One of the first questions fans had when entering Season 4 of Game of Thrones, now that the show had become such a phenomenon, was whether or not it would ever top the pure shock of last season’s The Red Wedding. That brutal episode saw some pretty depressing and jolting deaths and shook the game for the Iron Throne dramatically. And it wasn’t even the one written by George R. R. Martin. After Season 2’s Blackwater, it cemented the show’s penchant for delivering a penultimate episode (traditionally referred to as the 9th episode) that tips the scales in the season.
It’s quite surprising to find out then that Season 4 dishes out its own equivalent of The Rains of Castamere. Dubbed The Purple Wedding, this episode sees the demise of ruling king Joffrey Baratheon and shifts the powerplay even significantly in Game of Thrones. To the satisfaction of book purists, this comes from George R. R. Martin who wrote this in what was to be his final episode for the series. The Lion And The Rose successfully builds tension from seemingly less stressful events and the palpable tension mounts and mounts until it explodes with Joffrey’s eyes turning purple and king collapsing in his mother Cersei’s arms, crying out for help one last time. That such a monumental event occurred is itself huge, it’s an even bigger thing that this development happens in as soon as the second episode, framing Tyrion Lannister and fueling a trial that runs through the remainder of the season’s King’s Landing segments.
Truly big things happen in Season 4 and as the above episode indicates, their beauty is that they’re not preserved for the “9th episode”. If anything, this episode’s 9th episode is among the weakest in the series in terms of the shock value it provides, but the strongest in terms of spectacle (yet). It features a full-scale assault / battle between the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch nicknamed after the episode’s title – Watchers on the Wall. The entire season builds up to that conflict as Jon Snow first infiltrates, then betrays the Wildlings and returns back to his brothers to prepare them for the war that lies ahead. And what a war it is, with Giants and Thenns and hundreds of other clans fighting for the Wildlings against just a hundred odd men of the Night’s Watch. Director Neil Marshall of Blackwater returns to stage some excellent sequences, including a continuous pan shot that carries the camera from the ground to the top of the wall, as well as another that rotates 360 degrees to showcase the brutality of the assault over Castle Black. The significance of this episode, and the one that follows it is that it helps the Wall snatch the title of the most interesing storyline in the Seven Kingdoms from King’s Landing by the time the season is over.
Returning back to the earlier episodes, big developments abound in Season 4 for another important player in the puzzle, Daenerys Targaryen. After successfully taking both Astapor and Yunkai in the same season, she sets her sights on Meereen which does take a while to accept her as their rightful ruler. The storyline also moves briskly for Littlefinger who emerges as the true orchestrator of several games in King’s Landing and across the Seven Kingdoms, as he teams up with whoever is needed to get the deed done. And for the first time, we witness the show diverge heavily / jump ahead to the books by revealing stuff about the White Walkers and how they grow their ranks, which was meted with unanimous delight by viewers.
Season 4 also brings Dorne more into focus through the eyes of Oberyn Martell. Played to perfection by the enigmatic Pedro Pascal, Oberyn is a fascinating character despite being guided by the singular motive of revenge. Pascal infuses some complexity into the character by bringing Martell’s pansexual nature and his excellent combat skills with a spear to the forefront, making it all the more painful to see the character depart by the end of the season. It’s one of the show’s more frustrating attributes (in a good way) of introducing strong, almost-lead characters, getting people to root for them and disposing them off within a season or two. And Martell’s departure follows a warm discussion he had with Tyrion Lannister (which was partly Pascal’s idea) in which he refuses to acknowledge the imp as the monster his father so made him to be.
Despite the show’s central cast beginning to reduce, Game of Thrones doesn’t shy away from bumping off key characters. By the season’s end, a lot of the central cast is disposed off while still leaving out plenty more. Some of the deaths are rather shocking, some surprising, some touching and a few even welcome. Without wanting to give away stuff specifically, a crucial piece of Jon Snow’s saga comes to a rather poignant end, made all the more so thanks to Ramin Djawadi’s emotionally stirring theme. And as with all episodes, the season goes out on a really strong note with key characters like Tyrion and Arya moving out of their comfort zones and headed for uncharted territories. Their journeys take them to some far out but interesting places, as future reviews shall reveal.
Even though a lot of the budget is devoted to Watchers on the Wall, there are some other spectacular bits of action to be found. The chief of them are the dragons which are growing rapidly in size. And with Danerys’ subplot about having trouble controlling them, they’re even more in the forefront resulting in some heavy-duty effects work requirements. The Mountain and the Viper also features an expertly choerographed fight between Oberyn and the Mountain and the fight is kept short, but moves briskly featuring combat not really witnessed in this sword-fight heavy show. It’s a new style of fighting that’s unfortunately over as quickly as it begins but it’s exclusivity to the episode helps that hour’s climax stand out.
At this point, it’s futile to comment on the actors and their performances since everyone is at the top of their game, having sunk deep into their characters to be indistinguishable from their real-life personas on screen. If I were to single out highlights though, it would be Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in what’s a rather limited arc yet, made the most of by the actor who, despite being confined to a dungeon for the better part of the show, has some superb moments and outbursts and confrontations during and after his trial that linger on for long to come. Kit Harrington is another highlight, slowly coming into the forefront of things with his arc gathering more prominence, and he portrays the struggle between loyalty and betrayal and devotion to the watch like a warrior, not to mention he kicks some serious Wilding butt through his sword-fights. And it’s also great to see Emilia Clarke truly grow from the meek, silent “Khaleesi” of Season 1 to the strong, uncompromising yet concerned ruler of the slave cities she frees.
There are barely any hiccups to be found, save for the pacing of a few in-between episodes. Where other shows would be lucky to garner a single 10 out of 10 episode in their entire lifetimes, Game of Thrones has now become a show where 10s are handed out routinely, often on multiple episodes in the same season. It’s a testament to the consistently strong writing by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss along with some strong plotting by Bryan Cogman, great source material courtesy Martin and some great directors, many of whom are handed multiple episodes together with a strong cast and sound technical crew that manages to deliver season after season of pure awesomeness. The night has far from ended for this show and it’s going to be a riveting march to the conclusion moving ahead.
Game of Thrones Season 4 Rating: 9.5 out of 10.0
In this For The Throne retrospective series, we take a look back at all seasons of George R. R. Martin’s hit fantasy show Game of Thrones, uncovering new insights, identifying connections and spotting plot points and teases that go on to play an important role in the final season. These posts are littered with spoiler so exercise caution when reading.