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Game of Thrones: TV Review

Game of Thrones Review - H 2014
HBO

The Bottom Line

Game of Thrones proves yet again why it's one of the rare genre series to not only be taken seriously but to prove its worth season after season. It's well-written, well-acted and has created so many wonderful characters -- who, of course, will probably die. This is a show with no rules -- and that's partly why tension and expectation are both always running high. 

Airdate

Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO, beginning April 6

Season four of the epic fantasy series begins to bring the warring factions closer and reiterates just how great this show truly is -- as it operates with intimacy and grandeur.

HBO’s sprawling, epic fantasy drama hit Game of Thrones returns for its fourth season on April 6, and the one thing fans will realize – as they do every year – is just how many plates are spinning in this series.

It’s incredibly impressive.

The initial realization that Game of Thrones is one of the most densely packed stories on television and filled with what often seems like an endless parade of castmembers, is sometimes truly daunting. Viewers have to recall allegiances, deceitful and otherwise, plus remember all the backstabbing plans that have been put in motion from the start of the show. Barring a rewatching of season three, a really long and involved "previously on" might be the greatest gift HBO can give to viewers.

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Once up to speed, however, that old feeling returns rather quickly – a nagging addiction to the myriad stories and incredibly well-written interplay between them all. Those plates stay spinning – not wobbling – because series creators and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – along with George R.R. Martin, the man who dreamt it all up in book form (and writes episodes as well) – are masterful at what they do. That just can’t be overstated.

Fans who haven’t read the books, which is likely the majority, learned in season one what the book fans already knew: Nobody is safe. Major characters are killed off with regularity – the clock is always ticking on someone. (In fact, the slogan for season four is “All men must die”.) That creates a sense of unease for viewers. By creating a world where anything can happen, the drama is ratcheted up, giving Benioff, Weiss and Martin a lot of room for creative string-pulling.

But this series doesn’t lean too hard on the swords, arrows, knives and machetes (and let’s not forget a certain someone’s dragons), giving equal weight to the considerable verbal arsenal of many of the main characters, some of whom display a special fondness for cutting one-liners and malice-filled threats.

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The writing has always fueled the series, but Game of Thrones is criminally neglected when it comes to Emmy recognition not only in that area but also in the acting categories. While everyone is essentially a supporting actor on this show, not even a fraction of the deserving are given their due.

Heading into season four, Benioff, Weiss and Martin start ratcheting up the ominous threat of all-out war. It’s been coming for three seasons, and the fact that the Lannisters have managed to drastically reduce the threat of the Starks and Baratheons doesn’t mean that all is well or that war, in and of itself, is over. The battle for power is ever ongoing in Game of Thrones.

Reminder: “All men must die.”

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her dragons are rolling up huge numbers of soldiers and will likely be able to get the ships they need to sail to Westeros and restore the Targaryen glory. Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) and his Wildlings are closing in on the Night’s Watch at The Wall, with even more ragtag types joining their ranks (and the White Walkers are certainly not giving up their advance, either). Meanwhile, a new threat arrives from Dorne, with Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) wanting to avenge past injustices by the Lannisters.

In short, all hell is breaking out and nobody is safe.

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Having seen the first three episodes – which contain enough twists and shocks to make pretty much all fans happy – it’s hard to express enough appreciation for the complex successes of Game of Thrones. To keep this massive story afloat is a sublime feat, and the series even manages to minimize the issues endemic to such a sprawling epic. For instance, the story's myriad moving parts often mean viewers are only given very short amounts of time with certain integral characters, which can be frustrating. But the show manages to make maximum use of that time, with characters like Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and The Hound (Rory McCann) getting some run, and good old Jaime Lannister (Nikolas Coster-Waldau) being as riveting as ever. Also effective: shifting the emphasis to other characters who maybe were bit players in the previous season while that part of the story was being told. It’s a difficult task to satiate the hard-core fans, but writing sparkling dialogue that the actors in turn nail (within the short scenes where they are featured) alleviates much of the frustration.

Game of Thrones also does much of its best work visually – it often masters dense, dark interior scenes where crisp dialogue slays a family member or foe, or a knife or blow to the head (sometimes repeatedly) reiterates the cruel world that the diverse Thrones characters are populating.

The series also echoes the breadth of the stunning opening credits by transferring a sense of expanse to the viewer with well-choreographed exterior shots that give a sense of place and scale. Along those lines, scenes that take place in forests or rolling hills, darkened seas or dry, foreboding deserts always convey that those who run in the kingdoms of the world are seeking to unite them and are thus rushing inevitably toward one another. Without this visual composition of a vast and seemingly limitless exterior world, viewers would be without essential information on how difficult it would be for, say, Daenerys to complete her journey and exact revenge or how soon the Wildlings and the people beyond The Wall will be at another’s doorsteps. By being deft with external and internal visuals, Thrones gives viewers the scope they need to absorb the magnitude of the story.

The first three episodes are predictably spot-on – action-packed, terrific scenes full of searing dialogue bumping up against others where volumes are spoken with facial features or silence. The consistent excellence in Game of Thrones is truly something to behold. Even in three episodes, viewers will sense things tightening up – that winter and war are coming and they are coming on full-stop. If there’s anything to complain about with Game of Thrones it’s the 10-episode seasons, which cry out for 13 episodes given the immense world that Thrones inhabits. But since that’s unlikely to happen (for a number of reasons – none of which I find very compelling), what’s left are just enough hours to prove the series’ power and allure, thus leaving viewers dying for more the next season. As a strategy, that’s not a bad one.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine