By Verne Gay
"Game of Thrones" went cosmic this season. Sure, 18.4 million viewers is a lot of viewers -- the most of any HBO series in history, surpassing "The Sopranos" just this week. Why do shows suddenly alter the world we inhabit? This indisputably happened during the fourth season of "Game of Thrones," which wraps Sunday at 9 p.m. Today, a quick primer on why "GoT" has become lord and master of pop culture.
* The fourth season has largely followed events depicted in "A Storm of Swords," the third volume in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," upon which "GoT" is based -- but there have been many minor departures, too. Yes, this has happened every season, but this season: much more. From a viewer/fan standpoint, that's good in a couple of ways. Obviously, plot and narration can be condensed in the editing room to make the whole more TV-friendly (which happens each season), but showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have added new elements, stories and scenes this year. These tend to keep fans familiar with the books guessing, but also serve to reinforce the alluring idea that "GoT" inhabits a slightly separate universe from "Ice and Fire." The implicit message, therefore, becomes: Don't expect the exact outcome you all think is coming.
* "A Storm of Swords," published in 2000, remains a fan favorite for many reasons -- notably it is probably one of the most cinematic books of the series, which I suppose is just another way of saying that a lot of wild and interesting stuff happens. (The volume that follows, "A Feast for Crows," is the least favorite, so Weiss and Benioff have an interesting challenge next season.) Because "Swords" is so popular -- and it is as fun to read as to watch -- then it stands to reason that the resulting season should be as well.
* The tipping point has been reached. Viewers no longer have to scramble over to "A Wiki of Ice and Fire" a find out what a "House Baratheon of Storm's End" is or who "Cersei" or "Sansa" is. They know the characters intimately -- their story lines especially. There's nothing even vaguely remote about Westeros any longer. It's the epic fanatasyland next door.
* Narratively, the fourth season has been nuts. Almost every episode has begun with a jaw-dropper, ended with one and dropped a few more jaws in between. The fourth has simply been relentless, and while Sunday's finale would normally be the moment to pause, reflect, take a deep breath and take stock viewers will not be afforded that luxury. In a statement Benioff and Weiss said, "We're immensely proud of the finale and a little intimidated by the episode, because now we have to get back to the business of season five and figure out a way to top it."
* Great series, like good books, are about more than what's on the screen or on the page -- a philosophy, a worldview and a sense that all this is really just an exploration of something more elemental, like the human condition. Martin has long said his yarn is a distant echo of the War of the Roses, the dynastic battles between the houses of Lancaster and York from the mid-1400s. Shakespeare also read deeply into those, of course, basing any number of historical plays on that long and bloody struggle; Richard III, for example, who has been compared widely to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and even more to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). "GoT" openly flirted with Shakespearean themes this season. The flirtation has not only been exhilarating, but opened doors that thinking viewers can't wait to walk through.