Game of Thrones is back! And, as far as first episodes go, this was a good one. Well-paced, enjoyable to watch, and (gasp) relatively unoffensive, the episode did an excellent job of reintroducing us to the various characters and setting up their plot-arcs for the season. Although I went into the episode feeling uncertain whether I wanted to dive into this world of high and heart-crushing disappointments again, the episode reminded me why I fell for the series in the first place.
It also reminded me of lots of reasons why it makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration, but I suppose you can't have everything in life.
Since character plotlines are getting more and more separate and no one really dominated this episode, this review is going to be split into sections based on key characters.
This post contains book spoilers.
Cersei Lannister and the prophecy
I was really excited to see Cersei's prophecy show up this week, especially as the show has been loath to include any prophecies so far. But unlike Dany's prophecies, which are intriguing to the reader but don't have a large impact on her character, Cersei's prophecy deeply informs her character and her actions after Joffrey's death, and is vital to understanding the spiral she's about to undergo.
Opening the season with Cersei's prophecy also helps to frame season five as Cersei's story. Of course, all the characters have important roles to play this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if Cersei's Walk of Shame appeared in episode 10, bookending the season with Cersei's paranoia and downfall. The most intriguing part of Cersei's downfall, to me, is the extent to which she drives it herself, precisely because she knows that a "younger queen" is going to destroy her. In a way, Cersei is cast down by the memory of her younger self, both in the way that she always had to fight for power and can't stop fighting once she was it, and in the way that her memory of the prophecy makes her act in self-destructive ways.
The prophecy also provides context for almost all of Cersei's interactions with other women, giving them greater depth than simply "Cersei is horrible." Cersei's attitude and actions are a complicated mix of bitterness, misogyny, and pure cruelty (as seen in the flashback, even as a child), but her fear that a younger woman will destroy everything she cares about plays a big part in her determination to knock down any female rivals. For the naiver Sansa, this meant controlling her and crushing her spirit. For the older and more capable Margaery, this means resentment and veiled threats and plans to destroy her the moment an opportunity presents itself. By simply including this five minute flashback, the show gives a lot of depth to Cersei's character.
So it was a shame that the show left out another key part of the prophecy -- the threat that the "valonqar" would kill her. As the scene in the crypt demonstrated, Cersei is paranoid about the threat that Tyrion poses and determined to villainize him and everyone related to him, but we still lack some of the context about why she's so quick to fear him, and why she blames him for everything. The exclusion of the line does have some benefit, though, if likely an accidental one. Without the prophecy providing apparent justification for Cersei's response to Tyrion, her hatred appears as pure ableism. There's no space left to debate how much of Cersei's distrust of Tyrion comes because the prophecy primed her to suspect him, and how much simply comes from his dwarfism, which means less depth for Cersei's character but a clearer statement about the abuse that Tyrion has faced. And I suppose some could argue that this is a bad thing for Cersei, but she remains cruel and ruthless, with or without the prophecy, and sometimes it's good to un-muddy the characterization waters when issues like ableism are invoked.
Speaking of Tyrion...
It's a testament to Peter Dinklage's acting and likability that I still like Tyrion on the show and still find him compelling, despite the fact that he murdered Shae, and despite the fact that I find his early scenes in A Dance With Dragons unbearable. I've talked about the white-washing of Tyrion's morality before, but I will actually be pleased, for once, if they make Tyrion more likeable here than he is in the books. No one needs to see Tyrion threaten prostitutes and generally be misogynistic. On the other hand, I did wonder if Shae would be forgotten to allow Tyrion to instead focus on his father and the people's betrayal of him, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tyrion actually expressed guilt over what he did.
Of course, the inclusion of guilt is complicated too. If Tyrion never mentioned Shae again, her murder would be dismissed as insignificant, but if Tyrion expresses enough guilt, the audience will instead feel sympathy for him overwhat he did. But considering that Tyrion in the books becomes incredibly misogynistic after Shae's death and never once expresses anything close to "I probably shouldn't have killed her, that was a bad thing to do," this guilt is actually a refreshing change. It is possible to both be horrified by Shae's murder and continue to feel sympathy for Tyrion as a character, as long as Tyrion also acknowledges that what he did was horrifying. After all, he was framed for murder, everyone turned against him, his lover condemned him, and he's dealt with similar intense discrimination all his life. The problem arises because Tyrion is given this sympathetic treatment for murder, but Shae isn't given the same consideration for her "betrayal." Tyrion is allowed to express guilt, we can see Tyrion's motivations and understand why he acts the way he does, but Shae never got to show any of her own reasoning or be seen as anything other than horrible, despite the logic of her situation suggesting that shouldn't be the case. Her "betrayal" was never allowed to make sense. When that's taken into account, any attempt to show Tyrion as sympathetically guilty gains a bitter taste.
And yet, Peter Dinklage is such a charismatic actor, and last season was such a long time ago, that it's really easy to want to like Tyrion again and to be won over by his struggles. And I have to admit that I'm happy to be won over. The writing for Tyrion and Shae was incredibly inconsistent last season, and having awful, misogynistic characters as "heroes" is exhausting to watch. If the show makes any attempt to give Tyrion some emotional consistency and redeem him -- as the episode suggests -- then I'll be happy to watch it.
Daenerys and the dragons
Some of the writing for Daenerys this week was incredibly awkward, as the writers try to fill her dialogue with quotable soundbites that might sound good in a trailer but are less effective in actual conversation. The most grievous of those was her assertion that she's "not a politician, she's queen," suggesting that, after all her struggles to win a throne, Daenerys doesn't actually know what a queen is. The point was clearly meant to be that she isn't a politician who's scrambling for favor and making compromises, but a woman whose rule is absolute, but when reduced to a dismissive statement, it just made her sound like a fool.
That said, I love that the season is beginning to explore the way that Daenerys is not a good ruler. While Varys sings Daenerys' praises and tries to get Tyrion to support her, Dany herself is starting to shake under the weight of ruling a people she doesn't understand, especially when she's had no training of how to rule and has never seen a ruler to model herself on. Her naivety shines through this week when she comments that she didn't conquer Meereen, its own people did, as though anyone could see her as anything other than a conquerer.
The contrast between the queenly image she portrays and her reality came into sharp focus this week when she went to visit her dragons and they nearly burned her in response. All of her power comes from these dragons -- or at least, the idea of these dragons -- but, as the scene showed, dragons are dangerous and independent creatures, and she can't control them, no matter what she would like to believe.
To me, the dragons are symbolic of Daenerys' whole rule at this point. Yes, technically she has power, but she doesn't really know how to wield it, and things are starting to spiral out of her control. People are dying as a consequence of her actions, she doesn't really know how to stop it, and as much as she'd like to argue that these things aren't her fault, she knows that they are. I'm really looking forward to the show stepping away from Daenerys the White Savior this season and digging further into the realities and the consequences of her rule.
Sansa Stark/Alayne Stone
I'm both intrigued and anxious about Sansa's plotline this season, since it's heading into completely unknown territory. The show raced through all of Sansa's Feast for Crows plot last season, leaving the writers to either beg George RR Martin for more information or strike out entirely on their own. Looking at the contrast between this episode and the one Sansa chapter released from Winds of Winter so far, it seems they're going for the latter.
On the one hand, that's a really interesting and exciting prospect. On the other hand, I'm terrified to see what the show plans to do with her, especially now that Sophie Turner is 18. But at least it bodes well for my previous theory, that the show won't spoil the book plotlines because it will go in its own direction and end up telling a somewhat different story.
There wasn't much to say about Sansa this week, except that she's owning the sass and holding her own against Littlefinger... but we'll see where this goes in weeks to come.
Brienne of Tarth
I had forgotten, over the year away, how much I hate the show's version of Brienne of Tarth. It's highly possible that she's an interesting character that I'd enjoy talking about if I hadn't read the books, but I have read the books, and I love book!Brienne, so every moment of travelling-with-Pod!Brienne makes me flinch.
That said, this week's episode actually attempted to do something really interesting for Brienne, exploring something that I'm almost certain will appear in Winds of Winter: Brienne's disillusionment with honor. I've written before that Brienne is far more like Sansa than Arya, believing in all the stories of knights and honor and heroics, and the death of Catelyn, her encounter with Arya and all her experiences of war so far must have crushed a lot of her dreamer's spirit. "Now the good lords are dead and the rest are monsters," she says, and you can feel the pain in her words, that the world she wanted to be a part of doesn't exist at all.
But the scene lacks the narrative context to make it effective. Here, Brienne is not a naive dreamer in armor who's had her spirit crushed. She's not pretending to be cruel to make Pod leave. She's been cruel to him ever since he joined her. She's seemed determined make him feel worthless since the beginning, and that's always made her seem like a harsh, unfeeling character. So when she tries to drive Podrick away and shows some of her disillusionment, there's no character development, no sense of how travel has broken her, because she was like this from the first day on the road. Brienne hasn't been crushed and changed by her experiences -- she's the same Brienne as before. And that's disappointing, when considering how much could have been done with a more book-accurate character.
Despite my on-going problems with Brienne and fears about what may be to come, I found The Wars to Come to be a really solid and enjoyable episode. I was certainly left gaping angrily at the ending credits when they came, certain that an hour couldn't have passed, and desperately wanted to jump into the next episode right away. An impressive change, considering how my feelings before I started the episode were mixed at best. It wasn't a particularly eventful episode, and not a dramatic one, but it felt solid, laying down the foundation for the next phase of the story.
A great start to the season! Let's hope it bodes well for the episodes to come.