‘Game of Thrones’ Postmortem: The Latest Casualty Speaks

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Game of Thrones” Season 5, Episode 1, “The Wars to Come.” Spoilers for George R. R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons” also follow.

Game of Thrones” took a major detour from George R. R. Martin’s books in the season five premiere, killing Wildling leader Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), despite the fact that he’s still alive (in disguise) in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels. Elsewhere in the busy hour, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) safely arrived in Essos with Varys (Conleth Hill), and is now on his way to meet Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who is still dealing with political complications in Meereen, with a murderous force known as the Sons of the Harpy brutally attacking her Unsullied warriors.

Meanwhile, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) left Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli) in the care of Lord Royce (Rupert Vansittart) and headed West, almost crossing paths with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Pod (Daniel Portman), who are still on the hunt for Sansa after Arya (Maisie Williams) slipped through their fingers last season. And in King’s Landing, Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) were trying to pick up the pieces after their father’s murder and Tyrion’s escape.

The hour opened with a flashback to Cersei’s childhood, in which she encountered a fortune teller who gave her a disturbing prophecy about the deaths of her children (“gold will be their crowns; gold their shrouds”) and a younger, more beautiful queen who will replace her (“to cast you down and take all you hold dear”). Lena Headey told Variety that Cersei has carried the weight of that prophecy “her whole life — not necessarily given it priority in every single one of her days, but [there are] definitely moments in Cersei’s life where she’s thought ‘my god, is this it? Is this really and truly what’s going to happen to me?’ And then when she loses Joffrey, it creeps into her mind. Definitely, she carries it with her.”

Her relationship with brother Jaime continues to be strained, said Headey, who noted that “they’re in the worst place that they’ve ever been. There’s a huge amount of distrust from both of them, which they’ve never had before. They’ve always been each other’s confidante, and that’s been shattered by experiences with other people. For Cersei in particular, dealing with life without Jaime for so long when he was gone, I think she got used to it. He returned a very changed man, and she didn’t like it.”

The season five premiere also saw the return of Cersei’s cousin and former lover Lancel (Eugene Simon), who has undergone a similarly shocking transformation, from a flighty coward to a pious member of a religious order known as the Sparrows. Although he met with Cersei to ask her forgiveness for leading her into the darkness and helping to kill her husband, Robert (Mark Addy), by getting him drunk during his boar hunt, Cersei was dismissive of his apologies and his plea for her to turn away from her own darkness — despite all of the incriminating information he holds about her. Headey acknowledged that Cersei is underestimating the danger Lancel potentially poses to her, noting, “I think this is her season of underestimation of too many people.”

Variety also spoke to Hinds about Mance Rayder’s untimely demise, which came despite Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) best efforts to convince him to bend the knee to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and live to lead his Wildling army.

Variety: When did you find out that Mance would die?

Hinds: I got a very witty email from David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who write the show, before the scripts went out. To the tune of, “well, dear friend, you know the saying, ‘all men must die,’ and we’re just letting you know that you’re next up,” basically. As we say in Ireland, when your number’s up, your number’s up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it was great because it was witty and it was funny and it was generous and courteous as well. I had an idea that I wasn’t long for that world when Liam Cunningham and Stephen Dillane turned up outside my tent.

Were you familiar with Mance’s trajectory in the books, where he’s still assumed to be alive?

I have not read George R. R. Martin’s books because I’ve been off working… But everyone who reads them says they are fantastic… I was prepared for anything, to be quite honest. When they asked me to take Mance Rayder on, David and Daniel and Frank Doelger, the main producer, and they asked me had I seen (the show), I said “no, to my shame I haven’t.” So they gave me the first series to watch, and I have to say, time stopped for me when Sean Bean’s head came off. It was brilliantly filmed and so shocking, and we watched it in slow motion. So we have to keep those kinds of feelings as the audience watches them… They have to be very creative in what they do.

Was Mance’s death the last scene you shot?

That was it. We had shot earlier in the week the two-handed scene between Jon Snow and Mance Rayder, where they debate the whole ethics of “why don’t you just bend the knee?” We’d shot that three or four-page scene, and then came the moment, and it was my last night and it was a night shoot. I do remember an atmosphere — it’s kind of strange, everyone’s there; some people are having a laugh; it’s cold; we’re halfway up a mountain; and meanwhile I’m going to get barbecued. So you have all that going on, at the same time people are still playing their games, waiting for the cameras to set up. But then when everybody came, there’s a focus and an energy. I haven’t seen the finished result, but there seemed to be a strange silence and a focus that everybody was party to. Sometimes you get that on a set or you fabricate it, but it was a great feeling of everybody committing to this moment, which was going to be a very telling moment. And also the last words he had to say were given weight by the director Michael Slovis — rather than just a dismissive “toast him.” He took time, generously, to get the character’s last words there, and I suppose they gave him some dignity in his demise.

What do you think will happen to the Wildlings in Mance’s absence?

I could say frankly I don’t give a damn, but I kinda do. But I could also say that I have no idea, except that when you look at why he came into the place where he was — they called him the King beyond the Wall, but he wasn’t interested in any of that — it was about moving people forward, lost, abandoned people who needed help, to corral them into something better. All that was happening… it was to do good, and not for himself. That was the theory of why he said, “if I [bow], what do I leave them?” Knowing that I would go under the yoke, therefore they would, [his death] was to show them another way.

Who takes it on now? In the storyline, there’s only Tormund [Kristofer Hivju], and we know that he’s a bit of a chump, he hasn’t got the political nous, he’s a warrior, but he doesn’t have the nous. So Mance’s choice might well prove to be wrong, even though he believed ethically, “I have to show them that this is possible and that we have dignity, because we’ve been dismissed.” But Jon Snow might’ve been right, “just stick around, do it and you will move them forward.” Mance says it’s not pride, but people deny things. Just because you say it doesn’t mean it’s not true. And yet at the heart of it, it is a sacrifice, because you know it’s not just going to be the end of him — because he’s okay with that — but the undignified screaming and horror of being nothing but meat, and that’s what they’re seeing instead of being given some sort of spiritual uplift to move forward. I don’t really know what could happen, I’m dying to see more. I can’t even project would happen, because I can see them becoming rebels again and running in wild directions, because what he did was give them leadership. He did unite 90 tribes for a common purpose.

What did he think of Jon, in the end? They were on opposing sides, but they’re both men of principle.
I think he had great respect for him. From the beginning he saw something in him, that had a spark of some kind of decency in the midst of this mad grasping that he saw all around the place. What’s interesting… way back in season three when Mance sends everybody off to the Wall, he says to Tormund lightly, “just keep an eye on him and if he misbehaves, throw him off the wall,” but Jon hears it, and Jon at that stage is already playing a double game. Mance isn’t quite sure, but there’s something inherent that he likes about him, so they have this game. And when they meet again, they’re reconnecting and yet Jon is there and Mance realizes “he’s here to try and kill me” and yet they talk the same kind of language, and they’re men of principle, and men of principle can get stuck in their principles. I come from the North of Ireland and the notion of “no surrender, not an inch” is part of the parlance of that part of the world, and it’s terrible, because it means there’s no debate, no progressive movement. I think that’s what they kind of stand for, but Jon is eager and sharp and wise — getting more and more wisdom from the people he meets and seeing how the world operates, and that’s probably why he’s saying, “this is no good, don’t do it, stay alive.” And Jon might well have proven to be right.

“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

What did you think of the season five premiere? Were you shocked by Mance’s death? Share your reactions below.

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