In the grim darkness of Westeros future, there is only war, or so many would have you believe as a conflict riddled future is on many minds and lips in this season premiere; wars between kings and between queens. Wars between the rulers and their ruled between the few and the many, and of course, between the fire and ice. But will such premonitions really be any help? As one Frog croaks it “Everyone wants to know their future until they know their future”..... you see, even in Westeros the appreciate spoilers. The winter was long and full shows without dragons and giants riding mammoths. Spring is finally here; take your living room throne and enjoy.
The Wars To Come – Much is unsettled in King's Landing following Tywin Lanister’s death and many see the chance for change. Stannis asks Jon Snow make Mance Raider and the Wildlings side with him to re-take Winterfell and in Meereen a new insurgent group, The Sons of the Harpy threaten to destabilise Danny’s rule.
The charming opening flashback of a young (and hilariously almost as vile) Cersei seeing a witch fortune teller sets up nicely for the episodes central theme: the future. Be it on a personal or grander scale many are taking stock about what where they are now and where they are heading. The biggest thinking comes from the realms most surprising loyal servant Varys as he tries to set the exiled Tyrion on a new path for the greater good. Their exchanges together are smart and frequently funny from Tyrion’s “ye old boot and rally” to Varys’s sentiments about finding the right ruler to ensure peace and prosperity; “The 7 kingdoms need some stronger than Tomlin but softer than Stannis”. Even if Illyrio himself his absent, it’s great to see his home in Pentos as the setting for the pair. It creates a fascinating full circle transition as things echo right back to the first series and Varys’s secret supporting of a Targaryen return. As he encourages Tyrion to join him in supporting Danny, the hairs on the back of your neck tingle at thought of putting the show’s two most popular characters in the same place. Yet the episode does a great job of immediately making Tyrion feel needed by Danny’s side within the Meereen story. Tyrion may not be a warrior but he is a master schemer, politician, and most importantly not afraid of speaking his mind even to the most powerful. These are the three things Danny desperately needs right now as she struggles in Slavers Bay. With Jorah’s absence the lack of an opposing council voice is more notable in her decision making than ever; even if Jagen will speak his mind in their bed he’s still silent in council sessions. Danny even declares herself as a queen, not a politician. She is refusing to play the political game entirely in the same way Ned Sark did, with admirable intentions but doomed to failure if she will not match her enemies at her own level. She needs someone like Tyrion (and of course Varys) to handle these matters for her in a way that will get everyone back on her side again.
The upcoming war of rich and poor gets a very good tease and introduction to The Sparrows (religious fanatics, servants of the people and apposed or excessive living) via the shocking transformation of Lancel Lannister. For a second, it looks like another unsubtle re-casting until the eyes give away that this composed monk like figure is still Eugene Simon. More than anything, he exudes strength of character, being the polar opposite to his cowering former self to make the Sparrows fell a significant force. If they can inspire this of a coward, imagine what they could so for others. There’s clear foreboding implications that the shows more frowned upon of sexual infidelities will meet with consequence. Margaery’s warning of secrecy to Loras’s short sword practice practically has sirens and flashing lights attached to it. As for the queen’s of past and present, it’s clear both have it in for the other and it’s likely they’ll each try to wield The Sparrow’s claws against the other (neither is squeaky clean under their dresses). This ties in well to Jamie and Cersi’s concerns in the Sept over the Lannister power coming under attack now the Lion’s head has fallen. Their scene makes a great parallel to their similar moment over Joffrey’s body with the extra sombre Rains of Castamere arrangement capturing the mood perfectly.
As with any season opener, character re-establishment is a wall that must be scaled. Therefore, we get the typical cluster bombing of assorted small character moments across the map; some delivering better viewing than others. The Missandei/Grey Worm brothel enquiry feels rather forced and ineffective but Brienne and Podrick’s reflections fair far better. Brienne nicely captures her own principles of honour and loyalty while still relating it to the bigger picture, “All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believed in but the good lords are dead and the rest are all monsters”. While Robyn’s “sword fighting” is hilarious the Sansa/Littlefinger scenes don’t have any spark to them, merely setting up their location change. It would have been nice to see one pervy little letch from Littlefinger just to see how Sansa would react now she’s grown more trusting of him.
Finally the more prominent return to The Wall delivers many of the episode's best moments. It clearly marks Stannis heading South with The Battle of Winterfell as a defined end game but really sparkles in how it positions Jon Snow as the keystone in all the events at the location. Jon’s scenes with Mance Raider are the best and Ciaran Hinds gives the performance of the episode as he shows understanding and even deep respect for both Jon and Stannis in their own beliefs but in just the same way is willing to die for his (“the freedom to make my own mistakes is all I ever wanted”). The final scene is hauntingly powerful as the composure turns to outright fear in the face of his judgement. This is superbly echoed among many of the onlookers, even Tormund looks like he’s about to soak his ginger beard in tears! The lift scene between Melisandre and Jon is also a great tease of her plans to come (when this woman is happy you’re not a virgin.... just run!).
A very impressive return and a distinct improvement on season 4’s more tentative opener. It places good emphasis where many characters have travelled to emotionally rather than just physically. Crucially, it still does enough to be fun and entertaining despite its high information content. Both the pyramid remodelling and the dragon catacomb scenes make for awesome effects shots. Even with a good central theme, the heavy re-introductions stop things flowing together as much as they can do. It’s ironic that courtesy of the online leaks many impatient Thrones fans may have another long wait on their hands for new episodes just as the show returns. Though even by this episode alone, the future is worth enduring the present for.