TV

Game Of Thrones Recap: Flashbacks, Fire, And The Foolhardiness Of Faith

Season five debuts with a bit of a barbeque.

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This is a recap of the season five premiere of Game of Thrones.

“We all must choose,” says Melisandre at the dramatic conclusion of Game of Thrones’ season premiere. “We choose light, or we choose darkness. We choose good, or we choose evil. We choose the true god, or the false.”

The Lord of Light is hosting a barbecue at Castle Black: a roast of so-called King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, who’s refused to bend the knee to Stannis Baratheon. Mance admits to Jon Snow that it’s a terrible death, “but it’s better than betraying everything I believe.” As the leader of the Free Folk, “the freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted.”

This brings us to what will become a key tension this season. Every character feels they’re exercising agency: choosing their own righteous path in what Mance (and Varys, too) calls “the wars to come”. But personal convictions don’t feel like choices. They feel like the essential inner voice that drives you: something you can no more change than Mance can bend the knee. And this episode surveys the various belief systems that will clash, no doubt disastrously.

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Podium dancing in the gloomiest goth club in Westeros.

I find the religions of Game of Thrones really fascinating – especially in their allusions to real shamanism, polytheism, Judeo-Christianity and Zoroastrianism. There’s R’hllor, of course, the “Lord of Light” and “Red God” of Essos whom Stannis has adopted. It’s an attractive faith in its dualistic oppositions of darkness and light, heat and cold, good and evil, and its shadow magic and prophetic visions seen in flames. Importantly, though, the Red God isn’t the same as the vengeful eastern belief in death – “valar morghulis” – to which Arya Stark has subscribed. But more of that in weeks to come!

In the south, the state religion is the Faith of the Seven: a cross between Greco-Roman polytheism and the Catholic Trinity. Seven personas represent different aspects of life, and can be prayed to separately as needed: Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, Smith and Stranger. Their churches are septs, priests are septons, nuns are septas, and their archbishop is the High Septon.

He’s that blustering dickhead we see utterly failing to hold Cersei to protocol as she arrives at the King’s Landing Great Sept for her dad’s funeral. Thank the gods she makes it through another bier-side conference with her brother without another rape scene. Of course, she blames Jaime for thoughtlessly freeing Tyrion to murder Tywin.

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Do you reckon they re-use the same eye-pebbles for everyone, or paint a fresh set?

Jaime begs Cersei to prepare herself for the coming assault on the Lannister throne, but her fearful beliefs lie elsewhere. In the flashback sequence that opens the episode, teenage Cersei consults a fortune-telling witch, Maggy the Frog, who maliciously warns her that the dynastic power she craves will be snatched away. Game of Thrones has so far avoided flashbacks; to show this one suggests it’s long preyed on Cersei’s mind, and that her belief in Maggy’s prophecy may have shaped her previous power plays.

At the wake, Cersei has an unsettling reunion with her cousin Lancel, who’s joined a breakaway ascetic sect of the Seven called the Sparrows. Uh-oh, Protestantism! But this religious fanatic, whom Cersei boned several seasons back, is also the guy she recruited to arrange King Robert’s death. Lancel has so much dirt on Cersei that she’d better respect his faith. LOL, as if Cersei would ever do that!

Cersei’s true faith is politics. It’s one she shares with her loathed brother Tyrion, with Tyrion’s reluctant shit-shoveller Varys, with Margaery ‘Homo-Cockblocker’ Tyrell, and with the ever-skeezy Littlefinger. And it’s a faith that Dark Sansa is beginning to embrace too.

The closest this episode comes to comedy is the dismal spectacle of Robin Arryn, Lord of the Vale, whimpering his way through a sparring session. That’s what I would look like if I tried to sword-fight. (I also love the bone-dry zingers from Lord Royce – played by Rupert Vansittart, whose CV is full of hilariously awful toffs.)

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“He swings a sword like a girl with palsy.”

But Littlefinger needs Robin in name only. It’s scheming business as usual as he and Sansa travel west – right past Brienne and Podrick. Yet another near-miss for one of the show’s most innocent characters.

That’s Brienne in the corner / That’s Brienne in the spotlight / Losing her religion / Trying to keep from lashing out at her loyal squire.

GoT Brienne losing religion

Are Littlefinger and Sansa heading across the Narrow Sea? That’s where Tyrion stumbles from his crate in Pentos at the palace of Illyrio Mopatis (who, you may recall, was the rich guy who brokered Daenerys’s marriage to Khal Drogo in season one). Varys is balls-deep – well, crotch-deep – in a plot to pull off a Targaryen restoration, and he wants Tyrion’s help.

“I don’t believe in saviours,” Varys says. “I believe men of talent have a part to play in the wars to come.”

Now Varys and Tyrion have both abandoned their lavish court clothes, they’re dressed almost alike. They reminded me of Jedi.

“Trust in the force, young padawan.”

But Tyrion only grudgingly aligns himself with Varys. He’s like Luke Skywalker bitterly telling Yoda on Dagobah, “You ask the impossible.” Still, he’s agreed to accompany Varys to Meereen to meet Daenerys. I reckon Tyrion’s faith in himself will return.

But they’d better get there quickly. Daenerys’s stubborn belief in her personal sense of justice has the former slave cities on the brink of chaos. Unsullied soldiers are being murdered in brothels – “Wait! Unsullied guys can fuck?” realises Missandei, glimpsing a sexy future for her and Grey Worm – yet Daenerys refuses to reopen the fighting pits. Come on, Targaryen! You got what you want! Give dese people gladiators!

Marshalling all the persuasive power of his very fine butt, Daario Naharis tells Daenerys that his own gladiatorial past brought him to her side – and her bed. “Show your strength,” he urges. “You’re not the mother of Unsullied; you’re the mother of dragons.” But her kids are justifiably pissed off at her for locking them up. Daenerys is shaken as she flees their dungeon. She needs a major confidence boost.

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“YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM!”

Back at the Wall, Stannis is trying to goad Jon Snow into helping him retake the North, reminding him that Roose Bolton, who personally slew his brother Robb, now holds Winterfell. But Jon reminds Stannis that he’s tapped out of the game of thrones. His beliefs lie elsewhere: “I’m a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch now.”

But what did dear, departed Ygritte always tell Jon? (Was it her bow with which he put Mance out of his misery?) There’s a leadership vote coming up for Lord Commander of the Watch, and as Stannis observes, a significant chunk of the black brotherhood are loyal to Jon. He’s enmeshed in politics whether he likes it or not. But who will do the numbers if Jon won’t? Well, put it this way… Sam’s pretty keen for Gilly to stay at Castle Black, which won’t happen if mean, wildling-hating Ser Alliser’s in the top job.

This episode suggests that only those prepared to be flexible in their beliefs – accepting new strategies, modifying rigid behaviour patterns – will survive. And those who stubbornly refuse to leave their chosen paths are fools.

Game of Thrones airs on Foxtel’s Showcase on Mondays at 11am, with an encore broadcast at 7.30pm on Monday evenings.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk

Read her recaps of last season’s Game of Thrones here