'Game of Thrones' returns for season 5 with a revealing flashback and one character meeting a horrible fate.
Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

The Game of Thrones season 5 premiere has finally aired!

Or as the illegal downloaders are calling it: “That one I watched three episodes back.”

But no matter, we’re staying on the official path and Sunday’s eagerly awaited premiere gave us plenty to talk about: The fantasy hit’s first-ever flashback scene starring Mean Girl Cersei, a game-changing conversation between Tyrion and Varys that we’ll recap in a singularly unique way, Daario’s butt makes return appearance, and we see a brutal burning at the stake for one recurring character (a.k.a., what HBO’s lawyers are planning to do to whoever leaked its Thrones screeners online).

Let’s start our recap with—

Westerlands: Two teen girls squelch through the mud in the forest, looking like characters out of a fairy tale. We don’t realize it when this scene opens, but this dour marsh is the first-ever scene in the wealthy and powerful Lannister family lands ruled by Casterly Rock. Presumably the rest of their homeland doesn’t look like Dagobah. The brunette resists going further, and the blonde who we will soon learn is a supremely bratty young Cersei says, “You don’t need to be afraid of my father” with a look that makes it clear her BFF should be afraid of displeasing her instead. Even back then, Cersei was trying to get out from dad’s shadow (yet she does hold her friend’s hand like they’re the dead Shining twins—nowadays, Cersei barks at any female who dares to touch her).

They enter a hut seeking legendary local seer Maggy the Frog. In George R.R. Martin’s books, the character is described as an old crone, but the HBO series has made her young and chesty, like a pirate wench who escaped from Starz’ Black Sails. You wonder what kind of drugs she smokes in that hut all day while applying black eyeliner.

Young Cersei demands her fortune and ignores Maggy’s warning that she really doesn’t want to know what her future holds.

So Maggy gives Cersei a prophecy that messes up her life forever: She will be queen, but “then comes another, younger, more beautiful to cast you down and take all you hold dear” (hmm, Margaery? Daenerys?). She notes the king will have 20 children (because of all his bastard offspring) but she will have only three. Then she’ll see all of her kids die—”gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.” Maggy then cackle-laughs like she’s the Wicked Witch of the Westeros.

Thrones then cuts to present day. This is a shame because I was digging this flashback and really wanted to see more, like a special Cersei Lannister episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen (“I told daddy I wanted a dragon, but instead I had to settle for these stupid ponies”).

King’s Landing: Grown-up Cersei walks to Great Sept of Baelor, where her father lies in state. She practically hisses at Margaery on the way up. We now have a bit more insight into why she hates Margaery so much and why she’s so paranoid about losing her kids.

She goes into the Sept and there’s Jaime, standing vigil and looking busted. In the books, we learn Tywin’s body smells so awful nobody can enter the Sept for days afterward, but the show spares us this detail. Jaime warns his sister that now that she’s running the show (since King Tommen Baratheon—First of His Name and Petter of Ser Pounce—is still so young) that their enemies will try to steal her power. But Cersei is only focused on hating Tyrion for killing her dad. This is so Cersei. For somebody who’s been trying to avoid an all-encompassing prophecy, she’s so rarely focused on the big picture instead of individual enemies.

Cersei shoots back: “Tyrion may be a monster, but at least he killed our father on purpose.” Ah burn, Jaime. As a Kingsguard charged with protecting the royal family, Jaime has been rather terrible at his job. And if anybody else had set Tyrion free, Cersei would have them executed immediately. Lucky for him, these two are rather close.

Thankfully, Jaime doesn’t get annoyed and push Cersei like last season. Their love life is already pretty impractical and would be a tough fetish for any couple to sustain if “close family member laying dead nearby in the Sept” became the only way they could get off.

Later, Cersei hits the wine at her father’s wake. Notice we experience this gathering from her point of view—everybody she speaks to comes off like a suck-up, an idiot, or both, which is how she tends to see most other people. She bumps into her cousin Lancel. He got a haircut and has joined a cult called the Sparrows, which will play a significant role this season. Remember that Cersei had secretly convinced Lancel to poison her husband, King Robert Baratheon, on a boar hunt in season 1? She also has had sex with Lancel because, after all, he’s family.

Elsewhere, Ser Loras is having some play-time with Olyvar, the guy who runs Littlefinger’s brothels, when his sister Margaery enters. Now most actresses would pick one way to react to this situation. Natalie Dormer could have chosen to respond with annoyance, curiosity, amusement—or even attraction toward Olyvar. And what does Dormer do? All of those! She cycles through each of these emotions and it’s quite fun to watch; an example of how a great actor will take a scene that’s mostly exposition in the script and make it much more interesting (though for a moment she’s so lit up we’re worried she’s about to jump into bed too, adding even more blonde-on-blonde incest into this show).

The main take-away from this scene is that since Tywin is dead, Loras will no longer will have to marry Cersei, which is huge relief for both of them, though a bummer for us as this is a pairing that would be an entertaining trainwreck. This also means that Cersei will presumably stay in King’s Landing instead of going away with Loras. Margaery wants to figure out a way to ship her evil mother-in-law off to a Highgarden retirement home. We suspect Cersei will not like this plan one bit.

Pentos: Tyrion gets unpacked from his crate by Varys, now across the sea in Essos. We’re helpfully told Tyrion shoved his poop out the air holes on his voyage and Varys threw the waste overboard. We’re not informed how he urinated. Peeing out those same holes seems like it would require some contortion. Varys washes his hands after opening the crate, but Tyrion does not and heads straight for the wine. Given the information we just received, Tyrion’s move seems hugely unsanitary. But Tyrion is in a spiral of depression having killed his father and lover and doesn’t care and just wants to drink and puke and drink again.

“Westeros needs to be saved from itself,” Varys says. “We are talking about the future of our country.” But I’m on Tyrion’s side here—c’mon Varys, give the poor man a day or two before you throw the fate of the realm on his shoulders! Ever get off a long flight and need a meal and shower before doing anything urgent? Imagine how Tyrion must feel.

I dove pretty heavily into this scene in EW’s recent Thrones cover story. So I won’t go too deep here, except to note that this is a fantastic scene and the first time we’ve heard a really optimistic vision for the future on this show. “A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless.” Varys urging Tyrion to seek out Dany is game-changing moment and—actually, you know what? Let’s just recap this scene another way. Here’s the Tyrion and Varys scene performed as text messages:

Meereen: The giant harpy statue on Dany’s pyramid is pulled down, sliding destructively down the pyramid in a dramatic fashion—hope nobody chose that moment to stick their head out a window. It’s like some fantasy version of the Iraqis pulling down the statue of Hussein, but the soldiers seem to stand way too close to its landing spot.

We see one Unsullied who is Not Grey Worm Just Looks Like Grey Worm. He decides to celebrate with a trip to the brothel for some motherly comfort. There he looks way too happy and peaceful for Game of Thrones so he’s quickly killed by a masked man—a member of the Sons of the Harpy, an insurgent group that’s looking to bring down Dany’s slave-free new world order. Dany tells her council she wants these rebels hunted down.

After the meeting, Missandei asks the Real Grey Worm why an Unsullied would go to a brothel. He mumbles that he doesn’t know and stomps off. See Missandei, it’s just a total mystery, just like why you’re clearly so attracted to somebody who’s a terrible conversationalist without any tackle. Grey Worm is a handsome fighter, but if he can’t have sex and is totally boring to talk to, is he really worthy of one of the most eligible bachelorettes in Essos?

Local nobleman Hizdahr zo Loraq urges Dany to open the fighting pits as it’s a wise political move. Dany’s retort, “I’m not a politician, I’m a queen,” is perfectly delivered with a smile and an edge. In bed later, her lover Daario tells her she’s making a mistake, and we agree. Once again, there’s a sort of Middle East policy lesson to be learned here, something about forcing the ideals of a democracy that developed organically too hard on a culture that has long operated a certain way. Daario tells her of his rise to power as a gladiator—which could be a TV show in itself—and the tale disturbs Dany’s Oprah-esque idealism.

Also of note: Daario shows his sculpted butt. Interestingly, when Dany was Drogo’s love-slave, we saw her naked but not much of him. Now that she’s in power, we’ve been getting Daario naked, while she remains covered. There’s either something to be said here about retaining power by retaining your clothes … or something about how TV actors are better able to refuse getting naked the more seasons they’re on a show (which, come to think of it, is a dynamic that might also be about retaining your power by retaining your clothes).

Anyway, Dany confesses she’s lost control of her dragons. Daario shoots back: “A dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen.” That’s pretty harsh and I bet Daario did not get a second round after that.

So Dany goes into her vault where she has two of her dragons chained. The dragons have seldom been truly scary on this show. This scene has a horror-film vibe, like Dany is the heroine going into the dark basement without a flashlight. The dragons freak out on her (the San Francisco premiere audience jumped in their seats). Speaking of looking weak, Dany scrambling out probably wasn’t a good thing for her guards to witness. If she were like most other rulers on this show, she would have had them killed, just to be safe.

The Vale: We’re treated to Lord Robin Arryn flailing helplessly during his fighting lesson. He’s probably just off his game because he hasn’t had his morning breastmilk yet. Littlefinger is ditching Robin off at a local lord’s house while starting a mysterious journey with Sansa. When Littlefinger receives an r-mail message, Sansa gets so tense she looks ready to bolt across the meadow. She may have had a confident change of wardrobe last year, but she’s also finely tuned to how quickly her fate can change.

“Where are we going?” she asks later, and Littlefinger’s reply is oh-so slippery: “A land so far from here even Cersei Lannister can’t get her hands on you.” Translation: Whatever my this plan is—you know, the one that I’m not telling you about—it’s for your own good and will keep you safe. I say that because I know your concern and this is the quickest way to calm you.

They ride right past Podrick and Brienne, yet another cruel near miss on this show. Brienne is in a terrible mood after having lost Arya last season. She tells Pod all the things she’s not—she’s not his mother, she’s not a knight, she’s not a leader. Brienne likes structure and purpose, and now she’s feeling unmoored. “The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters,” she says. It sounds like Sansa’s amazing line from yesteryear, that “the truth is always either terrible or boring.” Too bad she can’t chat with Sansa, they could bitterness-bond over a pint. In fact, a whole bunch of Thrones good guys—from Tyrion to Arya to Brienne to Jon—could just have one amazing gripe-fest if they ever got together.

Castle Black: Jon Snow is teaching young Ollie how to fight, and in the foreground of the shot we’re treated to an increasingly rare look at a direwolf, Ghost. Remember when you thought direwolves were going to be a regular part of Game of Thrones and save the day all the time like Nymeria did for Arya in the first season? Instead we’ve learned they’re more like house cats—they just laze around, eat and then wander off and totally ignore you.

Snow pauses his training, turns around, and suddenly there’s Melisandre. I like how the editing of this moment gives you the subtle impression that she just sort of popped into existence behind him.

They take the elevator to the top of The Wall. She’s eyeballing him hard. Melisandre is a lot of things, but subtle isn’t one of them. We know she’s turned on by noble blood, even half-noble like Gendry. She says she’s not cold because she’s so full of her own burning self-righteousness, um, I mean, the Lord of Light’s fire. Maybe it’s residual warmth from barbecuing so many nonbelievers. She asks him if he’s Jon the virgin. For some reason, I’m sure she already knows his answer; Melisandre just emits so much perceptive creepiness. Jon says he’s not and she says “good,” making her intentions clear.

They meet Stannis at the Top of The Wall. Now notice, there’s no actual reason in the story for this scene to be at the Top of The Wall. But we don’t mind because the Top of The Wall is just so damn cool. It’s like when you have a friend who has a roof deck, he always wants to hang out up there.

Stannis reveals his plan to take back the North from the laconically sinister Roose Bolton, who now holds Jon Snow’s former home of Winterfell. He also wants the Wildlings to join him. Stannis needs Jon to convince their captured leader Mance Rayder to “bend the knee” (sounds sexual; isn’t) and order his men to follow him. In return Stannis will give his men Westeros citizenship and land. This sounds like a good deal, and is.

Later, in a Castle Black cell, Mance and Jon discuss matters of life and death. Fans of Martin’s books say Mance hasn’t been well served by the HBO series. Casting Ciaran Hinds gave the rogue charmer in the books a very different personality. Yet this is a truly great scene, expertly written, Hinds’ best on the show, and really illustrates the delicate situation. Here are three stubborn men—Stannis, Mance, and Jon. All basically respect each other. Yet there’s this fundamental disagreement that’s going to lead one to have a horrifying death at the hands of another.

Jon lays out a great legal argument: Mance is a uniter, not a divider, and “isn’t [the Wildlings’] survival more important than your pride?” Mance insists “this isn’t about that,” but then explains that his men follow him because they respect him and believe in him and the moment he bends the knee “that’s all gone.” Sorry Mance, but as the great Marsellus Wallace once said, that’s pride talking.

Mance looks pretty horrified when he learns Stannis plans to burn him. “Bad way to go.”

The King Beyond the Wall is marched out into the courtyard and stays true to his conviction, but wishes Stannis “good fortune in the wars to come.”

What happens next is awful. Mance is tied to the stake and Melisandre does the honors. As usual, Stannis’ wife, Selyse, watches with sick pleasure, his daughter Shireen stares with horror. For some reason, Gilly has a front-row seat too. Jon storms off and we think it’s because he’s refusing to watch. But when Jon’s arrow hits Mance’s chest, we realize—as does everybody else—that Jon just performed an act of mercy. One that could get him tied to the stake next.

When the credits pop up, Thrones seems so very cruel. The premiere is over already? If the hour feels cut shot, it’s perhaps because the episode was focused on fewer story lines than usual. Oftentimes GoT is jumping between as many as eight different major locations. Here we had a lot of Jon, Tyrion, Dany, Cersei, and a smattering of Sansa and Brienne. No Arya (but next week makes up for that). And Bran is benched this year. Plus, story lines are coming together—Stannis at Castle Black means no more scenes of Stannis moping at his big dining room table in Dragonstone. What this all means there’s less darting around the globe and a little more time spent with each major location in any given hour: Convergence is happening!

And we have more for you: An interview with Mance Rayder himself, Ciaran Hinds, about his big send off (with a Bonus Question that fans of the books will find particularly interesting). There’s also George R.R. Martin and showrunner David Benioff talking a bit about the flashback scene (and why it isn’t a flashback)—and that one is live right now. And if you didn’t catch my Reddit AMA about Game of Thrones, fans of the saga asked some really smart and fun questions.

Next week: A lot of Arya and one of those never-before-seen character cross-over encounters that you’ve been hearing so much about leading up to this season. Of course, as those who downloaded the episodes illegally have already discovered, in the third episode Cersei strangles Margaery to death and in the fourth we learn Jon Snow’s real father is Robert Baratheon.* But don’t worry, we’re not posting anything from the leaks! Until then, follow me for ongoing Game of Thrones scoop at @jameshibberd.

*Does not actually happen.

Episode Recaps

Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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