[Editor's Note: We've done our best to avoid major spoilers, but since everyone's definition is different, consider yourself warned.]
In its fourth season, Game of Thrones finally strides with the purpose and fearlessness of a great battle-tested behemoth through the sprawling, violent landscapes of Westeros. Where season three still showed some signs of the indecisive editing and troubled pacing that plagued the series from the start, the latest season moves with a thrilling decisiveness in both the cutting of the episodes and the adapting of George R. R. Martin's gargantuan tomes. Though the disparate histories of the Lannisters, Starks, Baratheons, and other Houses are still a favored topic of conversation (or pontification) among the show's characters, there's a newfound immediacy to the proceedings, a clear sense of events happening in the present. Finally, Game of Thrones feels entirely liberated from its own extensive mythology and now moves with thrilling fury and purpose.
With the Red Wedding still lingering in the memories of both viewers and characters, the season kicks off with many of Martin's heroes and villains reassessing their place in Westeros's power structure, particularly in regard to their positioning alongside or against the mighty Lannisters. Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) new role as Tyrion's (Peter Dinklage) forced queen seems even less steady now, while the aforementioned slaughter has only hardened Arya (Maisie Williams) and made her more dependent and comforted by her lethal abilities. Early on, she puts her blade through the throat of an obnoxious villain in a pub without hesitation, in retribution for his slaying of one of her friends some time ago.
For the surviving Starks, the Red Wedding was the final, err, severing from the vagaries and duties of lineage, and the series seems more interested than ever in how the remaining members of the clan carefully worm their way into the confidence of other families and communities to seek their vengeance. There's a telling scene, both in terms of the show's thematic interests and Arya's growing duplicity, in the second episode, in which Arya plays up her innocence to ingratiate herself to a kind, widowed father and his young daughter. Though she wants only to secure food and lodging for herself and the Hound (Rory McCann), the scene ends with a jolt of cynicism, allowing Arya to see the cruelty of her skill for deception.
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is in a similar incongruous spot with his family, as the loss of his sword hand has left him with no discernable skills for his father, Tywin (Charles Dance), to exploit for his own pride and exaltation. Even as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) continues her world emancipation tour, with her winged protectors keeping close watch, Casterly Rock is now seen as the ultimate seat of power, and the show's primary focus is on the inner workings of this city perched on the lip of empire, as Tywin, Cersai (Lena Headey), and her darling king-son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), consolidate their power. Despite the more noticeable focus on the Lannisters, the show's immense scope seems as strong and present as ever, thanks to incisively timed cuts to Arya's travels with the Hound, the Night's Watch bracing for attacks from the North, and the impending movements of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), among other percolating side-plots.
Much like Tywin, his enemy, Stannis is a power-mad would-be king whose great hypocrisy lies in the polluting and dismemberment of his own blood ties for the good of the family name, a figure that seemingly encapsulates the show's poison-tipped critique of privilege and power as birthright. His relationship with the witchy Melisandre (Carice van Houten) takes clear precedence over any care he might give to his crazed wife or disfigured daughter, whom he hides away in a dungeon. The series has always fixed its eye on the corruptive and corrosive agencies of men who seek ultimate power, and at long last, the show's creators seem willing to run into the bedlam full-steed, having long since detailed each House's bloodline extensively. This refreshing tendency toward narrative entropy over dense story brings a crucial sense of surrounding chaos at a time where the series has been in danger of becoming merely a model of technical efficiency, reinforced by an excellent production design and incisive, if not exactly ambitious, direction.
It's enough to say that Tywin feels the repercussions of his duplicitous schemes early on in the season, and by the third episode, "Breaker of Chains," the power structure is once again in utter disarray. The introduction of Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), whose family was, putting it lightly, wronged by the Lannisters, similarly suggests that, following the continued slaughter of the Starks, the Lannisters will now reap what they've sowed. For the first time in the show's tenure, the convoluted web of action, oaths, histories, and threats seems managed by the show's writers and creators with a clear notion of where these characters are heading. This unfettered sense of direction lends stability to what has been an erratic and bloated yet consistently enthralling series thus far, but there's no telling when a Valyrian steel sword through someone's back is going to send the whole of Westeros into disarray.