A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin is famous for forcing characters in positions of power to actually deal with what he calls “the nitty-gritty of ruling.” J.R.R. Tolkien might have concluded Lord of the Rings by writing that Aragorn became king and “ruled wisely for three hundred years,” but Martin is the dude who wonders, “What does that mean, ‘He ruled wisely?’ What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? What about equal rights for Orcs?”
In Season 5 of Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s opus, the nitty-gritty takes center stage, even as Martin himself oversees less and less of the show’s production (he’s allegedly finishing The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, and didn’t have time to pen any episodes this season). For characters like Cersei, Daenerys, Jon, Stannis, and even Sansa, the political stakes are higher than ever, as each does his or her damnedest to figure out when to show mercy, when to stand fast, whom to appease, and whom to destroy (and of course, whom to marry). The multifarious religions of Westeros also take on more importance than ever, with the introduction of new faces representing the Faith of the Seven in King’s Landing and the faith of R’hllor (Melisandre’s Lord of Light) gaining traction elsewhere in Westeros.
In this season’s first episode, “The Wars to Come,” we’re reeled back into the mess that Tywin and Tyrion Lannister left behind for Cersei, who is absolutely having the worst year of her life. She may no longer have to marry Loras Tyrell, but without her father’s iron-fisted influence in the Red Keep, the Queen Mother is plagued by fear of losing power (“As soon as they see the stones on his eyes, they’ll set to work on tearing us apart,” she vents at Jaime.) We see the root of that fear in the series’ first-ever flashback scene, when a young Cersei encounters a witch named Maggy the Frog. Maggy issues a bleak prophecy for the future queen, telling her she’ll never marry her intended, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, but a “king” instead (Robert Baratheon, after the events of Robert’s Rebellion). She’ll be queen “for a time,” before another “younger, more beautiful” woman casts her down and takes “all you hold dear.” From the look present-day Cersei shoots at Margaery, she apparently assumes the witch was referring to the newly crowned queen—though of course, Daenerys is a likely candidate as well.
Not that the Targaryen queen plans on crossing the Narrow Sea anytime soon. She’s in the Great Pyramid of Meereen, embroiled in her own set of problems. Her men have quelled the rebellion in Yunkai, where the Wise Masters had re-enslaved the people Daenerys set free. But in return, the nobles of that city-state have asked to reopen the fighting pits, where slaves once fought slaves to the death. “Free men would fight free men,” Hizdahr Zo Loraq, a Master in Daenerys’s council, assures pearl-clutching Dany—who rejects the idea anyway, Yunkai’i traditions be damned.
But Dany would do well to heed Loraq’s advice: “It’s easier to rule happy subjects than angry ones.” Her treatment of the Masters of Slaver’s Bay is already coming around to bite her in the ass. Men in gold masks who call themselves the Sons of the Harpy are lurking around the streets of Meereen, murdering her Unsullied soldiers. Daenerys, somehow, is shocked. “It was only a matter of time,” Ser Barristan Selmy reminds her (it’s believed that the Sons are either nobles themselves or acting on their orders). And on top of all this, Daenerys’s two chained-up dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, are wild beyond even her control and Drogon is still MIA, probably off charbroiling some village’s children. As a post-coital Daario cheekily reminds her, “A dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen.” Yeesh. Good luck with all that, Dany!
Elsewhere in Essos, Varys and a cranky, crated Tyrion have finally landed in Pentos, at the home of Varys’s merchant friend Illyrio Mopatis (the same guy Daenerys and her brother Viserys stayed with in Season 1, at whose manse Khal Drogo first came to “view” his future bride). Tyrion, understandably depressed after strangling his ex-lover to death and shooting his own father on the crapper, promptly sets about drinking himself into a stupor. Varys waxes philosophical about his mission to bring a true leader to the Iron Throne, “a ruler loved by millions with a powerful army and the right family name.” Tyrion answers wearily, “Good luck finding him.” Then Varys, in perhaps the most exciting moment of the episode, answers, “Who said anything about him?” A Dany-Tyrion superteam! It’s entirely possible: Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will craft the storylines of Seasons 6 and 7 without guidance from Martin’s books, so it’s up to them whether Westeros’s two most popular characters can stay alive long enough to unite by show’s end.
Two other formerly far-flung storylines have converged at the Wall, where Stannis Baratheon is waiting to be rewarded for helping the Night’s Watch fend off the Wildlings’ attack. He’s instructed Jon Snow to get Wildling leader Mance Rayder to “bend the knee” to Stannis and unite their two armies, ostensibly to overpower Roose Bolton’s army at Winterfell and march south to King’s Landing. Rayder, unsurprisingly, refuses, even after Jon points out that if Wildlings and Westerosi don’t unite, the horrors coming beyond the Wall could destroy everyone anyway. Mance reiterates that freedom is more precious than life to the Free Folk and before you know it, he’s been dragged out, tied to a stake, and set on fire for “choosing the darkness.” The last thing he sees through the flames is Jon, who shoots an arrow through his heart and puts him out of his misery—another departure from the books where, as far as we know, Mance is still alive.
Some major players to watch out for in the weeks ahead: A reinvented Goth Sansa is traveling through the Vale, hopefully plotting a clean break from treacherous Littlefinger and revenge on the Boltons, who brutally murdered her brother and mother in Season 3. And, as we saw when the camera panned from traveling duo Brienne and Pod straight into Sansa and Littlefinger’s carriage, those two are not far behind the eldest surviving Stark—and likely to realize it very soon. Arya is still sailing for Braavos, where she hopes to meet up with her old faceless assassin friend, Jaqen H’ghar. And down south past King’s Landing is Dorne, where the Martells, relatives of slain Prince Oberyn, are stewing in grief and resentment toward the Lannisters—which does not bode well for little Myrcella Baratheon, Cersei’s only daughter, who now lives in Dorne and is betrothed to the youngest Martell, Trystane.
In King’s Landing, Cersei’s cousin Lancel Lannister (who supplied the wine that led to King Robert’s death on a boar hunt, has slept with Cersei, and whom we haven’t seen since the Battle of Blackwater Bay) has returned a Faith of the Seven fanatic. He promises that his gods’ “world is at hand”—and since the Faith of the Seven is basically a Westerosi analogy for Catholicism, the sparrows’ conservative mindset seems poised to clash with some inside the capital. Loras, who is gay, would be better off getting out while he can.
Oh, and then there was Melisandre putting the moves on Jon Snow during an uncomfortable elevator ride that capped off with her asking him, “Are you a virgin?” That couldn’t possibly lead to anything crazy down the road—right?!