The characters of “Game of Thrones” live in the shadows of the past. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is constantly reminded about the mystery surrounding his parentage. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) was marked from birth, not just by his dwarfism, but by his mother’s death in labor. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has lived much of the life on her run from the people who deposed her father, and as she begins to accumulate power of her own, has to reckon with her family’s hereditary streak of insanity. Varys (Conleth Hill), the spy and eunuch, has a deep and powerful hatred of magic stemming from the mutilation he suffered in childhood. Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) feels compelled by the weight of oaths she swore and was unable to uphold.
So it’s fitting that “Game of Thrones” should begin its fifth season, and an episode where the show’s characters grapple with the question of whether they can defy fate, history and their past sins, with its first flashback. A much younger Cersei Lannister (Nell Williams, capturing Lena Headey’s expressions and gestures beautifully) goes with a friend to visit a seer. Cersei is initially dismissive of the woman they find living in a hut on “my father’s land,” telling the older woman, “They said you were terrifying, with cat’s teeth and three eyes. You’re not terrifying. You’re boring.”
But Cersei’s bravado fades when the witch begins to speak. “You’ll never wed the prince. You’ll wed the king,” she tells the girl. “You’ll be queen, for a time. Then come another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear…The king will have twenty children, and you’ll have three…Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.”
It’s an unsettling pronouncement to deliver to a little girl, and the power of the message has grown with time and as its words have come true. Cersei married Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) rather than Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Robert cheated on her prodigiously, and of the children Cersei had with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), one is dead, one is in Dorne, and one is now a figurehead in King’s Landing. The flashback ends with Cersei remembering the words she heard in the woods as she travels to the High Sept to lay her father, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) to rest. Cersei’s panicky conversation with Jaime in the sept isn’t just informed by the increasingly unsettled situation in the realm: she’s struggling to have a life and reign independent of what seems to be her fate.
Elsewhere, Lannisters are struggling with the idea that they’ve doomed themselves, not by fate, but by sin. Tyrion, attempting to drink himself to death in Pentos, asks Varys “Are you Lord if you kill your father? I don’t imagine they revoke your nobility for killing a whore. Must happen all the time.” A capable man, Tyrion has fallen into a deep and self-pitying depression, and the results are disheartening. “The future is s—. Just like the past,” he tells Varys, offering up his own prophecy, but with a good deal less style than Cersei’s witch, especially since he ends it by vomiting onto one of Illyrio’s less-impressive carpets. Dinklage gave Tyrion tremendous dignity and charisma in previous seasons of “Game of Thrones”; to watch Tyrion brought this low is heartbreaking.
Back in King’s Landing, Lancel Lannister’s (Eugene Simon) grappling with his own sins has lead him in a decidedly more active — and sinister — direction. Asking Cersei for her forgiveness, he enumerates the failings that lead him to join the Sparrows, a fundamentalist sect that worship the Seven. “I lead you into the darkness…I tempted you into unnatural relations. And of course, there was the king. His boar hunt. His wine,” Lancel explains, a speech that functions as both a confession and a threat. “I found peace in the light of the Seven. You can too. They watch over all of us, ready to dole out mercy, or justice. Their world is at hand.” Cersei may be terrified of her fate, but she’s created a record of victims and transgressions that seem likely to catch up with her, too. In trying to avoid our destinies, we can create new and darker futures.
Another set of characters spends “The Wars To Come” grappling with the raw materials they’ve been given to work with as they try to make good policy and honorable choices.
As he tries to maintain a delicate balance between Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), his sworn brothers and the wildlings, Jon Snow tries to explain that the three parties don’t have to settle into the patterns that shaped old animosities. “They were born on the wrong side of the wall,” Jon says of the wildlings. “That doesn’t make them monsters.” Near the Eyrie, Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) gives Yohn Royce (Rupert Vansittart) rawer material with which to work: Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli), who has been pushed into training in swordsmanship, an endeavor that isn’t going particularly well. “Some boys develop more slowly. He’s still young,” Baelish purrs, essentially telling Royce that he expects him to correct Robin’s years of indulgence. “He’s 13,” Royce fires back in a dour assessment of Robin’s potential. “Boys go to war at 13.”
Brienne of Tarth, irritable at Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) refusal of her offer of protection last season, is taking out her grumpiness on her squire, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). “I don’t want anyone following me. I’m not a leader,” she tells Pod, trying to shake him loose from his determination to follow and learn from her. “All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believed in. All the good lords are dead, and the rest are monsters.” One can’t really blame Brienne for that grim assessment of Westeros, but part of what makes her such a compelling character is the fact that she keeps pursuing noble, quixotic causes, even when her prospects for success seem grim. Brienne may try to get Pod to leave her alone by insisting that she’s not a knight. But her conduct has made her the truest example of that tarnished profession that exists on “Game of Thrones.” It might even make her the kind of lord she seeks to serve, some day.
If people in Westeros are just beginning to consider that they might be able to escape their natural gifts (or lack thereof), the restrictions of their gender and the continent’s harsh class system, characters across the narrow sea in Essos are considerably ahead of them. In trying to convince Dany to reopen the fighting pits in Meereen, giving both former slaves and former masters an entertainment in common, Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) uses his own biography as an argument.
“My mother was a whore. I told you that. She liked to drink pear brandy. The older she got, the less she made selling her body, the more she wanted to drink. So one day when I was 12, she sold me to the slaver she f—– the night before,” Daario tells the troubled young queen. “I was a bad child. I wasn’t big, but I was quick, and I loved to fight, so they sold me to a man named Tolos who trained fighters for the pits. I had my first fight when I was 16…I’m only here because of those pits.”
And in Pentos, Varys attempts to shake Tyrion out of his degradation by insisting that he’s finally in an environment where his role won’t be determined by his family or his stature. “I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come,” Varys argues. And without intending to, he makes an argument for why this season of “Game of Thrones,” which poses risks to established powers and opportunities for those at the bottom of the ladder, promises to be so exciting: “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power. But to earn it for yourself, that takes work.”