Game of Thrones: Season 5, "The Wars to Come"

By Sarah MesleApril 13, 2015

Game of Thrones: Season 5, "The Wars to Come"
This Week on Dear Television:

  • "Eyes Wide Shut," from Sarah Mesle


Previous episode, Season 4, Episode 10, "The Children."

Following episode, Season 5, Episode 2, "The House of Black and White."

LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage


Eyes Wide Shut
By Sarah Mesle
April 12, 2015

A BRIGHT CIRCLE, a hole, weaves and bobs in the midst of a dark screen. Warm light streams through the circle as we peer outwards with a kind of fascination — where are we? Where are we going? What can we understand, with this limited perspective?

Dear Television: is this small horizon a metaphor? Indeed! Of course, it’s not only a metaphor: the circle is Tyrion’s view from inside the box where he’s been hiding throughout a long tedious delay, the journey from King’s Landing to Pentos. But by putting the camera in the box with Tyrion, where he miserably and confusedly pants and heaves, Game of Thrones draws a parallel between Tyrion and the viewers: he’s been traveling through space, but we’ve been traveling through time, from last season to this one. And like Tyrion, we’re desperate for a better view, for the full story. But what do we learn when we get out of the box? Varys gives us and Tyrion the key news at the same time: “Things have gotten worse, not better.”

And: BOOM! WELCOME BACK TO WESTEROS, VIEWERS! Are you pumped? Things have gotten worse, not better! In any other context than ours — Tyrion’s, for example — a worse world is bad news, but I think that, as viewers, we’re meant to hear Varys’s foreboding words as a sort of gleeful promise. Did you think Game of Thrones had bottomed out at the end of season four, reached its nadir of misery, with dragons painfully caged away and Arya breaking everyone’s heart and lighting out for the territory? Did you fear that there was nothing terrible left to happen? Never fear! Things have gotten worse! And in the strange televisual logic of Game of Thrones, the abiding principle is that a worse world means better television. Or at least, this episode makes a strong case that that’s true. The Wars to Come’s gloomy narrative collisions left me panting for more.

Partly, this is because Tyrion’s circle is just one of the show’s many visual hints — think, too, about the painted eyes covering Tywin’s dead ones, the “seer” who starts the show, Sansa’s efforts to read where they’re going from the blindness of her carriage — that what’s to come, and how we might see it, is for the first time unclear. As anyone who has remotely followed the build up to season five is now well aware, this is the season when the show will outpace G.R.R. Martin’s source novels: for the first time, the books’ readers will not have a fundamental leg up on the show’s watchers; for the first time, the show’s makers will not have Martin’s story as clutch or prop. Will this make the story better, or worse?

The Wars to Come knows this is the question we’re asking. It tells us so in its first scene, which leaves us radically displaced: two girls we’ve never seen before walk in the woods, luxurious skirts dragging through the mud. Who are they? Where are they? When are they? Quickly we learn that they are visiting a witch who offers a golden-haired girl a prophecy, one as mysterious to her as she is, initially, to us. The details of the prophecy (it’s takeaway is that things will get worse, not better) are less important than the fact of it. How does prophecy work as a metaphor for Game of Thrones? Prophecy is destiny: it’s fate determined. It’s the way things are written. It’s unavoidable, isn’t it?

Perhaps. This word orients two of this episode’s key conversations: Margaery’s with Loras, and Varys’s with Tyrion. And if you had to boil The Wars to Come down to a simple tension, it would be this: prophecy vs. perhaps. This is the tension within the show, as those who believe in the inevitable (the witch, Stannis, perhaps Daenerys) prepare to variously engage with those (Margaery, Varys, Jon Snow) who apparently do not. But it’s also the tension for those of us watching the show. This is the season when what’s written and what’s still to be made coexist, in tantalizing tension with each other.

So let’s look at how this plays out for some of our favorite characters. When did you guess that the golden-haired girl in the opening scene, so mean and compelling, was Cersei? The opening was more than a tantalizing metaphor. Starting the season with Cersei so emboldened by borrowed strength — “this is my father’s land: my land,” she tells the witch. “Tell me my future or I’ll have your two boring eyes gouged out of your head!” — but learning of her own doom is a savvy way for the show to tip its hand to the conversation that’s been most dramatically hinted at in the season’s build up (warning: don’t click this link if you don’t like spoilers, though I think this is a spoiler the show wants us to know, and be thinking about), and more generally to make us think about where Cersei’s at now that she has no men to rely on. 

Cersei’s brave to offer her blood to the witch, but the witch’s salacious sucking (it’s super “Goblin Market,” which is a compliment) seems like a broader metaphor for the way Cersei’s future will consume her; the witch’s boring eyes will bore into her (sorry; their pun, not mine!). The witch’s Snow White-like prophecy of a threatening younger beauty seems to be fueling, unnecessarily, Cersei’s antagonism towards Margaery. Beyond that self-fulfilling danger, Cersei seems too exhausted by loss and anger to be fearful, but her smug dealings with Jaime, Loras, and the Sparrow would make wary any Game of Thrones watcher. You just don’t get to be that confident in this world without getting punished: we don’t need a witch to tell us that.

If Cersei’s not willing to look at the future that’s been exposed, Dany has the opposite problem: she’s dealing with men in masks. The episode is called The Wars to Come, and violence has already broken out in Dany’s plotline: her Unsullied, and her authority, are being attacked, even as she pulls down the Harpy statue that symbolizes Meereen’s power. I’ll confess that I’m a little ambivalent about Dany’s plotline, here — I prefer a rebel leader to a frustrated administrator — and I think it’s an ambivalence Daenerys shares. She can’t see what she’s doing and that means she can’t follow Daario’s advice: to let others see her strength.  The degree of her problem becomes most vivid when she descends into the catacombs where her dragons are caged. In the depths, she finds illumination, but only in the dangerous light of her dragon’s flames.

The other major player in this episode is Jon Snow: not a king, but stuck between two of them. Poor guy! I don’t envy him. His job is to make one of these two kings see the other’s perspectives at a moment when both of refuse to see anything but themselves (I was struck, here, by the similarity between not only Stannis and Mance — though clearly we’re meant to like Mance better — but also between Dany as well.) Jon is the man both kings trust, and for most of this episode he seems to be committed to demonstrating his trustworthiness. He’s beyond his own ambition, and keeping to his vows: “I’m a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch.” What you see is what you get! I was stuck by the visual emphasis on Jon’s willingness to kneel to Awful Stannis, black robes sprawling against white snow. He seems committed to bending his will to decisions that are already made: his vows, Stannis’s edict.

Until, of course, he doesn’t. In this episode about what we can see, the final scene is a moment of spectacle, arranged by Stannis and Melisandre to show their ability to control not only how things are, but how they are seen. “Behold the fate of those who choose the darkness!” declares Melisandre. The camera lingers on those made to watch — Stannis’s daughter, Mance’s men, Gilly.  But let’s not forget what’s going on here! It’s Stannis’s spectacle, but it’s the show’s too; I was cringing and horrified just like Gilly! And I knew what the show wanted me to want: I wanted the dreadful spectacle brought to an end. I wanted Jon Snow to shoot, and he did.

Was this a moment of perhaps, or a moment of prophecy? On the one hand, it seems like a moment of perhaps, of possibility: of freedom. Jon seemed to be enacting the world Varys wants Tyrion to work for, one in which the powerful don’t abuse the powerless. And I was definitely cheering for Jon! But even as Jon resisted Stannis, wasn’t he comporting himself by another set of rules: those of the heroic narrative? My sense is that this scene wasn’t taken from the books, so it was the show expressing one kind of freedom, but in doing so it was submitting to a heroic logic that the books themselves have become famous by fighting against. So I wanted Jon to shoot, but will I like a show the abandons the realism — a realism of hard truths, where the good guys die, and fail to do the right thing — that I also want this show to provide me?

We can see more, by the episode’s end, than we could at the beginning. But there’s still some questions about the shit we’re dealing with, and what holes we can fit it through.

Keep your shield up!


PS: I totally guessed it was Cersei!

PPS: Material history moment: doesn’t it just make sense that Cersei would get her dress all dirty and not care who washed it? And also, Dany’s dress. Do you think they’re trying to make her look awkward, dressing too old?


Previous episode, Season 4, Episode 10, "The Children."

Following episode, Season 5, Episode 2, "The House of Black and White."

LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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