It will be a cold day in Hell if ever “Games of Thrones” makes a misstep. Early reviews for the fifth season, premiering this Sunday, April 12 on HBO and its various a la carte offerings including HBO Go and on SlingTV, bode an exciting spring renewal for the series, which will have a sixth season. HBO is smartly positioning the new season in the height of Emmy season, keeping the show on voters’ minds ahead of the nominees announcement on July 16.
In the most tightly focused season of HBO’s fantasy epic to date, the limits of the body suggest that the powerful and the weak alike are all too human after all.
Watching these first four episodes, I found myself marveling at how many compelling, detailed, powerful female characters there are on this series, despite being set in a world that marginalizes women even more than our own. The show finds some cunning in Lena Headey’s Cersei that the books don’t, squaring her off against Natalie Dormer’s delightfully conniving Margaery in ways that are tense and funny and almost soapy, without ever quite getting there. There’s Brienne, played by the terrific Gwendoline Christie, a would-be knight on a dogged mission to honor a pledge to a dead woman. Though her conviction is monolithic, Brienne is no single-note character. As written, and as played by Christie, she is yet another tortured soul caught up in this epic turmoil—she clings to her mission as the only constant in a world gone to hell.
There are so many fine performances here it’s difficult to single out just a few, but in the early going the season offers especially good and illuminating moments for Aidan Gillen as the scheming Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish; Gwendoline Christie as the towering warrior Brienne; and Stephen Dillane as Stannis Baratheon, whose last-minute season-four heroics represent part of a larger plan designed to advance his quest to rule Westeros… Benioff and Weiss have become inordinately adept at juggling an almost dizzying assortment of plots, but the manner in which those narratives intersect this time around has only enriched the show. And despite the grandness of the enterprise – from the production design to the sprawling sets to Ramin Djawadi’s unmatched score – the focus never deviates from the characters, motivated by a hunger for power as well as old staples like vengeance, loyalty and lust.
Judging by the first four episodes of season 5, the answer is, you change the rules. Following Joffrey’s death, the throne is occupied by Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), a boy so timid, he actually obeys his enemies when they ask him to come back later. The Lannister family has been declawed: Tywin is dead, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is hiding, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has lost a sword-fighting hand, and Cersei (Lena Headey) will soon be downgraded to queen mother when Tommen marries Margaery (Natalie Dormer). Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is a dragon queen who can’t command her dragons—i.e., she “isn’t a queen at all,” according to her lover Daario (Michiel Huisman). So the story moves slowly, focusing less on the game-changing moments that often come early in the season (Joffrey dies! The Unsullied revolt!) and more on long-term strategy.
I didn’t have a stopwatch but there were boobs and barbarity, a slit throat lingered on for just longer than most shows ever would, within the first 10 minutes, so all present and correct there. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) had remained in Meereen, still grappling with theories of government and how to play the philosopher queen. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill) popped up in Pentos, just over the Narrow Sea from King’s Landing, and proceeded to bicker delightfully over whether or not to join the inveterate peacemonger Daenerys. (Though Game of Thrones is known for its shock and awe tactics, it tends to temper the melodrama with these kinds of finely crafted two-handers.)
Like anything raw and human, it’s far from perfect. Season 5 pushes into territory that might feel allegorical to our current political climate, were it not wielded with the force of a blunt hammer. For one thing, homosexuality in Westeros has always given a certain amount of circumspect acknowledgement, but prepare for that to change in a big way with the introduction of Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow of the Faith of the Seven.