Game of Thrones is not the deepest, most subtle, or most innovative drama on TV. It is an example of what used to be called "meat-and-potatoes" storytelling: an R-rated yet classically styled epic. It's mainly concerned with riveting the viewer from moment to moment, often through sex, violence, or intrigue, while keeping a vast fictional world, a complex plot, and a preposterously overpopulated cast straight in the viewer's mind. But when you look at this TV adaptation of author George R.R. Martin's fantasy world, and think about it as a huge narrative machine whose interlocking gear teeth raise and lower the curtains on various tableaux, its artistry becomes more obvious. Never in American TV history has a show that moved so slowly and unpacked its story so deliberately been so engrossing from week to week and from scene to scene. (Unless, of course, you dislike sword-and-sorcery stories generally, or this show specifically, in which case it's too much of a bad thing.)
As I watched the first three episodes of season four, which I'll refrain from describing in too much detail in case you haven't read the books, another thought occurred to me: Along with Hannibal, this is the most joyous, at times exhilarating nightmare on TV. Considering how unrelentingly bleak this world is — a State of Nature in which most characters are ruled by their reptilian brains, and those who show kindness or mercy tend to suffer for it — there's no reason why it should be anything but off-putting. This is a show, after all, that beheaded Ned Stark, the most likable member of its most likable royal family at the end of season one, just to let you know that it wasn't messing around, and that dispatched many of his still-grieving relatives near the end of season three. In this world, happiness often seems a synonym for "not being dead." The show's tone reminds me of a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in which the hero lulls his young son to sleep by telling him gruesome battlefield stories that include mass beheadings. "Did they let you keep the heads?" the boy asks, clutching a stuffed toy lamb.
In addition to its more obvious vicarious thrills, some more problematic than others, Game of Thrones lets you live for one hour a week in a universe in which even seemingly tiny decisions have life-and-death stakes. Characters can be, and sometimes are, beaten, tortured, humiliated, or exiled for addressing the wrong person in the wrong tone at the wrong time. And yet the potential for enormous change to happen on an instant's notice never feels arbitrary because the scripts, adapted from Martin's fiction, pay such close attention to the mundane mechanics of this fantasy world and the psychological specifics of its characters, the better to make it all feel real.
There's a wonderful moment in the season premiere when Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who's been forced by his father Tywin (Charles Dance) to marry Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), is in the same room with his new bride and his disreputable true love, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kikelli). Tyrion realizes he has to talk to Sansa about something private. "If I could have a moment alone with my wife," he murmurs. The sentence hangs awkwardly in the air because each woman, and very possibly Tyrion as well, realizes that the word wife has both a ceremonial meaning and an emotional one. That's why everyone's hesitating.
The attention to characterization helps ground a story that has so many locations, competing forces, and diabolical subplots that even attentive viewers sometimes have to pause and double back to make sure they're grasping all the fine points. Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and their scriptwriters do a fairly ingenious job of embedding what amounts to plot refreshers in the dialogue and making it sound organic, or at least not completely awkward. And for every line that's purely functional there are many more that are drily amusing ("You are a talker," the scarred badass mercenary the Hound says to a thug who's trying to intimidate him in an ale house, "Listening to talkers makes me thirsty"). Others have the ring of cruel tactical truth, like lines from Machiavelli's The Prince, or one of the Godfather movies. "Money buys a man's silence for a time," says a character who's just killed a man who knew incriminating secrets, "but a bolt in the heart buys it forever."
There are times when you feel sympathy for the show's various devils, including the maimed swordsman and sister-boffer Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the imperious Tywin, who makes holding the kingdom together sound like a chore but clearly enjoys playing secret puppet master. And there are lovely moments of wordless character definition, such as when the odious King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) makes light of Ned Stark's death in the presence of his still-traumatized daughter: The camera lingers on her face in close-up as she silently relives a horror she can't publicly acknowledge, much less discuss. Better still are little atmospheric details, such as the blue, moonlight-tinted mist that wreathes a nautical action scene, and the way that two dragons playfully jab and bite at each other in midair, like a couple of playful kestrels; they make you feel that this isn't an entirely soundstage-based or CGI-created world, but a real place.
Last season ran into some problems that you could file under "proportionality," such as the torture of the captive Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), which was excessively sadistic even by Game of Thrones' standards and that seemed to repeat itself for no good reason over the course of ten long episodes that packed a lot of travel and war and scheming into other plotlines that were unfolding simultaneously. But for the most part, the show does a remarkable job of giving all the narrative strands what feels like the right emphasis. The storytelling doesn't feel choppy, because once you've moved from, say, King's Landing to the Wall, or from the Wall to the slave-liberation crusade of dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the show settles in for a bit and gives you three nicely shaped, somewhat long scenes before changing locations again. This is what filmmakers would call "cross-cutting," but it's slowed way down, so that you can process all the information ping-ponging around.
Having watched only the first few episodes, I won't hazard a judgment about how it stacks up with the other seasons, but I will say that the storytelling seems to have hit a new peak of relaxed confidence. In every scene you get a sense of steady forward motion. New characters are introduced and old characters deepened, and devious new plots are laid out so deftly that it's not until midway through episode three that you look back over everything that came before and laugh at yourself for not having seen a particular surprise coming — and laugh with the show for having unleashed yet another narrative juggernaut that'll surely climax in a now-patented ninth-episode bloodbath.
There's also a gentle audacity to a certain plot twist that I haven't been able to stop thinking about. Suffice to say that after three-plus seasons, Game of Thrones has become so assured that it no longer feels the need to obscure who's really responsible for seemingly "mysterious" developments. It instead lets observant viewers piece it together and feel reasonably sure they've called it right, based on their understanding of how this universe operates, which personal characteristics it values and which it punishes.