The fifth season of Game of Thrones begins like a fairy tale: Once upon a time, two girls walk through a forest, muddying up their fancy clothes in search of a fortune-telling witch. One of the two is terrified, and halting, but the other is confident and brave, leading her friend by the hand, and facing down the hag. However, the interesting thing about fairy tales, like history, is that so much weight hangs on the perspective of those hearing the tale, and so as we realize that this bold little girl will one day grow up to be Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), we notice that she didn’t lead her friend through the woods so much as pull and coerce her. She’s not Snow White in this story, but rather the Wicked Witch, the one who’s told “You’ll be queen, for a time. Then comes another. Younger, more beautiful.”
It’s on that note that director Michael Slovis snaps back to the present, as Cersei passes that younger, more beautiful woman—the new queen, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)—as she prepares to pay final respects to her murdered father, Tywin (Charles Dance). The happy ending she dreamed of as a child is more and more elusive; even her brother, and secret lover, Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is cold comfort, warning her that with their father’s death, the vultures in the other noble houses will soon come to strip what little power they have left away. This certainly seems to be the case later that day, when Cersei comes face to face with her cousin, Lancel (Eugene Simon), another former lover, who’s no longer intimidated by her. He’s joined an extreme religious sect known as the Sparrows, and politely suggests that she find salvation before it’s too late.
The remainder of the season premiere, “The Wars to Come,” dwells on this point, reintroducing viewers to characters who believe themselves to be the noble heroes of this story. In Mereen, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) has taken it upon herself to tear down the giant golden idol of a harpy that sat upon the pyramid she now rules from, and as the victor of the slave rebellion that gave her control of the city, she may be written as a hero. But there are many who don’t see her that way, from the golden-masked Sons of the Harpy who use guerilla tactics to murder her Unsullied guards to the diplomats who grumble at her disrespect for traditions like the fighting pits, which she finds unbecoming. Even her lover, Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman), respectfully disagrees with some of her unyielding convictions, reminding her that while a queen may skirt the necessary concessions a politician must agree to, a dragon queen with no dragons is no queen.
There are some, too, who would argue that Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) is a hero, having shown up in the nick of time to rescue the besieged members of the Night’s Watch from the amassed armies of the Wildlings. But the Wildling’s now-imprisoned leader, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), would sooner die by flames than fight in Stannis’s next campaign (to retake Winterfell), explaining, “The freedom to make my own mistakes is all I ever wanted.” The same goes for Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who may be a hero to those he saved on the Wall, but is also seen as a blight upon the Night’s Watch because of his dalliances with a Wildling woman. He knows from experience that there’s no difference between these two proud men, save for the misfortune of being born on one side of the wall as opposed to the other, which is probably why he places an arrow through Mance’s heart—obeying Stannis’s need to execute the man while simultaneously sparing Mance the indignity and suffering of immolation’s slow death.
Meanwhile, in the Vale, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) offers yet another explanation of heroics, pointing out that while young Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli) is not much of a warrior, he bears the benefit of a good name. Perhaps that explains part of his rationale for keeping Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) safe, and while he no doubt has his own ulterior motives for protecting her, would some history books not also paint him as the roguish hero who defied a former queen to save her? By contrast, there’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), who might be one of the most honorable people in all of Westeros, but because she keeps showing up in the right place at the wrong time, she’s failed at her sole sworn duty, and remains unable to protect anyone, which is why she finds herself sitting in a ditch on the side of the road, cleaning her sword and lashing out at her squire, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman).
In truth, the only true hero might be the man who many have labeled a monster, much as the wise man is often said to be the man who knows he is not wise. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) fled his homeland in disgrace, having murdered his former whore and his father, and has spent the last several weeks literally pushing his shit out of an air-hole in the crate in which Varys (Conleth Hill) smuggled him to safety. He’s not perfect, and seems content to drink himself to death, but as is often said, appearances are often deceiving. Tyrion may call himself a coward, but a coward wouldn’t allow himself to be compelled into journeying toward Mereen, into offering his aid to Daenerys, into attempting to restore peace to the land. In a fairy tale, optimism like Varys’s might be enough to save the day. In reality, honor and heroics are often mistaken for stubbornness, and stubbornness almost certainly leads to death. Perhaps there’s something to be said for drinking oneself to death.
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