Just in case Game of Thrones didn’t already feel like The Godfather with swords and dragons, along comes season five, which takes a lot of its cues from the scene in The Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone watches his brother Fredo go fishing. The show seems to directly acknowledge the Corleone lineage in an exchange from episode two: “I always heard it was best to keep your enemies close.” “Whoever said that didn’t have many enemies.” In scene after scene we learn that sometimes, no matter how kind and wise you fancy yourself to be, and no matter how badly you’d like to be known as a force for change and reform, you still have to make distasteful, expedient, even cruel decisions to keep power. Marry into that family you hate. Kill that soldier who has good reasons for not pledging allegiance. Execute that underling who did something in your name that you approve of, but didn’t ask permission to do first. Some characters rule entire kingdoms, others nothing more than a squire, a mud hut, or a tiny plot of land, but the lesson is always the same. It’s all about realpolitik: “politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises.”
Granted, Thrones was never an airy romp through the lily field. Every couple of episodes brought a moment that you could hardly bear to watch, not just because of the physical violence (which was extreme even by pay-cable standards) but because of the moral and emotional turmoil that accompanied it, or that inspired it: a power-grab, a betrayal, a moment of cowardice or greed.
Nevertheless, I do think this batch of episodes feels different, perhaps deeper, mainly because of the disappointment we feel on many major characters’ behalf. They all attain new positions of influence early in this season (or entrench themselves in positions they acquired earlier) only to learn what a truly dirty business leadership can be, and how quickly idealism can give way to the ugly tedium of preserving the status quo.
(Skip the rest of this review if you don’t want any details about the first few episodes of season five. As for the books, if you’ve read them, bully for you, but do be considerate in the comments for those who haven’t.)
The stories of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) might form the narrative heart of the first few episodes: The scripts return to these three more regularly than the other key players. They parallel and contrast against each other nicely because they’re all at different places in their relationships to power.
Relatedly, there’s a meditation on power dynamics that’s sharper and more despairing than we’ve seen on the series in the past. A lot of it has to do with the various social strata in the kingdom, and how the higher ones continually oppress and exploit the lower ones even when they’re making a big show of offering a hand up. “Great families are afraid to do a thing,” Jacob Anderson’s Grey Worm tells Daenerys. “They pay poor men to do it for them.”
Those designated as outsiders plot to gain as much power as they can, and become as comfortable as possible, while knowing that they’ll never really be on the inside, and that the compromises required to bring them inside can lead to restlessness, depression, and a feeling of self-loathing over everything they gave up to get there. In one of many conversations about power with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the eunuch Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) defines the center of power as a “box” and says, “People like you and me are never satisfied inside the box for very long.”
Snow is just starting out: Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) leans on him to convince the imprisoned Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) to “bend the knee” and swear his allegiance to Stannis. This doesn’t go well, as you can imagine, but Snow’s brutal but sensible response convinces Stannis and his advisers that Snow’s got the stuff to be the Master of the Night’s Watch; he absolutely does, but almost the instant he ascends to his new role, he’s forced into a position that he can only escape through the kind of state-approved cruelty he once abhorred from afar. (Interesting that Mance describes Stannis, an imperious and cold man, as somebody who’d make a pretty good ruler of the realm; it reminds us that the definition of good leadership often depends on where you’re standing, and that some people prefer consistency over likability or innovation.)
Meanwhile, Daenerys is at the height of her influence. Her legend is so widespread that Varys convinces the fugitive Tyrion that she’s the one who can unite the kingdoms. This leads to a marvelous series of scenes in which the two travel by carriage and boat, bickering and philosophizing. (“Eunuch, the spider, the master of whispers,” Tyrion greets Varys, who replies, “Imp, half-man”; this is how pals talk to each other.) Daenerys was in roughly the same position near the end of season one that Jon is right now: ascendant, but as fundamentally naïve as she is impressive. Now she’s Establishment, or about to be. She fought her way across the kingdom as Mother of Dragons and the leader of an army composed partly of freed slaves that she thinks of as her children. And there’s trouble brewing. Season five sees the former slavers in the city pushing back against her, by way of a terrorist campaign backed by the now-deposed ruling class, designed to weaken the new order and restore the old ways. The terrorists (or extremists) call themselves Sons of the Harpy and wear hideous masks while they chop up the queen’s guards and subjects and anyone who seems sympathetic to Daenerys.
Although she keeps presenting a calm, forceful front, Daenerys is afraid that she can’t hold on to what she’s won. As if the Sons’ brutal destablization campaign weren’t bad enough, she’s learning that while the ex-slaves are happy to be free, they don’t necessarily want a whole new culture to go along with their freedom. Danerys thinks she’s being idealistic when she refuses to allow pit fighting in the city again, but it makes her seem like an interloper — and a condescending, clueless one at that. The roiling, dissatisfied city is represented metaphorically — in a rare bit of Game of Thrones symbolism that’s not too in your face — by Daenerys’s dragons, who no longer respond to her commands.
Cersei represents the third stage of power: its eventual ebb. She has married off her eldest surviving son and now faces having to accept the title “Queen Mother” or “Dowager Queen,” phrases that sting a woman who once used her beauty and sexuality as weapons. She sends her brother off on a secret mission to restore and preserve her family’s influence (which leads to some sly banter between Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime Lannister and Jerome Flynn’s gruff trainer, Bronn; there’s a lot of buddy comedy this season). But once her brother is gone she feels more isolated than ever. The weight of the losses she’s suffered sink in: husband, father, son. The flattery of underlings bores her now because it’s so obviously ceremonial: She doesn’t have nearly as much favor to curry as she did even a few months earlier. Game of Thrones is as adept at depicting verbal bitchery as it is at spilling blood: A scene in a later episode where Cersei’s new daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) asks her how she’d prefer to be a addressed is some grade-A, Heathers-style brutality-by-snark. One of the show’s slyer ironies is its presentation of a newly sensitive Cersei expressing sympathy for the downtrodden, presumably as a result of her loss of power, and offering to create a sort of extrajudicial morals police force and place it under the control of a cleric played by Jonathan Pryce. Is this a royal corollary of “a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested”? Cersei can’t have people killed without getting permission first, so now she’s sensitive to the plight of society’s dispossessed: This would be funny if you didn’t feel absolutely certain that it’s going to end badly.
As always, Game of Thrones is a powder keg of sexual, racial, and religious images and situations, many of them seeming to question odious real-world beliefs and traditions while wallowing in them. But this season, so many plotlines reveal how problematic many of the assumptions are, that the entire series seems more capable of withstanding the criticism that’s been directed against it. There’s still a lot of female nudity that could be criticized as unnecessary. (Is any nudity really “necessary” in any story, though? Is any graphic violence? Any profanity?) But this time, the supremacy of the boob is being threatened by the ascendancy of man-ass. This is progress, of a kind, though it’s somewhat undermined by the absence of any gay characters who aren’t sissy boys who can’t hold a sword properly.
Danerys freeing and “civilizing” mostly brown-skinned people will continue to spawn think-pieces. But this time, it’s impossible to write her scenes off as an imperialist fantasy without willfully ignoring or distorting what’s actually on the screen. What we have here is the story of a blonde, self-styled “savior” installing herself as the ruler of brown people, aided in large part by superior military “technology” (her dragons), then being greeted — à la Dick Cheney’s Iraq fantasy — as a liberator, though only by that sector of the population that likes her or has something to gain by pretending to like her. And soon enough, she discovers the people she deposed aren’t giving up as easily as she thought; that the people she’s hoping to somehow ennoble or “reform” aren’t big fans of being told what to do and what to believe, and that the things she’ll have to do to keep the throne might make her as despised as the people she defeated. New boss, old boss, etc. Like Alexander the Great in Babylon, she’ll probably learn that the city is easier to enter than it is to leave.
There are moments where the digital effects overreach (some of the aerial city shots are a tad Phantom Menace), and despite the many welcome moments of gallows humor, this is still a super-duper-serious drama, often erring on the side of punishingly dour; as much as I like Thrones, there are still moments when I wish Monty Python circa 1980 could time-warp in and take the piss out of everyone involved. (When a character declares, “The king is a complicated man,” I badly wanted the Shaft theme to chime in, “and no one understands him but his woman.”) Still, the level of craft and intelligence is so high here that Thrones earns the right to think of itself as doing for sword and sorcery what Coppola’s Godfather trilogy did for the gangster picture: taking it seriously as modern myth without sapping it of old-fashioned entertainment value.
That old Thrones sense of how to pace and build a long-form story is in full effect here, as is the show’s lived-in sense of sweep. Producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and their army of collaborators make the many plots and subplots feel like variations on a theme, though not too obviously so. The arguments over which gods to worship and which kings to install aren’t too far removed from questions of which individuals to trust with secrets or join on personal crusades. It’s all a matter of what you want out of life versus what’s actually achievable, and the compromises or sins that accompany the choices you make.
I’m curious to see where the show goes once it outpaces the writing of its inspiration, George R.R. Martin; I haven’t read the books and have no desire to (I’m mainly interested in whether TV shows work as TV shows, not whether they’re good translations of books), but even so, I can tell that the series is taking on its own life because the tone and concerns are palpably different than they were in seasons one and two. Like Daenerys’s dragons, these babies have grown so big so fast that soon they won’t be content to live in literary chains anymore. They’ll have to fly free.