This is not a show that has historically lent itself to “big” premieres. And for the most part, “The Wars to Come” was short on big twists and long on what passes for routine on Game of Thrones: discourses on power washed down with sexposition (albeit not your average sexposition—more on that later). The episode does, however open with a first for the series, one that gives context to a character who may require less retconned motivation than her counterpart in the books, but benefits from the added context anyway: a flashback!
A flashback, more specifically, that explains what Cersei Lannister’s deal is. Why is a woman with all the cards stacked in her favor—beauty, wealth, intelligence, and a family that loves her (wink wink, nudge nudge)—so relentlessly paranoid? The answer, it turns out, is a horrific prophecy from a witch in the woods. Her predictions don’t entirely explain Cersei, who was already the type to threaten peasants with eye-gouging at the tender age of twelve, but they do put some of her behavior into context. Learning you won’t marry your childhood crush, will outlive your bastard children, and will lose just about the only position of real power any woman can have to someone younger and prettier is enough to make any tween break bad.
A dark note to start a season on, not that things lighten up once we’re back in the present. At the time, the emotional impact of Tywin’s death at the hands of his own son was such that most fans likely weren’t thinking about its political ramifications. But as the premiere makes clear, the Lannister patriarch was all that stood between King’s Landing and utter chaos. Without a similar force of nature to take his place—the only qualified candidate, not that anyone would have him, also happens to be Tywin’s killer—the power vacuum he left behind was inevitably going to be filled by a group, not an individual. And one with considerably more popular appeal than an oligarch who maintained order with equal parts money and fear.
That group is the Sparrows, the populist movement that’s fueled by a zealotry only slightly less terrifying than Melisandre’s. The Lord of Light, however, has genuine power; the Seven, as far as we’ve seen, don’t have the ability to resurrect the dead or predict the future. Which makes the Sparrows a very different sort of movement than Melisandre’s, one that functions as a conduit for the resentment of people who’ve now endured years of war. Its most notable convert, Lancel Lannister, may not have endured starvation the way many in King’s Landing did, but faith offers him something as well: moral clarity. As he reminds Cersei, he’s been an accomplice to the worst of her sins, and therefore has the ability to take away what little power she has left—something she probably should have remembered when she was scoffing at his offer of a way out, via repentance.
And then there’s that younger replacement the witch warned about. Margaery plotting to get her mother-in-law out of the capital is hardly a surprise. Her relationship with Loras, however, continues to fascinate. She’s clearly not entirely comfortable with her brother’s sexuality, but as ever, she’s willing to push aside anything that doesn’t directly affect the political task at hand. The shock and careful composure on Natalie Dormer’s face when she finds Loras with a former member of Oberyn’s fivesome is marvelous. So, frankly, is the use of both gay sex and male nudity instead of the usual breasts in this scene. It’s not quite full-frontal, but speaking for the “into dudes” contingent of the audience: we’ll take it!
And now we’ll move across the Narrow Sea, where Tyrion’s week’s of shitting through the air holes in his crate have finally come to an end. The Pentos scenes have their fair share of plot (surprise! Varys is part of a secret pro-Targaryen cabal!), and yet it’s Tyrion’s mental state that takes center stage. Always cynical, killing his father and his lover has turned the fan favorite straight-up nihilistic. “The future is shit, just like the past,” he snarls to Varys, just before puking his guts out. Less than receptive to Varys’ idealism, and subsequently his enthusiasm for Daenerys, Tyrion is exactly the train wreck someone in his situation ought to be. Which means that while he may be headed for Meereen, this season’s journey will be as much about attaining a functional mental state as logging miles.
Speaking of Meereen: how about that Saddam statue callback, huh? Even without the heavily CGI’d reference, though, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Daenerys Targaryen is in a serious bind. An anonymous terrorist group called the Sons of the Harpy has been slicing her soldiers’ throats; unwilling to open the fighting pits and win the former slavers’ love, she’s also unable to control her dragons and discipline the masters with fear. It’s this that shakes her confidence more than any predictable resistance. Dany’s dragons are her biggest asset—as weapons, as symbols of her power, as part of her identity. Without them, Dany doesn’t know who she is. And without the vision and drive that propelled her to Meereen, she’s left vulnerable.
And finally, we have the Wall, where Stannis’s intervention has finally given the Night’s Watch some breathing room to choose a new Lord Commander. For now, the race is between the long-serving but charmless Denys Mallister and Alliser Thorne, the knight who hates both wildlings and Jon Snow but has a significant following. While Sam is clearly worrying about the outcome of the race, albeit mostly on Gilly’s account, Jon has more pressing concerns. Stannis, ever open to compromise, has issued an ultimatum: either convince Mance Rayder to surrender or watch him burn at the stake.
Jon knows this is a fool’s errand from the beginning, but he respects Mance too much not to try. Their conversation is as good an example as any of one of Game of Thrones’ core tragedies: placing decent, complicated people at irreconcilable odds, thanks to circumstances outside of their control. We’ve seen this with Sansa (who’s taken her unholy alliance with Littlefinger on the road) and Tyrion, as well as with Jaime and pretty much everyone who isn’t his family (wink…you fill in the rest). Here, Jon’s pragmatism runs up against Mance’s refusal to betray his people’s faith in him.
Jon, the son of a principled man, clearly sides with Mance on some level, and once he’s made a good faith effort to save his life, his respect for Mance’s commitment is obvious. So Jon honors that respect in the only way he can: unable to prevent Mance’s death, he gives him a quick one with a bow and arrow. The gesture is a terrible political move, one that antagonizes Melisandre while only adding to the impression he’s a wildling sympathizer. But then again, doing what’s smart instead of what’s right just isn’t in the Stark DNA.