"Game of Thrones" season five is here! And before I dive into the bloody goodness of its season premiere, here's a word on how my recap sausage is made. While I am reading George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire," I don't read ahead of the events of the "Game of Thrones" series. I prefer to be surprised (or occasionally gutted) by the events of Westeros as the show unfolds. So, these recaps will sometimes speculate on what might come next. However, with TV series creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff promising the show will be taking more and more liberties from the source material, even you book readers should be in for some surprises this season! Or as George R.R. Martin put it:
"People are going to die who don’t die in the books, so even the book readers will be unhappy. So everybody better be on their toes. David and D.B. are even bloodier than I am."
We've been warned. Now onto "The Wars To Come!" (In case you need a refresher.)
Like last season's, this premiere begins with the Lannisters. Season four kicked off with the late Tywin melting down Ned Stark's Ice. Five starts with the series' first flashback and Li'l Cersei bullying back at Casterly Rock. Underwhelmed by the look of the local witch, she commands to have her future foretold, delivering a nice recap for grown-up Cersei's state of mind. She'll be queen, but have no children of her king's. She'll be replaced by a newer model (Hey, Margaery!) And the girl is issued this ominous promise about her future kids: "Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds." So Joffrey may not be the only faux Baratheon to bite it. Oh, Tommen and Myrcella, we hardly knew you!
But these towheaded teens aren't the only Lannisters in trouble. With Tywin dead the power dynamic of Westeros is FUBAR. No one fears Cersei and Jaime without the power of Tywin and his brilliant brain behind them. His body's not yet cold, and even the family's dim bulb Jaime knows that their allies and enemies are plotting against them. Speaking of which… where is Littlefinger taking Sansa?
Having pawned Robin Arryn off on an ally, he and Sansa set off after getting a mysterious message. Littlefinger promises it's a place Cersei won't dare follow. Leading to two questions: 1) Does he mean the North? 2) Why should Sansa (or us) believe anything Littlefinger says?
But there's hope that he'll not be with her much longer. After all, Brienne and Podrick are so insanely close! (If you yelled "Turn around!" at your screen as that carriage passed, you're not alone.) Here's hoping Brienne proves a better savior to Sansa than she was for Arya. Speaking of -- why no Arya this ep?!
But there are also enemies to worry about close to home. Olenna Tyrell may have hightailed it to Highgarden (good move considering her role in Joffrey's special wedding surprise), but her protégé/granddaughter Margaery is poised to continue the Lannister assault. Now, I'm not saying Margaery has a mind for murder. She's been more inclined to use seduction, charm and her family's status to get her way. But between the Mona Lisa smile she shot Cersei at the Sept and the weight of that "perhaps" to Loras's insistence that Cersei's staying in King's Landing, we’d wager Margaery's got mechanizations of her own brewing to banish the blonde bombshell from the capital.
Then there are the Sparrows, a cult with Cersei's former lover Lancel Lannister in their ranks. With Lancel confessing his part in an incestuous relationship with the queen and his part in the death of the king so freely, should Cersei have new reason to worry? It might be time for this godless gal to take to the Sept and learn to pray.
The last local threat to Cersei (as far as she saw him) has fled. Tyrion has washed up on the shores of Pentos, looking worse for wear having lived in a fetid box for the entirety of his journey. While I get the demands for such covert conveyance, I'm surprised Tyrion allowed for it. After all, he's seen what horrendous things Varys can do to a man in a box. Nonetheless, the pair is safe if not sound.
Tyrion is rightly reeling from the finale of season four, wherein he murdered not only his long loathsome father but also his traitorous lover, Shae. He's in a pitch-dark place and pretty content to drink himself to death there, until Varys teases the possibility of Tyrion using his incredible talents for politics and strategy for good. (Oh what a rush to have Varys and Tyrion bantering again! More more more of this, please.)
What if, the Spider suggests, there were a contender for the throne that was stronger than Tommen, more compassionate than Stannis, with a powerful army, beloved by millions, and with the right family name? Sure, this moment was unveiled in the season five trailer. ("Who said anything about him?") Still, this scene teasing that Varys and Tyrion will join forces with Daenerys Targaryen had this critic drooling. Some of the most rewarding moments of the series thus far have been the inexplicable pairings of characters from wildly different contingents. The Hound and Arya. Brienne and Podrick. Tyrion and Bronn. And so on, and so on. My head swims imagining Dany and Tyrion squaring off in debates. Bring. It. On.
For now, Dany is still stuck in the muck of massive societal overhauls, tearing down the harpy idols and the power of slave masters. But how much change is too much? The rising rebel factions Sons of the Harpy are not her only concern as outrage brews over her plan to do away with the "fight pits," and decidedly so, labeling them "human cock fighting." Post-coital her adviser/bedmate Daario Naharis speaks for the value of pit fighting, not just as a key part of the local culture, but also as a place where a boy can forge his destiny, as he did.
With Jorah exiled and everyone else afraid of riling The Mother of Dragons, Daario is the only one dishing real talk to Dany. And he rightly points out she can't be The Mother of Dragons by name alone. The Breaker of Chains must do what she's done for the slaves of Essos for her own imprisoned children, Viserion and Rhaegal. Returning to the pit where she chained them, Dany discovers these beasts are twice the size and fire-breathing furious. This might be the first time in years we've seen Dany truly scared. But the wars to come (so often threatened) means she needs to get over it, and reclaim her reign on her reptilian children. (Someone shout her many titles at her. Boost her confidence a bit.)
Far north of all this lies the last major enemy to the Lannisters, Stannis Baratheon, fresh from his defeat of the Wildling forces at Castle Black. With Davos, Melisandre and all the power of the Lord of Light behind him, he'll be heading south soon. But first he must officially topple the King Beyond The Wall, Mance Rayder. Before Jon Snow even attempts his diplomatic mission, we all know how this is going to go down. "Game of Thrones" is a series with no easy answers. And despite Melisandre's fiery speech at that pyre, the choices of good and bad, light and dark are rarely that black and white.
Stannis understandably wants the Free Folk as his allies. His offer seems fair, giving them a place in his kingdom upon victory. But he sees them as his subjects. He will never allow for an alliance without Mance "bending the knee" and submitting to him. Mance won't. And not because of any of the things those South of the Wall prize so much, like pride or honor.
Mance refuses to undermine the key principle of his people, freedom. He won't enlist his volunteers to fight in a foreigner's war over a crown they couldn't care less about and don't intend to be subject to. And I get that. But here's where he loses me: how is his death a help to his people? It'll just leave the next Free Folk leader (Tormund Giantsbane) in the same spot. Still, I admire Mance's bravery and how he totally lacked guile in his final moments, saying to Stannis, "I wish you good fortune in the wars to come."
And unlike so many others who predict the shaky peace of Westeros is nearly at its end, Rayder and Stannis know that those wars don't only include that over that damned iron throne. Winter is coming. And with it comes the White Walkers.
All in all, it's a compelling beginning, though I'm a bit disappointed we haven't yet seen Arya or the much-buzzed-about Sand Snakes of Dorne. Perhaps next week. Perhaps.
• "Tell me my future or I'll have your two boring eyes gouged out of your head." So charm and tact were never part of Cersei's arsenal.
• Who is the little brunette buddy of Li'l Cersei's? My first thought is a nameless handmaiden/servant. Cersei has never seemed much for friends.
• MARK IT: 1st blood spilled in season five is Cersei Lannister's, self-inflicted for the purpose of prophecy.
• "You're a man of action, aren't you? ...nevermind the consequences." Oh the many, many things this Cersei-slung line could mean when it comes to Jaime!
• Note "The Rains of Castamere" play over the Jaime/Cersei scene at the Sept. The song once meant as a morbid victory dance for the Lannisters has come to be a mocking reckoning.
• MARK IT: 1st death is that of the Unsullied's White Rat, killed by cuddles betrayed and an assassin's blade to the throat.
• Melisandre at Castle Black is all:
• Little Robin won't be much of a warrior. He'll be lucky to make it through the season. But it's a curious comparison that while Ygritte-killer Olly struggles to keep his shield up at Castle Black, Robin's ready with the shield but swings his sword like well, "He swings his sword like a girl with palsy." World of Yup, Lord Royce. After so much menacing Robin, it's a joy to watch him whimper and yelp.
• MARK IT: First appearance by my personal favorite "Game of Thrones" character: Drunk Cersei! At Tywin's memorial, she is all sneers, side-eye and scathing snarking, like "I doubt you ever led anyone anywhere." Don't go changin', Drunk Cersei.
• "I never said you were perfect." I'd totally watch a spinoff chat show where Tyrion's the booze-fueled and snarling host, and Varys is his snippy sidekick. In fact, it would absorb my life like a black hole.
• MARK IT: First major character death this season is Mance Rayder, who died not by the order of Stannis Baratheon or the hand of the Red Woman, but by the mercy-killing arrow of Jon Snow.
• And now for a bit of fun: