Episode 1 of the fifth season of Game of Thrones opens with Cersei's memory of the prophecy that has followed her life, which one can take as an allegory to the way the show will be going: looking into the future, with all of its uncertainties, but with some knowledge of how it's supposed to turn out. Whether that allegory is dire or exciting (or both) depends on where you are in your mindset between reader and watcher.
The fifth season begins with the relatively common knowledge that the show will begin to diverge in a more significant fashion from the books. Reactions to that are pretty varied, since there've been minor variations in the storyline from the moment the show began. Part of the cause for the greater divergence of this season, of course, is that the show is almost to the point where it's overtaking GRRM's progress on the story. (He has become more conscious of that: he's forgoing most of his convention appearances and even passing up the writing of an episode for next season in order to focus on the sixth book, The Winds of Winter.) But given that Martin has stated before that the vast majority of changes that Benioff and Weiss have made in terms of story and character are things that Martin wishes he could go back and change, I'm relatively confident that the show will proceed as closely as possible with what the showrunners know is coming. Will it get to the point where we're seeing new material on the screen that we haven't yet read about in Martin's tomes? Well, it's too late for that already, since the appearance of the Night King last season, so it's more a matter of whether you're willing to enjoy the ride now and then read a more elaborate version of it when Winds does finally hit the shelves.
Continuing to mirror the audience, this episode had a fair number of contemplative moments that were presented as conversations and arguments (Cersei and Jaime, Tyrion and Varys, Jon and Mance, Daario and Daenerys.) While it was expected that the twins would once again diverge over the circumstances of their father's death, it's interesting to note that Cersei's occasionally irrational opinion of Tyrion is the cold reality of the situation in this case: he did actually commit patricide, as opposed to the previous accusation of regicide. It's that weight that Tyrion is carrying with him as he attempts to drink himself to death in Pentos while Varys harangues him about doing something useful. Tyrion's opinion is, of course, that there's nothing useful he can do, since there's no decent leader to rally behind... that he knows of. Daenerys and Mance, OTOH, are confronted with the quandaries of leadership. Is the right path to display strength in the face of opposition and overwhelming circumstances, respectively, or is it wiser to concede some things for the presumed betterment of the majority? Mance can bend the knee and save his people but he loses them just the same. Daenerys can allow some of the customs of Meereen to go forward while still attempting to repudiate the others or she can simply be the face of granite, as often befits a queen, and fight her way through everything. Those aren't easy decisions and they do come with a fair amount of weight for both performances and story. I thought Jon and Mance's conversation came off well. I was a little less sanguine about the other and perhaps it was because one discussion was coming on the verge of death and the other in the post-sex afterglow, although both were about proceeding toward more death and destruction. (Also interesting to note that the ratio of male to female nudity was far more equal in this episode, albeit still only full frontal on the female end.)
But, of course, the Game has always been about tough decisions or the unwillingness to make them and the consequences that follow. It becomes even less certain with the consummate Game player, Tywin Lannister, lying in state in the Grand Sept. No one made decisions of clarity like Tywin and everyone is now adrift in the world after him. That was clear when it was not-so-subtly implied that Jaime's suspicion about everyone wanting to tear down what Tywin had built was entirely accurate, as everyone in the throne room was ready to question Cersei's judgment, including her uncle and cousin Lancel, although for vastly different reasons ("They never would have come to the capital when Lord Tywin was alive.") Daenerys suffered through the same thing, as Ser Barristan attempted to warn her about her actions and then started in surprise when she dismissed the idea of diplomacy by stating that she wasn't a politician, but a queen. It was that kind of (relatively) blind absolutism that Barristan had seen before in the persons of Aerys and Robert that led him to regret his service. That was a great moment by Ian McIlhenny, but it's also possibly indicative of the episode's theme as a whole: the opinions of women in leadership roles are still undervalued because of their gender. Even if Cersei wasn't "trapped" by the prophecy, she'd be trapped by her sex and Daenerys faces the same thing even without a prophecy.
I thought director Michael Slovis did a great job of shifting the viewing perspective to emphasize the attitude of both his subjects and the scene. We were Tyrion, peering out from within the crate, a breathing hole our gateway to the world, but also highlighting the fact that we were now truly alone and discarded by anyone we ever cared about. In the same manner, we looked up at Brienne from the place of her sword as she glowered and brooded over her failure to rescue Arya and we stared past her into the unfeeling, cold, gray sky and she perpetuated that cold disdain toward the faithful Pod. He's obviously a very visual storyteller and he incorporated that into this episode. It will be interesting to see him follow Arya into the House of Black and White next week.
Overall, the episode was a bit on the expository side (Tyrion and Varys' conversation about why the latter does what he does and whom would be a good person to follow was the more grindingly notable in this respect) but seasonal first episodes are almost always like that. I think they're setting up character transitions a little too quickly (especially Tyrion in this case, since his journey to Meereen is going to be very different than the one in the books) but, again, you have 10 episodes to tell 1000 pages or so of story and it may be even more than that, given that this season is supposed to incorporate "book 4", which ended up being two separate publications (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) and supposedly the show is only supposed to run for 7 seasons, although D&D have been wavering on that, even though HBO has said that they're not applying pressure to extend it, assuming that D&D will know when to end their show.
Bits and pieces-
The introductions of the bird groups- The Sons of the Harpy and The Sparrows -were dramatically different. The former assassinated a member of the Unsullied, while the latter merely confronted Cersei in the form of cousin and former lover, Lancel. There is, obviously, a lot more to come.
The fact that Ser Barristan is still dressed in clothes that would be more suitable for one of The Sparrows is disconcerting. He's the foremost guard of the woman who is the queen of the oldest and wealthiest city on Slaver's Bay but he still looks like she just found him in the doorway of a tavern and decided to take him home. I don't remember any details in Dance about his mode of dress, but I'm pretty sure he didn't stay that way (Dance is the only one of the five books that I haven't re-read so we're venturing into hazy territory (albeit "prophesied") for me, too.)
Sansa speaking like she has some authoritah is a good start for the character. Of course, being reproachful about whether Littlefinger, of all people, has planned ahead with regard to the people around him is probably displaying more hubris than entirely necessary.
As usual, the "new" scenes (i.e. not from the books) were among the best. The interaction between the Tyrell siblings, Loras and Margaery, was excellent and perfectly appropriate for Margaery's casual disdain for her brother's activities, first cited in season 2 when she wondered if Renly would be better able to get it up with Loras present.
I was a little put off by the suggestion that both Rhaegal and Viserion were firmly beyond Dany's control, since that's never stated in the books and it leaves her character in the show looking like she's lost her greatest asset, beyond question, when the uncertainty is what should be the highlight here.
53 minutes? Only 53 minutes? For the season opener? Seriously?! Lame sauce, man. I was expecting that Arya's arrival in Braavos might be the last segment.
Lines of the week-
"Do you know what it's like to stuff your shit through one of those airholes?"
"No. I only know what it's like to pick up your shit and throw it overboard."
Varys, as usual, crushing the most dramatic of complaints with withering sarcasm.
"Convince him to bend the knee. Or he burns."
Seems easy, amirite?
"Lord Arryn will never be a great warrior-"
"Great warrior? He swings the sword like a girl with palsy."
Rupert Vansittart as Lord Yohn Royce was great.
"We're late for dinner as it is."
"You're very respectful."
"I'm very hungry!"
So was Loras, apparently...
"What's the point of trying to keep a secret in a place like this?"
Kings' Landing in less than 20 words.
"There are faster ways to kill yourself."
"Not for a coward."
"The powerful have always preyed on the powerless. That's how they became powerful in the first place."
This was definitely the episode for succinct philosophy and history lessons. This one works for our modern day.
"The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted."
Sounds like me talking to my dad 30 years ago.
No winner this week, as nothing particularly knocked me over, which kind of exemplifies the episode. It was a solid opener, but nothing that really had me nodding in appreciation. Now, if they'd actually done the House of Black and White...