The fourth season of Game of Thrones is based on the last third of the novel A Storm of Swords, as well as parts of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons – the third, fourth, and fifth books in the ongoing series titled A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Please note that this review of the fourth TV season and fourth book contains spoilers for the first three TV seasons and books. If you have never seen this show and would like a spoiler-free overview of what it is about and why you might want to watch it, please read my review of the first season and book here. My reviews of the second season and book can be found here and the third season and book here.
Because the show and the books are no longer in sync with each other, I will only be discussing those parts of books 4 and 5 that were part of the show. The reason for this situation is that the producers wanted to end Season 3 with the Red Wedding and the fallout from it. They wanted to keep the further events of book 3 for this season. Unfortunately, not all characters have enough book 3 plot left to last an entire season without dipping into their future storylines.
Making things even harder is that books 4 and 5 are not traditional ones in a series. Instead they are mostly two halves of the same whole. By this point in the series Martin had so many storylines going on, some of them completely irrelevant to the overall story, that the publisher split those storylines into two books. This means that when you read book 4 you will not find some of your favorite characters in it. You will have to wait until book 5. A Feast for Crows – the fourth book – concentrates mostly on the storylines related to King’s Landing and southern Westeros. It is also incredibly bloated, with hundreds of pages being devoted to a single character wandering around on what the reader already knows is a pointless quest. The producers of the show thankfully condensed all of this down into just a few scenes across Season 4.
With the deaths from the Red Wedding you might think there would not be much more carnage in Season 4, but you would be wrong. Not only do other major characters die, but the show’s producers also killed off at least three supporting characters that are still alive in the books. For the first time there was an extra on the Blu-ray set that was a 30 minute discussion with seven of the performers whose characters were killed off this year. It is the best of the extras and it immediately made me wish that they had done it for the prior season sets.
Fortunately, there are only a few new recurring characters introduced to the sprawling cast in Season 4. One is a leader of another group of wildlings. He isn’t that important, but two who are end up appearing right in the very first episode. They are Prince Oberon of Dorne and his paramour Ellaria Sand. They are there to attend the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery.
If you are wondering who they are, or what Dorne is for that matter, we have never met anyone from there before. It is the southernmost kingdom on the continent where most of the action takes place (Westeros). There have been numerous mentions of Dornish wine, and in Season 2 Tyrion sent Cersei’s only daughter Myrcella to Dorne as part of a diplomatic move. Cersei has never forgiven him for that, and we finally learn why she is so scared about Myrcella’s safety. When we first meet Prince Oberon he explains why he hates Lannisters so much. Pay attention because it will be important.
The amusing thing is that even though the Dornish people are hedonists, and two scenes are shown of them indulging themselves in what are apparently supposed to be sexual adventures with others, they never take their clothes off. In fact, there is a noticeable reduction in nudity this season, with only one sizeable nude scene among the main cast the entire season. There are a couple brief scenes with supporting characters, and a few other scenes where extras are nude, but that is it. It looks like the puritans who have been bitching since Season 1 about the nudity on the show have finally had an impact.
The amusing thing is, if you believe their latest claims about the source of their complaints, then they still didn’t get what they wanted. I will explain. At first their bitching was the usual – “why do they have to show all that nudity? I don’t like it.” – and after tons of people pointed out their hypocrisy of complaining about seeing bare body parts, but not complaining about all the body parts being violently hacked off people, the puritans changed their tune. Instead they said that they disliked the nudity because it wasted time in the episodes that could instead be devoted to showing more scenes from the books. Well, there was less nudity this year, but instead of putting in more scenes, several episodes were shorter than had been the pattern. At least four of them were under 50 minutes long (not counting end credits). That’s down about 5 minutes per episode from the prior seasons. So much for “less nudity will equal more story”.
In fact, because the producers had to stretch several of the characters’ stories out in order to use the events from the end of Book 3 as the end events for the season, they had fewer storylines in each episode. Every character skipped at least two of the ten episodes in the season, even Tyrion, who had missed only a single episode prior to that (the Red Wedding). Some characters, such as Bran, appeared in less than half the episodes. And the show took the first two episodes to pick up all the storylines from last season. Going along with this, some characters’ storylines were done for the season by episode 8, while episode 10 functioned as the season end for the rest.
As usual, the ninth episode of the season was a big, self-contained, single story. Prior years had the Battle of Blackwater Bay and the Red Wedding. This year, after three seasons of talking about it, Mance Rayder finally launched his attack on the Wall and Castle Black and we see this battle in episode 9. It was well done.
Although there were only a few new characters introduced, season 4 did see the return of some. We meet Catelyn Stark’s crazy sister Lysa Arryn and her son Robin again. The Mountain returns, but the producers have once again recast the part. There is now a third actor as this character. Speaking of recasting, the also replaced Joffrey’s younger brother Tommen, aging him up from a child to a teenager. And Daario Naharis, the mercenary who flirted with Dany late last season was also replaced. Changing Tommen makes sense, with the storyline for him this season. Replacing Daario made no sense unless the original actor was unavailable. I’m obviously not the target demographic for that character, but I felt the new guy was far less charming than the original one. Daario is supposed to literally charm the pants off Dany and the new guy just wasn’t as believable in the role as the first guy.
In regards to TV vs. book timelines, all the characters in King’s Landing, as well as Stannis Baratheon, Arya Stark, and Jon Snow pretty much end Season 4 at the end of Book 3. All the other characters, such as Brienne, Dany, Sansa, Bran, and Theon Greyjoy are in various stages of books 4 and 5. In fact, both Bran and Sansa have pretty much completed their stories right up to where Martin has left off in the books. Because of this I have read that Bran will not even appear in Season 5. On the other hand, Sansa will, and that is a good thing.
For all the Sansa haters out there (who are mostly the non-book readers who didn’t understand that Sansa was acting so foolish in Season 1 because she was only a tween despite the teenage actress who had been cast in the role) you may finally have to change your minds about her. Her story arc this year is quite interesting.
Speaking of story arcs, Arya pretty much just wandered around for two entire books, which translates to three entire seasons on the show. Thankfully they gave her some scenes with Tywin Lannister in Season 2 which were not in the books, and in Season 4 they extend the time that she and the Hound are together far beyond what was in the books. This once again gives her character someone interesting to play off of.
And also in regards to the pairing of characters, it is sometimes easy to forget who interacts with who when you watch. Since we regularly see all these characters it feels like they are mostly current with each other. It wasn’t until it was pointed out to me in a commentary track that I realized that Season 4 contains the first scenes of Tyrion and his brother Jaime together since all the way back in episode 2 of Season 1. They were so great together I didn’t even realize they had barely ever worked with each other on the show.
There have been some unanswered questions running through all of the seasons. They are: who killed Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King before Ned Stark?; who is Jon Snow’s mother?; who tried to have Bran Stark killed?; and what happened to Benjen Stark, the Head Ranger for the Night’s Watch? These are actually all questions from season 1. The answer to who killed Jon Arryn is finally revealed, if you had not already figured it out long ago. People anxiously awaiting the answers to the rest will not find satisfaction from season 4. Two even remain unanswered so far in the books. The question of who tried to kill Bran Stark in Season 1 was answered in the books, but since the show has already moved beyond that timeline (in fact, the person who did it is now dead), it may be that the producers of the show will never address it. Perhaps they feel no one remembers or cares anymore.
The Season 4 Blu-ray set contains around 14 hours of material in addition to the 10 hours for the episodes themselves. Like prior seasons this additional content includes 12 commentaries for the 10 episodes. And also like prior seasons there is a single episode that has no extra track for it. At least this year there is an apparent reason for it. The episode that is skipped is number 3, which contains probably the most controversial scene of the season. A consensual sex scene in the book was shot as mostly non-consensual on the show. After a huge negative reaction to it the show’s producers insisted it was not supposed to come across as non-consensual. While it felt like they were trying to back peddle at the time, the interactions of the two characters the rest of the season do seem to bear this out, since their relationship to each other is unchanged.
I gave the first season of the show my highest recommendation (5 out of 5 stars). It was absolutely topnotch and it may have had the single best final scene to a TV season that I have ever watched. After achieving those heights, there is not much place to go but down. Season 2 doesn’t go down much, but it does suffer slightly from the problems of the source material having so many separate story threads. If I gave half star ratings season 2 would be four and a half stars. Season 3 is another very slight step down, purely from the many fractured storylines, not because there has been any drop off in production or acting quality. I gave it four stars.
Season 4 was one that I actually was not that enthusiastic about rewatching when I bought the Blu-ray set. The continual fracturing of storylines as characters continue to separate just felt like it bogged down everything. To my pleasant surprise, I found that watching the episodes one after another made the stories much better. I enjoyed the fourth season more the second time around. I will also give it four stars. Unless you think you would be offended by the content, I highly recommend the fourth season of Game of Thrones.
Oh, and if anyone invites you to a wedding in Westeros you should politely decline the invitation.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars