In the game of words accompanying each season of HBO’s exceptional drama “Game of Thrones,” I’ve got precious little to add this round, as Season 4 begins Sunday night.
I’m on record as being a devoted “GoT” fan who prefers the less-is-more approach: The less I’m required to know, the more I’m free to enjoy the show. I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books and I’m always fumbling for kingdom names, character names and so on. Daenerys’s dragons are pretty big now and I’ll bet even they have names, which I’ve managed to either miss or block out entirely. I love “Game of Thrones” because I watch it by feel. This may not be the approved way, but it works for me.
This is still my best advice to those of you who haven’t given the show much more than a passing glance since it began in 2011: Don’t treat it like homework and don’t feel burdened to watch the first 30 episodes in order to catch up.
Just turn it on and give in to it. Admire, if you can, the deceptively simple operating system beneath its complex, competing story lines. In terms of emotion, action, performance, visual storytelling and narrative payoff, “Game of Thrones” (created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) is the best TV show around right now, taking the place of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which used to occupy that honor on my list. Both are really just stories of a very dark downward spiral — in “Breaking Bad’s” case, an everyday man who chose evil; in the case of “Game of Thrones,” an imaginary continent that is headed toward tandem acts of apocalypse.
Watching this season’s first three episodes (I promise no spoilers whatsoever forthwith, only to say that there’s a doozy coming in fairly short order), one is struck by how sumptuously far this epic now spreads. It takes several episodes to simply check in with all of the “GoT” characters, who are spread across Westeros and beyond it.
One thing has changed, or at least feels different for me after last season’s “Red Wedding” shocker: I’m reluctant to place hope in any one character — even the ones who seem most stouthearted or morally centered (Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow; Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth; Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark). I’m grateful for their screen time and less committed to their survival. What a strange relief to give up on good.
“Game of Thrones” is cruel that way, like so many cable dramas — awash in bloody and unpredictable deaths and mired in a permanent moral rot. Cruelty visits everyone here, particularly women. The show tells us that there is no limit to how depressing it can and will get, and, in the few minutes before a new episode begins, one can feel oneself girding for the worst. I’m undecided about whether or not that’s a culturally beneficial quality, in the long run.
When I have the luxury of thinking of the show as a whole, rather than as several complex pieces, I have a hard time seeing a satisfactory ending. (Forget happy.) On the subject of endings of any sort, it’s become impossible to ignore the worry beginning to froth regarding the show’s pace: As lumbering and intentional as it is, the TV version of “Game of Thrones” is moving through the material in Martin’s five fat novels at a steady clip, even though Martin has promised two more books that will finish the story.
That crisis apparently has a year or more to resolve itself, but to readers and viewers this is a frightening brink, as “Game of Thrones” rumbles toward a canyon with a half-finished bridge.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to not worry about that at all. That’s the beauty of hands-free/heart-free “Game of Thrones” watching, having learned from the show itself that there is no relief from misery, no happiness out there to be had. Whatever will be will be.
(one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.