A friend once joked that HBO's Game of Thrones should be renamed "A Series of Meetings," given its string of recent episodes featuring more exposition and chatter than action. I'm applying this moniker to Sons of Winter, the fourth episode of Telltale's Game of Thrones, because it marks a departure from the series' dramatic tension and, unfortunately, is starting to mimic its source material in all-too-predictable ways. That's not to say Sons of Winter is without its bright points, however: they come in the form of the episode's secondary characters, who unravel their own backstories and add more interesting dilemmas.
I've praised the the game's focus on the Forrester family before; they are always the most interesting characters on screen at any given time, overshadowing cameos from the TV show's stars. It's been thoroughly delightful (and painful, in that masochistic, enjoyable way) to watch Mira evolve into a sneaking schemer, to see Rodrik struggle to balance the demands of Lady Forrester and his sister Talia without letting either down, and to uncover the mystery of the fabled North Grove with Gared. But their story is starting to to mimic the tale of the Starks--the downtrodden family at the center of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire--with the introduction of new characters and scenarios that come across as though detailed on a writer's checklist of necessary plot points. I can't list all those things here, as doing do would spoil nearly every turning point for the episode, but I can say that if you're familiar with the arcs of Sansa Stark and Jon Snow, you will find few surprises here.
We last left Gared Tuttle at the Wall in more trouble that he's ever been, with Mira out of favor with Margaery Tyrell, with Rodrik trying and failing to regain control of Ironrath, and with Asher at the feet of Daenerys Targaryen. Most of the major choices in Sons of Winter revolve around the heroes trying to please one person at the expense of incurring another's wrath--something you've been doing in more exciting, meaningful ways for three episodes already. There's a lot of verbal fencing, but none of it reaches anxious heights of, say, Mira's first conversation with Cersei Lannister in Episode One. For example, Asher's plea to Daenerys to provide an army is rushed and flat, and no matter what you tell her, she continues to threaten you. Having Mira eavesdropping on partygoers and potentially ruin fellow handmaiden Sera's life doesn't feel thrilling, and threats made towards her are all simple variants of "You'll pay for this!" and "We'll get you!" with little bite behind the bark.
Sons of Winter is about defense and safety--protecting yourself and your house, and keeping who you can safe. You can't keep everyone secure, though, and most decisions are predictable: side with Beshka or with your uncle as Asher, side with Sera (or not) as Mira, side with your mother or with the woman you love as Rodrik. These gambits of "him or her" decisions, one after another, have become tiring four episodes in. You have to decide how to use the information you have, who to reveal it to, and with whom to use it as a bargaining chip. You'll make people angry, fall further out of favor if you choose to put your family first, and, in one instance, alter someone's only chance at having a good life.
You're still being pushed to think of your family first, and endanger yourself in the process, but the emotional risks feel just out of sight here, not in the way that you can sometimes be blind to negative consequences, but in a way that you aren't taking time to weigh outcomes because there is no threat to consider. Having those threats simmer at every major choice has served Game of Thrones well in its first half, but Episode Four drops the tension entirely. In Mira's case, for instance, you gather loads of useful information in a short amount of time and are then able to bully and tease others as you please. But by making Mira powerful, much of what made her storyline frightening has been sidelined. She’s playing the Game of Thrones with no immediate consequence.
Perhaps this is the part of Game of Thrones when it's time to talk more and do less, to bide time and wait for opportunity. But the episode's overall goal is to introduce more information, more context, and more characters, and not to drop the Forresters directly into harm's way. There's nothing wrong with slowing down, but Sons of Winter slows to a crawl. Telltale's games are at their best when they drop action sequences into unexpected junctures of downtime, thus creating threats that need to be dealt with immediately and quickly before you can proceed. An entire episode of exposition and lock-picking doesn't contribute to the mood-building, especially in Westeros, and the lengthiest action sequence--a string of running into cover, sneaking, and stealthily taking down guards--is devoid of any real stress or excitement.
There are a few emotional cling-points in Sons of Winter, and they revolve around the people who are willing to risk life and limb to help the Forresters. Most notable among these are several scenes with Beskha, the brash and cutthroat sellsword who has become Asher's best friend. You finally learn why she's so tough and why she's loath to return to Meereen, and the scene culminates in one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series so far. Her tragedy outweighs Asher's. By revealing her backstory to Asher, he gains some perspective in his relationship with her, which delivers several sweet, enjoyable moments between the two that are welcome amid the episode's low points.
It is also refreshing to see Rodrik's struggle against the Whitehills finally move away from the repetitive cycle of events that characterized the series' first half. As the Whitehills realize they aren't as strong or as powerful as they thought, unlikely allies come to Rodrik's aid. These supporting characters bring a refreshing change to the fight we've seen so far, revealing personalities that alternately clash and meld with the Forresters and bring out new, personal facets of their struggle. Rodrik's beloved, Elaena Glenmore, becomes more important in Episode Four than she's been throughout the series, evolving beyond a love interest and perhaps into something more dangerous as she pushes Rodrik to take action on her behalf.
A bit about the presence of the TV show characters: Daenerys is totally out of character. She's mean and hard in ways that she isn't in the TV series. In the show, she is firm and always open to listening, but Telltale has made her into a vicious would-be despot. Her scene happens early in the episode and jarred me out of the experience; she didn't fit, her behavior so off that it was harder for me to find my emotional footing for the rest of the episode.
As Telltale's Game of Thrones passes its halfway mark, it takes a bit of a dip, staging a set of scenes that feels less like something you can control and more like something you can only passively watch. There's no sense of agency in the choices you are offered; you simply spin a conversation in a certain direction before arriving at a pre-determined outcome. Sons of Winter is set dressing, though the events of its last two minutes are strong enough of a taster to make you hunger for Episode Five. It's a bit disappointing that the rest of the episode doesn't reach the dramatic bar Telltale has already set for itself.