For more than three years, Game of Thrones has been one of the very best things on television. But it’s been extremely hard to consider it as television. Thanks to the existence of those sturdy books that gird the plot and drive the narrative, Game of Thrones has a scope and pace unlike anything else on the air. Where other shows build, Thrones sprawls. When other shows are screaming toward a climax, Thrones is just clearing its throat. For those accustomed to the normal rise and fall of a TV series, watching life in Westeros can be just as unsettling as living it.
This has been particularly true in regard to individual seasons. Since the beginning, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have judiciously sprinkled each 10-episode burst with shocking events and bravura showcases. Yet at times it’s seemed that the only season that really concerns them is winter. Game of Thrones seasons can feel almost arbitrary in their dimensions, with each episode flowing almost imperceptibly into the next: This year Daenerys will march from here to here (but not to there), Jon Snow will venture north then south again, Cersei will refill her wine goblet. New characters arrive, old characters return, but the overall rhythm can occasionally feel as lumpy as the gravy in a poorly made kidney pie. There’s no question Benioff and Weiss are dishing out an enormous (and enormously satisfying!) story. It’s just that there have been times when I would have liked a little more style with my weekly serving.
Not this year, though. Through seven weeks, I’ve found the fourth season of Game of Thrones to be its most enjoyable by far. Perhaps it’s because Benioff and Weiss had just the right patch of plot to till or perhaps it’s because they’ve simply gotten better at picking their spots. Regardless, this year has been the first that gained both steam and clarity as it has advanced. Story lines and themes that were introduced in the premiere have snaked their way through each episode, leading toward rewarding payoffs. (I’m thinking specifically here of Oberyn Martell’s slithering, season-long presence paying off with last night’s dramatic offer.) Furthermore, having a big, bloody surprise in the second episode instead of in the second-to-last gave the audience a chance to revel in the aftershocks and Benioff and Weiss an opportunity to illustrate them more fully. Last year, the Red Wedding tied off a story line like a tourniquet. By contrast, the Purple Wedding has pumped plot like an artery: It got Sansa moving, Cersei fuming, and put Tyrion in chains. For the first time, Game of Thrones is building toward something palpable, not just something promised. By constructing the season the way they have, Game of Thrones’s wise maesters have us primed for two huge events we can actually anticipate, namely the battle for Tyrion’s life and the battle for the Wall. No one is expecting a happy ending, but it feels good to finally be rewarded for paying attention.
The price we pay for this sort of traditional structure, however, is episodes like “Mockingbird.” It wasn’t that it was a bad hour — far from it. But it was, save for one dramatic drop at the end, a traditional filler episode. It provided an opportunity for character beats that might otherwise be drowned out by the sound of combat: The Hound got real, Melisandre got clean, and Daenerys got some. Thrones has never shied away from moments like these, of course. It was just a pleasure to see them all strung together like this, freed from the noisy exigencies of the plot and without acrobatic sexpositionists writhing in the background. An episode like this wouldn’t have worked amid the many digressions of Season 3 — does everyone remember the bear fight?!? — but it fit perfectly within the gradual, artfully constructed build of Season 4. Chatty and deliberate, “Mockingbird” was the kind of hour a show has to earn.
The action began moments after the previous installment finished. The courtroom has presumably been cleared, and Tyrion’s demand for a trial by combat is no longer ringing in anyone’s ears. Rather, it has settled like a lead weight inside the imp’s own stomach. Tyrion has always used laughter as a sort of armor — the most effective way he knows to protect himself from a world that’s already laughing at him. But with his death presumably fast approaching, Tyrion’s once mordant humor has turned mournful. It turns out his life really was a joke — just not, as he says to Jaime, “a very funny one.” Scenes like this made me appreciate the degree of difficulty inherent in Game of Thrones these past few seasons, when characters who legitimately liked or even loved one another were separated by story and distance. (Terrible things are weightless without emotional investment. There’s a reason why George R.R. Martin saves his worst for weddings.) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage have a wonderful rapport that’s downright brotherly in its intimacy. Where other men fight beneath their family crest, these two are crushed by it.
Though it’s of little consolation to Tyrion, there’s a familial psychodrama playing out on the other side of his trial as well. After much mention of him, we finally got a look at Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane last night, and it was appropriately terrifying. (For those keeping score, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is the third actor to play the role and by far the most Brobdingnagian.) Was he slaughtering those wretches for fun? For sport? For practice? Either way, the Mountain’s gut-spilling bloodlust made for quite a contrast with the sight of his brother, the Hound, quietly spilling his own. Cruelty is a connoisseur’s game in Westeros, a vicious place where the phrase “pick your poison” is often meant literally. Even so, it was hard to stomach the image of one brother burning another’s face “like a nice juicy mutton chop” over nothing but a borrowed toy. This was excellent work by Rory McCann, a physical actor who was suddenly asked to play the scar instead of the sword. No wonder the Hound turned tail at the Blackwater. It wasn’t just the fire that sent him away, it was the sight of yet another sadistic child burning anyone and everything that stood in his way.
While I would love to see Sandor Clegane go toe-to-toe with his brother, a clash of titans like that wouldn’t make sense on a show like this. Not only would it be too neat and tidy, it’d also be too evenly matched. Part of me was hoping for the fun house David and Goliath battle of Tyrion versus Gregor one-on-one, but Game of Thrones also doesn’t traffic in miracles. The sight of Bronn rope-a-doping a “freakish” opponent twice his size would have been a treat, too, but not worth the cost of losing that fantastic parting scene in the dungeons: “If I’d wanted wits, I’d marry you!” As with baseball, there’s no crying in Westeros. But there are elaborate farewell handshakes. And those dungeons can get awfully dusty.
Instead we have the delicious prospect of the immovable Mountain being challenged by an unpredictable viper. I don’t suppose the Mountain has much of an ear for poetry, but there’s something perfect about the way this has all shaken out. A man with a debt older than the king is being handed the biggest stage possible to repay it — and all at the Lannisters’ expense. Pedro Pascal has been terrific all season, but he was never better than he was last night when he gave Tyrion a childhood memory that would have been better off forgotten. (Someone tell Arya there are other ways to stab someone in the heart.) Like Game of Thrones itself, Oberyn’s story was a fairy tale with a human monster lurking at the end of it. Would it be too much to wish for pansexual Jack to slay the sister-raping Giant?
Even before we caught sight of her high-stepping over an intestine like it was one of Ser Pounce’s stray chew toys, it was clear that Cersei had chosen her champion well. She and Gregor Clegane both possess an uncanny knack for hurting younger siblings. People without empathy for children are usually children themselves, but in Westeros they’re survivors. Still, that kind of violence is wrenching to consider, especially as events at Dragonstone appear to be slowly smoldering toward daughter sacrifice. That was the implication in Melisandre’s naked chat with Mrs. Stannis, right? For the thousandth time: What’s so great about being King again? I get that all men must die. But I dearly wish we could leave the kids out of it.
At least there was a hint of mercy in Essos, though it came from a surprising source. One might have thought that freeing Daario from his trousers might have been enough for Daenerys to chill on the crucifixions. But in fact it was a morning-after chat with Jorah that did it, right after Ser Friend Zone suffered the indignity of strolling past Daario’s remarkably shame-free walk of shame. (I demand a DVD extra of Daario’s attempt to get Dany to go to brunch with him!) “It’s tempting to see your enemies as evil, all of them, but there’s good and evil on both sides in every war ever fought,” Jorah explains, just in case his Queen has been too busy accumulating titles to pay attention to the show she’s in. It speaks well of the Khaleesi that she’s willing to learn on the job. It speaks less well of her that she occasionally appears to prefer men fighting over her rather than for her.
With Daenerys backtracking and Jon Snow being overruled, the action has shifted to an unlikely and, apparently, impregnable place: the Eyrie. After a very productive stay at the Coincidence Inn, Brienne and Podrick have a new friend, a new cookie, and a new destination. Though, I suppose it was lucky for them they were already traveling on the Robert Frost Memorial Highway. (I don’t mean to make light of the return of Hot Pie. As an avowed fan of Salladhor Saan and his margin-hugging approach to survival, I have to give it up to the rare Westerosi who prefers cooking kidneys to stabbing them.) Would it be too fan-servicey to imagine a season finale in which Brienne and the Hound team up to rescue Sansa? And then reward themselves with a shopping montage at the Big and Tall outlet in the Riverlands? Probably. Besides, if someone is going to rescue Sansa they’d better make it quick. Just because Chekhov’s Moon Door went off once doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.
There was something quite beautiful in the way the snow was falling just before Lysa Arryn was. It was a reminder that shouldn’t be necessary on Game of Thrones: Catastrophic things often begin as flurries, not blizzards. I like to think that Sansa slapped her cousin Prince Nardwuar not because he wrecked her snow sculpture or because he is outrageously annoying but because he insists on living in the sort of easy world the last few years have robbed from her, one in which bad, scary, and unlikable people can be whooshed away like unwanted slices of pigeon pie.
For a moment, I thought Littlefinger was thinking with the wrong finger when he made his long-threatened move on Sansa right out there in the open. But what we’re actually seeing is the birth of a much bigger finger, the type of player who no longer needs to keep his ambition or his intellect in hiding. Seeing him toss his wife away like a used tissue or Sith lord was essentially his coming-out party. There’s value in meticulous, behind-the-scenes planning, but to win you eventually have to play your hand. It’s good advice for villains and showrunners alike. There are two agonzing weeks until the next episode of Game of Thrones, but I can’t help but think that the show has left us in the perfect place: on the precipice, staring down. It’s a sudden drop, but there’s a long way still to go.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So, please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]
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