The Casual Vacancy
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Game of Thrones returns for its fifth season amidst a flurry of anticipation and frenzy as the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire epic veers further and further away from the source material that gave it life. It’s not necessarily throwing out the books altogether – the major events are still there and so are a decent chance of the narrative overarches from the written page. The journey has just detoured slightly, or in some cases, significantly. The deepest challenge of adaptation the fourth and fifth books, entitled A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, respectively, is that they are sprawling volumes who spiral out beyond cohesion. The two books were intended to be a single tome before they got too big and Martin split them based on character, not chronology and that was a mistake. A Storm of Swords is easily the best of Martin’s five volumes so far – it had a sense of propulsive energy as it bloodily finished off several plot lines and seamlessly integrated new ones to the narrative. The following volumes were elevated by Martin’s beautiful prose, but at several instances it felt as if the subplots were taking over the central narratives. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have pulled off their toughest season yet. The story has been austerely streamlined, retaining a good deal of Martin’s strengths while eschewing those extraneous subplots. The hour is still packed to the brim (we don’t see Arya or Dorne yet), but it works stupendously.
Each season of Game of Thrones can be deconstructed through a narrative arc. Season 5 appears to be centered around a term known as “casual vacancy”. First introduced to my vocabulary through J. K. Rowling novel of the same name, a casual vacancy describes an empty seat of power that has been unexpectedly left vacant by its former occupant. There’s very much a sense of gaping vacancy in Thrones that is only further evidence of how massive Tywin’s presence truly was. The untimely departure of the Lannister patriarch has thrown open a power vacuum that has already begun to seethe. As a somber Cersei climbs the steps towards the Sept within which the body of her father lies, a long line of Westerosi nobility stands in quiet wait, the Queen Mother is perfectly aware that the lords and ladies to her side are nothing but vultures, ready to circle around and pick off the remains. But Cersei has plenty of other demons surrounding her past, present, and future outside of the nobility. The episode begins with a young Cersei and her friend Malara traversing through a forest and visiting a witch called Maggy the Frog. Cersei, who was just as pleasant as a child as she was an adult, demands to know her future, to which Maggy quickly replies “Everyone wants to know their future until they know their future.” And Cersei’s future looks to be bleak, indeed. She would not marry Prince Rhaegar of the House Targaryen, but she would marry a king. She did, King Robert of the House Baratheon. Her husband would have twenty children, but she would have three. All of her children are Jaime’s. They would all have golden manes – and golden shrouds. Joffrey, blond of hair, is dead. And a younger, more beautiful queen will along to usurp her power. Margaery? Daenerys? Sansa? Cersei’s paranoia was born at this very moment, manifesting itself slowly like a poison that would ensnare that young girl in the forest forever, unless she can cast it down the river.
The prophecy (while not the complete version found in the books) is a key to understanding the sheer amount of paranoia that Cersei has grown up with and with Joffrey’s death at his own wedding, that paranoia has only increased. And now there’s a vast amount of power right within her grasp. With the throne in her sight, the fear of Margaery, and the Westerosi nobility hungry for more power, Cersei has more than enough for a single person to handle. Yet she hasn’t forgotten about Tyrion, the little monster who is still drawing breath after committing (in her mind) regicide and patricide (truth). That is a war she will never let go of, but the subject of that war is himself in the crux of the deepest existential crisis he’s ever faced. Tyrion is hell bent on drinking his way to death, even as Varys implores that he has a vital task ahead of him. Characters this episode are prepping for the battles that are looming on the horizon, but Varys and Illyrio have been preparing for one since Robert Baratheon seized the throne. The two conspirators have the Targaryen Restoration on their mind, but Tyrion doesn’t seem to care, his mind still stuck in the double murder he committed. “Westeros needs to be saved from itself,” he cautions, sticking with the pragmatic reasoning that defines his character, noting somberly that there are more wars yet to come. He recognizes that despite the impossibility of Tyrion ever sitting on the Iron Throne himself, his intelligence is invaluable. Various describes a monarch that is almost too good to be true and Tyrion scoffs with “Good luck finding him.” “Who said anything about him?” Varys quips sharply in response.
Daenerys, the quiet subject of Varys’s planning, is herself mired in a complete clusterfuck of a situation. Conquering gave Daenerys a sense of purpose, a sense of propulsive energy that has been sapped since she took up residence in the Great Pyramid of Meereen. Knocking the Golden Harpy down from the top of said pyramid is one thing, but pure symbolism is hardly enough to rule a city. Orthodox institutions like slavery are difficult to break down completely and when a revolutionary ideology arrives to topple them down from their pedestal of power, they more often than not fight back with everything at their disposal to keep that pedestal alive. That fight back has risen in the form of a guerrilla warfare group known as the Sons of the Harpy, who are going around and murdering Unsullied soldiers and Daenerys sympathizers. Their masks are similar to those of the Harpy statue that had been broken into smithereens, but from the look of the narrative, they’re not going to be broken nearly as easily. Daenerys is wary of these fighters, but she is also faced with a proposal to reopen the fighting pits, a suggestion that effectively reinstates a certain type of slavery with a euphemistic title. Those behemoth quandaries, however, pale in front of the massive problem she faces with her dragons. Her two chained children, who are now giant despite the chains, nearly burn her alive. Daenerys isn’t defined by her dragons, but her dragons are a definitive part of who she is. There’s no gaining the Iron Throne without them.
The crux of the episode takes place in the frigid North as Jon finds himself in the fairly difficult position of trying to broker a compromise between Mance Rayder and Stannis. Stannis wants the wildlings to fight for him in his battles of Westeros, which is a rather rich suggestion of him considering that he just massacred them in the previous episode. If they fight for him and he wins, they will get land and pardons in accompaniment. Mance isn’t having any of it. It’s not his pride that is preventing him from bending the knee to Stannis because fuck his pride. It’s the simple reality that he would be betraying everything he stood for and he would much rather burn. It’s a classic case of a Hobson’s choice, where you’re essentially screwed no matter what, but Mance has a point. He promised his people that they no longer would shed their blood. In all consciousness, how could he look towards the wildlings he had spent his entire life uniting and ask them to sacrifice their lives in a foreign war so another ass can sit on a throne in King’s Landing? He’s seen the wights, the Ones, and the terror of the Far North that is going to descend upon the rest of the continent. That’s the true war to come, no matter who sits on the bloody Iron Throne. There’s a heavy weight of tragedy in this entire sequence, encapsulated by Ciarán Hinds’s finest performance in the role yet. Mance burns at the stake not because he was too selfish to bend the knee, but because he knew that in doing so he would be condemning all of his people to darkness and he had no right to do that. As he’s writhing in pain and about to utter a final scream, Jon releases an arrow, impaling Mance and putting him out of his pain. The two share one final glance of mutual respect before the flames consume the morbid night itself.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The opening scene with Cersei was shot expertly – the feeling of a classic fairly tale going for a tone of full dread was kept intact throughout
+The practice of laying stones on the eyes of the dead is as creepy as it used to be
+Cersei’s sharp takedown of Jamie in the Sept of Baelor was oh so satisfying
+“He loved you more than anyone in this world.”
+I want a montage of Cersei ignoring people
+The show manages to get an incredible mileage out of small characters. The sequence with the Unsullied soldier wanting some human contact before having his throat slit was horrifying.
+The harpy statue being taken down is a direct reference to when the Valyrians defeated the Ghiscari Empire (whose symbol was a harpy) using their dragons, here repeated with Daenerys
+“Are you a virgin?” Jon, stay away from that, despite your affinity for redheads
+The tourney at the Vale was a neat little scene, complete with this completely inappropriate line about Robyn: “He fights like a girl with palsy.”
+Sansa and Petyr Baelish riding right past Brienne and Podrick
+Loras and Olyver’s sex scene is going to be important in the future
+Margaery’s ominous “Perhaps” in regards to Cersei is perfectly haunting
+“The freedom to make my mistakes is all I’ve ever wanted.”
+The “wars to come” titular connection between Mance and Varys was well-done. Here are two individuals who are able to see long-term
Title: The Wars to Come
Written By: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed By: Michael Slovis
Image Courtesy: Reddit