Warning: This contains spoilers. For a spoiler-free review of Episode 1, click here.
Game of Thrones has, in the past two seasons, dealt out more trauma to audiences than most other TV shows combined. How, then, can Season 5 top what’s gone before? The answer, of course, is that it can’t, but the opening episode sees the show do something equally nerve-wracking: carry on.
As is now tradition, Episode 1 of the new run makes a whistle-stop tour of the Seven Kingdoms to remind us which players are still in contention for the Iron Throne. After Tywin was cruelly flushed away by Tyrion, there’s a real sense that the Lannisters’ stint at the top of the ladder has come to an end: we join Cersei and Jaime in the Sept of Baelor, as they mourn for their departed dad.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey have always had a chemistry that sells their amorousness as well as their bile. While Jaime speaks of staying united to hold on to the empire Tywin has built, Cersei spits out hatred for their crossbow-wielding brother. “Tyrion may be a monster,” she glares, “but at least he killed our father on purpose.”
Outside, they both sense that others are gathering, waiting for the chance to strike while the family is weak. As they walk up the stairs to the Sept, Natalie Dormer’s Margaery steals the whole scene just by glancing at her rival.
But we soon get a hint of another, more unexpected threat to the throne: the return of the Lannister cousin Cersei once shagged, who now sports a grey robe and little hair. His father pleas for forgiveness, mentioning that he’s joined the Sparrows – the fanatical Seven-believing religious movement, soon to be led by Jonathan Pryce, that will try to overthrow King’s Landing. (The fact that one of the upcoming episodes will be called “High Sparrow” suggests that they’ll be playing a very big part in this season.)
Even with so many bodies dispatched in the past, though, there are still too many characters to cram into one hour of TV: we’ve reached the point where, like George R.R. Martin, the show has to pick and choose which people to follow. While that means no Hodor (Nodor) or Bran, it also means that there is a real proximity between these subplots: it feels a long time since Jon Snow and Bran Stark passed each other by without realising. Now, you feel it’s only a matter of time until all these characters collide in one messy endgame. The world is getting bigger, but the horizons are drawing in.
The brief reminders of what’s going on, then, carry an enjoyable tension that has built up over four seasons of brutality. We swiftly catch up with Petyr Baelish (the wonderfully slimy Aidan Gillen) and Sansa, who are now faced with trying to train up Robin Arryn – you know, after Baelish pushed his mum out of the Moon Door. They leave him with Lord Royce, who doubts Robin will ever learn to hold a sword; if his pathetic swings are funny, the deadpan expression on Gillen’s face as he watches is even better. But it’s the sight of Littlefinger smirking, as he and Sanda ride off west (rather than the east that he tells Royce), that really makes you nervous. What does he have in store?
But let’s get on to Meereen, where we have our first death of the season. We see an Unsullied visit a prostitute, who sings to him as they snuggle. Then, a man in a golden mask slits his throat. It comes out of nowhere, but the shock lies in just how casually it’s executed; even though this is only a minor character, it’s a horrific reminder that these days, that’s simply the way things are.
Daenerys, meanwhile, is gradually realising how difficult it is to start a civilised society: it turns out the golden murder is working with the Sons of the Harpy (the nobles who don’t like her and her new-fangled ideas of freedom). More investigating is done by her assistant, Missandei, who pays a brief visit to Grey Worm to find out why an Unsullied would visit a brothel. He doesn’t know, but it’s a cute reminder that their romance is still lingering.
If the killing wasn’t enough, though, then comes along the proposal of re-opening the fighting pits, a notion that Daenerys cannot abide, despite the pleas from sexy old Daario Naharis. “You’re not the mother of Unsullied, you’re the mother of dragons,” he reminds her, recommending that she rise above these political concerns and stop hiding behind her human army. But a trip to see her “children” – who, by the way, are now massive and breath lots of fire – proves how little control she has there too. Emilia Clarke’s surprised, sad face is as revealing as the bedroom shots of Mr. Naharis. (More like YA-haris, right?)
The meat of this opening hour, though, comes from Jon Snow, who is trying to negotiate some kind of truce between Stannis and Mance Rayder. Aside from the fact that Stannis has the most rubbish king name ever, he makes Mance a good offer: bend the knee and fight for him and the wildlings can have land themselves below The Wall. In the middle of it all lies Melisandre, who continues to display her uncanny power to turn any conversation into innuendo-laden evangelism. “Are you a virgin?” she asks Jon, as they ride in the Westerosi equivalent of a ski lift. Kit Harington’s pretty boy face has never looked more uncomfortable.
But it’s the superbly stubborn Ciaran Hinds who really looks uneasy, as his refusal to submit leaves him tied to a stake for burning. The fear that creeps into his usually stoic eyes is haunting – until Jon Snow makes the bold move of ending his suffering with an arrow.
Among all these machinations, Brienne and Podrick stick out on their never-ending road trip to nowhere. With the show now caught up with the books in many places, and having made diversions in others, we’re at point in Season 5 where the TV series will either invent its own plots to mix in with the others, or simply overtake the novels altogether – which begs the question: What will happen to Brienne, who was never even meant to meet Arya or fight the Hound in the first place? (The idea that readers should start avoiding the TV series to avoid potential spoilers is really rather fascinating.)
Brienne and Pod are the polar opposite to Tyrion and Varys, who emerge across the Narrow Sea in Pentos and feel more relevant to the plot than ever. “Do you know what it’s like to stuff your own shit through a hole in a box?” grumbles Peter Dinklage’s weary imp, as he is let out of his crate. “No,” comes the sharp reply. “I only know what it’s like to pick up your shit and throw it overboard.” It’s exactly how we always dreamed of a sitcom starring these two would be.
It’s testament to writers D.B. Weiss and David Benoiff that they find time for such giggle-inducing dialogue among all the exposition, and even more so that such quality is par for the course for HBO’s series. Amid the laughs, though, we also get a tantalising glimpse of their puppet-master plans: it’s inevitable that once these two get together, strings will be pulled. Tyrion, surprisingly, is having none of it, but Varys has never been keener to make a difference. He talks of a new ruler of the kingdoms, one with support, heritage and temperament to be fair. “Good lucking finding him,” mutters Tyrion, swigging from a bottle. “Who said anything about ‘him’?” smiles Varys. With these men in her corner, surely the rise of Daenerys isn’t far away?
That sense of nearing a predetermined endgame is emphasised by the very start of the episode, which heralds the show’s first ever flashback: Cersei and a friend running through the woods to visit a local witch, who is said to be able to tell your future. The witch promises death as well as glory, bastards as well as heirs – “The king will have 20 children, and you will have three. Gold will be their crowns. Gold their shrouds…” – and with the knowledge that we’ve already seen two of those shrouds, you wonder how long Tommen’s got left.
An even more striking speech occurs later, when Daario YA-haris tells Daenerys about how he was raised as a slave and found himself in the fighting pits. It’s combat that makes us who we are, he argues. It’s a sentiment that, if anything, has been proven over and over, as each of our characters move on in their journeys, leaving corpses behind them. Like the Unsullied being bumped off, that stuff’s just normal.
Halfway through, director Michael Slovis delivers a stand-out piece of cinematic spectacle, as a golden winged idol (a harpy) comes crashing to the ground in Meereen. As soon as the shot’s over, though, the show merely continues as if nothing happened. That’s what really feels exciting about the start of this new season: people have won and people have died, but the Game of Thrones just keeps on going.
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