Tower of the Hand

'Tis the Best Season

Tags: Essay
12/24/2014 9:00:00 AM ET

When I was asked which season I liked the best by my fellow writers at Tower of the Hand, I thought that would be an easy question to answer. Initially, my thoughts went straight to season three, with Daenerys Stormborn's pretending to sell Drogon as a particularly memorable scene... but then I began to ponder. Pedro Pascal really shone in season four, didn't he? And wasn't I absolutely stunned by his exit in episode eight, "The Mountain and the Viper"?

Yes, I was, but, at the same time, wasn't season one the season that felt most like the books, even though it took some time to get used to the look of certain locations and characters? And didn't I have the feels, big time, when Ned lost his head? Well, yes, I did.

What I realized was that it was easier to define which season I liked the least - that would be season two - but even that turned out to be only partially true, because didn't I actually enjoy the second season when I did a marathon re-watch half a year ago? Didn't I really come to appreciate, in particular, the aesthetic designs of the Dragonstone Island environment? And didn't I come to like Show Stannis for being Show Stannis, distancing myself from the fact that I felt Book Stannis was an entirely different character? Why, yes, again.

And didn't certain scenes in seasons three and four have me frustrated because they simply veered too far away from the books? (Which reminds me: how come we haven't seen Jalabhar Xho yet?)

The conclusion was obvious: all of the four seasons have something good, something bad, and something ugly. So I suppose it makes sense to think through each of the episodes in each season, and weigh the good against the bad (and the ugly). Maybe there was a mathematical way of figuring out which season is actually my favorite - simply by counting the number of "goods" in each season. This led to further thoughts, until I arrived at the idea to sit down and go through each and every episode and score them. Any scene with a seven (out of 10) or higher, I'd consider good, and then all I had to do was count 'em up and see which season had the most good scores.

Only... that would take too long. So I had to go for something more sensible and less time-consuming.

The solution: doing what I always do and trust my gut, running through the question season by season.

Year by Year

0003-robert-hbo.jpgJust as Oberyn Martell steals the show in his scenes, Robert did the same at this early stage.

Each season has its own distinct voice, so to speak, and each season has left me both ecstatic and frustrated. In season one, the obvious size of the budget was a hindrance to my enjoyment - especially the Tourney of the Hand, which was a disappointment. The spectacle I imagined when reading A Game of Thrones was nowhere to be seen or felt. Yet the casting was beyond solid, and many of the good bits from the books were lifted pretty much straight from George R.R. Martin's narrative. While I thought Winterfell and King's Landing looked nothing like what was presented in the novel, several characters were so good in this season that the actors became the new faces when I read the novels - I find Robert Baratheon, the First of His Name, to be an especially good vision of Martin's character. Just as Oberyn Martell steals the show in his scenes, Robert did the same at this early stage. And now both are dead, but there are still many great actors doing great work with their characters, across all seasons.

I still feel that a few characters have too little in common with their book counterparts, and these, interestingly, are all somehow connected to House Baratheon; while Robert was excellent, I find the portrayals of Renly, Stannis, Davos, and Melisandre all to be a little less exciting. The actors are doing a great job, and I don't mind if people don't look exactly like their book descriptions - what I struggle with is in the writing, for the most part. And this is why I believe I rank season two a little lower. Well, that's part of the reason, anyway.

Daenerys's storyline in season two also was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair (while her story in season three was fantastic, with forward momentum, great acting, and spot-on dialogue). I also found the Jon Snow/Qhorin/Ygritte parts of season two a little less interesting, but this was also true with the books. Finally, the biggest mistake (in my opinion!), though I certainly understand why they did it, was making Arya the cupbearer of Tywin Lannister instead of Roose Bolton. This change still irks me, and as Arya and Tywin share a lot of scenes, that annoyance kept coming back to bite me as I re-watched the second season. Yes, this massive change in the plot allowed for an easier-to-follow story for the general audience. Yes, putting Arya and Tywin together led to some interesting possibilities. But they have also taken away the power of any scene involving Arya and Roose in the future (I have a suspicion they will meet again in the books). Also, with this change, the character of Roose was given something of a short shrift, and when his betrayal came up in season three, I felt I didn't know or like Roose enough to really get the feels (Michelle Fairley did just that, however).

So, season two is definitely out of the running. Season one, as I said, is generally a good season, but the lack of budget is so obvious, and it ruins it a little bit for me. Grand scenes become small; great cities become villages; and, throughout the season, there are strange scenes, usually exposition scenes with a bit of bewb thrown in, which took me out of the show instead of drawing me further in. Granted, bewbs always throw me for a lewp.

But there was so much to like, as well: Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the surprisingly convincing Michelle Fairley (took me a while to get over the fact she looks nothing like the Catelyn Stark I had seen in art for years before the first episode aired), Bran looked perfect, Arya was played perfectly (as was Sansa, as well), Varys was Varys... Littlefinger looked the part, but I didn't like this show version - and I still don't, to be honest. They got a lot of things right in this season, and while the first three or so episodes were a little slow (for natural reasons), the last half of the season was a great ride, and, of course, the book had many great moments and, fortunately, most of the essential ones were intact. I feel that, for all its flaws, the first season is the one that feels the most like Martin's narrative.

So, season one, then, is the best one yet for Game of Thrones.

But - what do you know? - the scenes that me jump out of the couch are mostly to be found in seasons three and four!

In a very real sense, I'm struggling between seasons one, three, and four, with one having the trump card of feeling the most like its source material, but three and four providing more spectacular and impressive effects and adding more great actors to replace those we lost on the way. And - this is important, I guess - both seasons provide some of the most intense drama. In season one, the story is simpler to follow, with fewer diverting storylines, but with the two last seasons, you get a lot more variety through more storylines, and while season one feels as if it has too many scenes of people hanging around to talk, there is more momentum in the last two seasons - they continue to forge ahead, not caring one whit that Martin himself is getting behind. Some of my favorite characters have many good scenes in the last two seasons (notably, Ser Jaime Lannister). The episodes are generally more impressive to watch, and I like that the writers and directors dare to experiment a little within the format (as an example, the silence during the end credits of episode 309, "The Rains of Castamere").

I am rambling, I know. I am trying to make sense of my thoughts regarding Game of Thrones as I write. I believe I have now come to the point that I have discarded season one and am considering either season three or four.

The only way to decide between the two? A little comparative analysis, using four key indicators to lead the way.

The Opening Scenes

tywin-4.jpgTywin's forging of two swords is a more experimental and poetic start to the season.

301: "Valar Dohaeris"

The season opens with Sam running through the northern wilderness, finding a decapitated Night's Watch man. It's an eerie and exciting start, to say the least, though it doesn't follow logically from the way episode 210 ended ("Valar Morghulis"). I don't really care about that, however.

It's an ominous start, immediately reminding us of the threat in the North.

401: "Two Swords"

This season opens with Tywin Lannister re-forging Ice into two Lannister blades. It is a scene done without dialogue, and the visuals tell everything - along with the music, which goes from the Stark theme to the Lannisters'. It's a brilliant little touch. I worried that the casual audience wouldn't get the implications of the scene, but the "What's Gone Before" bit made it quite clear what Tywin was doing, am I right? It is a more experimental and poetic start to the season.

Conclusion: the two opening scenes are very different, and I like them both for what they are. I think I have to go with 401, because the symbolism is strong, and it tells the audience straight off that now, at last, House Lannister is really in charge (oh, really?).

Season three: 0

Season four: 1

New Material

I am still not over Ice Maul.I am still not over Ice Maul.

I find some of the new material in season four to be filler, especially Bran and company arriving at Craster's Keep, where the mutineers are hiding. Some of the material within these sequences is good, and here I'm thinking specifically of the performance of Burn Gorman as Karl Tanner. It's not in the books, no, but it sure felt like it belonged there.

The "original" HBO material in season three is less in-your-face (for a hardcore ASOIAF fan), and I found that some of the changes added strength to the show. One example of this: they had Robb's wife (Jeyne Westerling in my mind - I can't even recall her show name off the top of my head) be pregnant, which made the Red Wedding all the more (excuse the literal pun here) gut-wrenching. I do wish they had kept more of the brotherhood without banners intact, though; they could have easily spent more time with them, in my opinion.

Another change in season three that hurt a little bit was the removal of that other, less savory brotherhood - Vargo Hoat and his men. However, the new character that replaced Hoat, Locke, did such a good job with the role, I soon enough accepted it. In the fourth season, however, they let Locke just kind of peter out, and that was bad, mkay?

Also, I am still not over Ice Maul. What the hell.

Season three: 1

Season Four: 1


Season four's big star is arguably the Red Viper.Season four's big star is arguably the Red Viper.

Season four's big star is arguably the Red Viper, and I think most viewers agree that he sparkled onscreen. Every scene with him was interesting and exciting, and Pedro Pascal nailed the role to the point that I felt the same level of disappointment at the character's epic failure in the show as I did in the book. I have always loved Martin for shocking me with the Viper's failure. I didn't see it coming, and I was half-hoping, half-expecting that he would walk out of the trial alive in the show, so they could keep this awesome character in.

In season three, the big star is, in my personal opinion, Daenerys Targaryen. While I found her unconvincing in the second season, Emilia Clarke notched it all up in the subsequent year, partially because her material was much stronger, I suppose. Clarke, I must admit, is a weak link in the long chain of excellent actors on the show, but in season three, I just loved everything about her and her scenes. The story had momentum, excitement, and action - and when she unleashed Drogon upon the slave trader, I was hailing the screen. Powerful stuff.

Season three also gave us one of my favorite character introductions: the Tullys, at long last. In episode 303, "Walk of Punishment," we meet Brynden and Edmure Tully, and they are both painted with a few broad strokes that gives the audience enough to understand who they are. Brynden, in particular, was well-cast; I can't get over Tobias Menzies being Edmure in the sense that he doesn't look like Edmure at all (at least they could have colored his hair and given him a beard). I want to see more of the Tullys!

Season four had a few introductions that I didn't find as compelling. The introduction of the third version of Ser Gregor in particular might just be the show's weakest moment ever - I am talking about the scene where the peasants line up to get slaughtered. It is such a dumb scene. On the other hand, the Tyrells are coming in full-force this season, and though they were introduced in the third season, it is in the fourth that they really shine.

Other characters introduced earlier also come properly into their own in season four, particularly Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne.

Both seasons also have a few memorable character exits, with the Viper's being the most brutal thing I ever saw on a TV show. That was fricking awesome. Bronn leaving Tyrion was also a great moment and was very close to the book, which is always good. I have argued it many times over on my blog: Game of Thrones is actually best when it keeps as close as possible to the original narrative. Martin already wrote great dialogue and scenes, and little of it does really need alteration.

The best exits are in season three, though - Catelyn Stark and Robb Stark. I mean, who can forget the Red Wedding? They did so much right with that scene. You could feel that the writers and directors wanted to nail it. They recreated the sense of dread perfectly.

I think I will grudgingly go with season three here, but it's a close call.

Season three: 2

Season four: 1

That Ninth Episode

You can rely on episode nine to provide some thrilling drama.You can rely on episode nine to provide some thrilling drama.

Becoming something of a tradition, the ninth episode is just a little bit more spectacular than the rest of the season - you can rely on episode nine to provide some thrilling drama. In 309 ("The Rains of Castamere"), we, of course, get the Red Wedding; in 409 ("The Watchers on the Wall"), we get a cinematic, epic battle at the Wall which felt like it was only 10 minutes long.

There is no doubt here in my mind: the wedding was infinitely more dramatic, exciting, heartbreaking, and memorable, while the battle at times felt like it veered too close to The Lord of the Rings in style and scope - enjoyable, but not affecting me emotionally all that much. Okay, I guess I was a bit angry about losing Grenn and Pyp.

Season three: 3

Season four: 1


Surprisingly enough, it isn't even close between the two of them. I hereby formally declare season three to be the best Game of Thrones season so far.

And now I want to do another marathon re-watch. Can someone stop time for, say, 40 hours? Thanks.

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