(This article contains spoilers for series four of Game of Thrones. They have been worded such a way as to not explicitly specify events, but if you’re not caught up enter at your own risk…)
It was never a sure thing that Game of Thrones was going to be a hit. It might be arbitrary now to consider a time when a show based on a series of high fantasy novels would be a tough sell but that was the world we lived in as recently as 2011. That the show has not only survived but prospered proves that Game of Thrones is the little epic that could and I’m glad because Season Four is the best season yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not easy to please in this regard. I’m a fan of the original books which means I’ll happily nitpick whenever I think it matters. My enjoyment of Season Two was almost squandered when a single character moment which even I will admit isn’t terribly important to the plot was not included in Blackwater, an episode so intricate and technically impressive that it is considered one of the defining hours of contemporary television. But I have no such complaints this year because for the first time it feels as though Game of Thrones has a real sense of identity and become its own property, rather than merely an adaptation of the source material.
A big part of Season Four’s success has been its willingness to surprise even book readers by giving definitive ends to minor characters. This fat trimming performs the double punch of giving immediate emotional gratification to both viewers and readers who have become attached to these background players in both mediums, as well as freeing the show up to focus on remaining characters in what still amounts to a remarkably crowded main cast.
To be sure, not all changes from the books are beneficial. Taking source material from books that are thousands of pages long and trying to condense their core stories down to ten hours of screen time is an impossibility and as a result the broad scope of many stories this year feel a little undercooked; the sheer length of Bran’s journey and Tyrion’s imprisonment simply don’t feel as if they’re given the proper ratio of screen-time necessary to impart to viewers how daunting their plight is. In spite of this it does seem as though extra care was taken with defining character moments. Whether viewers saw them coming or not, the signature ‘surprise’ moments have never before punctuated episodes with such clarity. In particular, last years Red Wedding had nothing on the duel between the Viper and the Mountain for my money as far as sheer gut-wrenching horror is concerned.
Season Four is also the year that Game of Thrones generally came into its own as an actual television show. With more willingness to let scenes breathe (such as the unbelievable tension of the Purple Wedding or the Baelish inquisition) and less reliance on checking in with all twenty seven main cast members every single week, the show feels like a more defined character drama that occasionally lapses into the fantastical or horrific violence to drive home a point about the world. And the increase in production values this season is nothing short of glorious. Combat suddenly has a real grit and fluidity that previous seasons lacked (if you were to ask me I’d say that The Watchers on the Wall blew the similarly locale-locked Blackwater out of the water in regards to technical prowess) and for a season finale that featured the two best showdowns we’ve been treated to yet, it was the music that stole the show, breaking away from the synthetic standard and presenting a weighty orchestra and robust choir.
Many of my problems are book quibbles but in the face of frequently excellent cast performances, truly brutal violence and writing with the capacity to be heart-warming and soul crushing in equal measure, my problems don’t amount to much. With the show fast catching up with the books, I find myself less concerned with the show spoiling my engagement in the novels than I have done previously. Game of Thrones stands on its own two feet rather than using the novels as a crutch now more than ever and I keep telling myself that, yes, “Winter is Coming” because not long after that so is more Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones Series Four is available to stream for free online on Sky Go in the UK.