“Game of Thrones” Season 4 (2014): Where Adaptations Go (Review)

Let’s get this out of the way.  I am calling the fourth season of Game of Thrones an overall failure and a disappointment.  As usual, there will be no book spoilers, but I will be talking openly about everything that happened in the show – including some differences from the book, so if you are not caught up, you probably shouldn’t be reading this.

The last thing I want you thinking is that the words written here are the ramblings of an obsessive purist and stickler of keen detail – the kind who can never be happy with anything.

Purism is a bad attitude, a self-inflicted creativity block that accomplishes nothing but to make the viewer miserable and cynical.  Per my reviews of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and RoboCop (2014), I prefer to judge a subject based on its execution of ideas, substance, and treatment of mythos, as opposed to its fidelity.  A good movie that departs significantly from its origins is always preferable to a bad movie that copy-pastes the entirety of it to the silver screen (looking at you, Twilight).

There’s no objective calculus involving translation of book to film.  Creator intent is the key.  If they want to just take a character like Batman and make their own movie out of him, they’re not obligated to adapt any storyline.  They can do and change whatever they want, and the result should be criticized on its own terms.

Yet if the creators are committed to actually adapting a series, with its characters, world, history, conflicts, events, etc. in my opinion there’s just one general rule.  The adaptation must capture the spirit of the material.  It must heed to the larger generalized principles and themes – the broad strokes of the original creation.  “What kind of story is it trying to tell?” is the central question.

For good or ill, Game of Thrones is, by that definition, an adaptation.  As such, while it can certainly go its own way, it remains forever tied to the literature from which it sprung so long as the intent to tell the same basic story remains.

The medium itself necessitates some changes too.  The original creation already exists and is still there, but adaptations seek to directly visualize and transcend it.  When it works, it can astonish and completely change how you perceive something.  It’s not simply by chance that I would be incapable of reading The Godfather and not picture the face and voice of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone.

Here, the employed medium is television, which is – as author Brett Martin said – “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.”  Two decades ago, nothing even resembling Game of Thrones would have been thought possible.  Television not only offers the advantage of time to tell a larger and open-ended story that a film can’t, it remains (as it always was) a public event.  A ubiquitous show – like a football game – is now a collective emotional journey that millions of people take together, talk about online or by the coffee machine at work, and plan their schedules around.

Let me put you in the mood for this critique.  Take a listen to this fantastic little number by Miracle of Sound.

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As you can see, Game of Thrones has conquered the landscape of television.  It has passed The Sopranos in ratings, crashed HBO Go several times, and is the most pirated show ever. Modern meme/YouTube instant mass reaction culture has gone so berserk with it that it’s sure to typify contemporary zeitgeist.  And for a while, this show deserved it because it really was that good.  If you’re going to adapt a series with this kind of violence, sex, grime, and vulgarity, you could do a lot worse than the network that gave us Band of Brothers.

The failure of Game of Thrones this year, as both a TV adaptation and a serial drama, is where the spiritual betrayals of source material, the open-endedness of television, mass ubiquity, and sloppy storytelling in general collide.  And given the evolution and newfound importance of the medium, that failure matters.

The Good Stuff

The season started strong with the first two episodes.  The reforging of Ice and the burning of the wolf pelt with the smug look on Tywin Lannister’s face was the perfect prologue.  Oberyn Martell’s introduction and interactions with Tyrion were terrific, and Jon Snow’s hearing about his actions in front of a tribunal was an apt political allegory.  The Purple Wedding was one of the best and sneakiest events of the show, even if they omitted one detail that would have answered a big question about a certain event that happened in the first season.

Later, Tywin’s grandfatherly instruction on what defines a good king was touching.  There’s a moment of nerve-wracking adolescent intimacy between Margaery and Tommen in Oathkeeper in which director Michelle MacLaren brought the same subtlety and steadiness she brought to Breaking Bad.  Stannis’ visit to the Iron Bank of Braavos was a great and necessary character deviation (and Braavos looks fantastic).  Tyrion’s trial was perhaps the single best standalone sequence of the show and featured the best acting by Peter Dinklage in his entire run on the character.

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And of course, there was The Watchers on the Wall.  Take note, purists: the single best and most functional character arc in all of Season 4 was that of Samwell Tarly. It was a massive deviation from the books but it worked.

So it wasn’t all bad.  Some small essence of what made the previous seasons excellent remains.  The less good moments of Season 4 do not take away from what worked in it.  They just keep the list of good things from being longer.

Structure

Let’s start with the overhanging problem.  This is not just another season.  Season 4 was to feature the biggest and most climactic events that the show had spent a good three years building up to.  The remainder of A Storm of Swords following the Red Wedding is the mid-climax of the entire series – a whirlwind of conflict escalation, chaos, and destruction that leaves Westeros devastated, wherein which the next two books are all about picking up the pieces as the game of thrones continues, and building to new conflicts.  That should have been clear when Joffrey died in the second episode.

The open-endedness of television as well has been a boon to Game of Thrones, for it allowed each season to build upon itself and for the character arcs to sprawl out the way they do in the books.  When it comes to the turmoil in King’s Landing, each season initiated it by having a new character arrive in the capital – a new personality with his/her own agenda that would be fun or interesting to watch navigate the political landscape.  In the first season, that person was Eddard Stark.  In the second it was Tyrion.  Then came Olenna Tyrell.  And in this season, it was Prince Oberyn Martell.  That was a good approach, for it would set the tone for the season, at least in terms of what would happen in the capital.  And it was also partially the reason why this season had such a strong start.

Unfortunately, the momentum generated immediately grinded to a halt after the Purple Wedding.  The creators consciously decided to slow down the entire story, kill time, and have maybe one important-ish thing happen in each episode until the final two.  More often than not, that singular development would happen at the end of the respective episode, as if nearly a full slow hour of nothing would pass only for the creators to panic and rush the big sequence in the final few minutes, like breaking out defibrillation paddles after bleeding a patient dry.  With the sole exception of Tyrion’s trial, the result was a middle act that was almost entirely void of any kind of action.

In short, what the creators did was reshape the story to fit their structure instead of reshaping the structure to fit the story.

Everyone knows the seasons climax in the ninth episode and that everything before would just be a slow build.  But in the previous builds characters actually got somewhere.  In Season 1, Ned Stark first deals with Bran’s fall, then the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death, then the tourney of the Hand, then the Targaryen girl, then the altercation with Jaime, then the atrocity by Gregor Clegane, then Robert’s death, and then his own imprisonment.  In Season 3, Daenerys is first saved by Barriston Selmy.  Then she acquires the Unsullied, turns them upon the slavers, sacks Astapor, decides to put her ambitions and obligations as a Targaryen on hold in pursuit of ending slavery, marches on Yunkai, recruits Daario, takes the city, and is hailed as a liberator.

Now look to Season 4.  Consider how after that fantastic fight in the tavern where Arya gets Needle back, they spend the rest of the season doing nothing until that fan fiction Brienne encounter at the end.

Consider how long it takes to get to Tyrion’s trial, and then how long it takes to get to the trial by combat.  Before that, there’s an empty bit of meaningless dialogue where Tyrion and Jaime talk about their retarded cousin that stretches for an excruciating six minutes.  It took less time than that to stage the entire Flea Bottom attack in Season 2.

The unintended result is that the fight between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell is rushed.  It’s not bad but the character impact isn’t there.  For one, you barely get a glimpse of Tyrion’s beaming and Cersei’s despair as the Mountain begins to lose.  For two, the fight result is depicted as Oberyn undermining himself through his own complacency and stupidity instead of being legitimately overpowered, which goes against much of Oberyn’s previous establishment.  That might have worked if the fight was a little longer and Oberyn did more damage to him.  No one believes a scrape on the calf and a hole through the abdomen would really be enough to stop The Mountain.  For three, why bring in the Mountain at the beginning of Mockingbird and have him do nothing until the fight?  On that same note, why have Oberyn declare himself Tyrion’s champion at the end of Mockingbird and then similarly wait the entire length of an episode before the fight?

Then there was the development at the Eyrie.  They give away Lysa’s part in the death of Jon Arryn at the behest of Petyr in the most underwhelming way imaginable – shoehorning it into their sexy talk for no discernible reason.  Petyr telling her to shut up about it was the only part that made any sense.  Then they do nothing with them until the very end of Mockingbird, where they then pile the entire sequence of events that leads to Lysa’s death in one go.

The sequence is as rushed as it is sloppy and predictable.  If it seemed like there was some dialogue missing, there is.  Powder keg personality aside, you can hardly blame Lysa for reacting the way she did in the show because of how submissive Sansa is to the kiss.  Petyr’s entrance in both places is so faux-heroic it freezes time and it’s impossible not to see the rest coming.  Remember back to Season 1 with the altercation in the woods involving Sansa, Joffrey, Arya, and Micah?  Remember how the director took the time to build tension through character interplay and kept hold of the tone so that as the conflict became heated, so too did your nerves?  It’s fine that they didn’t want to include the full exposition here, but the delicacy and care from the show that once brought you that perfect sequence appears to be gone.

One of the things Game of Thrones used to do very well was to give characters room to breathe in the episodes themselves.  Back in the first season they have one episode with Robert in four separate scenes. He drinks and cracks jokes with Ned in the tent, asserts himself as king to stop the big fight at the Tourney, shouts and curses angrily at Ned for refusing to partake in the assassination of Daenerys, and then has a private moment of reflection with Cersei.  They spaced all of those bits out so it worked.  There was no such breathing room at the Vale in Mockingbird.  As a result, the “drama” did not have the credibility it needed.

Daenerys

Even more time was put to ground with Daenerys Targaryen. This is where the character’s popularity is beginning to work against the show.

Have you noticed that Daenerys has become almost entirely infallible?  She’s certainly a badass, having more than earned the fancy titles bestowed upon her, but now she seemingly has nothing holding her back.  There’s no self-doubt, little hesitation with her decision-making, and no motivational conflict.

A friend of mine on Twitter put it aptly.  “She’s their golden girl.”  The will to indulge the viewers and the fans of Dany is the reason why her arc was pushed so far forward but without any consideration as to whether or not her character was actually ready for it, based on state of mind and what she had been learning. In fact, she didn’t learn much of anything.  Her arc begins with her having already left Yunkai.  She arrives at Meereen shortly and takes the city without a hitch.  The writers admirably make a character out of Grey Worm and flirt with the idea of shipping him with Missandei, but they don’t go anywhere with it.  They only do it because it’s an excuse to keep Dany around without her doing anything after taking Meereen.

In Season 3, by turning away from her “destiny” that her family name imposed upon her, she’s forges her own path, and gains a great victory.  In Season 4, she’s continuing on that path but they’ve taken the struggle itself away from her.  You can even see it in Emilia Clarke’s stoic performance.  She’s bored.  There’s no point of vulnerability at all.  The writers seem to think that turning this fragile maiden from Season 1 into a “strong female character” is the end-all be-all goal for her.

As you can imagine, this is not how Daenerys is written.  The real character is constantly tormented, for as she learns more about the better members of her family and what they were like, she aspires to live up to them.  Dany is constantly questioning her decisions and evaluating her own worth, measuring herself against the shadow of Rhaegar, whom she only knows about from tales passed down to her.  She weighs her ambitions against her responsibilities, as she is also the khaleesi, the master of the Unsullied, the Mother of Dragons, and the liberator.  The farther away she gets from Westeros, the more she misses the idea of getting there.

That conflict Daenerys has with herself is what makes her a great character to begin with.  She is strong because she endures her pain, loss, fear, and insecurity.  The decisions she makes are her own and she braves the consequences of them.

Season 4 has no interest in exploring that.  She’s just a headstrong resolute Kerrigan-type until the end when she chains her dragons up, but that scene is framed as her hands being tied in the wake of their atrocities.  It’s not shown to be a direct consequence of her choice to stay in Meereen and rule, nor is it a sacrifice she decides is necessary for a greater good.  The show seems to believe that she simply had no choice and we’re just supposed to agree.

Now consider her treatment of Ser Jorah.  Jorah councils her to show mercy to the masters at Yunkai and reasons that if Ned Stark had done to him what she intends to do to them – when his crimes were just as heinous – she would never have him as a general and advisor.  It’s a great argument but it works on her because of Dany’s belief that people can change.  That comes through nicely and that’s part of why Dany wants Jorah to give the cutthroat Daario a chance.  One episode later, Jorah confesses that he did indeed spy on her for the Crown and that he informed them of her baby, which led to the attempt on her life a year or so ago.  Evidence of change aside, Dany simply proclaims him a traitor and casts him out.  How does that make any damn sense?  Is she offended by the fact that he kept this from her the whole time?  That’s just our projection as viewers.  What’s going on in her head that makes her do that?  We aren’t given anything, because the writers don’t want her to have any flaws.  The only reason she does this in the show is because it was in the book.

There is no difference at all between the Daenerys at the beginning of Season 4 and the Daenerys at the end of it. Her circumstances changed, but her character has not.  And while I can’t speak for him, I believe that this is exactly the kind of thing that Film Crit Hulk would call “not having a f***ing character arc.”

In a season set to feature the story’s halfway point, this is where the narrative should be crunched, the characters repurposed, and as many of the remaining conflicts as possible resolved.  Indeed, that’s precisely what George R.R. Martin accomplishes in the second half of A Storm of Swords.  Here, those events are just another sequence of things that would happen, as if this was just another year for Game of Thrones and not an eponymous moment of change.  With Dany, they sloppily wrote themselves into a corner.  Ironically, the creators’ failure to use the open-endedness of television with Daenerys’ story and refusal to temporarily relegate her to the back seat is the reason why her character doesn’t work.  With everyone else, they ran out of time.

Jaime

Being careless with structure may sound like a big deal but a show can survive it, provided it gets the characters right.  But whereas the story of Daenerys this season was that of writers’ indulgence mixed with negligence, the story of Jamie is one of sheer desecration.

Jaime was probably the most virulently despised person for the first two seasons until his arc began in the third.  It begins in lock step with George R.R. Martin’s approach to character.  Jaime is established early on not just as The Kingslayer and Oathbreaker but as a cocky and hot-tempered no-nonsense ass who prides himself on being perhaps the single best swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms.

Just as he did with Bran’s ability to climb, Daenerys’ standing as Khaleesi to the greatest Dothraki warrior ever, Sansa’s romantic ideals of life as queen, and Theon’s manhood, the first thing Martin did to Jaime was have his source of strength and identity – his sword hand – removed.  Martin builds characters by punishing them intimately, and in Jaime’s case, it feels (to the audience) like overdue karma.  But as we spend more time with him it becomes harder to truly hate him.

It’s true; Jaime isn’t a villain, and he never was.  He isn’t needlessly cruel or vicious like Joffrey is; his shade of morality is dark gray, just like everyone else.  In fact, it may be evident that Joffrey inherited his worst traits from his mother.  Jaime, contrary to what everyone thinks, has a surprising amount of integrity.  That doesn’t mean he’s above violence.  Jaime has shown that he is impulsive and reckless with his power, as evidenced by his ambushing of Ned Stark in the streets of King’s Landing upon hearing of Tyrion’s abduction and tossing Bran out the window.  Yet self-centered and arrogant as his reasons may be, Jaime does not act without them.

In other words, Jaime Lannister would never, ever, under any circumstances rape someone, especially someone he cared for.  Let’s put this issue to rest.  That scene in Joffrey’s tomb in Breaker of Chains was unambiguously a rape and there was zero gray area to it.  In the book, Cersei hesitates at first because she’s worried about someone barging in, but then she quickly puts those fears aside for a chance to have her brother inside her again.  She gives her enthusiastic consent and it’s possibly the best sex Jaime’s ever had.  He’s not supposed to grab her, force himself upon her, hold her down, and ignore her pleading and begging for him to stop.  No amount of negligence, confusion from the actors, lame attempts at explanation from the director, or flimsy excuses from George R.R. Martin himself will take away the fact that Game of Thrones depicted Jaime Lannister raping his sister – a scene without even a trace of authorial intent.  And that was not okay.

Don’t give me that “people in Westeros do horrible things to each other all the time, how is this any different?!” crap.  That’s idiotic reasoning, irrelevant to the mechanics of storytelling and character design.  Yes, Game of Thrones depicts some of the worst behavior ever conceived by man and there is a lot of raping in this show, but this is Jaime Lannister.  This is a character on a slow path of redemption, and rape destroys and cancels out all the good will he’s earned.  Not to imply that Jaime will ever truly be redeemed for all of his sins (he won’t be), but the rape undermines him and the importance of the scene itself, for the purpose of it was to convey not only how creepy and disgusting it is that these two lovers are brother and sister, but it was also supposed to revel in it.

Jaime’s pride may have been irreparably crushed by the loss of his hand, but what small amount he still has pertains to his love for Cersei.  Jaime hates that they sneak around and must keep it secret.  He feels absolutely no shame in loving her and he wouldn’t care if the entire continent knew.  Now, Cersei and their children are all he has left.  He wants no part in his father’s grand plan.  He does not want money or lordship over Casterly Rock.  He wants to remain in the Kingsguard, to protect Tommen – a good and innocent boy who witnessed his older brother murdered at his own wedding and is now saddled with the responsibilities of being the king – and he wants Cersei’s love.

In the books, Jaime is rewarded for his devotion to his duty and refusal to kill Tyrion with a disowning from his father and the cold shoulder from Cersei after their moment of passion in Joff’s tomb.  As he is their Lord Commander, the other white cloaks do his bidding, but they do not respect him.  And Tyrion is about to be executed for a crime he did not commit after a mockery of a trial that Jaime is forced to witness.  He sees firsthand other evils that his father commits in the name of protecting the Lannister family – a family Jaime no longer recognizes, perhaps one that he never really knew at all.

I’ve lost a hand, a father, a son, a sister, and a lover, and soon enough I will lose a brother. And yet they keep telling me House Lannister won this war.” (A Storm of Swords – p. 825)

It’s because of his isolation that Jaime decides to take matters into his own hands and rewrite his own story.  To be sure, the show could handle this however the creators wanted.  What was important was to clash his motivations and morals with his family’s agenda and have Jaime suffer for what they do.

Instead, for the entire middle section, Jaime is relegated to being a support beam for Tyrion, who has nothing to do but sit in a dungeon and wait for something to happen, just like we the audience.  Tywin doesn’t disown him, merely scoffs at his stubbornness and sends him on his way, figuring that he’ll change his mind.  Jaime almost does so in the name of protecting Tyrion, until Tyrion throws a monkey wrench into that plan by demanding a trial by combat.  No one treats him any differently because of his hand.  The only consequence Jaime seems to suffer for that is the fact that he can’t fight Gregor Clegane.  Then Cersei returns to him and they have sex for real.

In other words, Jaime is actually given nearly everything back, which makes his raping of Cersei all the more insidious.  Because it was given no direct contextualization by the narrative after the fact, the only conclusion you can draw is that Jamie raped his sister and now he has her consent because she really just loved him all along.

What the f***, Game of Thrones?

There’s no real conflict with his family and no moment of candor between the brothers as Jaime breaks Tyrion out.  Jaime does it because that’s what he would do, not because he’s actually trying to be the good guy or because he’s trying to rebel against his family.  Jaime’s dispatching of Brienne to find Sansa was the only visible direct consequence of his change in character.  Everything else just fell into place for him.

Stannis

Daenerys’ story was one of indulgence.  Jaime’s story was one of incompetence.  Yet perhaps the most lamentable of all is Stannis’ story, which is one of sheer contempt.

One of Martin’s best qualities is that he makes it difficult to truly love or hate anyone.  There is no singular hero or villain (except Joffrey).  Stannis is a character with flaws and faults like the others, but he’s also extremely compelling in his honesty and as a leader.  The creators of the show do not share such an attitude about Stannis, nor do they care to make any actions truly his own.

In the show, Stannis Baratheon is a cold, rigid, stubborn, soulless, detestable jerk wrapped entirely around the finger of a manipulative witch whom he lusts after.  Though impressive a warrior and battle commander, he’s also indecisive.  He’s a distant father whose sole act of benevolence towards his daughter is refusing to kill her at the suggestion of his even crazier wife, and he all but looks for excuses to punish people serving him.  There is little to no interest in making Stannis anything beyond what the rest of Westeros thinks of him.  The scowl on his face is one of such cruelty and malice even Davos becomes less likable by association.  If the books hadn’t kept Stannis alive this long the creators might have killed him a season ago and called it karmic justice.

In Season 3, Stannis sat around turning evermore closely towards religion to make him king until he receives a critical piece of news about Mance Rayder and his wildling army marching on the Wall.  It takes an explanation by Melisandre and Davos to convince him that it’s important – as if he’s too stupid to realize the gravity on his own.

Stannis is supposed to have had an epiphany that he’s been going about this all wrong.  He’s been trying to become king to save the kingdoms instead of trying to save the kingdoms to become king.  Instead he’s just talked into it.

Take it away, George.

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But okay, what’s important is that he has the news and that he’s chosen to act.  Or did he?  Season 4 wishes to forget almost everything in Season 3.  He’s back to being a grumpy authority man.  The first thing you see him do is burn some of his lords, including his brother in law in sacrifice to R’hllor.  Then Davos has to convince him that it’s a good idea to rebuild an army with sellswords.  For some reason the notion of hiring mercenaries when he’s already resorted to blood magic offends Stannis, because that makes so much sense.

I liked the Braavos departure, but the rest doesn’t work.  Stannis is supposed to be the reason that the attack on the Wall fails.  In the books, he saves Jon Snow, and the entire Night’s Watch.   This is Patton rescuing the 101st Airborne at Bastogne.

If the arc was framed as “will he make it in time,” it could have worked, but the creators would have you believe a different narrative entirely.  His arrival is treated as a rude interruption.  He is an interloper sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.  He’s not even dressed for the cold weather.  There’s no triumph or relief in his coming.  He even has to be convinced by Jon Snow not to kill Mance on the spot.

Stannis deserves better than that.  So does this show as a whole.

Television shows fail all the time; so why did I bother writing 5,000 words about this one?  Is it really important enough to warrant such an essay?  Yes, it is, because Game of Thrones is popular.  When the show sneezes, the Internet catches a cold.  People love this story; they love the characters and the world, and they are emotionally invested in their journey.  When you have something that makes waves the way this show does, so too comes the obligation to make it the best that it can possibly be.  Television is only getting better, and Game of Thrones is leading the charge.  The fate of this show will affect how the medium as art will develop and evolve in the future, and how we the viewers digest it.  Everyone seems to admit that Season 4 is flawed, but most have not taken the criticism far enough.  It isn’t just flawed; it’s broken.  It’s indulgent, complacent, and apathetic.  With so much left of this story to tell, with millions of people interested, and with the show getting even closer to catching up and surpassing the books, what happens next matters.  The fact that Season 4 was bad television matters.

And as someone who genuinely loves this franchise of books and television, incomplete as it may be, I want nothing but the best for it, and for the people who invested as much emotional energy into it as I did.

Overall: 4.0/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

  • Ries

    A devastating blow to an otherwise widely considered unimpeachable show. There were quite a few times I came onto Facebook to find complaints about the nature of the preceding night’s GoT episode. I’m sorry to see that the show is running into the same problems that I – personally – felt the book series ran into. Books 1-3 were some of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and books 4 and 5 were, to use your words indulgent, complacent, and apathetic. Good review, V. Thanks for it.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks for reading it, Ries! It certainly wasn’t easy to write this but I felt it had to be done.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    To preface, I haven’t read any of the books (I’m on chapter 3 of the first one) but I do have some second hand knowledge of how things went down and how the show differs from the books. I think that Season 3 is the best so far, with Seasons 1 & 4 battling it out for second place, followed by Season 2, lagging behind a tad.

    Just to get it out of the way, yes, *that* scene between Jaimie and Cersei was just plain wrong. But not for all the same reasons as you say. My main problem with it is that it’s clearly depicted as a rape despite most of the creators saying that it isn’t or “that she’s into it in the end”, (I’m looking at you Alex Graves) which is highly problematic and iffy on several different levels, not least of which evoke rape-myth. Then there are no consequences and it’s played as if he didn’t do anything wrong, which is bad. I just don’t think that Jaimie’s arc is one of pure redemption (not having read the books this is based of off the observations of those that have, primarily Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair) and I just don’t think that’s the story that Martin or the show are telling. Sure, he’s grown in positive directions but he hasn’t really expressed regret for anything that he’s done, has he? (This is also legitimately a question, I don’t remember him having done so). And I think it’s pretty clear that him being with his family shows a clear regression for him, it feels like the ship for a redeemed, more heroic Jaimie has sailed.

    Right, now let’s get in to the meat of the matter. I disagree with you on some fundamental levels: This season was by no means broken and in no way bad television. Even though this is an adaptation the relationship to the source material is in some sense irrelevant. This is a TV show, this is its story and, for better or worse, the books don’t really matter. Just because they don’t do things exactly like the books doesn’t automatically make it bad, it just makes it different. You even say it yourself before going on to criticise the series for it anyway.

    It’s ridiculous to say that Daenerys isn’t doing anything. A huge part of this season was her slowly realising that her idealism isn’t working perfectly in practise. It’s a complex idea when paired with the fact that she’s freeing slaves and I think it’s very well executed, the chaining of the dragons being a perfect capper to that arc. Yes, arc. As for her decisions regarding Jorah, I can perfectly buy into her sense of betrayal when his spying was revealed, even though he’d stopped. You can’t just build the foundations of a relationship on lies and then expect the other person to be super okay with it when the truth comes out. I truly think that they do a good job of showing her being conflicted, a feat much easier in a book where you can just say what a character is thinking, it’s much harder to show it.

    I think you’re disregarding the moments where the plot isn’t immediately moving forward all too easily. These moments are some of the best that GoT has to offer in my opinion, the moments that add to characters depth and pathos. Just because the main plot isn’t thrust forward doesn’t automatically mean that a scene is useless. I never got the sense of filler that I got from Season 2, where this was a legitimate problem. I loved that scene with Jaimie and Tyrion, it’s real, nice scene of remembrance between brothers, something that’s very rare in this series. I refuse to believe that a series of books that are on average over a thousand pages pushes the grand narrative forward in every sentence, that’s impossible. In my experience learning about the characters can be just as valuable as learning more about the plot. After this season I like Bran more, I like Jon Snow more and I like Stannis, a character who’s seemingly stoic and rather dull both on page and screen, more.

    I truly think that the biggest problem with this season was the fact that book readers overhyped it. “Just wait! It’s going to be even bigger than the Red Wedding! You won’t believe what happens next, it’s the most insane thing ever!” And even so, it still included scenes and moments that are some of the greatest in GoT so far (I’m still reeling from the loss of Oberyn) and some of my personal favorite in TV history (or my experience of it, to clarify). Game of Thrones is my favorite TV drama and I disagree with you. At the same time, I’m sorry that the show makes you feel that way.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Sverrir. It’s true that a book-reader is more likely to dislike this season than a non-book reader and find a lot of problematic plot items that others just wouldn’t care that much about. In no way did I ever intend any of this to sound like I was saying “The book did it this way; therefore the show should do it this way too.” These are broad strokes, and like I said – the best character arc in the season was Samwell and it didn’t even come close to what it was in the book.

    I agree that the larger issue pertaining to the rape was the immediate aftermath where the creators backpedaled (spl?) and pretended it was something else. However, no one bothered to look at how it would affect the larger story and Jaime specifically. Without contextualization after the fact, Jaime indeed regresses and the great work done with him in season 3 is now all for naught. I hate to phrase it like this (and I don’t mean this as a slight against you or your critiquing skill…nor do I intend to patronize you) but you’re mistaken about Jaime’s arc and what it needs to be for function. I can’t tell you everything, and you’ll understand what I mean once you get there in the book, but I will say that redemption in Jaime’s case does not mean what you seem to think it means. The fact that you think Jaime isn’t becoming kind of a hero or turning against his family is not your fault. It’s the show’s fault because it didn’t work any angle on it at all. I stress this not to be purist but because it’s critical to the character himself as well as to contrast that with what the show did with him, which was very little, and quite damaging.

    As for Daenerys, yes, that’s easier said in the books than done in a show but we’ve seen internal struggles play out on screen plenty of times. I didn’t mean to imply that she isn’t actually doing anything. What I meant is that she isn’t doing anything that affects or changes her character in any meaningful way. And while I don’t expect her to be okay with Jorah’s betrayal, the way it came across in the scene didn’t work at all.

    I hope this makes sense and that you’ll keep me appraised of your progress through the first three books (and that you’ll decide to continue afterwards). I’d love to talk more with you about them.

  • Louise Grimshaw

    Nice review. I agree with you when you say that this season felt like a filler and that not a lot happened but I also have to agree with what Sverrir said. Even though the entire season was quite slow, it revealed a lot of depth about the characters, like Daenarys; this season was a realisation that her methods aren’t always going to work and that she won’t be able to save everyone.

    I think that this season has been my favourite for character development. Sansa, who I really didn’t like in the first three seasons manages to get a look in on manipulation and in doing so, I think that her character is becoming a lot stronger. Samwell is one of my favourite characters and even if it does differ from the book, what the writers did with him in season 4 worked really well and I really enjoyed following that sub-plot. I think that this was really Tyrion’s season. Everything about Peter Dinklage’s performance was perfection for me and it’s some of the best acting I’ve seen come from him. Arya’s has been one of the most engrossing characters for me and watching her develop as she spends time with the Hound is almost scary because she’s so heartless is her pursuit for revenge, and the fact that she’s now attempting to make it on her own makes me more excited for the next season.

    I agree with what you said about Stannis and Jaime though, I hate to say it but I did feel quite bored with their arcs.

    The main thing that bothered me was how the season was paced. It picked up so quickly at the beginning but after the Purple Wedding the entire pace slowed down so much that it took a while to get used to. Because of this I feel like I might have missed what the directors were trying to do with the storytelling and I’m pretty sure I zoned out during a couple of the episodes; something I never though GoT would force me to do!

    This season was more about the subtleties rather than the full-blown action of the previous seasons and I feel that a lot of the fans have disregarded this as being a huge downfall because it’s not as heated as what we’re used to.

    Your opinions are more than valid and I agree with most of them. In fact, I’m curious as to what you had to say in the 2000 words you cut out!

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks, Louise! I cut out a lot of repeat phrases I had carelessly written and even entire paragraphs that I felt were redundant or taking too long to make their point. Substance-wise, I cut out some parts that more elaborately explained how Daenerys acts in the books and some things that were missing, but I decided that it would sound too purist and that overall it was unnecessary because it distracted from the point I was trying to make about her, not adding to it. I cut out a couple short paragraphs about the open-endedness of TV and a few sentences about the evolution of the medium. Mainly I felt that what I had said already was enough and I didn’t need to keep beating that drum because I had a show to critique. Between all that, and just a lot of merciless sentencing edits, it added up to a lot. :)

    I of course agree completely on structure but I don’t think there was quite as much depth as a lot of people seem to think. For some I think it just didn’t add up. Sansa’s development is pretty good for how sloppy that Eyrie sequence was. While I worry it may have been a bit too much too fast, Sophie Turner sold it. I obviously love Tyrion to death and Dinklage outdid himself but I wish there was more. With Daenerys, I think what you said is probably closest to what they’re going for but I do not at all think that it worked. She’s become too badass for the show’s own good and they were determined in this season to keep her as innocent as possible.

  • Louise Grimshaw

    With regards to the whole badass thing, I do feel that the writers were losing their way a little with Dany. They did reveal the fact that her methods aren’t working but they didn’t move forward with her character much; because she’s become so powerful so quickly it’s almost as if that’s the end of her story, like I want to know what’s next for her and none of that was given away.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    “A Dance With Dragons” is either brilliant or terrible based on what the person you’re asking took from it. It’s ambiguous but in an interesting way.

  • Brittani

    Great write up, I share some of your complaints, mainly the ones about Jaime’s arc going backwards, but I liked this season a great deal. I would still give it around an 8, even with those things I was unhappy about. Especially when I compare it to others shows I watch. GoT is just a damn good show, even when they leave stuff out.

    Stannis does deserve better, and I hope they focus more on him over Dany next season. It’s a long shot, but I can hope!

  • Rodney

    Dude. I agree with almost everything you’ve written here. Frankly, the Jamie/Cersei rape sequence was the most egregious part of the entire series thus far, lacking any kind of context (as you rightly point out) for motivation and repercussion, making the entire scene feel almost controversial just because they could, rather than an organically developed moment.
    Dany’s story has irked me from Season 1, frankly, because she’s the only character in the series not based around Kings Landing, and thus removed from the majority of the rest of the story arc – I’m not a book reader, so I don’t know how much more interaction she has with what transpires over at Kings Landing or anywhere else, but she just seems to spend more time stuffing about with her dragons (which are underused, as far as I’m concerned) and trying to keep the peace at Mereen, when she SHOULD be taking her unsullied and the rest of her rag-tag band and laying waste to all those who oppose her taking the throne.
    And WTF was with Arya and the Hound spending the entire season on some Lord Of The Rings-esque wandering about the landscape arc? Dear God, that became boring real quick.
    I agree with you about the pre-fight dialogue between Tyrion and Jamie – the beetle speech – being excruciating. I kept waiting for a point to be made, either then or in a scene to follow, but it never came.
    My personal opinion with the showrunners keeping all the BIg Events of the series til the very last few minutes of any given episode, is because it worked so well in Season 1 (with Ned’s Head), and again in Season 3 (Red Wedding), the last-gasp shocker appears to now be modus operandi. Which is a shame, because squeezing the Oberon/Mountain fight into the last three or four minutes of that episode felt rushed, badly edited, and lacking in the graudal build-up of tension in a given scene the show has done reasonably well until now. Much like the Purple Wedding episode (which remains the best of Season 4, if you ask me, which you haven’t, but I digress!) that entire sequence needed to be drawn out over the aat least half the episode, if not the entirety. Shoving it in as an afterthought ruined the impact of the episode; it was a shock purely for shock’s sake.
    Top notch article, Vivek, you’ve summed up the season brilliantly, and it’s tough to argue against most of the points you make. Aside from personal taste towards some of the characters (freakin’ HATE Sansa with a passion, but always have time for Littlefinger…), you’re dead on with your examination of the key moments of the show. GoT Season 4 seemed to be lacking in…. momentum? Pacing? Certainly, they’re not in a hurry to keep things going.

  • Rodney

    Do you think the producers would be best off coming out and just saying they’re deviating from the books, take the pressure off themselves and give themselves a little more lattitude in what they’re able to do with certain characters? (I don’t read the books, so no spoilers please! LOL!!) It strikes me that they’re somewhat painted into the corner of expectation from both readers AND viewers, all of whom aren’t on the same page (as it were), and they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Well they did say they were going to divert from the books more before the start of this season. That by itself doesn’t bother me so much as what they came up with alternatively. Obviously I’d prefer to see them hug the source material so that the show and the books can be viewed as parallel stories that compliment and add to one another. But they should do whatever they feel their story needs and the result should be criticized accordingly.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks! Sorry, I only saw this now. The funny thing is, Daenerys was less important at this particular point in the story but in the next “chapter” she becomes more important because of everything going on in Meereen and how the city tests her resolve for peace, etc.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’m glad you liked and agreed with this piece. And I’m glad that though you didn’t read the books, you too found Season 4 lacking. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted you to enjoy it; it just feels nice when I’m vindicated by someone who didn’t read the books, as they’re usually the ones that tend to like and defend the show more than book-readers do and they’re often the first to scream “purist!” at someone (fairly or not).

    With Daenerys, I agree that her story really feels detached and separate from everything, pretty much because it is. But her rise and conquests in the East juxtaposed with the fall and disintegration of the West is purposeful. What GRRM’s endgame with all that is, I still can’t say with certainty that I know. In the past, he has said that if this story had a protagonist, she’s it, but whether that actually means he intends to end the story with her on the throne…somehow I doubt it. It sounds too easy and clean for GRRM. Also he tends to do terrible things to protagonists. So who the hell knows?

    All that said, take it easy on Sansa. When I was reading the books, I hated her even more than you do now…for a while. Then I grew to love her. I know it seems like she’s been doing a lot of nothing but weeping and moaning this whole time, but theoretically it should be easy to empathize with her situation. Not only did her fancy romantic dream turn into the single worst nightmare imaginable, but all hope of escaping it dwindled as she lost more and more of her family. Yet even after escaping King’s Landing, Sansa realizes that she remains a hostage – a hostage of the game of thrones. She is a centerpiece of the game, but she’s learning how to beat it. Just like with Daenerys, I don’t quite know the endgame with Sansa. But I think she deserves more credit than you’re giving her.

  • Gavin Neville Charles Morrison

    I disagree with you about the Jamie/Tyrion beetle scene, I think it is a nice piece of not character development, but characterisation by the show. The contrast in that moment between the two brothers becomes clear- Jamie couldn’t give a dusty fuck, whereas Tyrion is trapped by his own intelligence. I also think you missed one crucial thing out of The Good section- Oberyn Martell was fantastically cast and brilliantly acted by Pedro Pascal. Every scene he was in he made better. (Similarly, though a much smaller part, Ellaria Sand was also excellent). I also think that as much as her character can be a pain, Sansa’s story arc was largely down very well. Right down to her actually learning that the world is a big bad place and that she has to look after herself. I entirely agree with the desecration done to Jamie. Dany was just in the show too much this season, if they’d cut her scenes by about half it would have improved things. I also agree with you about Stannis, although I think that the show has consistently gotten Stannis wrong for 4 seasons, not just this season so i’m not sure it is fair to use that as a reason why season 4 is broken. I feel like I could say more but I won’t…cos my name isn’t paul vollmer. (Paul, if you read this, I don’t mean it!!)

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    If your name was Paul Vollmer, you’d be disagreeing with me a lot more than just about the beetle scene and agreeing with me on way fewer things. I get what they were going for (I watched it multiple times since), but it was so long and so not engaging at all, that I just didn’t care for it. If they cut maybe two minutes from that and put those two minutes into the fight, you wouldn’t be hearing a complaint from me.