Game of Thrones - Season 4 - Parts 1-3Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 8 May 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1 - Two Swords 2- The Lion and The Rose 3 - Breaker of Chains

This HBO production is one of the highest rated shows on the TV channels it graces on both sides of the Atlantic with a remarkable IMDB rating and lavish DVD/ blu-ray box sets that sell by the shed load. By now 'Game of Thrones' is well and truly embedded in popular culture. There is much to treasure: believable dialogue furthering story lines and deepening characters, well-choreographed sword fights, stunning locations,elaborate sets and costumes, convincing CGI in the form of three young dragons that are Danaerys Targaryen's trump-card, terrific music and punchy direction, and silky smooth editing. Even the opening title sequence, which tests patience by running for two minutes with a vast map being zoomed in and out of as dozens of names quickly flash by, somehow comes off impressively.
This show is the worthiest of adaptations of a remarkable set of novels whose readership in yesteryear was committed but still niche compared to the more mainstream big hitters put out by publishers. Yet in the wake of the show's great success, creator George RR Martin has enjoyed a far greater impact in specialist bookshops, high street shops, online, and on electronic devices. Quite deservedly too, as this keen reader can attest. But how is the adaptation faring in the here and now?

After a strong third season with one of the most devastating set pieces to startle viewer - namely 'The Red Wedding' - the hope was that at least the same consistency and confidence would be maintained. In fact the early signs are showing that season one may lose the crown of best overall season in about two months time. These opening entries are assured, fluid, full of incident and clever dialogue, and have a company of established actors totally making the most of their varied roles in the affairs of Westeros. The pre-credits sequence that opens the actual events of season four is sinister and yet oddly graceful. Tywin Lannister grimly reforges Ned Stark's long sword 'Ice' into two new swords which contain precious Valyrian Steel. Despite being a hand short compared to this time last year, favourite child Jaime is one recipient of the new weapons.

Sean Bean may have only starred in nine episodes of the entire show, but his gallant alter-ego Ned has not been forgotten. Indeed the Stark children - with betrayed Robb the exception - are alive and trying their best to make the most of their precarious situations. The various child and adult actors that play this generation of Starks all continue to build on their prior good work. I particularly welcome the portrayal of Jon Snow from Kit Harrington after a bland show in season two and a respectable effort last year, that nonetheless was overshadowed by romantic interest Ygritte. A wonderful scene where he confronts Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt is both intense and amusing - partly due to the welcome inclusion of the savvy exile Maester Aemon. Jon has quickly grown into a man during his time away from Castle Black and seemingly will make some strides up the chain of command before long.

Arya continues to 'bond' with fellow black sheep The Hound. Their pairing during 2013's later episodes continues to work here - the actors are clearly having a ball. Maisie Williams is a gem of a performer, whose expression and range are first-rate. Rory McCann as the Hound is also improving as time goes on. His stare down of weasel Polliver in the brilliant closing scene of episode one is particularly good. The coda of 'Two Swords' is a study in both suspense and pay-off, rewarding long-term viewers who make an effort to remember the more minor characters. There is a rather dark side now to Arya - which did not entirely get translated when season two was adapting her Harranhal adventures. After the cataclysmic 'Red Wedding' this girl is as ruthless as anyone, knowing that her bigger adversaries underestimate her at their grave peril. Come episode three, there is a rather more light-hearted scene where Arya and Clegane seek shelter with a father and daughter, and seem to be putting on an effort to look chummy with each other. This however is quickly negated by Clegane eventually riding off with Arya - and the last remaining money that their temporary hosts had been saving. There is an inevitability that these two companions can only be a team for so long before one betrays the other. Loyalty rarely lasts in the land of Westeros.

Joffrey is played well by Jack Gleason once again. The young king is somewhat deluded in believing that he actually has the power he wanted, now Robb is dead and Stannis is nowhere in sight. He states that the 'war is over' and also seemingly was convinced by Tywin that the news of Daenerys' dragons is is of little consequence. With Margaery now his bride, things then rapidly take a turn for the worse for Joffrey. The closing image of 'The Lion and the Rose' is a truly powerful one, and is surprisingly mirrored in the opening frames of the following episode. Tyrion (the incomprable Peter Dinklage) is the one caught 'red-handed', with wine the apparent method of dispatch. All the clashes with Joffrey over previous seasons have made this turn of events more powerful. Two major examples include Tyrion's brilliant monologue just before the use of wildfire in the Blackwater battle,and then there was the tense yet amusing confrontation during Tyrion's own marriage banquet. Though he is prime suspect in Joffrey's murder, anyone with common sense could point out that this smart man would not openly kill the boy king and dawdle patiently for the guards to escort him to a dark cell. But most viewers have become used to the absence of rationality in this brutal medieval; world. Tyrion most likely will lack the allies he requires, as he awaits trial and probable punishment. In fact he is commendably loyal to his squire Podrick, and selflessly insists that the youngster leave King's Landing for his own safety.

The scheming of Tywin - who has been exemplary in the role of King's Hand -continues unabated. Charles Dance puts in a predictably strong turn, as the elder Lannister bolsters his hold over the monarchy, and simultaneously educates his younger grandson about rulers of Westeros in previous times. Newly crowned Tommen, who did not even have a minute of screen time last year, has grown up three times faster than one would expect. This is a small concern however and Dean-Charles Chapman has enough basic acting experience behind him to at least put on a respectable display in the company of Dance.

The Tyrells' ambitions also continue in much the same vein as before. Season three brought in Diana Rigg as Olenna - she of the amusing cynicism and precise manipulation. In these installments,the veteran Tyrell is still pulling strings despite the outward appearance of frailty. Also Natalie Dormer's Margaery is a very interesting portrayal that builds on a reasonable but unspectacular character from the books. She clearly enjoys connecting with the great King's Landing populace and seemingly this interaction is somewhat heart-felt. Naturally she also wants to be 'The Queen' and displace Cersei from her seat of power. With the vicious Joffrey no longer a participant, there is now a period where once again the widowed Margaery has to put out feelers for the next in line to the throne. She may be youthful, but is also an experienced player in the 'Game'.

There are some new movers and shakers this season in the form of Dorne's dignitary Oberyn Martell. He is a quick-thinking, assured, if rather ribald man. He also has an alluring paramour in the form of Ellaria Sand. Their relationship - along with some extras lacking items of clothing - is rather unconventional even for this show, but the actors are always engaging and blend with the established company very smoothly. My very first reaction to Pedro Pascal's Oberyn was a little wary as he seemed to be all accent and energy, but by episode two's tense feast sequences I was more than convinced he had the right blend of gusto and gravitas after all.

Roose Bolton played his part in redefining the political map of the realm last season as he oversaw the final moments of Robb and Catelyn. He has but a few moments confined to the second episode, where he asserts authority over his twisted and evil bastard son Ramsey. Also making a return is the Alfie Allen as the pitifuleunuch Theon - alias 'Reek'. I have mixed feelings over the show spelling out the fate of the treacherous Greyjoy during season three, when some mystery would have been effective at this point in proceedings. Having said that, the sequence where Reek stumbles behind his 'master' in the woods during the hunt of a defenceless woman is incredibly well-done, and reminded me of the best scene of the movie 'Moonraker'. Also an exciting new plot line has been set up for coming episodes as Locke - who is a character specially created for the show - is sent up to the Wall/Far North to deal with Jon Snow and retrieve his younger half-brothers Bran and Rickon. Although I despised Locke for his treatment of Brienne and a mellowing Jaime last year, I do admit the actor showed skill in making the two-bit warrior compelling and hope he will provide some more dramatic moments.

What of Littlefinger - truly a selfish and self-serving player in the game? Despite a notable absence in the final few episodes of 2013, he is back with a vengeance in the 'Breaker of Chains' episode. And still seemingly with two swirling moustaches. Petyr Baelish continues to exert more influence in the scheme of things than pompous figures like Joffrey, Stannis, and (for now at least) Danaerys. Over the years Aidan Gill's variable accent has sometimes distracted from an otherwise strong portrayal. However Gill still enlivens any scene he is in. His pet project Sansa Stark learnt little of the game, despite being based in King's Landing for the vast majority of the show's run. By the looks of things she will soon be equally hapless wherever Littlefinger plans on taking her next.

There is some concern thought that such a confident production team have struck themselves in the foot because of one loose decision in episode three. Jaime and Cersei's resumption of conjugal relations is scripted, shot and acted in a rather unpalatable manner. Jaime forces his sister down despite her protestations and offers no comfort. Cersei could in theory threaten Jaime with prison, banishment to the Wall or even death but even so her subjugation does not feel anywhere near consensual. A lot of long-time readers criticized this sequence and those who saw Jaime evolve in Season Three are also aggrieved. Given how he apparently developed in the company of the gallant Brienne, this feels like either a backwards step or a very badly misjudged attempt to provoke reaction.

A more commendable production choice is the recasting of Daario in the Meereen sections. Michiel Huisman is far more subtle whilst still being effortlessly charismatic. Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen as Ser Jorah continue to make a fine pairing of determination and prudence, as the Targaryen queen and her chief adviser look to make gain further influence in these lands. There still is little urgency though in comparison to how the other protagonists connect with those many miles away from them. The sequences away from Westeros almost could belong to a rival TV show of the same genre. And in all honesty I had the same problem in the original Martin text. Hopefully come the end of the actual series, this will be rectified somewhat, and Danaerys will have fully played her part - be it victorious or otherwise.

On the basis of this opening batch of thrills, spills and chills, 'Thrones' is still must-watch TV. It provides viewers with stories of political scheming, battles and plots, mysticism, exotic locations, and a host of characters that all are trying to survive. Refreshing the shades of grey are as much in evidence as ever - and the viewer can but wait impatiently to see what sort of deeds the characters will be involved in come future instalments.