Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.
Another year of "Game of Thrones," and another round of dodging spoilers for ten weeks. This year I failed to avoid the two biggest ones - the Purple Wedding and the outcome of the duel between the Red Viper and the Mountain - but remained blissfully oblivious about the rest. It was harder to spoil things this season, a year which can be characterized by a shrinking list of characters to root for and root against.
Let's start with the less successful storylines. Theon and Stannis had transitional years. Though we checked in on them, nothing major really happened that was worthy of much discussion. I found that Daenerys in Essos was mostly treading water too. She had some good episodes, grappling with the difficulties of rulership while trying to maintain the freedom of her newly liberated cities, but the whole year just felt like an extended pit stop on her way to conquering Westeros. Brandon Stark's little band is still trudging along with poorly defined stakes and giving me little reason to be particularly invested in what they're doing. It's nice that they've finally gotten somewhere, but too much of Bran's journey has been inconsequential filler.
The rest of the surviving Stark children were more satisfying to watch. Though the status quo never remains undisturbed for long in "Game of Thrones," this was the year that some of our major protagonists showed the most change and growth. Arya continues to become more disilliusioned and cynical. The latest in her long line of male mentors was The Hound. It's a fun pairing, with the two constantly at odds and Arya not bothering to disguise her hatred of him. After three seasons of being solely a pawn and victim, Sansa has taken her first steps toward becoming a real player in the game. Her escape from King's Landing and installation as Lady of the Vale gave her some of her best material in ages. It was also good to see Littlefinger back in the thick of things after limited appearances in the last two seasons. Finally, Jon Snow has been allowed to develop into a more viable hero figure, gaining some texture from heartbreak and warfare, and well on his way to becoming a good leader.
But let's be honest. The main event of Year Four was the Lannister family's dominance falling apart at King's Landing. The Purple Wedding, Tyrion being pitted directly against Cersei and Tywin over Joffrey's death, and the subsequent fallout from the persecution were thrilling. This storyline also gave us Oberyn Martell, one of the most enjoyable supporting characters to have appeared in the show so far. The bulk of the season's best scenes involved these characters, and we got some big payoffs to storylines that had been developing for a while, like Tyrion's relationship with Shae, Joffrey and Margaery's union, and Tywin's manipulations of his children. Sure, there were missteps like the infamous Jamie and Cersei rape scene, but all in all the Lannister conflicts were more compelling than everything else put together. Well, except Brienne, who got to set off on her own storyline this year. I love her to bits, and putting her with Pod is inspired.
The season's big showpiece episode was the attack of the wildlings on the Wall, which was reportedly more expensive and complicated to pull off than the Battle of Blackwater, but I found it far less successful. Jon Snow's adventures in the far north were always among the weaker parts of "Game of Thrones," so while the big episode was impressive, it also didn't have nearly the dramatic weight that it could have because the Castle Black characters were so much less interesting than the ones at King's Landing. The duel that took place at the end of the previous episode was far more gripping. Heck, it hardly even matched up to Brienne's bout with the Hound. It's only now that Stannis has gotten involved that I care about what's going on with the Night's Watch.
And I do care. With few exceptions, Year Four of "Game of Thrones" was tremendously successful. The story hasn't lost any momentum from last season, and the quality level has remained high. I think it also helped that there were relatively few new additions to the cast this year, and those few were well-used and memorable. The balance among all the different stories and characters was very good. There wasn't anyone I particularly wanted to see more or less of this year - maybe more of the Tyrells would have been nice, though what we did get of them was excellent. Often shows in their fourth seasons begin to stagnate, having spent too much capital on previous seasons, and start repeating themselves. However, there's so much going on in "Game of Thrones," that even if Danaerys is having a duller year, Jon Snow and Sansa and Brienne can more than make up for it.
And this is why I'm not particularly worried about losing Joffrey, who will surely go down as one of the most memorable television villains from the amount of rancor I've seen lobbed at the kid, or any of the others who didn't make it through this season. We have plenty of heroes and villains and indifferent types left in the story to be invested in. And if the show ever runs out, it's proven that it's perfectly capable of giving us new ones, if Oberyn Martell is any indication. As the series closes in on the end of its source material, I am a little concerned that the creators may be tempted to start dragging some events out in order to give Geoge R.R. Martin the time he needs to finish the books. However, there have already been several instances where they have diverged from the books or moved on ahead of them. And the show has been better for it.
Highlights? It was possibly Peter Dinklage's best year as Tyrion, but he was inevitably overshadowed by Pedro Pascal's Oberyn. The Stark girls are maturing before our eyes into a terrifying pair for different reasons, and we got some great moments from Gwendolyn Christie, John Bradley-West, Jack Gleeson, and Lena Heady. And I'm very sad to see Rose Leslie, Charles Dance, and Rory McCann leaving the cast. For all my impatience with Danaerys's adventures, they certainly looked more impressive than ever, with some of the most gorgeous set design and costuming I've seen yet. Similarly with "The Watchers on the Wall," even I'm not immune to the sight of a giant riding a woolly mammoth or that ridiculously cool business with the massive arrows.
Can Benioff and Weiss keep this up next year, as the story reportedly starts slowing down? I don't know, but I can't wait to see them try.