Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
Game of Thrones is back! We live in a new golden age of television, but I don’t think there’s anything that gets me as excited as the return of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy tale. So much happened at the end of Season 4 that I’ve been anxious to see Tyrion and Arya begin their adventures in different parts of Essos, where the threads of East and West can finally start to weave together.
We got one of those threads in the Season 5 premiere, “The Wars to Come,” with Tyrion crawling out of a crate to drink himself stupid in Pentos. He’s cheated death once again, though he’s wracked with so much self-pity and self-loathing that he no longer sees himself as a player in this game. So much changed at the end of Season 4 that this episode spends most of its time setting up what’s next. There’s plenty of brooding and very little action. That’s most true of Tyrion, but there’s plenty to go around.
We begin with a flashback that my friends identified as young Cersei within seconds of seeing the petulant blonde girl on the screen. She always had the same arrogant, entitled countenance, whether talking to the country witch or delaying her father’s funeral so she can heap blame on her brother. We’ve seen religion play a big part in the North with sacred Weirwoods of the Old Gods and with Melisandre’s one true Lord of Light R’hllor, but Cersei encounters the first big sign of religious fanaticism in the capital with her cousin, who’s become a Sparrow, a devoted follower of the Seven who’s put off the riches of the world.
In Meereen, Daenerys has her hands full with rebellious former slavers and dragons who’ve not taken kindly to their time in captivity. Her subjects are causing all kinds of trouble, and her dragons no longer see her as their mother.
And Brienne of Tarth may be the whiniest at this point, taking her frustrations out on Podrick after Arya ran away.
Jon Snow’s story continues to be the most intriguing. With Stannis Baratheon changing the balance of power at the wall, Snow finds himself trying to convince Mance Rayder to kneel to Stannis and be spared. He’s unable to do so, but he puts an arrow through Mance’s heart, rather than allow him to be burned alive.
There were a few delights in the opener: watching Robyn “swing a sword like a girl with palsy” and hearing his spastic grunts as he learns to fight; seeing eunuch Grey Worm and Missandrei cautiously flirt; and that tense scene down in the dragon dungeon.
But the only great pairing of the episode, now that The Hound and Tywin are both dead, is Varys and Tyrion. Seeing those two trade insults and find common ground will always be a joy.
So while this episode wasn’t quite as satisfying as I’d hoped, I’m thrilled to have the show back. I want to see Arya in Braavos and Tyrion on the road. I want to see Jon Snow’s story continue to unfold and to see Cersei react to the power vacuum in King’s Landing. We lost another great character last night in Mance Rayder, but there are plenty left to keep us captivated.
What did you think of the premiere?
“There are faster ways to kill yourself.”
“Not for a coward.”
I’m going to be honest up top—I became so delirious with happiness the minute I heard the first notes from the theme song, and that wonderful slicing sword sound, that I don’t think I have it in me to be super critical. I loved this episode, like I love almost every episode of this show, and if anything, I just see the premiere as a sign that we’re in for another great season.
You hit on the major plot points, all of which I thought were pretty compelling, but this show succeeds because, beyond the violence and sexy sexy nudity, it’s a subtle character study. That element remains in Season 5, and for me the most fascinating character in the premiere was Stannis Baratheon. He has the integrity that a lot of powerful people in Westeros lack, but we’ve talked about how the GoT world is split into those who are rigid and those who are fluid. The question of good or evil doesn’t matter as much as the ability to adapt. Stannis is technically “good,” but he’s the kind of rigid person who would burn someone like Mance Rayder alive, thus alienating thousands of potential soldiers, simply because the wildling leader won’t formally recognize the power that anybody with an ounce of intelligence can see for themselves. It’s not enough for Stannis to have his enemy in chains—without the ultimately useless symbolism of kneeling, he’s insecure enough that he’ll let the psycho fire lady roast him. It may cost him an army, and I think we can both imagine how horrified a fluid thinker like Varys or Littlefinger would feel about this hard line.
Even Jon Snow, who verges on rigidity at times, is showing signs of fluidity. He took an enormous risk by firing that arrow, and I’d say his motivation was 90 percent mercy. But Jon’s adventures beyond the wall taught him the value of fluidity—he’ll never be quite so dogmatic about the night’s watch after seeing that the wildlings were humans like anyone else, and breaking his chastity vow with Ygritte—and you have to wonder if there was a political element to the arrow he fired. It gave the wildlings a small concession to know that their leader died in a slightly less horrifying way, and even though it looked on the surface like an insult to Stannis, it must have been something of a relief for him as well. Jon will make a powerful enemy out of Melisandre, of course, but every action has risk and benefit, and Jon is becoming clever enough to know that the move will also raise his own reputation in the esteem of the men.
Daenerys, like Jon, is a character who seems to be striving in her own confused way for a more fluid approach. She’s lived most of her life with a rigid mindset, but unlike her brother Viserys, she’s been forced to adapt in order to navigate the world of powerful men. Finally, she took power of her own, and her struggle now is to learn that conceding certain ground can be a strength. When the envoy suggests that she re-open the fighting pits, she bridles at the idea of giving anything back to the masters (“I’m not a politician, I’m a queen”). You can already see where that kind of behavior will lead her to death. Lucky for her, she has Daario to speak to her honestly, and she’s fluid enough to be open to the idea that a combination of strength and benevolence may work better than a sort of righteous tyranny. An iron fist is good, but an iron fist wrapped in velvet is better.
Then, of course, we get to Tyrion and Varys, which as you said is an absolute delight. The line I quoted at the start of this email might be my favorite of the entire series, and it faces some stiff competition. When you put two absolutely fluid characters in the same space, it’s always incredible—think of Varys and Littlefinger together in front of the iron throne or Tyrion and Lady Olenna planning the wedding. They don’t necessarily move the plot since their aim is to maneuver more rigid characters around the chessboard, but it’s fascinating to see the interactions. I hope we get so much more of them.
Okay, I think my time is up for now, but I’ll leave you with this question, Josh: How much would you pay for an hour-long episode of Ser Loras awkwardly mumbling to Cersei while she gives him that silent, icy stare? I love it every single time, and I would be one happy camper if Benioff and Weiss included at least 30 seconds of it in every episode this season.
PS: With all this talk of rigidity and fluidity, we should make a four-corners chart where we place each character on two spectrums: Good and evil, and rigid and fluid.
I think you’ve summed up an important change that’s slowly been taking place in two of the best rigid characters in Game of Thrones, Jon Snow and Daenerys. Jon’s change began as soon as he met Ygritte, but Daenerys’ is a more recent shift. She genuinely desires to be a good ruler, but until now she was never willing to bend her iron will. But the troubles facing a city the size of Meereen, especially in the wake of major social upheaval, is not nearly as simple as she would have it be. Whether her compromises will end up serving her or backfiring remains to be seen. The other great rigid character, Arya, has too much righteous anger inside her to give even an inch. It’ll be interesting to see if Braavos can teach her fluidity.
And yes, I did love seeing Cersei’s complete disregard for Ser Loras, especially remembering how much Sansa adored him. This was a good episode for the Queen Mother, with a delicious flashback to her fortune being revealed to her as a young, already arrogant girl. The disdain she shows the peasant fortune teller has survived the years, and she bestows it upon the high priest, her brother and Loras in equal measure. Now that her father is gone, only her cousin and one-time lover can stand up to her craven ways.
So to start your Good/Fluid matrix, you have Tyrion and Varys in the good/fluid corner; Ned, Robb and Arya Stark in the good/rigid; Little Finger and Tywin in the evil/fluid corner; and Cersei and Joffrey in the evil/rigid. Who would be the most difficult at this point to place? Stannis is rigid, but is he good? Jon is good, but has he progressed all the way to the fluid quadrant? Has Daenerys? And where is Sansa? Does she have the strength of character yet to move her off the very center? And what role do the many religions play in determining what is good? Melisandre serves the Red God who demands horrific actions, but has the power to fight off the evil wrights of the north. Where on the scale does that put her?
For me, the hardest guy to place right now might be Jaime Lannister. That probably sounds odd, considering he attempted to murder an innocent child, and that probably damns him to the evil spectrum for all time, but I think we have to admit that in the GoT universe, he’s been creeping back to the middle. Ditto for the fluid/rigid matrix. He started out as fairly rigid—kill anyone who threatened him, protect Cersei at all costs, etc. But after being captured and held by Catelyn, having his hand chopped off, and freeing Tyrion, I think he’s gradually becoming more fluid as well.
Bran is another tough nut to crack on the fluid/rigid spectrum. He has his father’s stubbornness, but he seems to be slowly coming around to the complications of the world as he hones his gift (obviously, he’s far more good than evil). To answer your other questions, I think Melisandre goes in the evil/rigid box, because even though she’s supposedly serving a god, there has to come a point at which killing people in horrific ways stops being justifiable by religion. Sansa is a great one—she might be the closest of any character to falling right in the middle of the scale, though I see her on the good side. A character like Bron probably sits halfway between good and evil, but is certainly more fluid than rigid. In the end, if I had to pick someone for the exact center, I think it would be Jaime—Daenerys is too good, even with the complications of her dragons.
Before we sign off for this week, I’d like to dedicate a moment to Margaery (good-ish/fluid), who is turning into a real badass. Something big is going down between her and Cersei, and for the first time, I get the feeling that Margaery has the definite advantage. She has Tommen eating out of her hand, and Tywin dying has stripped Cersei of all her power. She’s teetering on the brink of something, and I don’t sense that Margaery will hesitate to push her over the edge. I can’t wait for that. Nor can I wait for the first meeting of Tyrion and Dany, which is going to be f***ing fascinating. We’re in for a good season, Josh!
Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
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