A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of grim fantasy novels written by George RR Martin, was once thought to be unfilmable. When looking at Game of Thrones, the television series adapted from the books, it's obvious why. The show has a huge cast, enormous production expenses, and a story so complicated that it's helpful to keep an online encyclopaedia open while watching it. And yet, it works. Far from collapsing under the weight of its growing complexity, the series remains remarkably engrossing.
Game of Thrones is currently heading into its fourth season, and it is clear that most of the qualities that attracted its audience are still present. Westeros, the fictional continent on which the series takes place, is still an awful place to live. Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister) still delights in every scene he's in. The violence is still horrific. And there's still plenty of (mostly female) nudity; much of which is not strictly necessary for plot or character development.
But in other ways, the series feels different. It has more confidence. Actors that once seemed like weak points have matured into their roles. The series' trademark dragons, mostly glimpsed from afar in the past, are now rendered up-close in spectacular detail. In terms of raw production quality, Game of Thrones feels indistinguishable from a big-name Hollywood movie.
As for its storyline, one suspects that Game of Thrones will continue to take an almost sadistic delight in subverting its own genre. Like the novels from which it is adapted, the series expertly wields the conventions associated with heroic fantasy, building up the expectations of its audience in order to shatter them, again and again.
Start of season four
The fourth season begins with House Lannister, the putative villains of the series, firmly entrenched in a position of power. The war that has dominated the show's previous two seasons has come to an abrupt end, and the bad side has won. Whatever the Lannisters lack in legitimacy, they more than make up for with money, guile and alliances. But this is a world where fortunes change rapidly, and already there are swirling forces that threaten the foundations of this new political order.
The most visible sign of trouble on this horizon is the introduction of a new faction, House Martell and its charismatic scion Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). Oberyn initially comes across as an indolent playboy, but he soon reveals a talent for violence, along with an incandescent rage towards the Lannisters. The character seems destined to amass a sizeable fan following.
Then there is the series' other storyline, which deals with the rise of the exiled princess Danaerys Targeryn, played by Emilia Clarke. (One assumes that these narrative threads will intersect at some point, but there is no indication that this will happen soon.) As several observers have pointed out, Danaerys has essentially become the Westerosi equivalent of a neo-conservative: an idealist who believes in the transformative power of military force. She is fighting for a just cause – the abolition of slavery – but precedent suggests that she may experience some difficulty. A recurring theme of the series is that idealists tend to be unsuccessful in both war and politics.
Indeed, this might be the key to the enduring popularity of Game of Thrones. Beneath the veneer of dragons, incest and glamour as well as violence, this is fundamentally a series that conveys a certain vision of how politics works. The Game of Thrones universe is one where ruling elites have almost no regard for the welfare of their subjects, and where war entails atrocities by everyone, including the side that is ostensibly "good". It is a world where morality, divorced from sound strategy, is worse than useless. These are uncomfortable ideas. Perhaps they are easier to digest in the form of fantasy.
Game of Thrones returns on Friday April 18 at 9.30pm on M-Net