Early in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen, conqueror of Meereen and aspirant to the Iron Throne of Westeros, has to deal with a family problem. Her dragons–her “children”–are getting too big, and she can’t control them anymore. Two of them are locked up, for their safety or everyone else’s, beneath the pyramid city. The biggest, Drogon, has been AWOL in the countryside for weeks. Damn kids! Once they grow up and learn how to drive, there’s no controlling them!
In the story, the dragons are a metaphor for Dany’s power. As it grows greater, it becomes more difficult to control–as she’s learned in Meereen, where effectively governing the city of former slave masters has proved harder than liberating it. It’s a typical message for Game of Thrones, which has always balanced its fantasy thrills with realpolitik. An awesome champion, it argues, is not necessarily a great ruler; and you are only a leader to the extent you can prove yourself worth following. Or as the season premiere puts it: “A dragon queen without dragons is not a queen.”
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But the dragons could also be a metaphor for Game of Thrones itself, which is the offspring of the incomplete A Song of Ice and Fire novel series by George R.R. Martin. In its first episodes, it was newly hatched and wobbly, dependent on its mother novels. Gradually it grew, became confident, got its own voice, experimented with going its own way.
By season 5 (premieres April 12), it’s started to outgrow its parents; several storylines are approaching or passing what Martin has written in five novels. (It’s anybody’s guess when the projected final two books come out, though the previous two took about five years each.) The adapters, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, say they’ve consulted with Martin on his master plan, but they’re not waiting for him. As the series moves past the book on some storylines and changes others to better suit the screen, for the first time readers are as likely to be surprised by what happens as non-readers. Like it or not, this critter’s gotta fly solo now.
And it is still a magnificent beast: bold, confident and venturing off in new directions. It’s continuing to expand to new destinations on the map that springs to life in the title sequence. In Dorne, we meet the Sand Snakes–the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell, preparing vengeance for their father’s death last season in trial-by-combat against the Lannisters’ champion The Mountain. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) pursues her own payback plot by traveling a continent away to Braavos, apprenticing with the mystic society of the Faceless Men to learn the skills of an assassin.
But the new episodes also have old characters re-cross paths, and move to bring some long-separated characters together. One of the most fruitful new scenarios is a departure from the books, but a well-publicized one: spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill) and fugitive patricide lord Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) are on the eastern continent headed to Dany, whom Varys believes is Westeros’ savior.
Giving the silver-tongued pair their own road movie is a treat, and it returns to one of the series’ longtime themes: what makes a good ruler? An honest-but-weak monarch can mean chaos, a strong-but-cruel one terror. When Varys hopes that Dany can deliver “a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless,” Tyrion scoffs: “That’s how they became powerful in the first place.”
“Perhaps,” Varys says. “Or perhaps we have become so used to horror that we assume there is no other way.”
At times you might have said that about Game of Thrones itself, whose fourth season seemed determined to outdo itself in shock: rapes, cannibalism, head smashing. Season 5 hasn’t exactly become pacifist, but it’s also exploring the ideas and politics behind the battles. At The Wall, a newly responsible Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is balancing the needs of the neutral Night’s Watch against the demands of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). In King’s Landing, the power vacuum after Joffrey and Tywin Lannister’s deaths has left Cersei (Lena Headey) competing with daughter-in-law Margaery (Natalie Dormer), while war has led to a surge in religious fundamentalism led by holy ascetic the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). Even bloodthirsty Roose Bolton is advising his sadistic son Ramsay, “The best way to forge an alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off,” which is practically “Give peace a chance” in Bolton-speak.
That’s a hell of a lot of story, and I’ve barely colored in the map–yet this is actually an efficiently streamlined version of the teeming, digression-filled story Martin has built after five books–especially the last two, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, which this season draws from. (Skip the following section if you haven’t read the books and don’t want to know about them, or if you have and don’t want to know how the new season departs from them.)
Benioff’s and Weiss’ strategy seems to be: don’t reach for a new tool when you can use one you have in hand. Where Martin introduced plot after plot, face after face, Game of Thrones uses already established characters. So Varys and Tyrion’s aforementioned Essos adventure comes in place of Tyrion’s river journey from ADWD–which means no Young Griff, the rival Targaryen claimant, at least for now. Jaime Lannister is not fighting in the Riverlands but on a mission to Dorne to retrieve Princess Myrcella, setting off various changes in that storyline (for one, the story of Arianne is assumed in part by Ellaria Sand). In the North, there’s no fake “Arya Stark” to be married off to Ramsay Bolton; meanwhile, the stories of Sansa and Littlefinger and Brienne (who no longer has Lady Stoneheart to encounter) intersect. (Even under the cloak of spoiler blurring, I won’t tell you how.)
The Iron Islands, meanwhile, have disappeared into the mist; AFFC’s Oldtown prologue is gone; and–maybe happiest of all–there’s no sign of Quentyn, sent in the books on a shaggy-dog mission from Dorne to become a dragon kebab in Meereen. (Disclaimer: I’ve seen four episodes of the season; there’s no telling what might come up later.) But there are also a few elements I’m pleasantly surprised the show has retained–including info dumps about Rheagar and Lyanna, Maester Qyburn’s weird-science research, and a nod to popular theories about Jon Snow’s parentage. Nuances will be lost, threads snipped, mythology glossed over, but that’s why we have the books (if Martin ever finishes). Benioff and Weiss are, mostly, remaking the story to work for the screen, where the lifting needs to be done by dialogue, visuals and emotional connection to people we’ve known for four seasons now.
All these tweaks make for a story that’s expanding–the new setting in Dorne is particularly breathtaking–but not quite metastasizing. We don’t know how much longer the series has (HBO has recently hinted at something longer than the bruited-about seven seasons), but even as it expands, it feels like it’s driving toward a point. And for once, readers and non-readers will be approach the story on something closer to equal footing. Readers can look forward to being genuinely surprised (pleasantly or not). Non-readers can share readers’ experience of wondering when Dany will stop moping around that freaking pyramid and get back to Westeros.
Answer: not quite yet, but in the second episode, as she stands on one of its high parapets, she has a visitor: Drogon, who lands his massive frame behind her. She reaches to caress his massive head, half in love, half in fear. Then he takes off again. Game of Thrones is flying, full tilt, toward a destination off the edge of our map of the known world. I can’t wait to see what it finds there.