We kind of assumed this year on Game of Thrones was going to be as bitter and dark as graveyard-shift coffee. After all, it's based on the two ugliest books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. But we saw the season premiere last night, and it's even nastier. Here are our spoiler-free impressions.

So last night, they held the U.S. premiere of Game of Thrones season five here in San Francisco, and they showed the opening episode "The Wars to Come." We can't reveal much about what happens in the episode — but suffice to say that it's very much an hour of setting up new conflicts and new challenges.

There are about a dozen different storylines playing out in "The Wars to Come," and the thing they have in common is that pretty much everybody is in the depths of despair and misery. It's very much the vibe you remember from A Feast For Crows, only possibly even worse.

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At the same time, for the first time ever, nothing that happens in this episode felt like it came from the books. Not one scene felt like an adaptation of a book scene, although there were a few notes here and there that felt similar. Even the characters who've mostly followed their book trajectories, up to now, are doing something pretty new.

And significantly, some of the biggest conflicts being set up in this season opener are entirely different than the relationships those characters have in the books — and seem likely to play out in a whole new way.

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But what really makes this season opener of Game of Thrones feel so dark, and so intense, is the way this show really captures the natural reactions of some of the characters to the horrors they've been through. There's a really strong attention to detail in the way that all of these characters feel weighted down by the past, and changed by their disappointments and losses. The episode was full of little moments where I found myself thinking, "Oh, of course that's how that person would feel at this point." Especially the characters who don't get POV chapters in the books — but even some of the books' POV characters have a more fleshed-out response, thanks to strong performances from the cast.

And that's really the biggest thing I came away with after this episode. The cast, many of whom were in the audience watching it with us, are doing a phenomenal job of adding more dimensions to these characters. Especially Peter Dinklage, who's never been more tragic and mordant, and just magnetic, than he is in this opening episode — Tyrion Lannister pretty much owns the episode, and the amount of emotion and humor that Dinklage manages to pack into his scenes is a thing of pure amazement. After the first episode, Tyrion's storyline is the one I'm most desperate to see play out this season, too.

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And from the gorgeous opening moments, the episode is jam-packed with brilliant visuals and beautifully staged scenes. There are some really ambitious scenes just in this setup-heavy episode, which are put together with a ton of care. Westeros and Essos have a sense of scale and place, more than ever.

In general, the theme of this season seems to be that everybody is falling apart. Even the characters who seem to form new alliances or stick together in the books seem to be on the outs as the new season begins. And the way things are set up in this opening episode, it seems as though everybody is going to be at everybody else's throat, pretty much.

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In fact, the main thing that would make the season opener hard to talk about — even if I could talk about spoilers — is the fact that it's so jam-packed with storylines, and so much of it consists of setup. This has been true of almost every season opener since season two, but this time in particular it feels as though there are a million pieces on the board and the show is darting from place to place, trying to keep tabs on them all. And this may really be the year that Game of Thrones becomes so big and so diffuse that it stops having any sense of cohesiveness at all — although I'm cautiously optimistic, based on what we know about the season's arc.

Plus even though this episode is mostly just pieces being moved into place, it does have one really strong arc in it, which ends with a really powerful image — one which isn't in the books, and which represents a cliffhanger I'm dying to see play out.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.