In Its Fifth Season, ‘Game of Thrones’ May Finally Surpass the Books

There are two equal and opposite forces at work in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, which HBO will unleash on our DVRs — and now, our Apple TVs! — this Sunday. On the one hand, displacement, a state that’s arguably the status quo on a series so fond of stabbing its characters, and the viewers who identify with them, in the heart (and pushing them out windows, and exploding their heads, and killing their parents in front of them…). And on the other, stagnation, in which characters previously defined by their forward momentum find themselves stuck, in one notable case, between two angry dragons and a hard place.

Both of these themes, in the wrong hands, can present significant dramatic challenges. Displacement robs characters of their defining traits, and risks sacrificing conflicts and relationships that made them compelling in the first place. Who is Tyrion Lannister, for example, outside the context of the family that rejects him even as he embodies its best qualities? What can Brienne of Tarth do when she’s unable to serve as a protector, the only role she’s known how to fill since she realized “woman” wasn’t an option? And how can Cersei, whose flashback provides the season’s opening moments, survive without power — more specifically, the father and sons she’s always relied on to give it to her?

And with stagnation, of course, comes the threat of boredom. If the parallels between Daenerys’s conquest of Meereen and the United States’ recent military involvements weren’t obvious enough already, there’s a visual in the premiere that has all the subtlety of, well, this show’s use of boobs. (Iraq allegories with dragons may have a political point, but they’re a great deal less exciting to watch than the average dragon-assisted military takeover.) Back on the Wall, the suspense of an impending battle and its wildly expensive payoff have given way to managing a depleted army. It involves a lot of paperwork, and a bit of full-frontal nudity put to its typical Game of Thrones use: helping the medicine go down.

But as they’ve proven time and time again, if anyone’s up to these challenges, it’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The fresh starts and sudden changes mostly turn out for the best, and unsurprisingly so — when it comes to a drama as plot-driven as this, more forward momentum is better than less. Taking Tyrion and Arya outside of Westeros does more than allow for some sweet, sweet scenery porn, though the show continues to put its ever-growing SFX budget to good use. For them, and even for characters whose circumstances have altered more than their surroundings, this season offers new allies, new enemies, and in more than one instance, new religious cults to experiment with.

It’s the stagnation that turns out shockingly well. As a reader of the books — the most obnoxious possible way to start a sentence for those who haven’t, but bear with me — I’ve been worried about season five for a while. Not just because the show’s running out of material, since Benioff and Weiss have long known how the series ends and the major milestones along the way (though if George R.R. Martin managed to get the next volume out ahead of season six, I wouldn’t complain). It’s also because the series’ fourth and fifth books, which cover about the same period of time from the perspectives of different characters, are by far its weakest. They’re too long; there are long passages with more world-building than action; and there are others that are meant to show the maddening nature of stasis, but end up just boring the reader instead. A Song of Ice and Fire is both an incredible series on its own and the reason Game of Thrones exists, but it’s not without its problems.

And miraculously, the show fixes them. Partially, it does this by doing what it’s only natural for a television adaptation to do: condensing the plot to keep cast, and story line, numbers down. Originally, Dorne is late-in-the-game infusion of names with only a tangential relationship to the previous three books; on screen, we see Prince Oberyn’s hometown — and meet his bastard daughters the Sand Snakes, this season’s most welcome new faces — through the eyes of Jaime Lannister. A similar invention brings three unlikely groups of characters together in the North, cutting down on the diffusion that’s always threatening to make the show bigger than anyone, even Benioff and Weiss, can handle.

But other tweaks simply take weaker subplots and make them…better. This is especially evident on Daenerys’ end, where the development of Daario, Grey Worm, and Missandei into fully fleshed out characters pays off in the form of a quagmire that’s significantly less painful to watch than it is to read. And Daenerys herself benefits from the CGI’d dragons, who translate this seasons into visual metaphors for her fraught relationship with control and her own power. Even Jon’s struggles at the Wall are spruced up, and not just with the aforementioned nudity. There’s good material for Shireen and Selyse and other people who aren’t our brooding hero; there’s even a cathartic payoff to his tension with Mance Rayder, something that — you guessed it — wasn’t on the page.

This isn’t to catalog the endless differences between a book series and the adaptation that’s based on but entirely free to depart from it. Rather, it’s to point out that while Game of Thrones has always been a masterful translation of Martin’s work, the early episodes of season five show a work that’s more than prepared to keep going, with or without the next installment. Confident and self-assured, this is a series that feels just at home in Westeros, and with the deeply flawed people who live in it, as Martin himself.