Game of Thrones: Season 7, Episode 4 – The Spoils of War

“They fought together, despite their differences. Together. We need to do the same if we’re going to survive. Because the enemy’s real. It’s always been real.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

As Game of Thrones moves ever-closer to its conclusion, the narrative pace seems to be massively accelerating in this shorter, penultimate season. Gone are the days when you could reasonably predict a season’s structure; that there’d be an impressive battle by episode four or so, then much political machination leading to events of great magnitude in episode nine, followed by one ep of picking up the pieces. We’ve only just got through four episodes, and we’ve had an epic naval battle, followed by the seizing of both Casterly Rock and Highgarden, and now the devastating first deployment of a dragon just outside King’s Landing.

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Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 10–The Children

“We both know that winter is coming. And if my people aren’t south of the Wall when it comes in earnest, we’ll all end up worse than dead.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Unpredictable beasts, season finales of Game of Thrones. In the past, they’ve tended to be a chance to take stock after the tumultuous events of episode 9, while also laying the groundwork for next season’s plots. This one, though, was uncharacteristically action-packed, with some game-changing plot developments that should leave even those who’ve read the books impatient to see what happens next.

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Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 5–First of His Name

What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Game of Thrones episodes seem to fall into two distinct styles. There are the ones which focus very strongly on one or two of the major plotlines, perhaps paying lip service to a couple of the others, which are usually very strong. Then there are the more scattershot ones which take in so many (though rarely all) of the ongoing plots that we see little more than a tantalising vignette from each.

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Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 2–The Lion and the Rose

“There’s been too much amusement here today. A royal wedding is not a place for amusement.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Ah, weddings. I must say, personally I have rather a dread of them. I’ve never encountered one that hasn’t been an awkward occasion, as you gingerly tread the minefield of half-understood family politics and longstanding grudges. Inevitably (in my experience), at least some part of it ends in tears, as Aunt Maisie, tipsy on complimentary cava, finally confronts Cousin Jane over the long-disputed inheritance of that cherished family heirloom, followed by the equally inevitable punch-up between their dutifully defensive and equally tipsy husbands.

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Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 10–Mhysa

You really think a crown gives you power?”

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After the tumultuous events of last week, this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones felt more like an epilogue than a climax. True, it was still a highly charged, and often tremendously violent piece of drama. But it also had the tall order of providing a capstone to just about all of this year’s multifarious plotlines, in preparation for next year. Benioff and Weiss’ script accomplished this with some aplomb, catching us up on just about every major character – the ones still alive, that is.

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Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 2–Dark Wings, Dark Words

“I didn’t ask for black magic dreams.”

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After last week’s crowded but slow-moving scene setter, this week’s Game of Thrones was back to full on action and intrigue, as we caught up with most of the characters we hadn’t seen last week, and met a whole plethora more.

While last week saw the introduction of a few new characters – Mance Rayder and the Wildlings, for example – this week the show really cut loose with introduction after introduction. In some cases, these were characters held back from the second book, necessitating some economising on plotlines. In all cases, they were superbly cast, and it was a pleasure to see many of my favourite character actors making an appearance as new regulars.

First though, we got to catch up with some of the Stark family we didn’t see last week, and immediately I saw a looming problem. Crippled Bran Stark is still being dragged toward the general vicinity of the Wall in the company of Hodor and Osha, and beset by mysterious visions of the three-eyed raven and an oddly elfin teenage boy.

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That’s not the problem, though. I like that Bran’s journey is getting increasingly mystical and portentous. The trouble is that, brilliant though Isaac Hempstead-Wright is in the part, he’s obviously hitting puberty. He’s noticeably taller than last season, which in the show’s timeframe was only a few days ago, and his voice seems to be breaking. I’ve speculated before that the story’s compressed timeframe vs the time it takes to make a season might mean that some of the marvellous child actors may have to be recast. I’m beginning to think (much as I’d hate the idea) that Bran might be the first. When puberty proper hits him, he may well shoot up in height – and that might be tricky to explain. There’s always magic, I suppose.

Which may explain one of his new friends. The Reed children (for it is they) are related to the Stark bannermen of the Riverlands, and in the books were introduced last volume. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, thinking season two already somewhat overmanned, held them back till this year, necessitating a different, but just as effective introduction as they caught up with Bran’s party in the woods.

There are two of them, Jojen and Meera, and Jojen is played by the elfin Thomas Sangster. Sangster appears not to have aged since his part in Doctor Who six years ago; despite now being 22, he still looks about 15. Accompanying him is his less spiritual sister/bodyguard Meera, played by Ellie Kendrick, Being Human’s nerdy werewolf Allison.

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Thankfully, Maisie Williams appears to share Sangster’s ability to not age, so there’s no danger of Arya being recast. Having escaped Harrenhal thanks to the homicidal favours of Jaqen H’ghar, she was still roaming the woods with Gendry and Hot Pie, heading for her mother’s ancestral home of Riverrun. Williams was as brilliant as ever, as Arya faced off against rebel leader Thoros of Myr, another fan favourite charismatically incarnated by Paul Kaye.

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This was another neat case of economising on George RR Martin’s occasionally meandering storylines. In the books, Arya and friends spent ages wandering the countryside having minor skirmishes; the show sensibly dispenses with that, getting them straight to where they need to be for the story proper to advance. It was ‘economised’ even further when Thoros brethren dragged their latest captive into the inn where they were all dining – the Hound.

It’s great to see Sandor Clegane again, after his disgusted abandonment of King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater. Unfortunately for Arya, he knows who she is – that could put the cat among the pigeons.

Also wandering in the general vicinity of Arya and co were other interested parties, most notably her mother. Still not popular among Force Stark from Winterfell, Catelyn has plunged her rep even lower by dragging the army off to her family home of Riverrun to attend her father’s funeral.

They’re really cutting the flab from Martin’s narrative here (no bad thing in this regard), as Catelyn in the book had an emotional reunion with her father then waited patiently for him to die – while, presumably, the Army of the North tutted disapprovingly and checked their watches. Here, with Lord Tully already gone, Vanessa Taylor’s script found time to give Michelle Fairlie a moving showcase speech concerning her guilt over Jon Snow.

Having first prayed for his death, then, when he became ill, making a bargain with the gods that if he recovered she would love him as her own, she found she couldn’t manage it. As a result, she thinks the various misfortunes that have befallen her family are all her fault – “all the horror that’s befallen my family… all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.” It was an obvious Big Acting moment, but so well delivered by Fairlie it was hard to begrudge. That’s the kind of character depth that sets this show apart from shallower fantasy fare.

Along with its vicious politicking, that is. There was plenty more of that to be found in King’s Landing this week, and once again, despite action, horror and magic elsewhere, it proved the most gripping part of the show.

The Tyrells have been quick to exploit the debt the Lannisters owe them for their aid at Blackwater, and wasted no time in insinuating themselves at court. We saw the beginnings of that last week, as the shrewd Margaery began her campaign to worm her way into the public’s affections with random acts of Diana-like kindness. Natalie Dormer, an old hand at this kind of thing after her role as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, gives Margaery an obvious core of steel under that sweetly girlish exterior.

Even so, it was a tense scene in which she verbally sparred with capricious and psychotic boy king Joffrey. Jack Gleeson (apparently a lovely guy in real life) is so convincing as a Caligula-like despot you never know which way he’s going to jump. Margaery, it seems, can stay the right side of him – just. It took an extremely Freudian use of a crossbow as phallic symbol to pacify him, with Joffrey plainly more turned on than is wholesome by the idea of his fiancee killing things.

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This week, we also got to see where Margaery learnt her manipulative skills, with the ever-excellent Diana Rigg turning up as her grandmother Olenna Tyrell, the aptly named ‘Queen of Thorns’. Sharp-tongued, caustic yet charming, she’s plainly going to be a force to be reckoned with in the court. Drawing the truth about Joffrey (“He’s a monster!”) from the terrified Sansa, she was all sweetness throughout. Yet, even if she has a matronly care for Sansa’s well-being, you could see the cogs whirring as she processed the information for future use.

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Olenna’s not the only one to be ‘protective’ of Sansa, though, as Shae popped up to offer her some worldly advice about the sinister attentions of Petyr Baelish – “Men like that only want one thing from a pretty girl… love is not the thing.” Interesting though the character is, I’m still not sure about Sibel Kikelli’s performance as Shae – an accent can’t wholly hide a sometimes hesitant line delivery. Still, at least she had the frustrated Tyrion to play off in his all-too-brief appearance this week.

Elsewhere, there was the obligatory brief catch up with events beyond the Wall, as Sam Tarly faced the contempt of Watch brother Rast, only to be rescued by Grenn and Dolorous Edd. Jon, meanwhile, was still trekking southward with the Wildings, and the not entirely unexpected appearance of Mackenzie Crook as Orell shed some light on the destiny of Bran; Orell is a ‘warg’, one who can see through the eyes of animals. Plainly this is where Bran is heading too…

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We also caught up with Jaime and Brienne, who are presumably not far from Arya and her mother. The Riverlands must be quite big to avoid the dramatic contrivance of these three sets of characters running into each other at some point. Jaime and Brienne’s scenes were some of the best of the ep; these two characters, with their constant sniping, are plainly destined to become unlikely allies and perhaps even friends.

First though, they had to bond as warriors always do – with a bloody great swordfight. In a show that’s steeped in medieval combat, this was superb even by the high standards usually on display. I’m not sure which of them would have won, though, as their bonding exercise was interrupted by stalwart Australian actor Noah Taylor, as Locke from House Bolton, plainly intent on recapturing the Kingslayer. I’ve got the feeling this is not going to end well for him and his men next week.

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The Boltons are being quietly shaped up to be major players in the show’s labyrinthine power struggles. Lord Roose Bolton has been gradually enlarging his role from sniping about Robb Stark to the disaffected Lord Karstark to shaping strategy for the well-meaning but naive Robb. Michael McElhatton’s quiet but intense performance as Roose suggests hidden nuttiness to come.

Having already introduced enough new characters to fill the casts of several less ambitious shows, the ep surprised me by actually adding a new plotline not in the source material. In the books, it was a very long time before we discovered that Theon Greyjoy had survived the burning of Winterfell. Here, we discovered fairly early on that he’s being held captive in a mysterious dungeon and being fairly comprehensively tortured.

As usual, Alfie Allen played Theon without the hindrance of clothes, though any titillation was held off by the wince-making realism of the torture; still, how many fingernails does he really need? There’s hope for Theon yet though, as a mysterious boy claiming to be sent by his sister whispered that he’ll save him when the time is right. This being Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t trust him an inch, even if he is Simon from Misfits (Iwan Rheon).

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Despite the burden of introducing more characters than War and Peace, this somehow managed to feel like a deeper episode than last week. Yes, some of the plots were only glancingly referred to, but others were given enough room to breathe that they felt fresh and exciting. New characters always give a show like this a new lease of life; introducing a veritable army of them at the same time really helps. But with so many complicated plotlines already in progress, can the show manage the juggling act of the books and keep them all in the air successfully? On this basis, I suspect it can. There’s now so much going on the show barely has room for its trademark gratuitous nudity – the only character to get his kit off this week was Joffrey, of all people. Still, if you like that kind of thing…

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Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10–Valar Morghulis

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 10 YET.

“This war has just begun. It will last for years.”

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After the tumultuous excitement of last week’s Battle of Blackwater Bay, Game of Thrones’ season finale had a hard act to follow. Since last week seemed like a climax to the story, there was always the danger that this season ending would come across more like an epilogue. Yet it pulled off the hard trick of being an exciting finale in its own right, given a little more running time than usual to catch up on all the other plots left hanging from episode 8 and setting up situations and journeys for next year’s third season.

With so much to catch up on, I rather expected the aftermath of the battle for King’s Landing to be skipped over quite briefly, but even this was given a fair amount of screentime. Joffrey held court in the throne room, doling out rewards for his allies, most notably Margery Tyrell. With Cersei having cleared it with the Small Council and Pycelle with the High Septon, Joffrey’s show of obedience to his betrothal to Sansa was set aside in favour of Loras’ scheming sister – much to Sansa’s relief.

Natalie Dormer gave a subtle, intriguing performance as Margery, with her established political ambition – to be THE Queen – now in sight. Sansa, for her part, found her relief shortlived when Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen’s Irish accent none too well suppressed) enlightened her that the sadistic boy king could still beat her and take her in the bedroom. It was a revealing exchange, obviously setting up future plotlines – when Baelish commented that Sansa was “just like her mother”, it set off warning bells, as we already know of his deep unrequited feelings for Catelyn Stark. Meanwhile, you have to wonder if the smugly satisfied, fickle Margery knows quite what she’s let herself in for agreeing to marry Joffrey…

Tyrion too found the future uncertain, as Varys paid a visit to his sickbed. First though, Grand Maester Pycelle got a bit of payback for Tyrion’s earlier imprisonment of him, taking oily delight in informing him that Tywin had taken over as Hand of the King, and Tyrion was now, basically, nothing in the court. It’s a small role, Pycelle, but genre favourite Julian Glover has made him a truly loathsome schemer. The schadenfreud as he tossed Tyrion a coin – “for your trouble” – was perfectly played.

Varys got a fair bit to do this week too, which was great for fans of Conleth Hill’s silky, evasive performance as the court spymaster. After informing Tyrion that, whatever the history books might say, some at least would remember him as the saviour of King’s Landing, Varys also got a nice little scene with Ros (Esme Bianco), as he proved immune to her allure but instead of sex bought her complicity as an informant. “Littlefinger sees you as a collection of profitable holes,” he purred silkily, “but I see you as a future partner.”

It was a good scene and well played by both – I particularly liked the expression on Ros’ face when she discovered that there was nothing between Varys’ legs to manipulate. But it was also the first (and not the last) moment that made me wonder about how exactly the characters got to that point, a casualty, presumably, of trying to squeeze such a lengthy, complex book into ten episodes of TV. When last we saw Ros, she was a captive of Cersei, in the mistaken belief that she was Tyrion’s whore. No explanation was given for her current freedom – had Cersei realised her mistake?

At least we got clarity that Tyrion’s attacker in the battle was actually a paid assassin for Cersei, a rare clear explanation in a show full of duplicitous scheming (unless of course Varys was lying). Tyrion’s future in the capital is now evidently perilous, but as he admits to Shae, he loves the game far too much to give it up and escape to obscurity. Peter Dinklage, the breakout star of the show’s first season, has been elevated to top billing in the credits this year, and it’s clearly deserved.

As I say, it was a surprise that the characters in King’s Landing got so much attention with so many other plotlines to resolve or move on, but all got their due moment in showrunners’ Benioff and Weiss’ script. Some were dealt with more quickly than others, but even these had complex, well-played scenes – even if it was only one each.

So we briefly caught up with Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie, now wandering the wastes outside Harrenhal, for just one quick but significant scene. Jaqen H’gar popped up (as if by magic) to explain himself and offer Arya a place with ‘the Faceless Men’, a mysterious-sounding group of which he is presumably one. Maisie Williams as Arya looked tempted, but had to refuse, preferring to try and reunite her family (good luck with that one, they’re all over the Seven Kingdoms). But Jaqen wasn’t quite done with her, giving her a strange coin and the codewords “valar morghulis”, should she wish to find him again. Then he changed his face utterly and was gone, a different man. It was a nicely subtle bit of the magic that the show uses so sparingly, but I have to say I’ll miss German actor Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen.

Brienne and Jaime, clearly now another of the show’s excellent double acts, also got one scene to continue their journey towards King’s Landing. Probably not strictly necessary as it didn’t advance their storyline one bit, but useful as a reminder of where they were, and where they were going. It also gave Brienne, finally, a chance to show what a badass she truly is as they were confronted by a trio of too-inquisitive Stark soldiers, who had previously killed three girls for the simple crime of flirting with Lannisters. After the initial bluff failed and the thugs recognised Jaime for who he was, Brienne slaughtered them all in a single-handed display of the show’s trademark gore. Gods know where she shoved the sword in her last victim – even this show backed off from displaying that clearly – but it looked like a very painful end.

Up at Dragonstone, Stannis too got a single scene to lick his wounds after his defeat at Blackwater, and take it out on Melisandre, whose prophecies of victory now seemed hollow. Carice van Houten as Melisandre yet again pulled out the stops in her portrayal of the Red Priestess as a mysterious, yet alluring sexual presence. Even the furious Stannis couldn’t – quite – bring himself to strangle her, and their scene together ended with him yet again utterly in her thrall, gazing eagerly into the flames of her god’s visions. The Battle of Blackwater may be over, but it’s clear that for Stannis, this is just a pause in the war…

Robb Stark too was pausing in the fight – in his case because right now, love was preferable to war. He’s besotted enough with Talisa to actually marry her, in a typically flame lit night scene, despite his mother’s warnings about arousing the wrath of Walder Frey. All this happened offscreen (as it were) in the books, with Robb turning up married as a fait accompli. Here, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairlie got a good scene as Catelyn reminded Robb that hers too had been an arranged marriage, and she and Ned had grown to love each other “stone by stone”. But Robb wasn’t listening (when does young love ever?) and you can see upcoming trouble for him being telegraphed from miles away.

There was also Theon Greyjoy’s increasingly tenuous-looking occupation of Winterfell to resolve before the season was out, and that was done with subversive brevity. Theon got a contemplative scene with the ever-thoughtful Maester Luwin as Northern troops surrounded the castle, hopelessly outnumbering him. The dialogue was as revealing as ever; Luwin told him, “you’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”, to which Theon could only helplessly reply, “It’s too late for me to pretend to be anyone else.”

Too late indeed, as he gave a genuinely rousing speech to spur his twenty men into glorious deaths against the five hundred opposing them. But even his own men have had enough of him, and plainly would rather live than have songs sung about their deaths. So Dagmer promptly clobbered Theon as soon as he’d finished (“it was a good speech”), and dragged him off with a bag over his head. It was now clear (if it hadn’t been before) that Dagmer, played by the reliably loathsome Ralph Ineson (Finchy from The Office) was a conflation of both his own character from the books and that of the equally loathsome Reek. In a show with such an enormous ensemble cast, reducing the character list by combining similar ones is probably a very wise way to go.

But here too we had evidence of problems squeezing the book’s sheer amount of detail into the TV show’s comparatively short run. Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor emerged from their crypt hideout to discover Winterfell burned out and ruined, and Maester Luwin dying in the Godswood. Yet there was no sign of the Northern troops that had so outnumbered the Ironmen, and no indication of why they would simply abandon Winterfell when it’s the ancestral seat of the King in the North. It seemed likely that it was the fleeing Ironmen who’d actually torched the place, but having previously established that a Stark-friendly army was camped outside, you had to wonder why there was no one left when the Stark boys came out of hiding.

Still, they too have been set on a new course for next season. Advised by the dying Luwin to head for the Wall and the help of Jon Snow, the last we saw of Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor was them fleeing the smoking ruins of Winterfell and heading North.

Over the sea in Qarth, we had to deal with Dany’s resolve to go to the scary sounding House of the Undying to rescue her dragons from the cadaverous warlock Pyat Pree. This is one of the weirder scenes in the book, with magic and illusion leaving you questioning how much of what Dany sees in the mysterious building is actually real. Here, sensibly, this surreal journey was somewhat simplified. But we still got some magnificent visuals of Dany’s hallucinatory journey, finding herself first in the ruined, roofless and snowy throne room in King’s Landing, then venturing North of the Wall to where she found a Dothraki tent. Inside, we got an unexpected, and most welcome, return for Jason Momoa as her deceased love Khal Drogo, clutching their child, a vision of the life Dany was forever denied. Emilia Clarke again gave a splendidly mature performance as she rejected the vision’s falsity, even in the face of being reunited with her one true love.

But she still had to deal with Pree, who was doing his familiar trick of appearing in multiple places while magicking chains onto Dany next to her equally chained dragons. We then got one of the show’s truly triumphant moments as Dany exhorted the small creatures to incinerate the treacherous warlock, breaking his magical chains. The shot of her defiant, with the dragons roaring flame like flamethrowers, was awesome. It also made you realise what a fearsome weapon these creatures will be when they’re fully grown; they’re only the size of cats, and they can already incinerate a man from across a room.

And Dany wasn’t done with her betrayers, catching Xaro Xhoan Daxos in bed with her treacherous handmaiden Doreah. Taking the key to his mysterious vault, she found it empty of the promised riches – Xaro had been nothing more than a conman the whole time. Xaro and Doreah got a truly nasty end, sealed into the dark empty vault to die, and Dany ended this year ransacking the riches of his palace. She’s one step closer to buying the ships she needs to return to Westeros and wage war. And when the dragons are grown, who’ll be able to stand against her?

Finally, we had to catch up with the various parties of the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall. Jon and Qhorin were still being led, tied up, to the wildling camp, and Jon was baited into fighting then killing his legendary colleague. It was less clear than in the book that this was at Qhorin’s own urging, a means to get Jon taken into the wildlings’ confidence as an inside man; but the result was the same. Jon was untied, and the last we saw of him, he was gazing down into a valley filled with what looked like thousands of wildling tents.

Elsewhere, Lord Mormont’s party was again represented by lowly latrine diggers Sam, Edd and Grenn. Their usual fun banter (“It’s no place to live where you have to burn shit to keep warm”) was abruptly interrupted by the unprecedented sound of three blasts on the Rangers’ horn. We’d already established that three blasts, unused for centuries, meant the arrival of the legendary White Walkers, barely glimpsed since the show’s very beginning.

And so it proved, as a terrifying army of undead wights began to stream past the cowering Sam, led by a truly alien-looking blue eyed creature riding an undead horse. It was a genuinely thrilling climax to the season, with the zombies every bit the equal of those in The Walking Dead; and it’s probably a bit churlish to mention that the closing shot, of an undead army advancing on the Watch encampment, was essentially identical to the cliffhanger in Walking Dead’s penultimate episode this year.

It’s been a triumphant second season that’s firmly cemented the show’s success, and established that it can work as an ensemble without a central ‘hero’ figure like Ned Stark to hold it together. It’s also, for practical reasons, compressed or omitted many storylines and characters from the book; though as I’ve remarked, now and then this has left gaping holes in plotlines and character motivations. Sensibly, the showrunners have declared that the next, even longer book will be dealt with over the course of two seasons, and from there it may get even trickier as books four and five take place, for the most part, concurrently. Nonetheless, Game of Thrones is now clearly another great success story for HBO, and I’m already waiting eagerly for the next season.