Game of Thrones remains one of the most consistent shows on television. It's so consistent that even its premieres and finales don't often do too many surprising things, instead dropping you right back into the action and picking up with its sprawling cast of characters, most of whom are ever on the move and headed towards one destination or another. It's one of the most plot driven shows on TV, only ever asking the audience to keep up with the cast of characters and not so much with the complex ambiguities of said characters (although showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff occasionally do try to inject some shades of grey into them, but often that will end up leading to confusing motivations when the set in stone plot twists must ultimately occur). I thought the third season was the best of the show's run, but this year for me was decidedly more uneven, and most importantly, simply spent too much time with some peripheral characters that I've never been all that interested in.
We'll start with the place that always been my favorite setting on the show- King's Landing. This is of course where Peter Dinklage's Tyrion resides, as well as the rest of the Lannisters, all of whom no matter how treacherous and shady they may be, have always been the most interesting people on the show. Whether it's the evil Cersei (Lena Headey, who seemed to have less screen time than ever this season), the villain turned good guy Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the sometimes evil but supposedly family oriented patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance), the slickly smooth Lord Varys, and of course the charismatic and lovable Tyrion himself- I could honestly spend all of every episode at King's Landing, and the time that we do spend with almost any other group of people, I'm always looking forward to getting back to the soap opera-esque plotting and scheming of the Lannisters. For example, the two very best episodes this year in my estimation were the second episode that spent the vast majority of its time on the Purple Wedding (where we saw the squirming and overdue death of the nasty boy king Joffrey) and the episode that dwelled mostly on Tyrion's trial where he faces up to the two-faced citizens who all lie about his involvement in Joffrey's death. In particular, that twenty minutes or so is so memorable and dramatic that I don't even remember what else happened in that episode! Even Joffrey's death, which fans have been clamoring for for years, while satisfyingly gruesome and deserving, was almost too bad because of the loss of the worst and yet most entertaining villain throughout the show's run. Even now, as I think about it, an entirely separate show could exist that takes every character who inhabits King's Landing and spends all of our time with them, relishing in the devious plots and machinations to take over the reigns of power from within.
Unfortunately we do have to spend lots of time with lots of other characters in this massive ensemble, not all of whom are terribly intriguing. The worst has got to be Theon Greyjoy, the awful traitor to the Starks who spent all of last season being tortured at the hands of Ramsay Snow, to now become his pet and slave toy...ugh. This is the worst ongoing plot on the show, both characters are awful and every time we see them I count the minutes until they leave. Then there's Danaerys of course, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains...you know the rest. Emilia Clarke's good as always, but Khaleesi's storyline is so isolated and so far away from everyone else's that her screen time has always been a problem on the show. Last year proved to be an exception as they figured out a way to give her more interesting material to work with (although that was probably simply the case in that particular book), but this year was back to business as usual, with Khaleesi reigning over her freed city of Bravos while accomplishing nothing of any significance to the plot, at least from what I could tell (aside from banishing Sir Richard from Downton Abbey for his early and long forgotten betrayal of her back in the first season). Her actual last scene this year, the climax of her storyline, was sadly locking her now grown up dragons in the dungeon, lest they accidentally kill any more babies while flying around breathing fire. Yeah, that was not the most dramatic stuff.
Faring better was little Arya Stark's ongoing travels with the Hound, the bounty hunter who took her as his kind of prisoner last year in order to bring her back to her aunt, and this was only good because the two actors worked well and had a funny odd couple chemistry together- but of course before we get too attached the Hound is killed off (or at least it looks like he was) and Arya's off on her own again, so whatever purpose that plot actually served in the end is lost on me. Finally, we come to the "action" at the Wall. Sigh, the Wall. I have never cared about anything that's happening at the Wall or with the Night's Watch (ok, so I kind of like Sam, who at least gets a girlfriend in Gilly this year), and this season spent the entire penultimate episode with the guys at the Wall while they struggled to fight off the incoming Wildlings (another group of people I couldn't care less about), ala the battle of Blackwater in the second season. Except, you know why Blackwater was more interesting, show? Because it involved the people at King's Landing, of course! Tyrion, Cersei, Joffrey! This episode on the other hand was impressive filmmaking, yes (hugely impressive for a television show), but it really didn't mean anything to me and wasn't worth spending an entire hour with people I don't care about (don't even get me started on Igritte's death- I hated her character and that demise was long overdue).
I don't mean to sound overly harsh, but for me a lot of this season's material simply wasn't as compelling as it should have been. The technical aspects, the production values, the acting, all of that remains top notch and a level above anything else on TV- I don't think it will ever falter in that regard (wish we could see more of the Whitewalkers this year though). Still, whether you like certain characters or not is not the fault of the show, which has to follow these books no matter what happens. But there were some strange decisions on the writer's part regarding certain character's motivations this year that made the actions they must eventually take feel not particularly organic. The first example was the infamous Jamie-Cersei "rape" scene in the third episode- fans were outraged at Jamie's actions, but the way it was depicted in the book was never construed as rape in any way, so the decision to make the character's relationship more ambiguous really didn't serve any purpose, especially because the aftermath was never dealt with or even acknowledged.
Another example was Tyrion's killing of his father, the climax of his time in King's Landing after his trial, but again the show for some strange reason chose to make Tyrion's goals in the scene unclear and wavering, along with Tywin's, and the manner in which Tyrion ultimately takes him down seems oddly reluctant and regretful, when his blind rage in the book seemed to make more sense as to how he could go through with it. So in the end the climax of Tyrion's storyline this whole season was wrapped up in frankly unsatisfying fashion, dogged by underdeveloped and murky character motivations, as though meant to make Tyrion a "nice" murderer, if he had to be one at all. And the betrayal of Shae was out of left field and totally unexplained, along with how she came to be having an affair with Tywin in the first place, something that I sure would like to have known. Finally, the introduction of Prince Oberyn, another compelling new character in the King's Landing canon of creepers, was apparently built up for most of this season for nothing but his brutally gruesome death in the third to last episode, seemingly for shock value alone. So I guess the lesson there is not to get too attached to any new character they bring in, no matter how hard they work to develop him, huh? It's starting to get a little predictable after a while, guys. I mean really, why bother to make him interesting at all if he's not even going to stick around a full season (which is only ten episodes anyway?)
All in all, even though Game of Thrones is still a good, solid series, the story this year left a little to be desired, and frankly with Tyrion, Tywin and now Varys gone from King's Landing, I'm a little worried about how the show will fare as some of the bigger characters spread out next season and we lose the solid environment that had been settled for so long in that part of the seven kingdoms. Is it going to mean more Danaerys instead? Or worse, the guys at the Wall? The thought of it doesn't thrill me. But hey, I'm four seasons in with this thing, I won't be ditching it anytime soon. And with Weiss and Benioff likely set to deviate even more from the books as they now realize there is no way they won't pass the point where George R.R. Martin has already written, I should probably learn to give them even more leeway as they make their way to the finish line with various inevitable improvisations. And they've brought us this far, so I say they've earned our trust, don't you?