June 16, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Game of Thrones”


Season 4 of HBO’s epic GAME OF THRONES had the good fortune to cover the back half of George R. R. Martin’s third novel in the series, “A Storm of Swords,” which is perhaps the most thrill-packed few hundred pages in the entire saga.  That made for a 10-hour ride with few chances for viewers to catch their breath (OK, there were the Stannis scenes, but that’s just who he is), and a season finale that could barely squeeze in all the climaxes it wanted to contain, even with an extra few minutes allotted by the network.

Because of the eventful nature of this season, series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (the finale was one of 7 episodes this season they wrote themselves, and Weiss also directed the season premiere) structured things differently.  Entering midway through a novel, there was no slow build-up to dramatic action as in prior years:  Joffrey’s murder took place in episode 2, and things rolled on from there.  However, while episode 9 last week was, as is traditional with Thrones, the largest-scale hour of the season, and the rare episode to deal with just one storyline, the battle at the Wall involved very few of the show’s central characters, and it was more impressive visually than emotionally (other, of course, than in the death of Ygritte).

That left tonight’s finale crammed with emotional high points, of which the highest properly belonged to the king of Thrones, if not of Westeros, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage).  Dinklage had an extraordinary season, his trial for Joffrey’s murder and the betrayal of most of his supposed friends giving us a more embittered, fatalistic Tyrion.  Benioff and Weiss held his story for almost the end of the finale, and it was worth the wait, as Tyrion was rescued the night before his scheduled execution by his brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), but made a stop on the way out at the chambers of his father Tywin (Charles Dance).  Shockingly, Tyrion found his own ex-lover, the ever-practical Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in his father’s bed, and he murdered both her, and Tywin–the latter caught with a crossbow while sitting on the royal toilet.  Dinklage brought amazing power to both scenes, and he was matched in the second by Dance; as much as Tywin deserved to die, the series will miss his presence.

Almost as thrilling was the culmination of the story of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her season-long journeys with the Hound, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann).  Benioff and Weiss added to this story the Hound’s swordfight with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie)–an inspired extra touch–but the final scene between Arya and the Hound was very similar to the novel’s.  This was a big season for Maisie Williams, who’s convincingly taken Arya from the appealing tomboy of the first seasons to a darker, more complicated character who’s become someone to reckon with.

Other climaxes were more fragmentary.  Stannis’s sudden appearance in the North to save the day against the Wildlings was wonderfully filmed by director Alex Graves (a single overhead CG shot made better sense of what was going on than the action sequences in most of this summer’s movie spectacles), but it was a problematic, barely-motivated development in the book and remained one here.  Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) continued to bear the brunt of Thrones‘ mystical side, and while the fight with the walking skeletons was exciting (if a bit Pirates of the Caribbean-ish), it mostly served as a set-up for what he’ll be doing in Season 5.  Although the animation of the show’s dragons has become ever more impressive, the sequence of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) having to lock up her pets seemed to be in the episode just so they could all make an appearance in the finale–although there was no such look-in for Petyr or Sansa.  (Incidentally, a portion of the Internet is blowing up because the climactic revelation that occurs in the last few paragraphs of the third novel wasn’t present in the season finale, presumably being held for next season.  Without spoiling what hasn’t yet been shown, the decision seems a wise one, because although Martin got away with it in the book, having it occur in the last 15 seconds of the TV season could have felt a bit tacky and gimmicky, a too-blunt cliffhanger.)

Game of Thrones can do just about anything it wants at this point. The series flouts every rule of conventional television narrative, telling open-ended stories in which most of the characters never interact or even meet each other, storylines juggle for attention each week (and sometimes vanish for weeks), and no ending is in sight.  Although it now has many imitators, nothing else on television compares to the massive scale of its visuals, the complexity of its narrative or the size of its uniformly splendid cast (only HBO knows how much its episodic budget is at this point), and hardly anything is in a league with its success.  It’s the highest-rated show on HBO, and depending on what viewing platforms are counted, arguably its biggest hit ever.  In fact, considering that 2/3 of US homes still don’t subscribe to HBO, in a sense it’s the highest rated non-sports event on all of television, bigger than The Big Bang Theory or The Walking Dead in houses that can see it.  It’s been renewed for the next 2 seasons, and considering that it has plenty of novels still to adapt (2 already published, one in process, and at least one more to follow after that), it has several more years ahead of it.  As its steady rise in the ratings, season by season, has shown, it’s earned its wild success through phenomenal word of mouth.  The only real problem with Game of Thrones is that when a season ends, it takes 42 weeks for the next to begin.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."