A Song of Ice and Sometimes Different Stuff

In its fifth season, Game of Thrones is at its best when it diverges from the books completely.

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
At this point, George R.R. Martin’s novels have more plots, protagonists, and sweeping locales than Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has  variations of his frown.

Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

This Sunday, Game of Thrones returns to HBO with masked assassins, warrior-eunuchs, caged dragons, and a very creepy witch in the woods. Conspiracies are explained, intrigues advanced, prophecies cast, alliances scrambled. Just 14 minutes pass before the first instance of gratuitous nudity, and then only one more before the season’s first throat-slitting. There’s some male-on-male sexposition, some queen-on-consort pillow talk, and an auto-da-fé so brutal that even the hardened brothers of the Night’s Watch can barely stand to watch it. So what does it say about the show, now in its fifth season, that all of the above—plus Peter Dinklage boozing, vomiting, and then boozing some more—ultimately coheres into something kind of bloodless?

Yes, the grammar of Games of Thrones’ sex-and-swords shtick has become familiar by now. And this isn’t the show’s first season premiere that takes us so many places that none of them quite manages to stick. But it’s also a necessary re-immersion into a world, drawn from George R.R. Martin’s novels, that now has more plots, protagonists, and sweeping locales than Jon Snow has variations of his frown (a lot!). At first we get only tastes of King’s Landing, the Wall, the Vale, and far-off Meereen—and just brief reintroductions to the debauched, self-defeating, tortured, or otherwise flawed characters who live there. So if from the get-go Season 5 feels a tad played-out and directionless (throat-slitting—we’ve been there), by the second week the show is back on its way to some interesting places. The most interesting of which move as far away from the source material as possible.

Where the last season of the show concerned the messy aftermath of civil war, this one finds its characters and institutions hoping to build something new, or at least refortify what they already have. Coming off of last year’s epic battle with the Wildlings, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Night’s Watch need fresh leadership and renewed purpose. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is playing the latest round in her game of thrones, hoping to best her untrustworthy allies the Tyrells by leveraging a radical sect of Westeros’ dominant religion. The conniving Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is spiriting Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) someplace consequential—and, we suspect, familiar. Having fled the continent, both Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister have crossed the narrow sea. She’s hoping to find herself, he’s hoping to get lost. Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie) and her squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) are still doing their buddy-comedy routine across war-ravaged Westeros. And on the far side of the world, Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) must consolidate her rule over the former slaver city Meereen, where insurgents calling themselves the Sons of the Harpy are now murdering her followers.

The season opens with something the show has never done before: a flashback, in which an adolescent and entitled Cersei storms into a witch’s hut and demands that her fate be forecast. “Everyone wants to know their future—till they know their future,” the woman says, as though we need to be told that. Later, Tyrion, having just spent a sea journey in a crate, will offer something of a rejoinder: “The future is shit, just like the past.” Yep, things are as bleak as always in Westeros and Essos, where self-interested parties maneuver to take the Iron Throne, and the small folk around them suffer.

Like Martin’s books, the show is interested in the unreliability of such prophecies—or at least the unreliability of how we interpret them—but mostly insofar as it relates to who holds power, who wants it, who gets to keep it, and what makes them all tick. Should we pity Cersei, whose cruelness, after all, may have bloomed from her fear that she will one day bury her children in gold shrouds? Can we side with Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who crippled a boy in the first episode of the show yet now goes to dangerous lengths to redeem himself? (That the writers last season had him rape his sister while they insisted it was not rape doesn’t help.) A man like Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) might be the rightful king, but has he compromised too much? A woman like Daenerys might be a kind ruler, but is she an effective one? (From the looks of Meereen these days, not really.) And so the show’s refusal to give in to the Manichaeism that animates most fantasy stories is both refreshing and crushing. We can’t quite root against any of these characters, but it’s not clear whom we should want to win.

Actually, I take that back a bit: I want Maisie Williams’ damaged, persevering Arya to win, even though she has a long list of characters she’d like to stick with the pointy end of her sword. In the second episode she arrives in the canal-strewn Free City of Braavos—like all of the show’s settings, it’s stunning—and she eventually finds herself in the gloomy home of the Faceless Men, a death-worshipping cult of assassins. The other new setting, at least in the four episodes shown to critics, is Dorne, the southernmost kingdom of Westeros, where temperatures and tempers run high. Jaime and the wonderfully amoral Ser Bronn (Jerome Flynn) will travel there on a mission to rescue the former’s niece/daughter (it’s complicated)—something we didn’t see in any of Martin’s books.

That kind of thing—as well as the show’s many other deviations from the Song of Ice and Fire series—rubs some diehards the wrong way, and they’ve also fretted over what will happen when the TV show inevitably outpaces the notoriously slow Martin. (He still has two books to deliver in the series.) For me, that possibility used to be the most significant source of tension in watching the show, a kind of Westeros Singularity I hoped would never come to pass. I’m officially over it: Season 5 of Game of Thrones pulls even further away from the novels (the Sansa plot will drive some fans crazier than King Aerys) and I’m fairly sure it’s better for it. With each episode, I have less of an idea where the story is going, which means I might soon be enjoying it the way I did the first season, before I’d read the books.

Pay attention to what Game of Thrones cuts from Martin’s story, and the likelihood that future seasons of the show will have to spoil the novels begins to look like a welcome thing. When the Night’s Watch elects a new leader, it’s one of the most stirring moments of the new season. In the book, it’s basically a graduate seminar in Shadow Tower/Eastwatch-by-the-Sea dynamics. So perhaps Martin’s novels, with their plots upon winding plots and details upon mind-numbing details, have already become the Criterion Collection special editions. We can think of forthcoming seasons as the main event.

Read the rest of Slate’s Game of Thrones coverage.