April 7, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Game of Thrones”



GAME OF THRONES is such an assured, expert piece of work that it’s easy to forget how many rules of conventional TV storytelling it routinely violates.  It’s not just the teeming mass of central characters–so many that tonight’s Season 4 premiere wasn’t even able to visit all of them–or that many of the characters barely interact, separated by vast territory (Daenerys and her dragons have been on an entirely different continent from the rest of the cast for seasons, with only the beginnings of a plan to eventually join the big party in Westeros).  It’s also a constantly widening story with climaxes but no endings, composed of characters whose machinations, victories and defeats barely effect the larger universe.

For example, Game of Thrones started out as being about a war, one that pitted Starks against Lannisters.  That war got far more complex as others made claim to the Westeros throne, but as Season 4 begins, the war is essentially over:  both Ned Stark and his son Robb have been killed, directly or indirectly, by the Lannisters, and the other contenders are either dead as well or in retreat.  And yet the Games story treats the end of battle only as a pause.  We’re used to war sagas that look at a war like World War II, say, or even a single battle like D-Day, and revolve around its beginning, middle and end, but Game is concerned with the entirety of its fictional world’s history.

That this avoids being frustrating, and is instead immensely satisfying, is due in the first instance, of course, to author George R.R. Martin’s remarkable storytelling skill, and the fascinating characters he’s constructed.  As a TV series, the credit goes to creator/showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who wrote tonight’s premiere (they write the majority of the scripts themselves), which was also directed by Weiss.  Much of the amount of time and resources HBO gives them (Seasons 3 and 4 together are devoting 20 hours of screen time to the third volume of Martin’s series alone) is used to illuminate the extreme but very human dilemmas of its protagonists.

Season 4 picks up shortly after the close of Season 3 (which is to say after the Red Wedding that brutally ended the war with the Starks), as the action draws closer to the wedding of horrid King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).  It introduces the first of the season’s new major characters, Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who has come to Kings Landing for the wedding, and whose family has a grudge against the Lannisters that dates back to before the Games story proper even began.  Fan favorite Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is left to welcome Oberyn, adding to Tyrion’s problems that include the disdain of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), his new arranged wife Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and his mistress Shae (Sibel Kekilli).  None of the Lannisters are particularly fond of each other, and that now even includes former incestuous lovers–and semi-secret parents of King Joffrey–one-handed brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and sister Cercei (Lena Headey).

Apart from Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her dragons–and her increasingly aggressive suitor Daario (now played by Michiel Huisman, of Treme and Nashville)–we also look in on Jon Snow (Kit Harington), now once again among the “crows” at Castle Black who guard The Wall of Westeros from both the human wildlings and whatever else lie beyond it, and on Jon’s former love Ygritte (Rose Leslie), who’s with a wildling force south of the Wall.  And, of course, there’s that new badass uneasy partnership between Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane AKA The Hound (Rory McCann).  All of them face challenges to their lives and futures that are just beginning to be set up in the premiere.

The remarkable size of the Game of Thrones ensemble is matched by its skill, one performer after another who will likely be remembered for many years into their careers for this credit.  (Charles Dance, who was once the face of starched-shirt PBS drama for his role in The Jewel In the Crown, is now inseparable from the relentless Tywin Lannister.)  Dinklage and Headey get a lot of attention because their roles are so colorful and Martin has given them such an enormous amount of sharp dialogue (and because they’re so good), but really there’s not a weak performance in the bunch.

Game of Thrones may be the most expensive hour on television (it’s also HBO’s biggest blockbuster hit, justifying the expense), and the production values are sumptuous.  Apart from the many, multi-continent locations, it also appears that the show’s CG budget has been increased, with more footage of the ever-growing dragons, as well as Daenerys’ enormous army of former slaves.  Those visuals don’t make a show great by themselves, but they do make a great show better.

Benioff and Weiss have said that they view Season 4 as the midpoint of Game of Thrones, with a run of 7 or 8 seasons envisioned.  (Martin has said he’d like to follow that with 1 or 2 Lord of the Rings-type epic movies for the grand finale.)  With the show at its current level of quality and success, there’s little doubt that can be achieved; it’s a Game its fans don’t particularly want to see end.


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."