Game of Thrones Season 4 Review: The Seasoned Fantasy Series You’ve Been Waiting For

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Ten episodes and more than a few major character deaths later, Season 4 of Game of Thrones has come to a close. It was a wild ride that, ultimately, felt more cohesive and complete than Season 3.

Probably because Season 4 adapted the second half of A Storm of Swords, this season was able to more satisfyingly finish this chapter in the characters’ lives than last season. The overall trajectory felt more familiar to the superior first and second seasons.

But to say Season 4 is worse than the first two is hardly a criticism. In its own right, this batch of episodes showed as a more seasoned and confident show.

Coming off of the Red Wedding, Westeros has a ton of new dynamics to play with. The pilot introduced us to the Stark family as heroes. Now they are scattered and mostly beaten. But those remaining, Arya, Sansa, Bran, and Jon Snow, took larger steps toward a possible victory in the probably very far future.

Going through the various characters we jumped to throughout the season, Arya’s travels with the Hound was the most consistently rewarding story we got this season. Nowhere near any of her family members, the Hound plans to take her to the Vale, where her aunt resides. But along the way, Arya has so many strong moments of growth. She gets Needle back, fights alongside the Hound, and essentially becomes much more mature and dangerous.

The finale brought together this story and Brienne’s travels with Podrick to find Sansa Stark. This pairing’s scenes sprinkled throughout the season brought on some much needed comedic relief. But their meeting with Arya and the Hound proved to be a fateful encounter. Giving us the best one-on-one fight of the season, Brienne just barely takes down the Hound. Arya, having traveled with him for almost two full seasons now, leaves him to die after he begs her to kill him. That’s a cold way to cross a name off of her list, if the Hound is really dead that is.

That said, Arya’s storyline was hardly what held the season together, it just featured a lot of the season’s best character development.

No, Season 4 was instantly memorable when the show’s bratty main villain, Joffrey, was killed in the second episode, The Lion and the Rose. King’s Landing was, as usual, the center stage for this season of Thrones, as it features the largest collection of main characters. Much of the season revolved around the aftermath of Joffrey’s death, which put Tyrion wrongfully in jail and finally got Sansa out of King’s Landing.

Let’s start with the latter. Sansa has been the Lannister’s long-lasting revenge on the Starks since the end of Season 1. With Littlefinger revealed to be the true culprit behind Joffrey’s death, he takes his one true love’s daughter to safety (well, at least safer than King’s Landing). Escaping to the Vale, Sansa’s overall arc was suddenly very refreshing. Plus, Littlefinger got more to do, which is always a good thing. His manipulation of Sansa’s aunt was great to watch as well, ultimately leading him to kick her down that hole when she threatens Sansa. That last shot of Sansa in The Mountain and the Viper was powerful, giving her, like Arya, a potentially bright future.

The rest of the events reacting to Joffrey’s death took place in King’s Landing for the most part. Tyrion’s trial was the acting highlight of the season, with Peter Dinklage once again securing his Emmy nomination. Being betrayed by Shae and his family, Tyrion finally says what he’s been waiting to say to his father and the people of King’s Landing all of his life. He demands a trial by combat. Cersei courts the Mountain, the hulking brother of the Hound. Jaime and Bronn are both unable to fight for Tyrion, but a new face may just be able to help.

Prince Oberyn Martell, played deliciously by the charismatic Pedro Pascal, became the most notable new face in Season 4. However, the emphasis on his character in early episodes seems a bit wasted considering his fate in the trial. Pascal was magnetic as the Red Viper, but it ultimately felt like fan service for those who read the books, where I’m sure Oberyn was much more fleshed out and significant. It was a rare thread where Game of Thrones suffered in trying to please everyone and not jut making a cohesive adaptation of this lengthy series. His fight with the Mountain was exciting, but the drama we were meant to buy into felt undeserved.

But the smaller scenes at King’s Landing, namely between Tyrion and Jaime, more than made up for the shortcomings of some newer characters. It all culminated, of course, in Jaime freeing Tyrion in the finale, saving his brother from certain death. On his way out of the city, Tyrion gets to enact some shocking revenge. First, he kills Shae, the woman he loved who betrayed him with cold lies. Then, he murders Tywin, the father that could never truly love an imp. While Tywin’s death is well-deserved and a fantastic moment for Tyrion, I do wonder who can take up the mantle as the series’ main villain, with both he and Joffrey now dead.

One subplot here that seemed to spark some controversy this season was the incestuous romance between Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Having not been on screen together since Season 1, the pair have evolved separately. In the beginning, incest seemed to define them. Now we know much more about them, but the incest is still there. Does it really have a place in the show now? Was the rape scene really necessary? Whatever the show’s endgame may be, it would do well it somehow explain why these scenes are important or just do away with them completely.

Moving away from King’s Landing, the other major events of the season took place around the wall. With Jon Snow and Samwell now reunited with the Nightswatch and the wildlings on the way, Season 4 was mostly a slow build to the battle in The Watchers on the Wall that capped this storyline. There was tons of action, as Ygritte and the wildlings slaughtered villages and Jon lead the Nightwatch on a mission over the wall that almost led him right to Bran.

Speaking of Bran, his journey has been a slow one. Two of his biggest scenes in the past two seasons have brought him irritatingly close to meeting up with Jon and then not delivering. But the way Bran, as well as the show, is using Hodor is fantastic. The action scene in the finale with the skeletons was a real rush. Now that they’ve reached the tree, hopefully Bran can continue developing in a way Arya and Sansa have been.

Back at the wall, the continued relationship between Samwell and Gilly was a snooze, lacking the fiery chemistry that Jon Snow and Ygritte shared in Season 3.

But the big set piece of the season, the battle at the wall, was a real treat. Featuring giants and wooly mammoths, the wildlings’ assault on Castle Black didn’t quite measure of to the series’ best episode Blackwater, but was a ton of fun and also featured the incredibly depressing death of Ygritte.

After the first part of the battle, which took up all of the excellent The Watchers on the Wall, the crows are rescued by Stannis and his army. After spending much of the season wheel-spinning, Stannis finally felt important to the story again and joined up with Jon Snow for the war coming from the North. Who else can’t wait to see what comes of this in Season 5?

The remainder of the characters really didn’t have much to do with the overall story of the season, just chugging along their story arcs for whatever inevitable conclusion may come their way.

Theon, I will say, deserves a “Most Improved” sticker on Season 4. After a repetitive, boring storyline in Season 3, Theon has fully transformed into Reek, being a pawn of the twisted Ramsay Snow. It was one of the most chilling, and surprisingly successful threads of the season. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Theon’s future is one of the most potentially exciting things about the future seasons.

Meanwhile, Daenerys seems to have fallen quickly to one of the least interesting characters to follow. The first part of the season shows her doing more of what she did last season: free slaves. Finally, she becomes Queen of Meereen, which forces her to act like a queen. These scenes were occasionally interesting, but it’d be nice if she just attacked King’s Landing already. Speaking of boring, the will-they-won’t they she and Daario Naharis have is totally forced. What’s more interesting is how she’s losing control of her dragons. The second most powerful scene of her story this season was in the finale, where she had to lock up two of her three dragons.

The first most powerful scene, however, was her banishment of Jorah Mormont. Who didn’t feel for the man who’s been putting his heart forward to Daenerys for four seasons? Obviously this won’t be the end of Jorah, but we’ll see if his future has anything to do with the Mother of Dragons.

So, what a season, huh? The characters may all be separate, but the show somehow still strings them together to make a startlingly ambitious TV series. Game of Thrones will never achieve the perfection of say Breaking Bad, but if this season proved anything, it’s that the show’s slow bits are more than made up for when you take a step back and realize the full scale of what they’ve done. There’s never been anything quite like Thrones on TV before, and anything else that tries it will likely be cheap impostors. We’ll see you next spring for more winter. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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