HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 5 is here! The Escapist considers where Westeros stands and where its people are headed.
Remember when Game of Thrones arriving on television felt like a miracle? When a fantasy series critics compared to The Lord of the Rings wasn’t just adapted, but adapted faithfully – with all the political intrigue, tragic character deaths, and slow-burning supernatural plotlines that entailed? Even in a decade where television audiences want something new it was a huge gamble – and it paid off fantastically. Game of Thrones is now the most-watched show on television, surpassing even HBO’s own The Sopranos in terms of viewership and mass appeal.
But Game of Thrones approaches its biggest challenge yet: Introducing plotlines the books haven’t even touched yet. Sansa Stark is completely caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire‘s timeline after Season 4 – which means those images where she’s in Winterfell might surprise long-time fans. Meanwhile, Season 5 will conclude every major story arc from A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, setting the stage for tales the books won’t cover until next year (at best).
Will that make a difference to the quality of the show? Probably not – Game of Thrones earned its audience through great storytelling, rock-solid performances, and fantastic production quality. Even if Game of Thrones ends before the novels, it will still be enthralling television. But it does mean we’re entering unfamiliar territory, which at best absolutely changes the tone of watercooler discussions between novel and TV show fans. For once, everyone will be on the same playing field and equally shocked at Red Wedding-scaled plot twists.
For what it’s worth, HBO is working from George RR Martin’s series outline, so the end results will be mostly faithful to his vision. But it also doesn’t need to be – HBO is increasingly willing to explore new directions for the story. Season 4’s love-hate friendship between Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark was a great example – as was their arrival at the Vale. Jojen’s fate beyond the wall was completely unexpected, yet highly appropriate. The brutal combat between Brienne of Tarth and the Hound was pure fan fiction brought to life. HBO went beyond amalgamating secondary characters for the sake of convenience – and for the most part it works well.
Meanwhile, material lifted directly from the books is as riveting as ever. King Joffrey literally getting his just deserts. Tyrion’s righteous anger during his trial. Theon Greyjoy’s continued humiliation as Reek. And Gregor Clegane…. my God, what more could be said about that? But perhaps the most exciting moment for me personally was “The Watchers on the Wall” – an entire episode where the Night’s Watch took part in the grandest battle of the show’s history. Seeing this gorgeous rendition of battered men facing not just wildings but giants was well worth four seasons of preparation – not to mention later IMAX screenings.
Now remember that it’s not even winter yet – that season is still coming, bringing with it new threats and dangers the likes of which we can only imagine. But right now we have Season 5, where Tyrion and Varys are on the run, Jamie and Cersei mourn their father, Arya escapes Westeros, Daenerys feels the absence of her dragons, and Stannis protects the Wall. Where will everyone go from here?
Westeros is almost going through a period of calm. The wars and conflicts of the past four seasons have completely exhausted themselves, leaving the survivors to handle a new status quo. The Starks are all but extinguished, but King’s Landing has lost both Joffrey and Tywin Lannister. Daenerys Targaryen finds herself ruling a liberated kingdom far to the East hoping to return to its old ways. Even the wilding forces at the Wall have been routed, resolving one of the biggest unchecked threats in series history.
But calm is not the same thing as peace, and the ashes of war could easily catch fire once again. Cersei’s position seems secure, but she ignores political changes to focus on betrayals against her family. In the wildlings, Stannis sees an army that might finally help him take the South. Varys motivates a despondent Tyrion to bring the mother of dragons to Westeros. Unbeknownst to them, Daenerys’ authority is slowly weakening without those dragons at her side. And in the North, the threat of winter and White Walkers continues to grow, threatening the entire world with disaster.
There’s a reason this episode is called “Wars to Come” after all – many characters have realized the struggle is far from over. Everything that happened up to this point was just opening engagements, and the game of thrones is just about to enter a critical phase. All the players who sat in the sidelines during the Stark-Lannister conflict have moved to the forefront, their true intentions finally revealed. Not only is that appropriate for a season premiere – helping set the stage for new storylines – it allows for some excellent developments from characters rarely in the spotlight.
Varys, for example, is still optimistic that the course of history can be salvaged into something better. Margery is finally dropping her friendly exterior as her machinations continue to be dashed. Littlefinger is surprised to see that Sansa can match his scheming self. But the standout performance belongs to Ciarán Hinds as Mance Rayder – a leader who could halt his execution by bending the knee to Stannis, but won’t abandon his principles to do so. Once again, Game of Thrones shows the best villains aren’t evil for no reason – they make evil decisions we can sympathize with.
Not that there’s anything wrong wrong with the rest of the main cast – it’s just mostly more of the same. Jon Snow is once again the conflicted hero. Daenerys’ ideals continue to clash with harsh realities. Tyrion is still witty – and monstrously drunk. But outside of Tyrion expressing more self-pity than usual and having a beard (which somehow sprouted between Tywin’s death and funeral) not much changed from where we last saw them. Not that it’s unwelcome after the long wait between seasons, but it will still take a few episodes to see where they’re headed.
Jon Snow does have two exceptions. The first is a scene where he quietly subverts Stannis’ authority in a moment that deserves not to be spoiled here. The second – and arguably more important one – is when he trains a raw recruit, showing compassion while pushing him to improve. So much of his time on Game of Thrones is spent reacting to the decisions of characters around him, but this is a rare moment where Snow shows leadership capabilities – and it suits him.
Of course, Game of Thrones continues to twist the emotional knife. The two deaths that occur this episode tug on the heartstrings, and seeing Brienne and Sansa cross paths without notice is nail-bitingly frustrating. With another nine episodes to go, these circumstances will only get worse – and as always, it’s still well worth watching.
Bottom Line: “Wars to Come” is a great start to Game of Thrones‘ fifth season, setting up new conflicts among a seemingly calm period. Its wide range of performances remain as phenomenal as ever, and you’ll find yourself feeling for unlikely characters in ways you hadn’t expected..
Recommendation: Game of Thrones is the most watched show on television. “Wars to Come” quickly reminds us why.[rating=4][amazonwidget]