We all must choose: man or woman, young or old, lord or peasant, our choices are the same. We choose light or we choose darkness. We choose good or we choose evil. We choose the true God, or the false.
(This will be a pretty spoiler-heavy review for episode 1 of season 5 and for Game of Thrones in general. DO NOT READ unless you are caught up or are indifferent to having shit spoiled for you. You’ve been warned.)
When Game of Thrones first premiered, Westeros was a stable country that relied on the establishment of its noble houses to keep the peace in the seven kingdoms. Maybe not every lord saw eye to eye, but no one was willing to risk disrupting that kind of tranquility over a meaningless grudge. Part of that is due in thanks to all of the experienced soldiers and commanders that were at the head of almost every faction and family: Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, Robert Baratheon, Lord Commander Mormont and on and on it goes. Flash forward to season 5 and that’s simply just not the case.
Ever since Ilyn Payne lopped off Ned Stark’s head, we’ve been conditioned to expect anyone who doesn’t play the game of thrones as shrewdly or quickly as others will likely suffer a grisly demise. Westeros thrives on chaos, you see, and getting swept up in the madness without a contingency plan is akin to joining a game of paintball with a slingshot. By the time you realize that you’ve made a mistake and weren’t prepared, it’s too late. Your enemies will celebrate with a barrel of wine while everything you love and hold dear turns to ash around you.
Not every lord or lady truly understands how to play the game, but even those that do aren’t safe from rapidly evolving circumstances. Exhibit A: Tywin Lannister, the Bill Belichick of Westeros, who always seemed to be 10 steps ahead of everyone who tried to thwart him. The mastermind behind a massacre like the Red Wedding is certainly not the most honorable or popular person, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t get results. And yet, despite all of the success and victories that Tywin accumulated over the years, he was undone by a member of his own family. How ironic that he withstood so many wars and battles, yet in the end it was his dwarf of a son who ended his life. As Tywin’s corpse awaited a certificate of death from all of his rivals in Westeros, Jaime and Cersei were trying to make sense of a future that is grim and hopelessly uncertain.
After all, what chance does the future have when the boys of the new generation can’t even hold their shields up and swing their swords like girls with palsy?
Add Mance Rayder to the casualty list of well-respected leaders. It’s hard to begrudge Mance’s right to make his own mistakes when it would have been so easy to bend the knee. He would have had land, titles and most importantly, freedom and sanctuary for his people (at least until the Walkers showed up). On the other hand, Mance lives by a code and that code says that as the King Beyond the Wall, he cannot pledge fealty to any other king if he wants to remain in good standing with his followers. I’ll say this about the northerners: they don’t stray far from their moral center. It’s the same kind of admirable stubbornness that got Ned Stark killed, and perhaps if Jon Snow told Mance that Stannis would execute all the Wildlings if he didn’t kneel, maybe things would have turned out differently. I doubt Stannis would have offered him mercy and then pulled the rug out from under him at the last moment like Joffrey did to Ned.
Alas, Mance wouldn’t budge and in the end, Jon ensured that Mance at least wouldn’t go out screaming like he feared. Last season was huge for Jon, who came into his own as both a leader and a principle character on the show, but now more than ever he has to be one of the key figures in the events that play out. I don’t think any of us really wanted to see Mance burn, least of all Jon, and that’s why he placed an arrow right in his heart. Defying Stannis was a bold act, one that will undoubtedly come with its own set of repercussions. It could very well be Jon who finds himself burning at the stake next, but that’s what makes him a hero. It also suggests that Ned’s bastard son is no better at playing the game than his father was. Putting Mance out of his misery was a noble move, and a dangerous one. On the flip side, characters like Littlefinger excel at pulling off dangerous moves, but the difference lies in how they execute them. If the roles were reversed, Lord Baelish would have stood and watched with everyone else as the fire cleansed Mance of all his sins. Why? Because there was simply no upward opportunity in intervening.
Baelish also understands that the realm is about out of good options for who should rule. It’s why he plans to utilize Robin Arryn for his name value and nothing more. The motivation behind his ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ type of road trip with Sansa is less clear, and though anything Littlefinger does is almost always self-centered, he does have a soft spot for Catelyn Stark’s daughter. Some justice is in order and Westeros is riddled with people who have betrayed or taken advantage of the Starks, a fact that both of them are well aware of. That includes the Tyrells, who attempted to win Sansa over and secure her value as a Stark for themselves before Tywin beat them at their own game.
And where has all that scheming and political maneuvering landed Margaery and her family? In King’s Landing with Cersei and all of her goons, where the battle for control of King Tommen is destined to be a messy, behind-the-scenes affair. As far as Cersei is concerned, this was all preordained from the time Cersei stepped into that hut and demanded the witch to reveal her future. As one bleak prophecy after another was laid out, the tone for the entire season was simultaneously set. I would expect Cersei will be making many more demands before all is said and done, and with no one able to overrule her ill-advised decisions, her past will almost certainly come back to haunt her. Its already reared its ugly head in the form of Lancel Lannister, who along with a new haircut has returned with a new outlook on life.
Across the narrow sea, Varys has come to the same realization that many others have, but is probably the only person in the world who actually cares about its future and isn’t just in it for his own gain. He’s also one of the few who recognize the advantages of having Tyrion around, and the crucial insight that the Imp would provide to any worthwhile monarch. The trick is preventing Tyrion from drinking himself into an early grave, an appealing alternative to continuing his overwhelmingly sorrowful life. Why should he help Daenerys Targaryen? She has dragons that she can’t control, a family name that is all but extinct and a powerful army that can’t even maintain order in one city, let alone seven kingdoms. Varys may have given a good sales pitch, but the real takeaway for Tyrion should be that the only guarantee is that winter is coming.
I enjoyed “The Wars to Come,” although the absence of Arya was noticeable and Brienne and Pod’s appearance was fleeting, as another daughter of Catelyn Stark somehow passed them by. With the show almost caught up to the point in the series where George R.R. Martin left off in the books, I anticipate that there will be a number of surprises in store for us this season. There is little reason to doubt that Thrones will deliver another quality season of television, but the real question is whether the remaining players have learned anything from the mistakes of their predecessors and if they are prepared to do what’s necessary to ensure that the future is more peaceful than the past.
As Melisandre said, we all must choose. The sad truth is that more often than not, the wrong choice is made. There are more than a few dead lords and ladies who can attest to that.