To quote an old song, talking about “Game of Thrones” to the uninitiated is like trying to tell a stranger about rock ‘n roll. For those intoxicated by its debaucherous pleasures, though, the show’s return is something to be celebrated – “Winter is Coming” a favorite way of heralding in the spring. As has become almost a pattern, the fourth season begins somewhat slowly – juggling a dizzying assortment of existing characters, while introducing new ones – punctuated by major events, serving notice nobody lives forever. Even when the pace drags, George R.R. Martin’s creation is consistently as big and brawny as television gets.
As season four begins (in an episode directed by D.B. Weiss, who continues to write most of the hours with fellow showrunner David Benioff), many of the characters are still dealing with the fallout from last season’s “Red Wedding,” as the Lannister clan – under the mercurial leadership of teenage Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), as guided by his Machiavellian grandfather (Charles Dance) – go about consolidating their hold on King’s Landing, celebrating the end of the war.
Like most things pertaining to “Game of Thrones,” however (and rest assured, this review is spoiler-free), victory dances risk being premature, especially with the vague threat massing near the wall to the north, and the Targaryen princess Daenarys (Emilia Clarke) now the proud mother of three dragons roughly the size of Cadillac Escalade.
The Stark children, meanwhile, remain scattered and continue to lick their wounds, with the best material involving the steely young Arya (Maisie Williams), who is traveling in the company of the towering mercenary the Hound (Rory McCann), a relationship that – in the best “Thrones” tradition – mixes disarming comedy with the constant threat of stomach-turning violence.
Martin’s fantasy world, with its ruthless lust for power, is surely not for the faint of heart, and the sheer number of subplots invariably means that one or two start to sag. (The would-be king Stannis Baratheon, played by Stephen Dillane, and his motley entourage would probably be a case in point.)
Such criticisms, however, amount to nitpicking on a show that operates at such a consistently high level, from the spectacular cast to the sweeping and diverse backdrops, consistently conjuring a summer-tentpole feel. While the sword-and-sandal genre has no shortage of iterations in this teeming era of original drama, “Game of Thrones’” mix of serialized storytelling and sumptuous trappings makes it look, to borrow a sports metaphor, like a man among boys.
In that respect, the show’s value to HBO also appears magnified, especially with the news that “Boardwalk Empire” will be concluding after its fifth season; and the fact the genre audience remains the most reliable contingent around in terms of being willing to ante up for that which they like.
Back when “Game of Thrones” premiered, a reporter asked HBO execs – given the scale of Martin’s books, and the fanaticism of their fan base – whether they would commit to at least seven seasons, a question, understandably, that they laughed off at the time.
As it stands now, though, it’s not hard to see the network hanging on for as long as the producers can possibly hold this magnificent beast together. After all, in the best spirit of the Westeros ethos, once you’ve actually managed to tame a dragon, why not take full advantage of it?