One of the best things about “Game of Thrones,” now entering its fifth season, is that it always feels like it’s going somewhere. Whether that comes from our awareness of it as an adaptation of an epic series of novels or the fact that nearly every character is on some sort of road trip at some point, there’s a sense of momentum that, even in the drier episodes, hints at more adventure, more tragedy and more drama.
“Game of Thrones,” after 40 episodes, has proven its ability to seduce us with its attractive people and beautiful vistas, thrill us with its epic battle sequences and shock us with no shortage of character deaths. And yet, to invoke a question asked poignantly by the Season 7b premiere of “Mad Men,” is that all there is?
The simple answer depends on your love for the people still remaining on the show, because while the world of “Game of Thrones” is brutal, it remains rich with characters who have our sympathies. A truth I come back to, over and over, is this: You can watch a TV show for seasons and seasons, beyond the point of reason, as long as you remain invested in the characters. Television is a medium that’s been host to truly jaw-dropping plotting, but it’s the characters we come back for again and again.
The fifth season of “Game of Thrones” is no exception to that rule, and while its first few episodes skew dry, concerned largely with the establishment of allegiances, they do manage to keep us connected to those who have managed to survive thus far in the battle for power.
And as the pieces on the chess board shift around, some immutable truths remain: Even at his most defeated or broken, Tyrion is a smooth operator. Never take your eyes off Cersei — not that you ever want to. Whoever Jamie Lannister is teamed up with, it’ll make for one of the show’s most entertaining pairings.
Plus, those who, at the beginning of the series, seemed least likely to wind up in positions of power might find themselves overwhelmed with it. Bastard son Jon Snow has, through loyalty and vigilance, become a powerful force within the Night’s Watch, and given the shifting tides, being a leader of one of Westeros’ most stable military outfits might legitimately make him one of the most powerful people around. (Which is to say, scenes featuring Jon Snow are now about 100 percent more interesting than they used to be.)
Meanwhile, across the narrow sea, Daenerys is moving, most intriguingly, toward becoming one of television’s most complex and well-meaning antiheroes. The girl we first met being sold into marriage is now Mother of Dragons, leader of a multitude of armies, and yet discovering that the power she commands is not a sure thing.
That leads us to the complex underbelly of what makes “Game of Thrones” more than just its clever lines, shocking twists and charismatic cast. It’s the series’ engagement with the concept of power that matters; what it means to sit at the top of the pyramid and balance justice with maintaining your position; what it means to have power stripped from you; what it means to have power denied you, despite your talents, because of your position of birth or your gender or your height. How all of those factors affect you, your passions and your loves.
And what makes it unique from other shows with a similar focus is how engaged it is with power as driven by human passion — feelings of love and hate. There are no unbiased grudges in Westeros; no objective reasoning for certain positions. There’s no political rhetoric that motivates these characters. Instead, it’s love or lust or greed or revenge or justice. Which all goes into making “Game of Thrones” one of the more raw and human shows on television.
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.
Those who have not read the Martin books should translate that as “leader of the show’s newest religious cult”; the Faith of the Seven, a polytheistic belief system practiced by many of the characters, has always been an established part of the world. But now, like almost every other aspect of the show, that religion becomes tied up in the complicated politics of power that give “Game of Thrones” its brutal edge.
In general, it speaks to one of the toughest issues with “Game of Thrones.” The show’s history is littered with incredibly problematic moments, whether it comes to its portrayal of sex (consensual or otherwise), its almost gleefully exploitative obsession with naked women or its difficulty in presenting a fantasy world with racial diversity that reflects the modern world.
But despite the show’s clumsier efforts in this regard, it does work hard to find the humanity in everyone, whether it be a manipulative sorceress, a scheming eunuch, a master-less mercenary, the bride of a child king, an orphaned pre-teen murderer, an entire oppressed population of former slaves, or anyone else who surfaces within the show’s epic ensemble to grab our attention.
It’s a weird show, laced with mysteries exotic beyond conventional understanding. Occasionally, there are dragons and zombies and giants. But in the long run it’s about its characters, both the powerful and the powerless. And that equation continues to be compelling.