As expected, there are plenty of executions in the first few episodes of the fifth season of Game of Thrones. These deaths, a means of quelling rebellion, are understood as cautionary symbols of power—issues that afflict rulers, legitimate or otherwise, almost exclusively. In the case of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), this is the price she must pay to evade class warfare, a hopeful bid at keeping the law and the people she now rules on her side for another day. The uncertainties and hardships of ruling seem to be paramount in the minds of the show’s writers this season, with many of the characters finding new homes and banners to fly under, despite some hesitancies concerning how those in power maintain their stranglehold on the masses.
It’s apropos that this refocusing on the struggles of the upper hierarchies should come in the wake of the murder of Tywin Lannister at the hands of his son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who’s now being hidden and moved around in boxes and carriages to evade his vengeful siblings. Cersei (Lena Headey) is attempting to secure her place in King’s Landing, following young Tommen’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) ascension to the throne and marriage to his late brother’s bride, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Bloodshed may be a major show of dominance and authority, but power to sway the figurehead of the kingdom is just as useful to imposing one’s will, and that’s what both Cersei and Margaery are vying for.
Considering Margaery has the advantage of withholding sex from a recently deflowered king, Cersei must get more ambitious, enlisting the help of religious fanatics, led by the man known as the Head Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). Under his guidance, the “sparrows” use pain and mutilation to justify and express their beliefs as much as anyone in Westeros. Not only do they torture a man caught having sex with a younger man, but blood is their entrance fee, with each new member agreeing to have a symbol carved into their head. The depiction of a religious army being quickly created, indoctrinated, and marked physically is reflective of the show’s renewed interest in how societies and civilizations are built and controlled, a contrast to the last two seasons’ equal focus on exploration of the wilds of Westeros and other far-off realms.
This isn’t an absolute change in direction though. As the season begins, Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) remains out in the wild with Podrick (Daniel Portman), where she finally finds Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). Brienne’s sense of allegiance to Sansa is portrayed as one of the few altruistic loyalties in Game of Thrones, and her search for duty and honor is one of a marginal storylines that rises to the heroic. The show’s other sense of thrilling self-discovery comes from Arya (Maisie Williams), who only begins to realize her own power when she spends time in the mysterious, fantastical House of Black and White. As much of the season is built on palace intrigue of one form or another, these two storylines add a crucial element of seeking out new areas of the sprawling universe of Westeros.
The show’s writers continue to sharply hem in George R.R. Martin’s massive tomes, most notably keeping Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) back at the Wall. His storyline feels far more focused now, and his climb to the upper echelons of the Night’s Watch allows the character to face the horrors that leadership often demands, as well as the baited traps of lust and pity that come along with the job. He carries out two executions, one out of pity and the other out of necessity, and his reaction to both deaths reinforces the show’s increasingly thoughtful critique of violence, killing, and their so-called benefits.
Walking along a beach, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) discusses death with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), and Bronn remarks that he’d like to meet his end quietly with his children groveling over his fortune. He doesn’t want his demise to be an extension of his active life, but rather a final, calm reward for the sheer act of survival. Of course, rarely do people die the way they want to in Game of Thrones. In Dorn, the planned assassination of Jaime and Cersei’s daughter is viewed as a means to allow the family of Oberyn Martell to properly grieve, and the first step to out-and-out war, another death meant to invoke stability either in Martell’s ferocious wife and daughters’ emotions or the society of Dorn. The unforeseeable effects and ostensible curse of murdering have always proved key to the show’s tension, and as the story continues to build a kinetic rhythm and streamline the drama, the thunderous chaos stirred up by each life taken resonates all the more loudly.