Spoilers ahead if you haven’t finished season four.
The fifth season of “Game of Thrones” begins by luring us into a fairy tale: two young girls in the woods, one frightened, the other determined to keep going until they reach a forbidding hut occupied by a witch.
It’s the perfect way to launch a new season of HBO’s enormous hit on Sunday: with a subtle reminder that in the world of the Seven Kingdoms, fairy tales are very real, even if happily ever is rarely, if ever, on the table.
The fourth season ended with the death of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) at the hands of his son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). The Lannisters are on hand to get things off to a rip-roaring start on Sunday, as Cersei, (Lena Headey) asserts herself as the de facto regent to the new king, her naive young son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), who is about to marry the conniving Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
From there, the premiere and the next three episodes begin to turn like a carousel, slowly at first, then gradually seeming to gain speed as we’re carried to most of the main storylines.
If possible, the series has a greater sense of urgency this season, an even more palpable suggestion that “winter is coming.” Power has shifted in several of the houses, as we know from previous seasons, and the inevitability of all-out war looms like the icy wall separating the north from the south.
Without giving anything away, it is not mere coincidence that finds several major characters either inhabiting the same space or approaching rendezvous for the first time. In some cases, these are characters we’d never thought of as even being in the same kingdom, much less the same physical space, as each other.
Yes, all of these unexpected pairings advance the story, but they also suggest a further fraying of the lines between kingdoms, and an increasingly unsettling instability that only hooks us more deeply.
“Game of Thrones” is great television for many reasons, including the obvious ones: richly detailed writing, carefully nuanced characterization, performances, special effects and an almost religious attention to detail of place and setting.
But it exerts its most enduring hold on us through its savvy exploration of power as the primary catalyst for character evolution. That hold tightens substantially in season five: Characters we have generally considered to be good will undergo changes this season, while others we’ve categorized as unredeemable villains show surprising moments of latent humanity.
Call them course corrections if you want, but in each case, creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff and their writers demonstrate detailed knowledge and telling respect of the characters. No one does anything out of character, so to speak, but at the same time, we’re taken in new directions by several of the major figures.
The loss of power, or even the fear of losing power, can remind even the most hardened villain of his own vulnerability. At the same time, the acquisition of power can short-circuit compassion and considered judgment and prompt otherwise well-meaning characters to make bad, perhaps even fatal decisions.
Season five introduces some new characters, including Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow, the leader of the Faith of the Seven, the religion of the Seven Kingdoms. Although the Sparrows seem to take a page from St. Francis by dressing in rags and tending to the poor, they are allowed to revive their warrior arm, the Faith Militant, which of course introduces a new force into the internecine power game of the Seven Kingdoms.
Other new characters include the Sand Snakes, three illegitimate daughters of the late Prince Oberyn Martell who are hell-bent to avenge their father’s death; Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free); and Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig).
We also enter the mysterious House of Black and White in Braavos with Arya (Maisie Williams). The towering, windowless building is home of the Faceless Men, led by a re-emerging Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). We’re not entirely sure what they’re up to at first, but it doesn’t look especially pleasant.
It should also be noted, for those who’ve read George R.R. Martin’s books, that the series takes several departures from the text this season, not only more than usual in number, but in importance to the overall story as well.
The fact is, every season of “Game of Thrones” has seemed even better than the one before. This time, though, we really, really mean it. The four episodes and, no doubt, the rest of season five, will keep you on the edge of your seat. In fact, it’s really not much of an exaggeration to say that watching the show this year is exhausting, but in the best possible way. “Game of Thrones” barely gives you time to catch your breath. It is a triumph of superb storytelling.
‘Game of Thrones’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday