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As has often been the case with series premieres with Game of Thrones, “The Wars To Come,” the long-awaited premiere for season five, focused less on excitement and more on setting a stage. This is a radically different Seven Kingdoms than the ones we started with in our journey through this world — kings have died, queens have risen and fallen and risen again, and as always, the night is dark and full of terrors. But this episode shows something very different — war is coming, in many different places and taking many different shapes. And yet, there is also some occasion for hope, something of a rarity in this world.
“Everyone wants to know their future… until they know their future.”
There’s so much terrifying prescience in that simple phrase, uttered by a witch/seer in Cersei’s past. Almost all of it has come to pass, as we rejoin Cersei in the present, and what’s worse is the possibility that the rest of it is still possible. Cersei stands on a knife’s edge, now. Her father is gone, the brother she loathed but found a convenient scapegoat has escaped, and the brother she loved, well … the rift between Jaime, particularly in light of the knowledge that he helped Tyrion escape — that chasm may now be too wide to ever bridge. And as Cersei — ever haughty, ever bitter, and as usual, captured with chilly perfection by Lena Headey — endures the pithy condolences of a court she clearly loathes, she sees the dangers around her, feels the walls closing. Margaery Tyrell inches closer to being the queen Cersei always wanted to be, and Lancel, the one she once sought comfort in, has become a fanatical Sparrow, a man with too many secrets and just enough of a pious, crazed gleam in his eye to make those walls seem that much closer.
“Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there’s no other way.”
Speaking of disappearing brothers, we find Tyrion’s rather… unpleasant journey conclude in Pentos, where he and Varys continue their series of absolutely terrific interactions (Varys coming along differs from the book, and it was a brilliant decision). There’s a fascinating dichotomy between the two — Tyrion is filthy, bedraggled… and free. Yet bitter resentment has taken him over, and he wants nothing more than to leave the world behind him. Varys is so different from every single other person in this world. Varys is a schemer, a spider, a deadly, conniver … and he way well also be the wisest, bravest, and most honest man of them all. He truly wants to bring good to the world … and he’ll kill whoever he needs to kill, save whoever he needs to save, in order to do it. And it may well be that the savior he needs comes in the form of the Mother of Dragons, and Tyrion may be horse he rides to get there.
“A dragon queen with no dragons”
As for that Mother of Dragons, with each city she saves, she finds more problems than she had before. For each slavemaster brought down, each slave given freedom, there are more deaths to deal with. The deaths of her soldiers as they seek solace in the arms of prostitutes, the deaths of free people as they clamor for the right to kill each other in the fighting pits. The death of White Rat was brutal, and foreboding, yet there was something so breathtakingly sad, so forlorn about a soldier — a eunuch, a slave, a man — seeking nothing but comfort in the arms of a whore. And that comfort is something that proves to be a source of confusion and perhaps even disappointment for Missandei, as she and Grey Worm continue their strange, awkward, yet utterly engaging burgeoning courtship, a relationship wholly unlike any other, and one that I cannot wait to see continue. Kudos to Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson for turning in lovely, subtle performances. But it is Daenerys Targaryen that we must worry about. She, like Cersei, feels the bars of the prison created by her own rule. Being a revolutionary, a warrior-queen, a savior, is not nearly as simple as one would have thought. Having her own children grow so vast and terrifying that their very voices force her to flee is not the vision of a mother of dragons that we once had.
“The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.”
Finally, we find ourselves North, at the Wall, where life continues to be brutal and harsh in the aftermath of the battle with the Wildlings. The politics of the Wall are cold and unforgiving, and the presence of Stannis and Melisandre certainly won’t warm things up. While the pairing of Varys and Tyrion was the highlight of the episode, a close second was the meeting of Jon Snow and Mance Rayder. Kit Harrington grows stronger with each passing season, and can finally hold his own performance-wise against the terrific Ciarán Hinds. Rayder’s refusal to bend the knee to Stannis is such a complex, nuanced thing — it’s neither bravery nor cowardice, neither pride nor arrogance. It simply is who — and what — he is. Despite the clear terror the prospect of immolation brings, Mance never strays from his path for a moment. It’s that reserved determination that makes the Free Folk who they are, for better or worse. It’s also that which gives Jon the strength to end Mance’s suffering quickly — a King does not deserve to die like that, regardless of what land he rules.
There was more, of course — Brienne and Podrick, Littlefinger and Sansa, Maergary and Loras. Each was a different jagged piece in an increasingly complex puzzle. That was what “The Wars To Come” sought to do. Not tell you anything concrete, but rather simply throw the pieces in front of you, letting you watch as they slowly come together. There was little excitement to be found, but it brought us back to this world meticulously, bridging the gaps between seasons just enough so that we recall where we were, and grow eager for where we’re going. Winter is still coming, but so is war. Both will be forces that will change this world forever, and watching everything unfold continues to be a riveting experience.