Note: Spoilers for this season of Game of Thrones below.
Pacing for Game of Thrones has always been a struggle. Not always an immediately apparent one — David Benioff, Dan Weiss and their writing staff have always proved remarkably adept at not only moving George R.R. Martin’s words from the page to the screen, but also at balancing the stories of dozens of characters and nearly as many locations without getting too bogged down or confusing viewers. But every now and again, Game of Thrones does let out a small groan under the weight of its own universe.
Part of the way Benioff and Weiss avoid those instances is by either building toward major events (Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater) or conditioning its audience to expect a “shocking” death late in the season (you know the ones). This year, however, the show has ditched that reliably effective formula, due in part to the fact that the Martin’s books and the show’s seasons are no longer perfectly aligned. Last year’s Season 3 ended only three-quarters of the way through the third novel of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, meaning that one of the book’s seminal events, the Purple Wedding, would have to wait till in Season 4.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, and it’s important that Game of Thrones not try to cram too much of the detail-heavy novels into a 10-episode season. Part of the reason that Benioff and Weiss’ adaptation of Martin’s novels has been so well received is that, as best it can, Game of Thrones gives the saga some space to breathe. So if the showrunners decided they couldn’t fit all of the 1216-page A Storm of Swords into fewer than 10 hours, there’s little reason not to trust them. Add to that the fact that they’d be able to use the Red Wedding as the traditional penultimate episode shocker and drop a shocker on audiences earlier in Season 4, and the decision seems like a no-brainer.
The problem — if you can even call it that — is that there’s always the inevitable audience hangover after the show drops these huge moments. Usually it’s masked by the fact that there’s only one episode left in the season, so the audience can keep its enthusiasm levels elevated for another 60 minutes before enduring another 10 months without Tyrion, Arya and the rest of the gang. Joffrey’s premature and unexpected demise arrived in this season’s second episode. The subsequent hangover was further enhanced by the fact that Joffrey was so clearly the story’s primary villain (and there’s really no second place), leading the show’s fans to practically wonder, “Well, what now?”
The answer to that question has proved to be a lengthy reshuffling of the deck. The show has had buzzworthy moments (yes, that one) and significant reveals (hey, we finally know who murdered Jon Arryn!) in the three episodes since the Purple Wedding, but it’s also spending as much time moving pieces around the board as it ever has. There’s Tyrion’s trial to look forward to, though it seems Benioff and Weiss are in no particular rush to get there. And even the trial of the show’s most beloved character (whom it’s difficult to imagine dying, even with the series’ track record) pales in comparison to the death of the show’s most loathed one. Those who haven’t read the books were always united by their disdain for Joffrey — he was impossibly easy to root against and his death has always been at the top of fans’ wish list — but without the psychopathic king around, it’s a little more difficult to decide what we, as viewers, should be rooting for.
None of this is to say Game of Thrones hasn’t been enjoyable for the last few weeks, just that it’s hit a period of unexpected calm — relative peace, even — where normally viewers are expecting the show to ramp up for unexpected twists and thrilling conclusions. Perhaps both are just around the corner, but for now, viewers may need to weather this hangover with the fond memories of what’s already come to pass, and soaring expectations for what’s yet to come.