It has been 10 long months since Game of Thrones left viewers’ blood boiling over the sight of all the dead Starks decorating Walder Frey’s Great Hall: festive ornaments for what will undoubtedly become a celebrated holiday at the Twins. Since that apocalyptic moment ended in a crimson gush, the heat has reached a fever pitch, changing from a fanbase aggrieved on behalf of North bannermen in the wake of the Red Wedding to one of longing and undying hype for the HBO flagship to return, an inevitability as lionized as Lannisters and their debts.
Well, Game of Thrones has come again, and it is a tantalizing glory to behold. The best show on television proves that it is exactly that, even if this week’s Season 4 once more lets the Rains of Castamere crash down upon all those who still mourn the dead.
Entitled “Two Swords,” this Game of Thrones begins as literally that: the forging of two new blades from one previous Valyrian goliath that is no more. And it is an anguished scene, because even the most casual viewer should recognize the weapon that has been desecrated is Ice, the heirloom of House Stark. A ceremonial sword that has been in the Stark family for four centuries, it was there in the Series Premiere when Lord Eddard Stark carried out Northern justice on a Night’s Watch deserter, and it was with him again at the end of all things when Ned’s head deserted from his body. But even after such bloodied and sacrilegious misuse, it belonged still to Robb Stark by rights. Instead, it is harrowingly crafted into two new, smaller weapons of death for the family that would seek to see the Starks’ legacy remain in ashes.
It is a powerful, cinematic scene to open any episode, especially the Season 4 premiere. It should also be noted that it is based off a sequence that is mentioned in complete passing in George R.R. Martin’s third book, A Storm of Swords. A relatively minor, if symbolic, event in the books is presented like a true funeral dirge when the Lannister song’s instrumental strings cut through the fiery darkness. As directed by one of the series’ two co-creators and showrunners, D.B. Weiss, it appears to be a pledge that this story is as much his and David Benioff’s now as it is Martin’s, and that even in a pivotal moment, such as a season’s cold open, they are free to craft from the flames what they wish.
And crafted from “Ice” comes the two titular swords that Tywin Lannister all but cackles at the genesis of. Made of the finest Valyrian steel (he had a master in the lost art sailed in from Bravvos), these weapons are meant to honor the family of Casterly Rock for generations to come. However, this moment is not about the swords themselves. It is about how they were made from the blood and tears of the Starks, and the fans who miss them. Further, they are two swords that represent the rest of the episode: tokens of power built on broken words and abandoned oaths.
This is probably why the very next scene is one of them being delivered to Thrones’ most notorious oathbreaker, Jaime Lannister. Once a noble member of the Kingsguard who slew his monarch to save a city, Jaime has returned to his white cloak for the first time since the middle of Season 1. And in spite of the absence of his sword hand (or perhaps because of it), it actually looks fitting on him. Tywin intended the sword to be a gift that will lure Jaime back to Casterly Rock in his father’s stead, as he must remain in the capital as the King’s Hand. But nothing pleases Jaime more than letting his father down. Ironically, Jaime holds in his hand a sword forged from a broken Stark legacy due to its true heir, Robb, breaking his oath to marry a Frey girl, and in turn Walder Frey even more spectacularly breaking his oath of allegiance to the Young Wolf, as well as to the common law of Guest Right. But only in the radiance of this monument to broken promises does Jaime find the honor that has long eluded him. He may no longer be Westeros’ greatest swordsman, but his new Valyrian sword will still defend the king due to an oath once broken, and one that he shall not bend again. Albeit, how much of it is that long lost honor and how much of it is just spite for a hateful father and lust for an equally resentful sister remains to be seen.
The rest of King’s Landing is also coming out of the gloom of the apparently concluding War of Five Kings. With the North broken and Stannis still striking the pose of coward in Dragonstone, the wedding of Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell is afoot. It also means that like any good book (though this season is really only based on half a book) that the seeds must be sewn for the conflict to come. It is practically an annual right of passage for Game of Thrones viewers, but undoubtedly some will still be upset to see such little action occurring in the first hour, save for what Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, can rustle up.
A fan favorite for any book reader, the casting of Dorne’s greatest scoundrel has been much speculated upon for years. Even I admit that I pictured Antonio Banderas when I read the third ASOIAF volume. As luck would have it, we got a presence very close to that in Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal who plays Oberyn with the perfect amount of seedy entitlement. Too smug to be a hero, the Red Viper still is the closest thing viewers now have to a champion in King’s Landing, if not for his seeming disdain for all Lannisters, including audience-friendly Tyrion. Left to greet the Red Viper in lieu of his missing older brother, Tyrion must face down a family that has no love for either the Lannisters or Tyrells whose houses are set to be joined in the Royal Wedding. It is perhaps why, other than HBO nudity requirements, that the exposition of this new character falls into the fabled sexposition. HBO makes much out of the barely mentioned rumors of the Red Viper’s possible bisexuality from the books in this introduction that includes brothel prostitutes and what may be the male equivalent of Ros, as Littlefinger’s gay seducer of Loras makes a surprise return as an object of desire for both Oberyn and his preferred mistress, Ellaria Sand (the bastard of Dorne, played by Rome alumni Indira Varma). As she couples with the whores and the Viper, Lucius Vorenus cries out there, somewhere in the distance.
The moment is gratuitous and thankfully gives way to a far stronger introduction of the character when he matches wits with Tyrion Lannister and reminds Tyrion, as well as audiences, about that time when Ser Gregor Clegane slaughtered Oberyn’s sister and her children at Tywin Lannister’s behest. Children bashed against walls, women raped and cut in half, it is all enough to make you recoil in anger. Indeed, the Red Viper remains coiled, waiting for the proper time to strike out at the Lannisters. Tyrion had better watch this new character carefully. Still, the thing about the Red Viper is that he announces his intentions with such boisterous extravagance that it suggests a character who isn’t playing the game so much as trying to knock the pieces off the table. As a viewer, it’s a refreshing ingredient for the courtly intrigue and will undoubtedly shake things up, but is seems a little noisy when contrasted with Tywin’s stoic authoritarianism.
Of course, Tyrion has more than enough on his plate, as he remains another oathbreaker himself. Despite promising to protect his child bride, the sweetly dead-eyed Sansa, he is himself made a liar by his father’s actions. While many of the rest of the characters have moved on in some capacity from last season’s finale, Sansa understandably remains exactly where we last saw her: miserable and heartbroken.
Born and bred with sweet stories and chivalric words by her dear mother Catelyn, Sansa is still but an ice sculpture made in the shape of a pretty young woman. Now, with the loss of that mother, the statue is finally breaking from all its thawing cracks and two seasons of bitter, bitter abuse at the hands of noble King Joffrey, his illustrious knights, and her helplessly appealing husband. Tyrion gets the line of the night when he confesses to Sansa that he admired her mother. Sure, she tried to have him executed, but he admired her nevertheless. But like the story of Tyrion’s life, pithy witticisms are a poor substitute for feeling, and Sansa can only taste faintly concealed hatred for the Lannisters. Then again, Tyrion already has his hands full with Shae and her hyperbolic insistence that her “Lion of Lannister” has no interest in her. Weiss and Benioff are certainly emphasizing this conflict with the new show-only wrinkle that Varys attempted to buy her off with a rich trip back to Essos, a development that she holds this lion directly responsible for.
This frankly tedious drama is enough to distract both characters from the possible well-being of their lady, who is being approached by the umpteenth creepy guy to promise her help with kindly angelic words. Ser Dontos, a figure briefly seen in the Season 2 premiere and not since (though a constant figure in the books) has followed the eldest Stark girl into the Godswood, but not to pray with her. He offers her his mother’s necklace and his assistance, but Sansa really needs to start considering the motivations of the kindness of strangers, particularly men. She’d be better served by the watchful eye of Brienne of Tarth. And yet, how useful is Brienne really when she has thrice failed to live up to her oath?
Brienne was once the only female knight to serve in a Kingsguard…Renly’s Kingsgaurd, an honor that allowed her to stand helplessly by when a shade of Stannis slew her beloved ruler. She later quickly fell into the service of Catelyn Stark for whom she promised to protect and then later to retrieve the daughters of Arya and Sansa for. She failed both oaths almost as rapidly when Catelyn tasted red and all Brienne could find is the now Lannister-stamped Sansa. These shortcomings are brought to light too this week when she talks with both Jaime and Margaery about her failed vows. Jaime is quick to point out that with both her parents dead, Sansa may be best served in King’s Landing (unlikely), and Margaery helpfully warns Brienne that Joffrey is now her king, not Renly or his non-existent heir. It is a great tragedy for such a cool character as Brienne to seem so helpless at the winds of politics, but like any noble character in Westeros, your honor and a few gold coins will get you a cup of Dornish wine and little else. Trying to be a good knight lies the way of Ned Stark. At least she has Jaime to butt heads against, because their friendship (far healthier for Jaime than all the twincest he’s currently not having) is a much-needed breath of fresh air from the court intrigue around them. Existing somewhere between a romance and a bromance, it is one of the few moments of levity to be found in King’s Landing tonight. Well that, and Joffrey’s hilarious statue of himself with a crowsbow in hand and a dead direwolf at his feet. You wish, Joff. You wish.
Far away from the capital two stories also reset the board anew. In the Far East, Daenerys Targaryen is shown as someone standing by her word at the moment. And why not? When she walks by any former slave of Astapor or Yunkai on her march toward Meereen she can treasure the word “Mhysa” (mother) with as much easy-going warmth as Drogon’s cutely roasted lamb. For a Silver Queen without an ounce of silver to her name in the first two seasons, things seem to have gotten unusually bright for her as of late. She also witnesses that for over 1300 miles, the slave masters of Meereen have left one crucified slave after another like it’s the final scenes from Spartacus (the movie not the soft-core show on Starz). She makes a vow to stare at the face of every one, and as a woman with three dragons and an army at her back, I currently believe her.
Her reintroduction also included our first Season 4 moments with the dragons, who are getting bigger and bigger, as well as more dangerous. When Drogon can snap at his mother, the people of Meereen should quiver with fear for what he can do when unleashed. Unfortunately, the rest of her subplot in the premiere promises a bigger role for Daario. Recast from Season 3’s Ed Skrein to Michael Huisman in Season 4, the horndog is as annoying as ever with all the smooth moves of Gregory Marmalard in Animal House. Do we still hate him? Then the recasting did its job.
Elsewhere, Jon Snow also deals with perhaps the most spectacular oathbreaking of any character still breathing and absent a mane of gold locks. As a man of the Night’s Watch, he has returned to Castle Black as a spy that nobody realized was running in Wildling circles. In those months astray, he murdered Qhorin Halfhand in a scheme as according to only Jon Snow, and he laid with a Wildling girl more than once. In this scene of admission, we’re also reintroduced to Janos Slynt who likewise proved himself a liar when he betrayed Ned Stark in Season 1 for a lordship as bequeathed by Cersei Lannister. A lot of good it did him when Tyrion Lannister sent him packing for the Wall. Here he has made himself visibly cozy with Ser Alliser Thorne, and thus an enemy to Ned’s bastard boy. Luckily, Maester Aemon is on hand to vouch as a reference to Jon’s character, but the bastard of Winterfell had best watch himself with those other two spry brothers who are apparently running things in Castle Black (a curious change from A Storm of Swords). Alas, it’s cold comfort for Jon, who must still taste the ashes of the one oath he has kept—to stay at the Wall when his brother marched South toward war. Now Robb is as dead as poor Ned, and Ygritte wants to lie Jon down with the rest of his family. At least he has Samwell Tarly to keep him company….
Yes, this week was one bitter pill after another. For while the Lannisters make for brilliant characters on TV, their treachery continues to go rewarded week after week and year after year, with never any catharsis seemingly at hand for the viewers who still want their real long list of debts paid. However, there was one more subplot this week that actually gave fans their first taste of Westerosi justice after a very dry spell. And it is in the name of the only character who keeps her promises: Arya Stark.
The second daughter of Ned and Catelyn continues to prove herself wiser than either parent with her ability to survive. Indeed, she made a promise to herself, as well as a prayer to the gods above (and probably below) that she would see several names meet the God of Death: Cersei, Joffrey, the Mountain, the Hound, the Tickler, Ilyn Payne, and Polliver, the last of which sent a little boy named Lommy Greenhands to his maker(s) at the end of Arya’s own blade, Needle. He then mockingly promised to pick his teeth with it. This man is a real piece of work.
Given the budding friendship between Arya and the Hound, who continues to protect her after the death of her family (supposedly for an elusive prize from the wallet of Aunt Lysa Arryn), it really should come as no shock that these two make a bemusingly deadly pairing. And unlike every other character in this series, Arya is truly a girl of her word. So, when she saw Polliver and precious needle again during her travels with the Hound, it is probably fair to guess that every HBO subscriber from coast to coast began smiling uncontrollably. When she sent Jaqen H’ghar to make the Tickler a permanent Ghost of Harrenhal, Arya had not quite mastered the art of killing (small chubby stable boys notwithstanding). But now, Arya dreams in red.
In the most satisfying scene in Game of Thrones since at least Jaime Lannister’s rescue of the maiden fair from the bear, or even since Daenerys took Astapor in fire and blood, Arya gets her precious Needle back. It’s a sequence I had long wondered about, because in the book, it is the Tickler whom she slays with Needle while crying out his ritualistic questions for each victim who met the rats. But here, she is even more devious as she slowly, carefully, and with great savor, repeats Polliver’s words that he said in Season 2 before skewering Lommy. She says them with much deliberation, giving Polliver (a revealed pedophile this week!) just enough time to recognize the language before feeling the prick of her needle in his jugular.
On a show where every television and fantasy trope is inversed—the noble Ned Stark does not escape the prison of his own making, the heroic son Robb does not avenge his fallen father as a boy hero, and Tyrion is never accepted for his courage or bravery by his father or family—these are the precious few seconds fans can savor. Justice and blood dealt out by the one character who is brave enough to see the world how it is, but smart enough to not be killed by it. Unlike her father, brother, mother, or anyone else on this show, Arya keeps her promises. In that sense, Needle is a better, fairer weapon for House Stark in this age than Ice has been. This is the tale of Two Swords, and Needle’s humble steel proves far sharper than whatever the Valyrian masters can forge.
Every season of Game of Thrones intentionally defies traditional television logic and begins like a slow burn. Despite the brilliant symmetry of beginning on the death of Ice and ending on the resurrection of Needle, this episode was very much about resetting the table again for a fourth season, not unlike the first chapter in a book. Undoubtedly, this will result in some fans’ frustration with the lack of spectacle associated with season premieres. However, my first reaction would be to remind viewers of how awesome Drogon and his brothers looked this week when nestling with Dany, even as they demonstrate their rebellious teen years. Further, recall the Season 3 premiere took its time, building properly to the loss of Jaime Lannister’s hand in the third episode and then the glorious moment of joyful Game of Thrones ascension—with joy being a rarity on this show—as witnessed in the fourth episode. You may remember it as the one where the Mother of Dragons uttered the word “Dracarys.” All good things come to those who wait.
Also, unlike the last two season premieres, this one had a real confidence that viewers are in it for the long haul, as we checked in with nearly every character from seasons past, but still could leave Bran, Theon, Littlefinger, Stannis, and several others out. Even at this fast clip, not every member of the vast cast could be present. It is probably for the best, as hopefully the re-introductions of the aforementioned others won’t slow down the momentum that can now build off this sound Season 4 foundation. Catharsis for the Red Wedding is coming just as assuredly as Arya’s blade. It may take a bit longer than any Stark would wish, but some promises absolutely will be kept. And Game of Thrones made a strong one in tonight’s closing moments.