Deep in the bowels of a gargantuan soundstage on the Game of Thrones set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Maisie Williams is tiptoeing through a stone clad room. Carved idols line the walls, though you can barely see them — apart from a few flickering braziers it is close to pitch black. It seems as if Arya Stark, Williams’s character, is not quite sure of her surroundings either. She certainly looks a little different than when we last saw her — hair longer, tomboy breeches replaced by something you could, generously, call a dress. And as she slips past a hooded man who looks a little familiar she whispers, “Valur Morghulis,” the ever-optimistic greeting of any self-respecting Thronian. (It means, “All Men Must Die,” and beats “Have a Nice Day” every time.)
What’s going on here? We know that at the end of the last season Arya set out on a slow boat to Braavos. We know from the books that her destination will most likely be The House of Black and White, a key new location that is the (largely windowless) cathedral of The Faceless Men, one of whom was her mentor and savior in Seasons 2 and 3. The scene before us appears to fit the bill. But when pressed, producer Bryan Cogman, hunched behind a monitor, is tight-lipped. We suppose it’s a rule for anyone working on the most talked-about, blogged-over, endlessly dissected television show in the world. But Cogman will offer up an overview of the season: “The broad theme is Strangers in a Strange Land. Whether our protagonists are literally in a strange land, or they’re thrust into a situation where they have to behave and interact in ways they never had before, that’s the common denominator.”
Let’s see how that theme works out for favorite characters as we begin Season 5:
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)
You couldn’t say we find Cersei in a strange land, as she’s still holed up in King’s Landing, much as she’s been since Season 1, trusty goblet of vino in slightly shaky hand. But King’s Landing itself is a little different this season, and that changes things up for Cersei. Firstly, she finds herself having to contend with an uprising from a populist religious order led by the marvelous Jonathan Pryce as High Sparrow — “That character is, I think, one of George [R.R. Martin]’s most inspired creations,” says producer Cogman. Secondly, there’s the small matter of her children, the one thing she truly cares about. Her second son Tommen (Dean Charles Chapman) is on the throne, but he is being shamelessly coveted for influence by Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
Then there’s Cersei’s absent daughter Marcella, another potential Lannister ruler. She was sent to Dorne as part of a marriage pact with the Martells. She’s all grown up now — Nell Tiger Free has been cast to play her in Season 5. Will she return to King’s Landing? Does the world need another Lannister? (Don’t answer that.)
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams)
Not merely an alien in a foreign land, but quite possibly a foreigner to herself — this is the season when Arya dispenses with the whole tomboy look, sorts herself out (“I have clean hair that actually moves!” Williams tells us on set), and then promptly loses herself again amongst the Faceless Men. Remember that guy in Season 2 who could swap faces, Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha)? Well he’s back too. Arya doesn’t appear in the fifth season’s premiere but the second episode is titled “The House of Black and White,” so it’s clear where we’re headed.
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)
From relentless whiner to ruthless femme fatale, Sansa suddenly burst out of her chrysalis last season and managed to do what no one else has done — get Littlefinger [Aidan Gillen], Westeros’s most weasly éminence grise, under her finger. Season 5 begins with both of them heading South from the Vale back to her old home at Winterfell. The question is, who’s manipulating whom?
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
Season 4 was all about Dany learning how to rule. Season 5 will be all about… Dany learning to rule a bit more. “She’s starting to — maybe — make a few mistakes. But they’re mistakes which will end up teaching her more in the long run,” says Clarke. Dany’s still with her dragons (one of whom has gone AWOL) in Meereen, still working out what to do with her unsullied army, and still deciding when to make a run on the Iron Throne. But now, having banished her long-term advisor Ser Jorah (Iain Glen), the Mother of Dragons is in something of uncharted territory.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
The Season 5 trailer showed Tyrion rolling out of a shipping crate like a drunk rolls out of bed, bearded and bleary eyed. Where in the Known World could he be? Actually, not that far from King’s Landing — he’s merely skipped across the Narrow Sea with Varys (Conleth Hill) and wound up in the Free City of Pentos. Spurned by his family, banished from his home, Tyrion hits the bottle hard — but Varys, ever the schemer, has a new plan and they set out on one of those Game of Thrones odysseys that always seem to end up with a big fight.
Jon Snow (Kit Harington)
As a bastard, Jon Snow has always been an outsider, but now that he’s lost his lover from beyond the Wall, Ygritte, only his oath to serve the Night’s Watch keeps him at Castle Black. Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) wants Jon to join him, enlist Mance Rayder’s Wildling army, and head south to reclaim the Iron Throne together. Suddenly Jon finds himself in the unlikely position of having to play politics. When in fact, as Harington says, he’d rather just swing his broadsword with abandon. "I liked it when we got on to filming later in the season and there was finally an action piece for Jon — you feel like a release from him, like, ‘This is what I am. I’m a man on the battlefield. I’m not a political leader, I’m a soldier.’”
Thrones will also explore some strange lands this season:
The city of Dorne has been much spoken of but is as yet unseen — it was home to Oberyn ‘The Viper’ Martell, who came to King’s Landing last season and met a grisly end (literally) at the hands The Mountain. This season we will go to Dorne and we will meet the Sand Snakes, The Viper’s three bastard daughters — Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Nymeria (Jessica Henwick), and Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) — all dead set on avenging their father.
This being Game of Thrones, they’re all monumentally badass and they all come with their own signature weapons:
Nymeria has a bullwhip:
Tyene a pair of double daggers:
And Obara a “spear of tears” (just like her daddy):
HBO’s Season 5 trailer gave us a fleeting glimpse of a new location, a grimy fishing village on the seaboard that looks like it will be Hardhome, the last town North of the Wall, nestled by the Shivering Sea. The Hardhome set has been built in the same quarry that houses the Castle Black set, so it’s not just a fleeting bit of CGI. And that naval landing you saw in the trailer looks like it could be Jon Snow and his crows — the books always had him heading for (Hard)home.
Filming on the famous Roman Bridge in Cordoba, Spain last year confirmed that the show will also be visiting Volantis, one of the Free Cities of Essos. Volantis is renowned for its “Long Bridge”; it’s the slave city in the East from which Talisa (Robb Stark’s wife) hailed. The books suggest that Volantis will be a stop on Tyrion and Varys’s quest to the Far East. “It’s safe to say that we’re seeing more of the East than we’ve seen before this season,” says Cogman.
While Season 5 hasn’t even started yet, it’s never too early to begin thinking about what’s next. Game of Thrones has already been renewed for a sixth season, and Martin continues to work on The Winds of Winter, the sixth novel in the seven-book series. He even released a second sample at the beginning of this month, a year after he published a first fragment, as if to prove that he’s not been shirking on the job. “Unlike the last few seasons this year George hasn’t written an episode, because he’s hard at work on the next book,” assures Cogman.
The problem is that the TV show has already caught up with the books in some regards — Sansa’s story this year, for example, is a major departure — and will undoubtedly start to diverge more as the TV show moves forward. Creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss went to see Martin at his Santa Fe bolthole for a summit in the run up to last season and thrashed out an arc for every single character. As a result, we can say for certain that every episode of Game of Thrones is heading… somewhere. “We’re teeing up stuff all the time,” says Cogman. “I mean, we’ve known answers to questions since Season 1, and the fates of certain characters, but now we know we can finish the story, which is huge. You didn’t know that necessarily in Season 1, or even in Season 2. Now you do — we get to finish this thing.”
Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, April 12 at 9 p.m. on HBO.