The Fourth Season Problem

HBO’s Game of Thrones probably has no chance of making it four seasons. Let’s face it: this is a big-budget series on a station which is known for canning its big-budget series after two or three award-winning years. Most likely we’ll get two good years out of it before it pulls up a chair alongside the likes of Rome or Deadwood.

Assuming we get that far, though, Game of Thrones has another unique problem to overcome: it’s going to bleed viewership in the fourth season. Rumor has it that they’re trying to match one season per book, and the fourth book is… well…

…let’s go with problematic.

I’m going to try and keep this post as spoiler-free as possible, because I think it’s an interesting topic for fresh viewers to consider. That said, it’s impossible to address this subject without at least a few indirect spoilers, so if you want to stay a Game of Thrones virgin you should turn away now.

The fourth book in the series is A Feast for Crows, and it’s generally considered to be the weakest of the novels. If I had to describe the book in one word, I’d go with “positioning”. Most of what happens in the book involves characters moving from their places in the first half of the story to where they need to be at the beginning of the second half. Feast does a lot to advance the setting of the novels without doing a lot to advance the story, if that makes sense. Taking the series in aggregate (by which I mean all seven(?) books at once) Feast is the beat in the middle. I think that will end up being Feast‘s legacy; it’s just really hard to see that at the moment, what with it having been the most recent entry going on six years now.

In my opinion, you can trace Feast‘s perceived weaknesses back to four things:

1) No Jon, Dany or Tyrion. If you’re fresh to the series and one of these three characters isn’t yet your favorite, it’s only a matter of time. These characters are at the very heart of the three primary story arcs, but none of them appear in Feast. This, by far, has got to be the most common complaint about the book — and rightly so.

2) Too much time is spent on new settings. A lot of Feast takes place on the Iron Isles or in Dorne, two regions of the Seven Kingdoms the early books touch on only briefly. The implication is that these places become more prominent in the back half of the series, but since the back half doesn’t exist yet it was hard for a lot of people to see the point in including them.

3) The story is very short on events. With a few exceptions, most of what occurs in Feast is falling action. In previous books you could expect something awesome or terrible to happen in pretty much every chapter; in Feast there are a lot of chapters that only exist to develop the backdrop. You’re essentially reading about the stagehands setting up props for the next act.

4) GRRM is getting lazy. Let’s face it, some of this was just plain phoned in. Cersei lezzing out with a black woman? New characters you’d be embarrassed to read about in a fanfic? “She screamed a word”? Come on.

Even if fans of the books hadn’t been forced to wait half a decade between installments, I think it’s fair to say GRRM would have lost a lot of readership after Feast. It’s still a good book, and it’s still a very worthy addition to the series… you just really have to be chugging Kool-Aid in order to “get it”.

And I’m sure we all know TV viewers are far less patient than readers. So HBO has an uphill climb, to say the least, if Game of Thrones signs on a fourth season.

I don’t think these challenges are insurmountable, though. I think with some jiggering the fourth season could be as memorable, or moreso, than the third. They just have to be smart about the whole thing, and use the inherent strengths of television to their advantage; tools that weren’t available to GRRM when he was writing the book originally.

First off, and I realize we’re being generous here, let’s say GRRM actually gets Dance with Dragons out sometime in the next four years. This gives HBO a lot of wiggle room in terms of which events are displayed and during which season. Peter Jackson was smart enough to realize that he didn’t necessarily have to begin and end The Two Towers at exactly the same spot that Tolkein did — and his movie was stronger for it. If HBO fudges the timeline enough, they can pepper parts of Storm of Swords and Dance with Dragons into season four to keep it interesting. This solves the “lack of events” and the “lack of Jon/Dany/Tyrion” problems pretty handily.

Secondly, HBO doesn’t necessarily have to wait so long to get the viewer interested in places like Dorne and the Iron Isles. Indeed, they seem to be doing a very good job acquainting the viewer with Theon Greyjoy in their first season, a character who gets little or no play at all in the first book. (By which I mean, there’s no quicker way to burn a character into the viewer’s mind than to slap his dangly bits around onscreen.) The sooner these places are established as part of the world, the more likely viewers will be invested in them later on.

Thirdly, HBO can show us in ten seconds what GRRM needed a hundred pages to detail. All of those lengthy descriptions in Feast detailing the aftermath of the war can quite literally be included as background scenery.

And finally, where Dorne is concerned, I think the setting will be so visually arresting that viewers won’t be bored with it the way a lot of readers were. Viewers are actually going to give a shit about Arianne Martell when she appears onscreen as a scantily-clad desert princess with designs on world domination. When all else fails, boobies! (TV viewers are less patient that readers, but that just means we’re easier to distract.)

Anyway, this is all just an interesting thought exercise. We’ll be lucky to get to Storm, let alone Feast. Isn’t that right, Al?


My thoughts exactly.

7 comments to The Fourth Season Problem

  • Scott

    “First off, and I realize we’re being generous here, let’s say GRRM actually gets Dance with Dragons out sometime in the next four years.”

    July 12th! Not long to go now!

  • kaisel

    I think being able to take events from Dragons will end up making the 4th season a lot more problematic. A lot of the cliffhangers from Feast will work a lot better as a cliffhanger to an episode rather than the season.

    Or so I hope, because otherwise the 4th season, if it gets there, is going to suck.

  • blinkpn

    And yet HBO happily supported The Wire throughout its entire poor-ratings run, and was perfectly open to the idea of a sixth season if the creators decided they wanted to do one. They’re a bit hard to predict sometimes.

    Speaking of The Wire, it also changed things up significantly and gave a lot of major popular characters reduced screentime in its fourth season, and yet it’s remembered quite fondly. So maybe we’ll be lucky and history will repeat on that front.

    • SpoonyBard

      But if HBO does continue through seasons 4 AND 5… what then?

      Is GRRM going to have Book 6 done in time? I think we all know the answer to that.

      (I’m still a new fan who’s in the middle of Book 3, is it too early for me to be cynical about this?)

  • Hector

    The guys who run the show said some time back that a hypothetical season 4 and season 5 will restructure the events of Feast and Dance in chronological order. Problem is that absolutely nothing in the middle of Feast is even vaguely suitable as a season finale, but maybe Dance will offer more in that regard.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised if, owing to the extreme length of Storm of Swords, some of that books later events wind up in early-mid S4, such as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch elections and the entirety of Sansa’e Eyrie adventure. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a (again, hypothetical) S4 that’s a mix of Swords, Feast, and Dance.

  • Strippersaurus Rex

    I’m hoping HBO learned something after all those seasons of Sopranos. If they are smart, they are already planning to bump Martin off and take control of his intellectual property so that they can give this tale the one thing it truly needs…..a plot. Then they can finish up any way they want and I”m sure it’ll be satisfactory.

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