Game of Thrones
In the wake of the Red Wedding, claims by showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff that things were only going to get darker on Game of Thrones seemed like hyperbole. But from the very first scene of Season 4, it was clear that life in Westeros could be just as bleak and dire during peacetime as it was when divided by war. With the Lannisters firmly in power and the remaining Starks in hiding, whatever semblance of a traditional Good Guys vs. Bad Guys narrative the show ever had went up in flames like a bottle of wildfire. “If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place,” says Tyrion at one point, but his awareness of that fact did little to protect him from the treachery and violence that unites the Seven Kingdoms.
Game of Thrones is often unforgivingly pessimistic in its views of power and people. So why is it so frequently the most entertaining show on television? Well, production values, for one. Season 4 made every cent of the show’s mammoth budget count, setting new series standards for action direction (can one really have a preference between The Hound running loose in the chicken coop, and Prince Oberyn dance-fighting The Mountain?), and slicing through expectations for TV-appropriate scale like an oversized anchor through mountaineering Wildlings. And let’s not forget the people running around the seamlessly integrated real vistas and green screen trickery; Peter Dinklage’s ferocious courtroom confession was a verbal assault sharper than any Valyrian steel, and Maisie Williams delivered one of the show’s best scenes ever using only a long, cold stare.
This was also the first real year that book readers could share in the excitement of not knowing what was to come. Some major changes to the source material let Game of Thrones claim full independence from George R. R. Martin’s books once and for all, though not always for the better (the colossal muck-up of Jaime and Cersei’s relationship being especially embarrassing). With Daenerys’ return flight to Westeros delayed further, and Jon Snow continuing to be such a drip despite the freezing temperatures, Game of Thrones still has key elements to its story that don’t always make for engaging television. But when the biggest problem facing your show is that there’s just not enough time to do every part of it justice, it speaks to just how vast and deep the riches of that show can be.