Game of Thrones, television’s most consistent show, returns this Sunday night for its fourth season at the peak of its powers and popularity. A series that launched as an enormous, pricey gamble — how many characters? And she does what with the horse heart? — now swaggers like a front-running sure thing. More than 13 million people watched last year’s Red Wedding, in which slashed necks burbled like shaken bottles of champagne — and that’s not counting the untold millions who crashed the party via illegal downloads and “borrowed” HBO GO passwords. It’s the sort of swelling, fanatical audience HBO hasn’t achieved since the heyday of another violent show about warring clans, The Sopranos. And Thrones’ cultural footprint is only expanding. In the run-up to Sunday’s premiere, the cast and crew have been laying siege to the media with the vigor and relentlessness of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet sailing on King’s Landing. Here’s the cast lounging on the rocks on the cover of Vanity Fair; there they are unwinding at the beach on costar Lena Headey’s delightfully chill Instagram feed. Two weeks ago, HBO feted the series with a gala premiere at Lincoln Center followed by a lavish party at the American Museum of Natural History. At the former, the New York Philharmonic played “The Rains of Castamere” and an auditorium full of jaded media types gasped and cheered like Lannister teenagers. At the latter, Peter Dinklage and Alfie Allen gobbled sushi while society reporters hovered around them like flies. Winter may still be coming, but Game of Thrones appeared to be in full bloom.
With its Season 4 just days away, Game of Thrones has reached a saturation point reserved only for the best and most beloved of TV shows. These are the good times, the glory days, when crew and critics alike are flashing the same contented smiles. It’s the moment when the x-axis of audience anticipation and the y-axis of satisfaction cross like the sigil of House Bolton. For some series, this happens early in the run — think Lost after the first-season finale — for others, it occurs as a show’s story engine revs up in preparation for the final turn. With Breaking Bad gone and Mad Men exiting, Game of Thrones’ ascent feels especially significant: It’s now the last consensus show on the air, a pan-demographic Goliath that successfully juggles the adrenalized whomp of a summer blockbuster with the attention-demanding intricacy of a prestige drama. Even with the existence of those physical spoilers known as “books,” Thrones obsessives wouldn’t dare miss their Sunday-night trip to Westeros. It’s the sort of shared, albeit occasionally horrifying, experience that is becoming less and less common as our entertainment becomes increasingly more personalized.
In fact, there’s so much good feeling heading into this new season that it’s almost unsettling. As a critic — but more important in this case, as a fan — I feel like a Stark stuck listening to the best man’s speech and waiting for the music to change. How can a show built around so much carnage and strife be so uniformly celebrated and beloved? And how, by the old gods and the new, can it possibly stay that way?
Before we climb that wall, let’s dig down a bit. It’s no secret that TV shows receive the most attention when they begin and when they end. It’s a Darwinian binary that syncs up well with the fevered way we cover television these days — in which everything is The! Best! Ever! (unless it’s The Worst) — but doesn’t reflect the way we actually watch. Whether we binge in great gulps or limit ourselves to satisfying weekly sips, TV is best experienced as an ongoing relationship. It ought to be enjoyed in the moment as something much more than the sum total of a meet-cute and a breakup. This is especially relevant this week with the howling rage over the How I Met Your Mother finale threatening to drown out all discourse. The end of something shouldn’t define it, even if all our frustrations — and a good portion of the Internet — are loudly telling us otherwise.
And yet in 2014, even the humble network sitcom finds itself perched on the knife blade of opinion from week to week, forever at risk of falling, like a Dothraki from his horse, from favor to disgrace.1 There’s no universally agreed-upon term for when a series, like Game of Thrones, is at its peak. (If Jack Donaghy were still in charge of NBC — instead of current president Kenneth Parcell — he’d call it Reaganing. I’m partial to “shooting J.R.”) But there is a more noxious term for the exact opposite scenario, when a once-adored show either founders on the rocks of critical opinion or is stoned to death by a mob of exasperated former fans.
“Jumping the shark” owes its origin to Happy Days but its persistence to cynicism. The eagerness some have to identify the precise moment a show becomes irredeemable has never made any sense to me. It reeks of the sort of entrenched pessimism that makes genuine engagement impossible. It’s like watching Olympic skiing and rooting for the mountain. Besides, the thing that makes TV so unique and exciting is that, contrary to what the shark-jumpers would have you believe, it’s always in flux. The open-ended nature of TV production guarantees that even if your favorite show finds itself all at sea, there will always be a chance to right the ship.2
How does this apply to Game of Thrones? Well, on the one hand, it doesn’t, at least not exactly. The show remains unique, not only in its reach but in its — sorry, Ned Stark — execution. The comforting safety net of George R.R. Martin’s expansive novels allows showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss the luxury of devoting their energies to the sorts of niceties that bedevil more traditional producers, things like “pacing” and “structure.” Despite the enormous budget (the largest in TV), ever-expanding cast (ditto), and a far-flung plot that demands three separate crews filming in three disparate European cities (Belfast, Dubrovnik, and Reykjavik), the prevailing sensation of Game of Thrones is calm. Not the character-based calm that dominates other high-profile hours — Frank Underwood’s duplicity on House of Cards has to remain uncovered for at least another season; Alicia Florrick will be The Good Wife for the long haul — but the calm that comes only from a well-appointed train ride on tracks that have already been laid.
Because Benioff and Weiss know where they’re going, decisions that might sink lesser series — the season-long marginalization (and mutilation!) of Theon Greyjoy, for example — are met with patience, not fury.3 TV viewers are increasingly savvy, but also paranoid; we refer to our viewing choices as investments and balk when our money managers give off even the slightest whiff of doubt. The long arc of Martin’s story has freed Benioff and Weiss from those sorts of inquiries, but in the process it may also have unfairly diminished the magnitude of their achievement. The Red Wedding was truly shocking, a moment unlike any other in TV history. For fans demanding huge returns, it was the equivalent of a Publishers Clearing House novelty check with the long line of zeros written in dripping blood. Everything — and everyone — that went down in that castle had been painstakingly set up for more than two and a half seasons. Benioff and Weiss knew exactly what they were doing, taking particular delight in the way their audience — still scarred and shaking over what happened to Ned Stark in Season 1 — had only just recently begun to trust again.4 The real achievement of that stunning episode wasn’t the body count, it was the elegance and skill with which it was tallied.
Which is an important thing to remember, since no road map can cover everything. Eventually every traveler will hit the uncharted region marked “Here Be Monsters.” (Of course, in Westeros that could just be spray-painted over the entire continent.) For Game of Thrones, that time may be approaching sooner than we realize. The new season, like the one that preceded it, contains events from the third of Martin’s novels. There are two published books remaining for Benioff and Weiss to adapt. Martin insists the sixth novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, will be out relatively soon. This is tough to believe, as the gap between his books has begun yawning wider than the Shivering Sea: The first three novels were separated by roughly two years each; then there was a five year wait for Book 4, and it was six for Book 5. As a gesture of good faith, Martin recently posted a chapter from Winter on his website. Rather than instill hope, it had roughly the same effect as a finger being mailed to the family of a kidnap victim.
Benioff and Weiss have spoken of their series lasting seven seasons, which suggests an end date just three years away. It also suggests they don’t plan on respecting Martin’s glacial publishing schedule. It’s a fact of which Martin isn’t ignorant but one he seems hell-bent on ignoring. In the expansive Vanity Fair cover story, he expressed hope that HBO might consider pausing production should it run the risk of lapping his authorly endeavors.5 Some might read this as vain, but it struck me as sweetly naive. Until now, Martin has been indulged by Thrones, greeted and fawned over like a Maester and encouraged to contribute a teleplay each year. But the TV business cares about accuracy and creative vision only as long as they are profitable. The minute Martin’s imagination threatens to derail the money train, he’ll be tossed out along with it.
But would this necessarily be such a bad thing? Though I’ve not read a single page of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — I prefer to cover the work as a TV series first, a fact I’ll be repeating ad nauseam for the next 10 weeks — I’ve been warned by many who have that they’ve found them to offer significantly diminishing returns. Until now, Benioff and Weiss have been able to bolster their meandering epic with judicious mounds of red meat: a surprise beheading here, a savage castration there. But much of the big game has already been hunted. Though the remaining characters are still sprawled across two continents, Game of Thrones for the first time appears ready to contract rather than expand its scope. It’s a natural pivot for any long-running series, but it still seems surprising on a show so devoted to grandly clearing its throat. (Sorry, Cat Stark.) Even the new characters introduced early in Season 4 — including Pedro Pascal’s wonderfully slithery Prince Oberyn Martell — seem determined to thin the cast list rather than add to it. Who knows how many Red Weddings remain to shock us?6 What if Daenerys’s desert ramble starts to look less like this and more like this?
Should such a circumstance arise, I have total faith in Benioff and Weiss to do what generations of TV showrunners and scheming Lannisters have done before: adjust. After watching Sunday’s premiere — no spoilers to follow, I swear on the Sept — I was reminded of how the real pleasures of Game of Thrones derive not from the swords but from the people swinging them. To me, the early episodes of the season always evoke the first day of summer camp — not just because it’s muddy and the rich blond kids are acting like bullies, but because they provide a wonderful chance to catch up on old friends. Look, there’s Jaime Lannister all cleaned up and within stump’s reach of his beloved sister! Hey, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly are reunited on the safe7 side of the wall! And get a load of Arya and the Hound, still enacting the best mismatched buddy comedy since Turner & Hooch! Why worry so much about the destination when the ale is flowing and the company’s so good?
Game of Thrones is an intensely modern show, both in form and content. But it’s worth noting how strongly it resists the sort of online hyper-dissection that can either carry a series aloft or tear it apart, limb by limb, like a starving mob in Flea Bottom. The show proceeds at its own stately pace, telling its own knotty story. Rather than be concerned that future seasons might mar the world that Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have painstakingly created, it’s probably healthier — for your sake and mine — to focus instead on the majesty of that world as it exists now. The night may well be dark and full of terrors, but rest easy: We’re still hours away from dusk.