Showing us a fairy tale drawn darkly — Cersei’s flashback to her childhood encounter with a witch in a dark wood — is a fitting way to begin season five. Nothing is going well for the nobility, except for Littlefinger who is the least noble of them.
As the season begins, the queen mourns for her father, whom her brother slayed. Meanwhile her brother — Casterly Rock’s heir — questions whether a father-killer is even still legally a lord.
The mother of dragons still struggles to rule, she leads with her heart and not with her head – and her compassion may be her downfall. Meanwhile, another king’s cruel ways show he can administer justice, but would we even want him as a ruler?
While Brienne is disillusioned with her ability to find Sansa Stark, unbeknownst to the lady warrior, her quest rolls by her. The only prince who is doing well isn’t really a prince at all; he’s the lowly-born grandson of a hedge knight, Petyr Baelish. And, he is the man whose desire to supplant is so strong he took the mockingbird as his sigil.
A Delicious Taste of Prophecy
Season 5 opens with another tantalizing tidbit of prophecy.
A young Cersei and a friend are deep in the forest visiting Maggy the Frog, who is likely a maegi. A maegi, incidentally, is a woman who practices blood magic.
Even though Maggy warns her against it, the young Cersei demands Maggy tell her fortune. Cersei asks Maggy when she will wed the prince. Maggy replies she never will; instead Cersei will marry a king: “The king will have twenty children and you will have three. Gold will be their crowns; gold their shrouds.” Quite ominously, Maggy warns Cersei that queenship will only last until somebody younger comes to “cast you down and take all you hold dear.”
The prophecy haunts Cersei, especially the part about her children, which is why she remembers it as she enters the Great Sept to see another person she loved lying in state.
As Jun Yan discusses in her HBGoT article “The Lure of Futile Prophecies,” prophecy is a common yet subtle theme in Game of Thrones. Back in Season 1, Mirri Maz Duur — the maegi Daenerys burned to hatch her dragons — foretold that Daenerys would never have children. Daenerys asks her when “When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east… When the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves. When your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child. Then he will return, and not before.”
As we know from the myth of Cassandra and the other times over the centuries when prophecy has been used as a device, prophecies are problematic. Even if the prophecy is real, there is no guarantee the seer will understand what she sees in the flames or that people will believe her. Even when the prophecy is false, it still can shape the listener’s future.
A World Without Tywin: Tywin Lies in State
Cersei’s segment in this episode begins when she emerges from a litter and walks up the steps of the Great Sept.
Even grief stricken, Cersei’s high-handed arrogance doesn’t fail to appear. When the High Septon urges Cersei to hurry since so many dignitaries have been waiting for hours, she tells him they can wait longer. She needs to spend time with her father as he lies in state.
Inside the Great Sept, Cersei encounters the guilt-stricken Jaime standing vigil by Tywin’s magnificently attired corpse. Cersei scolds Jaime and goads him. Jaime is stupid; Jaime killed their father through Jaime’s own stupidity when he freed Tyrion and failed to anticipate the consequences. Always sure to rub it in, Cersei also notes that Tywin loved Jaime more than anyone in this world.
Later at the wake, Cersei walks drunkenly through the gathering where she meets an inappropriately shabbily dressed Lancel and his father, Ser Kevan (Tywin’s younger brother). Lancel is now a sparrow, a fanatical religious movement within the Sept. Kevan has misgivings. Cersei, however, dismisses his radicalism as a phase.
Later, Lancel finds Cersei alone. He asks her to forgive him for leading her into the darkness by tempting her into a sexual relationship and for his role in Robert Baratheon’s death. Cersei merely scoffs at his contrition and his urging of her to embrace the Faith, who dole out peace and justice he says.
We catch our first glimpse of our favorite refugee when Tyrion tumbles out of his shipping crate, half dead, to see Varys standing over him. They are in Pentos, at the palace of Illyrio Mopatis.
Illyrio is the lavishly wealthy merchant-prince who harbored Daenerys and Viserys in Season 1. Illyrio also brokered Daenerys’ marriage to Khal Drogo and gave her the dragon eggs as a wedding gift.
Varys reveals to Tyrion not only that has he known Illyrio for years but also that the two men banded together to try to save Westeros from itself — and from Robert Baratheon’s ineptitude.
Varys tries to draw Tyrion into this newly revealed conspiracy. Varys wants a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless. Tyrion, however, scoffs that this is fairytale. Varys wants Tyrion to help him put Daenerys on the throne instead of drinking himself to death. Varys argues that Tyrion is a truly talented man. He may never be king, but he might be able to advise a ruler.
Varys argues that Tyrion should focus on their country’s future, but Tyrion isn’t so sure. He thinks Westeros is doomed. Finally, it looks like Tyrion agrees to help, provided he can drink himself to death along the journey.
Does Daenerys Have the Stomach to Rule?
Thematically, Daenerys’ role is in Game of Thrones to illustrate the difficulties in ruling well. “Ruling is hard,” as George RR Martin has said. Daenerys has grown from a young girl with no knowledge of governing or strategy to a woman who has her own vast army. She can conquer; that’s been proven. Ruling, however, is not so simple.
George RR Martin has said that the real Middle Ages weren’t like a fairy tale; being a morally good person does not give you the ability to rule well. (Being kind might actually hinder your ability to balance competing factions or administer the justice needed to keep them in line.)
Daenerys’ character’s journey appears to be one in which she must learn to be a good ruler. And, as of the last episode in Season 4, she is failing.
First, towards the end of Season 4, Daenerys lost her most trusted – and probably smartest – advisor, Jorah Mormont. Although she chose to exile him for treason, this might not have been the wisest decision given how desperately she needs good advice.
In the last episode of Season 4, Daenerys was at the lowest point in her rule in Meereen. She reluctantly agrees to let an elderly man indenture himself to his former slave master for a year. (He misses his “family,” feels unneeded, and is preyed upon by the young at Daenerys’ slave shelters.) As Selmy warns her, her concession will set a bad precedent that the former slave masters will exploit.
The real message is that it is not as easy as simply freeing slaves – the morally good and simplistically compassionate choice. By doing so, Daenerys has made many of the slaves’ lives worse; she did not consider the social implications of the change.
Worse, all of Daenerys’ efforts to free the slaves are unraveling. A violent former slave (and butcher) Cleon has overthrown the council she appointed to rule Astapor, and he now rules as emperor. Astapor has reverted to being a slave city-state.
Finally, Daenerys learned her “child” Drogon — the black dragon — has incinerated a peasant girl and is nowhere to be found. In response, she imprisons her two remaining dragons. This means her “nuclear fire power from above” is not available to help her conquer Westeros – especially if she can’t control (and ride) the dragons. Perhaps this overly compassionate queen is not ready for conquest?
Daenerys still struggles to rule Meereen.
Our first glimpse of Meereen shows one of the Unsullied, White Rat, supervising the removal of the massive gold harpy that sits on top of the Great Pyramid (from which Daenerys rules).
This is probably not a great idea.
The gold harpy is not so much a religious symbol as a symbol of the former ruling class (and the Old Empire of Ghis).
After the harpy tumbles from Daenerys’ pyramid palace, White Rat goes to a brothel to relax. As he snuggles with a prostitute, a man in a gold mask appears and slits his throat. As we learn later, this man is a member of the Sons of the Harpy. He leaves the gold mask on White Rat’s body to send a message to Daenerys.
White Rat’s murder sends shockwaves across Daenerys’ court. (Admittedly, Missandei –who appears to have a crush on Grey Worm — is more intrigued to hear an Unsullied was at a brothel.)
Outraged, Daenerys decrees they will bury White Rat with honor at the Temple of the Graces, an act that Daenerys’s advisors warn her will anger the Sons of the Harpy.
Later on, as Daenerys sits in her presence chamber, the nobleman Hizdahr zo Loraq requests she re-open the fighting pits, where slaves formerly fought to the death as free men placed bets on them. Daenerys somewhat arrogantly refuses. She scoffs when he implores her to think of the politics. Daenerys doesn’t need politics; she’s a queen. She rules.
You may remember Hizdahr zo Loraq from last season as the supplicant who requested Daenerys let him bury his father. Hizdahr zo Loraq comes from one of the ancient, powerful noble slavemaster families who ruled Meereen.
That night as Daenerys and Daario Naharis relax in her bedchamber, he tries to persuade her to reopen the pits. As Daenerys rants about Hizdahr’s request, Daario notes that he agrees with Hizdahr. Daario claims his drunken-whore mother sold him to a fighting master as a boy and the pits gave him great opportunities that led him to Daenerys.
It seems Daenerys progress as a ruler is still on freeze frame. Daario urges her not to give up on her dragons: a dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen. Yet when she visits them later that night they snap at her from the darkness and shoot flames to warn her away. The dragons have shown her their independence – and fury.
Jon Takes a Huge Risk
When last season ended, Stannis Baratheon had arrived to save Jon and the Night’s Watch from Mance Rayder’s highly successful attack against the Night’s Watch. Stannis then took the King Beyond the Wall prisoner, only sparing him because Jon suggested that is how Ned would have treated them.
In perhaps another example of HBO casting with intertextuality in mind, Rome’s former Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) plays Mance Rayder, who has to surrender to a conquering war leader much like Gallic rebel leader Vercingetorix’s humiliating surrender to Julius Caesar. Most satisfyingly, however, Mance gets to utter the line that Vercingetorix never could: “We do not kneel.” Mance refuses to bend the knee to Stannis, regardless of the cost to his followers.
Like Vercingetorix, Mance Rayder united clans to rebel against an oppressing force. Mance Rayder made it his life’s work to unite 90 clans.
Season 5 at the Wall truly begins when Stannis Baratheon summons Jon to him. Stannis attempts to manipulate Jon by asking if he wants revenge against Roose Bolton. (Roose holds Winterfell and he helped to kill Robb Stark.) He wants Jon to persuade Mance to give him Wildlings to attack Roose. If Mance doesn’t swear fealty to Stannis by nightfall, he will burn Mance alive.
Jon takes the offer to Mance, who predictably refuses it. He chooses being burned alive over betraying his people by enlisting them in a foreigner’s war. Mance’s only fear is that people will remember him dying screaming in agony, an undignified way to go.
That night, as his men lead Mance to the stake, Stannis repeats his offer. Mance refuses it again, but he heroically ends his life with dignity, wishing Stannis good fortune in the wars to come.
As Mance begins to burn, Selyse smiles. Jon appears to leave in disgust. To save Mance’s dignity, and spare him the horrific pain of the flames, Jon ends Mance’s suffering with an arrow. Making this choice risks Stannis’ wrath. As we all know, Stannis has an iron will when it comes to justice. Will Jon have to face consequences from Mance?
Other minor events
Brienne and Podrick
In the wake of losing Arya, Brienne is angry , testy, and tries to get Podrick to leave. Brienne is thinking of giving up her search for Sansa and she doesn’t believe she can lead. As they bicker, unbeknownst to them, Littlefinger and Alayne’s convoy pass by.
Littlefinger and Alayne
Again we see Littlefinger counsel Sansa, now going by “Alayne,” on whom to trust.
After depositing Robin in the care of Lord Yohn Royce, Littlefinger and Alayne head West. Littlefinger, however, told Yohn Royce they were heading to the Fingers. Royce may be trustworthy but nobody knows if his servants will keep secrets. Littlefinger is taking Alayne off to a land so far away that even Cersei can’t touch her.
Loras and Olyvar
Loras continues his relationship with Olyvar, Littlefinger’s blond procurer. Olyvar is the one who betrayed Roz to Littlefinger and the one who made himself available to Oberyn Martell for a “wildly expensive” price. Margaery enters the couple’s bedchamber and asks him to hurry up since they are late for dinner with Tomen. Margaery suggests Loras be discreet and reminds him that he is supposed to be betrothed to Cersei.