While HBO’s Game of Thrones remains one of television’s most buzzed-about series, the show is no longer the near-perfect adaptation that delighted viewers, both newcomers and established fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series.
Over the course of its uneven fourth season, Game of Thrones lost some of its luster, to the extent that what was once appointment viewing became the occasional slog. (Anyone up for an episode that takes place entirely at the Wall? Well, you’re getting one.) When it comes to production values and performances, Game of Thrones remains an impressive feat. But in looking back over Season 4, which concluded on June 15, it’s difficult not to reflect on where the show slipped and, at times, fell into disappointing mediocrity.
Jaime Raping Cersei
The scene in which Jaime rapes his sister-lover next to the corpse of their child will likely go down not only as Season 4’s biggest misstep, but also as the show’s most egregious mistake overall. It’s hard to imagine a bigger insult to the audience, to the characters, and to victims of sexual violence than the scene and the subsequent attempt by director Alex Graves to recontextualize a clear rape as rough consensual sex. “It becomes consensual by the end,” Graves said. It absolutely does not.
In fact, the rape scene in “Breaker of Chains” — allegedly intended to show an act of passion, not violence — was so mishandled that some have suggested pretending it never happened. And while that might seem like a radical step, it’s perhaps the only reasonable way we can really move forward. How else to take the scene in the season finale, in which Cersei confesses her undying love for Jaime to their father? What are we supposed to make of Jaime’s character development otherwise? In going for something edgy and shocking, Game of Thrones displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of rape and consent — not to mention the characters of Jaime and Cersei — and that grave error casts a serious shadow over the rest of the season, if not the series as a whole.
But Cersei’s rape wasn’t the only instance of sexual violence on Game of Thrones this season. To say that the show frequently depicts rape is not an automatic condemnation: Certainly there are ways it can work, when handled with the appropriate amount of respect and horror, in the context of the story. But in Season 4, rape became the worst kind of background noise, peppered throughout for no narrative reason other than to justify that TV-MA rating. Suddenly the notorious sexposition scenes of the first season felt almost quaint: Yes, the nudity, at times, was gratuitous. But at least that was consensual.
The worst example of Season 4’s casual relationship with rape — aside from the Jaime and Cersei scene, of course — was the scene at Craster’s Keep, in which the men of the Night’s Watch brutally raped Craster’s daughter-wives. That these rapes occured literally in the background of the scene reinforce the notion that sexual violence here has become a ghastly form of set dressing. Elsewhere, the threat of rape permeated nearly every episode. Whatever the intent may have been, these moments diminish the significance of sexual violence. By no means is Game of Thrones defending rape — but the series has become far too comfortable with haphazardly throwing it about, simply for the sake of cheaply raising the stakes or coloring a scene. This is a subject that requires serious thought and sensitivity, not carelessness and shrugs.
Trying to Serve All Characters Equally
To some extent, this has been a problem with Game of Thrones from the beginning — and it speaks more to the unwieldiness of the source material. But in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, characters disappear for books at a time, returning only when they have something to do to propel the plot forward. On television, that might be harder to pull off: Imagine if a fan favorite like Daenerys was MIA for an entire season. For the first few seasons, however, Game of Thrones at least managed to condense the material and incorporate the characters in interesting ways. In Season 4, those tactics seemed to be falling apart.
As the show has gone on, we’ve been introduced to more and more new characters. (And yes, a whole slew of characters have also died. But we’re still gaining faster than we’re losing!) Perhaps more to the point, the characters have spread out in every direction, which means big group scenes are fewer and farther between. It’s difficult to say how Game of Thrones could solve this problem, but it made for an especially disparate season in which some characters were severely underserved. Frankly, the show might be better off going the route of The Wire and Orange Is the New Black and purposely letting certain characters fall to the wayside for a season, rather than trying — and failing — to jump between them all.
If Game of Thrones did, for example, give Dany a break, we might be spared another season of Khaleesi dragging her feet on her inevitable return to Westeros. Again, this is a problem with the adaptation as a whole — the series’ writers must try to push their characters in a direction that falls in line with George R. R. Martin’s, though he has yet to finish his book series and tends to let his characters wander aimlessly for thousands of pages at a time. It’s a daunting task for the Game of Thrones writers, but without a clear solution, Season 4 felt more like an exercise in stalling than ever before.
It’s not as though there wasn’t plenty of action: The last two episodes in particular offered major battles and ample character death. The middle chunk of the season, however, often fell short. Yes, there were great moments — Oberyn offering to fight on Tyrion’s behalf, Littlefinger pushing Lysa to her death, all the scenes between Arya and the Hound — but taken as a whole, the episodes surrounding those moments dragged. And no, I’m not just referring to “The Watchers on the Wall,” set entirely at the Wall, though that was a particularly interminable slog. Too much of this season ended up being a waiting game: Tyrion waiting for the verdict, the Night’s Watch waiting for the wildlings, Dany waiting for an actual plot line. (Good luck with that one.) How did a season with such a staggering body count turn out so boring?
But then, even those deaths lost something. It’s no secret that George R.bR. Martin loves killing his characters: It’s kind of his thing. Game of Thrones has followed suit, with some truly shocking and well-executed character deaths, satisfying even for those viewers who already knew what was coming. Certainly some deaths had that effect in Season 4 — but others felt oddly perfunctory. There can be a strange matter-of-fact quality to the deaths in the books, but on TV, that doesn’t quite work. It ends up feeling anticlimactic. And when you shove so much death into one season, especially after the transcendent horror of Season 3’s Red Wedding, it starts to lose meaning.
Jojen’s death in the finale was a perfect example of this problem, made all the more interesting by the fact that Jojen hasn’t died in the books. The writers must have killed him off for a reason, but his death feels like a total waste of time. Why did Jojen have to die? And why should we care? Of course, viewer apathy toward Jojen’s demise also speaks to the issue of underserving characters: If Game of Thrones had done a better job fleshing out Jojen and Meera as characters, perhaps we’d feel more of a loss here. To suddenly take a moment for a tearful good-bye between siblings we never really got to know was too little, too late.
Weak Characterization of Shae
Of all the characters the show’s fourth season treated poorly, Shae may be the most tragic victim. Here’s an instance where the series initially improved on the books, turning Shae from a manipulative and untrustworthy prostitute into a well-developed female character who shows genuine affection and compassion for Tyrion. But all that character development became meaningless when Shae very abruptly turned into a villain whom Tyrion was forced to strangle in self-defense. That’s not a fun twist — it’s lazy storytelling. You just can’t spend three seasons crafting a sympathetic character, only to have her do a sudden and absolute about-face because the plot calls for it.
Shae’s betrayal of Tyrion is equally abrupt in the book — but it was also a foregone conclusion. On the series, it’s baffling, and while Martin suggests there’s more to the story than what we’re getting, how much does that really matter now that she’s dead? It’s hard to maintain faith in a series with such careless characterization. Shifting allegiances are one thing, but Shae became an entirely different character in her final episode. It’s along the lines of — to beat this dead horse one last time — Jaime raping Cersei in one episode, and the couple behaving as though nothing happened in the next. The series is at its best when it depicts compelling characters in fantastical circumstances, as evidenced by the first three seasons. If Game of Thrones wants us to stick with an increasingly complicated story, it will need to return to its glory days of consistent characterization and strong plotting — no amount of sex and violence can make up for the absence of either.