The wildlings brought a keg to the party so big it needed a mammoth to drag it in.
The fourth season of Game of Thrones is the most ambitious to date. In terms of structure and plot it draws upon no less than three of George R.R. Martin's novels (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), features a battle sequence that dwarfs even the Blackwater from Season 2 and features much more extensive use of CGI for creature effects, establishing shots and even virtual sets.
In overall terms, it may be the strongest season to date. Previous seasons built slowly to massive 'Episode Nine' moments with an extended coda afterwards, but Season 4 features some massive moments and confrontations throughout its run. The Battle for the Wall in episode nine is indeed amazing and may be the best episode of the season, but there are other moments through the season which come close to rivalling it (the "Purple Wedding", Tyrion's trial and resulting duel and multiple moments in the finale). It's certainly a more compelling season than the preceding two, with more substantial moments of plot and character development in early episodes rather than just a lot of slow-building set-up.
Performances are, as usual, superb. The newcomer of note this season is Pedro Pascal as Prince Oberyn Martell, who brings all the deadly grace, measured debauchery, confident swagger and resolute vengeance of the book character to the screen. Other newcomers are less impressive, although this is more down to the writing than performances: the decision to reduce Mace Tyrell to a bumbling oaf only worth comic relief as Tywin ignores him is implausible given how badly reliant Tywin is on Mace's army and support. Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill and Rory McCann continue to provide superlative performances, and as usual Aidan Gillen's acting is undermined by his ludicrous Batman voice. Sophie Turner steps things up in the last few episodes as Sansa gains some agency and power of her own, but, disappointingly, it feels like Maisie Williams is treading water a little as Arya. She has a few good moments (such as her outrage as the Hound mistreats a family who has taken them in) but she often makes inertness Arya's response to threatening situations.
The stand-out performance of the season, in my book, must go to Gwendoline Christie as Brienne. A little stiff and awkward in the second season (where it fitted the character superbly) and more confident in the third, Christie really comes into her own this year with a series of humourous exchanges with Pod, some human ones with Jaime and a brutal confrontation with the Hound in the finale. These all serve to complicate her character and the actress more than meets the challenge. In a much more limited role, it's also good to see Kristofer Hivju nailing Tormund more as the character from the books (part man, part force of nature), particularly in his final discussions with Jon Snow (Kit Harington being effectively surly and northern, as usual).
"That's the second-biggest statue representing the liberty of former slaves from tyranny and oppression I've ever seen!"
So the series is well-paced, with some great storytelling moments and some wise decisions on when to follow the books religiously and when to move away and do their own thing. There are a few missteps when it comes to translating iconic scenes from the books, with them generally being made less powerful and resonant than what was in print. This may be down to a limitation of the medium (Tyrion thinks about Tysha fairly regularly in the books, whilst in the TV show it's unlikely viewers will remember a minor backstory point made three years earlier) but it also feels like sometimes there are changes for change's sake, which hurts the TV show by reducing the full potential impact of scenes.
Another problem in Season 4 is that the ugly spectre of sexual violence rears its head more noticeably than ever before. In the novels, there are certainly unpleasant moments of sexual assault or threatened violence against both men and women, but the TV show takes this to new extremes in the fourth season with an inexplicable (from plot and character terms) sexual assault in the third episode and the disturbing use of 'rape-as-wallpaper' in the fourth. Whilst this is a harsh and ugly world and the urge not to sugar-coat it must be strong, the writers go way overboard in these incidents and seem to be using the very real and distressingly common crimes of sexual violence for the purposes of drumming up controversy and media coverage. The presentation of one of the villains responsible for these scenes, Karl, as a corny villain who drinks blood from the skulls of his enemies (a character and scene not in the books) doesn't really help with the idea that these scenes are meant to be realistic in any way, shape or form. It also doesn't help that the show does sugar-coat the antics of other, more fan-favourite characters so as not to offend the audience. The events of A Storm of Swords pretty much destroy Tyrion as a character, reducing him to a vile-spirited murderer in the finale as he realises how his attempts to be (in his own way) honourable and fair have backfired on him. The TV show doesn't hold much truck with this, making Tyrion a killer only in self-defence and allowing him to retain the veneer of heroism rather than complicating and darkening the character as Martin does in the novels. It's a lazy and obvious choice for a show (and series of books) that shines the brightest when not doing the lazy and obvious.
Still, whilst some elements are hard to swallow or excuse (and nor should we), the fourth season of Game of Thrones is, when it is on its game, still highly watchable, entertaining and the most epic ongoing TV series ever made. The problem is that the series isn't hitting those best moments with the frequency that it really could with some cleverer and more subtle writing, and sometimes lets itself down by chasing controversy which it really does not need to do.
401: Two Swords (****)
402: The Lion and the Rose (****½)
403: Breaker of Chains (***)
404: Oathkeeper (***)
405: First of His Name (***)
406: The Laws of God and Men (****½)
407: Mockingbird (****)
408: The Mountain and the Viper (****½)
409: The Watchers on the Wall (*****)
410: The Children (****½)
Forthcoming: Season 5 (March/April 2015)