“If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Game of Thrones has come to be labelled as a show where the “good guys” never win. The aforementioned “justice” line has been quoted back and forth ever since the Season Four trailer got released, and has almost become a viewer-nominated tag line for the series. But Game of Thrones strongest point is that it isn’t a show where justice is never dealt, it’s a show where justice could or could not be dealt with equal levels of possibility. Thrones manages the balance that other shows desire but consistently fall over either side of the fence instead of directly on top of it.It’s what makes the duel between Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and Oberyn “The Viper” Martell in episode eight so thrilling: justice might be done, it might not be done, and the audience has absolutely no way of knowing. The outcomes of stories in the series are completely ambiguous because original series author George R.R. Martin, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have no semblance of inclination for justice or lack thereof. Westeros isn’t a world of rampant injustice, it’s just a world, very much like our own, where things just happen, with no thought given by fate as to whether those “things” are good or not. All outcomes are possible because no outcomes are destined to occur as the plot does not hinge on poetic justice or normal narrative conventions.
This is a lesson that the characters of Thrones, as well as the audience, comes to learn in the series fourth season with a distinct finality. In many ways, these ten episodes have primarily been about the young and the optimistic learning to callous themselves to the way of the world. Not because something horrific is destined to happen to them, but because it’s entirely possible that it will. Their fates are left up to chance, which is ultimately worse than hopelessness. Unlike hopelessness, where destruction is assured, chance leaves room for hope and hope is what gets you killed in this world. By season’s end, Thrones sees it’s younger characters fully transformed from where they started in the pilot episode. Sansa has become a calculated liar, using her talent and apparent sexual maturity to gain a position of political standing. Arya has come full circle as a pitiless killer, brutally ending many before leaving her protector to die for his old sins against her. Jon Snow, formerly taken with concepts of honor, sets out to murder an opposing army’s leader in his own tent under the pretense of a truce. Tyrion Lannister, who we first saw in the pilot having as a whoring jokester with a very smart mouth, finishes this season having just killed both the woman he loved as well as his own father before fleeing King’s Landing. And Daenerys’ journey from meek young girl to powerful leader finds her beginning to transform into something new entirely: a queen unprepared for the task set before her. It’s fitting that the season finale is titled “The Children“, as it serves to highlight everything that these youth have been shaped into.
Back in the first season, Cersei Lannister tells Ned Stark that “When you play The Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” It’s this line of dialogue that best sums up what creed this show operates by, even if the real weight of that quote wasn’t yet fully understood during the episode in which it was uttered. Three seasons later we see that in order to win The Game of Thrones it’s not enough to just be clever and determined, ruthlessness is also a prerequisite. And so, as the show continues, characters either get transformed or, in Darwinian fashion, they get cut out of the system. Each and every character in Westeros is performing a highwire act, and the second they truly slip up they are at the high risk of plummeting.
It’s in this manner that Game of Thrones has thoroughly fulfilled the term “nobody is safe” on a level which no other show that I’m aware of has every truly achieved. A badge of honor that Game of Thrones can wear proudly upon its chest. It’s one of the few shows that deeply subverts traditional conventions enough so as to completely defy expectation, not just remaining a few steps ahead of the audience, but being completely out of the audience’s field of vision. It’s a miracle then that the series remains compelling, an issue that AMC’s The Walking Dead is actively struggling with. When you’ve defied convention and when any character can die at any time, what’s even the point of your show? What’s the motivation? Thrones finds it’s answer in both mystery and theme. It offers the most compelling mystery elements TV has seen since Lost in the form of White Walkers and The Lord of Light. But, alternatively, it’s works as a thorough character study. Even if the audience can’t root for characters to win anymore, as that would be a deeply futile activity, there’s an abundance of thematic narrative meat to become enraptured by. Understanding why these characters tick and what defines them is almost more interesting than whether or not they end up dead. For all it’s fantasy components, Thrones captures real life in a unique way: it’s characters are all fully realized. Though some may seem similar in status, motivation or ideology, they are all distinctly recognizable as a unique person, in and of themselves.
These have been Thrones strengths since the show’s conception, and Season Four is the best, most driven display of this to date. Every great facet of the series is explored and given the spotlight at some point throughout the season. The pieces so meticulously set up in the first three seasons are shaken from the roosts and are sent into free fall throughout these ten episodes, and it’s in states of upheaval that this series always thrives. Comfort is the death of a great drama or epic, it becomes stagnant the second it loses it’s direction. Game of Thrones keeps the juggling balls in the air 100% of the time with no signs of dropping or slowing. Not just a “stay on your toes” thriller, but a thriller/action/drama with seemingly endless layers and depth.
And that is great television.