Welcome, to the long awaited beginning to season five of Game of Thrones! A few administrative items before we talk about this episode. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, the first four episodes of this newest season of Game of Thrones have been leaked. The temptation to go ahead and binge watch these first four episodes is high but I will be sticking to the script and watching one episode a week. This isn’t entirely for ethical reasons either – the pain of waiting four additional weeks for a fifth episode outweighs any gain I might get from the binging. As such, I request that you leave spoilers for the leaked episodes out of any comments you might leave until the week that the episode airs. This would also be a good time to remind anyone reading this that this series of blog posts is aimed mostly at folk who have read the books. There will be spoilers from beyond and outside the show, so be warned.
With all that out of the way, let’s dive right into this first episode of season five. When we last saw Westeros, the War of the Five Kings had been quieting down – with Robb and Renly dead and Stannis isolated in the far North, the power once again lies solely in Lannister hands. Tywin Lannister is dead however, it is up to his two (three?) thoroughly disappointing offspring to fill in the hole he left behind. They aren’t doing too good a job of it though; Cersei is in an understandably dark mood and seems intent on driving a wedge between herself and her brother/lover while Tyrion has embraced alcoholism the way Selyse Baratheon embraced the Red God. Stannis, after spending all of ten minutes as a hero in the last season’s finale, finds it to not be to his liking and return to familiar, unlikable territory. In Slaver’s Bay, Dany is beginning to realize that if conquering a city is akin to death by beheading, ruling a city is death by a thousand slow cuts; both will kill you, one is just a lot less interesting to watch.
If this first episode is any indication, it would seem that HBO is taking firm, decisive steps to move away from the books cannon and really make the show its own beast. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Wall where Mance Rayder is not only burned but also gets an arrow through his heart. It is far too early to say with any conviction whether this change is for the better or worse but one thing’s for sure: the butterfly effect from not just this changes but also the whole host of more minor ones, will ensure that some of this season’s plotlines will feature utterly different events from those in the book. The story at the Wall itself seems promising, however. Kit Harrington has shown himself more than capable of handling a role as major as Jon Snow and I look forward to seeing his character’s journey this season. The standout performer of the episode, of course, was Ciaran Hinds and his final performance as Mance Rayder. Hinds’ Mance lacked the effusive charm of his novel counterpart, but made up for it with a gruff fatherliness. He was less a young rebel and more a determined man with a mission. His final line to Jon Snow was excellent, a succinct representation of the Wildling ideology: “All I ever wanted was the freedom to make my own mistakes.”
Jaime Lannister would certainly have a thing or two to say about making mistakes and his sister would be all happy to provide additional detail. I have suggested in the past that the King’s Landing storyline suffered, both in the adaptation and in the original material, with Joffrey’s demise. Tywin’s death will only serve to exacerbate the problem. Talented as Lena Headey undoubtedly is, Cersei as a character just doesn’t seem menacing enough to make up for the lack of sheer cruelty and ruthless that Joffrey and Tywin respectively provided. Again, it’s a little too early to say this, but even if Cersei proves have a bark worse than her bite, her scenes are guaranteed to entertain. The flashback scene that served as the season opening is a good, if incomplete, introduction to the storm of paranoia, delusion and narcissism that fill Cersei’s mind. Her other half is having rough go of things as well – he is blamed, and not unfairly, for his father’s death. Their relationship was a complicated one, but it seems fair to say that Jaime didn’t despise Tywin the same way that Tyrion did. It isn’t clear from the short scene at the funeral how exactly Jaime feels about his involvement in this whole sordid affair. In the novels, Jaime and Tyrion part on bitter terms, to put it mildly, with Jaime believing Tyrion killed Joffrey and Tyrion discovering that Jaime lied and led him to think that his loving first wife was a whore, when she wasn’t. Here, it seems we skipped a few steps but still arrived at the same conclusion; Jaime can’t be feeling too kindly towards Tyrion, not matter what he thought about their father. The episode also reintroduces a third Lannister – Lancel, who hasn’t been seen or heard of since season two. He’s bulked up significantly and has found God, or as he would put it, the Seven. It’s a solid introduction to increasingly prominence religion takes in this part of the story and I expect it won’t be long before we see the new High Septon.
On the subject of characters that could use religion in their lives, Tyrion has officially ‘escaped’ King’s Landing but the character that tumbles out of the crate is not the character that audiences have come to love over the course of the last four seasons. Tyrion has always been a somewhat bitter and cynical character, perhaps understandably, but if this one episode is any indication, he’s been holding back all this time. Varys presence in this plotline is a little jarring but not quite as jarring as watching him reveal his grand scheme as Tyrion vomits and drinks in the foreground. The absurdity of it might some fine to some, but personally, I feel like it undersells the importance of what Varys is revealing. It is unclear whether or not Tyrion will even reach Dany during the course of this season but hopefully the show doesn’t spend too long having him travel there. Of all the changed plotlines set to take off this season, this particular one has me the most uncertain. The lack of Jon Connington and Aegon could work very well if it leads to Tyrion having a simpler path to Dany but it does really drain Varys and Illyrio (who didn’t even appear in this episode) of their motivations and reduces the complexity of their schemes. On the other end of the road to Meereen, Dany is not having a fun time ruling her cities. She is surrounded by difficulty both externally and within herself. The displaced classes, whose fortunes have suffered greatly under Dany, are beginning to fight back with daggers in the dark while Dany herself is faced with self-doubt and regret. Her dragons are slipping out of her reach, which could be a metaphor for her losing touch with true self as she gets increasingly mired in the politics of this irrelevant city. Her relationship with Daario is surprisingly tender where it was originally purely sexual, though for all that, it’s unclear whether the advice he gives her matches his prowess in bed.
The episode also featured a few more scenes but nothing particularly noteworthy occurred in them just yet: Sansa and Littlefinger leave the Eyrie, heading West while Robert Arryn continues to be both hapless and hopeless. They pass right under the nose of Brienne and Podrick who have been searching for them for the better part of a season, in what has to be the cruelest missed encounter since Bran and Jon last season. We haven’t seen any sign of Arya, but she’ll pop up soon enough. All in all, this was a decent opening episode, but one that felt a lot less potent than previous season openers; the rapidly multiplying number of plotlines seems to be diluting the narrative as much in the adaptation as it is in the novels.