GAME OF THRONES: “The Wars to Come”

Hear that music? Fill your goblets and sharpen your daggers — you’ll need them both. It’s Thrones time, at last.

Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there is no other way.

–Varys

And we’re back!

If it’s been a while since you sat back in your richly carved, weirwood chair, had a pull of your finest mead, and taken stock of the sheer magnitude of Game of Thrones, here’s a reminder: this season’s production spanned three countries and 120 shooting days, boasted a literal cast of thousands, and a $100 million budget. For ten hours of television. Every year, showrunners Benioff & Weiss guide a ship the size of the Red Keep through a logistical labyrinth, and every year sees that production get bigger and bigger.

Thrones’s popularity has swelled to match its complexity; it’s unquestionably the most exciting communal viewing experience we currently have. People fill bars to watch it. There are dozens of websites and podcasts dedicated to it. Never before, not even during the heyday of Lost, has a series so thoroughly staked claims in every corner of internet culture. And all of it is thanks to the imagination of George R. R. Martin, whose ongoing reticence to, you know, get around to finishing his books, is keeping everyone up at night.

Everyone, that is, except Lords Benioff & Weiss. Now, halfway through the series’s run (whether that’s seven seasons, as expected, or eight, which is becoming increasingly likely), the show’s writers are at a fork in the Kingsroad: continue to follow the ever-meandering path Martin has laid out, or strike out into the unknown. Both roads lead — more or less — to the same destination, but the landmarks will now be different. Subplots are being removed, characters are being combined, and even the faces on the year-end In Memoriam reel are being changed. Bran Stark (and his Magical Mystery Tour) is spending a year on the bench. For the first time, no one — not even us smug book readers — really knows what’s going to happen. And that, my friends, is awesome.

Last night’s premiere, “The Wars to Come,” followed the usual Thrones playbook. We had Ominous Portents of Doom, a few choice speeches, and laid out the season’s themes in broad strokes. For those in power, the politics of war are giving way to the politics of peacekeeping, and not many — well, most — are equipped to flip that switch. Most importantly, the world is finally, finally beginning to contract. It’s time for these characters, who have lived so long in their own bubbles isolated by geography and circumstance, to start crossing paths. Not now, of course. That would be silly. But soon!

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PreviouslyPatricide! Great battles! Misbehavin’ dragons! And…cousin Lancel? Alright, then.

Last season, we began with Tywin Lannister looming into frame, celebrating his victory over the Starks (not that you could tell from his face, but he was celebrating on the inside). We ended with his death on the potty; after the Red Wedding, his trajectory headed straight down. Now, we kick off the year with something we’ve never seen before on Thrones: a flashback.

Benioff & Weiss, to this point, have elected to convey their massive dumps of exposition and personal histories through monologues, a device all the more powerful from the strength of the cast delivering them. Some of the best scenes from recent seasons involve one person simply telling a story to another — Jamie in the bath, Oberyn in Tyrion’s cell — and we enjoy them as much for how they illuminate the characters as how they give the actors scenes for their Emmy reels. So to lead off with a sequence with a young Cersei, as smug as ever, dragging her friend to visit a fortune-teller, is hugely important. What happened in there is something Cersei will never share with anyone, because, quite honestly, there’s no one left that she trusts. Could Lena Headey have sold this as a monologue? No doubt. But it would have been out of character.

“You’re not terrifying — you’re boring!” young Cersei squawks at the crone in the hut. “You don’t know what I am,” she replies. (I’m just going to call her Maggy the Frog, because that’s her name even though it’s never said.) Cersei wants to know her future, which Mags is happy to tell her, for the low low cost of letting  the witch taste her blood. “Everyone wants to know their future,” Maggy rasps, “until they know their future.” (As in, don’t watch those leaked episodes, guys!) Cersei presses on, and gets her answers: will she wed the prince? No, but “you’ll wed the King.” Score! Will they have lovely children? “Gold shall be their hair, and gold shall be their shrouds.” Hmm. And then the kicker: “You’ll be queen for a time, until another, more beautiful, will cast you down.” Oh.

So now we know what has driven Cersei all this time, and not just to drinking: the omnipresent fear of Maggy’s prophecy coming true. So far, everything has come to pass just as she said, which leaves Cersei more anxious — and combative — than ever. Lions are most dangerous when cornered. On the way to see her father, lying in state with those creepy stones over his eyes, her palanquin passes by Margaery Tyrell, and everything comes into sharp focus. So she lashes out at her brother, suggesting that he let Tyrion loose (a charge he doesn’t deny), so this is all his fault. Now she has to put up with awkward condolences from Loras Tyrell, who is still her betrothed, to the disgust of both of them. Then she has her cousin Lancel, who she slept with once upon a time and persuaded to get King Robert good and drunk during that fateful boar hunt, bothering her with chirpings of forgiveness and piety. (“I led you into the darkness.” “I doubt you ever led anyone anywhere.”) It’s a tough racket, and there aren’t enough wine goblets to make it easier.

On the Tyrell side, Margaery alone is still determined to see her brother married, and barges into his dalliance with one pale gent to remind him. Mostly, she just needs Cersei far away from King’s Landing, so Marg is free to flirt with King Tommen without fearing a dagger in the middle of the night. But would she really be trapped if Loras doesn’t marry the Queen Regent? “Perhaps,” Margaery replies, enigmatically. Hmm…

It’s an Imp in a box! In Pentos, on the other side of the Narrow Sea, a disheveled, bearded Tyrion emerges from his crate at the end of the worst journey of his life. He had to stick his poop through a hole, for the Mother’s sake! (Tip of the cap to director Michael Slovis, who knows cool POV shots from his work on Breaking Bad.) Varys has brought him to Illyrio Mopatis’s joint, who you’ll remember for orchestrating Dany’s marriage to Khal Drogo. Tyrion wants to know why Varys has bothered. Because “things have gotten worse, not better,” the Spider replies. “Westeros needs to be saved from itself.” Tyrion doesn’t care what happens to Westeros. “The future is s–t, just like the past.” Vomit. Drink. Repeat. Varys, undeterred, says he will need a man of Tyrion’s talents “in the war to come,” the first of two times that phrase will be uttered this week. No, it won’t be Tyrion on the Iron Throne, but if he’ll stick with Varys, there’s someone out there who is wise but gentle, powerful but beloved, with “the right family name.” “Good luck finding him,” Tyrion drawls. “Who said anything about him?” Cut to…

LOST: One dragon, black, short tempered. Daenerys has pulled down the gigantic harpy statue, her takeover of Meereen complete. But there is still no shortage of rebels inside the city, and they’re murdering her Unsullied, even in brothels. (Seriously, all White Rat wanted was a lullaby. Poor guy.) They’re calling themselves the Sons of the Harpy, and they’re a major headache for Dany. The Unsullied are bred for pitched battle, not guerrilla operations. But there’s one option, advocated by Hizdahr zo Loraq (the Master’s son, who wanted his father buried with dignity last season), that could win the Meereenese over: re-open the famed fighting pits. That gets a hard pass from Dany, and not for the first time. She sees it as a remnant of the slave trade, and doesn’t care that those fighters will want to be there.

But Daario Naharis, now more than just her part-time lover, disagrees. Why not give the people what they want? Besides, all Dany’s power came from her dragons, and now two of them are locked up, and the third is AWOL. “A dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen,” he suggests. Dany knows he’s right, and decides to pay them a visit. It…does not go well, and she’s lucky to escape with her life. Fortunately for us, a visit from Tyrion will be the most interesting thing that’s happened to her in years.

Brave Sir Robin. You know who else has “the right family name,” according to Littlefinger? The tiny Lord of the Vale. He may swing a sword “like a girl with palsy” (Yohn Royce, in his attempt at a joke), but he’s still an Arryn, and that makes him special…and a critical piece in Littlefinger’s plan. Yet for all his wiles, Littlefinger is powerless to resist Dark Sansa, who is learning how to use more than just her own name to get what she wants. She and Lord Baelish, still posing to the public at large as her creepy uncle, are headed somewhere far away. Don’t ask me where — this is all uncharted territory for us readers. Their carriage passes by Brienne and Podrick Payne, who have now narrowly missed on both Stark girls. What’s next for them? Again, I have no idea. Isn’t this fun?

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Mance Rayder’s Last Stand. And finally, we return to the Great White North, where those who survived the battle with the wildlings are still cleaning up. Count Thorne among that number, and despite his leadership in the fight, he’s still got to campaign to be elected the official new Lord Commander, like everyone else. Jon, meanwhile, is in the middle of training Ollie (charismatically, even!) when he’s summoned up to meet with Stannis. After an awkward elevator ride with Melisandre (whose idea of small talk is “hey, are you a virgin?”), the self-proclaimed King gets down to brass tacks. What have you been up to, Jon? Many of the men like you, Davos tells him. (That’s good!) But some don’t. (That’s not good, and not helpful, Davos.) But forget all that — Stannis isn’t planning to stick around the Wall much longer. He’d like to take a wildling army to fight Roose Bolton, but that’ll be a lot easier if Jon can convince Mance Rayder to bend the knee. That’s not likely, Jon says. But it doesn’t matter.

Ciaran Hinds, so great in such an unfairly limited role, finally gets his moment to shine. As Jon expects, Mance turns him down flat. He doesn’t want to get his people involved in a foreign war. All he wanted was to move them south, and he’s prepared to burn for it, as little fun as that would be. “I think you’re making a terrible mistake,” says Jon. “The freedom to make my own mistakes is all I ever wanted,” Mance replies. And in a powerful closing scene, Mance is strapped to a prye, and must endure not just the flames, but a Melisandre sermon. Disgusted, Jon walks away…only to fire an arrow into Mance’s heart, just as the worst is beginning. It’s an act of mercy that won’t win him any friends, but Jon had too much respect for the King Beyond the Wall to let him die that way. Tormund Giantsbane, at least, is intrigued.

Mance also seemed to speak for Benioff & Weiss, who now also have the freedom to make their own mistakes. Without giving anything away, one of the events from this episode may have been an ENORMOUS change from the books, with consequences for many characters. But no matter how that plays out, one thing’s for sure: we’re off the map now. You remember what’s drawn on the edges of maps?

Next week: Arya signs a billion-year contract with Sea Org!


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