SPOILER WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for past seasons of Game of Thrones, and some mild spoilers for season 5.
Season five of Game of Thrones opens with a flashback. A young Cersei Lannister seeks out a witch and convinces her to read her future. To Cersei the woman’s cryptic words make little sense, but we know better: it will call come to pass. When well executed, flashbacks can effectively explain a character’s motivations or provoke sympathy. While this flashback doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Cersei, the scene does underscore a central theme of the series: powerlessness.
Lena Headey has done such great work with Cersei, making her simultaneously detestable and sympathetic. For all her power and status, she’s a prisoner; a pawn in relation the men in her life — daughter, mother, sister, lover — always subjugated, always without agency. As the flashback somewhat bluntly shows us, Cersei was destined for this path, a realization that has clearly weighed on her with each defeat and trauma she’s faced.
Cersei is not alone. Over the course of its run, Game of Thrones has explored the relationships and conflicts between those who have power, those who want it, and those who will never have it. Think of the fan favorite characters (Tyrion, Arya, Jon Snow, Daenerys) and even some of its more despicable ones (Littlefinger, Varys, Jaime): they all are in some way disenfranchised and powerless as a result of their class, gender, physicality, or age.
But after several seasons of these characters being ground under the wheel of the old hegemony, season five marks a change. To be sure, it’s a change that began all the way back when poor Ned Stark lost his head in King’s Landing in season one, but we’ve finally reached a point where many of these characters have begun to push back in ways that will have implications throughout Westeros and beyond.
The old ways are dying (literally) and a new order is slowly, painfully emerging. Younger characters are often transgressive — shirking social expectations to do what they feel is right. Daenerys vows to be a just, democratic ruler. Tyrion speaks truth to power during his tenure as the king’s hand. Jon does the honorable thing despite the personal consequences.
Until now, we’ve watched these characters struggle with their impotence, rising up only to be punished for their boldness. But in season five it appears we’ve finally reached a tipping point. The board has been cleared, the old guard is losing its grip, and new players are stepping into the vacuum.
With both Tywin and King Joffrey dead, the Lannisters have never been more vulnerable. Despite Cersei’s efforts to retain her power and status by exerting her influence over the royal council, she sees it all slipping away, too.
In the southern kingdom of Dorne, the Martells contemplate reprisal for the gruesome death of their Prince Oberyn at the hands of the Mountain last season. It’s a conflict the Lannisters are ill equipped to face at the moment, and will likely rack up a high body count by season’s end.
To the north, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has emerged as the hero of last season’s Battle of Castle Black to become the new lord commander of the Night’s Watch. His actions, however, have caught the attention of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who arrived at the Wall just in time to help fight off the Wildlings. Stannis sees Jon as a key ally in bringing the people of the north into his fold in his quest for the throne. He also sees Jon’s leadership and popularity as a potential threat, which will likely be amplified if we ever learn Jon’s true lineage (like the popular fan theory that he’s actually Targaryen).
Meanwhile, across the sea in Meereen, Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) wave of popular support has dwindled as she transitions from liberator to occupier. Bristling under local customs and politics, she is forced into uneasy compromises and subsequent missteps as she attempts to bring humane justice to a society that has only known the sword.
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), now a fugitive, after murdering his father and being accused of doing the same to his nephew, finds himself far away from Westeros en route to Meereen with Varys (Conleth Hill) who’s ready to throw in with Team Dany.
Elsewhere in Braavos, Arya (Maisie Williams) seems to be going further down the road of vengeance as she reconnects with the mysterious assassin Jaqen H’ghar.
This being Game of Thrones, there’s about two dozen other characters worth mentioning — Sansa, Littlefinger, Brienne, Podrick, etc. — but if I want this review to come in at under 2,000 words, I need to stop here. (To keep track of the show’s myriad players, check out this Game of Thrones/Too Many Cooks mashup for a laugh.)
Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss continue to do a great job adapting George RR Martin’s books with care and detail. Their ability to condense these massive stories into concise 10-episode seasons is commendable. As ever, the show remains beautifully shot. The landscapes are sweeping and vast. The sets are lush and detailed. The wardrobe is extravagant.
Narratively, however, I often find myself struggling with Game of Thrones in the same way I tend to with The Walking Dead. With so many characters, episodes rarely tell a singular story; rather, they bounce from location to location checking in and only incrementally advancing plot.
Obviously, Thrones is much better at juggling stories than Dead. However, all those check-ins affect the show’s pacing at times. Characters will go unseen for several episodes or whole seasons. In its most recent season, Dead benefited from telling contained stories by spending whole episodes in one location. It’s something I’d like to see more of from “Thrones” even if it means seeing fewer characters each season. The aforementioned flashback is an interesting narrative shift though. For a show that has always focused on forward movement — no matter how slow going at times — it’s a welcome change in storytelling that I hope to see more of this season.
So far the sex and violence — two hallmarks of the show, for better or worse — has been relatively tame. I’m sure this will change, but after watching Daredevil and recent episodes of Arrow, as well as a quick binge of American Horror Story: Coven, I was surprised by how relatively unsexy and bloodless the first two episodes were.
Ultimately, season five feels like something of a transition for Game of Thrones. The board of players is clear with the old paternalistic order largely dead or deposed. In their place, stands a dwarf, a bastard, and a young woman who have demonstrated that the old ways have no place in the new world they are building. While there are many more obstacles standing between them and the Iron Throne, it feels like the series has turned a corner as it enters the next phase of this epic story.