There’s no denying that in its fifth season, HBO’s golden goose “Game of Thrones” has taken more heat than in previous seasons. For the first time in the show’s history, episodes from this season had lower ratings than the preceding season. With the exception of the premiere and the finale, no new episode set a ratings record. All of these statistics come at the same time as illegal downloads are through the roof (the first four episodes of the season were leaked online before the show’s premiere).
In addition to seemingly lower viewership, the show took a drubbing from critics; for the first time in the show’s history, an episode was labeled “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 58% score. Prior to this season, the show’s all-time lowest Rotten Tomatoes score was a respectable 91%. Senator Claire McCaskill and entertainment site The Mary Sue both announced they were quitting the show following the controversial episode, titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Overall, reception from critics and fans was pretty icy during Season 5.
Season 5 certainly had its issues; the Dorne storyline, which fans had been dying to see since we met Oberyn Martell, was a mixed bag. The fiery swagger of the Red Viper was replaced with a cartoonish, unbelievable Tarantino-wannabe subplot. Also, after four seasons of watching Arya become one of the best characters in the series, everything came to a halt. Almost every scene she had this season was a bore.
But amidst these flaws, the fifth season did something the writers were hesitant to do in previous seasons; deviate from the source material. Sure, showrunners Dave Benioff and D. B. Weiss have made a couple decision along the road that depart from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga, but this season was completely off the map. I’ve read the first four books in the series, and I’m not a huge fan. In fact, I consider the show to be superior in many ways. Especially in “A Feast for Crows,” one of two books this season adapts, the content is plodding and unengaging. Chapter upon chapter, characters are aimlessly walking to their destinations while accomplishing nothing. This season, Benioff and Weiss did a terrific job of trimming that fat while keeping the meat; Brienne has a minimal number of scenes, Tyrion arrives in Meereen more quickly than expected, and character arcs intertwine in ways George R. R. Martin hasn’t done.
They’ve also killed off several characters who are still alive in the books; the only major death this season that happens in the books is Aemon’s, and even that is changed from Martin’s original vision. Watching “Game of Thrones” can be like going to a NASCAR race hoping to see somebody crash. The deaths are a pivotal part of the show, and knowing that nobody is safe is what makes it all the more appealing. Every single character death this season worked towards moving the story forward, and it created a huge emotional impact that the books sometimes lack.
Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” made a lot of bold decisions, and there was no way everybody would be satisfied. Book purists were inevitably up in arms over Weiss and Benioff’s creative choices, and the explicit content that they got away with for years finally became a big controversy. It’s hard to satisfy everybody, and by walking into new territory, the showrunners were putting themselves in a risky position. Yet their decisions made for an action-packed, cinematic season that left us emotionally devastated and thrilled at the same time, while also keeping us hungry for more.