Editor’s Note: The following guest blog comes from Patrick Sponaugle, who blogs extensively about Game of Thrones on his own site, PatrickSponaugle.com. As we’re a big fan of his work, we asked him to share some thoughts about the recently concluded fourth season. Beware that this article includes spoilers for all of season four, but is also safe for those who have not read the books.
Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones just ended, more or less wrapping up the adaptation of the first three books in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. I’ve been waiting a long time for this season to be presented because there were things that I really wanted to talk about. Not being able to do so was killing me.
(This is your last chance to avoid being SPOILED, if you’re not up to date on Game of Thrones, STOP READING.)
Was it Joffrey’s death I wanted to talk about, or the fight between Oberyn and the Mountain? Sure. I was kind of looking forward to discussing those topics.
What I really had wanted to say to my friends, for at least a year, was this: please stop complaining that the story is one big piling-on of abuse exclusively on top of the Stark family. Because with the fourth season, they show finally achieves a more equitable distribution of calamity and woe. It’s the season that the Lannisters get taken down.
Previously we’ve seen seasons of relentless doom for the Starks, but now the pendulum of karma has swung back like an ice-shearing anarchist-cleaving axe-anchor, away from the usual dour targets to land on the golden lions. It would have been uncool of me to mention this before now to my unspoiled comrades. These things need to be presented in their own time.
Now that we’re waiting for Season Five to start up, it’s a fine time to remember Season Four with an obligatory season recap, and we’ll see what I’m talking about.
Ye Olde Obligatory Seasonne Recappe
Season Four started with the Lannisters at the height of their good fortunes (at least for the big power brokers, Tywin and Joffrey.)
- The North’s secession had been dramatically reversed at the Twins, the once captive Jaime had returned and finally got a haircut, and Tyrion was scheduled to father the next heir to the North (which admittedly wasn’t making him happy but was still arguably a path to more Lannister power.)
- Cersei and Joffrey were betrothed to the Tyrell siblings, to cement a superpower bloc in the Seven Kingdoms and inspire a new class of greeting cards for various family birthdays.
- Tywin was so full of victory, he practically melted Ned Stark’s greatsword Ice with the burning power of his smug, getting two not-as-ridiculously large swords for the family arsenal.
In regards to Ned Stark’s remaining relatives, the best we might say is that no one was literally trying to kill them in the first minutes of Season Four.
- Sansa was still a captive and now married to the Lannisters, Arya was a ward of the Hound – basically a package awaiting a Collect on Delivery transaction, Bran’s situation was a big drag through the longest/chilliest camping trip ever, and Jon had recovered from Ygritte’s application of Wildling acupuncture in time to face a tribunal chaired by members of the We Hate That Bastard Jon Snow society.
- Robb was dead, Catelyn was dead, Winterfell had been razed, Ironborn invaders held strategic northern assets, Roose Bolton was now Warden of the North, and Rickon *might* be safe with the Umbers, but could just as easily been eaten by Thenns during the off-season. We just didn’t know.
My friends like to point out that the Starks really don’t get any breaks, but this is the season things start to turn around.
- Arya gets reunited with Needle, taking the wind out of Lannister sails in regards to Ice’s destruction. Break one sword? We’ll take one back. (Arya also permanently took the wind out of Polliver, avenging Lommy Greenhands and reducing the number of Lannisters and chickens in the Riverlands.)
- A Lannister-hating power player in the form of super-sexy Oberyn Martell arrived in the capital, to make love and kill Lannisters. Possibly at the same time, if things worked out just right.
- Joffrey died, killed by a trusted councilor and his new grandmother-in-law. At Joffrey’s own wedding. And largely for being an evil monster. Karma, bitch.
- Sansa escaped from King’s Landing! Sure, she’s dependent on pervy Peytr Baelish to keep her safe, but Sansa escaped from King’s Landing!! Oh, and it was sub-optimal that Aunt Lysa was planning for her to marry little lord Robin, but still, Sansa escaped from King’s Landing!!! Yeah!
- Wildlings, including cannibalistic Thenns, started a chevauchee campaign south of the Wall to draw out the Night’s Watch defenders. Although this wasn’t a good thing and they weren’t killing Lannisters or Boltons (sadly), as far as we know they didn’t eat Rickon Stark. We’ll call that a push.
- Jon Snow needed something heroic to do. Or I should say, Jon Snow was worried about the strategic vulnerability represented by the mutineers at Craster’s Keep in the forefront of an approaching Wildling horde. Jon led a commando team of volunteers (and one scoundrel) to take care of business.
- Bran Stark got captured by the mutineers, but at least they weren’t planning on eating him. (That’s the best we can say about those guys.)
- Jon attacked the mutineers at the Keep giving Bran a chance to escape. Bran possessed Hodor like a voodoo loa and killed the dude that had tried to feed Brienne to a bear and who had chopped off Jaime’s hand (unironically not the hand that had pushed Bran from the tower.) Hey Locke! Karma, bitch!
- Tywin tried to make lemoncakes from Joffrey’s murder by promising to pardon the accused Tyrion (i.e. exile him to the Wall) in exchange for Jaime resuming his role as heir to Casterly Rock. But he made the lemoncake extra sour by bringing in Shae as a surprise witness at the trial. Tyrion demanded trial by combat and Prince Oberyn took the opportunity to poison Lannister uber-henchman Gregor Clegane. (Sadly, Oberyn was too sexy to survive the season. RIP, Red VIP.)
- Littlefinger sensibly removed Lysa Arryn as a threat to Sansa via the Honeymoon-door. Sansa saved Baelish’s bacon in turn by starting up a confidence game with the Lords of the Vale, with a story that was almost entirely legit.
- Lysa’s untimely death (untimely for the Hound’s financial prospects) foiled the delivery of one Arya Stark (slightly damaged in transit), who was quite tired of being treated like a football by everyone in Westeros. Untrusting of Brienne and her Lannister gold, and willing to abandon the Hound unmercifully, Arya flashed her murder-genie passport to get passage on a ship of Braavos. Farewell, Arya. Bon Voyage. Wherever you’re going, someone’s probably going to die.
- Jon Snow stretched his heroic muscles (and tossed his heroic hair) as Castle Black got hit with simultaneous attacks from his former wall climbing/cave-canoodling colleagues from the south, and a sea of Wildlings from the north. Some members of Team Snow fell, as well as some enemies (Ygritte belonged on both sides) but in the end the Wall (and Jon) was saved from Free Folk violence by the appearance of his grace, King Stannis.
Thumbs up for Ned’s much-maligned honor. Had Ned made a different decision in Season One with regards to Stannis, we might have had one less Snow for winter.
- Bran’s power as a danger-magnet kicked in again, activating a squad of draugrs from Bethesda Software’s epic game, Skyrim. The attack removed Jojen from the roster but allowed for more badass Brodoring and smashing. Bran was introduced to the Three Eyed Raven, or rather, an ancient dude on a root-throne.
- Speaking of thrones, Westerosi historians might honestly say that Tywin Lannister ended his days by sitting on one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Jaime boldly freed Tyrion right after hooking up with Cersei. That scamp.
- The Imp, for reasons largely unexplained (but not necessarily inexplicable) entered the Tower of the Hand and killed Shae for being a whore and Tywin for calling her one. (Okay, I’m waaaay simplifying this.)
I’ll miss Tywin on the show. Tyrion didn’t miss him. Twice.
Careful observers will note that this recap is nearly 100% Stark and Lannister related. (Stannis had to show up and ruin the percentage.) I’ll get around to the other parties in a moment.
Orange is the New Gray (Because Crimson + Gold = Orange… okay, I’m trying too hard…)
So, why am I focusing on just Starks and Lannisters?
Even though Game of Thrones is a really complicated show, there’s a reasonable short-hand in describing the story in terms of Team Stark/Team Lannister rankings. Who is winning? Who is losing? That type of stuff.
Although those two Houses are no longer directly in competition anymore (Robb’s death clinched that) I have an observation about the Lannisters at the end of Season Four, to speak to my earlier statement about troubles being more equally applied. The Lannisters now occupy the same position as the Starks in Season Two and Three.
- Tywin has joined Ned as a dead patriarch.
- Tommen and Joffrey are both following in Robb Stark’s footsteps, having fallen under the influence of a woman that their mother disapproves of (and in Joffrey’s case, having a really bad experience at a wedding. Tommen had better not take a fancy to some other young lady and try to pawn Margaery off on Lancel. I’m just sayin’.)
- Cersei is left worrying about her daughter’s fate among a hostile house, the way Catelyn worried about her captive children.
- The Lannisters are now the second family to have lost Sansa, the potential heiress of the North.
- The Ironborn invading the North had previously been an asset for the Lannisters, but now it’s just as much a liability for the Lannisters as it was for the Starks.
- At least the Lannisters, like the Starks before, enjoy the loyalty and service of the exemplary Freys and Boltons. Yay Team Lannister! May the Freys and Boltons prove to be dependable allies for them as well.
- Jaime, like Jon Snow, is having with a woman who he’s also betraying. That Jaime knows nothing!
What About Team Everyone Else?
Okay, I’ve mentioned that Stannis did one good thing this season. Who knows what’ll happen next with him? (Well, all us book readers, I guess.)
We had movement on Dany’s story and on the Bolton/Greyjoy story. Not quite the same screen time as the Lannister freefall this season, though.
With Roose and Ramsay Bolton, we’re seeing them move up in power. Roose’s army can return to the North now that Moat Caillin was retaken from the Ironborn. Although it’s probably not a good thing for the people in the North to have The Flayed Man ascendant, more players are moving to the same location and I support that. We’re going to need storylines to converge eventually.
Daenerys is staying put for the moment in Slaver’s Bay (they should really rename that body of water), having a variety of troubles and issues.
On paper, she seems to be in a position where she can make mistakes and learn from them, a kind of hands-on tutorial on leadership, social justice, and stability versus chaos. I’m surprised Littlefinger hasn’t shown up trying to sell her a ladder. I’m fine with her story as is, not every group on the show gets equal consideration, and Dany got in some quality burninating last season.
How Important are the Roots?
This gets bandied about pretty much anytime someone important dies on the show:
Now that [Hero] is dead, who can I root for?
Now that [Villain] is dead, who can I root against?
Man, I don’t know. Is it required to root for or against someone? I understand the need to be invested in characters, but I tend to be invested abstractly in the story more.
Okay, I know this is a Season Four recap, but back in Season Two when Stannis was assaulting King’s Landing at Blackwater, I can’t say I was rooting for one side or the other. I despised Joffrey but loved Tyrion, so I simultaneously wanted King’s Landing taken and spared. I was a fan of Ser Davos, but Melisandre terrified me (in a Wow She’s Attractive and Evil kind of way) so I wasn’t squarely behind Stannis.
But Stannis was the guy to root for to get up North and save Jon, the Night’s Watch, and the North. (Unless you’re on Team Cannibal. Then Boo Stannis. See, there’s still people to root for or against. Season Four has it all.)
But Then Their Watch Had Ended
Sadly, I have friends who stopped watching Game of Thrones after Season Three. Let me paraphrase some of my daily conversations with them:
Me: Blah blah Game of Thrones blah blah Game of Thrones blah blah… (Maybe I’m not paraphasing that much…)
Them: Yeah, we don’t watch that show anymore.
Me: Whaaaaaat? Why?
And then then tell me their wild reasons for this decision:
- the show is too depressing,
- the good guys never win,
- evil goes unpunished,
- honor and virtue are wastes of time,
- if Westeros had Magic 8 Balls, they would only ever give one prediction: All Signs Point To Death.
Season Three really drove this home, but I hope it’s clear that Season Four is where:
- some of the good guys start earning hard fought wins.
- some evils get a measure of redress (karma, bitch!)
- at least one man’s honor has a life that lives on. (I’m not giving up on the rightness of Ned’s honor. Or gravy.)
- occasionally, a person can say “Death? Not today.” (Admittedly, it means something different when Arya is saying it. Or chillingly saying nothing.)
But, No Happy Ending!
My friends are still not convinced. They’re afraid to have hopes.
It’s clear they’ve seen Season Three, since they’re always ready to quote laughing-boy Ramsay Bolton (née Snow):
Ramsay: Nip/Tuck is the best show ever!
(No, that’s not the quote. Although I can imagine Ramsay being a loyal watcher.)
Ramsay: If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
Look, I get where they are coming from. The Red Wedding happened. Ned Stark was super-betrayed. People we identified with were getting the shaft and people we despised appeared to be thriving.
This season, Lannisters were taking lumps, but that included Lannisters we liked too. Starks didn’t fare too badly in Season Four, but they’re still all scattered to the winds, and GRRM could just kill them off in a moment.
Was I not paying attention? Is it wrong to hope for a happy ending?
Maybe. I mean, Ramsay Bolton is totally Yoda. We should hang on his every sentence like the enlightened zen koans that they are. Or maybe we should pay more attention to someone who had a better read on the big picture.
Ned Stark: Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths.
We’re halfway through the book series, and winter has yet to come. There’s a lot of end-of-summer squabbling happening which might be profitable for some, and bad for many more. But if anyone thinks Winter isn’t coming, then they haven’t been paying attention.
When winter does come, those who have the willingness to share their strength, warmth, and protection with others will be the ones who survive.
And seeing that happen would make me happy.
But right now, I’m just trying to survive the wait until Season Five.
Now that we’ve all had some time to digest, please feel free to share your (book spoiler free) thoughts about season four in the comments below.