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With Game of Thrones returning, its popularity is considered and some of the lessons learned from last night's Season Five opener is looked at
Good news for fans of swords and sorcery, political skulduggery and gratuitous nudity (and excellent news for fans of all three). Game of Thrones has returned, with the greatly anticipated first episode of Season Five premiering on Sky Atlantic last night (and oops, the opening four dispatches leaked onto the internet).
Truly, Thrones-mania is an extraordinary phenomenon. If, just a few years ago, someone had predicted the world's favourite TV show would be an adaptation of a relatively conventional fantasy novel - that most derided of genres - they would have been assumed to have been partaking too freely of Dwarven Ale.
There was certainly a reasonable degree of scepticism at US network HBO, when it agreed in 2009 to bankroll a big-screen retelling of George RR Martin's saga. Among HBO executives, the feeling was that Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire would be their new smash, and successor to The Sopranos. Game of Thrones they were happy to write off as an interesting experiment - a series that might find an audience but could very well be greeted with ridicule.
Instead, Game of Thrones has proved a juggernaut from the outset. Nearly 20 million watched last year's finale in the United States - an extraordinary total for a cable show. Plus, it has shone a spotlight on Ireland, with many key scenes shot in Belfast's Titanic Quarter and around Northern Ireland, and actors such as Liam Cunningham, Jack Gleeson and Ciaran Hinds have gained huge exposure through their parts.
Above all, Game of Thrones has demonstrated what can be achieved when you keep an audience on its toes. Readers of the books aside, nobody expected the twist at the end of Season One in which - prehistoric spoiler alert - Ned Stark was beheaded. Almost as dramatic was the response to the notorious 'Red Wedding' of Season Three, in which the remainder of the House Stark was essentially scrubbed from existence.
Plus GoT has demonstrated gratuitous sex and violence can be put in service of sophisticated storytelling. Announcing itself with a deluge of wobbly bits and slashed throats, GoT was initially dismissed as glorified exploitation. However, it soon became clear that the brutal licentiousness was a necessary part of confirming Westeros as an authentic setting.
After all, there were no pallid bottoms or gushing arteries in The Lord of the Rings or the The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe - in order to establish its credentials as serious telly, it was necessary for GoT to push towards x-rated.
So what surprises did the returning saga have in store? Only one episode in, the new season is still finding its feet in many ways. Nonetheless, here are eight important takeaways from the opening dispatch.
1. You Can't Keep A Good Dwarf Down
Having killed his father Tywin (on the latrine at that), Tyrion was smuggled out of Westeros in a packing crate - we'll spare you the icky details, though the show did not - and seemed initially happy to drink himself to death. But it has been suggested that he seek out 'Mother of Dragons' Daenerys Targaryen with a view to an alliance. He seems up for the challenge.
2. Westeros Funeral Customs are... a bit silly
What was with the scene where Tywin lay in state wearing goggly fake eyes? They looked like something from a joke-shop, though nobody was laughing.
3. Stannis Baratheon is still bonkers
One of the feuding leaders determined to become king, Stannis has proved increasingly unpredictable. This week he torched the leader of the 'Wildling' barbarians of the far north, after the chieftain declined to pledge allegiance. Game of Thrones is exceedingly violent - but, still, it seemed a tad OTT.
4. Jon Snow is the closest thing to a hero
In the show's murky moral universe, there is really no such thing as 'good' or 'evil'. Still, the brooding Snow does have an alarming tendency to do the right thing when it comes to it. Consider his decision to put the burning Wildling leader out of his misery by shooting an arrow through the heart.
5. Dany has dragon issues
Last year, Daenerys locked away two of her pet monsters (the third has gone awol) after they started attacking people. Reflecting on her actions, she visited the fire-breathers in the catacomb where they were imprisoned. Their response was to intemperately spit flame in her direction. Some bowing and scraping may be required to keep them onside.
6. Aidan Gillen has come down with a worrying case of haughey-itis
Was it us or has Gillen's Littlefinger acquired some of the cadences of Charles Haughey, whom the Dubliner memorably brought to the screen earlier this year?
7. Game of Thrones needs more Starks
Arya, the feisty princess, didn't feature at all this episode (she is fleeing Westeros across the Narrow Sea). And Bran, the mystic crippled boy, has had his entire storyline delayed until next year. We're raving mad about the lack of Starks.
8. We're missing Joffrey
As brought slitheringly to the screen by Trinity College graduate Jack Gleeson, King Joffrey was spiteful, vain and psychotic - a villain you genuinely loved to hate. Since he was dispatched via wedding day poisoning, GoT has been much the poorer.