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‘Game of Thrones’ Returns, Slimmed Down and Slimy and Better Than Ever

'Game of Thrones' Returns, Slimmed Down and Slimy and Better Than Ever

When the sun finally greets Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) after an interminable journey, in the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” (HBO), the dissolute dwarf pours himself a drink. “The future is shit,” he tells the eunuch Lord Varys (Conleth Hill). “Just like the past.” But the scatological is not simply a metaphor: in this, the most tightly focused season of HBO’s fantasy epic to date, shit, piss, vomit and blood spatter even the most idyllic ground, as if to remind the viewer that the powerful and the weak alike are all too human after all.

Against the high talk of politics and religion, the invocations of honor, justice and freedom, the series’ attention to grubby physicality, always suggesting skepticism of grandiose ideals, is particularly emphatic in the first four episodes of the fifth season. While Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley) encounters a cadre of ascetics known as “the sparrows,” for instance, elsewhere in the universe of “Game of Thrones” characters confront human cockfighting rings, skinned corpses, masked murderers and all the other excrement of a society in turmoil. “Every pile of shit on the side of every road,” Tyrion remarks at one point, “has someone’s banner hanging above it.”

With George R. R. Martin’s series of novels still unfinished, the creators of HBO’s adaptation, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, appear increasingly willing to play fast and loose with the source material. The new season is slimmed down, almost terse, the slack pacing that has marred the series in the past long forgotten; even without the swift reversals of “The Mountain and the Viper,” one of last year’s best episodes, or the blockbuster battle sequences of  “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall,” the narrative advances in precipitate, economical scenes. The series has mastered the medium’s language, and it’s all the better for it.

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While “Game of Thrones” remains a sumptuous, wide-ranging reinterpretation of the soap opera, spending time with a few members of the cast before turning its attention to another locale, the new season possesses the consistency, the control, of a much less sprawling drama. Allowing characters long separated to meet, interact and sometimes clash, it’s both increasingly far-flung, from Jon Snow (Kit Harington) assuming a new role at the Wall to Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) traveling across the Narrow Sea, and determined to place familiar faces in new arrangements of power. “I have nowhere else to go,” Ayra says when she arrives at her destination. “You have everywhere else to go,” the man she meets there replies.

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At any given moment, certain laggard subplots and underdeveloped characters may still frustrate—to one or another degree, this has always been true of “Game of Thrones,” and I suspect it always will—and in the new episodes it’s religion that gets short shrift. Melissandre (Carice van Houten), priestess and adviser to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), newly allied with Cersei Lannister, come off as ciphers, and stand-ins for the rather uninteresting idea that faith is merely a veneer, an application of Westeros’ brutal Realpolitik by another name. “The faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world,” Cersei says to this end, but the refusal to take belief seriously as anything other than the cudgel of the powerful or the opiate of the masses transforms religion into a straw man, unworthy of the other side of the argument.

For all the sticky, smelly fluids that flow through the fifth season suggest more than the blood and guts that have long marked series’ unvarnished view of human endeavor. Remarkably assured and cohesive, the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” frames the most elemental aspects of the body as the final limit on the characters’ capacity for reinvention. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) may gird herself in the black armor of her floor-length cape, but her tears remind us of the orphaned girl underneath; Tyrion may have eluded capture after murdering his father and a former lover, but there’s no escaping his short stature.

Despite the slow-burn narrative, then, as “Game of Thrones” arranges the pieces on its ever-growing chessboard, the new episodes may be the most ruthless yet, establishing a fateful sense that all the battles to come are built into the body, the one place we can never leave. Even Arya, perhaps the most skilled shape-shifter in the land, discovers that it’s impossible to cast off all the shitty dregs of the past.  One may become faceless, perhaps, but there’s no such thing as being no one at all.

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The fifth season of “Game of Thrones” premieres Sunday, Apr. 12 at 9pm on HBO.

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