It’s a slow burn, with lots of loose threads being un-hastily tied while new ones become tangled up. If for nothing else, whilst the ending certainly does not explode, it sticks in the mind after the credits roll.
Warning: Spoilers to follow
Back to Westeros for another round of ‘Guess the next to die?’ You will have to wait a while longer: ‘The Wars to Come’ is not the episode for that. Only a nameless Unsullied, no more than a Red Shirt, and the former King Beyond The Wall, Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) part ways with Westeros (and Essos). Instead we are treated to flashbacks, plot-setting scenes, and a lot of wheel spinning.
That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining, but it certainly feels like an odd opening. In half of it, no actions of consequence take place. An opening flashback to Cersei (Lena Headey) as a young girl (Nell Williams) serves mainly to foreshadow the inevitable shade throwdown to come between her and future queen Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). It is added detail but only detail. Every scene in King’s Landing and around feels entirely temporary. No plots made, no new conflicts, only the resolutions after Tywin’s death. As much fun it is to see the Tyrell and Lannister siblings quarrel, none of it feels new. Meanwhile, Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) get no more than three minutes of screen time combined. Sansa’s story this season promises to be one of the most interesting. Her scene with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) teases us of her newfound strengths. Every minute of the show is well written and acted. But there’s usually more going on.
It is lucky then that some of the show’s most popular characters get the most interesting things to do. As Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) struggles with the blood on his hands by drinking, Varys (Conleth Hill) convinces him to travel to Meereen. In Meereen, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is faced with the consequences of locking Viserion and Rhaegal away, a new enemy seeking to reclaim the city, and a political dilemma.
Finally Jon (Kit Harrington) is asked by Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to persuade Mance to bend the knee. Jon thinks this will save lives. Will Mance see the same? Each of these stories present new problems to old characters. They ask interesting questions about politics and leadership. They move the story further in their respective lands, by an inch or by a quarter mile. On top of all that, there is incredible effects work involving dragons. Finally, there is the sharp verbal delight of having Varys and Tyrion share the screen. As the former asks for a land where the powerful don’t prey on the powerless, the latter retorts that he may as well ask for castles “made of gingerbread and moats filled with blackberry wine.”
None of ‘The Wars To Come’ could or should inspire fear for the direction of this season. Every shot, line, and nipple is up to the standard we expect of Game of Thrones. Saying that, female nudity is surprisingly but pleasantly replaced by men. There is no need to worry. One wonders however if the apparent emptiness of certain scenes is down to a lacking in the source material. This first episode of the fifth season will however prove that all those viewers still watching have come too far to turn back now. If you are reading this, that means you are one of them, and you are eagerly anticipating next week’s episode.
Game of Thrones is broadcast on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9pm