With apologies to a sci-fi classic, the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” could easily be subtitled “When Worlds Collide.” Having spent four magnificent campaigns establishing various constituencies with claims to the Iron Throne, four previewed episodes connect several of them in fascinating ways, while continuing to add new faces to an already sprawling cast. Operating on a scale like nothing else on TV, and creatively liberated to play a long game stretching into the future, perhaps no project better distinguishes HBO’s status as the leading premium player than David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ meticulous adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world.
Always a bit slow starting (relatively speaking, anyway), the new season of “Thrones” has a lot of cleaning up to do. After all, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) escaped a death sentence and took flight with the eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), producing no end of wonderful exchanges between the two of them. Meanwhile, Tyrion’s sister Cersei (Lena Headey) fumes over both being deprived revenge and the prospect of dealing with her daughter-in-law-to-be Margaery (Natalie Dormer), who has the temerity to ask Cersei if she’d like to be called “Dowager.”
As usual, the new season also finds surviving members of the long-suffering Stark clan (Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner) facing some tough choices, among them Arya’s strange adventures in the land of Braavos, and questions surrounding the future of Winterfell, now in the hands of Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who betrayed their brother Robb. Elsewhere, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is discovering that maintaining control over the city of Meereen as an occupying force is almost as challenging as wrangling a trio of dragons once they’re all grown-up and independent.
Of course, that’s barely the tip of the iceberg, with several new characters to savor, including the progeny of the since-departed Oberyn – his vengeful daughters, known as the Sand Snakes; and Jonathan Pryce, who is in a bit of a happy rut casting-wise, inasmuch as he plays Cardinal Wolsey on “Wolf Hall” and now the High Sparrow, a religious leader with a darker bent who Cersei seeks to enlist to her cause.
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.
In practical terms, “Thrones” exemplifies the perfect model for victory in the pay-to-view, subscription-model age – a program that combines prestige (garnering plenty of award nominations to go with its critical superlatives), mass appeal (carving out ratings records by HBO’s standards) and the kind of cultish devotion often reserved for much narrower properties.
Granted, putting those elements together required an enormous no-guts, no-glory gamble. Yet as seen from a dragon’s-eye view, whatever the show actually costs, it’s worth it – and the reason why HBO has ample incentive to keep the battle raging and banners flying for as long as a Westeros winter.