*This review will contain light spoilers.*
After nine months, Game of Thrones has returned as strong and bold as ever.
The show’s fifth season begins its stride forward by taking us into the past- into Cersei’s youth, showing us the future queen (played by Nell Williams, who has nailed Lena Headey’s expressions) and a friend visiting a fortuneteller in the woods. The flashback is a risky new trick in the show’s arsenal, but it works, fitting right in with the Game of Thrones mix of magic, intrigue, and foreboding.
That isn’t the only dip into history this season, as the show seems intent on bringing the past to the present this year, with more than one reference to long-dead characters who may still hold significance.
I’ll tell you this upfront: the season premiere as a whole isn’t as strong as last season’s first outing. “The Wars to Come” is all about setting up the season, and it does that very well. It’s more reminiscent of the second and third season premieres in that respect, but the pacing is on the slow side. It’s contemplative, giving the characters and the viewers breathing room to take in the new stories that bloom over the next few episodes.
What can you expect from season 5?
King’s Landing is recovering from the death of Tywin Lannister, but a religious movement is on the rise. The Sparrows preach piety and servitude, and Cersei tries to use their leader (Jonathan Pryce) to her advantage. It’s slightly awkward for her that her former lover Lancel (Eugene Simon) has joined the movement, what with him knowing her dirty secrets. Cersei has control of the throne now and she’s going to use it, confident she knows how to reign. Her relationship with Jaime is on shaky ground however, plus Myrcella’s in the hands of the Dornish, and Tommen is closer to Margaery than to her these days.
This season will be a major one for Lena Headey, with Cersei’s political maneuvering (and fumbling) at the center of the capital story. Headey is more than up to the task with her cold stares and sneers perfected. Pryce is on board to provide the foil with his infuriating calm and smiles.
In Meereen, Daenerys is learning that the effects of slavery don’t disappear when the shackles are broken. Chaos in the city is growing, pushing Dany to once again have to make hard choices that test her wisdom as a queen. Her growing pains extend to the mothering of her dragons, as well, with the creatures in their rebellious adolescence. The Meereen storyline is hopping this year, with a climax in the fourth episode “The Sons of the Harpy” that’ll leave you screaming at the TV and begging for next week’s episode.
Across the Narrow Sea in Pentos, the Tyrion and Varys Roadshow is off and running, giving two great actors a chance to spark off one another. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s trademark humor is on display here. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion is a broken man, after having murdered his father and his lover in last season’s finale. The show tightens up Tyrion’s saggy A Dance with Dragons chapters over the first four episodes I viewed, and despite having lost some colorful characters, I think his storyline is better for it.
Returning in episode 2, Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, and may be leaving herself behind as she approaches the home of the Faceless Men. Her education continues with the help of a couple tough mentors, Arya’s specialty. The places in Braavos, exteriors and interior sets, are breathtaking. The money used on real locations is well spent, with the Croatian vistas lending their flavor to the sea city. There is a scene this season when Arya has to leave something behind, and she looks about twelve years old and heartbroken, and you remember then what an incredible actress Maisie Williams is.
The Wall is home to new dynamics this year, with the influx of Team Dragonstone. The shakeup is welcome, treating us to dialogue between the likes of Shireen and Gilly, and Jon and Melisandre. The Night’s Watch storyline is a mixed bag, in my opinion; while there are some great scenes, what should be a major moment in the second episode feels rushed and not that exciting.
Meanwhile down in Dorne, the newest Great House on Game of Thrones is introduced. The Martells are reeling from their own loss- their beloved Prince Oberyn. His lover Ellaria calls for vengeance, but his older brother, the more sedate Prince Doran (Alexander Siddig) is having none of it. Oberyn’s bastard daughters, the Sand Snakes, share his hotheadedness and a cause with Ellaria. House Martell is led by the ideally cast Siddig who lends a quiet intensity to his scene with the furious Ellaria.
ASOIAF fans may experience a little whiplash with this new version of Ellaria Sand. Indira Varma is wonderful and I love seeing her on fire and spitting out dialogue, but this character has little to do with Ellaria or Arianne from the novels for that matter, so adjust your expectations. Show-only viewers won’t have an issue with this, of course.
Sansa and Littlefinger set out on another journey, with him revealing his newest plan for her taking power. Sansa’s destiny appears to be combining the best of her teachers, learning from Littlefinger’s crafty machinations while keeping the lessons of courtesy she learned young from her mother and her septa. Her gift has always been one of adaptation to survive, and now she is using that ability to grant her choices. I suspect that one she makes early this season may be unpopular with some viewers but in the circumstance she’s in, it makes sense to me.
The threads of Game of Thrones come together more neatly and pick up the pace after the season premiere. Momentum is gained as the players plot and the bodies start falling. In forging their own path beyond the books, Benioff and Weiss are finding ways to surprise their cynical audience and like seasons past, viewers are going to thank them for every shock and twist of the knife.