Regrettably, Thrones’ fifth season isn’t quite as fun as its fourth. Instead of sword fights, we got sexual assault. Instead of weddings, we got a walk of shame. If Season 4 was Thrones’ coronation as the King of Television, Season 5 was its first few decrees as the new ruler—each one necessary, none particularly popular.
It wouldn’t be fair to penalize Season 5 simply for its shift toward sobriety. But just as it’s easier to complain when you’re cranky, it’s easier to spot Thrones’ flaws in a season that constantly bums you out. I found two plots more distracting than intriguing (Jaime’s rescue mission, Arya’s faux-philosophical training), and I got worn out on females as victims of sexual or spiritual violence (once or twice can serve the plot; five or more times becomes a crutch).
Out of respect to both George R. R. Martin (author of the books) and Benioff and Weiss (authors of the TV show), I imagine Season 5’s horrors will pay off more suitably in Season 6. Thrones is still the best in the TV business at balancing humanity and mythology, at building a world as big as viewers’ imaginations, at juggling two dozen plot lines with the light touch of a Pixar short. At times, Season 5 may have made me a grumpy subject, but with this kind of ambition, risk-taking, and world-building, I will happily remain loyal to the throne.
Season 5 Report Card
See Season 3 grades here
See Season 4 grades here
Trending: way up
Turn ons: signing letters, respectfully disagreeing
Turn offs: birthrights, mutinies
It turns out Kit Harrington does “reluctant leader” far better than “enterprising youth.” Who would have thought that a quiet conversation in a jail cell would be more compelling than scaling a wall or sex in a cave? It’s Snow’s best season yet—by far the most improved character on the show.
Turn ons: beheadings, fire-based executions
Turn offs: inclement weather, bad grammar
Stephen Dillane’s Stannis improves as well, though in his case, it’s all about context. Through Season 4, I could only handle so much of Tweedledee (Davos) and Tweedledum (Stannis), complete with over-serious debate and self-important grandstanding. But at the wall with Jon Snow? It’s a tale of two leaders, one blinded by ambition, the other by compassion—a fascinating contrast.
Carice Van Houten
Turn ons: any male leader, crazy ideas that just might work
Turn offs: good ideas, common sense
You’ve gotta hand it to Melisandre: she’s cornered the market on batshit crazy. I can’t say she’s getting more or less interesting, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.
Turn ons: foolish resolve, endless loyalty
Turn offs: sexually frustrated comrades
Coming off a game-changing season, Sam recedes a bit. He risks becoming a caricature of loyalty, kindness and resolve, a little like Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings. Sometimes, pure intentions can be a little too pure.
Turn ons: scheming, Cabernet
Turn offs: jail time; Chardonnay
Cersei’s always been a fan favorite: her wine obsession has become an Internet meme, while her arsenal of sharp, withering one-liners can only be rivaled by Tyrion. But Season 5 allowed Lena Headey to bring a new depth to the character, with a mix of regret, longing, calculation and contempt. It’s the best performance of the season.
Turn ons: scheming, speaking within two inches of your face
Turn offs: stability, order
Littlefinger scores low in Season 5 largely because he doesn’t do much. The clandestine King’s Landing conversations were a good start, but we’ve seen this song and dance a dozen times already. What’s his next move?
Turn ons: poorly planned rescue missions, half-baked subplots
Turn offs: nose bleeds
Jaime peaked in Season 3: a once-proud swordsmen humbled by his captors and forced to accept his humanity. He’s been as suave as ever since, but half his scenes in Season 5 felt like a Jimmel Kimmel special—all laughs and gimmicks, no real consequence.
Turn ons: Valyrian silk, disrobing cellmates
Turn offs: poison-tipped blades
While Bronn provides comic relief for a rudderless plot, he’s mostly wasted in Season 5. Right intentions, wrong execution.
Turn ons: none this season
Turn offs: husbands, weddings, servants, bedrooms, the world
Sansa began as a little girl who wanted to be queen, before it turned out her husband-to-be was an imbalanced, narcissistic sociopath (read: Joffrey). She then spent three seasons learning hard lessons, learning to think for herself, and discovering how to manipulate people in power. Her reward? Marriage to an imbalanced, narcissistic sociopath (Ramsay). Look: we all understand that life isn’t fair, that Game of Thrones will relentlessly subvert our fairytale expectations. But this is absurd. And lazy. Season 5 was a step back for Sansa as a character. This one's on Benioff and Weiss, not Sophie Turner.
Turn ons: incapable of being turned on since Season 3 (too soon?)
Turn offs: dead inside, so nothing here either
If there’s a bright spot in the Sansa plot line, it might be Theon, whose mental war between the Reek the Slave and Theon the Man comes across more strongly in Season 5 than in Season 4. A mild improvement here doesn’t justify all the Sansa garbage, but if it’s a sign of more to come, I’m still hopeful.
Turn ons: violence, abuse, evildoing
Turn offs: pregnancies, lineage
The show creators wanted a new Joffrey, and here he is. While Iwan Rheon is as perfectly cast as ever (down to the serial killer smile), Ramsay is starting to become monotonous: torture, assault, bully, repeat. At the very least, Walda Bolton’s pregnancy promises to stir things up.
Turn ons: oaths, candles in windows
Turn offs: other people
Perpetually pouty, Brienne isn’t much fun to be around in Season 5, though two scenes help her maintain a B-. Her confrontation at the bar and final face-off with Stannis remind us of the Brienne of old, enough to dredge up a bit of nostalgia, if nothing else.
Turn ons: faceless men, pointless tasks
Turn offs: first-person pronouns
Arya’s ominous, coming-of-age Season 4 was compelling in all the right ways: we were simultaneously rooting for her and horrified by what she was becoming. Now I’m just confused. The House of Black and White is cool in concept, but after 10 episodes of sponge baths and floor scrubbing, we need something more…and soon.
Turn ons: banishing subjects, wheel analogies
Turn offs: rebellious factions, masked murderers
Daenerys rose faster than anyone through the show’s first two seasons, then promptly became bland. Yes, Emilia Clarke is still the best choice for a TV trailer or promotional poster, but the scene-by-scene Khaleesi is as boring as a royal dinner. Fortunately, we saw some positive momentum in Season 5, thanks to a love pentagon of admiring advisors and a few cameos from a scaly, fire-breathing friend.
Turn ons: sleeping, verbal processing
Turn offs: windowless carriages, cock merchants
Peter Dinklage has Tyrion so finely tuned—a mix of clever and bitter, amused and detached—that he almost seems on autopilot this season. Still, to earn an A- after his phenomenal Season 4 is a success in and of itself. Tyrion in Season 5 isn’t a letdown: just a dwarf-sized step back to reality.
Turn ons: dragon mothers, schemes that just might work
Turn offs: idle chatter, getting banished
Despite doing everything he can to be the show’s most boring character, Jorah staves off the honor with one or two interesting moments per episode. He just needs to remember that he’s acting in a show, not narrating the audiobook.
Turn ons: women, warfare
Turn offs: rival Khaleesi suitors
Daario earns his first mention on TheCroakingFrog thanks to a Season 5 cocktail of charm, counsel, and swordplay. While he probably belongs in a comic book as opposed to an HBO show (he’s dashingly handsome! he speaks entirely in quips!), Thrones nails the caricature. I’ll allow it.