It's always worrisome when a beloved show enters midlife. Giddy limerence gives way to the more critical eye of a long-term relationship, and even the most beloved characters or innovative worlds can seem overly familiar and irksome. The more acclaimed or popular a show is, the more tempted we are to find fault when the new season does not appear to live up to the nostalgia-enhanced memories of previous glory.
In actuarial terms, then, this should be the time HBO's "Game of Thrones," which returns Sunday, hits critical turbulence, dinged for repetition or gratuitous complexity, for complacency or contrivance, especially given the necessarily increased deviations from George R.R. Martin's sacred text.
But, to paraphrase Aragorn, son of Arathorn at the climax of that other great fantasy epic, though a day may come when the courage of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss fails, when fans forsake their friends and break all bonds of fellowship, it is not this day.
In its fifth season, "Game of Thrones" is as it ever was. Breathtaking, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring and addictive, it remains the single most remarkable feat of television, possibly ever, increasingly admirable for its ability to grow rather than simply sustain.
No longer content with defining epic television, "Game of Thrones" is poised to redefine it by making a genre built on action and archetypes irrefutably human.
As the new opening credits make clear, the narrative has grown more geographically sprawling, with new lands and characters. But do not be deceived. The hallmark of this season is depth rather than breadth.
Previously supporting characters, including Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), Varys (Conleth Hill) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) have grown in such complexity and significance that "supporting" is no longer an accurate descriptor, while the surviving original main characters have become far more multidimensional than is traditional for an epic tale.
This is the genius of both Martin's story and HBO's adaptation. "Game of Thrones" began by embracing archetype, from the animal symbols and mottoes of the great houses, to the people within them. Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was the honorable hero, and twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey) were the depraved villains, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) the innocent victim.
The cataclysm set off by the death of King Robert in Season 1, and the subsequent jockeying for succession, shattered not just peace in Westeros but the essential nature of the tale.
The quest in "Game of Thrones" is no longer just for the Iron Throne but for individual identity — the characters are as much at war with the traditions of the epic genre as they are with each other.
Torn from their archetypal roots, the surviving Lannisters, Starks and Targaryens are now seen as individuals. Winter is still coming, yes, and the White Walkers crowd the back of everyone's mind, but as Season 5 opens, most of the lead characters are in psychological rather than mortal peril. No one will be allowed to remain good or bad, hero, villain or victim. Instead, each character, though shaped by events, must decide what sort of person he or she will become.
Having killed his father and his lover, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is now a literal exile, and though he attempts to return to his "Impish" ways, Varys reminds him that he is too natural a leader to remain passive. (As with Tyrion and his bodyguard Bronn, played by Jerome Flynn, this odd-couple partnership provides some of the show's most wickedly funny moments.) The two are off to meet Daenerys, stalled out in her sandy kingdom of Meereen, where she learns that liberation theology is not a replacement for leadership, either with people or dragons.
On the wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is being taught a similar lesson — honor and duty are fine ideals but often tough to define in turbulent times, and everyone has a personal agenda. Arya (Maisie Williams), who already knows this too well, is coping with just the opposite. In Braavos, she seeks the tutelage of the Faceless Man, who seems to encourage surrender more than retribution. Sansa (Sophie Turner) has made a similar sharp turn, entering the power plays she has shrunk from all these years.
Only Cersei remains unchanged, and though she is still supple in her schemes, her dreams of power and influence appear just as doomed as they did when she was Robert's adulterous, and incestuous, queen. Even Jaime has grown beyond her.
The show's biggest challenge remains its scope, which it attempts to manage by excising Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) from this season (he's in a cave, learning from the Three-Eyed Raven) and bringing several story lines together. Although the first four episodes are, by any standards, action-packed — plenty o' gruesome deaths, brothel visits and colorful battle scenes — they are among the most contemplative of the series.
A calm before a storm, no doubt, but also a reminder that despite the marvelously mechanized map that opens the show, "Game of Thrones" is not a tale of kingdoms, armies or archetypes, nor of competing mythologies or clashing cultures.
It's the story of people caught up in events so frantic and fearsome that it becomes perilously easy to forget that essence should direct action, not the other way around.