“Everybody wants to know their future, ‘til they know their future,” says a witch to a young Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) in the opening sequence of “Game of Thrones” ’s fifth season. Throughout the run of HBO’s acclaimed fantasy-epic, there’s been an overriding sense of unpredictability, at least for those who haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books. Characters scheme and plan but can never truly know what the end result will be. Yet there is a cyclical, fatalistic nature to these events – a character comes to power, falls and a void is left, and then another takes their place in the cycle. In the season premiere, “The Wars to Come,” most characters find themselves in various stages of the cycle with the events of last season still hanging over them.
Few characters can fall lower than Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). The former Hand of the King now finds himself a fugitive, ready to drink himself into oblivion with no care of what lies ahead. “The future is shit just like the past,” he says between cups of wine to Varys (Conleth Hill, “Suits”). Dinklage has always been reliably excellent in his role, but this season finds him at his most downtrodden. At least when he was imprisoned last season, he had something to fight for. But there is hope for the character, as Varys points out, “I don’t believe in saviors. I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come.”
Tyrion’s sister Cersei struggles to come to grips with her father’s death. Harkening back to the opening flashback, Cersei knows some parts of her future, but solace can’t be found there. In a world of the unexpected, knowing one’s future, ironically, only brings dread. Cersei’s paranoid response to words uttered long ago precipitate her precarious position as her family stands on a knife’s edge in regards to their power.
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke, “Dom Hemingway”) sits on the throne of Mereen, ruling with absolute power. “I’m not a politician, I’m a queen,” she says to an adviser. However, her leadership shows cracks beneath her strong facade. In a stunning sequence, Daenerys visits her imprisoned dragons. Darkness surrounds her until pillars of flames erupt, revealing gigantic beasts that can no longer be controlled with words.
Several characters are covered in the premiere, establishing the multiple, interworking storylines that comprise a season of “Game of Thrones.” This leads to the episode’s biggest issue: it feels primarily like setup, reminding the viewer of where everyone is and hinting at what is to come. While the show has proven that it can deliver on promise, this premiere felt stretched a little thin. While the moments spent with each character are solid, they feel sometimes too short.
The most satisfying arc in the premiere comes with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington, “Pompeii”) dealing with Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane, “Zero Dark Thirty”) arrival at the Wall. Last season, Jon’s storyline was a simplistic but effective war narrative with him and his fellow Night’s Watch brothers desperately defending Westeros from the impending Wildling threat. Now, with the arrival of Stannis, Jon must learn to play the game of diplomacy and political tact. This comes to a head when Stannis charges Jon to convince Wildling leader Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds, “Frozen”) to bend the knee. Faced with subjugation or death, Mance chooses death, “The freedom to make my own mistakes is all I’ve ever wanted,” he tells Jon. In regards to what they believe, Mance and Stannis are uncompromising and it creates an effective conflict for the episode. Stannis offers freedom to the Wildlings if they fight for him, but freedom gained this way is a perversion of what Mance dreamt for his people. Unable to see that happen, Mance decides the only thing left for him to do is die in protest.
“The good lords are dead and the rest of them monsters,” Brienne (Gwendoline Christie, “The Zero Theorem”) says as she sharpens a sword. There are no saints in “Game of Thrones” – just people within the cycle of power. Choices are made and characters unpredictably rise or fall, but as long as power exists, the circle will keep turning.