Episode: 501
Airdate: April 12, 2015
Directed by: Michael Slovis
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (creators); George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by); David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (written for television by)

“Eagerly anticipated” sounds not only trite, but is almost an understatement when it comes to Game of Thrones. In fact, each new season is so “eagerly anticipated” that several hundred thousand people (more likely over a million by now) couldn’t wait until the show premiered tonight, watching the first four episodes after they were leaked online late last night (read my take on this leak here). But none of that for us! After the long wait, winter is finally coming – again. Click through for my review and full synopsis on tonight’s Season 5 Premiere.

<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of Game of Thrones S05E01, “The Wars to Come.” In discussing events, I will be quoting some lines with colorful language – read more at your own risk.>>

Tonight was all about catching up with many of our favorite (and least favorite) characters, as the action takes place over five widely disparate geographical locations. It also began with something we haven’t yet seen in Game of Thrones: a flashback scene. The primary storylines deal with: the fallout in King’s Landing falling the assassination of Tywin; Daenerys’s ever-changing situation in Meereen; and the tensions arising following Stannis’s timely arrival at the Wall. Two secondary arcs follow events at The Vale of Arryn with Sansa and Littlefinger (as well as Brienne and Podrick), and Tyrion’s arrival in Pentos with Varys. Lots of names, lots of places – let’s begin with the two shorter storylines, and my favorite character – The Imp.

501 Tyrion

We begin our trip to Pentos with a crate-eye-view from Tyrion’s perspective, as he’s being hauled through the city to Illyrio’s estate. You’ll remember Illyrio Mopatis, although he doesn’t make an appearance tonight – he’s the wealthy merchant that hosted Daenerys and Viserys back in Season 1, and arranged Daenerys’s marriage to Khal Drogo. Varys and he were in cahoots regarding protecting the Targaryen bloodline, and now he’s calling in his debts, bringing Tyrion here.

Tyrion is just a little angry at having been kept in the crate all the way across the Narrow Sea. He’s been in there long enough to have grown a short beard, and his description of pushing his bowel movements out the tiny air holes are pathetically humorous. Varys takes little time cutting to the chase. He tells Tyrion that “Westeros needs to be saved from itself.” Tyrion, trying to drink himself further into oblivion, waxes poetic, saying “The future is shit, just like the past,” before vomiting noisily on the ground.

Later, which we know because there is less alcohol in Tyrion’s bottle, Tyrion talks about his own cowardice – but Varys disagrees. He tells him, “You are many things my friend, but not a coward.” Tyrion scoffs, and asks Varys why he would risk his life to save him. Here, we see another glimpse of the honest Varys, his Spider persona momentarily stripped away (much like we did when he came to visit Ned Stark in his cell back in Season 1). He says, “I didn’t do it for you, I did it for the Seven Kingdoms.” It turns out he has a plan. He sees Tyrion’s worth, even if Tyrion himself does not, and while he agrees that Tyrion will never sit the Iron Throne, he believes that his intellect and cunning can help someone else do so: Daenerys. This is very exciting news – the idea that two of the many widely separated storylines might start moving toward each other is welcome, as at times it gets almost hard to follow all the goings on. There hasn’t been the ability to show everyone’s stories in a single episode for some time now, and the thought of two of the most popular characters coming together is enticing. The question will be whether Dany will have any interest whatsoever in working with a Lannister. After all, the family was key in overthrowing and murdering most of her family, and even though Tyrion was too young to have taken part, blood is thicker than water, and memories are long.

501 Royce Littlefinger Sansa

In the other secondary storyline, we begin with Sansa and Littlefinger sitting with one of Lord Robin’s liegemen, Lord Royce. This whole scene is played largely for comic effect. As Sansa and Littlefinger speak in mumbly voices about sinister plans, we see poor little Robin struggling with sword and shield as he’s thoroughly trounced by some squire or another. He whines, he grunts, he stumbles, and all the while Littlefinger is surreptitiously unrolling a message scroll (news from King’s Landing, perhaps?), while Sansa does her best Goth Princess impression. I have high hopes for where these two might go this season, as Sansa comes into her own after fighting against her own naivete. As they leave, Baelish asks Royce to take care of Robin and teach him to fight – no promises, though, as he fears the boy is beyond recuperation.

We cut to Brienne of Tarth, recovering from her exhausting and brutal fight with The Hound. She’s sharpening her sword (does Valyrian Steel even need sharpening?), as Podrick struggles to set up their sleeping rolls. She questions his knowledge of what it means to be a squire, and reminds him that she is no knight. She’s tired of life – very much like Tyrion at this point – and she’s tired of figuring out who to fight for anymore. She tells Pod that, “The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters.” Pod tries to find some way to distract her, pointing out that even though Arya refused her help, there’s still Sansa yet to find. As they speak, they hear the sound of nearby horses, and watch as a carriage goes by with an honor guard. Irony rears its ugly head as this is, of course, Sansa and Littlefinger leaving Royce’s manor, heading to some indeterminate place – we just know that it’s supposedly beyond Cersei’s grasp. It’s probably a good thing that Brienne doesn’t realize who is in the carriage. Sansa’s current transformation would only confirm Brienne’s loss of faith in goodness and order. It’s really too bad she never met Ned Stark – he would have been the perfect lord for her to swear fealty to.

501 Son of the Harpy

Back across the Narrow Sea (and much of Essos to boot), we open with a glorious shot of one of the enormous Harpy statues gracing the pyramids of Meereen as it is toppled to the ground. Daenerys is determined to change the world, and she wants all of its old accouterments torn down as well. We follow one of the men involved in pulling the statue down, an unsullied. He walks into one of the seedier alleyways in Meereen, half-naked women trying to entice him into their little rooms. He goes to one – he’s been here before – and she asks him if he wants “the same thing” he’s asked for before. They lie together, she spooning him from behind as she hums a lullaby – when suddenly a knife slides across his throat, his blood gushing out all over both of them. She stands, and beside her is a person wearing a golden mask, their identity hidden.

In the pyramid, Dany and Ser Barristan are discussing the Sons of the Harpy with Grey Worm. She wants them caught, and she wants to rattle their cages a bit. As she points out to her people, when a snake is aroused, it sticks its neck out – making it easier to kill. Missandei follows Grey Worm as he goes to get his warrior prepared. She wants to know why the Unsullied that was murdered was found in a brothel – she’s heard he’s not the only one to frequent those environs. Grey Worm tells her he doesn’t know why, but the tension between them is palpable. If there’s some magical way to re-man him, I hope that they’re able to find it – they’d make a powerful couple.

Later, Daario returns from his mission in Yunkai. He brings good news – the Wise Masters are willing to strike a bargain and accept Daenerys’s rule. They do, however, ask for one concession, presented to her by Hizdahr zo Loraq (you’ll recall that he asked for honorable burials for his father and other former slave masters last season). What they want is a reopening of the fighting pits, only allowing free men to fight as opposed to slaves. Daenerys shuts him down, telling him that she has no interest in “human cockfighting.” That night, she’s in bed with Daario, and he counsels her to open the pits. He tells her his own story, rising through the pits and eventually gaining his freedom. More importantly, he reminds Dany that she needs to appear strong, lest she be set upon from all sides. “A Dragon Queen with no dragons,” he says, “is not a queen.”

While she doesn’t agree to reopen the pits – yet – she does realize that he is making a solid point. She goes down to the dungeons to visit Rhaegal and Viserion (Drogon still hasn’t shown himself in several weeks or months). The place is pitch black, and she doesn’t carry a torch. Dany exudes fear as she calls out, and there’s no answer at first save for the dragging of heavy chains on the floor. Then the room explodes with light, as both dragons begin breathing fire, bracketing her between them and forcing her back outside again. She’s in a panic – she’s lost what little control she had over them. How can she be a queen, indeed? It will be interesting to see what she does to solve this quandary.

501 Cersei and Jaime

Jumping back to King’s Landing and the opening of the episode, we get our first ever Game of Thrones flashback. Two young tweenish girls are walking through a dank and muddy woods. The blonde is pretty clearly Cersei right off the bat, although her companion’s identity is never resolved. The other girl is tentative, wanting to turn back, but Cersei is single-minded in her task. She leads them to a dank little thatched hut, and they go inside. They find there a witch (this is Maggy the Frog, for readers of the books), and Cersei demands that she give her a fortune, despite Maggy’s attempts to get the girls to leave.

She demands Cersei’s blood in return for three questions answered. The first regards her proposed marriage to the prince – she asks how soon it will happen. She is told she’ll not marry the prince, but will instead marry the king. This is presumably an earlier betrothal she had to a Targaryen, prior to Tywin’s switch to Robert Baratheon’s cause and the subsequent marriage of Cersei and Robert. Her second question – “Then I will be queen?” – is not answered the way she wants, as she is told yes, but that a younger queen will rise and take everything from her (Margaery Tyrell, anyone?). The third regards her issue. She is told that the king will have twenty children (Robert’s issue), but that she will only have three. Note that this is a discrepancy, as the writers of this episode seem to have forgotten that she had one child with Robert, who died of a fever in infancy, prior to her incestuous issues with Jaime: Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella. Perhaps Maggy just meant the children that survived infancy. She adds to her prophecy, telling Cersei that for her children, “Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.” In the nature of prophecy, this can mean many things. The most obvious and likely is that each will rise to rule, and then each will die; another possibility is that the gold crowns refers to their blonde hair (marking them as Jaime’s, not Robert’s), and the golden shrouds could indicate how they, as Lannisters, will be buried. But somehow I think this is more a curse than anything else, indicating that Cersei will live to see all of her children die before her.

We cut to the present, as Cersei climbs the stairs to the Great Sept of Baelor, passing by those that have come to pay respects to Tywin, who lies in state within. She makes eye contact with Margaery – they both look daggers at each other. The Septon approaches her, and asks that she address the guests, allow them inside to pay their respects. She refuses – she wants time alone with her father. Inside, Jaime is standing vigil. She asks him if he released Tyrion, and he doesn’t deny that he had a hand in his escape. She tells him that at least Tyrion killed their father knowingly – Jaime did so by not thinking. She tells him that Tywin “loved [him] more than anyone in this world.” Jaime has the decency to look slightly chagrined at this, but tells Cersei that they need to stop the infighting within the family – specifically pointing to Cersei’s hatred of Tyrion – lest they open themselves to being torn down by their enemies. Displaying the same single-mindedness that we saw in her as a girl in the flashback, Cersei refuses to back down.

Cut to the memorial, and an ineffectual Loras stands behind Cersei trying to find words that will console. Instead, he sounds trite and boring, and Cersei treats him openly with the contempt she usually tries to conceal. She walks away from him, and listens briefly as Pycelle makes yet another sycophantic treatise on how much he cares. Walking past him, she’s confronted by a young robed man with bare feet. It’s Lancel, and he’s changed just a little. You’ll recall Lancel – he was the cousin that Cersei took as a boytoy back in Season 1, and whom she had poison Robert while he was on his boar hunt, disabling him just enough to get him gored. His father, Tywin’s brother Kevan, comes between them, and apologizes for his son. He’s become a “sparrow” he tells her, a member of a fanatical group dedicated to worshiping the Seven, the gods of southern Westeros.

Trying to escape the madness, Cersei takes her wine out to a balcony, but is soon joined by Lancel. He apologizes, but Cersei asks for what. He says for enticing her into an inappropriate relationship, and for killing the king. Both of these are potentially bad new for Cersei. Lancel is showing his weakness of mind in having joined this cult, but now that Tywin is dead, and more of these “sparrows” have been entering the city, who knows who might be listening to these dangerous and defamatory claims. Not to mention that they’re all true.

Cersei, perhaps not sensing the danger she may be in, laughs at Lancel, dismissing him. He tells her that his gods are always there, ready to forgive – and to judge.

Over in Littlefinger’s brothel – it seems his businesses still thrive in his absence – Ser Loras is busy enjoying himself with Olver, whom we last saw with Oberyn last season. Loras is relishing this moment of respite from the crazy politics of King’s Landing, but Margaery arrives to dispel his enjoyment. She reminds him that he’s late for dinner, and gets Olver to leave. Loras is relieved that Tywin is dead, as now he won’t need to marry Cersei. He even goes so far as to suggest to Margaery that he might as well not hide his homosexuality anymore, but she hints that she’s not done with him politically, even if Tywin happens to be gone. She clearly does not want Cersei around in King’s Landing as a potential rival for Tommen’s ear.

501 Mance

Finally up in the North, we open on Jon Snow as he trains young Olly with sword and shield, telling him to hold the shield up or he’ll make the boy’s head ring. This is a reminder of the basic human decency that drives Snow. He lost his love, Ygritte, to Olly’s arrow, and yet here he is training the boy to help him survive. If this were a Dickensian style narrative, there’d be a lot of dark brooding and unexplained dark looks aimed at the child; instead, Snow takes him on as a sort of protege. After all, the boy thought he was saving Snow’s life.

Sam and Gilly watch as Alliser Thorne and his toadie Janos Slynt walk by. Gilly’s worried that Thorne is going to be elected the new Lord Commander, and that he’ll send all the Wildlings away. Sam tells her that he won’t let her be sent away, and somehow I have more faith in him than Gilly seems to. Sam has shown his mettle at times, and will do what he has to to look after his celibate love.

Melisandre shows up out of thin air, and informs Jon that Stannis requires his presence. They take the elevator to the top of the wall. Jon notes that Melisandre is a little under-dressed, and she takes this as an invitation to touch his hand to her cheek, showing him that she is filled with the fiery presence of her god, R’hllor, who incidentally suffers from fantasy-apostrophe-nameitis. It also appears that she’s interested in being filled with more than her god, as she asks Jon if he’s a virgin. “No,” he replies; “Good,” she says. Think she might have a plan up her barely concealing sleeve?

At the top of the Wall, overlooking the wilds to the north, stand Stannis and Ser Davos. Stannis tries to play on Jon’s loyalties, asking him if he knows who now controls Winterfell. Jon acknowledges that it’s Roose Bolton, and Stannis offers to clear him out and return the Starks to power, if only Jon will do this one little thing. Of course, it’s not really all that little – he wants Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, to bend knee to him, and hand over his Wildlings to form a new army under Stannis’s control. Jon looks – well, you know how he looks. He has this quirky face he makes when facing difficult decisions that looks somewhere between confusion and bursting into tears. He does, however, agree to speak with Mance.

In Mance’s cell, we get some of the best interactions of the night. Jon is legitimately concerned about Mance – he likes him, and doesn’t want to see him die (especially the way that Stannis and Melisandre have “staked out” for him – death by being burned alive). To Jon, bending a knee means freedom and safety for all of Mance’s subjects. For Mance, bending a knee means giving up everything that is worth living for. Jon assumes that this is Mance’s pride speaking, but Mance just gives him a look of disbelief, saying, “Pride? Fuck my pride. This isn’t about that.” As he tells Jon, “The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.” Great writing, and great delivery – some powerful emotions are stirred up in this scene.

Soon after, night falls, and Mance is led out into the courtyard of Castle Black. There’s a pyre all set up and ready to go, a stake in the middle for Mance to be tied to. Stannis gives Mance one more chance to reconsider. To one side of Stannis stand the Crows, Jon Snow in their head; to the other, a group of wildlings, Tormund Giantsbane at theirs. They all look ready to explode with tension as Mance gives his answer. He stands there a moment, then says, “I wish you good fortune, in the wars to come.” Wise words. He’s taken to the stake and tied, and Melisandre goes on one of her light/darkness good/evil sermons, before lighting the pyre. Mance does a yeoman’s job, struggling not to scream. Jon shakes his head and walks away – it appears at first that he has no stomach for what is being done, until suddenly an arrow blossoms in Mance’s chest. He looks up, and in his dying moment gives a look of thanks to Jon, who is standing on a nearby walkway with a bow in hand. I suspect that Melisandre will not be pleased.

Two of the three main storylines, opening and ending the episode, give us a hint of the direction the series seems to be heading in. We begin with Cersei and King’s Landing, and end with events at The Wall. This is, I suspect, the narrative movement we’re going to be seeing in Westeros over the next nine episodes. Previous seasons have largely been focused on events in the Red Keep and the Iron Throne, but the center of gravity for the show is shifting. The Wall is most definitely going to be a point of focus – winter is, inevitably, coming – as well further flung locations as Tyrion/Varys presumably move toward unification with the Dany/Slaver’s Bay arc.

Cersei will play a huge role this season – likely even more central than she has been before – but the power is moving out of her hands. The flashback served to show us just how out of control she really is. One of her children has already worn the golden shroud, and the second is wearing the golden crown – how soon before they’re all gone? Tommen seems really decent, especially when compared to Joffrey, and it would be a shame to see him go too soon. And Myrcella? She’s just an innocent – but so were the young Targaryen children crushed by the Mountain during Robert’s rebellion. Innocence is no surety of staying safe in this world.

There are several storyline that we have not touched on tonight, and that will likely see airtime next week. Most importantly, I want to see how Arya is doing now that she’s heading to Braavos, and we’ll also have to see how Dorne reacts to the death of the beloved Prince Oberyn – more importantly, how his daughters, the Sand Snakes, react.

This was an excellent start to the new season, situation viewers solidly back in the main action, and touching on the majority of the primary storylines. Things seem to be moving, and I strongly believe that by the end of this season we’ll begin to get an inkling of the endgame in sight. Nine more shows over the next ten weeks (there’s a hiatus between episodes 506 and 507) should give us lots more to chew on. Here’s hoping the production values continue at this same high level, with increased stakes and a movement toward unified storylines. Five seasons in, Benioff and Weiss seem to clearly have a handle on this show.

Steve’s Grade: A-
An excellent opening salvo in the fifth season of cable’s most popular show. Lots of narrative movement and an indication that Dany isn’t going to largely sit on her temporary throne in Meereen bode well for the season to come.

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  1. Josh says:

    Ya it bothered me that she was sharpening a valerian steel sword. In the histories and lore it says that if you try to sharpen valerian steel with a sharpening stone you will need a new sharpening stone!

  2. dan lett says:

    Season one saw Ned Stark similarly stroking his Valerian blade if I remember correctly. Season four saw Tywin inexplicably melting one down to make two more — trampling all over the fact that what makes it Valerian is as much the folding process as the material itself. Hard fantasy types are wetting their replica greaves right now.

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