The official slogan for the fourth season of HBO’s fantastical, engrossing drama “Game of Thrones,” which kicks off Sunday at 9 p.m., is “All Men Must Die.” The unofficial slogan could be “Patience is Rewarded.”
It has been 10 long months. And even the most dedicated viewers with minds like Valyrian steel traps might have lost track of where we left off with any one of the whopping 29 regular characters spread out over seven locations.
But as they have proved in the past, executive producer/writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are adept at bringing the audience up to speed and then plunging full steam ahead. The first three episodes available for review offer plenty of action, surprising twists — at least to the many who have not read the George R.R. Martin books on which they are based — and beautiful set pieces of opulence and grime.
Some characters have returned home. The Lannister family is reunited for the impending nuptials of the sadistic King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). (Keep in mind happy weddings appear to be a rarity in Westeros.) And Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has reported back to the Wall at Castle Black.
Others are still scattered to the four winds as Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor “the Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Bran Stark (a rapidly growing Isaac Hempstead-Wright) remain on their respective quests. But whether sleeping in their own beds or under the stars, no one is happy, everyone is scheming, and nothing is black and white.
That gray area will be amplified even further this season as several characters are pushed to make difficult decisions that seem at odds with their factory settings, be they virtuous or vengeful. In doing so, ”Game of Thrones” continues to impress with its ability to depict how intimate choices can have epic consequences, and vice versa.
Each of the actors rises to that challenge, whether playing opposite one person or a multitude of extras. Gleeson in particular does fine work during the wedding episode — breathing hissable life into Joffrey, that fiery bully of walking id — as do the actors playing Lannister siblings Cersei (Lena Headey), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and Tyrion (Emmy winner Peter Dinklage). It remains something of a miracle that the writers and actors are able to inject storylines about dragons and mythical gods and, um, too-close-family-ties with a dose of everyday realism.
A few new faces are introduced to the proceedings to typically nefarious effect, and some old friends return at opportune moments.
Of course, the beauty of this soapy construction means “Game of Thrones” is not unlike New England weather: If you’re not a fan of one story line, you only have to wait a few minutes to pivot to another.
As often as those pivots keep the tempo juiced, one drawback is the occasional feeling that you’re watching several shows at once — “Arya & the Hound,” “Khaleesi’s Korner,” “Those Wacky Baratheons!” — with some proving much more captivating than others, depending on where the characters are on their particular journey. (Fortunately, last season’s worst story line — the gruesome physical torture of Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy — appears to have abated for the moment.)
But back to that slogan. “GoT” has never shied away from death, natural or otherwise, and season four looks like it will be no exception. With 10 episodes in all, many characters could be in danger. Sunday night, we’ll begin to find out which ones.