Unlike the famous Iron Throne itself, Game of Thrones has consolidated its position as pure comfort storytelling, as the first episode of Season Four showed. *Only televisual story spoilers here up to 4.1, but by the dragon load.
THE MUCH ANTICIPATED FOURTH SERIES OF GAME OF THRONES KICKED OFF LAST WEEK, ITS ARRIVAL SLOWER THAN DANERYS TARGARYEN’S CONSCRIPTION RATE. The series premiere was a typical opener; reintroducing characters in its own time and effortlessly refreshing and advancing the plot in a methodical but luxurious way. The random, yet appropriate appearance of Janos Slynt half way through showed how important that approach is. While in many other show’s in any other show, his protestations as former Commander of the King’s Landing City Watch may look forced, in Game of Thrones’ measured structure it works in the midst of Jon Snow’s great Black Watch dissolution and crucially, Aemon Targaryen’s withering parting shot.
It’s easy to think that little happens…
On the small screen, Game of Thrones has always used its weaknesses as a great strength. It’s easy to look on any one season and think that little happens– see particularly Season Two, when very little happens. Westeros way, plot points that may sustain other series or provide season climaxes are often brushed over. A great example is Ned Stark’s reveal of Robert Baratheon’s bastard son in the first season. It’s a major catalyst for the oncoming war but given little space in the episode and little prominence in the episode’s ‘acts’, especially in comparison to the later Lannister-Stark stand-off. Instead, amid the battles and more usually the hanging suspense of battle and receipt of field reports, Game of Thrones sinks back to the characters and their scripting. A stinging barb or one line reference is often far more powerful within the storyline than any action the audience sees.
A streamlined conflama that constantly pleases the majority
Of course, that’s also a rather good get out, especially in a densely populated story where the high body count can’t quite compete with constant new arrivals. Any time there may be some trouble in the structure, pace or plot development Thrones falls back on its sketch-based set-up, nipping between geographies and respective characters. And who better in the opening episode to wield the directing rapier so skilfully than the core writing team themselves?
The show’s helped by its novel root of course – as well as coming a good few volumes in. That source material is being used well and it needs to be. The necessity to refresh and build is as evident as the disconcerting failure of a recasting like Daario Naharis’ in Season Four. But far from little happening, the sketch structure gives the show an underlying level of satisfaction; reassuring in spite of the bloodshed and trauma and also leaving a rather pleasing amount to the imagination. This isn’t the reaching cluster of mystery seen in the show’s most famous forerunners, The X-Files, Lost or Heroes but a rather streamlined conflama that constantly pleases the majority.
The final section of Season Four’s premiere illustrated that almost perfectly.
The Final Hunt
The young wolf adds to her kills…
Although the season kicked off with the symbolic (or better put, vengeful and snide) melting of the House’s great sword Ice, there was little Stark to be found in the opener. That sword made a weapon for Jaime Lannister and an as yet unknown, reminding of the hidden dysfunction of the Lannister family nicely. Later, Sansa Stark’s grief was far more important for Tyrion’s character development than her family travails.
It took the switch to the Riverlands in the final section to add anything to the series’ original House. A combination of choice dialogue, suspense, contrivance and a peak of rewarding violence showed Thrones at its best. And all involving two of the story’s so far undernourished but pivotal characters.
Some light banter about horses between Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark refreshed the characters’ motives and story. Nominally this is money and vengeance – the intention of both to rid one of the other – but as always in Thrones those motivations can be dispensed with immediately.
The chance encounter at the end should also be quickly dismissed. Such things add a little too much balance compared to the many historic struggles that Thrones apes, but this is all about the impact on character. Each of the major players can be boiled down to facets of their sigil. And here the wolf was in the ascendance.
First came a mildy laboured and distasteful build-up of tension – though one that encapsulated the state of the land during Joffrey’s reign. And then, after the niggling, downing and an incredible misreading by the King’s men, an obligatory fight. While the Dog Clegane was unusually incompetent, the young wolf added to her kills.
Arya’s slaying was shot in a woozy, seedy style, relishing the sound and horrible control – reflecting her satisfaction in such a complete act of revenge. There’s no doubt who or what she’s becoming. And sure enough, the final scene with the familiar score rising about it showed that she’d earned the horse so neatly referenced at the beginning. Also that Stark and Clegane had become that little more similar. An unlikely duo, an uneasy alliance, but a relationship reset and remoulded yet again with few words.
It’s immensely satisfying watching that kind of development done well: atavistic, minimally verbal and thematically complete. Thrones never leaves you in any doubt that you are watching the placement of rungs on a ladder just as much as movement of chess pieces on a board.
The inevitable clash of the Cleganes…
Clegane is perhaps, language aside, one of the more Gormenghast characters in the story, and an unknown quantity outside similar walls. But
the closing scene sets up his story as much as Arya’s. As the familiar score rose behind, as the young Stark had earned her new steed, the fires of the Riverland set the inevitable clash of the Cleganes as the Dog wandered into the territory of his brother The Mountain (recast… For the third time). As family, or lack of it, becomes more important to Clegane so Arya’s maturity is fuelled by blood. These two will soon be inseparable. By the end, the Dog had become that little more wolf and the wolf so much more dog. But with the Riverland alight, in a masterless land, what is a Dog but a Wolf?
Now, time to press play on the Purple wedding…