The television version of Game Of Thrones has burned through George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire book series pretty fast—so fast that Martin has a strategy for how he’s going to keep pace with the show, lest it overtake the novels. At the dawn of season four, the show is at a crossroads—almost the same one as the books. So far, both versions have felt like a long preamble to the infamous Red Wedding—the penultimate episode of last season, and the midpoint of Martin’s third book, A Storm Of Swords.
The Red Wedding is Martin’s greatest narrative achievement to date, in terms of sheer ambition. He’d already flouted convention by murdering one of his main characters, Ned Stark, in the final moments of the first novel (and the show followed suit, beheading Ned at the end of the first season). But to kill off several of the story’s heroes in one fell swoop—in a ghastly wedding massacre that cannot really be predicted—is nervy genius.
Game Of Thrones’ showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have eagerly followed Martin down his path of ambitious story. The first three seasons of Game Of Thrones were narratively masterful, following many of the tracks Martin provided in his books. (And Martin contributed to the show, as a co-executive producer and writer.) Where the books could not always provide a sense of scale, the show was able to provide lush setpieces and sweeping shots of scenery. Where the books require silent contemplation, the show provides a fantastic soundtrack and indelible accents. And where the book’s laundry list of names gets confusing, the show offers a (slightly less confusing) laundry list of faces to keep straight.
But, as any fan of ASOIAF would tell you, Storm Of Swords is the high point of the series. What follows is interesting, but not in the same way. Season four of Game Of Thrones has the ability to use some of the back half of Storm Of Swords, and in the first few episodes, it’s doing that with aplomb. But commingled with moments that can only be described as “epic” is a certain creeping panic: Where is this story going? For once, there are not legions of snooty fans waving the books and knowingly remarking that if you think this is bad, just wait to see what happens next. There are some upcoming watershed moments for Game Of Thrones, of course—in fact, the fourth season dispatches with one of them in the second episode, “The Lion And The Rose,” in grand style—but increasingly, the show, like the fans, like the books, is grasping a bit more at straws. (This is even evident in the season’s marketing strategy/tagline, which has moved from “Winter Is Coming” to “All Men Must Die”—maybe fans got tired of waiting for winter.)
There are some upsides. The show’s popcorn narrative style means singular characters get strong moments, and then are shelved until they’re needed again. Important lore—like the brief mention of Maester Qyburn, or the background of Ellaria Sand, or the tradition of Valyrian steel swords—integrates into the story far more seamlessly than it does in the books, where it’s simply chunky paragraphs of exposition dropped into Tyrion’s or Dany’s point of view when convenient. And Game Of Thrones has breathed life into supporting characters who are denied their own chapters in the books—fascinating figures like Margaery Tyrell and Shireen Baratheon and Roose Bolton, who are all in the early episodes of the fourth season, projecting more depth than they ever did on paper.
But the post-Red Wedding world of Thrones is far less defined and straightforward than it was. Westeros is changed, and the rules of its stories have changed, as well. The first season of Thrones offered a story of medieval intrigue based on the Wars Of The Roses, with some magic for good measure. This fourth season offers that same story, blown to pieces. The Starks are ruined; the Lannisters uneasily rule King’s Landing; and Daenerys Targaryen is liberating slaves, for some reason.
There is an endgame to this madness (probably). Reportedly, Martin has conveyed the crucial plot points of ASOIAF’s finale to Weiss and Benioff, so that they can write the television show toward an ending that is not yet published. But that endgame requires casting a very wide net. Fans of the books will attest to the fact that A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons raise more questions than they answer—and introduce dozens more characters to keep track of. This is all is to say the results are not immediately heartening, no matter how much you’re enjoying the journey. This is a series tracking through the midst of radical redefinition.
Perhaps anticipating that, the fourth season starts strong. Of the three episodes released to critics, the third is the weakest. The first and second focus on another wedding—that of the tyrant Joffrey Baratheon to Margaery Tyrell, who were betrothed to each other last season. George R.R. Martin himself wrote the screenplay for the second episode (he writes one every season, as part of his contract), and it’s easily one of the best hours of the show to date—a tight, beautiful episode that resonates after it’s over. This season, the series has shifted to focus on the Lannisters even more—after all, who else is left?—which means the complicated interrelations between Jaime, Cersei, Tyrion, Tywin, Joffrey, and even little Tommen move to the forefront. (And let’s not forget Sansa; after all, Sansa Stark is now a Lannister, too.)
Outside of the halls of power, the rest of these characters struggle to survive. Arya Stark has entered into an unholy alliance with the Hound—one that helps her develop even more ruthlessness than she already had. Theon Greyjoy cannot remember his name or his identity, serving as a slave-servant for Ramsay Snow. And Daenerys Targaryen is struggling with the unique challenges of being both a mother to dragons and a conquering heroine.
Now, for fans of both the books and the show, the truth is unavoidable: This is not a story with a happy ending. Just as A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons are not fan-favorite books, it is unlikely this will be a fan-favorite season. Too many bad things are happening to beloved characters; too many heroes will commit ugly crimes. A vast epic that already forced its viewers to accept a great deal will force them to accept much more. We’re in the weeds, now. But Game Of Thrones has proven itself to be up to the challenge of world-building, and the series has strengths the books do not.
There are some troubling missteps in these first few episodes—missteps that have dogged the show since the very start. Game Of Thrones has not moved away from “sexposition,” prostitution, and casual rape as titillating plot points, and that will always tarnish what is otherwise a groundbreaking show. But the good outweighs the bad. Game Of Thrones was and is an astonishing achievement—a vast web of world-building and map-reading and politicking in made-up languages, while still relying on the close-up camera shot of a single actor’s face to draw the most drama out of a scene. That is still a marvel, and even while in the weeds, the results are still thrilling.