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This review is not spoiler free – watch the show first!
The fifth season kicks off with a relatively demure episode – considering it’s Game of Thrones. Yeah, somebody gets their throat slit, and somebody else gets burned to a crunchy crisp, but nobody takes a crossbow bolt to the chest mid bowel movement, so in the grand scheme of things The Wars to Come is a walk in the park. This episode is about the past and the future, and how one is pretty much as terrible as the other.
“The future is shit, just like the past,” Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) proclaims after finally being released from his wooden crate, having fled Westeros following the aforementioned crossbow incident with his dear father Tywin (Charles Dance). Rather appropriately, the episode launches with a flashback, a narrative device totally – and rather conspicuously – absent from the GOT canon thus far. Its sudden appearance could well have been the doing of episode director Michael Slovis, longtime cinematographer/director for Breaking Bad, a series which is certainly no stranger to hopping about through time (other aspects of his direction are also noticeable – a jumpy crate’s eye view from within Tyrion’s travelling box, for one).
In lieu of flashbacks, Thrones usually treats us to an intense monologue (See Tyrion’s ‘beetles’ speech) but this time we get up close and personal with young Cersei (Nell Williams) while a witch gives her the lowdown on her future (“Everyone wants to know their future, until they know their future”). It was a good decision to throw us a little bit more of Cersei’s (Lena Headey) back story; for the last season or so she has been in slight danger of morphing into a one-dimensional mean drunk, but this glimpse into her past suggests her character may be about to develop in intriguing ways, now that Tywin is out of the picture and the Lannister grip on the Iron Throne is looking decidedly slippery.
It was enjoyable to see child actor Nell Williams ably foreshadowing Headey’s proud and haughty Queen; however it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Headey would have given one hell of an epic reading of the witch flashback, if only she had been allowed a crack at it. Much of present day Cersei’s screen time is devoted to spewing bile about her troublesome little brother Tyrion, whom we last saw strangling his ex-lover before offing his father for good measure.
Our first glimpse of the Imp sees him spilling out of the crate he has been hiding in while Varys (Conleth Hill) smuggled him across the Narrow Sea to Pentos. To be honest, my first thought was ‘shouldn’t he be covered in his own shit, after having been inside that box for weeks on end?’ Luckily, GOT is not one for shying away from the gritty reality of circumstance, and provided us a quick explanation as to how excrement removal was accomplished. Cue witty dialogue with Varys (watching these two chinwag is always a giddy thrill) concerning what the hell they’re going to do next, because this certainly isn’t a ‘let’s go to Pentos, have a nice cold glass of wine, and wait for all this to blow over’ situation. There’s no going back for Tyrion, or Varys, for that matter, and so the general consensus is to try to team up with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), whose cause Varys has secretly been trying to further since day one.
The problem with the Daenerys story line is that she should easily be the all round best and most interesting character in this entire show – but, she just…isn’t. She’s a Targaryen, meaning she’s got one of the strongest claims to the Iron Throne there could possibly be. She’s a fundamentally good person, but she’s also satisfyingly unforgiving. She’s got loyal followers, a huge army, and three great stonking big dragons – and yet somehow, she’s gradually become an almost redundant side note to the main action.
The primary cause of this is that she’s been stuck a thousand miles away from the rest of the main characters for far too long. She’s also starting to get bogged down in the bureaucracy of being a conquering ruler; she can’t assail the throne without allowing the lands she’s already conquered to fall back into disarray (plus she can’t control her dragons properly, which is kind of a big problem when you’re marketing yourself as the Dragon Queen). Realistic as all these problems are, it’s getting pretty damn dull to watch. If we tune in next week to scenes of her doing paperwork, we may as well write her off completely. On the other hand, if she welcomes Tyrion and Varys – two of the finest brains in all of Westeros – into the fold, things might (just might) start getting interesting again.
As usual, the best is saved for last. By far the most eye-scrunching scene this week comes when Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), whom Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has failed to talk into betraying his wildling sensibilities, is sentenced by Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to be burned at the stake. Hinds’ performance is a key element in engineering the unpredictability of the outcome; we know that Mance is about as likely to swear himself to Stannis as Daenerys was to shag Ser Jorah, but the look of sheer terror that creeps onto his face when he learns how he is to be killed plants a seed of doubt, making us wonder for just a moment whether Mance really is going to let himself burn for his principles.
And, when it become clear that yes, he really is stupid/brave enough to go through with it, we immediately turn to good old Jon Snow: ‘Jon’s a decent person’, we think to ourselves, ‘and he respects Mance, so there’s no way he’s going to let him burn – he’ll do the decent thing and stick an arrow in him.’ Which good old predictable Jon eventually does, but not until right at the last bloody minute, dragging the scene out until it seems as though they really are going to make us watch poor Mance crisp up like a slice of very loud bacon (after all, this is the show that gave us a pregnant woman receiving multiple stab wounds to the stomach, so we wouldn’t put anything past it).
It’s business as usual basically, and while nothing particularly jaw dropping has reared its head yet, it’s only a matter of time. Even at its most pedestrian, Game of Thrones, with the sprawling cast, impeccable writing, and practically Lord of the Rings level CGI, is arguably the best thing you can see on the small screen this decade.
Best Scene: Our fave was Tyrion and Varys discussing their post-Tywin options
Best Line: “The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.” – Mance Rayder