Watching the seven kingdoms expand and contract, watching the unfolding game of thrones that is “Game of Thrones,” it’s a little like watching today’s combustible world politics in action. But a lot more fun.
On the news, we see countries dividing and falling apart, and the upsurge of hate that calls itself ISIS is fighting to form a state, or a country, and not in a few years but right now. It’s a nightmare with no clear or simple solution, and with no obvious role for the United States to take. On HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which returns Sunday at 9, there’s plenty of the same primitive violence and deep-rooted conflict, but it’s scripted and marching, we assume, toward resolution. It’s fun because, even while “Game of Thrones” is clad in recognizable vestiges of medieval times and set among warring factions, it’s an entirely fake and harmless history. It’s a game. Witty and tightly plotted, the show is a terrifically entertaining alternative to the unbearable chaos and hopelessness of our global reality.
And as evidenced by the very fine first four episodes of season five, “Game of Thrones” remains TV’s greatest escape, a breathtaking, amusing, and gripping microcosm. It’s a gloriously dark fantasy about humanity, power, and possession, with bits of rousing heroism (Daenerys Targaryen) and damnable cowardice (Janos Slynt), acute vengeance (Stannis Baratheon) and stealthy ambition (Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish), extraordinary resilience (Tyrion Lannister) and tremendous hurt (also Tyrion). Oh and, not least of all, fierce, wonderful loyalty (Brienne of Tarth).
I won’t say “Game of Thrones” has gotten better over the years — it has been top-notch from the start — but in the new episodes available for review, the storytelling is more focused and straightforward, less aggressively confusing for casual viewers. The premiere provides a nice restatement of each character’s position on the chessboard, as well as a peek at a few of the next moves. Without revealing too many specifics in this review, I’ll say that familiar factions are beginning to regroup, powerful leaders are exploring new and unexpected alliances, and religion jumps into the ring with new cast member Jonathan Pryce as the leader of the Faith of the Seven. After season four, which began with the murder of King Joffrey and ended with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) murdering his own father, a new order may be taking form.
Fortunately, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) — the incestuous lovers of the ever-miserable House Lannister — are still scheming, and they do so on Sunday night literally over the corpse of their father. Their twisted bond is always as fascinating as it is disturbing. Can Cersei maintain control of her son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) against his intended, the wily Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)? Tyrion, meanwhile, is on the run with Varys (Conleth Hill), and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), who knows nothing except how to be loyal to the Night’s Watch, gets a tempting offer from an unforeseen corner. And the Mother of Dragons, the magnificent Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), finds her fire-breathing babies going through a somewhat nasty adolescence.
One of the distinctive qualities of “Game of Thrones” is the way the actors never seem to get buried by the scope of the production. The show is visually outrageous, with design allusions to British history but with even more stunningly original George R.R. Martin landscapes. Everything, from Daenerys’s hair and the peculiar objects on Cersei’s desk to the faces of the dragons, is imaginatively conceived and transporting. And yet the performances are consistently vivid and, at times, unforgettable. As Tyrion, Dinklage remains a great light on the show, but there are many others who shine — too many to name here, although I remain in awe of Clarke, who is particularly commanding and has shown us each step of Daenerys’s growth, and Dormer, who makes the slippery Margaery cunning enough to take on the most cunning of them all, Cersei.
The funny thing about “Game of Thrones” is that it’s built on familiar genres and yet it appeals to those who may not be fans of those genres. You may not like fantasy — I tend not to — but you might still love the show. You may not like historical epics, or Shakespeare’s royal dramas, or video games, all of which have influenced “Game of Thrones,” and yet you might still love it. Really, all you need to like to enjoy this unique series is exceptional and ambitious TV storytelling.