“Game of Thrones” Season 4 review: Violence! Humor! Revenge!

"Game of Thrones" returns for a fourth season -- and the "heroes" have never seemed so murky

Topics: TV, Game of Thrones, HBO, a song of ice and fire, peter dinklage, Editor's Picks, george r.r. martin, Game of thrones season four,

"Game of Thrones" Season 4 review: Violence! Humor! Revenge! Kit Harington in "Game of Thrones" (Credit: HBO)
WARNING! This review contains some "Game of Thrones" spoilers!

Let’s play a game. Respond quickly to the next question; don’t overthink it: Who is the hero of “Game of Thrones”? Even in this age of overwhelmingly Byronic protagonists, an answer does not leap to mind as easily as with “The Good Wife,” “Mad Men” or even “Breaking Bad.”  Is it Jon Snow, the bastard son of the guy who seemed like the hero before he got beheaded and half-brother of the guy that got murdered during his wedding? Does valor travel more directly through blood, therefore designating one of  his half-sisters, the Stark girls? Is it the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen whose birthright was stripped from her while she was still a child? Or is it one of the Lannisters? For better or worse, how you answer this question may say a lot about how you experience the show.

A more telling question to begin with might be: What would it even mean to be the hero of this sprawling tale? From the title alone we know ostensibly what’s at stake. Last season left us with an indisputably foul villain on that throne and an unexpected dearth of claimants in good enough shape to challenge him for it.  Unseating Joffrey Baratheon would certainly be a heroic act. But of the two individuals most likely to do so at the moment, both would be doing so out of a perceived right to rule, not justly, per se.

As Robert the Usurper’s brother, Stannis Baratheon really wants to be king. But what would that do for Westeros other than subject the realm to some seriously creepy religious fanaticism? His brother took the Iron Throne by force, his personal politics are murky at best, and he’s terrible at delegating. The equally self-righteous Dany Targaryen has, in exile, discovered a cause and a calling, freeing slaves far across the Narrow Sea. So, why doesn’t she simply remain and be a hero where slavery seems far more prevalent and the enslaved are desperately in need of a champion? The Khaleesi has no family in Westeros, no purpose other than to take back that which she, herself, never physically owned. Her claim to the throne smacks of childlike entitlement and even stubbornness.

The season premiere is practically a tour of the pitiful, sometimes laughable, but still most promising candidates for our hero. (Note: Stannis is conspicuously absent here.) Jaime Lannister is still the handsomest, eldest son of a privileged family in power, yet impotent as a warrior, having lost his sword hand. Unwilling to accept a less esteemed role, he is denounced and disowned by his father. Believing Jaime Lannister — “The King Slayer” and “Oath Breaker” — as the hero of this story means believing in his redemption. As he is great to look at and charismatic, and shows frequent glimmers of decency the more he transitions into underdog status, that is a fairly attractive narrative – provided you can get over the whole incest thing.

Speaking of incest, Jaime’s sister is now as low as we have seen her. Cersei refuses her brother’s, um, solace, choosing instead to drink heavily and recount her list of degradations. Her diminutive sibling, Tyrion Lannister is better off, but not by much. His true love is turning against him as he forsakes her for a new wife who needs him so much more. Trapped in a marriage that reminds him every day of his family’s legacy of cruelty, he continues to play the part of his father Tywin’s lackey in this and everything else.

In this first episode of the season, Tyrion is charged with keeping watch over a brand-new addition to the epic: the very dangerous and unpredictable Oberyn Martell, a prince of Dorne whose blood thirst is equaled only by his libido. Like just about anyone alive, the Martells have a legitimate gripe against Tywin Lannister of which Tyrion is expected to bare the brunt. His first, frightening encounter with Oberyn is prefaced by that most foreboding of Westerosi tunes, “The Rains of Castamere.” Say no more.

It also goes without saying that, on paper, Tyrion makes an ideal hero: The physically disadvantaged, least regarded child of a wealthy family, burdened with his own vices, mature enough to see his family dominance for what it is and somehow make amends. Tyrion’s journey, wherever it may take him, carries the added bonus of being both poignant and funny, featuring the melancholic shadow of his back story and the wittiest of snark between himself, his bodyguard and his squire. Typical of the hilarious henchman, Bronn seems to be the only person not afraid that Oberyn will swallow him whole.

Jon Snow is undeniably heroic. His war goes way beyond the tribal infighting that passes for Westerosi politics. He is fighting to protect the realm from untold enemies. In this episode, we meet the Thenn, a tribe of scarred and vicious cannibals who have formed an uneasy alliance with Mance Rayder and the so-called wildlings advancing on Castle Black. Despite the encroaching danger, many of Snow’s own people do not believe him, much less support him.

Unfortunately, his struggle can also be tedious to watch. I know it’s cold up by the wall – plus you alone know your ex-girlfriend’s extended family is coming to kill everyone – but the guy never lightens up. Spoiler alert: How can you not laugh when blind Maester Aemon is cracking wise and putting those nervous old Night’s Watch sourpusses in their places?

Fortunately, the season premiere builds to a satisfying climax – especially if you like violence, humor and revenge, which bring us to Arya. One can argue that Jon Snow’s battle to protect the realm is more heroic than Arya’s lust for vengeance, but her arc packs so much more edge and uncertainty. Her ally, unlike Jon’s pudgy, pathetic Sam, is the monstrous Hound, Sandor Clegane. Their unexpected pairing could either turn out like the scorpion and the frog or the Terminator and John Connor.

In the closing minutes of Sunday’s admittedly uneven episode, we see more of the latter when Clegane begrudgingly helps Arya experience a modest sum of justice. The moment is both gory and somehow touching. Little Arya may not grow up to become the hero of “Game of Thrones” – as a naive part of me has always wished – but every day she gets handier with a blade, and she certainly has the best sidekick.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...