So…this was supposed to be published elsewhere, and wasn’t, so here you go!
Game of Thrones Recap, Season 5 Episode 1: Regime Change
The first episode of any season of Game of Thrones can be a difficult endeavor, with so much to set out so that the audience understands where everyone is, what they’re up to, and what issues they’ll be dealing with this season. Without a through-line, the result can feel disconnected or lacking in momentum. Luckily, “The Wars to Come” has a great through-line to guide us through the episode and set up the major storylines for Season 5: regime change.
The old order – whether it’s the rule of the Great Houses over Westeros or that of the Great Masters in Slaver’s Bay – is beginning to come unraveled and everyone’s running around trying to figure out what the new order is going to look like and where they’re going to fit in it.
This is most obvious in Meereen, where Daenerys and her Unsullied make a statement that the social order’s transformation cannot be undone in dramatic fashion, by bringing down the great statue of the Harpy off of the peak of the Great Pyramid, like one of Saddam’s statues being pulled down during the fall of Baghdad. And like in Iraq, Dany has found that nation-building isn’t going to be that easy as one of her Unsullied soldiers is murdered by a new insurgent group that calls itself the Sons of the Harpy. Yet however apt the Iraq metaphor might be, there’s another historical parallel lurking before the surface that harkens back to this weekend’s 150th anniversary of Appomattox and the end of the U.S Civil War. Dany’s conquering army of ex-slaves has undone the political, social, and economic order of Slavers’ Bay just like the United States Colored Troops in General Grant’s Union army, and in the aftermath of war, they too found a masked terrorist organization that would use violence to try to cow the freedmen into accepting as close as a return to the old regime as possible.
That’s the problem with historical analogies – you never know which one is right. Should Dany listen to Daario and Hizdahr, who argue that Dany should re-open the fighting pits of Meereen as a sign that she respects Meereenese culture and allow free men to risk their lives for glory voluntarily, such that her revolution offers both continuity and change? That would be the right path if the Iraq metaphor is the one operating here, but the history of Reconstruction would point out that trying to appease former slave masters only leads to continued injustice. Should Dany heed her ex-slave adviser who reminds her that there is not one Meereenese culture but two, one belonging to the freedmen trying to build a new society and the other belonging to embittered ex-masters looking to tear that down and who may succeed unless she embarks on a counter-insurgency campaign? The history of Reconstruction would tell her that aggressive pursuit of the Klan broke it for a generation, but the history of Iraq suggests that the result might be a bloody quagmire.
Of course, either path would be a lot easier for Daenerys to walk down if she could actually control the dragons that brought her to power. Unfortunately for her, Drogon is missing and, chained up in the basement, Viserion and Rhaegal have become somewhat alienated from their mother. Not a good start to her revolution.
Back in Westeros, the Lannisters are reeling from the death of Tywin Lannister, and questioning whether his legacy – a seeming victory in the War of Five Kings, the alliance with House Tyrell, and the Iron Throne itself – can be maintained by his children Cersei and Jaime. Tormented by guilt but uncharacteristically focused on the bigger picture, Jaime argues that he and Cersei have to be careful that they might be toppled from their perch:
“What he built, it’s ours. He built it for us, he meant it for us. They’re going to try to take it away, all of it…all of them out there, our enemies. They’re waiting in line out there to make sure that he’s really dead, and when they see the stones on his eyes, they’ll set to work on tearing us apart.”
Unfortunately, Cersei is too busy looking backwards – to Tyrion’s murder of her father, and ultimately to the prophecy she learned of in childhood that her children will die and that she will be replaced by “another, younger and more beautiful” – to see any new threat. With Joffrey’s death and Margaery’s ascendance as Queen Consort, Cersei now sees confirmation of this prophecy, and is focused on protecting her remaining children against this threat from the past.
Unfortunately for both Cersei and Jaime, neither of them is paying attention to the real regime change at work in King’s Landing. When an almost unrecognizable Lancel Lannister shows up barefoot and in sack-cloth, glowing with the conviction of the born-again and speaking of the movement of the Sparrows who are going to bring about the will of the Seven, this should be a warning sign that the true threat to the Lannisters’ power comes not from the Tyrells at their side but from beneath their very feet. But when you’re drinking as much as Cersei is, it’s easy to miss these things.
Speaking of the lowly, this episode also gives us the absolute nadir of Tyrion’s life. Reeling from his murder of his father and his lover, he’s landed in Pentos like a defecting agent in a John LeCarre novel. And his new handler, Varys, takes this opportunity to finally lay his cards on the table: he’s on Team Dany, and has been from the beginning. Varys believes that, with the perfect prince and a powerful enough army, he can build “a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless.” It’s a hell of a gamble, but out of all of the competitors for the Iron Throne, Varys is one of the few who’s actually trying to use political power constructively.
The same cannot be said for Littlefinger, the man who (as we learned last season) single-handedly brought about a civil war that has seen the death of thousands, all so that he could climb the ladder of power. For sheer sociopathic apathy for the human cost of it all, Frank Underwood has nothing on Petyr Baelish, now Lord of Harrenhal and Regent of the Vale. Like his rival Varys, Littlefinger also understands the power of a “great name,” and is intending to make use of his own defector, who for her part is learning the ways of the game of thrones admirably quickly. Let’s hope for Sansa’s sake that those lessons will help her.
Regime change has also come to Jon Snow and the men of the Night’s Watch. For one thing, they no longer hold total sovereignty at the Wall; King Stannis Baratheon and his army are now in residence. As a result, he can offer good things – the destruction of the traitorous Boltons and the incorporation of the wildlings into the political community of the Seven Kingdoms – but also have Mance Rayder burned at the stake for being a false king, and in Melisandre’s eyes, for choosing the darkness over the light. Either way, Stannis is a powerful force outside of the control of the Night’s Watch, and the Watch is going to have to come to some modus vivendi with him.
This is made more complicated by the fact that, just like in the U.S, it’s election season at Castle Black as the Night’s Watch prepares for a “choosing” of a new Lord Commander. Almost uniquely in Westeros, the brothers of the Night’s Watch are a democratic organization, where every brother gets a vote. And like the U.S electorate, the Night’s Watch finds itself increasingly polarized amidst a rapidly changing political environment. On the one hand, Ser Alliser Thorne and his toadie Janos Slynt are arch-conservatives who view the wildling immigrants as foreign barbarians who the Night’s Watch is meant to keep out of the kingdom by force. On the other hand, Jon, Sam, and the other veterans of the Great Ranging know that a most unnatural form of climate change has redrawn the boundaries of the political community – potentially unifying all living human beings against the otherworldly threat of the White Walkers. And in the middle is Jon Snow, loved by many of his brothers for his heroic defense of the Wall last season, but hated by many because of his assimilation into wildling society. Victory or defeat in this election will decide the fates of hundreds of thousands of people, offering either safety and land or a frozen death in the war to come.