Game of Thrones series five: spoiler-free review

“I’m glad the end of the world’s working out well for someone.”

Has there ever been a more ruthless author than George RR Martin? Even he acknowledges his cruelty towards his fictional creations in a horrendous short story called Portraits of his Children. To think that an author spends a long, long time walking in imaginary worlds with his characters, it seems almost inconceivable that someone could create a character like Sansa Stark, and then systematically drag her through humiliation and degradation.

Series five of Game of Thrones is cruel. Executions pile up like the logs under the pyres as major character after character is stabbed, impaled and burnt to death.

The horror even puzzles the cast. Stephen Dillane, who is superb as Stannis Baratheon, has said (in an article which manages to be full of spoilers whilst still misspelling his name) “I understood neither the series nor its success  … [I took the part] Among other things, for the money.'”

At least his role is relatively straightforward for an actor coming from the British Shakespearean tradition. Stannis Baratheon is a modern take on Macbeth, a king who is steadily bewitched as he falls under the spell of the malevolent witch Melisandre.

Other parts must be terrible to play. I feel for the actor Iwan Rheon who has ended up as the vile Ramsay Bolton. There is no more revolting character in modern fiction except perhaps the murderer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.

Game of Thrones has always been dark, and a huge part of the series’s success comes from the fact that nobody is safe. However as characters die off, it is important to bring in new faces who build on what has gone before. So far, the best seasons have had a standout figure who has dominated the action from their first appearance. This was Sean Bean’s Ned Stark in Season 1, then Stannis Baratheon’s debut was the highlight of Season 2, to be followed by the scene-stealing glory of Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell in Season 4.

Season 5, like Season 3, fails to introduce a new character of this calibre and it is the weaker for it. Just as Season 3 involved lots of aimless tramping around, Season 5 has characters repeatedly being locked up. There is only so much of watching people in solo confinement that a viewer can stand.

The action does pick up towards the end of the season with the explosive arrival of the White Walkers and their sinister kings, but overall, Season 5 feels like a missed opportunity, enlivened mainly by shots of those dragons wreaking havoc wherever they may. (Even they spend a lot of their time imprisoned in the dungeons).

Series five special mention: from the opening season, Peter Vaughan has faithfully portrayed the faded grandeur of blind Maester Aemon, a father figure to the Black Watch and one of the last of the Targaryens. What’s astonishing is that he is not an older actor playing someone of great age. In actual fact, Vaughan is himself 92 years old! What a trooper!

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7 responses to “Game of Thrones series five: spoiler-free review

  1. You mention the White Walkers, that was some epic action right there, some of the best TV action I have seen in a long time. I usually rewatch the previous series (at least) before the new one comes out but I feel it is getting to be a show of diminishing returns. Maybe it is just me but the turn over of characters is rendering the show weaker and sometimes just endless wandering…or staying still. The books of course do dictate what the show does but sometimes it jsut feels a bit frustrating.

    • I agree entirely – the rising of the White Walkers was the best moment of the series. Epic is the word!
      Apparently, some of the weaker bits of the action in series 5 come from the parts that are not written by GRRM – e.g. Sansa’s ordeal and the hopeless 1980s-TV esque interlude in Dorn. They’ve all been added by the TV scriptwriters. I don’t know how GRRM keeps sane now that the books and the TV series are almost telling two different stories, and he’s working on the next sequence of both!

      • Ah that does make sense, the quality of some of it was up and down to say the least. I do find it bewildering that he can work on two projects that are the very similar in scope, especially as one will essentially be fan fiction that he is helping with. As long as there isn’t a happy ending, after all the carnage so far, that would seem a little disappointing lol.

      • There needs to be a loyal animal that everybody can pin their hopes on to survive, not a dragon but a donkey or something, like Bill in Lord of the Rings.

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