Kit Harington on 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan—HBO
January 30, 2015 10:21 AM EST

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Anyone who has purchased tickets to watch the final two episodes of season four of Game of Thrones on an IMAX screen this week will not be disappointed. On a big screen, the Battle of Castle Black is even bloodier. The dragons are even more ferocious. The creatures Bran encounters are even…stranger.

But a funny thing happened halfway through the New York City screening on Thursday night. Music swelled, bodies fell lifeless and people did not know whether they should cheer.

At first, it was simple. Jon Snow taking command of Castle Black drew a roar from the crowd. The death of a certain cannibal shortly thereafter also received applause. But when Ygritte was shot down, the crowd hesitated. Some clapped, while others shushed. I suspect a few even cried. Were we happy Jon Snow’s life was saved, even if his would-be killer was his one true love?

Matters got even more complicated in the final episode. The onscreen appearances of Stannis, Daenerys and Tyrion all elicited cheers, but that support was far from unanimous. When Brienne and the Hound drew swords for what was by far the most graphic, bloodiest scene in the two-hour broadcast (think — really think — about how gross it is when she bites off his ear, then multiply the size of your laptop screen by about a million), the two had equal supporters. Like the people of Westeros, the audience’s loyalties were divided among characters. It’s a common occurrence on living room couches, but a strange one to experience in a massive movie theater.

The Game of Thrones fanbase rivals that of any major movie franchise — Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Avengers. But when audiences line up to see new installments of those films, they already know when they will boo and when they will cheer, who is good and who is bad. Even the most complicated of blockbuster films can only spend two hours drawing out the intricacies of character relationships. Game of Thrones has had dozens of hours to do so.

Fans of the books always knew A Song of Ice and Fire was more complicated than its counterparts in the fantasy realm. After this screening, they should take a break from pestering George R.R. Martin for his next book to thank him for handing his story rights over to HBO, rather than a movie studio who would have made it morally black-and-white.

Kicking off Sundance this year, Robert Redford commented, “Television is advancing faster than filmmaking.” Critics have long acknowledged that in the past decade or so, television writers have learned to take advantage of their elongated timeline to create interesting storylines rather than sheer spectacle. Television showrunners have also been more willing to take risks on the small screen — maybe because there isn’t as much money at stake. The result is unlikable heroes, appealing villains and an emotional realism that studio tentpole films rarely achieve.

Never has this been more apparent than last night — when Game of Thrones took its cinema-worthy show to the big screen and proved too large for it.

Read next: Release of Next ‘Game of Thrones’ Novel Will Not Happen in 2015

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