Isn’t it a beautiful time of year? The snow has melted, the Mister Softee jingle is playing in the streets, andGame of Thrones is back with a Lannister-like vengeance. The first and final episodes of each GoT season are always solid, but “The Wars to Come” has to be among the best. Dripping with intrigue and exposition, the episode set up a number of conflicts and questions in the midst of strong revelations in character development and motivation—and some blood, butts, and dragons.
I’m in the obnoxious camp of “I’ve read all the books so I know what’s coming….” and while I know this season should break from that and be full of surprises (G.R.R.M. has been quoted all over the place about the deviations from the book), the premiere did include a number of scenes straight out of A Feast for Crows. I’ve long sung the praises of Game of Thrones as a literary adaptation, though mostly to my old thesis advisor. Game of Thrones, strongly influenced by the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, works so well because it successfully translates the tone and themes of A Song of Ice and Fire. Like LOTR, Game of Thrones combines the spectacular appeal of fantasy (and unlike LOTR, sex) with compelling stories of human melodrama, reframing the books’ most significant characterizations and narratives to create a show that successfully resonates with a wide audience. But I digress—if anyone wants to hear a very long-winded rant about the influence of LOTR on GoT, hit me up. Let’s get into the premiere.
This episode is a beautiful illustration of the meticulous care and planning that the writers put into this show. Opening with Cersei’s flashback, we immediately delve deep into the heart of her character, immersed in the mysterious woods of her past. The maegi’s prophecy is incredibly revealing of Cersei’s motivations; her paranoia regarding Margaery, her ferocity in protecting her children. However, the scene also reveals that it isn’t just fear of the prophecy that led to adult Cersei’s cruelty. In her threats to the maegi, the young Cersei sounds not unlike Joffrey; the poisoned apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The scene that follows of Cersei and Jamie saying goodbye to their father’s corpse highlights not only her vitriolic hate for Tyrion, but her anger with Jamie. Her words (“you’re a man of action, aren’t you? When it occurs to you to do something you do it, never mind the consequences,”) and the framing over and around the late Tywin’s body, the Seeing Stones on his eyes, are a pointed remaindered of Jamie’s actions the last time the two were alone in the Great Sept, and it’s clear Cersei has not forgiven him for doing what he wanted then either (nor have I forgiven the show for that unnecessarily violent scene).
Moving on to focus on the targets of the present Cersei’s contempt, the show presents a slightly more than half-assed attempt to balance the gender ratio of its nudity with a scene of Loras and his latest lover. Loras is nonchalant to the point of arrogance when Margaery reprimands him for his lack of discretion, but when Loras points out Cersei will remain hovering over her in King’s Landing, that same casual arrogance is displayed, twice as interestingly and far more threateningly, in Margaery’s lingering “perhaps.” There is something brewing behind that charming half-smile, though whether she’s planning a manipulation through Tommen or something more sinister is yet to be revealed. Cersei better hope Margaery doesn’t have her grandmother’s success when it comes to treachery.
And more plans are brewing across the Narrow Sea in Pentos, where Varys has smuggled a very dirty and very despondent Tyrion. Varys has long established himself as one of the most shrewd and powerful players in the game, and Tyrion has been one of his most consistent allies. Their alliance is natural; Tyrion was born with the right name but the wrong body, and his intelligence has been overshadowed by his deformations to most of King’s Landing and the Seven Kingdoms, but Varys, himself a eunch, recognized Tyrion’s value despite his (literal) shortcomings, and that recognition led them to Pentos together. The scene of Varys and Tyrion’s conversation on the balcony is gorgeously written and composed, opening with their mutual mocking acknowledgement of one another before quickly transitioning into serious plot and character development. Ignoring Tyrion’s sarcastic responses, Varys makes clear his confidence in Tyrion and hints at his plan for establishing a new monarch. “Good luck finding him,” Tyrion responds apathetically, but Varys catches his attention (and that of anyone who missed the trailer featuring this scene) when he responds, “Who said anything about ‘him’?” As a final hint, the score comes in with the rising notes of the Targaryen leitmotif just before Varys lays out his full proposition for Tyrion, leaving no more ambiguity about where their story is going but a lot of anticipation for how it goes. Game of Thrones’ cinematic score has been one of the most powerful devices throughout the show, emotionally evocative in its narrative associations and tension building, but invoked sparingly enough so as never to be taken for granted or go unnoticed.
Back in Westeros, in a place that never seems safe, Jon Snow is caught in the negotiations between two very different but equally stubborn kings at Castle Black. We first see Jon in this episode as he spars with a young boy (the boy who shot Ygritte) in the training yard, his instruction style reminiscent of the late Lord Commander Mormont, and then there are discussions of who will be chosen to replace the Old Bear. In his attempts to convince Mance to bend the knee, Jon demonstrates that he stills knows nothing— he cannot understand, even after Mance explains in no uncertain terms, that it isn’t that Mance won’t save Wildlings the by kneeling to Stannis, but that he can’t because they wouldn’t follow him if he did. But Mance’s lesson in leadership and sticking to one’s principles does take seed in Jon, as he steps up and shoots Mance with an arrow and allows him to die with dignity instead of burning alive. Acting in open defiance of Stannis is an incredibly bold move on Jon’s part, but it also displays the rare and highly valued combination of intelligence, toughness, and compassion that Varys described as exactly what the Seven Kingdoms needed in a leader.
This premiere neatly lays out who the main players will be in the titular game this season. Moving from Cersei’s flashback to focus on Meereen and Daenerys makes it clear she’s the real threat, but the red herring in Margaery adds another layer of intrigue, especially as she begins to become a real player in her own right. Varys’s faith in Daenerys, and in Tyrion, demonstrate he continues to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, just as Daenerys demonstrates her inability to yet control either her dragons or her city. What will happen to the Stark girls is yet to be seen; their stories seem to be losing momentum while others rise in leaps, but that’s the beauty of Game of Thrones— even if you read the books and study the show, you never really know might happen in the wars to come.