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Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”

You know (closer to) nothing, book readers, but the show is richer for it

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Game Of Thrones (experts)

"The Wars To Come"

Season 5 , Episode 1

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This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. And if you have for any reason seen future episodes of Game of Thrones and choose to discuss them here, I’m giving you to Qyburn, so let’s avoid that, shall we?

For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.

When I found out that I would be writing the “Experts” reviews for Game Of Thrones’ fifth season, I did something I hadn’t done since the series began: I consciously turned to A Song Of Ice And Fire and began perusing through A Feast For Crows.

While I have read all of the books in the series thus far, and am undoubtedly a “book reader” by the designation that has been established online, I am not an encyclopedia of knowledge on Westeros (although I have one on my bookshelf). And although I own all the books in the series, I’ve always made a conscious effort not to turn to them when reviewing the series, both because they would eat up too much of my time and—more importantly—because I am a strong proponent of treating Game Of Thrones and A Song Of Ice And Fire as two separate but related entities.

My change in position came out of curiosity. When the series began, readers and non-readers—or “experts” and “newbies,” in the parlance of these reviews—were clearly divided into two camps. The readers knew that Ned would be beheaded by the end of the first season, and that Tyrion would emerge victorious—if injured—at the Blackwater, and that the show would be entering “red wedding” into the televisual lexicon. When the show began, knowledge was power, and the readers held it, leaving the non-readers to experience the story as it unfolded, beholden to its twists and turns in a way that readers were not. There may have been some occasional small changes from the books to challenge the readers’ power over the narrative, but the larger story beats reinforced their authority.

But the end of last season signaled a change. Lady Stoneheart—I feel comfortable uttering her name given the popular press coverage of her absence—represents the first major book event from A Song Of Ice And Fire that Game Of Thrones has apparently chosen to more or less completely ignore (I know some of you are holding out hope). When I filled in on a review late last season, I wrote that review presuming we were moving toward Lady Stoneheart, so sure of myself that I never stopped to think it might not happen. It was one of Martin’s signature twists, poetic and tragic in equal measure, and the starting point of a significant thread of his story; removing it wiped that thread off the map, and turned the book readers’ collective authority on its head.

When I returned to A Feast For Crows, I started reading with an eye toward what I felt still meant something in the context of Game Of Thrones in light of the heightened selectivity being shown by Benioff and Weiss and co. in mapping out this story. All of the Brienne chapters are no longer “useful,” for example—they were all leading to Lady Stoneheart, and see her in an entirely different part of Westeros. Brienne’s quest narrative would never work in the show anyway—it’s too solitary, relying on internal monologues and revolving groups of characters in ways the show can’t sustain. But my knowledge of that storyline, which used to hold power and authority, is now like an easter egg that readers can pull out at parties, knowing at this stage it will likely never come to pass on the show itself.

The fifth season is set to turn lots of book reader knowledge into easter eggs. The Ironborn remain uncast, a significant thread of the last two books effectively—and, real talk, thankfully—wiped off the grid in favor of Dorne being the only new ecosystem established this season. The Dornish storyline, based on casting, has consolidated some stories and potentially abandoned others, reducing the number of sand snakes and raising more questions about how the story will progress from here. Although there remain components of Martin’s overarching story that I can feel quite confident will come to pass in the season and seasons that follow, my confidence is at an all time low, and—as my test confirmed—there is no amount of reference to the text that could reclaim it.

We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.

And yet, as the existence of this review demonstrates, these two designations will never collapse, as evidenced by the first scene of “The Wars To Come.” Opening on two teenage girls trucking through the mud in their finest dresses, the episode never tells us exactly who or what we’re seeing. There are no visual or auditory clues to denote this as a flashback, but when the shot reveals the witch’s hut I instantly knew what I was seeing. I knew that this was Cersei’s journey to visit her fortuneteller, who would give her the prophecy that haunts her throughout A Feast For Crows. I knew that this would become her primary motivation throughout the season, driving her concern for her remaining children and her paranoia surrounding Margaery. I also knew, as a book reader, that starting with this scene sends a particular message, signaling the show’s faith—pun unintended, but welcome—in this storyline to anchor the season, because the writers had other choices and stuck with Cersei.

It’s a great choice—although her story last season was muddled by the show’s struggles to clearly articulate her relationship with Jaime both during and after their violent sexual encounter following Joffrey’s death, Cersei is now at the center of King’s Landing, and thus at the center of the Westeros. Tywin’s death has given Cersei more agency than at any previous point in this story—whereas Tywin consciously worked to keep her in her prescribed role as daughter, wife, and mother, she is now comparatively free to explore her own role, whatever that might be. The episode sets up this story efficiently but effectively: we see the events from her past that frame her actions, we’re reminded of the Tyrell family’s place as a threat to her control over Tommen and King’s Landing more broadly, and we learn of the Sparrows—signaled here by Lancel in a smart change from the books—to set up Cersei’s larger conflict for the season.

Cersei is not the only character to be given a clear set of goals to set up the season’s arc. Tyrion is only in two scenes in the entire episode, but Varys makes the most of them, setting him on a course to Meereen and a visit with Daenerys Targaryen before the episode is done. After an evocative sequence—reminiscent of director Michael Slovis’ work on Breaking Bad—condensing his trip across the narrow sea into a few quick shots from a breathing hole, we see Tyrion drunk, haunted by his murder of Shae and his father, and ready to drink himself to death in Pentos; the only thing that even briefly shakes him out of it is the dream of peace that Varys lays out for Tyrion, and the hope that Dany represents, which at least encourages him to drink himself to death on the way to Meereen instead.

This is a setup more or less drawn directly from A Dance With Dragons, albeit with Varys in Illyrio’s place (although the former reminds us that the latter, who we saw in the first season, exists), but it’s possible the similarities will end there. Tyrion’s storyline in A Dance With Dragons is a classic quest narrative, in that it becomes more about the journey than the destination. Martin promises the possibility of Tyrion and Dany meeting in the novels, too, but he largely uses Tyrion as a vantage point on other characters, constantly delaying the meeting that he knows the readers are waiting for. However, I don’t know if the show could pull off the same feat—they have made a promise for Tyrion and Dany to meet before the season ends, and they have proven less interested in the meandering quest narratives that Martin has used to extend his story. Given how much of Tyrion’s journey in the books depended on characters the show has either not yet cast or did not introduce last season, it seems likely there will be fewer roadblocks on Tyrion’s journey, which reaffirms his arc as one of the series’ most exciting.

While Cersei and Tyrion are given clear paths forward, the rest of the storytelling is more opaque, although it connects together in interesting ways. In the context of the books, I always read Daenerys’ storytline as a basic war allegory, in which a wartime ruler struggles to adapt their leadership strategies to a time of peace. Dany had the power to liberate these cities, but now she actually needs to rule them, and to do so requires more nuance than her previous actions (or, in other words, she can’t Dracarys her way through peace time). In the books, however, Dany was much younger, which framed a lot of the story accordingly—she had less agency, and took certain actions more out of indecision or immaturity than because she believed in something. The show’s Dany is much more principled, I would argue, which will make her struggle to rule as much philosophical as logistical, which I expect to pay dividends.

However, I feel the show is doubling down on the allegory, working to refashion the storyline at the Wall along similar grounds. In the books, there is a lot of plot surrounding Stannis’ arrival when it comes to Mance Rayder between his wife, his child, and Melisandre’s plans to burn Mance and his son alive. By comparison, the show has simplified Mance’s storyline, giving him no such attachments and making his resistance more political than personal. Speaking to Jon in what feels like the character’s most substantial scene in the entire series, he explains that it is neither pride nor fear that leads him to refuse to bend the knee; tired of Jon’s struggle to grasp this, Mance says “if you can’t understand why I won’t enlist my people in a foreigner’s war, there’s no point explainin’.”

The storyline itself is pulled directly from the books, but the conversation adds layers that reframe the Wildlings as a local army repurposed by a colonizing power to fight a war they want no part of. It’s a small distinction, but it’s a good example of the show using the proximity created when telling these stories together as opposed to isolated into individual point-of-view chapters. Those parallels can become stronger, something I would expect to extend into the Cersei storyline as it explores the way religion can complicate attempts to rule over a city or country, and which we might also see play out depending on where they take the character of Doran Martell in the weeks to come.

As book readers, we think ahead in this way, making connections that the show itself might not end up making—it’s what will always make watching the show as a book reader different, and why it’s still important to maintain two separate conversations so that those who would rather remain in the moment can do so safely. However, at the same time, the Mance Rayder storyline is a great example of a moment where our authority over the text is challenged…or is it? Given that they have removed so much of the story around Mance, I’m presuming they’re moving in a different direction, but I may be overcorrecting after the lack of Lady Stoneheart (who, as far as I know, could still be coming at a later point in the story, as unlikely as I find that to be).

“The Wars To Come” reinforces that watching this show as a book reader has become a weekly rollercoaster, with some scenes completely off the beaten path and others exactly where we expect them to be. This is on one level simply a byproduct of adapting a story for another medium, but at least here it also felt like a conscious play on expectation. When Littlefinger is almost criminally vague with Sansa regarding where he intends to take her after dumping Robin off with Lord Royce, it’s the show winking at book readers who know they’ve run out of book material with Sansa and are heading into unwritten territory, a rare space where readers and non-readers are on the same page, which is only going to become more common as the show moves forward.

Game Of Thrones is never at its best in premieres, and there’s a point in the roll call where you wish you could spend more than three scenes in a given location, but as a book reader the show is in a really fascinating place right now. The writers are simultaneously adapting events from the books, offering new perspectives on those events offered by a less rigid approach to characterization, and creating new material out of whole cloth to push the story and its characters forward. All three are distinct when viewed through the lens of a book reader, but the ultimate test is whether or not they cohere as a strong television show in its own right—while a season premiere may not be the best test of Game Of Thrones’ strengths, all signs point to the show continuing to have a strong handle on how to tell stories in this universe, and the adaptation changes made thus far suggest they may well have a strategy for how to turn two flabby books into something more streamlined and efficient.

That being said, all judgment reserved until we get to Dorne.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to this season’s experts reviews! I promise there will be less meta-reflection next week, but I decided we were at an important “state of the adaptation” juncture where such reflection was necessary.
  • The show will always have to work around the budget when it comes to Dany’s dragons, so I appreciated the effective use of darkness to shroud their anger in their dungeon—the subsequent glimpse of them was effective, even if I imagine it’ll look better in HD than on my (better quality than before, but still not exactly sterling) screener.
  • I’m curious to see where non-readers land on who the younger queen is in Cersei’s prophecy. The episode seems to lean heavily on Margaery, but seeing the storylines bunched up together pulled out the Daenerys option more than I found in the books, and Sansa’s presence—and Littlefinger’s conscious evocation of Cersei in reference to their destination—throws that into the mix as well.
  • I will be curious to see how the race for Lord Commander plays out, timing-wise—that had already happened by the time Mance was burned in the books, but they did lay the groundwork here.
  • Let’s (Tastefully) Talk Nudity!: Although we get another brothel scene—both to establish the Sons of the Harpy and to preview Missandei and Grey Worm’s evolving relationship as the Unsullied discover cuddling—with some conscious display of bare female breasts, we get two subsequent scenes of exclusively male nudity. Although full-frontal remains elusive, still lots of instances of men and women observing the male form, particularly as Daario poured himself a drink.
  • On that note, I’m hopeful someone steps up and compares the shot of Daario’s butt from “Mockingbird” last season to this one to see if Michiel Huisman was—as I suspected at the time—using a butt double. The full profile shot here takes that option off the table.
  • Also on this subject: oh, to have been a fly on the wall when they came up with the idea of using Loras’ birthmark as a way to initiate viewers on the geography of Dorne, seeding its—more than likely—appearance in the following week’s episode. Silly, but inspired.
  • And speaking of Missandei, I hadn’t realized she was in a recent film release, which made a reveal within that film much more rich, intertextually-speaking.
  • Missing In Action: Not surprised that Arya’s storyline is waiting until next week, but it’s definitely the biggest absence given she was where last season left off. There are other characters missing too, of course, but I don’t know if I’m super concerned about not seeing what Theon’s up to just yet.
  • I’m curious to see how long Varys travels with Tyrion—I think it’s smart to keep the character around, both for continuity and because he’s a great character, but I imagine they’ll need to cut ties eventually.
  • “The future is shit, just like the past”—this line was already poetic on its own, but then Tyrion vomited immediately afterwards, which is just icing on the cake.
  • “He swings a sword like a girl with palsy”—this line is (purposefully) offensive, yes, but I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic Robin looked and—especially—sounded as he was fighting.
  • Anyone else consistently surprised that the show is keeping Selyse and Shireen around, and that we saw so many shots of them reacting to Mance’s death? It makes me think they intend on following through with Shireen’s medical condition as a topic for this season, which would surprise me but isn’t outside of the realm of possibility.

The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (only read if you’ve read the books or are comfortable knowing more explicitly what happens in them):

  • So I know we have some Lady Stoneheart Truthers out there, and I salute you for your dedication, but do we have any Mance Rayder truthers? Is there anyone who believes based on what we’ve seen of the character that there’s a chance of introducing the magic necessary for him to remain alive? I initially felt there was no way, but as I think about the way they’ve depicted Jaqen, there is a precedent, albeit one the show hasn’t connected to Melisandre directly. However, I still feel like the bard arc he’s given in the books has no ties to the characterization thus far. But we shall see.
  • So going into the season, I would suggest that the only major plot development that would “spoil” the season would be Jon’s final chapter in A Dance With Dragons, and given I believe that’s a bait-and-switch waiting to happen I feel this is a season without a major death/event that the show is clearly building toward. This is in part due to how many storylines are changing (I expect Arya and Cersei’s to be the only ones that map out really closely to the books), and in part due to how little “progress” Martin was making in the plot at this stage in the series, so I’m interested in how they adjust.

EXTRA REMINDER: I know that episodes from this season are floating around. For the love of the seven, if for some reason some nefarious figure kidnapped you and force you to watch them (which I’m sure is the only scenario in which you would have knowledge of them), please be respectful to everyone else and refrain discussing events from future episodes. And to reiterate, I am not kidding about Qyburn—he’s real, and he lives in Cleveland.