Night gathers in ‘Game of Thrones’ season six premiere (A spoiler-free review!)

Sophie Turner in "Game of Thrones." Helen Sloan via Tribune News Service

Season six of HBO’s smash hit series “Game of Thrones” (2011 – present) premiered on April 24 and opened with a recap of the previous season’s seminal moments. The recap makes for a harrowing montage, reminding the viewer of all the murder, rapes, battles and religious fanaticism that defined the last season, and drawing them back into the world of “A Song of Ice and Fire” (1996 – present). After the recap, the series’ intro sequence begins, where mechanical miniatures of key locations assemble themselves over Ramin Djawadi’s iconic theme.

“Game of Thrones” was always dark, endlessly concerned as it is with mankind’s darkest tendencies, but after season five, things seem especially grim in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea. Beloved and not so beloved characters are in more peril than usual and the question on everybody’s lips is if Jon Snow is alive or dead. The tension is high, and one can feel the series moving inexorably toward a final, cataclysmic confrontation that ties together all its myriad sub-plots.

As to what shape that final confrontation will take, it’s anyone’s guess. The plots of the books and the TV show have been diverging for some time, but thanks to George R.R. Martin’s famously glacial writing pace, the show’s producers have expended the accumulation of literary savagery that inspired the show and are now writing their own stories in Martin’s world. We are in uncharted waters, and fans of the books no longer get to feel smug as their plebian friends are shocked as events unfold on screen that really happened in a novel published years before.

From the beginning, “Game of Thrones” has benefited enormously from a cast of thespians who are unswervingly dedicated to their roles, and this trend fortunately continues into season six. It’s easy to make fantasy sound hokey, especially when you have characters say lines that feature names like “Daenerys Targaryen,” but all of the cast deliver their lines with conviction, and dialogue that could have easily earned an eye-roll instead lands with force.

The massively underrated Gwendoline Christie shines in her brief appearance in season six’s first episode. Christie brings an impressive physicality and earnestness to her role as Brienne of Tarth, the brutally effective female knight who, though often a whirlwind of slaughter, is nevertheless unshakably loyal and brimming with idealism.

Brienne is one of the show’s few morally unambiguous characters, free as she is of the lies and duplicity that sully most every other character, and scenes featuring her are a refreshing break from perpetual intrigue. It would be nice to see her in a fight against an opponent of equal skill though; her appearance in the premier mostly consisted of her hewing anonymous henchmen into gory man-chunks.

The High Sparrow, the High Septon played by Jonathan Pryce, who ignited a wave of popular religious fanaticism in season five, returns in season six and is as terrifying as ever. Pryce plays the character like a kindly grandfather, all understanding words and soft gestures. But underneath that outward gentleness, Pryce manages to show the sort of insidious zealotry that only the obscenely devote can muster.

The High Sparrow burns with religious fever, the kind that brooks no transgressions, but also has the political savvy to conceal it beneath a more approachable façade. If Ted Cruz was less a partially-melted wax reptile who hungers endlessly for man-flesh, he would bare more than a passing resemblance to Pryce’s character. The High Septon is one to watch in season six, as the movement he leads will undoubtedly lead to true horrors, all of which will be opportunities for Pryce to showcase more of this chilling character.

Fan favorite Peter Dinklage returns as Tyrion Lannister and is as good as ever. More ink has been spilled about Tyrion and Dinklage’s portrayal of the character than almost anything “Game of Thrones” related, so there isn’t a whole lot left to say. The only “substantive” criticism this reviewer has of Dinklage is that he is far too handsome to play the canonically hideous Tyrion.

Thankfully, it’s not all darkness and excellent acting in season six, as the show’s writers do manage to inject some levity into the unrelenting despair. The premier features a hilarious scene in which a Khal and his Bloodriders debate what is best in life. The scene is funny on its own, but it is made even better when you realize that the scene is a homage to 1982’s delightfully campy “Conan the Barbarian.”

Overall, the premier of the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” indicates that viewers can expect more of the gritty, hardscrabble fantasy that has defined the series thus far. Fans of the series will find more of what they like, but the well-crafted television on display in the season premiere will do little to appeal to the uninitiated.