. Instead, we got what amounted to a series of short vignettes from most of the show’s ongoing plotlines, which are increasingly starting to interweave. In King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime were dealing with the consequences of Tywin’s murder by the now fled Tyrion; Tyrion himself had turned up in Pentos with Varys, who’s determined to seek out Daenerys Targaryen as a prospective new monarch; Daenerys herself was still finding the business of ruling a lot harder than conquering; and up at the Wall, the Night’s Watch found themselves reluctant allies of Stannis Baratheon, who also wanted to co-opt the vanquished Wildlings into his quest for the Iron Throne.

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Having taken a laissez faire approach to adapting the source material, showrunners Benioff and Weiss, scripting this week, have included material from books three, four and five for this season opener. It’s an approach that’s borne fruit; much as I love Martin’s books, they get increasingly flabby and slow of pace by volumes four and five. Mixing the plot elements up – and increasingly inventing new ones – has kept the show leaner and more exciting than the original. However, it does mean that, this year, we won’t be seeing anything of Bran Stark and Hodor, since the TV version has already taken their plot as far as the end of the fifth book.

Still, if any plotline could be put on hold for a bit, it’s that one. And it allows more room for the other multifarious subplots to breathe. Even the snapshots we got here were very intriguing, and written with the show’s customary depth in character. Each scenario had at least two vignettes devoted to it, split up so as to keep the pacing fresh. Intriguingly, the usual King’s Landing court scheming was preceded by a flashback to a teenage Cersei (as spoilt then as she is now) demanding the prognosticative services of a creepy local witch, and getting a predictably doom-laden picture of her future.

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The show’s not done flashbacks before, so that felt a bit weird, as though these were new and important characters. It did serve to open the season with a suitably portentous warning of Very Bad Stuff to come, but I must say I hope the show doesn’t resort to using flashbacks regularly. One of the strengths of the world the show has built is that we keep hearing about its history secondhand from those who were there; it would be more of an insult to the audience’s intelligence if they start actually showing it.

Charles Dance having earned a place in the opening credits for playing Tywin’s corpse, it was very much business as usual in the royal court, with his absence leaving a power vacuum that all too many were eager to fill, as Cersei pointed out. Her venomous exchange with Jaime next to the bier bearing their father’s corpse was all too reminiscent of the badly fudged ‘rape’ scene last year next to the corpse of Joffrey. Thankfully there were no such shenanigans here; Cersei was far too annoyed with both her brothers for that.

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As well she might be. Tywin was probably the only one cementing the Lannisters’ power base, with Cersei too self-centred and Jaime too screwed up to guarantee it. Now he’s gone, it was notable that the court seemed particularly full of Tyrells, the camera repeatedly showing us Margaery’s seemingly innocent smile. No sign yet of family matriarch Oleanna, the only real rival to Tywin, though we did glimpse ineffectual Lord Mace Tyrell. I wouldn’t worry about him; it’s the women who are the real power in the Tyrell family.

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As we saw yet again, when the exasperated Margaery broke up her brother Loras’ little love in with Olyvar. An original creation of the TV show, Olyvar appears to be replacing the much missed Ros as the story’s go-to prostitute. With that in mind, I expect we’ll be seeing more of him as the season goes on (though there’s precious little of him we haven’t seen already). He’s presumably also taken Ros’ place running the sex trade in Littlefinger’s absence.

Lord Baelish himself was briefly seen, having palmed useful pawn Little Lord Arryn off to Lord Royce for some training – and presumably to keep him safely out of the way. Aiden Gillen’s ever-changing accent was mostly Irish this week; perhaps he’s abandoning any attempt to do an accent other than his own. More interesting was the question of where the show is taking the character of Sansa, who last season seemed to have suddenly embraced his evil scheming by dressing entirely in black. This is a departure from the books, and a welcome one; nonetheless, we got little clue this week as to where it might be heading.

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Nor indeed do we know what Brienne will do now that she’s actually found Arya Stark only to be told her help isn’t welcome, thank you very much. She had a dejected scene this week with her faithful foil, Tyrion’s former squire Podrick. It didn’t contribute very much to the plot, but served well to remind us these characters exist, and give us a glimpse into their current mindset. Plus, they’re an excellent double act, a trope the show always does well.

A new double act seems to have formed too, made up of Varys and Tyrion. Their scenes together were entirely two-handed, and consisted mostly of exposition. But it’s impossible to find that objectionable when the exposition is being meted out in such well-crafted dialogue by actors as good as Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill. All told, I’d rather have exposition delivered like this than by characters in the midst of sexual congress. Let’s hope they stay together for a while as they head off to see Dany Targaryen. At least they’re in the sunshine.

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Dany herself was still mired in the unrest caused by her quest to liberate all the slaves of Essos. She may be a great warrior, but the compassion that made her so loved has also made her plenty of enemies. This week, her refusal to reopen Yunkai’s gladiatorial fighting pits was the centre of attention, along with the emergence of a sort of insurgent movement who like to kill off her Unsullied in brothels.

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Intriguing though that may be, I found myself more interested in why a eunuch would want to go to a brothel, a point brought up by Missandei to Grey Worm in another of their quietly affecting little scenes together. From what we saw of the unfortunate White Rat before his demise, it looks less sexual and more almost maternal. It seems the show is going to greater lengths than the books in exploring the characters of the Unsullied, which is no bad thing; Grey Worm is already one of this plotline’s most likeable characters.

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Up at the Wall, Jon Snow had to contend with the gruff inflexibility of both Stannis and Mance Rayder, while fighting off the amorous attentions of the ever-insatiable Melisandre. I must say, I’ve found the TV version of Jon a hard character to like, mostly I think due to Kit Harington’s permanently sullen performance which makes him come off like a spoiled teenager listening to emo. Better by far was Ciaran Hinds as Mance, whose principles were to lead him to a fiery death if he hadn’t been spared by a judicious arrow from Jon. Hinds, who’s from Belfast, has cut a sturdy figure as the distinctly Yorkshire-accented Mance, and he’ll be missed. Not least by the other Wildlings, who looked distinctly unimpressed at Stannis’ unyielding inflexibility in executing their leader.

Sex and Violence

There was comparatively little of the show’s trademark brutal violence in his rather sedate episode. The throat slashing of White Rat was bloody but fairly tame by the show’s usual standards:

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And Mance’s fiery death was looking like it might have been truly agonising, but thanks to Jon’s act of mercy we didn’t have to actually see him being burned alive:

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Plenty of the usual gratuitous nudity though, and refreshingly for those who complain about the show’s sexual objectification of women, it was nearly all male. The duplicitous whore who lulled the rather buff White Rat into a false sense of security got a full frontal:

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And Daario Naharis went totally nude, Michiel Huisman willingly baring all while the more modest Emilia Clarke as Dany kept herself covered with a sheet. Only a conveniently placed table spared us the sight of ‘Little Daario’ (sadly):

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While this week’s only actual sex scene was between Loras and Olyvar, with plenty to be seen of both Finn Jones and the ever-nude Will Tudor. It felt like a shame that Margaery had to interrupt them:

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A solid rather than stunning season opener, this episode mainly worked as an exercise in scene-setting before launching the season’s major plotlines in earnest. Still unseen is fan favourite Arya Stark, who we’ll hopefully catch up with next week; other than her, though, it felt like most of the show’s ongoing plots and characters got at least a nod here. It helps that the plots are getting ever more intertwined even as character after character meets a grisly end, keeping the ensemble more manageable in size. Even with this in mind though, the inclusion of so many in this season opener meant that few were dealt with in any depth. It’s only episode 1 though – I look forward to some more focused eps in the coming weeks.