Just before Season 4 of Game of Thrones was about to start, Elliot and I we decided to give the show a try so that maybe we could get caught up in time to start watching new episodes by the time the season was wrapping up.
We watched three seasons in two weeks and saw the second episode the day after it aired.
I started writing on Facebook what began as short joke-y lists of things I observed in the episodes, and these lists turned into full-blown reviews. Someone suggested I actually start a blog just for my Game of Thrones recaps, and I suggested the name “The Great Sept of Baylor.” Now that I have a blog of my own, I figured* I’d start doing this again with the new season.
Se, here below are my thoughts on “The Wars to Come,” the first episode of Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Spoilers obviously follow for those who haven’t watched:
1. I haven’t read the books (though I did just buy the complete set on my tablet), but from what I understand, prophecies and legends and omens play a much larger role in the literary Westeros than in its televised counterpart. This makes sense, simply because it’s easier to do an aside or a memory or, hell, a whole transcription of a prophecy in the written word than it is in a visual medium, where it would necessarily break the linear narrative.
Flashbacks let you share information about the characters’ pasts during the ‘present’ of the story – to shade a character’s motivation, or provide a different perspective, or just show the audience something that happened in the past – without violating the “show, don’t tell” rule. Some shows, Lost is the easiest example, make the flashback an integral part of their format, while others, like Mad Men, establish early on that occasional flashbacks can happen, but aren’t going to be part of every episode.
Game of Thrones, however, has been very linear in its four seasons’ storytelling (although occasionally a little fudgy about chronology between different storylines within an individual episode). It’s very interesting, then, that the show broke its established format to do a flashback at the beginning of the season, and that it does so to expose us to a prophecy — breaking the audience’s timeline to go backward and show us a character break the world’s timeline and look forward. Opening on a flashback to a prophecy is also interesting as it sets the tone for an episode in which most of our characters are reckoning with how they are going to try to shape their futures.
The brief flashback we saw poses more questions than it answers, both about the series itself, and the world and the characters. The formal questions about the flashback are: why are flashbacks being introduced as a device in Game of Thrones now? Are there going to be more of them throughout this season? Will they stay focused on Cersei, or will we see other people’s pasts as well? The story questions about the flashback are: what does Cersei’s prophecy tell us about her motivations today? And is the “younger and more beautiful” queen who is going to cast her out Margaery, as Cersei clearly seems to think, or Daenerys?
2. And Margaery, my goodness. We saw a different side of her in this episode.
Margaery and her family are best positioned to make some bold moves to change their fates in a post-Tywin Lannister King’s Landing – or, as Jaime warned, tear apart everything Tywin put together. We know that Margaery and the rest of the Tyrells want what they want, but they’ve so far demonstrated that they’re willing to get it by more or less playing by the rules of King’s Landing.**
Those were Tywin Lannister’s rules, and now he’s gone. What can the Tyrells do in the vaccuum he left behind? Loras takes this as an opportunity to participate in the gay geography lesson equivalent of Armageddon‘s animal crackers scene. Margaery takes the death of Tywin Lannister as an opportunity to contemplate that she “perhaps” has to suffer Cersei as a mother-in-law. But perhaps not.
3. I like to believe that everything we do contributes to some larger cumulative good or bad in the world. I’m not talking metaphysically, I’m not talking about the Secret, I just mean that things that we do in the world contribute ever so slightly to the shared experiences of everyone we share the world with, and to the extent that we make an effort to do good, it does have some positive effect on the larger world around us.
All of which is to say, Westeros would be that much less of a creepy place if everyone just stopped with the dead-people-googly-eye-rocks thing.
4. I’d previously said that Daenerys’ arc in Season 4 reminds me of the part about a little less than halfway through a game of Civilization when you’ve just finished a war and you realize you have conquered one or two more cities than you should have and that, oh man, now you have to slow down the winning machine and actually, like, run stuff for a little while.
This season brings us back to Meereen with an image that might resonate beyond those who play PC strategy games and reach anyone who has followed the last twelve years of current events. Like, an occupying army toppling a statue: that has to be intentional, right?
As she continues to realize that she and her Unsullied army aren’t exactly being, ahem, “greeted as liberators,” Daenerys goes to check on whether her two currently captive dragons have become living metaphors for the rest of her life: wild, angry, and too big for her to control. Spoiler alert: yes.
5. Speaking of Meereen, I hope something interesting happens soon with Missandei and Grey Worm. The longing glances after one another can only sustain my interest for so long with two characters that have been so sorely underdeveloped.
And speaking of Grey Worm, the Unsullied who was killed in the brothel was named White Rat. There are an awful lot of Unsullied and a limited number of both neutral colors and lowly animals. Can’t wait for us to meet Taupe Vole.
6. The scenes between Varys and Tyrion perfectly capture what much of this episode was about: our characters assessing the fallout of everything that happened last season and contemplating their next moves. So much about what had been static and solid and true about the world and the relationships of these characters and political forces to one another has suddenly become very unstable: another king has been killed, the most powerful man in Westeros is also dead, the King Beyond the Wall is in chains, and the unstoppable Daenerys machine is sputtering out. Now what?
Well, this episode is called “The Wars to Come,” which is a phrase uttered by two characters in this episode, Varys being one of them (Manse Rayder is the second). So many of the show’s characters have reached a turning point, and now it’s time to take stock of what has happened and prepare for whatever trials lie around the corner.
Tyrion is at a very specific kind of turning point which I learned in a screenwriting course by the very technical name, “The Big Sad.” The Big Sad, as I learned it, is the moment for a character or characters just at the end of Act Two in a three-act story when all hope seems lost, when the antagonists have beaten them down, and just before they make the decision that propels them into Act Three and (hopefully) victory in the climax. Think the Delta house just before Bluto’s speech, or Harry and company in the hospital wing just before Hermione deploys the time turner in Book 3.
Tyrion’s moment of — *gulps wine* “The future is shit. Just like the past.” *vomits* *pauses* *pours more wine* — is about as textbook a Big Sad as you can get.
I’m interested to see how and whether his Act Three pays off on the promise made in HBO’s teaser poster.
7. It seems the show wants to bring to an end to my ongoing “Poor Sansa” series, which, when we last left off, was I think at Part Infinity. This is a good thing.
While I’m certainly pleased that Sansa is being given something more interesting to do than be a receptor for some of this brutal show’s excess brutality, I do kind of feel like her transformation into Littlefinger’s confidant and possible co-conspirator was a little too quick. Anyway, given that her station has improved, I guess I’ll have to start taking pity on other things. Like her dye job.
Nevertheless, I’m very interested to see what the new season holds for our newly self-possessed Sansa and what exactly Baelish’s long-term plan is with sickly little Robin Arryn.
8. The situation at The Wall continues to be perhaps my least favorite arc of the show. While the slower pace of the last season gave us interesting character bits between pairings like Oberyn and Cersei or Jaime and Bronn, the more time we spent with the men of the Night’s Watch, the less interested I got. They just aren’t as interesting as the rest of the cast: they are Grim Men who have thoughts about Honor and they are Grim.
When the internet recently dug up a late-90’s fansite’s fan-casting of the characters, I laughed out loud at the suggestion of Final Fantasy VIII‘s Squall Leonheart, the quintessential one-note sulking pretty-boy teen-in-a-black-jacket action hero, as Jon Snow, because it’s perfect.
Hopefully things at The Wall are going to start to get more interesting with the new dynamic of having Stannis and Co. at Castle Black and the Wildlings having been conquered. The murmurings about electing a new Lord Commander mean we’re hopefully on our way to Jon becoming Lord Commander already for crying out loud, because we all know that’s where we’re headed.
Also, Stannis telling Jon that he has until nightfall to convince Manse Raider to bend the knee is a good example of what I mentioned earlier about the show being iffy with chronology within an episode — between him saying that and the episode’s final scene, we see an evening in King’s Landing, daytime in Pentos, and another night in Meereen. Maybe time zones, like the seasons, are just weird in Westeros.
Jon’s mercy killing of Manse Rayder is probably not going to go over too well with Stannis and Melisandre, who were denied a chance to have a sacrifice taken by the “Lord of Light,” nor whoever among the Night’s Watch told Stannis that Jon has “too much affection for the Wildlings.” It also reminds me of the lesson Arya learned about how death can be a mercy in her travels last season with The Hound.
One thing that sticks out to me though about Manse’s death is that in the scene before, he never gives Jon a straight answer for why he’d rather die than have the Wildlings help in Stannis’ war. He says it’s not his pride, and that “there’s no point explaining,” and then goes on to do. Maybe I’m reading too much into things in the episode all about characters making plans for , but something tells me there’s more to the story of the King Beyond the Wall than we’ve seen.
* – Full disclosure: Not actually something I just “figured” I’d do, this is totally part of why I bought a domain name for myself. ^
** – “More” = marrying for the mutual benefit of a rival family. “Less” = poisoning the king. ^