'Game of Thrones' New Season: Shock, Sex, Sin, and Swords

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Early reviews of the new fifth season of Game of Thrones have suggested that the pace has slowed a bit, that the gasp-inducing surprises have abated somewhat. I disagree. I mean, merely on a simple blood-quantity measure-scale, a prominent throat is slit in the first 15 minutes of the April 12 premiere. And the political and military strategizing, the shifts in creator George R.R. Martin’s grand fantasy universe, swerve and surge as surely and inevitably as the HBO show’s distinctive opening-credits animated sequence. Indeed, the first four episodes made available to lowly TV scriveners suggest this may be the most engagingly intricate, surprising season yet. (Yes, the first four episodes have leaked online for all to see, but this review is based on a legitimately-obtained copy of the show.)

The series picks up soon after King Joffrey’s death, with his more kindly brother Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) grappling with both the responsibilities of the crown and the curvy pleasures of Margaery (Natalie Dormer), who offers her flesh while withholding her mind, which is buzzing and whirring with manipulative plans. 

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Lena Headey’s Cersei has plans of her own, ones that find her in opposition to Margaery and virtually everyone else around her: Cersei’s consolidation of power consists first of amassing as much of it as she can, and that’s not an easy task. 

Related: ‘Game of Thrones’: The Cast Talks Season 5 From the Set

Writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss keep the show moving with swiftly changing scenes. There’s plenty of Maisie Williams’s Arya as she journeys to the House of Black and White (the doors are like rectangular versions of the kind of black-and-white cookie she probably wishes she had — the food looks like thin gruel).

We also get an update on Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion since his narrow escape and subsequent fugitive life, and if the character is miserable, Dinklage’s performance is even more wonderfully sour-sarcastic than ever. 

Martin’s cold, cruel universe stands in stark contrast to others on Sunday night television, such as the nihilistic one on The Walking Dead, or the pious but corrupt one on PBS’s Wolf Hall. The subtext of Game of Thrones as Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have conceived it is a world where justice is reduced to revenge and morality to ambitious expediency — the only consistently valued trait in any soul, be it a royal or a commoner, is loyalty. In this way, the series operates as a constant test for every major character. 

Related: Catch Up for 'Game of Thrones’ Season 5: Where the Show Left Off

I like the new season’s deft equal mixture of mind-game territory-plotting and visually exciting conflict: lots of swordplay, lots of dark humor provoking shocked laughs, lots of sex deployed as power. Season 5 doesn’t feel like more of the same; it feels like a Game of Thrones played at a new, more intense level.

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.