Four episodes of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Game of Thrones has never been at a loss for words. With thousands of pages of source material to pull from, the biggest problem HBO’s flagship series ever had to deal with was translating a (then) tetralogy of fantasy novels into 2011’s The Next Big Thing. Showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff accomplished the task with aplomb, crafting a show that satisfied fans of George R. R. Martin’s book series which also invited the uninitiated to come along for the ride (think Splash Mountain, just with blood instead of water).
Few fantasy epics of this scale could be respectfully condensed into a TV series, and fewer still would have the dense, but engrossing language of Martin to draw from. Despite having to rely on highborn English and made-up languages to tell the story, Game of Thrones is just about the most quotable show on television right now. Phrases like “Winter is Coming,” “Valar Morghulis,” and “The North Remembers” used to be in-jokes shared between readers of the books –now they’re the foundation for much of the show’s merchandise and advertising.
Game of Thrones ended a momentous fourth season on the image of Arya Stark aboard a ship, setting sail for a new life and new trials that waited on unknown shores. There was a sense of enthusiasm to the shot, as if to promise viewers that the best was still yet to come. It was a nice note of optimism on which to end what was arguably the show’s darkest season, but since then, some TV production realities have set in. Fittingly, the main image used to promote Season 5, premiering this Sunday, is just a picture of Tyrion Lannister looking out from a ship’s bow at a dragon in the distance, the two separated by a thicket of fog. No catchy slogan, no declarations for the season’s trajectory –just a clear destination with an unclear way of reaching it.
Season 5 could very well prove to be the defining chapter of Game of Thrones as a series. At the current pace of release, the show will wrap up the Song of Ice and Fire series several years before Martin has his own final word put into print. Though the showrunners have known where the story is supposed to end for some a while now, time is increasingly of the essence. Benioff and Weiss adapted three books into four seasons of TV, and now they have to flip the sums. Assuming the planned 7-season run of the show holds, that means covering most of A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, and A Dream of Spring (and potentially, a threatened eighth novel) in thirty hours of television.
One would assume that means now is the time for the series to start gunning it for the finishing line. Problem is, Game of Thrones burned up most of its on-hand jet fuel in the back half of Season 4. The eighth, ninth, and tenth episodes of last year’s bunch were the longest sustained climax in series history, featuring a white-knuckle duel to the death, a massive siege, and some game-changing character deaths. Unfortunately, that’s left the start of Season 5 responsible for picking up the pieces, and the result is a return to the slower, methodical pace of storytelling last seen when Ned Stark still had a head.
Your enjoyment of the first four hours of the new season will likely depend on what you come to the show for. If you like Game of Thrones for being a story of engaging characters navigating a tumultuous and dangerous world, you’ll be more than satisfied. If you like Game of Thrones for being a bombastic and action-packed sword ‘n sorcery serial, you’ll have less to chew on. If you like Game of Thrones for being a faithful adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novels, well…there’s the moon door.
The show has streamlined a number of elements from the source material when necessary, but mostly as a means to contain the sprawling narrative, or ensure person X is in place Y before we’ve forgotten just who the hell person X is anyway. Weiss and Benioff have been careful in how they’ve pruned Martin’s story down into a digestible TV series, but Season 5 sees major storylines diverging from the arc of the novels. Where once a character went north, they now go south, and roles of new characters in the novels are being filled by old ones from the show.