The greatest strength of “Game of Thrones” has always on some level been the HBO fantasy's greatest weakness. Adapting the “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R.R. Martin, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have an entire world to play with, filled with rich and memorable characters in all manner of climate and circumstance. It's a storytelling embarrassment of riches, but the sheer number of characters and plotlines, and the great physical distance that separates them, at times makes the series feel like a collection of barely-connected vignettes, or like a guided tour of two continents, stopping in each port of call just long enough to glimpse what the locals are angry about this week.
The end of the fourth season seemed to compound this problem by sending three of the show's most compelling regulars – clever imp Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), fugitive tomboy Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), and cunning eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill) – out of Westeros altogether, while having Arya's brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) travel ever northward and away from the main action.
But what makes the start of the fifth season (it premieres Sunday night at 9) so satisfying is the way in which the early episodes (I've seen four) present a fictional universe that's contracting rather than expanding.
(Minor spoilers follow.)
Bran and his traveling companions (Hodor!) are being left out of this season altogether, but promising developments quickly arise for the other Westerosi expats. Tyrion and Varys are already traveling together, following Tyrion's murder of his powerful father Tywin, and Varys has plans to link up with dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Dany's adventures on the continent of Essos have existed largely separate – not just in distance, but immediate impact on other characters – from the rest of the show for nearly its entire run. Pointing Tyrion and Varys in her direction provides a much stronger link to what's happening back in Westeros, and also creates the possibility of some desperately-needed lightness and humor pouring into that dour corner of the world. And while Arya arrives alone in the port city of Braavos, there are signs that she'll soon be joined by familiar faces she has reason to love and/or kill.
Back in the snowier part of the mother country, would-be king Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) settles in for a bit at Castle Black, where he has many questions for Arya's bastard half-brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the other members of the Night's Watch. Both Stannis and Jon Snow have a tendency to be drips on their own, but the tension between the two reluctant allies brings out interesting sides of them both. A bit further south, we find towering swordswoman Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her faithful squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) in the general vicinity of yet another child of Ned Stark, as Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) plot their next move.
Each time two sets of characters cross paths, there's an extra charge in the air. It's fun to watch members of the show's remarkable ensemble get to play opposite longtime co-stars with whom they've never shared a scene before. More importantly, though, it creates a far more visceral sense of connectivity between all these stories that span both continents and generations. On some level, everything that's happened in the series can be traced back to a couple of incidents (the revolt against the Targaryen dynasty a few decades years before the series began; and Littlefinger's murder of royal advisor Jon Arryn, which sent so many other dominoes tumbling). And characters sometimes interact from hundreds of miles' distance, like the murders of Robb and Catelyn Stark being done to please Tywin Lannister from far away. But in-person interaction still carries more dramatic weight than interaction by proxy, or via history, and it's repeatedly gratifying to see two strangers in the same room together, or even one stranger on the road to finally meeting another.
Because it had so many of the most complex and fascinating characters concentrated in one place, the capital city of King's Landing has been one of the show's more reliable sources of entertainment. Even with Tywin dead and Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger in other locales, it remains an exciting destination. The death of Tywin, who controlled the whole country as much through force of will as through his gold reserves, has led to chaos. He was king in all but name, and his murder triggers a scramble for power that's more covert but no less fascinating than the war that broke out when Robert Baratheon died late in season 1. Daughter Cersei (Lena Headey) is furiously trying to bend the world to her whims in the same manner as her father, while her future daughter-in-law Margaery (Natalie Dormer) senses an opportunity to amass power in more traditionally feminine ways. (For a show set in a backwards time for gender relations, the series offers no shortage of powerful and well-rounded roles for its actresses.)
Along the way, we get thrilling sword fights and chases on horseback, and an ever-impressive demonstrations of the worlds that digital effects technology can create. (A familiar image like characters standing atop the icy Wall looks vastly better than comparable moments from even a couple of seasons ago, which in turn allows the show's directors to compose different and more adventurous shots.) And even as so many long-running characters converge, there are still new characters, like Jonathan Pryce as the barefoot leader of an extremist religious sect rising up out of the recent chaos, and new locales, like the oft-mentioned southern kingdom of Dorne.
I've often had mixed emotions about “Game of Thrones,” marveling at all the craft and showmanship on display even as it felt like Benioff and Weiss were annually straining to stuff 25 episodes worth of story from the books into the 10-episode bag they could realistically work with. The books were at once the source of so much that was wonderful about the show and an impediment to the series being transcendently great. Unless Martin engages the services of the redheaded priestess Melisandre to speed up his writing, the TV show will soon outpace the books, and the producers have started to deviate from the source material (though they know how the books are meant to end and will likely use the same conclusion). The needs of a TV show are not the same as the needs of a series of novels, and while “Game of Thrones” has always had to make tweaks and compromises in that transition from one medium to another, there was still a sense in the early years that the producers were bound to Martin's decisions about pacing and story whether they worked for the show or not.
That feeling is mostly gone now, even though I'm a non-reader of the books who knows little about what's actually been changed. This isn't the best four-episode stretch the series has ever had – as with most cable dramas, the ends of “GoT” seasons tend to be stronger than the starts – but there's a sense of real forward momentum to the proceedings that hasn't always been there in the past. Again and again, my pulse quickened as I watched these four hours, at times thrilling to an event or character intersection that I'd been waiting years to see (my notes are riddled with the phrase “it's about damn time”), at others cheering things that I didn't even know I wanted to see until they happened.
At one point in the season premiere, a character is told that he's making a terrible mistake.
“The freedom to make my own mistakes,” he argues, “is all I ever wanted.”
As “Game of Thrones” approaches the point where it passes what Martin has published, the show feels more free than it ever has in the past – and, at the moment, isn't making many mistakes at all.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: This is your annual reminder that, again, I haven't read the books and am attempting to analyze “Game of Thrones” as a TV show that can function without knowledge of the source material, and that comments on all “GoT” posts will be moderated so people don't try to slip in spoilers for things to come in the books.