Winter is here
EPISODE RATING: 6/10 | IMPORTANCE IN SERIES ARC: 6/10
“All the good lords are dead and the rest are monsters”
Yes, winter is finally here. Television's most fearless show is back, and in this episode we're picking up the pieces from the end of season 4. "The Wars to come" talks of ruthless murder, vengeful dragons, fallen tyrants and the mysteries of who is killing the Unsullied and why are they visiting brothels, anyway? Read on. Valar morghulis.
This was a nice, gentle start to the season, with Game of Thrones touching base with all the existing characters and setting the scene for where the events of season 4 have left us. A solid episode with some backstory and nice visuals.
We are reliably informed by Weiss & Benioff that this is a big season for Cersei and given season 4 was quite Cersei-centric, this is really saying something. So it was fitting for season 5 to open "cold" with (a younger) Cersei having her hopes dashed by the cold vomit of reality and a washed-up little witch. In a sign of things to come (or indeed wars to come), the witch tells Cersei that she will be a disposable plaything for a King and will have 3 children of her own, while her King (Robert Baratheon) will have 20. And then she'll be replaced by a younger, prettier woman. And so it is.
Getting to know Cersei from before the events of GoT is interesting, like when she tells her husband Robert Baratheon that she was madly in love with him when they got married, only to be disappointed by his whoring imperfections. This, too, adds welcome detail to the most complex and arguably most powerful character on the show. Cersei is a woman wracked with grief, having lost her son Joffrey, father Tywin, and possibly her daughter Myrcella. She no longer finds any refuge in her incestuous relationship with Jaime and so has turned to fury. She wants Tyrion's head and does not recognise at all that (a) it's unlikely that Tyrion killed Joffrey and (b) Tywin was really asking for it.
One of this episode's main themes was fallen tyrants - the once powerful Mance Rayder and immensely potent Tywin Lannister have both been felled by their own greed and relentlessness. And yet they have not been replaced by good, honourable people, but a selection of puritans (Stannis), vicious matriarchs (Cersei) and ruthless power-brokers (Baelish). The 'pure' good guys, like Tyrion, Arya and Jon Snow are more or less powerless. Even Danaerys, who seems like a warrior of the light, is increasingly being drawn into complex lose-lose propositions like re-opening fighting pits that promote violence as a way of winning over a civilisation she liberated. In this Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There are no middle zones.
Castle Black“The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.”
The scorching warfare of episode 9 last season has now led to a new, uneasy truce in the far North of Westeros, with Stannis temporarily in control of Castle Black. This is arguably now the most richly hewn place in Game of Thrones, due to the sheer number of storylines happening here. For a start, there's Stannis's plan to take the rest of the North, which will apparently make use of the wildlings. Unfortunately, Mance Rayder and his company place honour and grit above practicality. Game of Thrones likes having a little laugh at its "winners" - Tywin was extremely practical and ruthless and he got shot taking a shit. Mance Rayder is inflexible and iron-willed, and he got burnt alive. In this game of thrones, you win or you die. Or you win and die taking a dump anyway.
As usual, Jon Snow is at the centre of Castle Black storylines: trying but failing to convince Mance to join Stannis, shenanigans with Melisandre and his possible bid to be Lord Commander. In Mance Rayder, Jon Snow found somebody truly honourable and principled, and this being Game of Thrones, this means they must die. Snow recognises in him some of his own father (Ned Stark), no doubt, and that is why he put Mance out of his misery on the funeral pyre. Valar morghulis, indeed.
So it turns out that Jon Snow is loved by many Brothers of the Nights Watch, but not all. And surprisingly, Alliser Thorne is alive and Janos Slynt has been returned to his former position. So this leaves Snow in much the same position as last year - somewhere between Lord Commander and personal steward to the LC. Also, Slynt's cowardly behaviour at the end of last season* would surely have disqualified him from the Nights Watch? As for Ser Thorne, I seem to recall Samwell Tarly declaring that "Ser Alliser has fallen" so I was confused to see him alive and well. Might The Hound be back too, given that he was left for dead last season too?
*Here's what I said about Slynt last season: "Here's a list of things Slynt has done: (1) turned the City's Watch against Ned Stark (at Littlefinger's behest) (2) massacred Robert Baratheon's bastard children. (3) personally murdered a baby and (4) called Jon Snow a "bastard son of traitors". I hope he dies soon."
Then there's the Melisandre + Jon Snow angle - we know Jon has a thing for gingers/redheads and Melisandre seems to be enjoying the fact that Jon is not a virgin - this feels a bit clunky and a bit of a distraction in both stories, but let's see where it goes. The idea that Jon Snow & Melisandre might try to take Winterfell together has occurred to me, but this is a very unpredictable show and so I'll leave you with the wisp of a prediction.
Then finally there's the Tilly & Samwell Tarly sideshow: will they or not to be accepted at Castle Black? Yawn. Don't care.
"A drunked dwarf will never be the saviour of the seven Kingdoms"
Tyrion and Varys - I enjoy watching these two for two reasons: they're characters with intelligence and conscience, which is unusual in GoT. Secondly, they're both castaways from Westerosian society, both for mostly physical reasons. Varys is a eunuch and Tyrion a dwarf ("imp"). So their banter always has a clever and unique quality - consider their second exchange, where they start out by naming all the disparaging but creative epithets used for Tyrion: imp, half-man, eunuch and the delightfully medieval "Master of the Whispers". Varys and Tyrion then provide a primer on what's wrong with Westeros, speaking more or less directly to the audience: Westeros deserves a better Monarch and Tyrion is the main to deliver it. It's all quite well written and expository without being overbearing.
Varys considers Tyrion to be compassionate, although as Tyrion points out, "I killed my lover with my bare hands and killed my father with a crossbow". I suppose that passes for compassion in Westeros. We can tell that Tyrion's reluctance is only half there - he could very easily be persuaded to help somebody else take the Iron Throne. But then even if Tyrion does hate much of his family, but would he betray them for a Targaryen?
Cersei & Jaime - Jaime wants to keep the family and Tywin's legacy united, but Cersei is still hellbent on revenge as a substitute for grieving. The incident with the witch in childhood and subsequent life has made Cersei paranoid and cynical in a way that's driven a wedge between her and Jaime (ironically causing them to behave more like brother and sister). This leaves Cersei completely isolated, without advisors, lovers or friends. I suspect we'll see Cersei go a little crazy this season, as her isolation leaves her making massive misjudgements. Who knows, maybe a little Margaery-killing? [I have not read the books so this is pure speculation on my part].
On another note, it's ironic that while Jaime thinks the lords and Knights of Westeros are waiting like hyenas near a dying elephant, across the Narrow Sea, his own brother could be the one betraying the Lannisters, with the Targaryen girl.
Cersei & Lancel - strange sidebar about the new religion sweeping Kings Landing. Lancel dredges up old history about the way Robert Baratheon died and his biblical encounter with Cersei. Cersei is her usual acerbic self ("I doubt you've ever led anyone anywhere") .
Margaery & Loras - we're reminded that Cersei's marriage to Loras affects Margaery (and therefore Tommen) as well. With Cersei in Highgarden, the path would be clear for Margaery to rule over Tommen's heart and Westeros. The main lesson Ser Loras has learned from Kings Landing is that it's impossible to keep secrets, so you might as well cavort with men openly. Another observation: Game of Thrones seems to have joined all other TV in shying away from showing male genitalia, while female genitalia is ok. Oh, the inquity.
"I'm not a politician, I'm a Queen"
Two key storylines in Meereen this week - although Danaerys often appears imperious, she seems to have lost all control over her dragons, with Drogon lost in the skies and the other two (Rhaegal & Viserion) furious at being chained inside a cave [clearly Danaerys needs a course of "How to train your dragon"]. The previews for the season seem to show a lot of the dragons, so I suspect this is highly temporary. As usual, Danaerys is getting a crash course in how to govern and the re-introduction of the fighting pits is yet another conundrum.
An interesting mystery seems to have reared its head as we discover that the Unsullied, despite being eunuchs, are visiting brothels, where one of them is brutally murdered by the "Sons of the Harpy". Also, the tune being sung to the unsullied by the prostitute is as yet unidentified but may hint at some backstory for the hitherto-character-less Unsullied. Anyway, the new foe adds yet another layer of difficulty for Danaerys, who has been completely derailed in her bid for the Iron Throne. As with most of last season, she has to prove she can rule, not just "win".
The Eyrie/Vale of Arryn
Baelish must've been informed of Tywin's death in the piece of paper he received, which he seems to have taken as if he knew it would happen. Baelish seems content to leave the kingdom under a weak boy ("boys go to war at 13") in the hope that it all comes crashing down for Baelish to save. Also, Baelish seems to have some plan to take Sansa somewhere safe, and looking at a map of Westeros (http://gameofthrones.net/images/Westeros_Maps/Map_Westeros_Strongholds.jpg), they could be going towards Riverrun (that would be the Tullys & Freys), the Neck (Boltons) or possibly even the Reach (Tyrells). Or perhaps something completely different.
We also got to catch up with Podrick & Brienne, with the latter indulging in the same pathetic self-pity as Tyrion. Although if you'd gone ten rounds with the Hound, you might feel the same. These two characters seem to be looking for a purpose, so it'll be interesting to see where they fit into the story.
We're yet to catch up with Arya and of course, Dorne, so let's forward to that next week. I'd love to read your comments on the episode, so let's hear it!
Violence of thrones: One slayed, music-listening Unsullied soldier.