[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Game of Thrones really is a show like no other. Because of the sweeping nature of the series, it doesn’t need to adhere to the conventions of a typical season premiere or season finale. While it’s true that there is the sense of commencement and finality, such a sensation has more to do with how most people are going to spend Sunday night for the next 10 weeks.
When it comes to the series itself, however, the sensation is something more akin to how one might interact with its source material. With each passing year, finales have begun to feel more like bookmarks than conclusions. A season doesn’t deliver endings as television audiences have come to know them. Instead, as the story being woven continues to become larger, certain threads are plaited into skeins and bundled for later. Seasons end with strands left dangling and plots tantalizingly unresolved, forcing the audience to wait what seems like an eternity for the story to continue (and Game of Thrones fans are nothing if not familiar with the concept of waiting).
The same is true for the stories that are unraveled week after week. With the exception of a season’s penultimate episode, weekly installments rarely adhere to the typical episodic formula. Hours are unique unto themselves because many don’t tell a contained story. They pull on familiar threads, as others are left to hang from the larger tapestry that is the series itself. Four seasons in, the eschewing of convention has become a complicated enterprise in arras making, but it has also become the hallmark of the series.
The distinguishing feature of the season premieres, then, is the sensation that threads are once more being pulled, and that you’re allowed to travel a little further along each strand. It’s not so much the sensation of starting anew as it is the distinct sensation of picking up precisely where you left off.
As such, season 5 begins with ‘The Wars to Come,’ an episode that’s all about pulling on threads, even if a witch with a taste for blood tells a preteen Cersei she’s not going to like the result. But in youth, as with fandom, there is little resolve for resisting the temptation of knowing what’s to come – especially when it’s dangling right in front of you. So, Cersei comes to have her future told obliquely enough that it charms as much as it alarms. She won’t marry the prince, but she will become queen. That much has already come to fruition. So has the division of children, which at last count stood with Robert Baratheon at 20 and Cersei at 3 (with the help of her brother). All that’s left of Cersei’s three questions is seeing her children wearing crowns and shrouds of gold.
The relative accuracy of Cersei’s prognosticator doesn’t bode well for the queen regent or her two remaining offspring. Like Macbeth and his fateful run-in with the wyrd sisters, one has to wonder if an irresistible force is guiding Cersei’s fate, or if by simply having been shown the edges of her future she has somehow filled the rest in on her own. If the former is the case, then there’s little meaning in the choices the characters make. But if it’s the latter, then an episode like this could have great implications indeed.
And what better place to contemplate the future and question your life’s choices than at your father’s funeral? Viewers of the series don’t know what choices Cersei made in the past to avoid or seek out the future the witch described, but it’s clear now that she will be making choices to circumvent what has not yet come to pass. That is an important distinction for the episode, as it focuses explicitly on the idea of choice and the consequences that may arise from it.
Many of the consequences explored come directly from choices made at the end of last season; namely, Tyrion’s decision to murder Tywin, and Varys’ decision to depart King’s Landing with said murderer in tow. As with all decisions of such significance, it leads to another of even greater import: the role the two will play in “the future of our country,“ as Varys puts it, adding how Westeros needs to be saved from itself, and that Daenerys may be the only one to manage such a lofty endeavor.
Because the series seems constantly in a crunch for time, it is a brief exchange between the two, but while it exposits the Spider’s plan, it also serves to demonstrate what Game of Thrones excels at: adding depth to character through the significance of his or her choice. In this case, the choice boils down to Tyrion drinking himself to death or joining Varys on the road to Meereen. But it also underlines the consequences of Tyrion actions. Before, he could at least fall back on his Lannister name, but it has become the first thing that will do him in. Tyrion is now tasked with actually making a name for himself, and to do that he must rely on his wit, which he currently chooses to dull with libation.
The episode gives us plenty of other choices, like Daenerys’ hardline approach to a small insurgency. Then there is cousin Lancel’s decision to become what passes for pious in Westeros, and Brienne and Podrick’s choice to continue on their quest to save the Stark girls. But the weight of choice is no more immediately felt than in Castle Black, where Mance Rayder must choose to pledge loyalty to Stannis or be burned alive, and Jon Snow must choose whether or not he will allow such an execution to happen. And in doing so, Game of Thrones introduces what may well become as important a concept as any this season: the notion of bitter compromise.
‘The Wars to Come’ offers a captivating premiere that doesn’t feel the need to dazzle, because it knows its mere presence is dazzling enough. Instead, the episode begins playing with notions and actions that will impact both the characters and the story moving forward. If anything Game of Thrones has demonstrated just how adept it has become at turning the act of pulling threads into an art form unlike anything else.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘The House of Black and White’ @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO
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