Game of Thrones has, in the past two seasons, dealt out more trauma to audiences than most other TV shows combined. How, then, can Season 5 top what’s gone before? The answer, of course, is that it can’t, but the opening episode sees the show do something equally nerve-wracking: carry on.
As is now tradition, Episode 1 of the new run makes a whistle-stop tour of the Seven Kingdoms to remind us which players are still in contention for the Iron Throne. After Tywin was cruelly flushed away by Tyrion, there’s a real sense that the Lannisters’ stint at the top of the ladder has come to an end: we join Cersei and Jaime in the Sept of Baelor, as they mourn for their departed dad, while others gather outside waiting for the chance to strike. Natalie Dormer’s Margaery steals the whole scene just by glancing at Lena Headey’s desperate daughter.
Even with so many bodies dispatched, though, there are still too many characters to cram into one hour of TV: we’ve reached the point where, like George R.R. Martin, the show has to pick and choose which people to follow. While that means no Hodor (Nodor) or Bran, it also means that there is a real proximity between these subplots: it feels a long time since Jon Snow and Bran Stark passed each other by without realising. Now, it’s only a matter of time until all these characters collide in one messy endgame. The world is getting bigger, but the horizons are drawing in.
The brief reminders of what’s going on, then, carry an enjoyable tension that has built up over four seasons of brutality. Just the sight of Littlefinger smirking, as he and Sansa train up their challenger in the wake of Lysa’s murder, is enough to make you nervous. The glimpse of Daenerys, who is still struggling to control her supposedly free slaves – not to mention her dragons – is as revealing as the bedroom shots of Daario Naharis. (More like YA-haris, right?)
The meat of this opening hour comes from Jon Snow, who is trying to negotiate some kind of truce between Stannis, Melisandre (who revels in her power to turn any conversation into innuendo-laden evangelism) and the recently captured king beyond the wall, Mance Rayder (the superbly stubborn Ciaran Hinds).
Among all the machinations, Brienne and Podrick stick out, with their never-ending road trip to nowhere – the polar opposite to Tyrion and Varys, who emerge across the Narrow Sea in Pentos. It’s testament to writers D.B. Weiss and David Benoiff that they still find time for giggle-inducing dialogue among all the exposition, and even more so that such quality is par for the course for HBO’s series.
“Do you know what it’s like to stuff your own shit through a hole in a box?” grumbles Peter Dinklage’s weary imp. “No,” comes the sharp reply. “I only know what it’s like to pick up your shit and throw it overboard.” If this is the closest we get to our dream of a sitcom starring the two, we can die happy.
The script even finds room for the show’s first ever flashback – one that delivers a promise of death as well as glory, of bastards as well as heirs. One speech later on suggests that it’s fighting in combat that makes people who they are; a sentiment that, if anything, has been proven over and over, as each of our characters move on in their journeys, leaving corpses behind them. These days, of course, that’s simply the way things are – which means even a flash of violence against a minor character still shocks in its casual matter-of-factness.
Halfway through, director Michael Slovis delivers a stand-out piece of cinematic spectacle, as a golden winged idol comes crashing to the ground – then, things continue as normal. As Season 5 begins, people have won and people have died, but the Game of Thrones just keeps on going.
Game of Thrones Season 1 to 6 are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The show is also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD. For more, click here.