Sunday’s premiere of Game of Thrones brought us back from what felt like the longest break from the series to date.
The cast of characters has never felt more isolated from one another, and last season’s major events – the shocking twists that viewers are now all-too-familiar with – had plot-shattering consequences that have entirely altered some characters’ motivations, alliances, geographical locations, and/or daisy-pushing status. HBO had quite a task in reacquainting their audience with the story so far, and in that respect the first episode of season five was very much about catching up. The mood of the episode very much reflected a “Last time on Game of Thrones“-style preamble: The camera seems to float around Westeros, checking in on most of its major players for mere minutes at a time before shooting off to the next point of interest. It’s a necessary exposition dump in preparation for the story moving forward. But even with having to devote the first hour of the year to catch up and preparation, there are some plot points that are worth looking further into.
Cersei Lannister Goes Back In Time
There was a lot of internet deliberation over the news that GoT was going to feature at least one flashback this season. As soon as casting for a ‘young Cersei’ became public knowledge, forums started lighting up. Flashbacks can be something of a crutch, it’s true, but television is a visual medium and most of the time it’s better to show than tell. The season opens with Cersei and a friend, as children, visiting a fortune-telling hag. When Cersei asks the witch (known to book-readers as the much less visually appealing Maggy the Frog) about her future children, she’s faced with a prophecy both ominous and ambiguous: “Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.”
Some of Maggy’s fortune has already come true:
- Cersei did have only three children, to Robert’s twenty.
- Two of her children have already worn a literal golden crown (Joffrey, and now Tommen), and, depending how you interpret the prophecy, the three of them also have blonde (golden) hair.
- One of her children, Joffrey, has already been buried in a golden shroud
This moment in Cersei’s past marks the first instance that Cersei’s character has considered, or been subject to, a supernatural element in her story. While many citizens of the realm have witnessed unnatural things like Melisandre’s shadow monster or Beric Dondarrion’s multiple brushes with death, Cersei is one of the most grounded and atheistic figures in Game of Thrones, and not someone who seems likely to take stock in the words of a crazy cabin-in-the-woods hobo lady. Yet the flashback implies that Cersei has fixated on this childhood moment her whole life, and with the words becoming more accurate with every season that passes, she may have good reason to: If Maggy’s fortune is to be taken as fate, then both Tommen and Myrcella are destined for early graves.
One of the concepts about A Song of Ice and Fire that was described to me and always stuck in my mind is the notion that as the series goes on, the supernatural becomes more and more prevalent and eventually overtakes the focus on medieval politics. Everything that has happened in the show so far holds up to that idea, and if Cersei Lannister is willing to accept that there is something more fantastical to the world than the wielding of monarchical power, then it’s hard for anyone else to argue otherwise.
Varys Just Quietly Dropped a Bomb
In an entertaining, if not exposition-heavy dialogue with the kingslayer himself, Tyrion Lannister, Varys uncharacteristically came right out and plainly said he’s working to put Daenerys Targaryen on the Iron Throne. What might not have been clear is exactly how directly he’s been involved in that process, and how openly Varys just admitted to it.
Upon their touching down across the Narrow Sea, Varys explains that he and Tyrion have landed in Pentos, at the home of one of Varys’s allies, Illyrio Mopatis. If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, think back to the first season. More specifically, the first couple episodes.
Illyrio is the spice merchant who hosted Daenerys and Viserys in Essos and arranged to marry Daenerys to Khal Drogo. Later in the first season, Arya eavesdrops on two hooded figures discussing the political situation at hand in King’s Landing and how Ned Stark had just learned of Joffrey’s bastardy. Many people probably recognized the figure and voice of Varys under one of those hoods. The other was, of course, Illyrio. In telling Tyrion of his partnership with Illyrio, Varys just confirmed to viewers that Daenerys’s whole story arc – marrying Khal Drogo, hatching the dragons, becoming a roving queen of Essos – was all orchestrated by Varys’s oversight. Back when Varys and Littlefinger exchanged volleys of vague threats in one of the best-written exchanges of the series so far, Littlefinger was already telling us about Varys’s role in the matter, but we didn’t have all the pieces to figure it out just yet.
With Varys now on the Eastern continent and en route to meet Daenerys in person, he’s apparently comfortable enough to abandon the mystery. Whatever Varys intends to do when he arrives in Meereen, he obviously thinks it will push Daenerys to claim her throne, and probably do it soon. Varys is not one to play his hand before the very last second.
Mance Rayder Doesn’t Quite Get The Fire He Intended
Stannis Baratheon’s arrival at The Wall has dramatically changed circumstances at the Northern border of Westeros. The Wildlings who’ve taken up residence there are causing tensions to rise among the brothers of the Night’s Watch, and a contender for the Iron Throne is trying to pull the neutral Watchers on the Wall into the game of thrones.
It’s been a long time since HBO showed us the situation at the smoking pit that became of Winterfell, but Stannis reminded us this week that the traitorous Roose Bolton has taken up residence in the Northern capital. Stannis announced his intention to take back Winterfell from the Boltons with the assistance of The Wildlings, but when Mance Rayder refused to kneel and swear fealty to Stannis on behalf of the Wildlings he was put to the torch (but put out of his misery with the help of an arrow, courtesy Jon Snow). Stannis’s desire to claim Winterfell might sound like it’s coming out of nowhere, but as usual with Stannis the Mannis, as he’s affectionately titled on the internet, he’s owed more credit than the show often would lead you to believe.
The first reason Stannis wants to take Winterfell is likely just a military gain: Stannis was thrashed at King’s Landing and he learned pretty quickly that the realm isn’t exactly swooning for his energetic charm and charisma. Not many people are rushing to join his ranks. But one part of the continent has not been claimed by the Lannister name: The neutral North. With the Stark name effectively eradicated, the North has removed itself from the war for the Iron Throne. If Stannis can take back Winterfell from the butcher that slew the Starks, he’ll likely win the favor of the Northern families.
Second, Stannis likely doesn’t care for the generally agreed-upon independence of the Northern realm. Long ago the monarchs in King’s Landing realized that the North was too wild and too vast to be ruled from the capital city. The North was ceded, in a way, to the Stark family to rule over, despite the fact that they technically were still under the thumb of the kings who sat on the Iron Throne. If there’s one thing Stannis Baratheon is passionate about, it’s justice and the rules. It’s safe to assume that Stannis would not be satisfied with ruling three quarters of Westeros. Stannis would probably see the unofficial independence of the North as an affront, both to his dues and his responsibilities – Remember Stannis does not want to be king because of a lust for power. He believes he’s the rightful heir and therefore it’s his duty to serve as king. Stannis would see the oversight of the North as his burden to bear. He would not allow himself to shirk the job onto another.
Lastly, as mentioned, Stannis is a man possessed by the pursuit of justice, and there are few more sacred laws in Westeros than the law of guest right. When a guest is invited to one’s home and a feast is served, it is absolutely forbidden for any harm to come to either party. Stannis would have taken offense just to the news that the Starks were killed without the honor of a fair fight. To break the law of guest right and slaughter them indiscriminately would be unforgivable to the honor-obsessed King Stannis.
But whatever his motivations are, Stannis is taking up the sword to avenge the Stark family, which is something all of us should be able to get behind. Seeing Winterfell no longer burning in the opening titles is a beautiful thing. Imagine if the Boltons’ Flayed Man sigil was removed as well.