Game of Thrones's Slow but Promising Season 5 Premiere

Our roundtable on "The Wars to Come"—and what it means for the episodes to come

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Kornhaber: Game of Thrones season premieres have a sacred obligation: look back, look ahead, and remind viewers of just how brutal Westeros can be. Tonight’s episode did those things—but Tyrion Lannister did them more efficiently. “Our future is shit,” the scruffy and stinking fugitive tells Varys. “Just like the past.” Then he pukes.

As always with Thrones, a shitty time for the characters means an excellent one for viewers. Remember last season’s finale, “The Children”? The episode where Tyrion killed Tywin and Shae before he escaped Westeros, Brienne killed The Hound before Arya escaped Westeros, some evil skeletons killed Jojen Reed before Bran escaped into a magic tree, Stannis’s army killed a bunch of wildlings before Jon Snow escaped death, and Daenerys locked up her dragons before grasp of Meereen escaped her? Fun stuff. The fact that so many plotlines were totally torn apart explains why this season starts a little slowly, gingerly.

In fact, the flashback opener almost felt like a reboot; it took a while for it to become clear we weren’t, in fact, meeting new teenage-girl characters. (Plus, there was a shocking revelation: Cersei, long ago, had a friend!) It also gave context to events both past and current: The witch’s predictions help explain Cersei’s previous antipathy towards young lady Margaery, but they cast a pall over this episode's coffinside conversation with Jaime. (Thank goodness, though, that it was just conversation this time.) Cersei always hated Tyrion, and now she has concrete reason to, but that doesn’t mean she needs to discount her brother/lover’s observation that the biggest threats to the Lannisters now come from outside the family. The witch warned much the same. Who’s the one with stones for eyes, Tywin or his daughter?

Another nice, novel moment: getting a stowaway's view of the new locale Pentos, seen only blurrily through a hole. When Tyrion rolled out of his crate, he looked at disgusting as you’d imagine (and, with that beard, a bit hipster). Upon seeing his travel facilities, did anyone else start a mental countdown to when excrement would become a topic of conversation? The wait wasn’t long for Tyrion to show his essential crudity. But neither was the wait for Varys to start hassling his disoriented, soiled, and drunken friend about “the future of our country.” Give a fatherslayer a minute, jeez.

The Spider's mention of having long plotted toward a “Targaryen restoration” was intriguing, but even more intriguing was how quickly he and the Imp charted a course for Meereen. Am I right to suspect, oh book readers Amy and Chris, that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss just torched a couple hundred pages of George R.R. Martin prose in which Tyrion loafs around that Pentos palace? In any case, it’s an exciting development: Soon, we might get to see a long-awaited Targaryen/Lannister sass-off.

For the time being, though, we’ll have to amuse ourselves in the Daenerys plotline with half-minute sequences of statues careening down the sides of ziggurats and with prostitutes exposing themselves out of “habit” (the definition of gratuitous nudity, no?). The assassination of an Uncuddled made for a nicely shocking little vignette, but the rest of the Meereen stuff felt awfully familiar. How many times, already, has the Mother of Dragons tough-talked about faceless dissenters, and how many times have emissaries come asking for concessions? How many times has Missandei pined for Grey Worm as violins swell in the background? (And: Why hadn’t Dany inquired about her boy toy Daario’s backstory before now? Rude!)

Things also, at first, felt a little too familiar back at the wall, with Jon Snow sparring with Olly, Sam quivering for Gilly, and Alliser growling that “these men need a firm hand.” Like, did The Seven erase the recent, game-changing Wildlings battle from history or something? Luckily, drama mounts when Melisandre shows up to inquire about Jon’s virginity and to arrange a meeting with Stannis at the least pleasant possible location. Give points to Jon for his jadedness when asked if he wants to avenge his family—“I want a great many things,” he sighs—and for knowing how this whole make-the-unconquerable-barbarian-king-kneel-by-nightfall scheme was going to turn out.

Said barbarian king never fully spells out the reasons why he won’t swear fealty, even as he rejects the obvious one—pride. Which makes me think that Mance sacrificing himself was a strategic move; it does seem like Stannis is offering a pretty fair deal, but it doesn’t seem like the 90 tribes would agree to it simply because their ruler wanted his life spared. Maybe now that the Bastard of Winterfell gave the King in the North some Westerosi mercy by arrowing his heart, said bastard could convince the Free Folk to march.

Of course, speculation is silly when I’ve not read the books. You two will set me right, without spoilers, no doubt. You’ll also surely say something intelligent about Cersei’s deliciously cold reception of Cousin Lancel 2.0 (has he been recast?), Littlefinger’s machinations with regards to his wimpy nephew, and Brienne’s cruelty toward the only person in Westeros more loyal than she is. Won’t you?

Sullivan: Oh, if only Tyrion spent a whole book lounging around a palatial estate in Pentos, Spencer. That would have been spellbinding compared to the interminable river cruise from Hell and other unnecessary adventures that occupied Tyrion in the most recent book installment. I still don’t know why some characters appear to zip around the Seven Kingdoms in a flash—darting up to the Wall and back, skipping across the Narrow Sea with time to be home for supper—while others must have their every footstep narrated.

You’re not wrong to point out, though, that much of the first episode seemed very familiar. There’s reason to hope that it was just by way of bringing audiences back up to speed after a year’s absence. And I believe we can all thank the gods that Cersei’s long climb up the steps to the sept did not lead to another awful no-still-means-no, incest-rape scene between her and Jaime. They’re still dunzo, and she’s still blaming him for everything. Okay, he did let Tyrion escape, and that did indirectly lead to Tyrion killing their father. But it’s not like Jaime made Tywin sleep with Shae.

What’s more interesting to me, as a somewhat disgruntled book reader, are the new developments hinted at in this opening episode. As you point out, Spencer, Brienne is more sharp-tongued than usual with poor Podrick, who only wants to follow her to the ends of the earth. But her self-pity—while just as wearying as Tyrion’s this episode—is understandable. It never occurred to Brienne that she would finally find one of the Stark girls, only to have her services rejected. For someone who aspires to knighthood, her résumé is not terribly strong—Renly: dead, Lady Catelyn: dead, Jaime Lannister: down one limb, Arya Stark: gone rogue.

While Brienne is moping about her encounter with Arya, though, we should be rejoicing. In the books, the lady from Tarth has yet to catch up with either of the Stark girls, making her one of the many characters simply stuck in transit for hundreds of pages. Assuming that tonight’s close encounter with Sansa’s coach isn’t some lame They were so nearby and didn’t even know it! coincidence, Brienne could be on the cusp of completing her quest and getting back into a real plotline.

In other developments, Stannis is officially the only leader in the Seven Kingdoms with any sense. Chris, you rightly heralded Stephan Dillane for growing into the role of Stannis. I still don’t want King Stannis sitting on the Iron Throne, but it’s nice to see someone focused on the fact that Winter Is (Still) Coming! Standing atop the Wall suits Stannis better than sitting in the offices of the Iron Bank, begging for loans. And he’ll earn the gratitude of all Westeros if he can rid the North of the horrible Boltons.

For now, though, Stannis just killed off one of the show’s strongest supporting characters. Fare thee well, Mance Rayder. You never got the screen time Ciarán Hinds deserved, but those last two scenes were fantastic. I’m a sucker for antagonists who respect each other, so I may or may not have started bawling when Jon took up the bow (Ygritte’s?) and gave the King of the North a more merciful death. You do know something, Jon Snow.

In seasons past, Kings Landing was often the show’s most crackling location. Our gal Margaery Tyrell may yet be able to provide the charisma and cunning to keep us focused there (come back, Grandma Olenna!), but the departures of Tywin and Tyrion will be deeply felt. Even so, Tywin’s wake provided some unexpected comic relief, thanks to several scenes of Cersei Having No Time For Stupid Young Men.

Really, there’s not much better than watching Cersei scan the gathering, alert and calculating as always, while her fiancée Loras Tyrell grasps for words of condolence. “Such a deep, deep shock to us all. Your father was a…a force to be reckoned with, he truly was.” And you could just feel the contempt dripping off her as Cousin Lancel begged her forgiveness for “tempt[ing] you into our unnatural relations.” Tempting Cersei? Oh, Lancel, you poor, pretty fool.

Cersei would do well to not completely dismiss her cousin the convert, though. Note his second confession: “And of course, there was the king.” While Cersei seems to believe she can still play at pretending she had nothing to do with Robert Baratheon’s death, Lancel knows differently—and as he tells/warns her, “I am a different person now.” A dangerous storm is brewing for Cersei. Tywin is no longer there to protect her, there’s a power vacuum in the capital, people who know her secrets are perhaps beyond her ability to control, and as the witch warned long ago, someone younger and prettier is looking to become the new Cersei.

You’ve watched the first four episodes already, Chris. Without spoiling anything, how this does opening episode look to you in retrospect? Did we miss anything important it sets up for the season? Does Bronn return to the Vale to turn Robin Arryn into a master swordsman? Can you drink yourself to death on the way to Meereen? Do tell.

Orr: I’m not going to address the question of Meereen-bound drunkenness, Amy. (Bad memories.) I will, however, reveal that it’s not Bronn who turns sickly little Robin into a master swordsman, but rather Arya’s long-ago water-dancing teacher, Syrio Forel! Actually, no. But I do so wish it were the case. In neither the books nor the show did we actually witness Syrio’s death, so I’ve spent four seasons and more or less infinite GRRM pages waiting for the miraculous return of the character with perhaps the best line of the entire story (“What do we say to Death? Not today”). I may have reached the point where I need an intervention.

I found tonight’s episode a tad slow and expository, though it was probably of necessity. As you note, Spencer, last season’s finale had an awful lot of major twists, so just getting us re-situated was a major undertaking. In most of the previous seasons, the biggest developments took place in the penultimate episodes, which allowed the final one to tie up loose ends and, in so doing, enabled more dramatic season-openers like last year’s “Two Swords.” Regardless, it’s good to be back in Westeros (and, increasingly, Essos). And as I noted in my curtain-raiser for the season, the next few episodes will accelerate promisingly.

As you note, Amy, showrunners Benioff and Weiss’s alterations to Brienne’s storyline are most welcome: I’m still trying to slough off the finger-calluses I developed turning the pages in which she wandered Westeros looking for Stark girls and never finding any. Onscreen, by contrast, she’s already met Arya and seems poised to cross paths with Sansa as well. Progress!

Progress, too, that Tyrion’s endless Essos peregrinations on the page seem certain to be radically curtailed. The HBO poster advertising the season offers pretty clear evidence that he’ll make it to Daenerys’s dragons, and this mildly spoiler-y on-set photo offers clearer evidence still. I can hardly say how grateful I am that we will not have to spend the length of a Bible following a drunk, self-pitying Tyrion across a continent of secondary importance.

Speaking of which, I agree with you Spencer, that the Daenerys storyline, even when well-executed, is pretty much variations on a familiar theme: She conquers a barbarous slaver city and frees its slaves—and then acts surprised and irritated when it doesn’t immediately turn into Brussels. (Seriously, Dany: Let the Meereenese have their fighting pits and be done with it.) I’m afraid there’s more of this to come.

Up North, I was sorry to see the end of Mance Rayder. Like you, Amy, I’d been longing for more Ciarán Hinds ever since his first appearance. And given the parade of strong supporting characters killed off last season—Tywin, Oberyn, Ygritte, the Hound (probably)—Benioff and Weiss might want to be a little more circumspect about body count. That said, at least developments at the Wall are now, with Stannis present, more immediately germane to the fate of governance in Westeros.

I do, however, think you’re both a tad hard on Cersei with regard to her treatment of Jaime. For once, she’s actually right: If he hadn’t released Tyrion, their father would still be alive. But I agree that her putdown of Lancel was simultaneously delicious (him: “I led you into the darkness”; her: “I doubt you ever led anyone anywhere”) and foolhardy. In my experience, it’s never a good idea to tick off your co-conspirator in regicide, especially when he’s just found religion. And while you’re right, Spencer, that this is essentially Lancel 2.0, he’s played—unless I’m mistaken—by the same actor, just with his blond locks shorn off. Kind of like when professional tennis recast Andre Agassi.

I have to say, I’m already tiring of “Oliver,” the ubiquitous gigolo seen canoodling with Loras this episode. (He’s not to be confused with diminutive Night’s Watchman “Olly.”) He’s essentially the male Ros, an invented character whose sole purpose is to provide opportunities for sexposition. Interesting, though, Maergery’s response when Loras tells her she’ll be stuck with Cersei in King’s Landing: “Perhaps.” It will be fun to watch these two queens scheme against one another now that Tywin’s not around to maintain some semblance of order.

Indeed, I expect Tywin’s absence will be one of the defining features of this season. His death was not nearly the shock that Ned Stark’s was (for obvious reasons), but it’s far more consequential for Westeros. Ned was always in over his head and, in retrospect, probably predestined to lose it. King Robert, too, was never much one for ruling. Parental insensitivity and Red Weddings aside, Tywin was pretty much the only person who’d shown much aptitude for running the Seven Kingdoms. Now he’s dead and the best plotters in Westeros—Littlefinger, Tyrion, Varys—have all left King’s Landing. How long can the center hold? Early in the episode, Jaime told Cersei, “What [Tywin] built—it’s ours.” Maybe. But only if they can hold onto it.