Spoilers for last night's Game of Thrones follow:
“The good lords are dead, and the rest are monsters.”
If the opening episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones is any indication, we’re likely to spend the next nine weeks finding out whether Brienne of Tarth is right. It’s certainly not difficult to appreciate her point of view. She’s seen Renly Baratheon killed by a rather literal demon spawn right in front of her eyes and heard tell of the atrocities visited upon her next liege, Catelyn Stark, and Catelyn’s son Robb at the Red Wedding. Brienne is also no doubt aware of the execution of the honorable Ned Stark, and may have even received word that the righteous Oberyn Martell had his head crushed, Gallagher-style, by Gregor Clegane. So yeah, you could probably forgive her if her opinion of the world is as bleak as the new True Detective teaser at the moment.
Unfortunately, the outlook elsewhere throughout Westeros and across the Narrow Sea isn't much sunnier. Only a few days have passed since the conclusion of Season 4, but anyone expecting Tywin Lannister’s demise to bring newfound hope and optimism to the Game of Thrones universe will be as disappointed as those forced to watch Robin Arryn engage in swordplay.
Cersei is still in King’s Landing, having added a dead father to her ever-growing tally of deceased family members, which already included a son she loved and a husband she loathed. Though now freed (presumably) from her obligation to mary Loras Tyrell, Cersei remains committed to coping with her father’s death in the only way she knows how: trying to drink her way through the capital’s plentiful stock of Dornish wine, berating her brother Jaime and doing her level best to ignore everyone else while keeping a disapproving eye on the budding romance between her last remaining son, King Tommen, and unlucky-in-love Margaery Tyrell. Even the return of a chiseled and short-haired Lancel Lannister, who rededicated his life to a religious fundamentalist order known as the “Sparrows” in the wake of the Battle of Blackwater, does little to sway Cersei from her path toward total and utter spite-filled misery.
It’s a path that her younger brother and avowed arch-enemy Tyrion knows all too well. Whereas the journey of Arya Stark (absent from the premiere) to Essos at the end of Season 4 appeared to suggest a new beginning, Tyrion seems determined to make his own crossing the start of a bitter, wine-drenched end. (His is another bleak outlook difficult to find fault with, given that he traveled days in a tiny crate, pushing his own feces through the crate’s little holes after killing his father and the woman he loved in cold blood.) “The future is shit,” Tyrion declares, “just like the past.”
Tyrion’s travel companion, Varys, isn’t particularly inclined to agree with that assessment. In fact, if anyone (other than Littlefinger—currently in transit with Sansa Stark to somewhere that certainly isn’t The Fingers) has reason to celebrate the way things have turned out since the death of John Arryn, it’s the Master of Whispers. It’s possible to forget this far down the road, but Varys was more or less serving as a spy in Robert Baratheon’s small council, feeding information back to supporters of House Targaryen. Since then, much of the potpourri of power-players throughout Westeros have met their demise: Robert, Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Renly Baratheon, King Joffrey, Tywin Lannister—all dead. Stannis Baratheon is still trying to consolidate the power in the North and Tommen isn’t nearly the force he would have been with Tywin pulling his strings. Varys may have once decried chaos as a pit, but pits can be rather welcome when it’s your enemies who are falling into them.
Varys has never made any secret of his affection for Tyrion, but his decision to smuggle Tyrion away from King’s Landing was as much strategic as altruistic. During his brief reign as the King’s Hand, Tyrion proved himself a far more skilled political operator than his predecessor or his siblings. And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt Daenerys’ chances of claiming the Iron Throne if she had the support of a Lannister upon her return to Westeros.
At the moment, however, that doomed throne is the least of Daenerys’ concerns. There was something odd about watching a member of the Unsullied wind his way through the alleys of a brothel, seemingly enchanted by the women offering their services. Up to this point, we’ve seen Grey Worm’s troops care about nothing other than serving and killing, not necessarily in that order. And even though it turned out there was nothing particularly untoward about White Rat's intentions—refusing the unrealistic offer of sex in favor of a comforting song—Game of Thrones followed its usual pattern of quickly replacing fulfillment with death, and White Rat got his throat slit all the same.
That it is far easier to conquer than rule is a lesson Daenyerys has been forced to learn since last season, and the murder of an Unsullied only reinforces it. Daeny’s words still sound good ("Angry snakes lash out. Makes chopping off their heads that much easier"), but her ability to back them up appears severely diminished. The power granted by her army of Unsullied is tossed off with the explanation that anyone with gold can buy them (though I was under the impression that Dany had basically cleaned out Astapor when she swept through the town back in Season 3). As Daario Naharis says in a moment of post-coital frankness, the Dragon Queen cannot be Queen without dragons. Rhetorical redundancy aside, Daario has a point: an inexperienced ruler in a foreign land—no matter how gifted—ain’t as intimidating without dragons at her side. Daenerys knows that, which is why she enters the dungeon where she had Rhaegal and Viserion chained up, but her excursion seemed as short-sighted as her refusal to even consider acquiescing to Yunkai’s sole request that it be allowed to keep its Fighting Pits. The dragons breathe their fire and Daeny scurries out of the cavernous room, looking much more like fearful girl of the show’s first season rather than the confident woman of its later years.
If you believe in the totally made-up law of conservation of confidence, you’ll find pretty much all of it concentrated at Castle Black. Stannis has renewed purpose after his relatively bloodless defeat of the Wildlings north of The Wall, Melisandre is showing off her impressive ability to maintain homeostasis in Boston-like conditions and Jon Snow is doing what he does best: parrying with inferior competition and delivering impassioned speeches to important people who have absolutely no interest in what he has to say. In this particular instance, the important person on the receiving end of Snow’s impassioned pleas is Mance Rayder. Rayder, captured by Stannis at the conclusion of Season 4, is being asked to bend the knee to the Baratheon would-be-king and to help Stannis lead the Wildlings into battle at Winterfell. The King Beyond the Wall doesn’t have to bend the knee, but the alternative is being burned alive, so Snow is predictably keen to convince Mance to throw his support behind Stannis rather than meet a crispy demise.
Their exchange is one of the episode’s best, with Snow proving him every bit Mance’s equal—something that was certainly not the case during their first meeting in Season 3. The respect Snow has for Mance is mutual, and the crow’s argument in favor of Mance joining forces with Stannis is sound (not dying, getting further away from the Whitewalkers, saving countless innocent women and children, maintaining the tenuous alliance between Wildling tribes). It doesn’t matter. Mance says it’s not pride that drives him, but it’s a difficult claim to fully believe. Perhaps Snow’s assessment that Mance is “afraid to be afraid” is more accurate, but the end result remains the same: Mance would rather die than take any action that could be seen as a betrayal of his Wildling brethren.
And so, for the first time since the first episode of Season 2, we watch Melisandre set a man ablaze while Stannis looks on approvingly. Jon Snow, having seen and heard quite enough by the time the flames reach Mance’s boots, ducks out of the crowd and fires an arrow into Mance’s heart, sparing him a slow and excruciating death. It’s a small triumph, but it does little change the reality of what Stannis has effected: another good lord killed by a monster. Brienne may have been right after all.
And now for the hail of arrows:
- As mentioned above, no Arya in this episode, but it’s a safe bet that she’ll surface before long. Ditto Theon and the murderous father-son duo of Roose Bolton and Ramsey.
- We’d been told there would be flashbacks in this season for the first time, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that’s what you were seeing in the episode’s opening scene (even though the girl’s tone, sense of entitlement and threats of violence were pure Cersei).
- Tough run of luck for Jaime Lannister, huh? He loses a hand, his sister breaks up with him when he finally makes it home, he’s compelled to send his best friend on a Quixotic journey to ensure the safety of the daughters of his dead rival, and he frees his brother from prison, only to see him turn around and murder his father.
- No word yet on the Clegane clan. Last we saw them, the Mountain was in better shape than his little brother, if only slightly.