Seasons 4 and 5 are coming packaged together thanks for being sandwiched between a very busy time at my day job (which pays the HBO bill) and a trip to Montréal. This actually kind of works out for analytical purposes. Seasons 1-3 represent the early years of the show when it was still in expansion mode, adhering most closely to the letter of the books, and proving its worth both as an adaptation, a critical hit, and a television event, culminating in the shocking Red Wedding. Seasons 6-8, as we’ll see, represent the show firmly in its end game, firmly established as a modern classic and working towards its conclusion well beyond the territory mapped out by the books (if not entirely by Martin’s outlines). Seasons 4 and 5, then, are the at times problematic middle children beginning the transition of the story from a pure adaptation into an autonomous narrative in its own right. For all their ethical and aesthetic issues, with season 5 in particular, both seasons maintain the high quality that the show manages pretty much across the board.
Season 4 was interesting to rewatch for me, personally. Despite being one of the more popular and well-regarded seasons, it might be the one I remembered least. I’m sure I had seen seasons 1-3 a few times, and seasons 5-7 aired more recently. According to the air dates season 4 was premiering during the time that I was transitioning jobs and thrilling though the season was it consequently fell a bit through the cracks for me. It was great to revisit with a certain freshness and distance combined with the knowledge of where the story will lead.
- Watching in close proximity to the rest of the series, it’s striking how much the King’s Landing plots and characters (especially the Lannisters) dominate season 4. With the unofficial end of the War of the Five Kings at the end of season three — with Robb’s death, the Greyjoys effectively marginalized, and Stannis’ attentions turning North — there is a noticeable drop in military campaigning and a concurrent uptick in backdoor politicking and scheming among the royals. In fact there is a slight throwback to season 1 with Joffrey’s death providing the season with a murder-mystery arc for the first half followed by the courtroom drama of Tyrion’s trial in the second half. This narrowed focus signals the beginning of the show’s contraction period. We’re not actually working toward the end-game yet but have introduced most of the shows Big Ideas and Characters. To quote Gandalf, “The board is set, and the pieces are moving.”
- Perhaps the most significant new player of season 4, though even he revolves around the various Lannisters, is the Dornish hotshot Oberyn Martell. If Oberyn was a fan-favorite from Martin’s books then the casting of Pedro Pascal cemented his status as an icon and of the great characters of the show, made even more fascinating and beloved for the briefness of his tenure. Played with a perfectly-mixed cocktail of Latino passion, flamboyant sex appeal, and quiet intelligence, Pascal’s Oberyn recalls a darker, more twisted version of The Princess Bride’s vengeance-seeking Spaniard Inigo Montoya yet remains entirely unique. He bursts into the story seemingly from nowhere, demanding justice for crimes long past, and yet the necessary exposition never feels like a distraction from the main story (something that will become a problem for the Dornish plots of future seasons). No, Oberyn feels like a fully-realized character and representative of a culture new to the audience but existing in its own right. As Bronn will say in season 5, “The Dornish are crazy,” and yet no other Dornish characters ever quite reach the hedonistic, impulsive, and charismatic heights of Oberyn. The character is so well-crafted that one never notices the pieces of the plot machine clicking into terrible place. The way Oberyn’s thirst for vengeance against the Mountain dovetails perfectly with Tyrion’s desperate need for a champion feels so inevitable and right and it’s not until Oberyn is being knocked to the ground that it occurs to you that even he is not above the cruel fates of this world. Like Robb, Oberyn’s death is infuriating for having been avoidable. Tyrion’s face at Oberyn’s bitter end speaks for us all. He had it, until he didn’t. Brief appearance and untimely death aside, Oberyn makes such a strong impression that he largely becomes synonymous with season 4.
- Following the carnage of the Red Wedding so closely with another fatal nuptial event demonstrates Martin’s talent for surprisingness, and Benioff & Weiss were smart to keep on schedule and place Joffrey’s death at the beginning of the season, tempting though it must have been to shift it back to become yet another big, season-culminating death. Though Joffrey is hated and Oberyn beloved, the loss of Jack Gleeson’s petulant and sadistic villain is unquestionably the bigger sea change for the story. The lack of consequences for Joff’s increasing cruelty by this point seems like as good a bullet-proof shield as any in the story. There is even an effort to throw the book-reading audience off the scent here, as the episode summary describes Margaery and Joffrey’s “breakfast” rather than their wedding. Comprising half of the total episode, the Purple Wedding is an exercise is in tension-building, a carefully crafted and directed series of awkward character interactions and mounting anxiety. The attention to prop details with small but significant necklaces and cups and swords and such is only fully appreciable on rewatch. That something dreadful will happen is beyond question. The twist is that, for once, Joffrey is the victim rather than the perpetrator. The result is profound. Gleeson’s Joffrey is the best pure villain in the both the novels and the series, but even as he deserves his brutal fate the very pathetic nature of it reminds you that even he is just a human being, and a very young one at that.
- Though he spends much of it in a prison cell, season 4 is another great season for Tyrion. My friend Kate pointed out on facebook that his series of “prison chats” with Pod, Jaime, Bronn, and Oberyn were some of the finest written and acted of the series and she’s absolutely right. There is something touching about each of them as Tyrion appeals to each of his closest friends and allies for help, and devastating as we slowly realize that none of them can help him. Pod is sent away for his own safety and as a reward for his devotion; Jaime loves his brother and does what he can to help him but unfortunately is equally loyal to the other members of his family; Bronn, practical survivalist as always, admits that he likes Tyrion very much. He just “likes himself more.” It’s only Oberyn who lays everything on the line to stand as Tyrion’s champion, a rare heroic moment that absolutely gave me chills. While motivated by self-interest and no special affection for Tyrion himself, there nevertheless is a connection between the two and we get a sense of Oberyn’s empathy for this one good Lannister. He recalls a story of Cersei’s enduring hatred for her brother, proving Tyrion’s point that he’s been on trial for his very existence his entire life. “That’s not a monster,” little Oberyn told Cersei. “That’s just a baby.” Tyrion’s relief and gratitude shows on Dinklage’s face as clearly as his pain and rage during the trial. In such a cruel world, a little compassion goes a long way. The idea that the real monsters are those without compassion is articulated by that most marginalized of “others.” The cruelty of fate is also addressed in his final chat with Jaime, the beloved beetle-smashing talk. The characters come to no conclusions about “what it’s all about,” which is fitting enough for such a metafictional meditation, but it’s no coincidence that this scene happens at the very centerpoint of the story. “What is it all about?” is an appropriate question at the center, and the charges of nihilism and pointless brutality are clearly not lost on Benioff & Weiss, even as they continue to smash their little beetles.
- Hey, there are other plots than those in King’s Landing. Arya and Sansa continue to develop in parallel. Both end up with a somewhat ambiguous mentor/protector and start to take more control of their lives. There’s a lovely symmetry as Arya recovers her sword Needle in her travels with one of the great fighters of Westeros while Sansa continues to learn the arts of acting and deception from one of Westeros’ great liars, accompanied in one of her final scenes by her sewing needle. It’s hard to pick which is the more powerful image: Arya finally taking ship into the East to train in Braavos (the home of her two greatest mentors, Syrio and Jaqen) or Sansa descending the stairs of the Eyrie in a dress of her own making looking like freaking boss. That they end the season in these comparatively empowered places is only slightly dampened by the near-miss of their reunion, and made even more excusable for Arya’s hilarious (if worryingly desensitized) reaction to the news of Lysa’s death. Arya and Sansa continue to have two of the best character arcs of the series, only strengthened by their double-acts with two of the story’s most enigmatic and fascinating characters in the Hound and Littlefinger.
- The final fight for who gets to love and protect Arya more — the Hound or Brienne — is as sweet as it is brutal and one of those classic GoT moments where you’re not sure who to root for. The fight choreography which starts as a fairly straightforward duel between two of the story’s most powerful fighters and descends into a vicious and unscrupulous mess of hair-pulling, ear-biting, and groin-kicking ranks as one of the more memorable scraps for its antiheroic realism.
- There’s much less Ramsay and Theon/Reek this season, but the increased psychological component combined with the more limited screen-time make the three episodes they appear in somehow weightier while still being effectively disturbing. The twitchiness and unfocused stare of Allen’s performance do a lot to communicate his physical and emotional trauma, something that becomes especially important as the show inevitably scales back the visible physical damage. The scenes where he has to pretend to be Theon Greyjoy with Reek’s barely-suppressed persona just inches below the surface is particularly subtle. Ramsay’s need for his father’s approval makes him a slightly more pedestrian villain this season, although the absolute confidence Rheon displays in the shaving scene effectively displays his terrifyingly implacability. With Joffrey gone he gets an easy promotion to the show’s most hateful character.
- Oh, Bran. Last time I mentioned loving the Bran chapters of the book which demonstrates how much mystery and symbolism Martin was able to wring out of his changing perspective. Bran’s journey is the most highly internal, which works far better on screen. Season 4 adds a Craster’s Keep detour to keep Bran and the Reeds busy for a few episodes and still manages to catch up to Bran’s A Dance with Dragons storyline by the end of the season, necessitating a Season 5 hiatus for the characters. Perhaps a better way could have been found but Bran just isn’t Benioff & Weiss’ strength, a notion that unfortunately supports Jason Concepcion’s charge against D&D that they are a little ashamed of the story’s fantasy legacy. While the Hammer Horroresque zombie skeletons could the quibbled with, the pixie-like and evocatively primitive Children of the Forest is well done and the weirdness of the Three Eyed Raven himself — especially his wondrous pronouncement that Bran “will never walk again but [he] will fly” — are extremely well-designed and executed, but frustratingly brief. One wonders what other writers, perhaps inspired by a more compelling young actor, would have done with Bran in this section of the story.
- Looking back it’s also strange to realize how little time poor, doomed Jon and Ygritte had together. There’s the barbed flirtations in Season 2, the full flowering of their union in Season 3, followed by full separation through Season 4. Ygritte in particular suffers for this. Devoid of Jon’s larger significance to the overarching story, but necessitating screen-time in order to keep her engaged until the final battle, she is unfortunately relegated to Wildling raiding parties and bitter threats. She’s done justice in the superbly-orchestrated “Waters on the Wall” and her death is gut-wrenching and moving, but one can’t help feel an unfortunate sense of the character marking time until her death, another example of the occasional awkwardness of book to film translation.
- On the subject of “Watchers on the Wall”: Wowzers, that scene of Grenn and co. chanting the words of the Night’s Watch while holding the gate against the giant is fantastically well-done. One of the great moment of pure, true, uncomplicated courage the series ever offers.
- Also converging on the wall is Team Stannis. His homespun wisdom and quiet steadfastness don’t always distinguish Davos as one of my favorites, but damn if Liam Cunningham’s performance doesn’t rank Davos among the great and dare I say most necessary of Game of Thrones many characters. In a vast and varied orchestra, he hits notes that no one else does; the show’s embodiment of decency and common-sense while balancing Stannis’ stoic rigidity with quick-witted but unpretentious humor. He’s great, and he and Shireen together are even better.
- Speaking of Shireen, the amount of foreshadowing concerning her character is unbelievable. Melisandre insists that she come North while going on about flames and king’s blood as usual. These writers are masters of misdirection. I remember the shocking reveal of Season 5: None of us saw it coming despite everything broadcasting her intention. Perhaps the charisma of Davos Seaworth is so strong that it seems impossible that he might not stop Stannis from making the most unforgivable choice. Perhaps we think that anyone who trusts Davos can’t be that bad. Perhaps we’re just so used to Melisandre’s violence and fanaticism that, like many other shocking things in this world, we stop paying attention.
Season 5 certainly has glaring problems, and I’ll go through some of them, but perhaps its biggest problem is that it’s not that much fun. I wouldn’t necessarily call this it’s most damning problem: Certainly Sansa’s storyline, to take just one example, is far more troubling from the perspective of how women are represented on screen and in stories. But like everything else Game of Thrones has always had its share of flaws, sins, and oversights. These may become more frequent in Season 5 due to a number of factors: the novelty of the show’s popularity beginning to fade, the writers beginning to tire, the danger of moving beyond the blueprint laid out in the novels, etc. What makes these growing pains most glaring is that the season as a whole is a rather dour affair. Infamous for its depressing brutality, Game of Thrones (and by extension Martin, Benioff & Weiss) don’t get enough credit for their humor — the way the novels and perhaps even more so the series undercuts and leavens the high, epic seriousness and political intrigue with solid, character-based comedy. I’ve tried to highlight this throughout my recaps and it’s certainly been apparent to me on rewatch. Season 5 is the one that, frankly, has the fewest laughs and that makes its imperfections just a bit more grating. But, look: This is the show in transition, combining two very imperfect books into one season of TV in order to prepare the story for its next phase in which it will strike out on its own through untrodden territory toward that most elusive of television destinations — a satisfying ending. This was always going to be the hardest season to nail, the one they have to just “get through” before they could start on the fun stuff. I have to appreciate the difficulty of their task and feel that they maintained the high standard of quality even if they made serious mistakes that deserve to be called out and acknowledged.
- As go the characters, so goes the audience, and nobody is in a good place in this season (even more than usual). Dany’s dragons are either wild and missing or chained in a dungeon. Tyrion starts off depressed and drinking. Margaery gets a bit too cocky in her newfound queenhood and finds herself and her brother persecuted by Cersei. Jaime is sent off on a lame side-mission to Dorne. Arya deals with mind-games and exercises in self-denial Braavos. Tension and insurrection brew at the Wall. Stannis’ army starves while the Boltons thrive in the relative comfort of Winterfell. Brienne spends the season watching for a candle not burn. Sansa and Theon… well, we’ll get to them. The final shot of the murdered Jon Snow is appropriate: This is one of the only seasons to end on a final image of defeat and death rather than triumph and magical rebirth, the only others being Sam watching the Army of the Dead pass in Season 2 and the fall of the Wall in Season 7. Even those, however, are reminders of the existential threat crashing from the fringes into the center of the world. They are a premonition of death as something still abstract. Only Season 5 ends on a specifically personal, character-driven failure: Jon Snow’s shocked face after the betrayal of his men. And yet that, too, is a misdirection. Jon, as book and show folks alike knew almost immediately, as Sam says, “always comes back.” Season 5 can be a slog but it’s a necessary one. The darkness before the dawn, the putrefaction before before cleansing and rebirth.
- Episode 6, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is certainly the worst offender and the most compelling piece of evidence if you want to make the case that the writers are not entirely in control of the darkness on their show. The desire to include Sansa in the main action by having Littlefinger marry her off to Ramsay Bolton makes sense on paper and yet frustratingly sets her character development back more than is necessary. I don’t think they quite realized what an impact the glorious moment of seeing her descend the steps of the Eyrie, looking sleek and smoking hot with black hair and dress had on the audience. We were ready for for her to move on. Perhaps if she’d had more time learning to play the game with Littlefinger the regression would have seemed less jarring, but just a few episodes into Season 5 she’s washing the dye from her hair and being married off to yet another unwelcome suitor. Questionable plot maneuvers aside, a few poorly chosen details make the whole thing close to unforgivably ill-conceived: Littlefinger’s uncharacteristic thickness regarding Ramsay and the ease with which he abandons his most valuable pawn to the mercy of the violent Boltons; and especially the choice to focus on Theon’s suffering during Sansa’s rape. Though understandably done to spare the young actress discomfort, the whole thing just displays a tone-deafness to its 2015 audience.
- That said, Sansa and Theon are predictably great together and their eventual alliance almost ends up retroactively justifying the whole thing, in theory if not in its specific executions. The false starts of Theon’s redemption prefigure later, similar moments in Season 7 where we see the struggle of a man potentially too scarred to move on from his own trauma. He wants redemption, but even this is twisted by Ramsay: Theon rats Sansa out to Ramsay in order to save her from the inevitable punishment should she try to escape. To Sansa’s credit, at least her awful experiences have fortified her with a far stronger moral character than Theon, and the way she badgers and bullies him into waking up and coming back to himself is a great stride forward for Sansa. In her continued position of powerlessness she gives strength and clarity to someone else. In the past fear kept her from making bold choices even to save herself – think of her rejecting the Hound’s offer of escape. Here, invigorated by the return to her homeland, Sansa finally chooses autonomy over mere safety. Like Littlefinger always tells her, there are no great victories without great risk. Sansa and Theon’s journey from “I’m not touching you” to unified hand-holding before their desperate plunge is nicely and subtly done. Although it has to be said: There should haven been, like, twenty more feet of snow up that wall.
- Let’s get the Sand Snakes out of the way since they’re also at their worst in Episode 6. Why is the Dornish plot so lame? It has a certain exotic intrigue in the books, but in the show it feels like an unnecessary expansion of the world at a time when the show’s natural inclination is to begin to contract. In their introduction, there is nothing about the Sand Snakes to tell us these are mythic characters. They rely too heavily on the tropes that identified Oberyn, from their clothes to their accents, weaponry, and even their revenge motives. They stand around in the sand monologuing about their desire for vengeance but there’s no atmosphere, not even any music to back them up. They are merely younger, less impressive, more two-dimensional versions of Oberyn. I remember being super excited to see these characters in all their ass-kicking glory. The disappointment of their reality, and especially the ho-hum centerpiece fight with Jaime and Bronn, stung. In fact, nothing in the Dorne plot really works. Bronn’s poisoning which doesn’t go anywhere and is ultimately ignored in favor of a comedy punch kind of encapsulates the whole thing. As the one storyline that tries for some level of levity it’s telling that it falls flat in Season 5.
- I’m not at all sure that Tyrion is as great a character once he actually does away with his father, but there are some good moments, especially the scene where he and Jorah sail through the ruined Valyria reciting poetry. The poetry’s story about the doom and destruction of this great city juxtaposed with the magnificent sight of a magically reborn dragon sailing through the smoke and the clouds is a great film moment, as is Tyrion — the show’s great rational skeptic — finally being confronted with the mythic.
- On the other hand, the fact that these two white guy heroes are taken as slaves by a group of dark-skinned black slavers is not great.
- Everything up North is excruciating in its inevitability. I know a lot of folks hate Olly but come on. The kid saw his family butchered and cannibalized for crying out loud, and now Jon cheerfully talks about making an alliance with the Wildlings and giving them land to work. The consistency with which the camera subtly tracks Olly’s evolving attitudes toward Jon through the season is a terribly well-executed slow-burn.
- Also slowly burning (and sorry for the unforgivable pun) is the Stannis and Shireen plot. As I said above, the clues were all there whether we wanted to see them or not. Shireen was saved from almost certain death as a baby only to be sacrificed by the same father who once loved and rescued her. I’m not quite sure what to make of the writers deliberately emphasizing his love for her just an episode prior to his terrible decision. Is it just to make us hate him more? Perhaps it demonstrates that love can’t be taken for granted; it must be continually demonstrated anew. A new and even more senseless evil has come to claim his daughter but this time Stannis refuses to heed his conscience, his loyalty, his principles — all the things that are supposed to make him a better king than anyone else. He sacrifices them for power and in the pursuit of power loses everything that would have made it worth having. His pathetic ending, abandoned by his men and Melisandre and marching through the (still too scarce) snow towards certain defeat because there is nothing left to do is about as fitting an end for him as I can think of. His flaw was always a lack of connection and empathy for other people. In the end, he didn’t care for them and they in return didn’t care for him.
- Switching back over to Jon, the thing that’s so great about “Hardhome” is its unexpectedness. It was a major battle not taken from the books and as such was always going to have a certain excitement new to the show at this point. But even in the execution of the episode and the season, there’s nothing telling you that a big battle is coming. Instead of the “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall” that build over episodes, “Hardhome” just smacks into the story without warning, and my memory suggests that the marketing played along with this. This is yet another of Season 5’s colossal defeats. Jon and company barely escape with their lives only to watch the Night King’s army grow exponentially. The silence and visual impact of this ending is what film does well. The notion of the dead twitching, blinking, and then slowly and calmly rising is what fantasy does well. “Hardhome” is Game of Thrones, as both a fantasy story and a television series, at its best.
- It’s tempting to finish there but the season in some ways really begins and ends with Cersei so let’s give the Queen Regent – or Queen Mother – or is it Dowager Queen? – her due. I probably haven’t talked enough about Lena Heady in these posts and that’s a real discredit to her incredible performance. She’s one of those ones who you forget to count among the greats because she becomes so inseparable with her character. She projects a majesty, a menace, and even a height that are only tricks of the acting trade. To watch her orchestrate her own downfall, ascending to the giddy heights of power backed by the bare-footed faith militant only to be cast down to her admittedly rightful place among the lowest and most vile of sinners is confusingly satisfying and horrible. In a season where the gender politics have often been awkward, one can’t help feeling that no one, not even Cersei, deserves that uncomfortably long and disgusting walk of shame, and yet here I feel as though the show understands the gravity of what it’s doing. Like the loss of Jaime’s hand this is a moment of empathy for the audience: the opportunity to feel for Cersei. Though Cersei’s humiliation doesn’t spur her to the kind of compassion is starts to create in Jaime there’s still the poignancy of a missed opportunity. Having already lost Joffrey but unaware that she’s already lost Myrcella, pursued by the Macbethian prophecy we saw back in the season’s cold open flashback, Cersei’s new resolve really marks beginning of the end for herself for the entire story.