'Game of Thrones'
Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

The biggest pleasure of Game of Thrones comes from watching everyone play a brutal game of musical chairs. As the players circle one another, kings are crowned, heads are severed, vacant seats are filled. But how do you keep the contest going when it looks like the worst player has won?

Judging by the first four episodes of season 5, the answer is, you change the rules. Following Joffrey’s death, the throne is occupied by Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), a boy so timid, he actually obeys his enemies when they ask him to come back later. The Lannister family has been declawed: Tywin is dead, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is hiding, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has lost a sword-fighting hand, and Cersei (Lena Headey) will soon be downgraded to queen mother when Tommen marries Margaery (Natalie Dormer). Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is a dragon queen who can’t command her dragons—i.e., she “isn’t a queen at all,” according to her lover Daario (Michiel Huisman). So the story moves slowly, focusing less on the game-changing moments that often come early in the season (Joffrey dies! The Unsullied revolt!) and more on long-term strategy.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it finally brings people (and story lines) together in this ever-sprawling world. Would-be kings and queens are shoring up their alliances for battle, which is smart for GoT, too. Having killed off so many characters, it needs to repopulate. But too many of the new faces look like they’re on the wrong show. When Cersei enlists a religious leader, the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), to help her politically, his bald devotees, who carve stars into their foreheads, resemble cult figures from a Kevin Williamson drama. And when the show introduces Oberyn’s revenge-thirsty daughters (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Jessica Henwick), they’re closer to B-movie bad girls than warriors. George R.R. Martin’s characters are always psychologically compelling, but as they say on Project Runway, the styling needs work.

Luckily, we’ve still got Cersei, whose mental state just keeps getting richer. With her father dead, she’s more ambitious than ever, and it’s fascinating to watch her evolution. The queen who claimed power as her birthright is now a leader who actually earns it. A flashback shows her as a child meeting with a psychic who reveals her fate: Cersei’s children will all die, and a younger queen will take her place. Whether that’s Margaery or Daenerys remains to be seen, but if Tommen’s not long for this world, maybe this season isn’t the slow burn it seems. The throne may soon be back in play. In which case: Game on. B+

Episode Recaps

Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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