"Game of Thrones" returns to our screens in a matter of weeks, and having seen the first episode of Season 5 at the show's world premiere in London, here are our thoughts on a confident debut. (Note that while this article is free of spoilers for the new episode, it assumes you've seen up to the end of Season 4.)
Episode one, titled "The Wars to Come," plunges us straight back into the murky world of Westeros, following the template established in previous seasons of catching us up on where characters are, reminding us of their motives and bubbling new protagonists to the surface.
This time some of those fresh players aren't entirely new to us. Expect more screen time for Lancel Lannister -- Tyrion's nephew was last seen in Season 2 and appears to have found religion in the intervening years -- and the brooding Loras Tyrell, who is treated to a lengthy bedroom scene.
These establishing vignettes feel very familiar, but are conducted here with a level of expertise that means you're unlikely to notice how much scene-setting is going on. Indeed, this episode shows that the makers of "Game of Thrones" know exactly what's worked so far and behaves accordingly. One early scene could be a microcosym of the entire show, featuring full-frontal nudity, then a surprisingly tender moment that's followed by brutal murder, all in the space of 30 seconds.
Hope springs eternal
That's not to say there's nothing new here. The episode's opening scene features the show's first ever flashback, while new story threads hint at something that's been sorely absent from "Thrones" since the infamous Red Wedding in Season 3 -- hope.
Tyrion's new trajectory, having fled Westeros in a tiny crate, and Stannis Baratheon's martial ambitions after smashing the Wilding host in the North, stir up the possibility of power shifts that could be positive for the long-suffering denizens of George R. R. Martin's world. It's a surprising relief to have something to root for again.
On the technical side, this episode is a real treat for the eyes. Sets and backdrops are gorgeous, lusciously detailed and looking better than ever, with the notable exception of the top of The Wall, which still looks like a fibreglass Santa's grotto.
There's one entirely CGI set-piece in the desert city of Meereen that is among the most impressive in the show's history. Rounding off the visual treats are a few ocean-view scenes set in the Mediterranean-inspired city of Pentos that had me physically yearning for a trip to sunnier climes.
Keeping it fresh
Making its debut in April 2011, "Game of Thrones" quickly earned a reputation as the most unconventional, unpredictable show on TV. Five seasons later, however, we're getting wise to its tricks, so the challenge for show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss has grown. Warming to new characters will be tougher when we're half-expecting them to receive a spear to the spine at any moment, while the gloomy injustice that saturates this fantasy world could start to feel just too morbid to bother with.
How long can "Game of Thrones" keep us hoping for the best while still expecting the worst? Based on this season's strong opener, our love affair with Westeros is unlikely to wane any time soon.
- Game of Thrones Season 5 begins on 12 April in the US and on 13 April in the UK and Australia, on HBO, Sky Atlantic and Foxtel respectively.