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HBO's many-splendored Game of Thrones remains at the top of its game


”Dragon Queen” Daenerys Targaryen & one of her flamethrowers. But who’s mastering whom in Season 5 of Game of Thrones? HBO photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
So-called “event television” is seldom as advertised.

But with Game of Thrones this might be an understatement. Season 5 of HBO’s quintessential power play returns on Sunday, April 12th at 8 p.m. (central) with all remaining hands still shuffling their decks. The first four of 10 episodes were sent for review. And they’re a spectacular blend of machinations, executions, lonely quests, shaky grounds and new religious insurrections.

Since the “Spoiler” statute of limitations has expired, let’s set the stage by noting that Season 4 climaxed with the rousing murder of sinister Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) by his long-ridiculed dwarf son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). For good measure, Tyrion also knocked off his once devoted concubine, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), after finding her in the sack with the old man. He then fled King’s Landing in the company of the eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), who hid him in a perforated wooden crate fit for a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Although in an understandably surly mood upon finally being freed, Tyrion remains quick on the quip -- as does Varys. When the latter cites “compassion” as one of his leadership qualities, Tyrion snorts, “Compassion. I killed my lover with my bare hands. I shot my own father with a crossbow.”

“I never said you were perfect,” Varys ripostes.

Episode 1 also includes something of a Thomas More moment at frozen Castle Black. A matter of principle is at stake -- with a burning at the stake coming soon unless a simple act of fealty can be brokered. Episodes 2 and 3 likewise depict “justice” officially being served to lone offenders before Episode 4 ends with multiple deaths in a ferocious battle.

Queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues to weigh the scales between being a just ruler or a pushover. But has she fatally alienated one of her fan bases in the process? And have her now fully grown dragons gone well beyond being their teacher’s pets?

Daenerys arguably has been GOT’s most compelling female character through the series’ first four seasons. But the noble warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) is gaining on her while seeking to rescue Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) from the clutches of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and others.

In Episode 3, Brienne has a lengthy and affecting scene with her still clumsy squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). She first pledges to stop grousing at him and start training him. She then recalls her humiliation as a gangly “mulish” young girl whose suitors all made sport of her. Brienne isn’t quite Shrek. Close enough, though, to merit a heartfelt rooting interest.

The other surviving Lannisters, incestuous brother and sister Jaime and Cersei (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey), remain very much a part of these power struggles. Although still malevolent, Cersei is getting an increasingly strong challenge from scheming Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), whose leverage grows in Episode 3. Meanwhile, Jaime is on a rescue mission, dropping out of view for perhaps too long a time before returning in Episode 4 for a splendid fight scene in which he learns how to make unexpected use of his metallic hand.

Game of Thrones again has much to juggle and many characters to serve, including a new religious sect leader called The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce doing double duty on Sunday nights while also co-starring in PBS’ Wolf Hall series). Still, Season 5’s first four episodes are fairly easy to navigate in terms of who’s what and where -- and how they eventually hope to occupy the vaunted Iron Throne.

Fans of the series -- and I’m now a full-blown one after initial reservations -- hope that all of this can go on and on and on. HBO wouldn’t mind that at all. Last season, Game of Thrones surpassed The Sopranos as the network’s most popular series ever, according to cumulative Nielsen numbers. There are still plenty of key characters to eliminate from one 10-episode arc to the next. Season 4 felled not only the evil Tywin Lannister but the amoral boy king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the hard, scarred but at times kindly mercenary Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann). And “Trial By Combat” fatality Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) leaves behind a widow and three warrior daughters who clearly have only begun to fight.

All of these deaths, destructions and re-dedications have only served to make Game of Thrones even better while most other series of this duration begin to hit slumps and valleys. Season 5 of GOT in contrast shows strong signs of roaring louder than ever. Epic in scope, basic in motivations, it will fill the next 10 Sundays with “appointment viewing” of the highest realm.


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