Spoiler warning: The following review contains plot points from Game Of Thrones up to and including tonight’s fifth season premiere.

The fourth season of Game Of Thrones was divided, roughly, into three large narratives.

First: the undoing of House Lannister, a festering evil perpetuated by Tywin that finally came back to pierce him through the bowels. Second: Jon Snow's reluctant rise to unofficial leadership, as the Night's Watch battled Mance Rayder's wildlings, aided by boring Stannis Baratheon. Third: Daenerys Targaryen's realization that governing a large population is not a simple endeavor, but tumultuous and unpredictable—much like dragon ownership.

There were plenty of other threads woven by the show's large cast, of course—Arya and the Hound's shared journey, for instance—but these three seemed the most significant.

Two of these three plot lines will continue this season, but we have a giant, Tywin Lannister-sized vacuum in the story. It's a perpetual problem for Game Of Thrones that its unpredictability (and the ease with which it casts aside strong characters) forces others to step in and play a bigger part in the story. But judging by the way the fifth season of the show begins in "The Wars To Come," there's still an overabundance of compelling material.

Approximately nobody predicted that the fifth season would lead off with a flashback to Cersei Lannister's childhood, where she and a "friend"—does Cersei have friends? Is that possible?—accost a woman living on Lannister land who Cersei believes to be a witch. Since the little Cersei is just as snotty and entitled as she is as an adult, she forces the witch to tell her future.

It's bleak. She'll be queen "for a time," and her children will have golden crowns and shrouds. Not exactly the rosy picture Cersei was looking for given her family name. The spookiest elements of Game Of Thrones are the moments where the medieval darkness gets a twinge of magic, like when somebody gets raised from the dead or a man changes his face. This is a sword and sorcery epic, after all, so when there's enough of the latter to scare those who rely on the former, the show is better for it.

But it does seem a bit cheap to just recap everything that's going on around the realm, because while a lot of people have written that the fifth season gets off to a slow burn after all the pyrotechnics at the end of the fourth season, I see it a bit differently. Sure, we could check in with Brienne and Podric as they meander along the way having dispatched the Hound but lost Arya. Or Littlefinger and Sansa, passing right by them undetected in a bit of Shakespearean irony, deviating from the books and traveling somewhere as yet unknown.

Or, most entertaining of all, we could talk a lot about Tyrion and Varys, on the run from King's Landing, arriving in the free city of Pentos, trading witty barbs with aplomb. There's a cornucopia of catching up in this premiere, but what stuck out to me was that with every reintroduction there wasn't much action, but instead a statement of political beliefs.

Game Of Thrones isn't just a viscerally entertaining fantasy story—it's now the most thoughtful political show on television, and perhaps the best since The West Wing. And in a lot of ways, it's even better, because while Aaron Sorkin acolytes revel in the walk-and-talk witticisms and trumpet the glorification of the American political machine, The West Wing was terrible at offering up competing viewpoints without favoring one over the other. Sorkin was never evenhanded or ambiguous.

Benioff and Weiss, by contrast, entertain several different opinions on how this world and the people in it should coexist. Varys details his old plan for a Targaryen restoration atop the Iron Throne, which spiraled into a chaotic mess, leading to his escape with Tyrion across the narrow sea. But he still dreams of a future that, while not necessarily utopian, is at least more benevolent, with a powerful, beloved leader who works as a force for the general welfare of all. Brienne bemoans her wandering, saying that all she ever wanted "was to fight for a lord I believed in." Which is too bad, because as she put it: "All the good ones are dead, the rest are monsters."

Mance silences Jon Snow with the fact that he's willing to die rather than lead his people into a "foreigner's war" with Stannis. It's a rather relevant political allegory to the last decade-plus of American military intervention. Daenerys continues to struggle as a white woman who believes in her nobility bringing freedom and Westerosi thinking to cities made up of mostly darker-skinned slaves and former masters.

Without a big bloody battle, or some giant plot revelation, there's an increasing amount of pressure on these season premieres to justify the scale of the show. After such a significant deaths, will there be enough to set the table for further plot machinations down the road? Many readers of the novels believe George R.R. Martin's own narrative drive faltered at exactly this point in the series.

But since the television series is now no longer adhering to a book-by-book structure, it gets to determine what it wants the story of this world to be about. And the scale and conciseness ofscreen production lets it do so in a very deliberate way.

That's partly by Martin's design, as the ever-present dread and uncertainty helps prevent the show from having to commit to one type of story development for too long. It has always been tough to bring all the disparate threads together, but "The Wars To Come" manages to cohere around the idea of what these characters envision as an ideal scenario. Some work hard to maintain a feeling of independence and personal fortitude. Some envision fending off all the other schemers who look at the family on the throne as just another piece to be toppled. Others have grand designs for an enduring peace that benefits the entire society. It's a range of visions and goals, and that scope helps Game Of Thrones maintain not only a great relevance as a highly popular and entertaining television show, but as a vital examination of the ways in which ambition can affect spheres of influence both great and small.


Extra Thrones

  • As has been widely reported this weekend, the first four episodes of this season—the ones that were sent out to critics for reviewing purposes—leaked online, apparently from a set of DVDs sent out to a critic. It's not good for those of us who depend on the advance screeners to get reviews done so they can go up right after an episode airs. So after the first four weeks, I'll likely be watching live, which means these reviews will go up late Sunday or early Monday morning.
  • Not in the premiere: Arya Stark, who is presumably still on her way to Braavos, and the Boltons, who are presumably still flaying people alive.
  • There's a good amount of male backside nudity going on in this premiere, at least more noticeable than in previous seasons, but it only took 15 minutes to get a brothel scene with female nudity.