Arriving with much fanfare, including what feels like four years of trailers (it's only really been three months), several preview screenings and special Presidential favours, the fourth season of Game of Thrones is finally here. And this first episode is... a season opener.
That is not a criticism as such. I enjoyed this episode a lot (it helped that it was almost entirely focused on my favourite characters) and there were some great small moments. But, despite everything Benioff and Weiss have said about how the action is never going to stop this year, the reality is that this first episode has a more mundane job to do before we can start watching the doggy doo hit the fan during the rest of the season. The audience needs to be re-introduced to the characters and their world and reminded who everyone is and what they're doing - Dany is leading a slave army around the east, Tyrion is the family butt monkey, Tywin is heartlessness personified, Cersei is not far behind him (and also an alcoholic), Jon Snow is back with the Night's Watch, Ygritte is pissed, Margaery is not looking forward to married life with Joffrey, Arya is out for vengeance, Jaime has lost a hand, Brienne is almost fanatically devoted to keeping promises. That's basically the episode in a nutshell.
We also had to be introduced to Oberyn Martell and his girlfriend Ellaria Sand who make a dramatic first impression, knifing people, arranging foursomes, generally swaggering. I'm not as totally in love with this character as I know many fans are, but he was well introduced and well played, and the fact he is Eddie the freshman from Buffy season four will forever be amusing to me.
My least favourite parts of this episode were the scenes between Tyrion and Shae. I loved this couple and what the writers did with their relationship in seasons 1 and 2, but every since Tyrion married Sansa I've been increasingly annoyed by Shae's nonsensical jealousy (was she expecting Tyrion to refuse and marry her? She's far too realistic for that. Plus she knows full well nothing has happened between them) and Tyrion has suddenly become unusually sexually reticent in this episode. It feels like a strained way to create false tension between the characters, and I find it both annoying and depressing - it's the sort of plot development I've never been keen on, all based on misunderstandings and no one saying what they mean.
On the subject of moody Lannisters who aren't getting any, Cersei almost dumps Jaime, which is fairly extreme considering their relationship has lasted several decades in secret and they were so into each other that they couldn't get through a visit to Winterfell without finding a tower to have a tryst in. In Cersei's case this is rather more in character, since she has a tendency towards extreme and not always logical reactions to things (and she's probably very bothered by his missing hand, considering how she despises Tyrion partly for being a dwarf). It still seems a little bit over the top though, considering how desperate she was for him to come back throughout seasons 2 and 3.
Luckily, Jaime still has Brienne, whose position is extremely unclear (she seems to be dressed to match the Tyrells, perhaps wanting to serve Renly's two widows?) but their brief conversation made me laugh out loud more than anything else (the stink-eye she gave him was a thing of beauty). I liked the slight sense of a double meaning in the quote at the top of the page, which Jaime says in reference to Arya - I feel like he doesn't know whether she's alive or dead, but figures that either way, she's safer if everyone thinks she's dead anyway.
Another of my favourite scenes was the pre-credits opening, in which Tywin emerges out of the shadow to a glorious, deep strings rendition of his family song, The Rains of Castamere, to melt down Ned Stark's sword Ice into two new Valyrian steel blades while he oh-so-Symbolically burns the wolf pelt Ned kept it in. The opening credits are covered in Lannisters at the moment and that opening certainly reminds us just how badly Tywin has beaten the Starks down - but the episode ended with a very different scene indeed.
Like Tolkien's The Two Towers, which has sparked much debate over exactly which towers Tolkien was thinking of, the 'two swords' of this episode's title could refer to any two of three swords featured. It could be a straightforward description of the two Lannister swords Tywin creates from Ice, one of which he gives to Jaime. However, it could equally refer to Jaime's sword and Arya's Needle, which she recovers from Polliver (who stole it in season two) in the episode's climactic scene. The episode opened with a symbolic re-enactment of the Red Wedding as Tywin destroys the Starks to the strains of The Rains of Castamere, but it closes on Arya, more or less free (or at least, choosing not to run away from the Hound for now), having recovered her sword and taken vengeance on one of her list of enemies, riding away to a new arrangement of the theme music, which belongs to the whole series but is probably most associated with the Starks. The message is clear - the Starks are not done yet, and the Lannisters had better watch out.
Grumpkins and Snarks
- I'm not very good at observing changes to the fantastic opening sequence, but I saw that Ramsey Snow's Dreadfort has been added, and Meereen is in there as well, though I can't remember if we saw that last year or not.
- Oberyn tells Tyrion the entire story of what happened to his sister Elia, which Tyrion clearly knows perfectly well already, but of course the audience don't.
- Qyburn is treating Cersei for something she won't tell Jaime about. That can't be good.
- She also knows what a dead cat smells like, which is not at all surprising.
- Man, Jack Gleeson is a fantastic actor. The nervous energy he gives Joffrey, constantly quivering with pent-up aggression, is genius.
- Nice little shout-out to Ser Duncan the Tall, known to readers of Martin's prequel novellas.
- Ser-Not-Appearing-In-This-Episode: Bran and the Reeds, Theon, Yara, Varys, Littlefinger, Ser Loras (though he's discussed and the other Tyrells are out in force), Stannis, Davos, Melisandre and company, Roose Bolton, Ramsey Snow, Gendry. Whether Osha and Rickon will appear this season at all is as yet uncertain.
Tywin (on one-handed swordsmanship): You'll never be as good.
Jaime: No, but as long as I'm better than everyone else I suppose it doesn't matter.
Tyrion (on Catelyn Stark): I admired her. She wanted to have me executed, but I admired her.
Jaime (to Brienne): Are you sure we're not related?... Maybe you're a Lannister too. You've got the hair for it (this is almost a twisted compliment, coming from Jaime) - if not the looks (and then it turns into 'but I find you less attractive than my sister'. Ew.)
The Hound: What the f*ck's a Lommy?
Not a Game-changer, but I enjoyed this a lot - it's so good to be back in Westeros. Three out of four pretentiously-named swords.
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Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer and ancient historian and will get back to her reviews of Star Trek: Voyager and The West Wing this summer, once Community is done and The X-Files is under way. She blogs about random sightings of ancient Greeks and Romans in popular culture at Pop Classics.
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