Game of Thrones

HBO's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' TV Show

Episodes

EP501: The Wars to Come

Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed by Michael Slovis
IMDB

Cersei and Jaime adjust to a world without Tywin. Varys reveals a conspiracy to Tyrion. Dany faces a new threat to her rule. Jon is caught between two kings.

Index

Analysis

Game of Thrones returns to much anticipation and acclaim this year, and the immense interest is—in a way—threatening to overwhelm the show, pushing it from the watercooler to a world-wide obsession. We’ve seen the signs of this at Westeros.org, in our inbox: every day, emails from marketers with usually-vaguely-connected, usually-deeply-uninteresting pitches for why we should blast news about whatever their clients are doing (we very rarely agree with them) because they try to tie it to Game of Thrones. We haven’t seen anything quite like it in previous seasons, so it seems everyone, their uncle, and their banker is now well-and-truly hooked. But could this lead—or have led, in some cases—to Game of Thrones fatigue?

Certainly, when I watched this episode at the Tower of London premiere, I was tired thanks to a very early departure, not much chance to rest, and then standing around for a bit in the cold wind as the somewhat-ineffective gatekeepers sorted out who was allowed into the event or not. So when I found the first episode difficult to pay great attention to, particularly in certain passages, I put this down solely to my exhaustion. I noted as much in our early impressions of the episode, and determined to watch more carefully when the screeners came in.

And I did do that… and still found it strangely unengaging in certain aspects. I knew coming in—to the initial viewing, and now—that as a first episode, it would feel a bit scatter-shot, too much ground to cover as they reintroduced characters and storylines. I’ve said it then and I’ve said it now: it’s the nature of the beast, and they can’t be blamed too much about it. But the distance with which I watched was, regardless, something new.

This feeling seems to be shared by at least some viewers, such as those on the Westeros.org forum: this particular episode is easily the least liked premiere episode of the series, and in fact currently stands as the least liked episode of the series, period. Why such a strong reaction against it? There are several theories bandied about, some fairly plausible, not least of which is that anxiety about one storyline in particular is leading to a strong negative reaction.

But… while I had a faint premonition about this, being among those who theorized that the storyline might be going into extremely different territory than the novels, I can’t say that really weighed on me when watching it. But then on our forum, a user by the name of AdmiralKyrd provided an interesting statistic, revealing the amount of time each premiere had spent on its most-depicted area or storyline. And the difference was marked: this episode spent not quite 15 minutes in its top area, whereas previous episodes spent a minimum of 20 minutes (the case of the season 2 and season 3 premieres, which are tied as the second least liked premiere episodes) and the most popular premieres spent 30 minutes in one place.

Perhaps it’s simply the fact that we’ve always argued that premieres have struggled with the lack of time to more than gloss stories, but this still seems appealing. The lack of enthusiasm could easily come from the sense that there was no real core story, that it was an exercise in catching up for the most part.

Whatever the truth, we found the episode unexceptional for the most part, despite some fine performances. It was there, and then it was done, and on to the next episode.

But before moving on to waiting for the airing of “The House of Black and White”, there’s one area we can discuss that seems to us to be a symbol of the opening episode’s lack of vigor in some key aspects.

We’ve discussed in our impressions and in our video the fact that the show opens with a flashback to a young Cersei Lannister. Much of our attention focused on the fact that the scene ends before one particular part of Maggy’s prophecy was uttered. However, it’s worth giving some serious thought as to why this particular flashback—the first of its kind on its show, and possibly its last—was chosen to open season 5.

The obvious reason is that it foregrounds the rivalry between Cersei and anyone who might be the “younger and more beautiful” queen who will displace her, with Margaery Tyrell being the clear rival that Cersei comes to focus her attention on. The episode goes out of its way to emphasize the tensions: the look they exchange when Cersei mounts the steps to the Great Sept, the way Cersei looks at Mace Tyrell and Margaery when she’s with Tommen, and of course the scene where Margaery muses aloud about defeating her rival while her brother Ser Loras lies in bed after recently disporting himself with Olyver.

The problem we have, of course, is that this seems to imply a strong focus on the show’s version of Cersei, a version of the character that we find largely uninteresting. This episode really changes nothing, as from scene to scene Lena Headey spends a great deal of time with the same pensive, vaguely troubled look on her face. This is a character with the edges smoothed largely away, a character who seems joyless, who relishes nothing.

Now, some will complain when we note that this is a distinct difference from the character in the novels. After all, the writing for Cersei on the show has, from practically the very first episode, set her out to be quite the different character from the books. Fair enough. But in response, we wonder what’s engaging about a character who appears to be operating in two modes this season, vaguely troubled on the one hand, vaguely angry on the other? The sameness of the performance from Headey is, in its own way, fatiguing. Once, years ago, Headey spoke of the events that would be drawn from A Feast for Crows with the apparent belief or understanding that the character’s particular personality and its extremes would be explored on the show.

But this first episode suggests that plans changed and what we have instead is the bland focal character who has lost much of her venom and all her flair for the dramatic. The portrayal of Cersei on the show most reminds me, as it happens, of Robin Wright’s portryal of Claire Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards. That character, too, wears a fairly bland public demeanor, but there the falseness of her demeanor masks actual inner turmoil and uncertainty as she leads a life she isnt’ sure she wants to lead. Unlike her, Cersei’s demeanor isn’t so much false as modestly jaded, and there’s no sign of any particular uncertainty about her place or any compensatory actions to make up for it.

Cersei, like “The Wars to Come”, simply keeps chugging along. And that’s a problem,  because even if the writers are preparing to hit the same major plot beats and twists for her storyline (and for everyone else’s), outside of the big shocks there’s not a lot that’s very memorable. This is certainly the slowest opening of the show and, we suspect, it will hold on to that place for a long time to come.

This is not to say the episode was simply a bore that was not worth watching. On the contrary, we can readily praise the scenes of Tyrion and Varys in Pentos (historical and thematic issues aside), and in particular the story at the Wall captured our interest as the presence of Stannis immediately adds something to the proceedings, removing it from a matter of purely internal politics and relationships among the Night’s Watch to something that feels more dynamic. As to Meereen, a somewhat slow start was successfully masked with VFX wizardry, providing some spectacle that was largely lacking in other parts of the episode. All in all, these areas seem potentially promising.

“The Wars to Come” is, all said and done, a solid episode (in fact, I rate it slightly higher than the average on the A Song of Ice and Fire forum, which is rare), but it is far from a remarkable one. Outside of the Tyrion and Wall side of the storylines presented, there was little really interesting material to grapple with., making viewing this episode an especially passive experience.

Book to Screen

The episode covers the following chapters: Cersei VIII (AFfC), Cersei III (AFfC), Jaime I (AFfC), Tyrion I (ADwD), Daenerys I (ADwD), part of Samwell IV (ASoS),  part of Jon XI (ASoS), Cersei II (AFfC), and part of Jon III (ADwD)

Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:

  • Cersei VIII (AFfC): In the novel, Cersei dreams of her visit to the witch known as Maggy the Frog with two friends, Melara Hetherspoon and Jeyne Farman. The unnamed girl accompanying her in the show seems more like Jeyne Farman, the most frightened of the three. In the novel, Maggy is an old, warty woman from some eastern place, and is in fact the maternal great-grandmother of Jeyne Westerling. The prophecy as depicted is more or less correct, although in the novel certain other details come out, such as Cersei’s anger when Melara asks Maggy if she’ll marry Jaime, and Maggy’s response that worms will have her maidenhead and that her death is present. More notably, it is explicit that the prophecy states Cersei will outlive her children, and that after this point the “valonquar” (Valyrian for “little brother”) will strangle the life from her.
  • Jaime I (AFfC): In the novel, Jaime stands vigil day and night for several days, and refuses the offers of Ser Balon Swann and Ser Loras Tyrell to spell him for awhile. Jaime has a waking-dream of seeing his mother. He does not dwell very much on Tywin Lannister’s legacy, having no interest in the Lannister power or wealth. Of particular note is the fact that there’s no suggestion on the show that Tywin’s body is rotting, a point made in the novels. Also in the novel Cersei is unaware of Jaime’s involvement in Tyrion’s escape, and indeed Jaime considers revealing it but decides against it. Finally, Cersei does visit Jaime during his vigil, but to attempt to resume their relations and to get him to accept the office of Hand. She leaves angrily at his refusal.
  • Tyrion I (ADwD): One of the more faithful book-to-screen adaptations in this episode, Tyrion’s condition on arrival in Pentos is quite accurate. However, in the novel Illyrio Mopatis is his host in his own manse, and similarly to Varys on the show informs him that he could support Daenerys Targaryen. However, the novels provide a very different origin to the connection between Varys and Illyrio, described in Tyrion II (ADwD) when Illyrio explains that they became friends while Varys was a pickpocket and thief and he himself was a poor bravo selling his sword. Their alliance led to a fortune, first in theft, then in fencing goods, then in stealing secrets. No reference to altruistic protection of the realm from Robert in particular is made.
  • Daenerys I (ADwD): In the novels, it is an Unsullied named Stalwart Shield who is killed by the Sons of the Harpy while at a brothel. As in the novel, his interest was in tenderness and comfort rather than anything sexual, but in the novel Grey Worm is straightforward about the explanation rather than suggesting he has no idea why an Unsullied would be in a brothel. The Sons of the Harpy in the novels are anonymous, but not because they go around in masks, instead blending in with the populace.
  • Samwell IV (ASoS): The Samwell-Gilly discussion very loosely fits the novel’s concern with the upcoming election of the Lord Commander, although in the book its the election of Janos Slynt that is a concern rather than of Alliser Thorne.
  • Jon XI (ASoS): Jon’s meeting with Stannis atop the Wall is inspired by this chapter, although details are substantially different. Notably, Davos is not present at Castle Black in the novels, having other tasks. As on the show, Stannis expresses an interest in making use of the wildlings, though his initial plan is to settle them in the Gift. As in the show, Melisandre does seem to show some interest in Jon, and shares with him the fact that she does not feel the cold, claiming to be filled with the Lord of Light’s fire.
  • Cersei II (AFfC): In the novel, the wake for Lord Tywin is a very large public affair, marred by the visible rotting and stench of Tywin’s corpse. In the novel, Lancel appears very frail and weak, but alive and still intended to wed Amerei Frey and claim the castle of Darry. However, his religious awakening leaves him less than happy at this. He shares with Cersei the peace he’s had from confessing his sins, but he is not explicit about what those might be as he is on the show.
  • Jon III (ADwD): The death of Mance Rayder appears superficially the same, with the King-beyond-the-Wall burned alive. However, in the novel it is not in fact Mance but a glamour placed on Rattleshirt who is tricked into thinking he will survive the event. When he realizes he will be burned, unlike Mance, Rattleshirt-as-Mance attempts to escape and starts to beg (rather than, as in the show, offering Stannis his best wishes). As on the show, Jon Snow has “Mance” killed, although in the book he orders a number of archers to do the deed while on the show he does it personally.

Other scenes of note:

Sansa and Littlefinger: In the novels, Sansa remains as Alayne in the Vale, and Littlefinger has no immediate plans to take Sansa anywhere away from it because as Lord Protector he is perfectly capable of keeping her from Cersei’s clutches. Robert Arryn is likely just as poor a fighter as depicted, lacking any physical gift for it, but in A Feast for Crows Littlefinger is very clearly opposed to having the young Lord of the Vale in the possession of anyone else; he would never leave the boy with Yohn Royce, as he does on the show.

Brienne and Podrick: Brienne’s adventures are quite different in the novels, and her dejected attempt to push away Podrick and her dour remarks are quite unlike the novel character.

Loras and Olyver: Olyver is an invented character, not in the novels, and such a scene never takes place. By this point in the novels, Loras is a knight of the Kingsguard, and a true one who holds to all his vows. The Margaery of the show’s entry into the room and lingering looks are not a part of the character of the novel, who is both rather younger and rather less worldly. Finally, obviously in the novels the question of Cersei marrying Loras is quite moot, since he’s in the Kingsguard.

Jon and Mance: Jon does not attempt to convince Mance Rayder to bend the knee. Instead, he largely allows Stannis to determine his fate, since Mance is his prisoner. It is indicated in the novels that it is Stannis who attempts to convince Rayder to submit himself to him.

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