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'Game of Thrones' Season 4: Finding Rays Of Hope In Dark Places

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Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth on "Game of Thrones" | HBO

"Game of Thrones" returns Sunday, and without spoiling anything (which I don't plan to do in this piece), I can report that it's as "Game of Thrones"-y as ever.

There are still dragons. Stannis is still brooding. Cersei is never without her wine glass. In settings both squalid and plush, characters plot against each other, strike up alliances and try to solve (or evade) the problems life has handed them.

If you've seen more than 10 minutes of the show or if you've read the books, you know that life has handed most of the characters a lot of problems. Aside from the eternally chipper Hodor, many of these individuals have trouble accepting their lot. Things and people that mattered to them have been taken away, and in the fog of war that now grips most of Westeros, it's hard to see a clear path to a good life, or some kind of safety.

Things have gotten harder to bear for these people each season, and because the show's very good at getting us to care about many of these flawed, complicated characters, it can be challenging to watch them go through so many tribulations. None of us own dragons or rule kingdoms, but we know what it's like to endure loss, get walloped by change and wrestle with fear about the future.

So, we worry. We worry about who might die next, about where Arya's next meal is coming from, about whether Joffrey can get any worse when he's already the worst.

Fellow critic and podcast partner Ryan McGee and I spent a long time talking about Westeros and its relationship to hope, optimism and the lack thereof in a new Talking TV podcast. To get the full flavor of the conversation -- and if you'll pardon my pride, I think its one of our best -- you can give that podcast a listen, but I'll also touch on some of those topics here.

Though we disagreed about the amount of optimism in "GoT" (we're both fans, but I find more hope in it than Ryan does at the moment), I completely agree with him on one point: Too many TV dramas to mistake relentless downer-ism for seriousness of purpose. To be nihilistic, however, is kind of an easy cop-out; what's hard is giving characters in a very difficult situation something to live for or work toward. "Game of Thrones" doesn't take the easy path; it doesn't make the mistake of conflating constant negativity with Good TV, thank the old gods and the new.

It always surprised me when people would ask me, a few years ago, how I could watch a grim show like "Battlestar Galactica." I just didn't see it that way. Sure, the rag-tag survivors went through grim stretches and almost all the characters experienced hopeless moments, but there was usually a place to go next -- a destination of some kind, a mission, a goal. The search for Earth, as tough as it was, provided a ray of hope in some of the most dismal moments.

As Ryan pointed out, the specificity of that destination was helpful. Even if characters disagreed about what to do, the very idea of Earth gave a through-line to their wanderings. For good or ill, "Game of Thrones" doesn't have that.

But as I said in the podcast, I think "GoT" isn't about a destination, but it does have a central character -- a very unusual one. To my way of thinking, "Game of Thrones'" lead character is a set of ideas about the exercise of power and the nature of hierarchies. Sexy, right?

I know, that kind of "lead character" is unlikely to give anyone the warm fuzzies. But the dynamic nature of those ideas -- the energy that percolates through those incisive questions about power -- give almost all the characters great scope for change. Each outsider -- and this is a story that cares a lot about outsiders -- can effect change, and some of the smallest actions have momentous ripple effects. Arya is not just a great character, she's the physical embodiment of the show's belief in the tenacity of smart outsiders. Arya is small, female, broke and almost alone in the world, but those who make assumptions about her based on those facts tend to regret it.

The most tantalizing changes -- and many of "Game of Thrones" greatest scenes -- involve pairs of people who don't see eye to eye. Watching the first three episodes of Season 4, I realized that one of the things I love most about the show is the terrific sequence of frienemies and odd couples it has brought us. Of course, even when the show is scene-setting mode (as it is in these early episodes), "GoT" now excels at slipping exposition into meaty character moments, and the cast is terrific at nailing what's in the scripts and much more beyond that. But another reason I love these scenes because being half of one of these unlikely duos forces each person to confront and examine their beliefs, actions and attitudes. (The first great scene of the show, I'd argue, is Season 1's wine-soaked conversation between Robert and Cersei -- two people who hated each other but had undoubtedly changed the course of each other's lives.)

Arya and the Hound are one of the show's All Time Great pairings, and Season 3 proves this again and again. Against all odds, they have developed an uneasy rapport; the Hound respects Ayra for surviving a series of brutal situations that would have broken anyone else, and the Hound is not the unthinking killer Arya once thought he was. As James Poniewozik and others have pointed out, he's not a psychopath, but a warrior much like Omar from "The Wire." ("A man got to have a code.") Arya and the Hound might not like each other, but they understand each other, and that grudging understanding contains a grain of hope, perhaps. If they can reach a kind of uneasy peace, maybe there's hope for the rest of Westeros? Or maybe not. Who knows?

If nothing else, at least Arya is not trapped in a castle, sewing and spinning with other noble ladies, which also counts for something. Her life, like that of Alicia Florrick on "The Good Wife," has been marked by death, loss and sudden change. But as the March 30 episode of "The Good Wife" proved -- and Season 4 "GoT" scenes that grapple with the fallout from the Red Wedding prove -- sometimes the absence of characters is more important than their presence. As I wrote recently, a choice being taken away from a character can be enormously painful, but it can also lead to new choices and new possibilities. Not all of those possibilities are bad and scary, and, handled right, the new dynamics among those left behind can lead to terrific storytelling.

Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth: another terrific pairing. They're even more interesting, because they're more different than the Hound and Arya, who share a certain stubborn ferocity. Jaime wants everyone to think he's entirely cynical, and his father's coldness and court politics have left him with few reasons to trust anyone. Brienne, on the other hand, is almost preposterously good: She believes that the nobles she serves share her strict ethical code, which means her whole life has been and will be a series of heartbreaks. (That said, she fought a bear, which means she wins at life by all the measures that matter.)

One reason this pair resonates so strongly is because it's not unusual to be attracted to someone who, on paper, you should hate. I don't even know if the attraction is sexual, and I enjoy the fact that they don't know either. Like Littlefinger and Varys, like Tyrion and Cersei, these two simply get under each other's skins, mentally, if not physically. Brienne found a way in to Jaime's heart by simply treating him like anyone else -- which mean that she treated him like a person capable of evolving and acting with honor. This simple kindness floored Jaime; he's one more character that "Game of Thrones" has expertly flummoxed.

After his hot tub confession, he'd still killed his king, he'd still be called the Kingslayer, he'd still go home a broken and one-handed warrior. His confession to Brienne didn't change the facts, but it changed him. He'd told the truth out loud. Someone who knows him deeply still respects him -- respects him more, in fact. He made a real friend, which may make a difference going forward. Or it may not. Who can say?

Possibilities reverberate in these relationships. The characters are like the castles that rise and fall in the opening credits -- they are not static, they are moving entities. To me, the hope can be found in the fact that I don't know where these people are going, and neither do they.

Like Daenerys, they may create empires out of dust. Like Robb Stark, they may be cruelly murdered. Like Arya, they may survive and wish they hadn't. Like the resourceful Tyrion and Varys and Lady Olenna Tyrell, they may find ways to survive the grinding of the machine in which they find themselves.

Actually, it's not a machine -- it's a living organism. Power isn't exercised one way; hierarchies are never all that stable. Dany has made short work of a few kingdoms that no doubt thought of themselves as eternal. And the most pathetic character may well be Tywin Lannister, who thinks he's built an unassailable fortress around his family. The thesis statement of "Game of Thrones" may well be "nothing is unassailable."

To me, the excitement of "Game of Thrones," and the hope, exists in the margins, where the smartest characters often lurk. Possibilities spring up, sometimes on the edge of the frame. And the fact that nobody's safe means that anything's possible.

"Game of Thrones" returns Sunday, April 6, at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO.

Ryan McGee and I talk "Game of Thrones," "Silicon Valley," "Turn," "Veep," "Inside Amy Schumer," the Peabody Awards and the "How I Met Your Mother" finale on this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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