This review exists because of the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Further eviews of Season Five of Game of Thrones are contingent on the Patreon reaching $300. However, since I suspect a $25 jump in one week is unlikely, I’ll do “The House of Black and White” if it’s at $280 by the time the episode airs. (I’ll then set a higher amount – probably $290 – for “High Sparrow,” and then stop if we’re not at $300 by “Sons of the Harpy.”) You can support this and the other work I do here (and, you know, my putting food on my table, what with this being my job and all) right here at this link.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Pentos: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of the Eyrie: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Barratheon, Mellisandre
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworthy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwovles of the Eyrie: Sansa Stark
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Spiders of Pentos: Lord Varys
Shields of the Eyrie: Brienne of Tarth
Swords of Mereen: Dario Noharis
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandei
Stags of King’s Landing: Tommen Barratheon
Winterfell is abandoned (but has fallen to the Boltons).
The episode is in ten parts. The first runs four minutes and is set in the Westerlands. The first image is of a young Cersei and her unnamed friend walking through the mud.
The second runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by character, from young Cersei to Cersei of the present day.
The third runs three minutes and is set in Pentos; the transition is by dialogue and family, from Jaime and Cersei talking about Tyrion to Tyrion.
The fourth runs five minutes and is set in Mereen; the transition is by implication, from Varys and Tyrion to where they’ll be heading. It features the death of White Rat, an Unsullied, whose throat is slit.
The fifth runs five minutes and is set at the Wall; the transition is by image, from the Unsullied armory, and specifically a wall of shields to Jon Snow training recruits in the yard at Castle Black, the first image being a sword striking a shield.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set in the Eyrie; it is in two sections. The first section runs one minute; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa. The other runs two minutes; the transition is by contrast, from Robin and his inadequacy as a fighter to Brienne. At the episode’s halfway point, Sansa and Tyrion discuss strategy as their cart wheels past Brienne and Pod.
The seventh part runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; it is in two sections. The first runs three minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger discussing Cersei to Cersei herself. The other runs three minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Cersei and Lancel talking about their illicit affair to Loras engaged in his own.
The eighth part runs four minutes and is set in Pentos; the transition is by hard cut, from Margaery to an establishing shot of Illyrio’s balcony.
The ninth runs six minutes and is set in Mereen; the transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Varys talking about Daenerys and Mereen to Mereen.
The tenth runs nine minutes and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys to Jon Snow. It features the death of Mance Rayder, killed by Jon Snow, who shoots an arrow into his chest. The final image is of Jon Snow walking away after having done so.
There is a tendency, with prestige cable television, towards a sort of ostentatious decompression of the first episode of a season, as if writers are compelled to demonstrate just how free they are to write For Their Art instead of for mass audience appeal by crafting opening acts as alienating as possible. Of course, being the guy who decided that his Game of Thrones blogging would always lead with a deliberately stilted ritual recitation of the episode’s underlying structure, I’m probably not a person with all too much right to complain here.
Besides, within the tradition of sluggish starts, “The Wars to Come” is hardly the most aggressively slow. About the only thing that can fairly be described as painful is the sexposited lecture on the geography of Dorne, a sequence that frankly crosses into self-parody, although Natalie Dormer is thankfully on hand to glare condescendingly at it. (I’d call it the best use of her smirk since her reaction shot to Tyrion demanding trial by combat last season, but it’s actually her first appearance since then too, and her first line of dialogue in longer.) It’s got a significant character death, which has, for better or for worse (mainly worse) become a standard barometer of weight in Game of Thrones. It’s got some fantastic effects sequences. It’s pleasantly lean and efficient, at ten parts and five locations.
And beyond that, first episodes, for Game of Thrones – and even second episodes, given the sheer size of the cast at this point – are necessarily about a sort of laundry list of characters and their initial status quos. There are nineteen credited regulars in this, and no shortage of significant figures not in the credits. The job largely sets the conditions of its own execution.
This comes perilously close to damning with faint praise, but to do so would require rejecting the basic logic of Game of Thrones. If there’s one thing that the first run of A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones ought to have made clear, it is that Game of Thrones must be understood as a game. Setup is not the most interesting part of a game, but it is an essential one.
In which case the meat of the matter, so to speak, becomes what those status quos are. This is especially true for Season Five of Game of Thrones, which is on course to adapt the two problem books of Martin’s existing five, reversing the (largely, I would argue, unwise, albeit probably necessary) decision to split A Storm of Swords into two seasons by compressing A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons into one. The mechanics of this are still emerging, although certain things are already clear. The Riverlands, the Greyjoys, Aegon the Fake, and, it would seem, Oldtown are all being scrapped, with characters being moved to alternate plot lines as needed. In lieu of the messy sprawl that saw Martin’s fourth book split into two not entirely successful halves, there is a satisfying unity to things – a sense that the story is still focusing on a manageable number of plots and locations.
It is worth, actually, thinking about the opening credits, not least because their structure is revealing. The sequence is timed such that there is room for six locations to be highlighted on the map. This constraint is ultimately an artificial one, and yet it also demonstrably serves as a useful constraint for the writing. The existence of Pentos as a location for Varys and Tyrion means that there’s no room for Braavos – in turn, Arya is among the characters held back for the second episode. The Eyrie continues as a location for Sansa and Littlefinger, and in turn Dorne’s much-trailered debut is withheld. The structural constraint of the title sequence, in other words, in turn affects how much sprawl the actual plot is allowed to have.
So we get six locations, five in use, and most of them with nice, evocative premises: Cersei with no obvious checks on her power, Jon Snow in a position of newfound authority within the Night’s Watch, Tyrion en route to meet Daenerys. All three are genuinely promising, and the lesser two – Sansa and Littlefinger off on an as-of-yet unidentified plot, Daenerys facing insurrection in Mereen – are certainly not unpromising. And if one is to judge the quality of a scene-setting episode, the promise of its scenes is surely the way to do it. That’s what the forward-looking nature of the game as a narrative structure ultimately demands of us: that we judge an episode in terms of how interesting it allows the next one to be.
But ultimately, what makes the exercise worthwhile is simply that everyone is, by this point, very good at making Game of Thrones. A Tyrion/Varys scene that isn’t entertaining is by this point harder to do than not, especially with Dinklage and Hill to anchor it. (Hill’s continual sense of being slightly irritated about all this damn sunlight is a particular highlight.) Lena Headey continues to provide one of the best villains on television. Even actors who are historically weak links are by this point solid and dependable – the days of wincing slightly at a new Jon Snow scene are long since past.
And there’s the writing. Hanging over this season is always going to be “how are they recutting two books into one season,” with a side of “what are they doing with the plots that are out of material to adapt.” So far there’s only one solid answer – a savvy decision to pick up, in most plots, after the actual business of reacting to the events of “The Children” is done. There’s no discovery of Tywin’s corpse, no sequences of Tyrion on a boat, Stannis is already well-settled at the Wall. Some of this is Martin, but some of it is Benioff and Weiss being smart about where they pick up, introducing a status quo that’s already on the brink of a change instead of doing the transition into the new status quo.
When doing Doctor Who episode reviews, I started Deep Breath by talking about the way in which its transmission seemed to plug into the season, a crepuscular beauty designed to play out over the sunset. In a similar vein, then, at least here, in western Connecticut, we have the first proper warm, nice day of the year, peaking in the high sixties. I took a long walk with the dog and got back an hour after sunset, still with half an hour to make tea and settle in for the episode. The last dregs of snow only disappeared in the last few days – I remember watching a neighbor scatter his plow ridge across the driveway a few days ago so it would melt – and already the trees are budding, spring setting in, as it always does, less as an emerging process that can be watched, and more as something you notice has been happening for some time – a status quo set, and ready to burst forth into a glorious summer.
“The Wars to Come” feels much like that.