It begins in the mud. A girl who would be queen trudges through the muck toward a witch who sucks her blood and sees her future — and if you want to tap that kind of magic, you've gotta get your hands, (and your feet) dirty. By the sound of things, young Cersei Lannister is used to having her way. But she has no idea that getting exactly what you want can be the worst thing in the world.
Cersei will be queen alright, the witch named Maggy tells her, but she'll marry a loutish philanderer to get there. Her reign will only last until another queen, "younger and more beautiful," sweeps her aside. And her three royal children? "Gold will be their crowns," the witch coos, before adding her cackling kicker: "and gold their shrouds." She'll get to the top, but the royal won't like what she finds there.
Like all of Game of Thrones' season premieres, this episode — titled "The Wars to Come" — is a largely utilitarian affair, showing us who's alive, who's dead, who's on top, and who's on the lam. But Cersei's flashback (the first in the show's history) both sets the tone and provides the theme for the big Season Five kickoff. Once you've seized the power you've spent a lifetime fighting for, what do you do with it — and what does it do to you?
In the case of Stannis Baratheon, it makes you look pretty damn good. Of all the rival warlords we've met, Stannis is unique in that he's both hard to love and hard to hate. Actor Stephen Dillane gives him a gravelly, gritted-teeth power on screen, but until now, his retinue — fiery Melisandre, courageous Ser Davos, crazy Queen Selyse, adorable Princess Shireen — was the most interesting thing about him.
But that was before he decided to stop demanding the Iron Throne and start earning it. He saved the realm from the wildling onslaught. Now he's prepared to make peace with the very people he just defeated, using them as reinforcements to take down Roose and Ramsay Bolton, the loathsome Lannister cronies currently occupying Winterfell. When you see a guy like that standing on top of the Wall, lord of all he surveys, you can't help but feel he belongs there.
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen doesn't look quite so comfortable. She's tearing down monuments Saddam-style and playing the Game of Butts with her friend-with-benefits Daario Naharis. But her most loyal Unsullied troops are getting slaughtered by insurgents in the streets — or in the sheets, in the spirit-crushing case of the eunuch supersoldier who paid a prostitute to sing him a lullaby. Her dragons are either on the run or in chains; judging from how the pets fume at her in their prison pit, they're none too happy about it. "Politics is the art of compromise, your grace," says Hizdahr zo Loraq, her advisor from the former ruling class. "I am not a politician," she responds, "I am a queen." Right now, though, she doesn't seem much of either.
She's still doing a sight better than Tyrion Lannister. Wanted for the murder of his nephew (innocent), his father (guilty), and his concubine ex-girlfriend (sadly, it's unlikely anyone in the Seven Kingdoms cares), he's fled Westeros in a cargo box, drinking all the way. "The future is shit, just like the past," he tells his traveling companion and fellow fugitive Varys before tossing his cookies.
But the smooth-talking spymaster still sees potential in the Imp. This former Master of Whisperers has been one of the show's most endearing characters from the start, even though we know full well he's got a lifetime of dirty deeds behind him. He's won the trust of Ned Stark, Tyrion, and the audience. The question now is whether he can win the Mother of Dragons over, too — and whether he'll screw everyone over if he does. Sorry, but you don't earn a nickname like the Spider for being a pussycat.
If being a relatively decent guy gives Varys his power, other players are finding slightly less benign ways to get it and wield it. In the Vale, perpetually creepy Littlefinger insists that "a great name" is all you need, and as the caretaker of both little Lord Robin Arryn and Lady Sansa Stark, he's got two. In King's Landing, Queen Margaery Tyrell and her brother Loras (another Game of Butts MVP) rely on family and charm to sharpen their edge against their rival-in-law Cersei, who's busy browbeating her brother Jaime for his involvement in Tyrion's escape.
To Cersei's cousin-lover Lancel, however, real strength lies not in family but in faith. With his long Lannister locks shaved off, he's all but unrecognizable as the scrawny pretty-boy the queen took to bed, last seen taking a beating during the Battle of the Blackwater. Much to the disgust of his father Kevan, who's cut from his brother Tywin's no-nonsense cloth, the boy's a born-again follower of the Seven, and thrones don't matter when the gods are on your side.
That's a lesson Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, learns the hard way. He's taken his defeat by Stannis and Jon Snow relatively well, but he refuses to tell his subjects to serve in the coming Baratheon-Bolton war. After barely saving them from the White Walkers and nearly getting them killed by their southern foes, the last thing he wants to do is ask them to stand in the line of fire yet again.
But when Stannis orders Mance to be burned, fire's what he gets. The camera lingers on his face for an intolerably long time, as he watches the flames that are about to end his life in agony — until Snow casts cold water on the sacrifice by putting him out of his misery. Jon's earned power too, after all, risking everything to keep the Wall. And his willingness to risk the wrath of a king if that's what it takes to do the right thing indicates that power might suit him well.