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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.