The fourth season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” confirms the argument for allowing the third book in George R.R. Martin’s massive series to be stretched out over two seasons. Beyond allowing show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss twice the run time to adapt the longest — and best — book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” saga to the small screen, the fourth season avoids the pitfalls that the last two seasons saw in their premieres. After the first season saw the dozens of characters spread out in their own isolated story lines, the premiere episodes of the last two seasons have been more concerned with establishing who the characters are than propelling the plot.
The fourth season ends that tradition, pushing full speed ahead toward what looks to be the darkest season in the series yet.
In the aftermath of the infamous Red Wedding and the apparent end of the War of the Five Kings, new players step up to fill the vacancies left by those factions that are no longer with us. The Lannisters are reunited at King’s Landing just in time for the impending marriage of King Joffery (Jack Gleeson) to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), leaving Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), the new Warden of the North, to contend with the armies of the Greyjoys.
Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) sets her eyes on Meereen, the next on her list of cities to conquer. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) returns to the wall and must fend off accusations of treason while preparing for the impending wildling invasion.
The new standout addition to the cast is the provocative Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), younger brother to the prince of the Southern country of Dorne. Oberyn, a fan favorite from the books, arrives under the official pretense of acting as the Dornish emissary to the royal wedding but doesn’t hesitate to announce his plans to resolve a decade-long grudge he has held against the Lannisters. Oberyn’s playful sarcasm hides a barely contained rage, and the character looks to be one of the few that can actually match Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) for wits.
The first three episodes of the fourth season manage to deliver their own shocking twists, while still developing the numerous story lines “Game of Thrones” juggles, setting up more explosive payoffs for later in the season. Though the war is technically over, Westeros somehow feels even more dangerous. Bandits roam the countryside, wildlings tear across the Northern settlements and, in King’s Landing, characters old and new plan each other’s downfalls. By now, Weiss and Benioff have proven themselves capable of departing from the books to deliver scenes and character moments that surprise fans of the novels as well as fans of the show.
With the added time to flesh out all that occurs in the more than 1,200 pages of “A Storm of Swords,” the most recent season may deliver more shocking moments than any of the show’s seasons to date.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about this new season is how exciting everything seems. The war is over and entire factions have been killed off, yet the show is still finding ways to up the ante.
“Game of Thrones” has always been uncompromising in its brutal portrayal of Martin’s world. The fourth season wastes little time in dwelling on the past and pushes forward with a confident momentum that is unlikely to subside until the finale.