Television shows that deal routinely with death usually get it out of the way early: Someone dies at the beginning of the episode, and everyone else spends the rest of the hour talking about it. Game of Thrones turns that formula around. In the early weeks of this HBO hit’s fourth season, which begins on Sunday, people mostly talk for an hour — reminding us of who they are, which family they belong to, what castle they call home — until the episode ends with an operatic, in one case game-changing, killing.
You can understand the dramatic imperative at work here. The writers have to cram in a critical mass of the plot from George R.R. Martin’s sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels, while keeping things intelligible across seasons and episodes. Hence, on at least three occasions in the season premiere, characters begin reciting past events as if reading online synopses. (“Things are a bit tense right now. My nephew the king wants to murder me. My wife hates me because my father murdered her family.”) After 50 such minutes, we could all use a good homicide.
Overall, though, the body count has been dialled down for the moment, after the orgy of bloodletting toward the end of season three, when several major characters belonging to the noble Stark clan were dispatched. It’s a time of uneasy peace in Westeros, despite having had an infidel burned at the stake here, or a girl torn apart by hounds there. The duplicitous Lannisters consolidate their power while preparing for a royal wedding. The scattered Stark heirs skulk about the countryside, on their way to somewhere. The Wildlings, in the north, and Daenerys Targaryen, in the east, continue the two slowest marches toward battle in the history of television.
This narrative pokiness is redeemed, as usual, by the machine-tooled professionalism of the production, the lavish attention to the mock-medieval costumes and setting, and the mostly crisp, understated acting by the international cast. These are the show’s hallmarks, and they’re enough to get you through the frankly dull scenes of royal politics in King’s Landing, the undercooked incestuous love of Cersei and Jaime Lannister or an unpromising new subplot involving a visiting nobleman who blames the Lannisters for the rape and murder of his sister.
More than ever, though, you may find yourself impatient for the plot to wind around to the more engaging storylines. The odd-couple pairing of young Arya Stark and her reluctant protector, the Hound, is primary among these, and the best moments early this season are theirs. Rory McCann, as the cynical, laconic Hound, gets the best lines. “I just understand the way things are,” he growls to Arya. “How many Starks they got to behead before you figure it out?”
Other characters we care about get a little lost in the endless shuffle: The towering knight Brienne of Tarth is shoehorned awkwardly into the action, just to remind us she’s there. And the high camp of Daenerys, mother of dragons and liberator of slaves, is largely offstage for now, which may be good in dramatic terms — the young actress Emilia Clarke has gotten no more persuasive as a warrior princess — but makes the show less entertaining.
There’s one highly positive sign, however, that could make such carping moot: It appears that Tyrion Lannister, the noble dwarf played by Peter Dinklage, will be even more central to the action than usual. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of following Martin’s story, or perhaps it’s an acknowledgment that Dinklage’s captivating performance has taken over the show and that the action seems to drag whenever he’s not on screen.
The only American actor playing a significant role in the series, Dinklage is simultaneously more magisterial than his British and European counterparts and more restrained; his baleful eyes contain the emotion that’s otherwise conveyed in soap opera terms. When Tyrion orders his prostitute mistress to flee to save her life, or uses a single finger to move aside the hand of a mocking antagonist, Game of Thrones ascends for a few seconds to the level of tragedy.