Game of Thrones for Noobs

Season 5, Episode 1: "The Wars to Come"

The Facts
Game of Thrones has become a downright phenomenon. And while the books certainly made author George RR Martin into some kind of rockstar, the HBO series has exploded into a pop-culture powerhouse in its own right. But what about those of us who never read the books or watched the show before now because we had other things going on (read, there are those of us who, anytime a bazillion people say something is amazing, adopt this, “There’s no fucking way it’s that good!” attitude)? This is the review series for you. For the next however-many weeks, I am going in blind, and while there is no denying the web-like complexity of GoT’s plots, subplots, family trees and never-ending roster of characters, there are certain unalienable truths when it comes to serialized storytelling that ought to offset any unpleasantness. By using guidelines like accessibility, entertainment value, acting, writing and so forth, we can all hopefully come to a semi-informed decision about whether this show is worth watching or not. I look forward to the angry, borderline-horrifying comments that this post will no doubt bring.

The Story Thus Far

Ned Stark was killed and his kids were bummed; a young blonde woman received some dragons and then banged a muscle-bound guy all sorts and became a queen; a baffling number of lords, knights, hangers-on and politicians tried to screw each other over; and a sadistic young boy who was a complete dick became a king, only to get poisoned. Fans of the books and show made the rest of us feel bad because we dared to ask if GoT was any good, and I saw George RR Martin at Whole Foods once.

The Gist
Game of Thrones Season 5 began with a whimper rather than a bang, as we were given a relatively suspense-free glimpse into the past of Cersei Lannister via flashback. Even as a pre-teen, she is clearly a total bitch, and we feel sort of tense as she makes her wimpy friend feel like shit as they walk through some nameless yet obviously forbidden forest. This is some serious foreshadowing, and Cersei is on the hunt for this hut-dwelling oracle/witch, who acts pretty snippy for someone living alone in a lumber pile she’s calling a house. From this witch, we learn that even though young Cersei will become a queen, her betrothed is probably not going to treat her well. This would, perhaps, be surprising if anyone in the GoT microcosm was nice to anyone else, but it does give us a little more to go on and is sort of an answer as to why the most ladylike of the Lannister brood is always so damn concerned with what’s going to happen to her and her kids.

We return to the present and the sad realization that Cersei's father was crossbowed to death in the previous season by her brother, Tyrion. This is a drag, because the recently deceased patriarch was played by actor Charles Dance, whose turn as the villain in the criminally underrated Schwarzenegger action flick lampoon, The Last Action Hero, was just shy of some brilliant, Alan Rickman-esque goodness. Anyway, the people are bummed, but Cersei and her glorious braids aren't really having it. Condolences are offered from anyone with enough sympathy to hang around on the stairs outside the church-like building in which her father's body is being kept, but she meets these people with serious bitchiness. We don't like her.

Elsewhere, newly freed slaves are wrecking shit while the dragon queen (you know the one) says, "No way!" to the resurgence of pit fighting in her kingdom. We know from cultural osmosis that she's called Khaleesi or some such, and she refers to the proposed fighting pits as "human cockfighting." Her realm is reminiscent of ancient Egypt, one in which prostitutes let their tits hang out freely in the streets. Any statue-toppling skinhead looking for a back-alley lullaby and spooning from a whore can feel right at home here, though apparently hanging around the brothels also comes with a throat-slitting, which is too bad, because it seems that recently-freed slaves still feel pretty sore over the whole forced-labor thing.

The dragon queen—right this second, I've just learned from a buddy who likes the show that she is named Daenerys Targaryen —makes snide jokes about being a queen rather than a politician and has chained up her dragons for reasons we can't possibly know if we're attempting to get into the show now. One thing's for sure, though—things are tense.

Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion Lannister (the always-enjoyable Peter Dinklage) emerges from a crate and bitches about the trip by debating the practicality and logistics of shitting while trapped in said box with some Matt Pinfield-looking guy named Varys the Spider. Varys attempts to convince Tyrion that he's a smart enough guy who might be able to help out a ruler down the road and that such a ruler might not have to be a dude, and we as the audience are kind of like, "Whoa. This reminds me of Lord of the Rings, when Eowyn tells that Ringwraith leader that she can fully kill him because of women's rights!"

Is this statement on a possible female ruler a gasp-worthy moment? Maybe so, but we new viewers wouldn't know. Tyrion, meanwhile, is clearly bummed about Westeros, and an earlier "Previously on…" moment that showed us how he killed his girlfriend and dad makes us empathize with his situation, even though he's evidently killing whoever he can. Still, one can't help but think that even though he says he won't go back to Westeros, he probably will.

In various other parts of the world, gay vacation plans are fantasized about between lovers (kudos to GoT for providing homosexual characters who aren't there for the sole purpose of being included), Daenerys is given a history lesson on why fighting pits aren't all that bad and is then yelled at by her poor, imprisoned dragons, and that one lady warrior who looks like Tilda Swinton and Charlie Bucket had a kid travels with some young guy who was apparently in some kind of danger but who knows, because they don't get into it.

Meanwhile, in the frozen north by that one big-ass wall, Jon Snow (finally, a name we can all recognize) doles out sword lessons to children and attempts to get the Braveheart-esque king of the bearded forest-dwellers from the other side of the Wall to swear fealty to Stannis Baratheon who, apparently, claims to be king of all seven kingdoms (even though my buddy just told me he's not actually king of anything). For whatever misguided reason, the king of the forest-dwellers simply won't bow to Stannis, even though this means he'll be burned alive. Jon Snow, who respects the guy as a leader, tries desperately to remind him that winter is right around the corner and that means ice zombies who pretty much want to kill everyone. But the guy just won't listen and makes a lackluster speech about standing up for what you believe in.

Does he die? You bet. Sooner or later, everyone does on this damn show, but it isn't how you think, and along the way, we learn that Jon Snow is probably the kind of guy who always stands up for what he believes is right no matter the cost…wow, maybe that guy's speech about conviction made an impact after all. Anyway, Jon Snow is also handsome.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, “The Wars to Come” provides tons of exposition coupled with reminders of how last season’s fighting and traveling and political intrigue led to everyone being forced to kind of take a breather to figure out their respective next moves. That said, it’s hard as hell to come into the situation with no previous knowledge and figure out what is going on. Certain threads do remain intriguing, and obviously the promise of sex and violence to come surely has the power to hook new viewers, but questions still remain: What will happen to the people who live on the other side of the Wall now that their king is dead? What will the Khaleesi do with her dragons next? Does no one around here realize that burning someone alive is fucking cruel?! Who was the one guy traveling with the lady warrior, and why did she shout at him about how he’s not her squire because she’s not a knight, even though she totally looks like a knight? Hopefully next week’s episode gives us more insight into the fiction, but it’ll probably be worth it just to see what that jerk Stannis has to say to Jon Snow about his actions; GoT has certainly proved that no character is safe.

There’s a lot going on, and most of it seems pretty tense…like, I kind of want to know what’ll happen next. Pretty violent. Fairly expositional. Dragons are cool, even if they’re only onscreen for 5 seconds.

Who the hell are all these people? Viewers are expected to be completely up to speed with everything going on, leaving little room for new converts. Dinklage doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, and let’s face it—we all like him best.

The Grade
B Minus: I’m definitely interested, but it seems like there would be an awful lot of homework if I cared enough to be well-informed.

Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights on HBO. GIFS via
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