UPDATE: “Game of Thrones” is a major ratings coup for HBO (see Season Four premiere numbers below). So it’s a no-brainer that the premium cabler would renew the series for a fifth and sixth season, which it announced today.
Fans of the fantasy series can rest assured they’ll be seeing new GOT episodes into at least 2016.
EARLIER: The Season Four premiere of “Game of Thrones” got off to a big start April 6, nabbing HBO’s largest viewership since the “Sopranos” finale.
Roughly 6.6 million tuned in for the inaugural episode to the new season. Meanwhile, 11.9 watched the “Sopranos” closer in 2007. The previous highmark for GOT was 5.5 million for an episode midway through Season 3.
Below, our review of the new season:
“Game of Thrones” is more realistic history than genre fantasy.
In the run-up to the launch of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” Season Four, the great British TV critic Clive James has been catching up on DVD boxed sets — and enjoying it, despite some confusion. “I didn’t quite catch the name of the place from which the dragon’s eggs were beyond,” he wrote in The Telegraph, “but I instantly made my plans to jump ship if the dragons ever hatched.”
James happily didn’t follow through on these plans, and has continued to enjoy the show, but his initial error of seeing “Game of Thrones” primarily as a fantasy series is still too widely shared. Some critics have suggested disapprovingly that elements of the mores of Westeros could simply be adjusted by George R.R. Martin, author of the five source volumes (to date) of the military and political epic “A Song of Ice and Fire,” because after all these are just grim fairy tales, and can take on any shape or form their creator prefers.
It seems obvious that the fantasy elements of “GoT” are mostly incidental, operatic rhetorical flourishes used to externalize some elements of the human drama. The dragons that grow larger in each book, and in each TV season, work well as giant metaphors for the growth of the spirit of their mistress, Emilia Clarke‘s increasingly regal Daenerys Targaryen, royalist claimant to the bitterly contested throne of Westeros. At heart, “Ice and Fire” is a realistic dramatic novel, patterned on British history.
This is not news. From the beginning, many of the show’s keenest admirers have argued that the books would read almost as well with all the Wights and Walkers surgically removed. And new Kindle publication by Ed West, previewed in “The Spectator,” cites chapter and verse to show how closely “Ice and Fire” adheres to the events of historical upheavals such as the War of the Roses. Martin himself advises readers looking for more of the same to jump straight into historical fiction, naming the multi-volume medieval epic “The Accursed Kings,” by the French novelist Maurice Druon, as a key influence.
“Ice and Fire,” and therefore “Game of Thrones,” are realistic in the way that matters most: their depiction of human behavior. Setting the stories in a world based fundamentally in historical fact can be seen as a form of authenticity insurance, a built-in check on the natural human inclination toward wishful thinking. Hard to avoid, perhaps, in a genre that often falls back on elves and trolls.
The visual presentation of sex and violence on “GoT” has often veered toward pure spectacle. No use trying to deny it. In the very first episode of the new season, the camera once again gazes lasciviously at naked King’s Landing prostitutes who resemble Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. No aesthetic of realism is being served there. But in some of the series’ most notorious sequences, such as those depicting King Joffrey’s violent debaucheries, it was.
“Much historical fiction,” Ed West writes, “features characters with essentially modern ideas and sensibilities, such as a belief in individual liberty, romantic idealism and a sense of the brotherhood of man, in a setting where such ideas would have been totally alien. No one before the 18th century would have thought like that and many people outside the West still don’t. Martin never makes that mistake.” His books are more historically accurate, in other words, than a lot of fiction that calls itself historical.
In the fourth “Ice and Fire” novel, “A Feast for Crows,” Martin describes a new board game that is catching on fast on the adjacent continent of Essos: “Cyvasse, the game was called… The Dornish court was mad for it. Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares.” Hard not to see this as a wink toward Martin’s brand of pull-out-the-rug storytelling.
Years ago, reading a long series of British novels called a “A Dance to the Music of Time” (not a fantasy epic, despite the title), I was impressed by some sequences set during the Blitz in London. On several occasions, major characters were wiped out seemingly at random, leaving the survivors in the reconfigured cast to keep calm and carry on. Martin has done things like that to us twice already, just in the portions of the story we’ve seen on television. Incidents such as the execution of Ned Stark, and The Red Wedding, were shocking not only because they eliminated popular characters–people the ordinary rules of genre entertainment tempted us to assume were safe–but because they “changed the board.” Suddenly we were playing by a different set of rules, reading a whole different book.
At the moment the tide of Westerosi history seems to be carrying Daenerys, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Arya Stark toward some sort of cataclysmic convergence, an occurrence Martin has suggested may be reserved for a big budget feature film after the series wraps. But it would be foolish to assume that any of the characters we are currently following will survive that long, or will survive unchanged. One of the more shocking revelations of the early episodes this season, for example, is the extent to which Arya has been hardened by her association with traveling companion Sandor Clagane. Is she still the plucky warrior princess we’ve been rooting for?
Martin says he set up the books to maintain suspense and keep his readers off guard, to make us afraid to turn the pages. Who could deny that he’s succeeded in generating radical uncertainty, and what could be more like real life than that?