Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back later today for thoughts from Kelsey and Andrew.
Todd VanDerWerff: Game of Thrones is back!
And I don't just mean in the sense of it being back on the air after nearly a year off. I mean in the sense of finding a lot of season four rougher around the edges than the show had been in the past. The series was bumping up against the end of the third book in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series — a.k.a. the last book pretty much everybody likes in the series — and it showed that the series' writers weren't quite sure how much they should start taking liberties with the source material.
Well, as both Andrew and I have already pointed out, "The Wars to Come" is the equivalent of series showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss sitting on the floor of their writers' room, cackling madly while ripping page after page out of Martin's books and tossing them into a blazing inferno. The premiere doesn't completely leave behind the text, but it takes greater liberties than the show ever has before, and the series feels rejuvenated for it.
As I watched the episode, I couldn't help but notice one major difference between the book series and TV show — whereas I'm pretty sure the central family of the books is the Stark family, the TV show long ago shifted its focus to the treacherous Lannisters.
That's driven home by how this episode is framed. In a flashback (which is depicted as a dream sequence in the books), we see Cersei Lannister as a child, who is given a dire prophecy from an old witch. And then in the present day of the series, Cersei has become more cornered than ever. Her family's wealth slowly leaking out of her grasp, she's now lost her father, who was the chief thing still shielding the Lannister family from the slings and arrows of the people. And, worse, her father was killed by the brother she's despised since he was born — a brother who's now safely a continent away.
The Lannisters, with their complicated family dynamics and incestuous couplings, just make so much more sense as the center of a TV show than the Stark kids, who are all stuck in various fantasy novel tropes all over the world. The Lannisters are like the Ewings of Dallas or the residents of Melrose Place — they're so paranoid and certain death is at their door that they can't help but make things more interesting every time they're on the screen.
In the grand tradition of Game of Thrones premieres, "The Wars to Come" is more setup than it is anything else, but for once, I'm interested in far more of the plots being set up than usual. As much as I like Dany as a character, she tends to become stranded in lousy storylines, and her adventures with a band of Scooby Doo villains killing her men flirt dangerously with becoming yet another one of those. (This is pretty close to a storyline from the books, but I didn't like that one much, either.) But other than that, this was solid, muscular storytelling.
There are even hints throughout that these characters' paths might cross sooner than we think — when Sansa and Littlefinger embark on their trip, they roll right by Brienne and Podrick. Martin's books sometimes seem as if he realized he needed to start collapsing his universe again but just wanted to keep expanding. Game of Thrones seems much more comfortable with collapsing — here's hoping it happens soon.
Maybe all Game of Thrones needed was to realize that all adaptations eventually have to stand on their own, separate from their source material. That we've gotten to an episode like this is thrilling, particularly when you consider how little the series dared deviate in its early going. "The Wars to Come" takes a little while to get going, but it also knows what this series is best at, and that's a heartening thing to see.
What did you guys think? Are you happy to be back in Westeros? Or are you impatient for Dany's dragons to eat everybody?
Read the recap, and come back later for thoughts from Kelsey and Andrew.