With the passing of Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Homeland’s nosedive, HBO’s Game of Thrones is as close as America has to consensus television. Adapted from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Fire and Ice book series by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones has racked up Emmy’s and Golden Globes, as well as awards that matter, such as the Peabody and Hugo Awards.
To commemorate the end of Season 4, Jeff (of Slazenger1) and I break down the good, the better, and the occasionally bad of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, which premiered on April 6, 2014 and ended on June 15, 2014.
As per the usual, SPOILERS ABOUND. Also, people die. If that’s a spoiler to you, you have no business clicking on a Game of Thrones link. There are, however, NO BOOK SPOILERS beyond what Season 4 of the show covers.
Patches: We both liked Season 4. A lot. And it makes sense given the show hitting its stride and that it was able to draw upon what, in my opinion, was the best book in A Song of Fire and Ice for source material. That’s not to say it was perfect, however. We’ve talked about the good. Now it’s time for the bad. Did anything miss or just not quite work out as GoT intended?
Jeff: Any discussion of something that didn’t work in season 4 has to begin with the rape of Cersei in episode 3, “Breaker of Chains.” Forget the incest angle, we’re past that. Forget that it took place pretty much on top of their dead son. I’m also going to set aside the debate over the ethics of depictions of rape on television (and in this show), something that a lot of people spilled ink about when the episode first aired. The more minor problem I want to bring up is the complete destruction of Jaime Lannister’s redemption arc. They spent an entire season laying low and successfully rehabilitating this awful character only to undo all of it with this one nonsensical action. It’s not like Jaime is all of a sudden the worst again, but whatever identity he had is called into question. I will say that complex shades of gray (no, not that Shades of Gray) are perfect for this Ned Stark-less world, but this character turn just seems wrong. Oh, and the creative team never meant for the scene to be viewed as a rape anyway, so we’re back to the status quo, I guess?
At the risk of preemptively derailing any discussion of the Jaime troubles, I’ll also mention that I wasn’t particularly invested in the Dany storyline this season. Daario NEWharis continued the character’s failure to register and the freedom tour started to feel a little repetitive. Book 5 wasn’t a great one for Dany, and we’re in that section now. Maybe it makes sense that the back half of the season had so much more to do with excitement in Westeros than with Dany. What do you think? Was Jaime’s snake shake at the wake egregious or business as usual? What about Dany? What else didn’t work for you?
Patches: Jeff, thanks for falling on that grenade and being the guy to bring up up the “rape?” scene. It stands head and shoulders as the worst aspect of Season 4. You can’t really “come down” from talking about rape, however, so I’ll shove all my minor complaints elsewhere.
In Part 1, I likened Season 4 to Michael Jordan. If that is true, “Breaker of Chains” was Game of Thrones pushing off Byron Russell before nailing the rest of the season. One scene began with a camera shot working its way up lesbian oral sex. Cool. It’s Game of Thrones. Oberyn is “decadent” or whatever. But there was no purpose to that shot. If that was our introduction to Oberyn, awesome! Perfect! But it wasn’t. His sexual free-spiritedness had already been established. It didn’t do anything other than make the show seem like it was winking at me. “BLEEHH, LESBO CHICKS, AMIRITE?” It just felt too self-aware.
And that rape scene was not good. I’m not the guy who says that rape has no place in film or that you can’t or shouldn’t show it. Jeff, during our discussion, you pondered a double standard for rape outrage on a show that has shown nothing but death, murder, war, and destruction for three straight seasons. You are right. I also didn’t object to the (I’m struggling for a fitting adjective here) scene at Craster’s Keep in the next episode.
The two rape scenes, however, were not equal. The Craster’s Keep scene, while disturbing, intensely difficult to watch, and reeking of more than a little “Shit! Jon’s attacking next episode and we haven’t built up his opponents yet!”, had narrative value. It accomplished things. It set up the remaining Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep as dangerous, evil oathbreakers who needed to fucking die posthaste. It also reminded us that the people sent to the Wall to take the Oath are usually not good dudes. These are the dregs of society, which is important to consider in light of A) Jon rising to lead them in battle later in the season and B) them being Westeros’ only line of defense against the Whitewalkers.
Hideous scene. Important goals accomplished.
What did we get from Jaime raping Cersei? That Westeros isn’t black and white? They could have done that without tearing down all of Season 3’s character development. That people are shit? I could have thrown in a Slipknot cd. It was completely gratuitous and served no narrative purpose. You could have completely removed that scene from the season and literally nothing that came after would need to have been changed.
Jeff, I think you are right that the creative team did not think it was rape. But that just begs the question “Holy fuck, did you guys even watch it?”
Jeff: Right. It seemed like there wasn’t enough oversight on that one. Apart from nitpicks, I don’t really have much more criticism for a season that was arguably as good as season 3.
One thing I noted about halfway through the season was that I felt like we were “missing” characters more this year than any other. I think that’s a product of the source material giving us so many characters to work with and then separating them geographically. We can only spend so much time with certain characters before needing to check in on others. We simply can’t see everyone in every episode and give them satisfactory screen time. With more separation occurring this season, and the world getting larger, I don’t expect this world to close in until the final season (and/or the final book).
That’s the nature of this beast, though. The ensemble is great, and isn’t it fun to know that Asha Greyjoy can show up for just one episode, and disappear again? It’s like have some low-level season one banger show up in season four of The Wire (FYI: I’m not referencing anyone specifically). This world is big, and just because you can’t see everyone doesn’t mean they’re gone or forgotten.
Just to throw this in there, I wish we would’ve seen more scenes of Tywin and his kids. Sure, he got a few, but I don’t feel like anything this season topped what we got in the season three finale.
I feel like I’ve added precious little to the “bad” column, but even pouring over my notes I can’t find much more than “I wish the show made me care more about some of the people dying at the wall,” or “how does the banking system in this world work?” Anything else to add, big or small, or should we move on?
Patches: Great points. It did sometimes feel like we were zipping around Westeros a lot and sometimes the scenes felt like they could have been fleshed out a little bit or that we were just there to be reminded that those characters existed. I think you are correct, however. If we want a sprawling, epic narrative, this is the price we pay. I pay it gladly.
Also, how good is Equilibrium? Just sayin’…
Do I have anything else? There were too many penises in Season 4! To be fair, there should be a lot more penises in this show if they are going to throw boobs around as they do. Like dicks everywhere. It’s just a preference thing, really. Also, since we’re on the subject of sexually explicit missed opportunities, I think Margaery should have held Ser Pounce and then asked Tommen if he wanted to pet this pussy. And then she looks directly at the camera and winks. And then the episode ends with a freeze frame on that wink.
You are right about NEWharis being bad. Other than that, naw. I just wrote a whole paragraph about penises just to take issue with something. This is just a damn good television show and I think we agree that it would be a disservice to the show and our reader(s?) to criticize something just to prove that we can.
I do have one final question to discuss, however. Various writers and commentators (these are just three examples) have labeled Game of Thrones “nihilistic” and “pessimistic.” First, is this true? Is Game of Thrones too dark? Secondly, if so, do you think that’s a bad thing?
Jeff: First, I’ll elaborate slightly on the “zipping around” aspect by saying that I don’t think Season 4 was quite as well-paced as the previous season, which I mentioned in our discussion. I think the various locations of this season felt more disconnected than in any previous one. Part of that is because we’re more spread out than we have been. Another part of that is how insular all of the stories are. Sure, Brienne and Pod meet Arya and the Hound. Yes, Sansa goes to the Eyrie. You’re right, Jon and Bran almost meet and Ygritte and Jon reunite. Oh, and Stannis and Davos go all over the place. Still, there’s not really an epic meetup, nor is there a lot of mid-season movement or crossing over. Something that makes this easier to swallow is the fact that the final 5 episodes of the season may be the strongest run the show has had to date. More on that in the next part.
On to your question. I don’t think Game of Thrones is entirely without hope or happiness, but it sure loves to revel in just how awful everything is. Some would have you believe that Ned Stark was indeed “the one good man in Westeros,” but I think there is plenty of good to be found in characters like Arya, Jon, Dany and even Tyrion. Sure, they’ve done bad things and they’re probably only better than others by comparison, but I think there’s enough “good” there that these characters would be entirely admirable in different circumstances.
That’s the thing, though. The world of GoT is simply terrible. These circumstances require “stooping down” to a more base level, they require cunning, calculation and crime. There might still be room for good men (and women), but they also need to be smart men. They have to play the titular game.
I haven’t brushed up on my Westerosi history, but perhaps the show’s world is in the midst of a low point in the cycle. Winter is coming, after all. It’s a dark time, but who’s to say that this world hasn’t experienced times of happiness and prosperity? Who’s to say they won’t happen again?
Even if GoT is nihilistic, I’m okay with it. Humanity is awful, whether in a “fantasy” world, or in our real world. Any atrocity depicted on GoT has happened (and continues to happen) in real-world history, probably multiple times and on much grander scales. GoT isn’t “too dark” because real life (even if it isn’t my real life specifically) can be even darker.
I think the question worth exploring is why this is “entertainment.” Unfortunately, this is a much larger sociological exploration than I have the time or expertise to get into here. Why do we spend our time (and money) watching plays, television, movies and sporting events when things like rape, murder, public beheadings, terrorism and genocide are constantly occurring in the world around us? More specifically regarding GoT, why do we watch something–and why are we entertained by something–that depicts the very things I just listed above?
I can’t say I watch TV to escape, because my real world is thankfully not “dark and full of terrors.” Do I watch because I’m curious about what a truly awful world looks like? Do I watch because I love swords, sorcery and spectacle? Do I watch because I enjoy television productions that match their ambitions with quality of writing, technique and performance? It’s probably all of this and more. I don’t consider myself a nihilist and I don’t closely relate to any of Game of Thrones’ characters, yet I’m still utterly fascinated by their lives within the complex world of the TV series.
I’ve gone on far too long and said far too little, I’m afraid. Ultimately, I don’t think we can make a fully-informed judgment about the overall nature of the series until it has concluded. Does anyone watching truly expect that the series is going to end with the most downbeat of downer endings? Maybe, because after all, a lot of people took issue with “the light winning” in a certain other dark HBO drama. If GoT is dark until the end it’s just the show finding another effective way to shock us and subvert our expectations of what “fantasy” should be, which is praiseworthy in some way. Until we reach the end, I have no problem with the overt darkness of the show.