A Look Back at Season 4
Andy Greenwald: Precaps are all about looking ahead. But, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a moment to gaze in the opposite direction. Even with a presumably boffo finale still to come, I think it’s safe to say that this has been the best season of Game of Thrones — and I don’t think it’s been particularly close. Part of this can be ascribed to the quality of the material. In terms of the raw story ore available to them, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss entered the year richer than the Tyrells. Thanks to the clever way they chopped up A Storm of Swords, the sprawling third book in George R.R. Martin’s ever-expanding series, there was almost no way for the fourth season not to be good. Instead of back-loading the fireworks, they started bursting in midair: The Purple Wedding happened in Episode 2. A woolly mammoth caught fire in Episode 9. In between was the trial of the century, an incredibly literal reenactment of Vanilla Ice’s greatest song, and the long-awaited implementation of Chekhov’s moon door. My head was exploding long before Oberyn’s ever did.
And yet the real accomplishment of the fourth season hasn’t been the story — it’s been the storytelling. My primary criticism of the first few years of Thrones stemmed from the way individual episodes would occasionally bump and lurch like those barrels Jon Snow and his pals were dropping from the top of the Wall: Some splintered midway, others blew apart too early, and precisely none took a direct path to their target. When considered en masse, these jolts smoothed themselves out into a satisfying, season-long whole. (I’m told that those who binge on Thrones like the Hound on rabbit stew find it even more fulfilling than those of us who peck at it, week to week, like an abstemious raven.) But in the moment, the experience could be more than a little jarring. This was especially true in the digressive doom and gloom of Season 3. As much as I loved the Jaime and Brienne road trip, for every bon mot that delighted there was a bear fight that dragged. Until his bloody end, Robb Stark was going nowhere fast. And while Bran and his warging pals were constantly moving, their destination felt far out of reach. There were times last year when I wasn’t just annoyed at the sight of Theon imprisoned in the Bolton basement, I could relate.
This year, by contrast, has positively glided. And it’s not just because of can’t-miss pairings like Arya-Hound, Tyrion-Jaime, and Salladhor-Jacuzzi. It’s because Benioff and Weiss have learned how to take the show’s least interesting threads — the knotty but necessary data dumps of exposition, the constant moving from here to there and back again — and hide them, elegantly, like doves inside a royal wedding cake. There was a bracing sense of forward momentum this season, even when the action stayed put. Think of the way King’s Landing has curdled before our very eyes, from the pomp of Joffrey’s lavish wedding day to the grim circumstance of Tyrion’s trial. (It’s no coincidence that we haven’t seen a Tyrell lady in weeks — flowers wilt quickly in hell.) Pedro Pascal’s electric performance — and more precisely, the way it was utilized — gave doomed Prince Oberyn the dignity of a complete, considered arc even though the character never once set foot outside the Red Keep. As adapters of such an enormous and enormously beloved work, Benioff and Weiss have always had all the ingredients for greatness, but now, at last, they know exactly how to deploy them. It’s the difference between smart shopping and gourmet cooking.
Yes, Theon (or what’s left of him, anyway) was still hanging around, but did you notice the way he never appeared in an episode without a heaping helping of Lannisters nearby to cleanse the palate? The way even the most egregiously ugly scenes, such as the drain-circling, skull-chugging nightmare at Craster’s Keep, were joined with eye-opening bits of world-expanding wonder? (Without Craster’s last kid, we don’t get the long, icy walk to Edgar Winter’s private stonehenge.) And so many long-trapped characters were finally loosed into new surroundings — Sansa, Jorah, Podrick, Davos — that Daenerys’s season-long retrenchment had the space to be interesting instead of dull. The world of Game of Thrones is no smaller — if anything, it’s bigger, with Bran ghost-riding Hodor completely off the map and Stannis seeking loans from an institution only dedicated book readers knew existed. But the characters are increasingly tripping over each other’s tracks, and the sense of urgency that traveled south with Ned Stark has, at last, infected all corners of the globe. As a result, this far-flung story now feels more tightly wound than ever. The beating of a dragon’s wing in Essos resonates like a hurricane an ocean away.
On Sunday, Game of Thrones’s best season will end with an episode called “The Children.” (The title could refer to the Stark sisters at the Eyrie or Dany’s scaly kids in Meereen. I’m hoping it focuses on those lovable, loathable Lannisters.) I’m eagerly anticipating something big, but what’s even more gratifying is that I’m fully expecting something great. This was more than just a well-told chapter in a story, it was an expertly made and executed — no Tyrion spoilers, please — season of television. How many shows round the turn into their fifth year with the lightness and momentum of a fresh start? If George R.R. Martin’s words are indeed wind, then David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are walking on air. Here’s hoping they can keep it up.
Sure, She’s Adorable, But We’re Not Sure This Child Has a Valid Claim to the Throne
A Brief History of Throwing Dudes Out Windows
netw3rk: History! It’s just as evil and depraved as Game of Thrones, only it really happened! In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has managed to combine two things I enjoy: nerd fantasy and popular history. Many places and events in Game of Thrones — like the Wall and the Red Wedding — are culled directly from European history. Others, while not explicitly borrowed from the annals of real stuff that happened, seem broadly similar to, you know, actual stuff that really happened.
Case in point: Jaime Lannister throwing Bran Stark out of a window at Winterfell in Season 1, an event that precipitated the Lannister-Stark conflict and eventually spiraled into a continent-wide war.
Similar event: The Defenestration of Prague, the broadly agreed-upon start of the Thirty Years’ War, which would go on to cost 8 million lives and reshape the map of Europe.
Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was an aging warehouse stuffed with old newspaper, cans of gasoline, and oily rags known as the Holy Roman Empire, and it was shot through with Protestant-Catholic-Calvinist religious tension and line-of-succession infighting. All it needed was a spark, and that spark arrived when Protestant insurgents in Bohemia — fearful of being deprived of their right to worship and provoked by one Count Thurn, who had just lost his job as castellan of Karlstadt in a move that the Protestants saw as a Catholic plot to undermine their leadership — stormed into a meeting of representatives of the staunchly Catholic Ferdinand II in Prague on Wednesday, May 23, 1618.
After some rough questioning as to which members of the Catholic delegation were responsible for a letter the Protestants found particularly offensive, two of the Catholics — Jaroslav Borita von Martinitz and Vilém Slavata — were tossed out of the window of the third-floor meeting room in Hradschin Castle. Slavata exited first, managing to grab onto the window ledge, where he hung for dear life. Meanwhile, his compatriot Martinitz asked his attackers to provide a confessor. (Kind of a hilarious request considering the religious roots of the conflict.) This further enraged Count Thurn & Co., who promptly hurled Martinitz into the void headfirst. Slavata’s fingers were then smacked with a sword, loosening his grip on the window ledge, and he tumbled some 55 feet into a ditch after Martinitz. They were followed by their secretary, Philipp Fabricius, who probably said something like “I just work here” as he was being thrown out after his bosses. All three survived, though, and the secretary even managed to land on his feet, which he immediately put to good use, fleeing to Vienna to alert the emperor. Martinitz and Slavata staggered out of the ditch as a few shots rang out from the window above, and hobbled to the home of an ally, whose wife then persuaded their pursuing assailants to go away.
Though the war would cost millions of lives and stoke religious enmity for generations, it gave us the word “defenestrate,” which is always fun to use. The fictional war set off by the Defenestration of Bran smolders on into its fifth book and third decade with no end in sight, uniting people of all nationalities and religions in prayers for George R.R. Martin’s continued health.
[History stuff from The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, by Peter H. Wilson.]
The Jon Snow and Ygritte Fortune-Teller
Regularfan Saneperson Power Rankings of the Week: The Best Death-Faces of the Season!
Previously: direwolves, odd couples, hit-list wish list, teachable moments with Tywin, swords, nut jobs, jurisprudence fails, high-stakes faceoffs, memorable moments at the Wall.
The Five Faces of Death
This space usually belongs to Superfan Crazyperson Mallory Rubin, but she’s on vacation. I have not read the books. She has read the books 15 times each and makes the cat reenact her favorite chapters every night. This is not a fair fight; I can already feel her thumbs in my eye sockets. Speaking of which: You notice how people in Westeros are always dying in brutal and spectacular ways? It’s true — it happens, like, all the time. Here are the five best death faces from Season 4. There were many to choose from, but these are the best. These are the ones that will haunt you, wake you in the middle of the night, and make you curse elfin nihilist George R.R. Martin for ever sitting down with his feather pen and scrolls to conjure forth his dark murder-kingdom.
It didn’t feel right to cheer a death. That’s sociopath territory. And yet. You cheered. Oh, how you cheered! “Die, Joffrey, die!” “Choke on it!” “Someone make sure he’s dead! Maybe stab him in the heart? He might get up!” And then you invited your friends over to watch the Purple Wedding again. There were invitations. Some light catering, mostly mini-pies and goblets of wine, nothing super fancy. You sipped the wine, groped at your throats. “Look at me! The incest-king, all chokey-chokey. Gaaaahhh.” You laughed. It was a good time, that shocking death.
But you miss him now, don’t you? You do. You mist up whenever you drink wine. You can hardly load the crossbow without pausing for a moment of dusty reverie. Did he really have to go? And like that, face flushing with purple death, warm blood spiderwebbing across his ghostly face? Poor kid. He would’ve learned to be a good king eventually.
You’re seriously reconsidering next year’s Purple Wedding rewatch party. You have some hard thinking to do about your place in this morally ambiguous universe.
A man’s head being crushed — sloppily crushed, inconsiderately crushed, like you tasked the Hulk with arranging the fruit buffet at the picnic — is an image that stays with you, lodges itself in the dark crannies of your mind. You don’t see things like that every day, unless you’re working the butter-and-watermelon stand at the farmer’s market.
It was all so preventable. All dashing Prince Oberyn had to do was kill first, preen later. The steps were clear. There wasn’t a person in that audience who didn’t get the message he shouted while dancing around his lumbering adversary. Look what his carelessness did to people.
Let’s avoid that in the future, shall we? Kill, then preen. Finish the job. Always be closing.
It was a fairy-tale love, one that began in a cave and ended in a castle. Hearts and arrows were exchanged. Star-crossed lovers, a wildling and a bastard, just trying to make things work. Alas, it was not to be. It was never to be. George R.R. Martin was all, “I am definitely making that woman die in his arms one day” the very moment he conjured Jon and Ygritte’s first embrace.
You know nothing, Jon Snow. Except how to make us all cry.
We take back the “sociopath territory” thing about cheering for death. Fly, Lysa Arryn, fly like a gossamer glass bird!
The annual Plummet Through the Moon Door parties are going to be fun. Everyone stands around a kiddie pool full of Jell-O and takes turns shoving each other in. Later, there are small-group discussions about attachment parenting.
No, Jorah’s not dead. But he might as well be. He lived for his Khaleesi. He would have died for his Khaleesi, tearing out his heart with his own bare hands and inviting her to eat it in front of him just for the pleasure of knowing she’d finally accepted his love. What’s he going to do now? Wander Essos, sketching JM + DST/MoD 4EVER in the sands? Throw his own treacherous head into Slaver’s Bay? Ask Grey Worm to remove his now-useless pillar and stones and secretly join the Unsullied?
Yeah, death would have been a better option. Poor Jorah. He can’t even sniff the Friend Zone anymore.
Honorable mention: Who’s got time for that? Do you have any idea how many people died this season? Like, a lot! We already covered this. Settle down, ghouls. There will be plenty more next year.
BONUS! Borderline Weird Mallory Rubin Game of Thrones Memorabilia of the Week:
Please enjoy this alternate image from last week’s photo shoot:
10 Things on My Wish List I’m Pretty Sure Will Never Happen Now
John Lopez: It’s been almost four seasons, and like any thoroughly Stockholm syndrome’d viewer, I’ve come to embrace Game of Thrones’s masochistic habit of scuttling my vastly lowered hopes for any kind of happy resolution. GoT doesn’t just subvert your expectations: It torches them before your eyes and then force-feeds you their ashes. In honor of the finale, I’ve looked back to draw up a list of my 10 hopes that George R.R. Martin dashed upon the rocks, leaving only puréed pieces of cranium and existential queasiness in their place.
1. A Tyrion-Tywin father-son fishing trip/Machiavellian bonding moment
2. A tasteful cutaway from an exploding head
3. Ygritte and Jon Snow’s Arctic honeymoon adventure
4. Seeing a baby not in mortal danger of White Walkers or roving wildlings
5. Finding out what happened to Stannis Baratheon’s supernatural shadow-spawn
6. Arya Stark going Kill Bill on the Lannisters
7. Daenerys and Ser Jorah baking cookies and realizing they’re perfect for each other
8. Any coherent explanation of Bran’s dreams
9. Theon’s carefree grin
10. Five hard-core minutes of Ser Pounce playing with string
Who’s Going to Get the Final Shot of the Season?
Emily Yoshida: DISCLAIMER: I have not read the books. I have no idea what’s coming. But even if I had read the books, I still wouldn’t know who gets that all-important final shot of the season. This is more a question of sequencing and good old-fashioned cliffhangers than plot mechanics. First, let’s just do a quick, objectively correct ranking of the three final shots that have come before, which conveniently go in chronological order.
1. Season 1
Key players: Daenerys Stormborn, of House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, Daenerys Targaryen.
Revelation: There are dragons on this television show now.
Music: Choral, triumphant, Lion King–esque
2. Season 2
Key players: Samwell Tarly, a bunch of zombies
Revelation: That’s a lot of zombies!
Music: Dirgelike, atonal rendition of GoT theme
Mood: Oh no!
3. Season 3
Key players: Daenerys Stormborn, of House Targaryen. Rightful heir to the Iron Throne; Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the Rhoynar, and the First Men; Mother of Dragons; the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea; the Unburnt; and Breaker of Chains.
Revelation: They like her, they really like her!
Music: Lion King–esque Daenerys theme paired with triumphant GoT theme
Mood: Celebratory, racially problematic
Now, allow me to observe a pattern in only three terms. On the most basic level, we’ve gone happy-sad-happy, which means we’re due for a sad one this season. This seems crazy, as it has already been a pretty bleak season, and another Daenerys victory lap would be welcome at this point. But I think the Mother of Dragons must wait her turn, especially since she’s not at a very victory-lapping place in her career right now.
Now, the Khaleesi-Walkers-Khaleesi pattern also probably rules out another Dany finale, but I don’t think it necessarily points to a Walkers-centric cliffhanger. We just spent a lot of time at the Wall. I think we’re pretty Walled out. Besides, what new shocking thing can the Walkers do at this point, besides walk a little closer? I think the only way we get a Walker-centric final scene is if one pops up in King’s Landing out of the blue. Do NOT tell me if this actually happens! I am just spitballing here! This no-books all-science process is more like making a mix CD than anything else. You can’t have two Smog tracks that close to each other.
We should also note that the episode titles of the last three finales have all vaguely pertained to the final scene. “Fire and Blood” = Targaryen house words, dragons; “Valar Morghulis” = all men must die, dead guys, zombies; “Mhysa” = the rallying cry of crowd-surfing angel Dany. This season’s finale is called “The Children.” My money, and I would actually be interested in putting some down if anyone were willing to take me up on this, is that (1) Bran and/or the Wonder Twins get the final shot, (2) it will be in the cool/”whoa” mood range (breaking pattern, because this season needs it), (3) there will be NO MUSIC (wild guess to make things fun), and, fingers crossed, (4) it makes us care about that plotline.