“Game of Thrones” is back for a fourth season. I posted interviews all week, with Benioff & Weiss, Alfie Allen, Gwendoline Christie, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright. Now I have a review of the season premiere coming up just as soon as I get a shaved goat…
“Something's changed.” -Jaime
“Everything's changed!” -Cersei
Because the Red Wedding happened right before the end of season 3, and because the finale had so many other plots to resolve or advance, there wasn't a lot of time to bask in the Lannisters' absolute triumph over the Starks and the rest of the men of the North. “Two Swords,” though,” gives the Lannisters a long, luxurious, period of celebration, and it is both wonderful and extremely unsettling. It's good to be the king, or the hand of the king, or the queen regent, or the head of the Kingsguard. Robb Stark's dead, Jaime is returned (even if he is less than whole), Joffrey's wedding draws ever-closer and all seems well in King's Landing for anyone with blonde hair.
Tywin's is the first face we see this season (before the opening credits, even), as he celebrates his family's moment of victory by having Ned Stark's enormous (or, to Tywin's mind, absurdly large) Valyrian steel sword melted down into two smaller, more practical blades, one of them gifted to Jaime, who will have to make like Inigio Montoya and master the art of dueling left-handed. Ned's been dead a long time now, going by either our calendar or the show's, and it is a measure of both Tywin's patience and the storytellers' that he would wait until the war was won before destroying the famous sword that symbolized his enemy and turn it into something more suited of the Lannister clan.
And yet even in this time of celebration, there are already many problems for House Lannister to deal with. Joffrey is as horrible as ever, and Jaime gets his first glimpse of what a monster his son has become since assuming the Iron Throne(*). Cersei has turned cold towards Jaime because of all his time away and his disfigurement (and while he was being celibate in Robb's custody and then Brienne's, Cersei was busy using one of her cousins as a Jaime stand-in). Their affair is what started all of these problems, first with the murder of Jon Arryn, then with the crippling of Bran, and now that they've vanquished the Starks and been reunited, she's no longer in a mood to celebrate. It's a hard life being a one-handed, incestuous Kingslayer, y'know?
(*) I do wonder how much of Joffrey's mockery of Jaime's short entry in the book of brothers is his usual sadism and how much is boosted by Joffrey reacting to the reports (which he believes to be false rumors, and which we know to be otherwise) that Jaime is his dad. Joffrey doesn't want to be the product of incest, so perhaps it's best to put his “uncle” in his place rather than let the guy feel any desire to act paternal. Or, again, it could just be Joffrey viewing every person as a toy to play with and discard.
Tyrion, meanwhile, remains caught between a grieving rock and a jealous hard place, and it's a position he understandably still wants no part of. Sansa's too consumed with thoughts of the Red Wedding, and Shae feels protective of her, but she also can't let go of the thought that her lover and this child might eventually develop real feelings for each other. And knowing what we know about how Tywin has treated Tyrion's past lovers, no good can come of one of Cersei's handmaids overhearing their argument, can it?
And beyond internal Lannister strife, “Two Swords” makes sure we get plenty of time with some threats to their sovereignty, both close at hand and far away.
Because we're still largely adapting stuff from the same book that season 3 was based on, there isn't the flood of new characters the way there's been in past seasons, but we get to meet Oberyn Martell (played in vintage Ricardo Montalban fashion by Pedro Pascal) and his traveling companion Ellaria (Indira Varma), both of them sexually adventurous and him with an enormous grudge against the entire Lannister clan. Oberyn's only in a few scenes, but he makes an impression as he gets the better of a pair of Lannister cousins before Tyrion can come in and defuse the situation.
Far across the sea, Dany's dragons are much bigger, and her army seems to be as well. (In both cases, it seems as if the show's visual effects have improved each year.) Her campaign to free the slaves of Essos still has her plan to light a fire over King's Landing on indefinite hold, but she's bolder and more confident by the day, and looks more than ready to punish the bad people of Meereen when she gets there.
And we close on another sort of potential threat to the Lannisters with an extended suspense sequence featuring everyone's favorite buddy team of Arya and the Hound(**). As not-as-dead-as-reported Stark kids, Bran theoretically puts a bigger monkey wrench in Tywin's plans, since he's the true heir of Winterfell. But he's busy traveling further north and getting his warg on, whereas Arya is in the middle of the country and apparently on her way to see creepy Aunt Lyssa at the Vale of Arryn. If news gets out that Tywin allowed one of the Stark girls to escape his custody alive – or, worse, that he was in a room with her on multiple occasions and had no idea – this will at minimum make him look weak to his allies. And if Arya keeps picking up fighting lessons from the Hound (following the ones she already got from Jaqen and Syrio), there's always a chance she could wipe all the names off her revenge list on her own. The episode's title could refer to the two different swords that Tywin turns Ned's into, or it could refer to the two we see in someone's hand: Jaime's and Arya's, which she finally reclaims from Polliver after she and the Hound make quick and impressive work of him and his men.
It's a fascinating closing scene. D.B. Weiss, directing his first episode of the show, does such a good job of drawing out the tension of whether Polliver will recognize Arya and/or whether there will be blood spilled. But it also invites us to cheer at Arya becoming more and more like the sadists she wants revenge on. As she kills Polliver, she recites the conversation he had with her friend right before killing him, and makes sure this is all as drawn out as possible. It's eye-for-an-eye justice, and everyone Arya has on her list deserves some of that, but in an episode that began with our first symbol of Ned Stark in quite some time, I wonder how he would feel about what his daughter is turning into in her travels.
(**) Too soon to pitch Maisie Williams and Rory McCann for “True Detective” season 2?
Some other thoughts:
* The opening credits add two new locations, in the rugged Westeros castle Dreadfort and Meereen, another walled city of Essos. Interestingly, we don't get to either one this week, though Dany is at least on her way to the latter. In the past, the show has treated King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and wherever Dany is as weekly locations (and Dragonstone may have reached that level, given its presence in a Stannis-less episode), but hasn't always been consistent about whether we only see other places (say, the Twins) when major characters are there or if we stop at them as placeholders because the credits have to run a certain length.
* Michiel Huisman from “Tremé” steps in as the new Daario, and instantly seems more interesting than Ed Skrein was in the role. Huisman wasn't exactly hit by the ugly stick himself, but Daario now comes across as more calculating and smooth rather than just a pretty boy who can fight. He can pick up on Grey Worm's attraction to Dany's translator Missandei, and is incredibly smooth and sly in the way that he arranges to give Dany a lesson in local botany that of course makes it look like he's giving her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Jorah didn't like Daario in his original incarnation, and I don't see him being any happier with this guy around his Khaleesi.
* Sansa gets her first good moment in forever when knight-turned-fool Dontos, whose life she saved early in season 2 when Joffrey was on the verge of having him executed, shows up to thank her for her kindness and give her a family heirloom he no longer has any use for. It's not an escape, but at least it's a reminder she has been able to do a few good things in the midst of all the tragedy of her life.
* Some tension at Castle Black, where Jon Snow is catching grief over the murder of Halfhand, sleeping with Ygritte and all his other shenanigans from north of the Wall. At this stage, it's interesting that there's no reaction by anyone further south to the news of White Walkers and the wildling army, given how concerned at least Stannis was at the end of last season, but that could still come later. And Ygritte and Tormund get some company from another wildling tribe who prefer their meat to be of the human variety. Time for a “Hannibal”/”GoT” crossover?
* No Bran this week also means no Hodor. My reaction to this: hodor.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: No more comments on any “Game of Thrones” posts. I tried setting up separate message board forums for readers and non-readers, but there are certain individuals with such small emotional lives that they've decided that they must punish anyone who hasn't read the books by posting extensive spoilers in the non-readers thread. So forget that. Y'all want to discuss this show, I would advise finding someplace else to do it. I'll keep reviewing it, but that's it.