Sunday, 22 June 2014

Game of Thrones: Season 4

In the Seven Kingdoms, the War of the Five Kings is all but over. King Joffrey is poised to marry Lady Margaery Tyrell, placing the bulk of the military power of the continent under his command. Stannis Baratheon persists in his claim to the throne, but his lack of men, ship and gold forces his Hand, Ser Davos Seaworth, to seek allies in unusual places. Meanwhile, the forces of Mance Rayder advance on the critically undermanned Wall, whilst far to the east Daenerys Targaryen seizes the slaver city of Meereen, only to find that holding it will be more difficult than she thought.

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)


AndrewPeterGilfellon said...

I've enjoyed the series, but I've always been iffy on some of the changes they've made. I didn't mind the changes in series one with Khal Drogo and Daenerys, but it seems that of this season they've decided they need more rape.

And I thought Episode 10 did not have the same bang as previous scenes. Does the final scene really have the same lasting image as Series 3 2 or one?

Just imagine how it would have ended with Lady Stoneheart.

latros said...

It's interesting that you liked Episode 9 so much, Adam. I enjoyed watching it, but the more I thought about it afterward, the less powerful the episode became. Things like Ghost just chilling in a room for most of the battle, the constant movement of the elevator, the cliche nature of Ygritte's death, Sam's bizarre lines about manhood.... As a spectacle, it definitely succeeded, but I don't know if it worked as an episode of Game of Thrones.

Funksoul123 said...

It's entertaining, but the series has jumped the shark with the "zombie babies" as far as I'm concerned. Killing off (though minor) characters, who aren't dead in the books, just so the actor doesn't have to be paid in season 5 also gave me the shits.
Sadly, I think the show will finish before the books and we'll be thinking about which ending was better (the book or the show) if George ever finishes.

John Mc said...

Good stuff Adam, thanks.

I'm surprised by your viewpoint on Tyrion. You're not all wrong, but I found him much more sympathetic in the books. On the screen I didn't see any self defense. He hunted his father down for not backing him up on the trial thing. He didn't even give Shae an opportunity to talk. Her betrayal was modest after his treatment of her, too.

In the books, he's driven mad by the news about Tysha. Tywin has committed a truly heinous crime and made Tyrion complicit in it. Even so, Tyrion goes looking for answers as much as vengeance and only kills his father when pressed. In the books, Shae betrays him (he never scorns her in the books) and when he confronts her it becomes clear that she never cared for him. She's manipulated him and used him. Breaking up would be more appropriate than murder, but her witness testimony wasn't exactly a harsh tweet. She played a high stakes game and lost.

I wish all that nuance could have been in the show. The gut punch reveal from Jaime about Tysha. Still, like you said it wouldn't have worked.

BTW, loved the season over all, even though the rape stuff was a real problem.

Samuel. R said...

While I had more problems with the season than you, I thought this was overall a fair review.

I think your paragraph on the bizarre overuse and presentation of sexual violence on the show as compared to the books, contrasted with the shows whitewashing of characters from the books, was very strong and vocalised sentiments I feel very well.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on Bran's part in the finale, which I found baffling and disappointing. I was surprised you didn't mention it in your review.

Anonymous said... think the audience won't remember Tysha three seasons after explaining who she was in Season 1....yet you expect them to remember a coin that Jaqen gave Arya in Season 2? Without further explanation?

And it's circular logic to justify their failure: if they wanted people to remember who Tysha was, it's THEIR fault for not bringing her up more frequently.

Episode 8 has a four minute long scene...four minutes which Tyrion discusses killing beetles; it's an homage to a scene from Kubrikc's "Paths of Glory" - and that's fine, it just only needed 1 or 2 minutes.

I ask: Why not cut that down to 2 minutes, and give 2 minutes for Tyrion to muse to Jaime: "Hey if I'm going to die soon, I wonder whatever happened to my "first" wife, that whore I married; you know, Tysha, the one you set me up with." And then for Jaime to look guilty and mutter that he doesn't remember.

Why are you just accepting the lack of Tysha as something which "had" to happen?

While Brienne did have strong scenes this season I wouldn't go so far as to say she was the best, simply due to what content she had to do.

Overall, episodes 3 to 5 were a bit slow....and not even "bad", like 3 out of 5 as you say...all had at least some good scenes in them and I'm not sure what to change.

The Craster's Keep revisited arc was filler that kind of dragged out - and good filler, in retrospect, maybe we needed to build up Jon a little more (otherwise he wouldn't do anything all season until episode 9). Even so the sexual violence at Craster's could have been described instead of shown and was a bit off-putting for some viewers. Nonetheless the season snapped back into focus with episode 6....

>...I consider the barely three minute Yara Greyjoy scene in episode 6 to just be a relic shoved in from other episodes, not really part of an otherwise great episode.

In retrospect I can sort of justify the Craster's arc, at least on paper....but the Yara and ironborn subplots were UTTERLY sidelined this season. Three minutes of content? Granted they were written and acted as well as could be, within that outline.

Still...they waste so much effort misdirecting the audience and setting up "Yara makes a big speech that she will assault the Dreadfort" in the Season 3 finale....only to see it quickly fizzle out in 3 minutes of screentime? Not to mention how implausible it is to sail from Pyke to the Dreadfort? (We can headcanon that she made a land portage over the Neck, given that the Greyjoys controlled Moat Cailin at the time....but she says "sail round Westeros").

Overall this season suffered from lack of a woman in the writers' room. Ironborn were totally mishandled because they either didn't have the budget or narrative focus for the major ironborn subplots which begin in book 3 and come to dominate book 4.

The Tysha thing was a fiasco though. No, why are you just accepting "well they had to, they haven't mentioned her in three years" (in fact, they have, sporadically) ....when the more obvious complaint is, "why didn't they set up Tysha more in earlier episodes, so they wouldn't have to cut her out?"

Turtle said...

On a related but different subject, will you do a "re-review" of A Dance with Dragons, with spoilers, discussing the book?

Meir Dagan said...

Have wertzone viewers noticed that the Queen of England has been visiting the set. I heard rumours she will have a cameo in season 5.

Caligula_K3 said...

I've always thought that Jaime's confession about Tysha was one of the most contrived moments in the books (at least until Brienne and Shagwell start politely discussing the location of Stark daughters in book four). Although I wish they had spent more time on explaining Tyrion's decision to go to Tywin's chambers, I think it would have been very hard for the show to include the Tysha reveal, even if Tyrion mentioned her in the beetle squashing scene.

This season definitely had a few flaws- the cavalier use of rape, the Wall storyline until the last two episodes, in which everyone just talks about how much the Wildlings are coming ad nauseum. But I thought this was by far the best season of the show. It did a much better job in juggling character storylines by giving characters more time to breath in individual episodes and not trying to tackle ten storylines per episode. And they really did nail many of the big moments from the second half of ASoS, did a great job adapting some of the more boring plotlines from AFFC/ADWD, and nailed Oberyn Martell. Great job, showrunners. Now comes the challenge of adapting A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons... Hopefully they can pull it off and present sexual violence much more thoughtfully.

Ghost said...

I don't understand why they change the scene between Tyrion & Jamie. In the book, they part on bad terms and that makes sense of Tyrion's action later. The brothers parting on good terms just make Tyrion spiteful.
Also I don't understand why people like Oberyn Martell so much. In the book, I thought of him as a hotheaded idiot and, as likable as Pedro Pascal was, that's exactly how he is in the series. Guys, he is someone who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Anonymous said...

I loved the season, but I will agree that Karl was over the top. Still, it was a pleasant relief to see him go so violently - both to end his villainy and to get him off the show. (The actor did a great job, though.)
My favorite episode had to go to #8 though. As awesome as battle at the Wall was (and it was spectacular!), I still keep seeing/hearing Oberyn's battle vs. The Mountain. It is the high point for me. But overall I felt it was the best season yet (and no wonder, Book 3 in my mind was the crown of the series so far!).

Adam, I'm reading The Barrow by Mark Smylie, which is a mature audiences type of fantasy. Have you ever reviewed the Artesia Graphic Novels (from years past) or The Barrow (more recently)? I tried searching on the Wertzone and didn't find anything. If you haven't, I'd give it a recommendation if only to see your take on them. Just a thought.