THE SHOW "Game of Thrones"
WHEN |WHERE Season 5 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) has been murdered by his son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Tywin's daughter, Cersei (Lena Headey), wants revenge: "That little monster is out there drawing breath," she says. But Varys (Conleth Hill) has secretly squired Tyrion away, explaining, "Westeros needs to be saved from itself." Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) -- now Queen of Meereen -- discovers that ruling a city with a complicated past is much harder than it looks, especially without the aid of her dragons.
The fifth season begins with a flashback and a prophecy -- for Cersei as a girl -- and otherwise picks up the story from the fourth volume -- "A Feast for Crows" (2005) -- in George R.R. Martin's epic series "A Song of Ice and Fire."
MY SAY Usually the separation of critical objectivity from fan ardor -- or my separation in the case of "Game of Thrones" -- is a tricky but essential exercise. At least "Thrones" continues to make it an easy one. Both my inner fan and inner critic agree: The fifth season is superb, judging from the first four episodes provided for review ("The Wars to Come" arrives Sunday).
Everything works. Everything presupposes more greatness in episodes (and seasons) to come. Everyone, too. We think we know all of these characters, with their various quirks, shades and colors -- from Arya to Brienne, from Petyr Baelish to Sansa. The new season piles on more quirks and shades. These people feel so real you can almost hear their hearts, or see into them.
But season 5 is also different in dramatic and subtle ways. Forget the books . . . OK, don't forget the books but instead think of them this season as two massive decks of cards that show runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have shuffled together. Some cards have been left out -- no Bran Stark -- while some seem like they're in the wrong place. Tyrion or Dany and her dragons weren't in the book "A Feast for Crows" at all, but they are here. They also borrow from a past volume. Jon Snow was elected the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch in "A Storm of Swords," the basis for the 4th season. Instead, he's elected this season. Otherwise, "A Dance With Dragons," published in 2011, assumes a major role here.
Weiss and Benioff decided to blend parts of both books rather than track them sequentially. Why? Because this works better for the purposes of a television narrative. Plus, both books take place at the same time which makes the process of melding them together logical, and at least in the first four episodes, it appears seamless too.
Nonetheless, like unruly (and precocious) teens trying to break free from their parents, the producers are also attempting to make their own way through Westeros, and create their own vision. This has been an ongoing process, of course -- just much more pronounced this season. "Game of Thrones" is officially diverging from "A Song of Ice and Fire."
The show also feels more nuanced. If season 4 was like a giant exhaled breath -- the climactic battle at the wall, the deaths of Tywin and Joffrey -- then season 5 is an inhaled one. The story beats are more deliberate. There's also a sharpened sense of building anticipation -- or impending doom.
But "Thrones" is still undeniably "Thrones," and so are its big, meaty themes -- above all, Martin's central heart-divided-against-itself one that continues to play out in sumptuous visual ways and symbolic ways, too (north versus south, many gods versus one god, black versus white, good versus evil).
The great polarities continue to guide fates. The drama intensifies. Something titanic and terrifying slouches toward Westeros. But what?
BOTTOM LINE Deeper, richer and -- surprise -- quieter. Well, a bit quieter anyway ("Quiet" is never for long in either Westeros or Essos).