Westeros has a hangover. By the end of Game of Thrones' season 3, Robb and Catelyn Stark had been slaughtered at the Red Wedding, effectively quashing the war in the North. Stannis Baratheon is still regrouping on Dragonstone after being defeated at the Blackwater. This leaves the Lannister dynasty ascendant, and its sadistic scion Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) preparing to celebrate his royal wedding.
There is, in other words, plenty of reason to despair in the world of Game of Thrones. But there's no call for despair in your living room; HBO's fantasy series, returning to air April 6, is as stirring in its action, as rich in characters, and more sweeping in scope as ever. And while the ruling lions in King's Landing are savoring their triumphs in battle, it soon becomes plain that the war--as often fought in palaces as on battlefields--is far from over.
Even more than most serial dramas (like Mad Men, returning a week later), Game of Thrones is really a continuous work--it's based, after all, on a series of novels still being written by George R.R. Martin--rather than a succession of stories or season arcs. It's one tale, going into its 31st hour. So it should not be surprising to say that this season (judging by the first three episodes) is as good as the season that just preceded it, which in turn was the strongest of the series to date.
But that's not to say that themes don't ebb and flow over the series, and in this new season thus far that theme seems to be cruelty and its consequences (or lack thereof). Game of Thrones has always had a realpolitik eye toward issues of power and morality, arguing that goodness does no one any good if it's hamstrung and ineffectual. The first season introduced us to Ned Stark, a protagonist too rigidly moral to keep his head among the backbiters of King's Landing.
Viciousness for its own sake has costs too, though, and one of the first introductions the season makes concerns a Lannister atrocity that predates Ned's execution. As the Joffery-Margaery nuptials approach, the royal family receives an emissary from one of the uneasily allied parts of the Seven Kingdoms, Dorne: it's Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), a notorious swordsman who comes bearing not wedding gifts but a grudge as big as Inigo Montoya's. His sister was queen to the Targaryen king overthrown in the last revolution, and she was raped and brutally murdered in the fighting by one of Tywin Lannister's men. Greeting Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), he purrs a line (already much-promoted by HBO) that will have fists pumping among Robb Stark's spiritual bannermen and -women in the audience: "Tell your father I'm here! And tell him the Lannisters aren't the only ones who pay their debts."
Pascal is an immediately arresting, swaggering addition to what is already the biggest roster of players in TV drama, even with GoT's high mortality rate. And the Dornish faction he represents further expands a world so big that the producers' greatest achievement is keeping it altogether. (Nor do the expansions stop with Oberyn. What's up with that new maester? What do Bran's visions mean? What will Dany and her ever-growing dragons find inside that next walled city?) They do it partly with efficient intercuting of stories, partly with a visual language that establishes a different palette and aesthetic for each setting. When you move from the leached-out gray-green of the Westeros countryside to the sun-saturated desert of Danaerys' Unsullied army, it's like jumping between planets in a Star Wars movie.
The unifying element in each of these stories is also cruelty in one form or another, be it Dany (Emilia Clarke) trying to turn a culture of slavery against itself (while trying to wend her way back to a continent where her family has its own vicious history); a bloodthirsty northern tribe joining the army against the Night's Watch at The Wall; hostage bride Sansa (Sophie Turner), a prisoner in the tapestry of King's Landing, now absorbing the loss of the her brother and mother; or Theon (Alfie Allen) continuing to be abused by his captor Ramsay Snow (a story that continues to get uncomfortable screen time to little effect so far).
Here is a story with dozens of major characters who have met briefly or never; yet through juggling and efficient dialogue, they all manage to feel connected. But as in past seasons, when the show breaks its globetrotting form and spends most of an episode in one location, it's striking. The second episode (scripted by Martin), largely focused on doings in King's Landing, is one of the best the series has ever done, not just because of plot developments but because the characters have time to breathe and play off one another.
Overall, though, Game of Thrones is at heart a road movie: a journey to a vanishing point on the horizon with stop after stop after stop. And that's just dandy, especially when you get to spend legs of it in the company of characters like Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her captor-escort Sandor "The Hound" Clegane (Rory McCann). Season 4 finds them wandering across the shattered landscape of Joffrey's wartime Westeros, where "peace" has only brought lawlessness and suffering to the commonfolk, prey for pillagers flying the king's banners.
Williams is one of the most captivating young actresses on TV. Her Arya is still disarming but--having been on scene for her father Ned's death and now the Red Wedding--is entering a distinct, dark goth period. And watching the new episodes, I have to wonder whether The Hound is not the secret hero of Game of Thrones.
Not because he's a good man--far from it; he murdered a child in the first season on Joffrey's orders and does some callous things now. But he knows what he is, he's sick of kings and colors, and he is utterly without illusion. (Deadshirt.net last year argued that he's Game of Thrones' answer to The Wire's independent operator, Omar.) Permanently scarred by his bigger and badder brother, The Mountain--the above-mentioned murder-rapist serving the Lannisters--The Hound has given up his honors, his commission, and any ambitions higher than finding a mug of ale and a hot dinner. In Game of Thrones' world of cruelty committed in the name of glory, that may be as close to honor as you're going to get.