Darren Franich
April 04, 2014 AT 02:00 PM EDT

Confession: I’ve always been a Game of Thrones skeptic. Not to say a hater — not by a long shot. I like the show just fine. It’s got good actors chewing gorgeous scenery with ripe dialogue. Everyone’s got a funny sidekick or two, and a love interest or three, and at least four cosplay-worthy outfits per season. The show became famous for its daring plot twists — #RedWedding #SeanBeanDiesAgain — and even when it inevitably hits the mid-season place-setting lull, the show moves so quickly through its dozen different casts that it’s impossible to get bored.

I read the first four George R. R. Martin books years ago, loved them, read Dance With Dragons when it came out and loved it. I guess that means I approach the show differently than many viewers. The plot twists don’t carry the same weight. But if anything, knowing what’s coming has given me a greater appreciation for the show’s unique strengths. In the “Song of Ice and Fire” books, Martin constructed one of the most elaborate narrative architectures in the history of the very elaborate fantasy genre. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took Martin’s blueprint, built the structure, and then decorated it lavishly and decadently.

But sometimes, the show has felt just lavish and decadent. Last season built up to one of Martin’s single most heartwrenching twists, but it was a long build. In season 3, Theon got tortured and Daenerys gave lots of speeches to foreign people and Bran was carried northward, ever northward, whilst Jon Snow marched southward, ever southward. Some people think that Martin’s last couple of books are slow, but to me, the slowness is the whole point. Each chapter is written from the close-third-person, the perspective that hovers right above the character’s head and frequently stares straight into their mind. It’s about as impressionistic as mainstream fantasy fiction gets.

Stylistically, Game of Thrones in TV form is much more straightforward. It rarely spends time with one character for very long. The closest it ever came to a bottle episode was “Blackwater,” the great season 2 climax that also featured maybe the biggest battle scene in TV history to not come from a Steven Spielberg WWII miniseries. Compare that to this past season of The Walking Dead, which was all bottle episodes all the time. (Walking Dead is basically the Nirvana to Game of Thrones‘ Guns N’ Roses.) Thrones is incredibly complex without being particularly experimental, is what I’m getting at — which is why it’s one of the best shows on TV to feature multiple characters who frequently serve zero-to-negative purpose. The problem with having a cast of hundreds is that some of them will inevitably feel like the 319th most interesting character. (Usually Shae.)

But the first three episodes of Game of Thrones‘ new season are just about perfect. Maybe it’s because the showrunners have moved beyond the book-per-season model, but the gradual build-up from seasons 1-3 has been replaced by in media res hyperspeed.

The season premiere picks up with a significant percentage of the lead cast, split as always into a series of two-handers and groups. The difference is, this year everyone’s firing on all cylinders. Arya and the Hound are in their own little very-odd-couple road trip movie, and Maisie Williams and Rory McCann play every corner of that weird non-friendship to the hilt. In King’s Landing, the Lannisters are all back together for the first time since the very beginning of season 1, which means that the show can fully indulge itself in presenting the tangled web of extreme emotions running through that family — love and lust and murderous rage and disappointment all mixing together into corrosive misery.

Well-made successful TV shows have their own version of the Imperial Phase, the musical term for the period during which a popular band is omnipresent and can essentially do no wrong. A clear sign of Imperial Phase-dom is the ability to introduce a raft of new characters who immediately feel like important members of the ensemble. (See also: The Wire season 4, Mad Men season 3, Lost season 4, Friday Night Lights season 4. I have no idea why the Imperial Phase usually correlates to fourth seasons, except that the ability to maintain high quality past the new-car-smell of the first three years is usually an indication of Hall of Fame potential.)

Game of Thrones has hit that point, and then some. The introduction of Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) is one of the best scenes the show’s ever done, establishing the character, his supporting cast, and his whole psycho-cultural background in a few short, snappy, naked, violent minutes. Likewise, the introduction of a nasty Northern baddie named Styr (Joseph Gatt Yuri Kolokolnikov) is an exercise in immediate tension. And the show seems dead set on promoting Michael McElhatton’s Roose Bolton into a full-fledged Big Bad, the Tywin Lannister of the North. (On the page, Bolton was more of a distant terror; McElhatton plays him as a freakily modern bad guy, passively disinterested in the grisly events surrounding him.) This is all just prologue to the season’s second episode. No spoilers: It’s great, and it’s filled with a series of long shots that take in massive groups of characters, and there’s a moment of shocking recognition when you realize you know all of them.

The draggiest part of the show remains the ongoing saga of Daenerys Targaryen and the Neverending Desert Walk, which feels beamed in from a very different kind of show. Even without the dragons, it’s more openly fantastical. Which can be fun — Michiel Huisman is decidedly less-porny as the new Daario Naharis, and his soft charisma suggests Clint Eastwood doing an Errol Flynn impression in a samurai costume. But it also feels much simpler and straightforward than the drama in King’s Landing. Emilia Clarke has spent a couple seasons now doing grand variations on the Braveheart speech, and you hope the show can find some time this season to give her the kind of red-meat dialogue it grants everyone named Lannister.

But it seems wrong to pick on any specific corner of the Thrones tapestry — especially now, when the show’s creators frequently conjure up indelible sequences. There’s a point in the opening episodes when Stannis Baratheon — who seems to have spent years staring at his painted table — rages against his own onrushing redundancy. “I will not be a page in somebody else’s history book!” he stage-whispers, and you can feel how his anger points in every direction: At the man he’s speaking to, at himself, at his enemies, at whatever gods might exist. Right now, every moment of Game of Thrones has that same urgency, the sense that every character is raging against the dying of the light. Winter’s not coming anymore. It’s already here.

Grade: A-

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