What makes “Game of Thrones” Work Best: Season 4

Following the events of the Red Wedding, and dependent on the death of Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) in the second episode, many have considered season four to be the conclusion of peak “Game of Thrones.” And like the best of prior seasons, this season was at its best when the technical aspects complement the actual game for the iron throne. 

“The Lion and the Rose,” the episode where Joffrey dies, was already cracking a spot onto my list for best GOT episodes before the Draco Malfoy-esque teenage king finally joined Ned and Rob Stark in death. His death almost forces self-reflection because of how satisfying it is watching arguably the most maligned and aberrant character, rather than an honorable or meritorious character, receive the brutal end of luck. The death was easy to see coming through the foreshadowing of Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), which added to the satisfaction. 

In a less-noticed and written on moment of  “The Lion and the Rose,” Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), when breaking it off with Shae (Sibel Kekilli), is unable to make eye-contact as he labels her no better than a brothel whore. His eyes communicate not just pain but shame, making it easily one of the show’s best performances. 

The next episode, “Breaker of Chains,” features another excellent moment of technical filmmaking. Sam, afraid for Gilly and her child, shelters her at Castle Black, thereby breaking a non-existent code of the Night’s Watch. In one conversation about her safety at the castle, Gilly is skinning a lamb and Sam eventually helps her out with the task. Sam’s worried about the men she is surrounded by—but she is busy skinning literature’s greatest symbol for innocence. The excellent visual is executed via almost claustrophobic medium and close-up POV shots from the side—the kind of shots you’re more likely to see in a Steven Spielberg drama than on primetime television. 

I also appreciated this season’s willingness to incorporate other sub-genres into its fantasy world, most notably, the “wolf and cub” story through Arya’s (Maisie Williams) relationship with The Hound (Rory McCann). This sub-genre wasn’t just valuable for its relief from the snares and plots from every royal blood in Westeros—it also helped reestablish some order to the series, order that was necessary after the absence of rules following the Red Wedding.

The final two episodes, “The Watchers on the Wall” and “The Children,” were, with a few exceptions, two of the finest hours of television to come across my screen. In the greatly anticipated battle for Castle Black, the filmmakers perfectly mix dialogue drama with action choreography. The Lord of the Rings movie series, arguably, botched the balance by giving too much weight to the action and thus drowning the stakes for said action; GOT made no such mistake. Jon’s lover, Ygritte, dying in his arms exemplifies this balance, though not as well as Grenn (Mark Stanley) and the other brothers of the Night’s Watch final stand against the Giant, whom we later learn was the last of his blood. The simultaneous recitation of the oath of the Night’s Watch as the giant tumbles down towards the inner gate at Castle Black, couldn’t be better executed. By hinting at the actual action off screen rather than giving it center frame magnifies their final heroic moment.

The season also features some unfortunate depictions of disability in the final episode. Though hinted at elsewhere, the paralyzed Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) takes control of the “simple-minded” Hodor (Kristian Nairn) to defend the posse from the imposing and almost vampiric white walkers. Bran violates the agency of Hodor and is seen as a hero for it. In other instances, of which I will refrain from further comment, the invented “greyscale” and Tyrion’s dwarfism provide better, though far from being unproblematic, representations of disability.

This season is at its worse when it spends time with Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the brother to the deceased Robert Baratheon, and the Red Priestess. They are a bore compared to Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) drama with The Wildlings or Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) liberation of slaves and acts of retribution. When Stannis is in the frame, with the exception of the finale, the season slows down enough to cut the summer sausage and cheese in time for the next location change.

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