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
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 (
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 (
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 (
On the wall, Jon Snow (
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 (
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.