13th Apr2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×01: The Wars To Come’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“The future is shit, just like the past.”

Tyrion Lannister punctuates his brief thesis on the value of life by bending over to vomit.  In an episode that begins with a young Cersei slogging through what looks like a mixture of mud and offal and ends with a man being burned alive after leading his people out of the frozen north, it’s a point that bears thinking on.  The future isn’t better just because it’s new, and the past isn’t rosy just because it’s over.  (Though no matter which set of sins he’s mired in remembering, Peter Dinklage can still crack a great one-liner).

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Dwelling on the inherent crappiness of life isn’t exactly a guaranteed home run in terms of dramatic pacing, but “The Wars to Come” handles it without devolving into maudlin tears or too much domino-setting.  That isn’t to say the episode crackles, either; there’s plenty of reflection and self-loathing along with the usual premiere rigmarole of getting everything rolling for another season of bloodshed and treachery.  Everybody’s either trapped by past trauma and regret, immobilized by uncertainty in the face of a chaotic future, or else caught between the two and left to dither about what comes next.  At the center of it all is Cersei, the focus of the series’ first honest-to-goodness flashback in which her loveless, grief-stricken future is laid out for her by a cackling witch.

Cersei embodies so much of the show’s focus on scheming, not because she’s particularly amazing at it but because it’s literally all she can do or conceive of.  Now, though, after a life of playing the game to survive, she has her hands on the reins.  Tywin is dead, her son Tommen is still in his minority, and if she can keep the kid on task and out of Margaery’s clutches then she’s pretty much calling the shots.  So what does she do?  She ignores every real problem on her doorstep in favor of making Tyrion a sublimated collection of all the fear, anxiety, doubt, and self-loathing she’s ever experienced.  Why worry about real enemies when there’s a dwarf out there who had the temerity to enter the world through the hole where your mother used to be?  In Cersei’s mind Tyrion killed Joffrey, Tyrion killed Tywin, and Tyrion will kill them all if he gets half a chance.  The youngest Lannister sibling’s own bitter reflection on the matter is that the murder that plagues him most, Shae’s, is one Westeros wouldn’t really give a fig about.  “It probably happens all the time,” he mutters.

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Cersei isn’t the only person unable to find solace in her memories.  The Unsullied warrior White Rat pays a prostitute to hold him and hum a lullaby while stroking his shaven scalp, recalling a mother he may never have known, but illusion offers scant protection from the blades of the Sons of the Harpy. Eager to reinstitute slavery and outst Dany’s rule over Mereen, the Sons are turning to murder and leaving supervillain calling cards.  White Rat’s death is a tragic reminder that the past can be both comfort and scourge, a refuge from the suffering of the present and a wellspring of violence and loathsome ideologies.

There’s a reason Jaime’s and Cersei’s attempts to console one another with their fathers’s accomplishments meet with mutual failure.  Tywin, brought to life with such memorable power by veteran actor Charles Dance, may have dedicated his life to building a legacy for his children, he may even have loved his son Jaime more than anyone else in the world, but his tactics of abuse and manipulation ensure that now and forever he towers cruelly over the lives of his adult children.  There is no comfort in his memory, only a source of psychological pain impelling the Lannisters onward toward disaster.

The latent chaos in Mereen gets a symbolic linchpin in the form of Dany’s dragons, chained beneath the city like living manifestations of her repressed urges to take Mereen’s distasteful history of slavery and bloodsport and snap it over her knee.  The absence of her third dragon, the black beast Drogon, suggests the uncertainty with which she dances between her identities as conqueror and nurturer, khaleesi and mhysa. Showrunners and episode writers Weiss and Benioff even offer an unlikely shout-out to the Iraq War of all things, positioning the Harpy of Mereen as a stand-in for the infamous videos of statues of Saddam Hussein being pulled down and demolished.  It’s hard to imagine that such evocative imagery is accidental when the episode does so much work to establish the city’s mixed reactions toward Dany’s “liberation” of Slaver’s Bay.

The Wall is little better.  Stannis wants an army of Wildlings, Mance wants his people kept out of pointless Westerosi wars, and Jon Snow would presumably love it if people would stop introducing him as Ned Stark’s bastard.  The episode’s title stirs and roils through every scene, from Brienne literally sharpening her sword (which my fellow nerds will know is Valyrian steel and can’t actually lose its edge) to Sansa watching with consternation as two young boys batter at one another with practice swords in a scene evocative of the end of Season 1′s “Lord Snow.”  In short, nobody in Westeros is really getting the non-stop thrill ride their upbringing prepared them for.

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The ending doubles down on the push and pull between the weight of the past and the promise of the future in an unendurably extended sequence.  Ciaran Hinds’ portrayal of Mance Rayder, king of the fractious Wildlings, has a nonchalant melancholy to it that stands him in good stead as he calmly, repeatedly tells first Jon Snow and then Stannis to go shove it.  He knows he’s going to his death for his refusal to kneel to Stannis.  He even admits he’s afraid of it, and he quakes visibly when he learns he’ll be burned at the stake.  When it comes, the camera keeps his face dead-center until Jon takes mercy on him.  It’s a hard scene to watch, and Hinds brings real panic and agony to Mance’s final moments.

Even there, the weight of death and loss on a show like Game of Thrones imbues the moment with added pathos.  Jon gives Mance freedom from the flames by recreating the tableaux of his own lover’s death, ending the life of Ygritte’s free, fierce king with an arrow to the heart.  Mance dies where he once lived in frustrated misery as a man of the Night’s Watch, unable in the end to prevent history’s cord from drawing closed and delivering him back into the arms of his own shit past.

Bummer.

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