Westeros is trying to recover from the devastation of the War of the Five Kings. Bandits and raiders are rife in the countryside and the Greyjoys and Stannis Baratheon remain in arms against King Tommen. In King's Landing, the machinations of the Queen Regent threaten to shatter the alliance between Houses Lannister and Tyrell, whilst Jon Snow's determination to forge an alliance with the wildlings proves controversial with his brothers in the Night's Watch. Far across the sea, Daenerys's attempts to restore peace to the ancient city of Meereen are threatened by a band of rebels enraged by her decision to ban slavery and by the fact that she has lost control of her dragons.
Much will be written about the fifth season of Game of Thrones in the months and years to come. This was always going to be the season in which George R.R. Martin's novels and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's TV show were going to dramatically diverge from one another, the near-inevitable result of both the needs of dramatisation (which would likely not bear the introspection and subtlety of the fourth and fifth books in the series) and the fact that the TV show is now outpacing the books, requiring both outright invention on the part of the producers as well as drawing on elements from books as-yet unreleased, or even unwritten.
This process has mixed results. In some cases, the adaptation continues to hit its sweet spot of getting complex stories from the novels across on screen in a simpler form, but one that is also clearer, more concise and retaining the thematic essentials whilst paring away unnecessary (if still interesting) supporting material and characters. King's Landing particularly benefits from this, with lots of minor politics involving new or vanishingly minor characters swept aside in favour of a more ruthless focus on Cersei's growing hatred of the Tyrells and the arrival of the High Sparrow, played with flawless passion by Jonathan Pryce. This culminates in the excellent, distressing "Walk of Shame" sequence, in which Lena Headey knocks it out of the park as Cersei is humiliated to the point where even the most hardened viewer may feel sorry for her, despite her many crimes.
Almost as well-handled (until its conclusion) is the story at the Wall. Lots of minor crises within the Night's Watch are jettisoned in favour of Jon Snow being given a more decisive story arc: becoming Lord Commander, leading a fleet to rescue the wildlings, getting in over his head at the Battle of Hardhome and then being forced to flee but at least having secured a new alliance.
Then we have the infamous Dornish storyline. This is botched, and botched quite badly. It's a waste of both superlative casting (Alexander Siddig is fantastic, but doesn't have much to do) and beautiful scenery (the result of Spain being added to the shooting locations), with the show delivering the feeblest fight sequence in its history, some of the most risible dialogue and, in the relationship between Tyene Sand and Bronn, who is old enough to be her grandfather, some of its most cringe-inducing flirting (despite the heroic efforts of both actors). There are moments where you can see why the producers thought it was a good idea, such as the "reasonable" negotiations between Jaime and Doran and the final scene with Jaime and Myrcella, but it could be argued that the producers should have followed their first instincts and simply not gone to Dorne at all. The fact that the story is also missing its key scene from the books (the one that made the whole story in the books make sense) also hurts it badly.
Then we have Meereen and the Winterfell/Stannis situation, which can both be described as "problematic". The Meereen story is simplified from the books, which might be a good thing, with less interchangeable characters, less factions and less politics involving minor tertiary characters. However, the TV series fails to replace these elements with anything more interesting. Instead we have repeated (and redundant) scenes of the Sons of the Harpy slaughtering curiously ineffectual Unsullied by the dozen and repeated (and redundant) scenes of Daenerys musing on opening the fighting pits or not. There are some golden moments here, such as Tyrion and Daenerys finally meeting and the final, epic showdown in the Great Pit, but otherwise it's a story left spinning its wheels for too long.
The Winterfell story is even more variable. Combining the wildly disparate and disjointed Brienne, Sansa, Theon and Ramsay arcs from the novels into one storyline that fuses them together is a bold move and one that actually makes sense and almost works. It is sabotaged by again benching characters for long periods (Brienne's Season 5 storyline can be summed up as "The Woman Who Stared At Masonry"), running roughshod over motivations (Littlefinger seems uncharacteristically uninformed and stupid) and introducing controversy for controversy's sake (the ending to the sixth episode). Excellent acting by all involved does elevate the story and some scenes are genuinely brilliant. Roose Bolton's matter-of-fact recounting of Ramsay's conception seems to disturb even the unflappably demented Ramsay, whilst Alfie Allen sells Theon's internal struggle to become his old self again with tragic intensity. Sophie Turner also rises above some questionable story twists to deliver some of her finest moments in the role of Sansa to date.
However, it is Stannis's storyline that walks off with the prize for the most howl-inducingly frustrating. Since his introduction in Season 2, the show's depiction of the character has suffered in comparison to the novels, where he is one of Martin's most subtle and complex characters. His motivations are simple on the surface but more complex underneath and he is a character that is determined more by bad PR than reality (the common observation that Stannis humourless is undercut by occasional, very dry almost-quips). Fleetingly, the TV show has shown the same character such as during his determination at the Blackwater and in his first meeting with Jon Snow. But it's not until Season 5 that it seems to nail his character: correcting the grammar of the Night's Watch, nodding approvingly over Jon Snow's leadership tactics and being more fatherly with his daughter. Of course, it was a trap, all done to make his preposterous and utterly unconvincing about-heel turn towards the end of the ninth episode all the more painful to watch. Stephen Dillane was superb in the role, but it does feel like the TV show's producers and writers fundamentally misunderstood the character throughout the series.
Almost as disappointing is the end to Jon Snow's storyline. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon gradually sends away his most experienced men to man the other castles on the Wall, inadvertently removing the Night's Watch officers who were at the Fist of the First Men and fought the White Walkers there. This leaves behind a cabal of men who haven't seen the true threat from the north and whom it feels convincing would turn on and betray their commander. In the TV series this does not happen, and Castle Black is stuffed full of rangers who have just seen thousands of corpses rise from the dead and the White Walkers themselves in the full terrible majesty of their power. The notion that the Watch would betray Jon under such circumstances is laughable, not helped by the climactic Caesar moment being staged in a manner more befitting Monty Python (with the assassins neatly lined up in a row to each stab Jon and utter their catchphrase, and he politely doesn't keel over until they're all done). Poor stuff.
There are other moments in the fifth season of Game of Thrones when it feels like the show is dealing with pure myth: the voyage through the ruins of Valyria is a genuinely awe-inspiring moment of magic and the Battle of Hardhome is the best action sequence conceived for the series so far, a full-on zombie rumble that would do Sam Raimi proud and which blows every single zombie action sequence in five seasons of The Walking Dead completely out of the water. The depiction of Braavos is pretty good, and the scenes in the House of Black and White are creepy. The scenes with the dragons are amazing, the more frequent use of CGI establishing shots gives the show a sense of scale that favourably compares with the best films and the production values remain jaw-dropping. The show still has the best cast on television. It remains, even in its weakest moments, watchable.
But there's also the feeling that the fifth season is a little too disjointed, more willing to lean on lazy coincidence and cliche than previous seasons. There's also a distressing lack of attention to detail, with Dorne's location on the title sequence map not being quite right, Jon Snow's fleet apparently landing on the wrong side of the Wall and the plausible military side of things being completely thrown out the window (if Stannis was really a master tactician, he would never do the things he does in the finale).
The fifth season of Game of Thrones is the weakest to date, delivering some of the worst moments and episodes, but it still manages to shine with some real moments of dramatic power. It certainly leaves things in an interesting place going forwards, even if it feels implausible that this huge story (even the TV show's truncated version) can be wrapped up in just twenty more episodes. But we will see how the sixth and penultimate season handles things next year.
501: The Wars to Come (***½)
502: The House of Black and White (***½)
503: High Sparrow (***½)
504: Sons of the Harpy (****)
505: Kill the Boy (****½)
506: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (**½)
507: The Gift (****)
508: Hardhome (*****)
509: The Dance of Dragons (****)
510: Mother's Mercy (***½)
Forthcoming: Season 6 (March/April 2016)