‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4 Deftly Moves Past the Red Wedding

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Assuming they’ve seen every episode to date, the typical Game of Thrones viewer has spent 30 hours in George R.R. Martin’s universe. (And considering how unfriendly the series’ byzantine plot is to newcomers, that’s a pretty safe assumption.) Thirty hours is enough time to absorb certain ground rules: first and foremost, no character is safe; the good guys don’t always, or even usually, win; there’s magic and special effects, but they take a backseat to scenes where characters lob Mad Men-worthy dialogue at one another. Game of Thrones, then, has largely succeeded at its mission of tossing conventional fantasy tropes out the window like so many adorable ten-year-olds. So now that the novelty’s worn off, what’s left for the fourth season to do?

That’s a slightly reworked version of the question that’s on many fans’ minds post-“Rains of Castamere”: What comes after the Red Wedding? The show unleashed the biggest twist in the history of its run, bigger even than chopping off its protagonist’s head way back in Season 1. That kind of mass character death isn’t likely to happen again; it certainly doesn’t in the first three episodes of the new season. All of which makes early Season 4 something of a make-or-break moment for the show. With the paradigm for Big TV Moments long-since shifted, this series has to lure its audience with something other than the promise of cast layoffs violence.

The good news is that there’s always been much more to Game of Thrones than suspense. The other constants of the series are still around, and in some cases stronger than ever: the acting, the writing, the eye-popping set pieces. And even if they don’t rise to Red Wedding levels, a few tricks still remain up David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ sleeves. (The second episode was written by George R.R. Martin himself, a screenwriting credit that should set off alarm bells in the heads of those who remember “Blackwater.”)

“Two Swords,” the season premiere, is filled with little “Hey, we’re back!” flourishes. Gratuitous sex with sexy prostitutes in sexy brothels! Violence soundtracked by some great squelching-human-flesh noises from the sound effects team! CGI dragons! As ever, though, this remains a collection of what Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Wyatt famously called “human stories in a fantasy world.” Olenna Tyrell is adept as ever at skewering the everyday hypocrisies of court life. The Stark children that remain continue to grow up far faster than their parents would’ve liked. And to replace the plot lines cut tragically short during the Red Wedding, there are a few new faces as well.

The recipient of the Robb Stark Memorial Award for Resident Sex Symbol is Oberyn Martell, the sexually omnivorous prince of Dorne. In the North, a terrifying new tribe of wildling shows up, neatly illustrating the internal differences that make Mance Rayder’s army so unprecedented. Most interestingly, Daenerys’ love interest/employee Daario Naharis is played by an entirely new actor, abandoning the cheesy “I fight for beauty” crap in favor of a persona that’s much more rugged — and has much better chemistry with Emilia Clarke.

Just as prominent as the fresh meat, though, is the noticeable shift in pacing. The fourth season of Game of Thrones is the first to start smack-dab in the middle of one of the original books, and it shows. Three episodes into the last installment, viewers were still wading through the slow-burning setup work; the real action waited until the end of episode four, and though Dany putting an entire city to the torch was well worth the wait, it was a much longer one than fans will have to endure this time around.

That’s not to say some plot lines still don’t lag behind others, or that standalone episodes still don’t feel disjointed. The protracted tug of war between Davos and Melisandre won’t win back any of the viewers who’ve been checked out since Stannis’ fleet went up in pyrotechnics. Bran’s story improves, but it’s an impossible task to relate his weird magical powers back to whatever’s going on in King’s Landing. Just like Game of Thrones‘s strengths, however, its weaknesses are carryovers from seasons past. Longtime fans have proven willing to give up on the hope of immaculately structured hours and accept the show for what it is: a scattered collection of stories headed in a few different directions at many different speeds.

As long as the road to wherever this show is heading is paved with Charles Dance scenery-chewing and Arya Stark butt-kicking, viewers won’t mind. Game of Thrones has earned our trust, and so far, Season 4 doesn’t give us any reason to lose it.