Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Fuck yes
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Season Four – ****
Part One: Hey, Didn’t I Say That Last Time?
How can the show follow up the third season’s spectacle? Climbing the wall, the Red Wedding, all those lost body parts? The show runners answered with Season Four, which quickly eclipsed Season Three as my favorite season in the series at the time of its release — well, partly anyway.
With Robb and Catelyn gone, Danaerys with an army and pretty sizable dragons, and Jon back at the Wall with the Night’s Watch, the show is given several new opportunities and challenges to overcome. While I won’t proclaim that it handles everything it has with the grace and elegance it perhaps requires, it does a fair job of it. The show seems to trust its audience to follow an increasingly complex plot and make inferences about where characters will be and what they’re doing, and knows what the audience expects of it. There are new characters as always to fill the cast list after old ones have been axed off, but relatively few compared to the previous seasons. The only one of particular interest is Oberyn Martell, whose role is effectively to die in one of the show’s goriest deaths to date, made all the more gruesome by not being fully shown. In a show with so many characters and disparate plot threads, fewer characters is a good thing.
Part Two: GET IN A BOAT AND CROSS THE FUCKING SEA ALREADY!
The main merit of Season Four is that it continues the better elements common in Season Three. Jaime has returned to the capital a one-armed useless knight and now has to deal with disappointment from his sister. Stannis’ subplot is mercifully shorter than it has been in the last two seasons, and that’s about all you can say of it. Jon gets a few nice moments, and the Night’s Watch even features exclusively as part of a particularly intense episode near the end that was so cinematic, it got a theatrical release alongside the last episode.
Arya’s travels with the Hound buddy-cop-style in one of the more comedic and at times heartwarming subplots, so much so that it makes me want to see them work together in the eighth season at some point. I have to admit, while I liked Arya as a character for the first few seasons, I’ve since found that she tends to be a bit one-note. The show (and the books to a greater degree) is fond of issuing lines for characters to repeat over and over as sound bites they can write on posters and memes. “Winter is coming,” “the night is dark and full of terrors,” “you know nothing, Jon Snow,” “a Lannister always pays his debts,” et cetera. It gets annoying after a short while, and while Arya’s list of people she intends to kill has more narrative purpose than most of these repeated phrases, it tends to grate after a while. That said, when she has other characters to work off of, especially a mildly antagonistic one, she always seems like a much more vibrant person. In that sense, the choice to put her with the Hound couldn’t have been better.
Still on the other side of the sea, Danaerys takes the opportunity to show off her army, though in the interest of delaying her subplot joining with the others, she also develops this oddly biblical sidequest of freeing the slaves from cities with the giant pyramids. Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, this series isn’t especially subtle with its real-world references. It also isn’t very articulate when it tries to say thing it thinks are important. “Slavery is bad,” says the show. Okay. Why not base your slavery subplot on a culture that actually had slaves, at least in the sense that Westerners would recognize? Like, I don’t know, Greece, or Rome, or Scandinavia, or, perhaps most of Europe at one point or another? I mean, the Ancient Egyptians had slaves of a sort, but if you’re trying to find something out of The Ten Commandments, you should be looking more toward colonial America. “No,” says the show, “our audience prefers to think of slavery as something weirdly-dressed foreign heathens did to their distant ancestors. Not something their ancestors did to other people.” Okay, then. If this subplot really goes nowhere, why include it at all? “Because Daenarys is Jesus,” says the show. “We need to beat that into their heads.”
I’ve checked the maps of the Game of Thrones world, and while it’s hilarious that Martin thinks the UK should be on par with continental Europe plus the Middle East plus part of Central Asia in terms of size, its facimile, Westeros, remains roughly the same distance from the mainland as the actual British Isles are from France. Possibly even closer. Like, if she set up shop on the eastern side of the Westeros Channel, Danaerys could probably invade King’s Landing and return home overnight, especially with those dragons. And yet, she decides that being Pyramid Jesus and remaining completely isolated from literally every other plotline in the series is more important. I have to say, while I remain a fan of the dragons, this was the point I realized I held little interest in Danaerys as a character. The show eventually makes her marginally more deep, but even so, she’s still about the whitest person you could imagine coming from the show’s equivalent of the Middle East, magical by blood, a somehow competent ruler and military leader except when someone else makes mistakes, the only marginally competent contender for the throne, sexy, vital, more honest and fair than anyone else in the show, the only person who seems to understand that slavery is bad, and, of course, dragon Jesus. I’m not quite at the level of calling her a Mary Sue, but if she sits on that fucking chair and everyone lives happily ever after, I won’t be above it.
Part Three: Ding Dong, the Marry-O!
For all the times the fourth season matches or falters in the shadow of the third, there are plenty of moments it takes a step further as well. While “The Rains of Castamere” probably remains the most emotionally charged episode in the series, a close second is the second episode in this season, “The Lion and the Rose,” but for the opposite emotions. As if to make up for the turmoil caused by the Red Wedding, Martin and the show runners provide the audience with another wedding – the Purple Wedding. If the slower members of the audience haven’t yet figured out that George R. R. Martin does not make a good wedding planner (a point delightfully illustrated by College Humor shortly after the episode aired), this is the wedding in which Joffrey finally, mercifully, gets snuffed out. I have a friend who literally jumped for joy when he started coughing. I have never seen a person jump for joy but that once, and it was well-deserved, especially considering the hell “The Rains of Castamere” put this same person through.
I haven’t much mentioned Joffrey’s character, mainly because there isn’t much to mention. He’s an asshole, specifically the sadistic form of asshole. I kind of wish one of the dragons had just eaten him, Shrek-style, but poison is good enough. I don’t know what else there is to say about him. He makes a decent Trump allegory, I suppose? Single-handedly toppling an inflated world power through sheer ineptitude, assholery, and a whiny voice, throwing the world into chaos for years to come? Yeah, that sounds about right.
The attack on Castle Black in “The Watchers on the Wall” is my favorite battle in the series to date that does not feature dragons, and by dedicating a whole episode to one region, the show is able to keep ramping up the tension until the battle ends. While not all of the elements of the season work – Shae’s betrayal, and Tyrion’s trial in general seem to me needlessly unpleasant and unsubstantiated to the level the show seems to care about them – but the good parts make the bad easy to forget.
Also, the dragons are bigger, which is always a plus.