At this point, HBO’s juggernaut series Game of Thrones doesn’t even need to send screeners to critics. It’s entrenched not only within its fanbase, but as a cultural phenomenon. The show doesn’t need to prove itself, and it would not be faulted for faltering slightly in such a late season. Yet the first four episodes of Game of Thrones‘ fifth season outdo almost everything we’ve seen from the show before, suggesting a new level of mastery.
In the last few years recapping Game of Thrones (which I’m handing over this year since I’m on Mad Men duty), I’ve struggled to reconcile my knowledge and feelings about the original book series with the show. Reading the books means that the twists aren’t surprises, and some of the character changes have been divisive at best.
But as was confirmed recently by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones is starting, this season, to move away from the books entirely. That news has been met with trepidation from readers, especially with the addendum that the show would start killing off characters who survive in the books. After viewing these first four episodes, though, the results should be embraced and not feared.
Game of Thrones‘ fifth season roughly covers the novels A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Both are somewhat controversial within the fan community, because author George R. R. Martin chose to split the POV chapters up. So while both books exist along the same timeline, only half of the characters appear in each. And yet, half the characters are still so, so many.
Weiss and Benioff are no strangers to cutting and streamlining characters from book to screen (and in several unfortunate incidents, adding them), but those changes are very welcomed in the fifth season. The adjustments give new adventures and better arcs to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), and even create some new alliances (that I will not spoil). It uses characters we’re already invested in, and puts them in places that book readers might have predicted as possible, but still, cannot know the outcome of. And that, fellow book readers, is a really exciting thing.
The weakest of Season 5’s first episodes is its premiere, though, which is forced to check in with a lot of “here’s where things left off” exposition regarding all of the major plots. But the subsequent three episodes then pick and choose only a few stories each to focus on, allowing a lot of time for much-needed character development. Even this far in to the series, so many characters still feel like strangers, and Season 5 is finally taking some time to rectify that.
Game of Thrones is at its best during quiet conversations that build its twisted machinations, and the new season is unhurried as it allows them to unfold, without the zooming, occasionally disorienting pace of prior seasons. One of the things that makes the world of Game of Thrones so rich is Westeros’ history, and how the ghosts of the past (the expectations, the legends, the prophesies) affect the characters. While prior seasons have glossed over a lot of these moments, now they’re finally being showcased as pivotal.
It all serves to make the dizzying amount of plots set all over the map actually feel manageable. In King’s Landing, Cersei (Lena Heady) and Margeary (Natalie Dormer) compete against one another to manipulate the new King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), as Cersei rids herself of her enemies at court, and gives power to a radical religious faction known as the Sparrows. At the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has finally matured and come into his own with the Night’s Watch, while at the Eyrie, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and Sansa cook up a revenge plot.
Vengeance is at the heart of Game of Thrones, carried out through politics, and often ending with gruesome deaths that beget more vengeance. To that end, this new season finally introduces the Sand Snakes of House Martell, whose politics (and passionate hatreds) are aimed at the Lannisters after the death of Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) last season. In Braavos, Arya learns to become a nobody in order to gain her own kind of power for revenge, while Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has also escaped across the Narrow Sea so that Cersei cannot reach him for her revenge. Yet, his connection to Varys (Conleth Hill), and their quest, is really the ultimate revenge on the Lannisters.
Not everything works perfectly, though. Daenerys’ (Emilia Clark) story in Mereen was one of the most tedious political plots in A Dance with Dragons, and it continues to be that way on screen. Except, worse, the show has not found any way to convey her confusion and loneliness, especially since her inability to control her dragons essentially renders her without any real power — a conflict that isn’t, at least thus far, given much consideration. Further, Tyrion’s drunken whining (wine-ing?) through several episodes is grating, and not even Varys’ witticisms can quell it completely.
But what is the most striking thing about Game of Thrones‘ fifth season is the sureness of its storytelling. The changes feel more confident, but maybe that’s because they are finally the right kinds of changes. Characters aren’t being shortchanged because of plot adjustments, they’re being augmented by them. Cutting (or delaying) a story based in Pyke to give more time to developing our easy fondness for Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram) is a good thing. Changing Brienne’s (Gwendoline Christie) quest, and giving Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a new ally makes for great adventures, without forgetting the time and connection they had. Making some fan theories from the book series overt in the television show isn’t a cop-out, it’s a smart way to handle a narrative necessity.
The bottom line is that though fans of Game of Thrones would gladly return, and in droves, even if the new season wasn’t exceptional, the beautiful fact is that it is. And as of its first few hours, it’s also far from being divisive for book readers. There is no more war between the book and show. As Melisandre (Carice van Houten) says to Jon Snow, “the only war is between life and death.” Season 5 embraces that completely, making it possibly the show’s best chapter yet of gorgeous and gripping adventure.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Game of Thrones premieres April 12th at 9 p.m. on HBO. Check back on Collider for weekly recaps following each new episode.