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click to enlarge Winter is always coming.
  • Winter is always coming.

The world of Game of Thrones (HBO, Sundays, 9 pm) has ice zombies and fire dragons, wizards and alchemists. It has old gods and new gods, a god of death and a god of fire. But there's one supernatural force it certainly doesn't have: A god who rewards good and punishes evil.

Here, justice isn't. Kindness, goodness, compassion, trust, honor — those are just synonyms for naiveté. Karma doesn't exist. Life's a bitch, and then rats gnaw through your chest.

Now in its fourth season adapting George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, this unsentimental brutality in many ways is the series' defining attribute. Last season was punctuated by yet another ugly massacre, showing once again how Game of Thrones refused to abide by television's rules of fair play.

Winter is perpetually coming.

But in its fourth season, that pervasive injustice has begun to feel less fresh and bold and more cynical. Watching torture is, well, torture. And Game of Thrones seems intent on making viewers suffer through every lopped-limb cry. No, the not-quite-authentically-medieval nudity doesn't compensate for it.

That doesn't do anything to detract from the job Game of Thrones has done in adapting a nearly unadaptable series on a TV budget. That's especially true the further you get from the dreary ice wastes up north, and the closer you get to King's Landing, the headquarters of government, backstabbing, and the show's best acting. There, Peter Dinklage imbues the wry dwarf Tyrion Lannister with beleaguered nobility; Charles Dance brings imperial chill as Tyrion's father; Diana Rigg issues particularly poisonous old-lady barbs as Olenna Tyrell, the "Queen of Thorns." Each character excels alone, but thrives when allowed to banter with, batter and burn each other.

Yet gritty narratives, even ones with compelling characters, need to be leavened with hope, a reason for trudging through all that suffering and nihilism. Perhaps that's the optimism of fools, a delusion worthy of a headless Stark. Even if winter is coming, Game of Thrones could use the occasional burst of sunshine to thaw the snow. ♦

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