Back in season one of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister told us that when you play the game of thrones, "you win or you die." But by now, it's become clear to Cersei (and everyone else) that this isn't an either/or proposition. You can win the game, and still be toast. Just ask Tywin Lannister.
It's hard to think of a character who "won" the game more conclusively than Cersei's father — his dynasty was on top, with his grandson Joffrey on the throne and his enemies dead or broken. And then, first Joffrey was poisoned and then Tywin was murdered by his own son, Tyrion.
Tywin's death hangs over the first episode of Game of Thrones season five like... well, like a shroud. Tywin didn't die as a result of anyone's schemes — even Varys, who let Tyrion out of his cell, didn't plan on Tywin getting killed. So nobody is prepared for the fallout, and everyone is making new plans in this Tywin-less world.
And this gets at one of the major themes of A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, the George R.R. Martin books that this season is based on. Even the victors of the struggles in previous books are standing on unsteady ground, because their victories came at the cost of undermining the foundations of government.
And also, if this is a story about "Fire and Ice," as the overall title of Martin's book series suggests, then this season opener ends up with a couple of our heroes who discover quite how horrible fire can be. Anyway, let's take the main storylines one by one...
The episode opens with the show's first ever flashback — to Cersei's childhood, when she and her friend Melara go to visit a fortune teller, Maggy the Frog. And Maggy has nothing particularly good to tell Cersei, especially in the context of what we already know.
Cersei will marry a king, she'll have three children (but her husband will have 20 by other women). And all three of her children will die. ("Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.") Cersei will be queen, until someone younger and more beautiful (Margaery Tyrell) comes along, to take it all away from her.
This flashback helps show why Cersei is so insanely insecure and scheming — but it also seems more pertinent now that Cersei doesn't have Tywin to protect her. The flashback shows her bringing up her father a lot — these are her father's lands, and Cersei can have her father blind Maggy if she doesn't tell Cersei's fortune, and so on.
This flashback cuts directly to Tywin being laid in state, with half of Westeros waiting to pay their respects — and Jaime tries to warn Cersei that with Tywin gone, everyone will see the Lannisters as weak. Everything Tywin built during his life belongs to them now, but they'll have to fight to keep it. But Cersei is too busy blaming Jaime for Tywin's death (because Jaime let Tyrion out of his cell) to worry about Jaime's warnings.
But then Cersei is surrounded by people mouthing platitudes about her dead father, including her "betrothed," Ser Loras Tyrell, and she can see the sharks circling. She meets her cousin, Lancel Lannister, whom we haven't seen in a couple years — and he's converted to an order of religious fanatics, the Sparrows.
Cersei's uncle Kevan Lannister (Lancel's father) sniffs that the Sparrows would never have dared show up in King's Landing when Tywin was alive. They're basically the Protestant version of the Seven Gods' worshippers, violently opposed to the hypocrisy and corruption of the church. And Lancel is sort of a born-again follower of the Seven — which is bad news for Cersei, since Lancel now repents having sex with Cersei and drugging King Robert during his fatal boar hunt, at Cersei's orders.
Lancel wants to encourage Cersei to repent herself, and seek "peace in the light of the Seven," but Cersei's not terribly interested.
As for Loras Tyrell, he believes that with Tywin dead, he won't have to marry Cersei any more. Instead, he can just cavort more or less openly with his lover, Olyvar (who was posing as a squire when Loras first met him — and Loras either doesn't know or doesn't care that Olyvar actually works for Littlefinger and is running Littlefinger's brothel.)
And Loras thinks this means that Margaery is stuck with Cersei as her mother-in-law, since Cersei won't be marrying Loras and going to live in Highgarden. But Margaery just responds, "Perhaps."
Speaking of Littlefinger, he doesn't mention Tywin by name in this episode — but he tells Sansa that he's taking her where even Cersei Lannister will never find her. The fact that he mentions Cersei instead of Tywin means he definitely knows Tywin is dead, and he's already laying plans for the fallout. (And we see Littlefinger receive a message, which he's very careful not to show to anyone else.)
Littlefinger and Sansa leave Lord Robin Arryn, the whiny little kid who was always trying to throw people down the moon door, with Lord Royce, one of Lord Arryn's bannermen. (And Lord Royce seems determined to whip Robin into some kind of fighting shape, which is easier said than done.) Littlefinger tells Royce he's taking Sansa to the Fingers, where Littlefinger's own family home is — but instead, he's taking her somewhere else.
What is Littlefinger planning for Sansa, and how did Tywin's death alter his calculations? We don't really find out, but he does remind Sansa never to trust anybody, as her apprenticeship in scheming seems to continue.
Sansa and Littlefinger pass tantalizingly close to Brienne of Tarth, who's still pretty depressed after her failed attempt to offer protection to Sansa's sister Arya. Brienne is pretty bitter, even though her "squire" Podrick tries to convince her that Sansa still might want Brienne's protection, even if Arya turned it down. Podrick assumes they'll head for Castle Black, in the hopes that Sansa will seek out her half-brother Jon Snow there. But Brienne has pretty much given up.
And she tells that Podrick that he's not really a squire, because she's not really a knight, and the only reason why he's been following her is because King's Landing wasn't safe for him after Tyrion's arrest. Now that they're hundreds of miles from King's Landing, there's no reason for Podrick to stick with Brienne — she doesn't want anyone following her.
"All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believed in," Brienne says. "All the good lords are dead, and the rest are monsters."
Tyrion is at his absolute lowest, after killing his father Tywin and his ex-lover Shae, and he's basically decided to drink himself to death. But Varys, who rescued Tyrion and brought him to Illyrio Mopatis' house in Pentos, is determined to convince Tyrion that he can still help save Westeros — by helping Danerys Targaryen, the rightful heir.
When we first met Daenerys, she was living at Illyrio's place with her brother, before Illyrio married her off to Khal Drogo. And Varys now explains that he and Illyrio saw King Robert's reign as a disaster, and schemed to bring the Targaryens back to power. (Arya eavesdropped on the two of them scheming, back in season one.) And that led to a "chain of mistakes" that have left things worse than before.
Tyrion and Varys have one of their great philosophical debates — Tyrion insists that "the powerful have always preyed on the powerless," and that's how they stay powerful. Any other state of affairs is an unattainable fantasy. But Varys insists that another way is possible — you can have peace and prosperity, and a just realm. And Varys believes Daenerys can make that a reality.
Tyrion is being abnormally cynical, even by his standards — but Varys' faith in Tyrion's ability to help Daenerys goes back to Tyrion's tenure as Hand of the King, back in season two. Tyrion actually did try to help the common people and get rid of corrupt leaders like Lord Janos Slynt (more on Slynt in a minute). So Varys believes that Tyrion has Tywin's political acumen, tempered with compassion, which is what the world needs right now.
Since it's Tyrion's fault that Tywin has left a huge power vacuum in Westeros, Varys sees Tyrion as playing a key role in helping to fill it again. Of course, that all depends on Daenerys having what it takes to rule wisely.
Now that she's ruling Meereen, the "mother of dragons" needs to appear strong, but she's facing an insurgency that's almost impossible to fight openly. As her soldier/lover Daario Naharis tells her, the moment she shows any weakness, her "thousands of enemies" will attack — and already, the pro-slavery terrorist group, the Sons of the Harpy, has killed one of her Unsullied, White Rat.
(Why was White Rat visiting a brothel, where he was murdered? The eunuch seemed to want a woman to hold him and sing to him — but when the ex-slave Missandei asks the Unsullied leader Grey Worm about it, he claims not to know why the Unsullied would spend time in brothels. There's so much subtext in that scene, as Missandei tries to understand what desire is to the Unsullied — but Grey Worm shoots her down.)
In any case, Daenerys orders White Rat buried with honor in the Temple of the Graces — which will make the Sons of the Harpy even angrier, and maybe encourage them to stick their necks out, so Daenerys can slice their heads off.
But Daario insists that Daenerys can show strength by compromising... which seems counter-intuitive on the face of it. Hizdahr zo Loraq, the "friendly" representative of the ex-slavers, has asked Daenerys to reinstate the fighting pits where slaves fought each other for the amusement of their masters. Daario insists that the fighting pits were what made him into the man he is today, but also that doing this will show that Daenerys is in a strong position. (Even though it looks like a major concession to her enemies.)
Daario, who seems to be playing on Daenerys' insecurities, tells her that she's not a dragon queen without dragons — so she goes to visit the two dragons that she's chained up in the catacombs under Meereen — and they're not happy to see her. They lunge out of the dark, breathing fire at her and generally snapping. They're the main source of her legitimacy as a ruler (other than her name) and she's officially lost control over them.
This episode is mostly just ramping up and putting pieces in position for the rest of the season. There aren't a lot of huge turning points in this episode — except for the very end, when Jon Snow makes a pretty major decision: he shoots Mance Rayder with an arrow, rather than let Mance burn to death in Melisandre's bonfire.
Melisandre is burning Mance Rayder as an object lesson to the rest of the defeated Wildlings, of what happens to people who defy King Stannis. (She may also be burning him because he's a sort of self-proclaimed king, and there's power in a king's blood — but this isn't actually stated outright.) Stannis wants Mance, the vanquished leader of the "Free Folk," to kneel and swear fealty to him, but not even Jon Snow is able to convince Mance to do that.
Actually, Stannis wants Mance and the Wildlings to join his army, in return for a pardon, and a grant of citizenship and lands in Westeros — which is a pretty bold move on Stannis' part but also a sign of a bit of desperation. Stannis still doesn't have enough soldiers to take the Iron Throne, even with his new sell-swords bought with borrowed coin.
And with Tywin dead, Stannis sees an opportunity to attack Roose Bolton, who no longer has Tywin to prop him up. After Roose stabbed Robb Stark, he was rewarded with the Stark family home, Winterfell, and the hereditary Stark title of Warden of the North. So now Stannis' next move, before the snows come, is to attack Roose and retake Winterfell as the first step to taking the rest of the Seven Kingdoms.
Jon Snow wouldn't mind seeing Roose get what's coming to him — but he's also sympathetic to Mance's refusal to abandon his principles. Mance united the Wildlings because he wouldn't ever bow to a southern king or lord, and the moment he goes back on that, he loses their respect. So there's no way that Mance can convince the Wildlings to follow Stannis, even if he was willing to let his people bleed for someone else's war.
Jon Snow, meanwhile, is in a tough spot, because half the Night's Watch hates him for his closeness to the Wildlings (even though he led the battle against them.) The leading candidate for the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is Ser Alliser Thorne, who's had it in for Jon Snow ever since Alliser was training him back in season one — and now Alliser's best friend is Lord Janos Slynt, who betrayed Ned Stark and loathes Ned's bastard son.
If Ser Alliser gets elected the new Lord Commander, he'll probably send the Wildlings away — including Gilly, the Wildling girl whom Samwell Tarly has been sheltering at Castle Black, along with her baby. Samwell tries to claim that he won't let them send her away, or that if they do, he'll go along with her — but neither of those options is realistic, at all.
In fact, a running theme in this episode seems to be people who've technically "won" or at least survived in the battles up to now, recognizing that they don't have a lot of options going forward, and they need to make tough choices to prepare for "the wars to come." The episode is contains an awful lot of scenes where one character tries to convince another to compromise, and/or support one candidate or another for rulership.
In that context, Jon Snow's euthanasia of Mance Rayder puts an emphasis on the episode's overall statement: that "winning" just makes doing the right thing harder, not easier.
Note: Please avoid discussing book spoilers for things that haven't happened on the show yet. Also, if you've seen any other upcoming episodes, by one means or another, please keep any such info to yourself. Thanks!