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.
Andrew Prokop: Does Game of Thrones still care about who sits on that titular iron chair?
In one sense, of course not. We're given reminders every so often that as these petty would-be kings try to get their grubby hands on more power, they're completely oblivious to the threat of an approaching horde of ice zombies prepared to wipe out all life.
But in another sense, the main topic the show is interested in exploring is still power and what people do with it — both the morality of their actions, and their effectiveness.
So far, we've seen a parade of failures. Ned Stark met his end for being too naive, as did his son Robb for following his heart. At the other end of the spectrum, though, King Joffrey was so unbelievably repulsive that he was poisoned on his wedding day. And Tywin Lannister was so cruel and monomaniacally focused on bending his children to his wishes that one of them ended up murdering him.
And that brings us to Daenerys Targaryen. Neither of you, Todd and Kelsey, seems overwhelmingly thrilled with how her material starts off this year. It's worth noting that this storyline seems to be adapted pretty faithfully from book five, A Dance with Dragons (albeit with more onscreen violence) — and many readers were disappointed with it on the page, too.
I'm the odd duck, though, who did really enjoy that plotline in the books. After some fun, violent dragon rampages, Dany finally has to settle down and grapple with knotty questions of politics and morality. The former slavers of Meereen have started an insurgency against her rule — one that her conventional military strength is ill-equipped to deal with. Meanwhile, her dragons are wild and kill people — including innocents, like the child whose bones were dropped at her feet last season — so Dany's responded by chaining up two of them, while the other has vanished.
In the premiere, one former slaver tries to tell Dany that politics is the art of compromise — and she responds, "I'm not a politician. I'm a queen." Yet now that Dany's not torching people with dragonfire, she finds that the people she rules are less eager to simply obey her queenly commands. And though she's still a long way from Westeros, her response to these challenges will reveal a lot about what kind of a person she is — and how she believes her power should be used.
Meanwhile, the Wall has been insulated from the political conflicts of Westeros in previous seasons. But the premiere makes it clear that politics has arrived here too. Jon Snow must deal with two stubborn kings who also view compromise as beneath them. Stannis Baratheon demands that the captive Mance Rayder, king of the wildlings, swear fealty to him or die by burning at the stake. Mance, just as stubbornly, refuses to bend the knee — and since Stannis is the one with power, off to the pyre he goes.
It's an interesting decision on the showrunners' part to start the season with this, rather than certain other book events involving Jon. This does tie up a loose end and get rid of Mance, a character the show hasn't used well (he was far more compelling on the page). And it provides a dramatic, excellently staged setpiece to end episode one — wasn't it creepy how enthralled Stannis's wife seemed by the flames?
But thematically, these events also seem to present a warning to Jon about where rigid inflexibility can bring a leader. At the episode's conclusion, he tries to forge a middle path as best he can. He gives Mance a merciful, quick death by arrow rather than a torturously slow burning, even though Stannis won't be happy.
We'll see whether he can maintain this difficult balance between compassion and what must be done in future weeks.
Read the recap.