“Game of Thrones” fans used to be divided into two camps: “I’ve read the books” people and the friends they tormented.
Book readers knew the Red Wedding was coming. They knew that King Joffrey’s wine was poisoned and that Sansa Stark would outlive her crazy aunt. They were spoiled and loving it.
Those days are over. Like Jon Snow, we all know nothing.
This season, HBO’s mega-medieval fantasy epic takes its countless characters, plentiful plots and terrifying twists so far away from the source material that it can never return. George R.R. Martin’s on-paper conclusion to the “Song of Ice and Fire” books, should he ever wrap them up, might arrive at a similar destination, but the TV show is taking an entirely different road to get there.
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And if the first four hours of Season 5 are any indication, it’s a more compelling, faster-paced and less frustrating journey than fans were treated to in “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance With Dragons,” the novels that line up with the current action in Westeros’ winter-is-coming world.
Not everything is turned on its head immediately. There are still those who have greatness thrust upon them, like Jon Snow amid the chaos of the Night’s Watch, and those who grasp desperately for power, like Westeros’ short-timer queen regent Cersei.
Say what you will about Cersei Lannister Baratheon, she spends Sunday nights giving people things to do. Her orders for Jaime provide the first hints of the source material shakeup: Instead of heading north to deal with the defiant remnants of House Tully, the Kingslayer heads south on a secret, two-man rescue mission with a well-chosen companion.
She’s the kind of job creator House Republicans dream about, hiring heads of great houses left and right to fill out her son’s advisory council. She even gives the necromancer Qyburn a second job as Master of Whispers.
Her uncle, Kevan Lannister, is having none of her posturing.
“I did not return to the capital to serve as your puppet, to watch you stack the Small Council with sycophants,” he lectures her. “I do not recognize your authority.”
Cersei keeps her head high during this rebuke, but Margaery Tyrell, slated to marry Cersei’s son and take her place as queen, doesn’t make it easy for her to save face when they have to cross paths.
“I wish we had some wine for you,” Margaery says, sending her posse of teenage ladies-in-waiting into catty titters. “It’s a bit early in the day for us.”
You have to admire the bravado of the young, but mocking this particular mother-in-law seems … unwise.
Margaery’s brother Loras refuses to be discreet with his boyfriends. As a result, in one of the most dramatic departures from the books, Loras’ fate tests Westeros’ royal newlyweds and reveals an insidious new power broker in King’s Landing.
Power is being consolidated in the North, too, if its most odious leaders get their way.
Ramsay Bolton, now his father’s official heir, is still making his point by flaying his enemies. So it’s a relief to hear his father, Roose, the Warden of the North, tell him to dial it back.
“The best way to forge a lasting alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off. The best way is by marriage.” Fatherly advice for the ages.
Close by, Littlefinger, who goes by Lord Petyr Baelish more often now that he’s the caretaker of Sansa Stark, is itching to play his cards. And lest we forget, he’s still a pimp.
Whether Sansa can play the game Littlefinger wants her to, no one knows (once again, this is not in the books). But as much as she has been cast as the victim of House Lannister, she is a Stark. She’s Ned Stark’s oldest living child, and Littlefinger is there to remind her.
“Stop being a bystander,” he tells her. “You loved your family. Avenge them.”
So Sansa rides back into Winterfell, the childhood home that has become House Bolton’s house of horrors, where flayed bodies hang in the courtyard. When she faces Roose Bolton, architect of the Red Wedding, she smiles warmly, bringing her youthful beauty, sex appeal and good breeding to the fore to hide the boiling hate inside. Like her little sister Arya and the Sand Snakes of Dorne, Sansa is finally picking up her weapons to fight.
Who are these guys? New faces you should know
▪ Most citizens of Westeros worship the gods known as the Seven, but none so fervently as those pilgrims who call themselves “sparrows.” Commoners displaced by the War of Five Kings, these fundamentalists have made King’s Landing into a refugee camp. Jonathan Pryce, currently portraying Cardinal Wolsey on PBS’ “Wolf Hall,” plays the movement’s leader, the High Sparrow.
▪ Prince Doran Martell, ruler of the southern province of Dorne, has always been a reluctant subject to the Iron Throne. It was his brother, Oberyn Martell, who lost his life in Tyrion Lannister’s trial by combat last season. Doran (“Deep Space Nine” alum Alexander Siddig) doesn’t rush into conflict, but his health means his peaceful rule might be ending soon.
▪ Before he died, Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, bragged about how his people valued all their children, even those born outside wedlock. His eight illegitimate daughters are known to call themselves the Sand Snakes, because they’re just as deadly in combat as their father was. Three of them are not as forgiving as their uncle Doran about what happened at the end of last season, and they’re egged on by Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s lover in mourning. Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Jessica Henwick and Keisha Castle-Hughes star as Tyene, Nymeria and Obara, who specialize in fighting with daggers, a bullwhip and a spear, respectively.
▪ When Tyrion was Hand of the King, he sent Myrcella Baratheon, Queen Cersei’s middle child, to Dorne to keep her safe and strengthen ties with the Martells. Since Season 2, she has been out of sight and engaged to teenaged Dornish prince Trystane. This season, 15-year-old British actress Nell Tiger Free has taken over the role.
▪ Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen is bogged down in the former slave city of Meereen, with her army of Unsullied eunuchs and hired guns the Second Sons keeping order. But gold-masked assassins calling themselves the Sons of the Harpy break the delicate peace, targeting Daenerys’ men and undermining her authority. Eventually, their terrorist tactics escalate into a brutal showdown with the Unsullied in a narrow alley that leaves blood splashed high on the stone walls.
▪ You might remember Hizdahr Zo Loraq (Joel Fry) as the rich local who shamed Daenerys for crucifying his father when she conquered Meereen last season. Later, she sent him to Yunkai as her ambassador. He’s still pushing her to reopen the city’s fighting pits, where wildly popular, Roman gladiator-style death matches take place.
▪ Way back when Ned Stark was still alive, Janos Slynt, then-leader of the capital city’s armed forces, was one of the men who betrayed him. Later, Slynt (Dominic Carter) was put in charge of killing off all of King Robert Baratheon’s illegitimate children. Tyrion sent him to the Wall, where he hid from the battle with the wildlings late last season and sent Jon Snow on what he hoped would be a suicide mission.
To reach Sara Smith, send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
WHERE TO WATCH
Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” begins at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO. Previous seasons are available on DVD and on HBOGo.