The failing state of Westeros continues to reel in the vacuum left after Robert Baratheon’s long-ago coup d’etat. The latest king (or, more accurately, Protector of the Realm) has been killed at the hands of his own son. The adolescent King Tommen and Queen Regent Cersei are left to fill the void, but for how long? Season 5, Episode 1 offers a clue in its title, based on the final words from a condemned Mance Rayder: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.”
Game of Thrones has always been a tale about power and the long struggle for succession after the ousting of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen (father of Daenerys). This season is set up similarly, only now the future is much more vague. If the first few seasons featured the dismantling of the Stark family, Seasons 4 and 5 seem to focus on the undoing of the Lannisters.
Without these two major families, few remain with a legitimate claim to power and the vassals to back it up. Who is strong enough to unite the kingdoms, to return peace and prosperity to the land of Westeros? Only Varys seems certain of the answer.
The opening of Season 5 heads back in time to foretell catastrophe for Cersei Lannister. We are treated to the show’s first flashback, and it’s a loaded one. The arrogant and impulsive golden-haired girl may not have been immediately recognizable, but when her identity becomes clear, the scene gives us much insight: not only into who Cersei is, but also on who she will become.
The young Cersei visits a seer named Maggy the Frog, dragging along a friend whose fright underscores Cersei’s confidence. She demands to know her future, but is too young to fully understand the fortune she is given. Blinded by phrases like, “You’ll wed the king,” and confused by, “The king will have twenty children, and you’ll have three,” the young Cersei only partially understands the tragedy this woman predicts.
Adult Cersei, however, is different. As each of Maggy’s prophecies gradually come true, Cersei has to reckon with a fate she is increasingly more desperate to control. With one simple flashback, Cersei’s motives are clearer and her paranoia more understandable.
“You’ll never wed the prince. You’ll wed the king,” Maggy tells young Cersei. At that time, she was hearing of her father’s plans to wed her to Rhaegar, Daenerys’s brother who was slain by Robert Baratheon in his successful rebellion against Targaryen rule. Cersei ends up wed to King Robert, instead.
“You’ll be queen, for a time. Then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.” This part of the prophecy explains some of Cersei’s ceaseless animosity towards Margaery Tyrell and, earlier, Sansa Stark. When it was Sansa who was engaged to Joffrey, a girl not yet grown or capable of scheming, Cersei felt overconfident in her ability to control this particular part of Maggy’s divination. However, Margaery presents a much more credible threat to her reign and control as Queen Regent. Throughout this episode, as Cersei watches Margaery with paranoid malice, you can almost hear Maggy’s prophecy replaying in her head.
Finally, from the bleakest prophecy of all, we gain further insight into Mama-Bear Cersei. “The king will have twenty children, and you’ll have three. Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.” Ned Stark and Jon Arryn famously realized that Cersei’s three children were born from her incestuous affair with Jaime by investigating the lineage of the “black of hair” Baratheons and comparing them to the “golden headed” Joffrey. “Gold will be their crowns” indicates that all of them will be pure-bred, blond Lannisters, not that they will reign.
“Gold their shrouds” is far more clear to young Cersei, and would have guided her ceaselessly throughout the lives of her children. After Joffrey is murdered, and yet another prophecy is fulfilled, Cersei is more paranoid than ever. In one of last season’s best scenes, Cersei confesses her fears to Oberyn Martell, “I’m a Lannister, queen for nineteen years, daughter of the most powerful man alive, but I could not save my son. What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?”
When Oberyn tries to assure her that Myrcella is happy in Dorne, Cersei remains unconvinced. In the context of this episode’s flashback, that scene now reads as Cersei grappling with an inability to control her own destiny. “I want to believe that. I want to believe she’s happy,” she says. “You have my word. We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne,” Oberyn responds. “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
In last season’s finale, she fears for Tommen, saying to Tywin, “Joffrey is dead. Myrcella’s been sold like livestock. And now you want to ship me off to Highgarden and steal my boy, my last boy. Margaery will dig her claws in and you will dig your claws in and you will fight over him like beasts until you rip him apart. I will burn our house to the ground before I let that happen!”
“Everyone wants to know their future, until they know their future.”
Cersei’s brother, Jaime, is right to be concerned about the risk of opportunists looking to exploit their family’s weakness, because the Lannisters are in shambles. Tywin’s body is hardly cold before radicals seize the opportunity to move into the capital. “They call themselves Sparrows, bloody fanatics,” their uncle, Kevan Lannister, explains. “They never would have come to the capital if Tywin were alive.”
Kevan’s son, Lancel, reappears for the first time in a while. Last seen in Season 2, screaming on the floor after Cersei punched his arrow wound during the Battle of the Blackwater, Lancel has almost completely transformed. He is now a religious fundamentalist and is eager to be absolved of his sins, many of which involve Cersei. If revealed, the sins of their shared past would put her in a precarious position—particularly the one where, as a page to the king and incestuous lover of the queen, he kept Robert in cups during the boar hunt that eventually cost the king his life.
When Lancel finds Cersei drinking alone, he offers her these confessions. While under the guise of offering her salvation, the meeting is far more malevolent in tone. “I’ve found peace in the light of the Seven, you can too. They watch over all of us, ready to dole out mercy… or, justice.” Cersei reads this as a threat, but brushes him off as she always has.
Cersei would probably do well to heed his warning that he is a “different person now.” Clearly, Lancel is no longer the passive pawn, used by Cersei and Tyrion in turn. Off-screen, he has been indoctrinated and radicalized by faith. Other powers may be using him now, and if history (or, Melisandre) is any indication, he may try to take action on his extremist views. He tells Cersei that the world of the Seven “is at hand,” a chilling prophecy from anyone who may be intent on waging a holy war (another one of “the wars to come”?). Melisandre’s work as the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light proves that, in these uncertain times, some Westerosi are susceptible to fundamentalism, even (or especially) if it’s of a violent nature; just look at Selyse Baratheon’s face when she watches Mance, a nonbeliever, burn.
Though she may not anticipate any threat from her cousin Lancel, Cersei is right to be mindful of Margaery, who has proven herself to be a master manipulator. When the young Tyrell woman bursts in on her brother and another man in bed, she implores Loras to be more discrete. Loras cannot understand why he should be, since everyone knows everyone’s secrets in King’s Landing. Regardless, he says, his engagement to Cersei has likely ended with Tywin’s death. “If she doesn’t marry me, then she doesn’t go to Highgarden, which means she stays in King’s Landing, which means you’re trapped here with Cersei Lannister as your mother-by-law,” he tells her.
“Perhaps…” his sister replies enigmatically. It’s enough of a hint to suggest that Margaery has a plan to ensure that she won’t have to suffer that eventuality.
“Then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.”
Across the Narrow Sea, another young queen struggles to control both her dragons and her dominion. In her latest display of power, Daenerys has the giant statue of the Harpy idol toppled from the pyramid she has seized. Plenty of recent historical examples in Iraq and Ukraine provide apt parallels for this symbolic demonstration. Imagery is one thing, reality is quite another; it’s easy to tear down symbols of a former rule, but it’s much harder to replace it.
Daenerys contends with a home-grown threat called the Sons of the Harpy. A masked assassin kills one of her Unsullied troops and leaves the mask as a mark of their resistance. Meereen, like many of the cities in Slaver’s Bay, is proving easier to defeat than to rule. Hizdahr zo Loraq, son of a former slavemaster and current ambassador for Daenerys, proposes that she reopen the fighting pits for the good of the culture and people of Meereen. Tensions are high among the people, who are not sure if they’ve been liberated or occupied. She refuses, and Hizdahr suggests that she could use a little more compromise in her repertoire.
That, and dragons, her lover and advisor, Daario Naharis, recommends. However, a visit to the chained and unruly Viserion and Rhaegal, and the thought of Drogon roasting innocent livestock and children across the countryside, exemplifies to her that the spark she ignited has grown into an immolation she can hardly control. “I’m not a politician, I’m a queen,” she insists, unable or unwilling to see how the two need not be mutually exclusive. It’s an unpromising view for Varys’s chosen candidate to take, and she has a lot to learn before she can hope to take over the Seven Kingdoms.
To the west, but on the same continent, Varys and Tyrion have landed in the Free City of Pentos. Incidentally, Shae begged Tyrion to flee with her to Pentos back in Season 2, and it is where Tyrion tried to get Bronn to send her in Season 4, when he was trying to protect Shae from the threats of his father. Depressed and self-pitying after committing a double-murder of his unfaithful lover and father, Tyrion now finds himself in Pentos with Varys, who also boarded the boat used to smuggle the Imp out of King’s Landing.
They are staying in the home of Illyrio Mopatis, the same man who secretly housed the Targaryens, Viserys and Daenerys, while arranging the latter’s marriage to Khal Drogo. Since the days of Robert Baratheon, Viserys and Illyrio have been plotting a Targaryen restoration, believing Daenerys to be the only ruler worthy and capable to unite Westeros under her command. “The Seven Kingdoms need someone stronger than Tommen, but gentler than Stannis.” Daenerys, he believes, is the woman for the job.
Varys and Tyrion have had a long history of amazing dialogues in this show. Up until this point, their repartee has always stopped short of full honesty. “What do you want? Tell me,” Tyrion urged the Spider back in Season 2. “If we’re going to play, you’ll have to start,” Varys responded.
Several years later, a far less earnest Tyrion wonders once more, “What is it you want, exactly?” Only this time, he gets an honest answer. “Peace, prosperity. A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless,” Varys replies.
For the first time speaking in explicit terms, he tries to make his mission Tyrion’s own. After all, Varys admits that he has long believed Tyrion to be one of the few worthy and capable of counseling the young Daenerys during her eventual rule. “I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come… You have your father’s instincts for politics, and you have compassion.”
The former Master of Whisperers has been planting seeds with Tyrion all along, going back as early as that scene in Season 2, where he told Tyrion of Daenerys’s three dragons and the power she will wield when they are fully grown. Tyrion, then preparing for the Battle of the Blackwater, told Varys, “The girl at the edge of the world is the least of our problems.”
Varys capitulated at that time, admitting, “It will be years before they are fully grown… and then there will be nowhere to hide.” Tyrion replied, “One game at a time, my friend.” Hopefully, Season 5 fulfills the exciting promise of a game in which both Varys and Tyrion are scheming for similar ends.
Meanwhile, Varys’s counterpart and fellow former Small Council member, Littlefinger, is taking Sansa to an unknown destination: to a land so far away, even Cersei Lannister cannot get her hands on her. On the way out of the Vale, they drop off a helpless Robin Arryn to live and train under Lord Yohn Royce.
Sansa has transformed herself under Littlefinger’s tutelage, surprising even her teacher when, at the end of last season, she successfully manipulated the local lords in their investigation of Petyr Baelish for her aunt Lysa’s murder. At first, Littlefinger, panicked that he did not have an opportunity to tamper with her testimony, but was shocked to see her manipulate the judges into declaring his innocence. He was in awe to see her go from sympathetic tears to stony resolve in an instant, and he is not a man who is often surprised.
In the carriage on the western road, Littlefinger reemphasizes to Sansa that she should not trust anyone—a lesson she has already learned by heart (Littlefinger: “Do you trust all those knights and ladies, stable boys and serving girls?” Sansa: “No. Do you trust the carriage driver or the knights escorting us?”). The professional con artist is perhaps least worthy of her trust, but for now it suits her to follow along under his protection, and learn a thing or two along the way. After all, Sansa, like their driver, has “seen what happens to men that disappoint” Littlefinger.
Unfortunately, as her carriage rolls by, Brienne and Pod are mere yards away, still brooding over the loss of Arya Stark. After Brienne fought the Hound for Arya, the young girl slipped away. Having been denied the right to fulfill her vow to both Catelyn Stark and Jaime Lannister, Brienne sinks into a despair not even her kind-hearted squire, Pod, can assuage. He tries to carry on serving her, but she continues to assert that she’s no knight, no leader worth followers.
“All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believed in. The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters.” Westeros has known so few “good lords” that it’s hard to know whom she would consider to be a lord worth believing in. Additionally, given the recent deaths Tywin and Joffrey, it would appear that even monsters are dying in alarming numbers. Brienne is clearly feeling unmoored, foiled in her mission by the same person she was meant to protect. She has not quite figured out that her relentless pursuit of this noble, but difficult, mission to recover the Stark girls long after so many have given up on them is exactly the making of a “good lord” and a leader worth following.
Another reluctant leader, Jon Snow, is forced to work with Stannis Baratheon at the Wall after the would-be king helped the failing Night’s Watch defend against the wildling invasion. Stannis used a loan from Braavosi bankers (promising a return on their investment in Westeros and a collection of Lannister debts) to hire an army, unable to command the loyalty of enough vassals on his own. He plans to sweep through the continent from the north, hoping to gradually gain the support of the people when they see his success in defending the realm. His first goal is to recapture the north from the likes of Roose Bolton, who was made Warden of the North after murdering Robb Stark (and whose sigil is now displayed over the Winterfell graphic in the opening credits—BOOOO!).
To accomplish this, Stannis hopes to get Mance Rayder and his people to bend the knee and join his forces, but he cannot win their loyalty through his own force of will. Instead, he uses Jon Snow’s torn allegiance to his advantage, ordering that Jon try to convince the wildling commander to swear fealty or be burned at the stake as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. (The last time Melisandre burned king’s blood, she stated the names of the “three false kings” Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon, two of whom died shortly thereafter…)
Naturally, Mance refuses to sign his people up for the interventionist campaign, even with the promise of land and citizenship just below the Wall. After all, the wildlings’ pejorative term for the Westerosi is “Kneeler”; it was a long shot for Stannis ever to expect him to show his submission before another king.
After wishing Stannis “good fortune in the wars to come,” Mance is chained to a pyre. The Red Priestess uses the moment to preach about the choice between right and wrong, a true and false god, and a true and false king.
When she sets the pyre alight, Mance tries to stay brave before his people, not wanting their final memory of him to be burning and screaming. Just as he starts to react to the flames, Jon Snow shoots a merciful arrow through his heart. Stannis is not likely to be pleased, but Jon has already proven that he’s willing to accept the consequences for acting justly and compassionately.
As Varys tells Tyrion, “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power. But to earn it for yourself, that takes work.” Jon, like Tyrion, was marked at birth. A bastard born of a noble, he’s had more opportunity than most, but he would never be lord or king. He’s signed up at the Wall, throwing his lot in with murderers, criminals, and outcasts. All along, he has proven his willingness to work and earn his power. Because of this, he’s risen swiftly among the men who look to him for his leadership. Soon they will have to decide on the next Lord Commander of the Wall. The presumed candidate, Ser Alliser Thorne, will have to contend with the bastard boy, whom the late Commander Mormont groomed for command.
People who were born into power (Ned, Tywin, Joffrey, Robb, Cersei, etc.) are finding it difficult to retain it in the chaos. Those who have had to earn their own power (Jon, Littlefinger, Varys, Tyrion, Daenerys, Sansa, etc.) have learned from the struggle to play a game where the odds are stacked against them. In this game of thrones, it’s those skills that may prove to be the most valuable in the wars to come.
Other thoughts on “The Wars to Come”:
- The boy Jon Snow was training to sword fight was none other than Olly, the kid who killed Ygritte during last season’s battle. Jon was hitting him a bit hard, no?
- Melisandre, lit by the warmth of the Lord of Light, seems particularly interested in Jon. She asks him if he’s a virgin and is apparently pleased to hear he’s not. Though it’s not clear why she’s after him (besides he’s pouty good looks, of course), her history with seducing men has led to some of the seasons’ freakiest scenes (shadow babies, leeches…). Watch out, Jon Snow.
- Daenerys has never been filmed with another main cast member. She’s been isolated for so long that the mere potential for a meeting with Tyrion is exciting to imagine.
- Thank god for Arya next week!