Game of Thrones has swooped back into our lives on Sky Atlantic and shows no sign of dropping the relentless pace that has made it the most famous series currently on our screens.
This is the beginning of the fifth of seven planned seasons, so it's high time to build the groundwork for the series' overall final arcs. Yet nearly all the characters in Game of Thrones are on unstable ground, any alliances look dubious at best, and a host of minor characters have yet to step out of the shadows.
A deft piece of exposition goes someway towards explaining the cool, calm, insatiable power lust of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey).
It’s little wonder she has fought with impunity to maintain her position: a witch told a young Cersei that she would be queen for a short time before being usurped by someone younger, and that she would outlive her children.
Her current position could hardly be worse: her father Tywin (Charles Dance) has been murdered by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who has been smuggled out of the country in a crate. Her brother and former lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has come back from imprisonment a changed man; and as the reams of dignitaries queue up to pay their respects, Jaime warns that they are also gathering to tear the Lannisters apart.
The family can’t even rely on their vast wealth. Their gold mines are barren, and according to their now dead father, they are in hock to the Iron Bank, an organisation that matches the payment plans of the Troika with the compassion of the Mafia. One assumes the rest of the series will involve Cersei and Jaime attempting to negotiate a significant bank bailout while agreeing to slash spending at court, and seeking an agreement on reduced pay and conditions on their army of not-so-civil servants.
Tyrion might have murdered his father and killed his lover, but he’s also drunk himself across the Narrow Sea while being smuggled in a box by Varys (Conleth Hill) – and the latter seems to have enjoyed it just a shade. Varys is shaping up to be a queenmaker, and has a plan to head to Meereen and open negotiations with Daenerys Targaryen to “save Westeros from itself”.
The chances of Varys actually doing something for all his stated reasons are close to nil, though. Expect an ulterior motive that so far his other ulterior motive doesn’t even know about, despite having being sleeping with his other ulterior motive all along.
All is not well in the land of Meereen though. In the last series, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) had chained up two of her dragons in the cellar while a third went on the lam after killing a child. Now she’s struggling to rule, and can’t seem to decide between the iron fist or the velvet glove. Any reunion with her beloved scaly offspring also looks unlikely: it appears her basement family are no mood for a reunion.
And then there is trouble up North. The Night’s Watch were facing a defeat at the hand of the Free Folk until Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) rode to their rescue. Wilding leader Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) is given a choice: bend the knee and there’ll be land and freedom for him and his kin when Baratheon take back the north (there are no “ifs” when it comes to power struggles in Game of Thrones). The other option? He burns.
This is a fascinating development for several reasons. Without consulting with his people to give them the option, Mance refuses. Doe-eyed Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) deploys all his hunky, dour charms to try to convince him, to no effect. Mance is set alight by a gleeful Melisandre (Carice van Houten), adding a much needed dose of religious fanaticism to a plot already boiling over with knee-jerk reactions and frothing blood lust. The only saving grace is that Snow puts an arrow through Mance’s heart as the fire torture is being pushed up to 11.
This is an indication of things to come: the death of Mance is a serious departure from the original books by writers/showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. George RR Martin, of course, hasn't finished the series yet and the television series will likely be finished by HBO at the same time as Martin is sending his final draft to the printers. Expect the Thronies to be up in arms when the televisual upstarts start playing their own game.
As a series opener, the writers unleashed Game of Thrones’ full arsenal: a bewildering number of plots and subplots; a shedload of sex, violence and drama as well as real-world concerns of power and politics. Winter might be coming, but the main characters are showing a climate-change-sceptic level of insight, so focused are they on the Iron Throne.
Morality is nearly absent in Game of Thrones; everyone has their motivations; each is gradually revealed with a nicely judged level of detail; and no character appears inherently good or decent. This is a strange and terrible place that is filled with shadows, and it makes for almost irresistible television.
It's an extremely deft trick to keep these twisting stories and shifting allegiances in check without wearying the viewer. What perhaps keeps people coming back for more is that, despite the fantastical trappings, it's as good an illustration of the abuse of power and how it corrupts as you'll find on television: much more so than the hokey realism of House of Cards. And if you can settle a row with a sword in a political docu-drama such as Charlie, you can hardly blame Game of Thrones for being a little too knife-happy.