A review of “The wars to Come,” the first episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
HBO seems to be making a habit out of placing “Game of Thrones” in the wrong hands.
This past weekend, the first four episodes of Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” were leaked on the internet, immediately reaffirming the epic fantasy as the most pirated television show in the world. HBO soon released a statement, confirming that “the leaked four episodes of the upcoming season of Game of Thrones originated from within a group approved by HBO to receive them.”
One might think they’re somewhat used to the situation by now. As in, this really shouldn’t be the first time they realized they trusted the wrong people about “Thrones.” And we’re definitely not talking about internet piracy.
In April 2011, when the debut season premiered, HBO wasn’t suspicious, but, after the second episode aired, many a fan expressed their concerns. The reason was a particular scene in which Cersei Lannister visits Bran Stark, who’s in a coma, and tries to comfort his mother Catelyn. And what a comforting it was! To the woman already half-mad because of the condition her son finds himself in, Cersei tells a story about the child she herself lost to a fever years ago.
That scene had absolutely no business being in a show based on the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R. R. Martin. And now, four years later, it’s pretty obvious why.
“How many children does Scarlett O’Hara have?” asked Martin recently, referring to the differences between the “Gone with the Wind” book and its film adaptation, and implying two canons for the same story is not something unheard of. Well, Mr. Martin, you were possibly addressing the wrong audience about the wrong mother. It’s not us you had to discuss Scarlett’s kids with, it was David Benioff and Dan Weiss you had to discuss Cersei Lannister’s posterity with. Because, as evidenced by the Season 5 premiere, Benioff and Weiss, the duo behind “Game of Thrones,” clearly needed some help in keeping track of their own imagination.
When asked how many children Cersei Lannister gave birth to, one isn’t necessarily to choose between the show and its source material but—between two different seasons of the same show! Back in 2011, as explained, Cersei bore at least four children: Joff, Myrcella, Tommen and a boy who died of fever. Come 2015, and Cersei Lannister mothered only three kids: that’s what she was foretold as a kid, and that’s what she obviously believes in. Yes, we’re talking about the flashback scene, the historical first in the “Game of Thrones” universe that opened the new season, titled “The Wars to Come”. In the scene, Cersei and her hysterical friend (a sidekick kid that continually and loudly advises the main kid against the thing they’re actually doing, is one of the oldest and most boring clichés in storytelling, by the way), visit a witch able to foresee the future. When young Cersei demands to know hers, the witch tells her she’ll have, pay attention, three children of her own!
The number is the same as in the books, but, alas, it doesn’t add up when you add the poor kid Cersei was talking about in Season 1. And the scene with Cat wasn’t the only one Cersei mentioned the dead boy in. She also brought up the kid while talking to Robert Baratheon, in Episode 5. It actually seals the deal that the unfortunate infant did exist in the show universe in 2011, because otherwise talking about him with the man who fathered him would make no sense at all.
That’s “Game of Thrones” for you. Go on, count Scarlett O’Hara’s children as many times as you like and draw any conclusion you find fit, just so long as you pay no attention to the kids actual characters in the show keep mentioning and then totally forgetting about a couple of seasons later. It’s not a big deal, after all. Who among us isn’t confused about the number of kids we produce? Nobody said parenting was easy, counting your children included.
But, truth be told, more serious issues than pure math are involved here. Back in 2011, fans of the books didn’t need a witch to realize how troubling the story about Cersei’s dead boy truly was. The entire scene had a neon sign that telegraphed Benioff & Weiss’ intention to humanize the queen of Westeros. That wouldn’t be a problem had she not been humanized in the books, but she was. Which means Benioff & Weiss were repairing something that wasn’t broken. No good could come from that.
Besides the now-you-know-them-now-you-don’t kids, one more thing was notably absent from the TV prophecy: the valonqar, e.g. the younger brother destined to squeeze the life out of Cersei once all of her children are dead. It’s completely puzzling that Benioff & Weiss decided to remove the crucial part which made the prophecy what it is.
In “The Wars to Come,” there’s one more female character completely rid of any possible valonqar: Sansa Stark. Once, she had two younger brothers of her own, Bran and Rickon. The show, however, didn’t have Sansa even acknowledge their existence or their “deaths” ever since she left Winterfell early in Season 1. Instead, she was last seen preoccupied with her cousin Robert Arryn, the Lord of the Vale.
But it wasn’t for long. In the first scene of the new season they appear in, Littlefinger and Sansa leave Robert to be fostered at Yohn Royce’s household.
If you don’t recall instantly, Robert is the neurotic kid that was supposedly the centerpiece of the unrevealed but strongly hinted at scheme Littlefinger and Sansa planned last year. In the already infamous scene that ended her Season 4 arc, Sansa appears at the top of the stairs in an ominous dress (really ominous, not like the TV witch’s prophecy) of her own creation, and joins Littlefinger in manipulating the terrified Robert. “Shall we go?” she asked seductively, before the scene ended, along with her story for the season. Next time we saw her was this Sunday, and it looks like there really was no plan for Robert after all. A year ago, when she invited them to go somewhere, she was apparently talking about Yohn Royce’s household. Taking poor Robert out of the Eyrie, that was the task Sansa had to dress herself for so strangely! That’s why she had to become a seductress overnight. Of course, Robert would never follow her had she kept her hair red, her dress green, and her cleavage unexposed.
Seriously now, manipulating Robert Arryn seems like one more strange direction that Benioff & Weiss abruptly took, and then even more abruptly abandoned after realizing it led nowhere. It was a pure waste of everyone’s time, which is the one resource the show doesn’t have in abundance. Other things Sansa’s arc this season already managed to abandon, however, are even more troubling. Because, along with the time, logic suffered too.
There is no logic whatsoever in Littlefinger’s explanation on why they are leaving the Vale. “So, where are we going? To a land where you trust everyone?” asks Sansa once they’re in a carriage. “To a land so far from here that even Cersei Lannister can’t get her hands on you,” answers Lord Baelish, thus making the audience as puzzled as Sansa seems to be.
You see, thanks to the information from the production and images from the trailers and incidents mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s not a secret he’s taking Sansa to Winterfell, which is ruled by the Boltons at the moment. And you have to be a moron to run from Cersei by hiding among the Boltons. So, either TV Littlefinger is the moron for trusting the Boltons on any level whatsoever, or TV Sansa is a moron who doesn’t realize Littlefinger is about to sell her to the worst possible bidders, or . . . you know . . . like, HBO should really be way more careful about who they’re sending “Game of Thrones” episodes to.
Sansa’s storyline this season is emblematic of the biggest problem the show continues to suffer from: the lack of any context whatsoever. And it’s not just about the faithfulness to the source material. Yes, Martin’s novels offer any number of contexts that could and should have been exploited on screen to no regret. Benioff & Weiss, however, ignored the majority and used only a handful of them, and added many contexts they invented, as lacking as the latter may be. But eventually it’s all for nothing, because Benioff & Weiss apparently didn’t meet a context they were careful not to violate in a blatant way.
Really, why would anyone, be it Littlefinger or someone else, go all those lengths to save Sansa from King’s Landing, only to hand her over to one of the rare families that is visibly more disturbing and depraved than the Lannisters? It makes no sense at all. Not to mention that Littlefinger has no reason to expect the Boltons wouldn’t turn Sansa over to the Iron Throne the first chance they get. Roose and Ramsay aren’t famous for their loyalty, after all. Why would anyone expect a better treatment from them than the one Robb Stark received?
But no, looks like Benioff & Weiss didn’t think Sansa’s TV arc through. No wonder it’s only becoming a bigger and bigger mess: at one point, Littlefinger was saving Sansa from the Lannisters; next moment, she was saving him from the Lords of the Vale and the accusation about the death of Lysa Arryn; then, in no time, the two of them seemingly agreed to control the Vale by manipulating Lysa’s challenged son; alas, no, Littlefinger actually had something entirely different in mind, and what he plans now is, by the way, far worse than anything he or Sansa or both possibly intended up to that point.
That’s what you get when you write ignoring the consequences your decisions may have.
“The Wars to Come” contains at least two more blunt examples of ignored contexts. Chronologically, the first is the scene with Cersei and Jaime in the sept. The disaster was a given. There’s Jaime, there’s Cersei, there’s a dead body right by them, they’re alone and at a holy place. The context of messing with such an opportunity in a very wrong way is not the one Benioff & Weiss could ever ignore. And they did mess with it, big time.
“Did you set him free?” asks Cersei to her twin brother, referring to Tyrion, of course. Jaime instantly forgets he has a tongue, which Cersei correctly understands as the confirmation that yes, he was the one who released the Imp. And she’s not about to let her twin brother go off the hook lightly: “Tyrion may be a monster, but at least he killed our father on purpose. You killed him by mistake. A stupidity.”
And that’s it. That is all the punishment Jaime will receive from Cersei for saving the person she hated all of her life. Just to sum things up: almost the entire Season 4, Cersei spent carefully arranging Tyrion’s death, and when she was finally about to get precisely what she wanted, her little brother somehow escaped from the dungeons and managed to murder their father and the family’s patriarch, and then she finds out it was her other brother that started this chain of events by breaking the law and releasing Tyrion on his own—and she does nothing but chastise Jaime? It all comes down to scolding him!
That kind of storytelling actually isn’t connectable to a competent writing. Cersei is either obsessed with bringing Tyrion to his death, or she isn’t. Tywin’s death is either a big deal, or not. And if the characters themselves don’t seem affected by the crucial events at all, why would the audience be? If incidents like Tyrion’s escape and Tywin’s death effectively have no meaning for Cersei or Jaime, why would they mean anything to the audience?
Similar questions may be asked in regards to the closing scene of the episode, in which Mance Rayder refuses Stannis’ offer and chooses to be burned alive. The scene is so shallow and self-serving it looks like the logic perished in flames long before the King Beyond the Wall. Really, why would Mance refuse Stannis? Is not bending the knee really that more important than saving lives? And if so, why did the Wildlings ever bother to flee south in the first place? What the hell did Mance expect: to enter the realm, but avoid becoming a subject to one king or another, and lose not a single man in the process?
A season or two ago, his plan looked very differently. A season or two ago, he wasn’t opposed to the very idea of Wildlings fighting their way into the Seven Kingdoms. But now, when one Stannis Baratheon effectively offers them the help of his troops, Mance refuses? Suddenly, he’s a conscientious objector who’d rather burn than pick a sword against another human being?
“You’re a good lad, truly you are, but if you can’t understand why I won’t enlist my people in a foreigner’s war, there’s no point explaining,” says Mance to Jon before their final goodbye to each other. But it’s all wrong. From the very beginning, the Wildlings had to count on the armed resistance their invasion on the Seven Kingdoms will be inevitably met with. Fighting the 7K armies is not a possibility Stannis introduced. If anything, Stannis recognizes the common cause and proposes to join forces, since they obviously face the same enemy. But Mance refuses. And instead chooses to be burned alive. The reason be damned.
The first episode of the new season ended right after Jon Snow put Mance out of his burning misery by killing him with an arrow through the heart. And the big question remained hanging in the air:
Really, HBO, why weren’t you much more careful with granting access to this material?