The good news is that the most significant of these changes aren’t just sensible time-savers, but play right into the strengths of Game of Thrones‘ strengths as a TV show. Much of the season’s first half breaks the characters off into pairings that are an absolute delight to watch, including one that many book readers would dream of, but know isn’t possible in Martin’s version of events. It’s the show’s stupefying moments of betrayal and bloodshed that often stick out most in the minds of viewers, but the best individual plots almost always boil down to two people, often from different backgrounds, sharing space together.
As evidenced by Jaime and Brienne in Season 3, or Arya and The Hound in Season 4, “mismatched buddies on the road” is a good look for Game of Thrones, and Season 5 is usually at its best when playing up such pairs. When the show removes itself from the larger politics of Westeros and the Free Cities, simple scenes designed around the performers inspire moments of joy and sorrow that reams of history and lore never can. A character throwing personal affects into the sea in episode 3, or another deciding whether or not to reciprocate a hug in episode 4 don’t sound like much on paper, but it’s these smaller details that make for character drama more powerful than any swordplay or backstabbing.
On the other hand, the greater drama of the narrative doesn’t exist without an elaborate web of intrigue with which to pit house against house, and family against family. Season 4 ended with many of the external threats to Westeros eliminated: the Stark rebellion was in mourning, Daenerys had setup shop in Meeren, and the Wildling threat north of The Wall had been neutralized. A relative sense of stability has come to Westeros as a whole, but with the naïve Tommen Lannister now in power, and Tywin Lannister in a tomb, Kings Landing has become a snake pit without a handler.
As a result, Season 5 starts with many characters simply trying to get a handle on new political realities, which means much of the action involves weighing options instead of waging war. By the third hour of the fourth season, we had already witnessed a chaotic bar brawl over chicken, and seen the most hated teen in Westeros served his just desserts. By comparison, the first four episodes of Season 5 feature smaller climaxes built around establishing or reinforcing the new world order. With old plots winding down and new ones just starting to wind up, actual executions are a far more frequent sight than the execution of dastardly schemes.
A break from the chaos of the last couple seasons makes for a nice reprieve, giving characters the chance to reflect on their past decisions and look for hope in a world so consistently bleak. With many of the most powerful families in Westeros now trimmed down to the stem, outsiders like Tyrion, Varys, Sansa, and Brienne play a more crucial role in global affairs than ever. Coupled with its more tastefully balanced treatment of nudity and gore, and some inspired new character dynamics, Game of Thrones is often a smarter, more thought-provoking show than it ever has been.
The actual execution of the ideas it wants to play with isn’t always so sharp. The erratic pace of some plotlines means days or weeks can pass between episodes and cuts, so keeping track of the exact chronology of events is a fool’s errand. A possible paradigm shift in Kings Landing is slowly hinted at in the first three hours, then hastily put into effect over the course of a montage in the fourth. Meanwhile, the trappings of certain plotlines prove useful to deepening some of the show’s thematic interests, but can make for repetitive, or dry drama (unsurprisingly, the latter half of the first four episodes is livelier for having Dany’s involvement minimized down to a big action setpiece).
The machinery of Game of Thrones has been amongst the most elaborate on TV since it began, and without the constant flash of steel, or some bloody treachery to grist the gears, that machinery can be easier to see. This was almost certainly inevitable: Weiss and Benioff built a foundation using Martin’s specifications, but now have to build a mansion out of a blueprint for a luxury hotel. For those who are comfortable just being watchers, that might mean renewing your vows to the show as a handsomely produced piece of dramatic storytelling, not just a series of jaw-dropping moments. For readers though, Game of Thrones is only going to get more exciting the further it pushes us into the unknown. As the saying goes, “words are wind” – the truer that becomes for Martin’s own words, the more perilous and exhilarating it will be to get swept up in this world for another ten weeks.
Game of Thrones opens its fifth season by laying a lot of groundwork for the future, but the wait looks to be well worth it for viewers and readers alike.