Season 5 of HBO’s massive hit returned last night, and as has become the norm, the season premiere spent most of its time setting the pieces for the rest of the season. This is not a bad thing, and in fact it has always felt like a necessary breather for the series after the climactic events that occur in the previous season’s final episodes. However, where Season 4’s confident “Two Swords” contained some excellent sequences, such as Oberyn Martell’s introduction or Arya and the Hound’s fight at the inn, “The Wars to Come” is a much quieter episode, focusing on character dynamics and reflections on the new state of things.
Note: This review is coming from someone who has read the book series. Nothing from the future will be spoiled but differences between the book and the show are likely discussed.
A quiet episode like this works well at this time because the show itself has undergone a massive shift since the last episode of Season 4. King’s Landing deals with Tywin Lannister’s death, Tyrion’s escape, and the upcoming nuptials between King Tommen Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell. The Wall has invigorated focus now that King Stannis, Davos, and Melisandre have arrived and Mance Rayder is locked up. After having spent three seasons in King’s Landing, Tyrion is off to Essos with Varys at his side. The character that has undergone the least amount of change in surroundings would likely be Daenerys Targaryen. While she now has to come to terms with the fact that she locked up two of her dragons, it’s still mostly a lot of Dany talking to her advisors about the hardships of taking a city that isn’t too keen on having her there.
For the first time, the show decided to use a flashback – to a younger Cersei Lannister, who visits a witch deep in the woods to get told her future. It’s not good news. She says: “Oh yes, you will be queen. For a time. In comes another, younger, more beautiful to cast you down and take all you hold dear.” She also tells Cersei that she will have three children, and “gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.” With Joffrey dead, the newly-upgraded series regular Dean Charles-Chapman as Tommen taking a more prominent role, and the recast Myrcella slated to appear this season, it does seem like the witch’s predictions on her future will play a strong role. Whether this role was to enlighten us on Cersei’s paranoia about Margaery, to warn us that her children won’t be staying around for much longer, or to simply set the tone for the season, is yet to be seen. I certainly commend the writers for choosing the flashback as the opening sequence, as it seems they will be anchoring much of the season on Cersei and her experiences in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, which is, in my opinion, the strongest story through the two books.
After the flashback we get back to the main event in King’s Landing – Tywin Lannister’s funeral. Cersei and Jaime bicker over his dead body as Cersei blames Jaime for mistakenly murdering Tywin when he set Tyrion free. Where in the past, Jaime might stick up for Tyrion, it does seem he may be regretting having let him go, or perhaps regretting not seeing him out of King’s Landing himself. Elsewhere, Margaery Tyrell continues to prove that she is scheming, sneaky, and truly her grandmother’s daughter. When Loras tells her that she’ll be stuck in King’s Landing with Cersei, Margaery responds with a very thought-filled “perhaps.” It seems Cersei likely has a reason to be paranoid after all. Natalie Dormer has been doing fantastic work on the show, but the way she played that scene was one of the highlights of the episode.
Meanwhile, Tyrion finds himself in Pentos with Varys at Illyrio Mopatis’s palace. Unfortunately, we aren’t given a look at the cheesemonger himself, and in fact I don’t think that we will be seeing the character this season. A real shame, considering the great dialogue shared between Tyrion and Illyrio in the early chapters of A Dance with Dragons. However, Varys is not with him in the books, and a familiar face is always chosen over an unfamiliar face when it comes to the show. Some dialogue shifts over and it becomes evident that Varys will be taking over Illyrio’s duties in the show. Their two scenes together are mostly dialogue, and as I mentioned, this is the kind of conversations I expect that the show needs to be including when it goes through a massive shift. Tyrion murdered Tywin and then was set off in a crate to drink his way across the sea. And through it all, he raises a valid question: Why should I live? Fortunately, Varys sees potential in him, and with that comes Tyrion’s new journey: meeting Daenerys Targaryen in Meereen to decide if the world is worth fighting for.
We come back to Meereen to see how Dany is dealing with leadership. Two of her dragons are locked up and Drogon hasn’t been seen in weeks. Daario tells her “A dragon queen with no dragons? That’s not a queen.” And so Dany heads down to where she’s chained Viserion and Rhaegal, only to find that she may have been right: she can’t control them anymore. That’s not the only bad news for the mother of dragons, as she finds out that the Sons of the Harpy are not pleased and have murdered one of her Unsullied. The show makes good use of this storyline, donning the Sons with some creepy-looking golden masks and setting the horror-esque tone of these scenes. Another major plot is also set forward as Dany rejects Hizdahr Zo Loraq’s request to have the Fighting Pits re-opened. While Daario tells her that he thinks she should open them, she seems set on her decision for now.
Back in Westeros but further north, Brienne and Podrick are at odds after their encounter with Arya and the Hound. Where Podrick still feels optimistic about finding Sansa, Brienne seems to be dejected, unsure of how to continue, and lashing her anger out on her poor “squire.” Their scene together is more lighthearted than anything else the show has to offer, which is a welcomed breath of air. Gwendoline Christie and Daniel Portman continue to exhibit all the exact qualities of Brienne and Podrick that I’d envisioned when reading the books. It’s unfortunate that Brienne is feeling pessimistic about her quest to save the Stark daughters, because of course the show decides that Sansa’s carriage with Littlefinger would pass by near them. We aren’t given that much to chew on with Sansa in this episode, though seems Littlefinger has plans for her, plans that he says will keep her out of Cersei’s reach. As a book-reader, this seems to be one of the most diverging of the storylines yet, so I’m very excited on what’s to come.
Further north still, Jon Snow accustoms himself to the presence of Stannis, Davos, and Melisandre. He trains in the Castle Black yard for a bit with Olly, the youngster that shot Ygritte. I do wonder if he was taking some anger out on the little guy. Melisandre then shows up, telling him that Stannis wants to speak to him. Jon and Melisandre share an awkward scene up the Wall, as she tells him that she is never cold and asks him if he’s a virgin. Nothing out of the ordinary for the red woman, though it did feel striking to hear her theme running in the background score. At the top of the Wall, Stannis informs Jon that he has until nightfall to convince Mance Rayder to bend the knee, or else he’ll be burned. I’m not entirely sure what the show will do with this, nor am I hoping for any direction in particular, but I felt the end of the episode was not as effective as it could have been because the show has done a poor job of characterizing the King-Beyond-the-Wall.
Ciarán Hinds is an excellent actor, and he makes the best of what he’s given, but his speech with Jon at the start of the episode felt like the most we’d seen of him. Much like Stannis, I’ve felt that Mance’s story has been tiptoed around, almost as if the writers didn’t want to give him that much to do. Regardless, the episode ended on a note that I did not expect – Jon shoots Mance Rayder with an arrow to the heart. Will this upset Melisandre, as it now seems he died by arrow and not by fire? Probably. I’m certainly interested to see where this goes, as I would say it’s the first time in while that Jon is taking things into his own hands.
What is most striking about “The Wars to Come”, and how I expect I’ll feel as a book-reader going forward, is how seamless the things that I know are coming tie together with the things that I don’t know are coming. Margaery is not a point-of-view character in the books, but by this point in the show, her scenes don’t need to be rooted by another character (Renly, Joffrey, Cersei, etc.), and it doesn’t scream out to me as a scene that wasn’t in the books – it simply stands out as a scene with an interesting character. Tyrion’s story seems to be headed for the same destination that it has in the books, but it also seems like he’ll be taking a significantly different journey to get there. While Jaime travels the Riverlands in A Feast for Crows, the show seems it will be sending him to Dorne with Bronn on a rescue mission to get Myrcella. Regardless of whether the show follows the books or not, I’m definitely excited for what’s to come.
- No Arya this week, which may have contributed to what felt like a hole in the episode. Fortunately, next week’s episode is titled just for her.
- There was also no Theon, but less pitiful Theon is not a bad thing, is it?
- The required season-opener dragon shots were well-done, as the show made effective use of the dark dungeon to hide many dragon features while still portraying how intimidating they are.
- Did anyone notice the Bolton sigil on Winterfell in the opening credits? I also think this is the first time the show landed on two cities in Essos.
- Lancel Lannister and Kevan Lannister made appearances! I’m glad the show decided to bring them both back, as I feel they are important elements to Cersei’s journey this season.
- Interestingly, the prophecy in the flashback cut out the “valonqar” section. Thoughts?
- Maybe have Shireen not watch the man be burned to death. She’s just a little girl.
- Yes, the first four episodes leaked online, but no, that does not mean they can be discussed in the comments.
Episode Grade: B