Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 1 – Two Swords

“The war is over. The King is safe.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

If you thought Game of Thrones was getting popular last year, this year it’s a veritable cultural phenomenon. As the new season dawned, the papers were full of clickbait drawing fans in with the most tangential connections. There’s a certain amount of inevitability in pieces discussing the show’s representation of gender imbalance in its pseudo-historical setting, or instructions on how to make yourself look like Westeros’ most popular female characters. But what are we to make of it when former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard starts discussing how the show reminds her of her time in office? As if to prove how massive the show is, it actually broke HBO’s streaming service HBO Go with overwhelming demand for this fourth season premiere.

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With all that anticipation, how good was this week’s return? It didn’t disappoint, for me anyway – this was a textbook way to open a season, and a perfect example of how to adapt material from one medium to another. Bear in mind that season three ended halfway through Martin’s third novel; this still felt like the opening of a new chapter in the ongoing story of Westeros. The War of the Five Kings is ostensibly over, with Renly Baratheon and Robb Stark dead, Stannis Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy thoroughly routed. Nasty little King Joffrey, it seems, is secure on the Iron Throne.

As ever in this show, what better way to celebrate the (apparent) end of hostilities than with a wedding? In this case, Joffrey’s upcoming nuptials to Margaery Tyrell, whose scheming is still upstaged by that of her deceptively sweet grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg, as magnificent as ever).

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With festivities in King’s Landing upcoming, we got the arrival of the previously mentioned, but till now unseen, faction of the Dornish. Westeros’ southernmost and hottest region, Dorne was here represented by the formidable Prince Oberyn, known to book readers as the Red Viper.

Oberyn got a storming introduction that marked the character as a flamboyant force to be reckoned with from the very start. Snubbing the “accomplished diplomat” Tyrion with a sniffy retinue sent to the welcome venue, Oberyn was actually to be found (naturally for this show) in Petyr Baelish’s high class brothel, where he proceeded to choose the sexual services of a voluptuous young lady for his sister – and one voluptuous young man for himself – before violently and gorily incapacitating a visiting Lannister client. That’s how to make an entrance!

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Pedro Pascal as Oberyn is excellent casting – this is possibly the most flamboyant character the show’s had since the much-missed Syrio Forel. He has a longstanding grudge against the Lannisters – as ever, the backstory returned once again to the rising against mad King Aegon Targaryen, during which Oberyn’s sister was raped then killed by the Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane. That can’t have been pleasant.

Oberyn is plainly still burning for revenge, and even the likeable Tyrion looks to be in his sights, with the words, “Tell your father I’m here. And tell him the Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts”. I’m guessing this is one wedding that isn’t going to go smoothly. Well, like every other wedding in this show, actually.

Oberyn did have some nice byplay with Bronn, back as Tyrion’s plain-spoken right hand. Jerome Flynn was excellent as ever; responding to Oberyn’s query as to how he got to be a knight, he simply shrugged and commented, “Suppose I killed the right people”. It’s good to have him back with Tyrion, alongside a newly slimmer (and increasingly attractive) Daniel Portman as Podrick.

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Nice though it is to meet new characters, this season opener had the job of catching us up on an awful lot of plot threads that were already ongoing. It actually managed to encompass a surprising amount of these, covering nearly all the main characters. This necessarily meant that many of them got a fairly small amount of screen time. However, in a show as full of scene-stealing characters and performances as this, they all still got to make their mark.

It helped that the script, by showrunners Benioff and Weiss, gave everyone some marvellous dialogue. Most of the women got to be miserable and bitter (for one reason or another); Cersei and Sansa Stark most noticeably, the former spitting at brother/ex-lover Jaime, “You come back with no apologies and one hand, and expect everything to be the same?” The men, meanwhile, all got to snarl at each other with ultra-macho Clint Eastwood-style one-liners; possibly the best was the ever-earthy Hound, commenting to a prospective enemy, “if any more words come pouring out of your cunt mouth, I’m gonna have to eat every fucking chicken in this room” (it makes sense in context).

Fortunately for the logistics of the show, many of the previously separated characters had been reunited back at King’s Landing; notably Jaime Lannister, his sister and his father. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau continues to make Jaime one of the show’s most complex characters.

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Having lost his hand and confessed his burden of guilt over killing the Mad King last season, he was here to be seen (cleaned up and shaved), turning down Tywin’s offer of inheriting the family seat in favour of honouring his vow of chastity and service in the Kingsguard. Presumably part of his reason was to stay close to his sister and continue their affair, but it looks like she’s going to disappoint him – even with the disinterested Loras Tyrell as her groom-to-be. Just to cheer him up, Joffrey turned up at Kingsguard HQ, as reliably loathsome as ever, to mock Jaime’s rather brief entry in the log of Kingsguard achievements. Jaime posited the idea that his achievements were yet to come, but didn’t look convinced. Perhaps at that point, his entry will be enlarged to read, “mostly harmless”…

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As mentioned, Cersei is getting increasingly bitter and depressed – a common lot for the women of Westeros. Another complex character, she could so easily just be a scheming bitch; again though, Lena Headey’s performance, and some thoughtful writing, often make you feel unwilling sympathy for her. Having failed to outplot her father last year, she seems to be lost in defeat – but I wouldn’t write off her scheming just yet.

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Sansa Stark too was miserable, not wanting to even eat despite the exhortations of Shae in her role as handmaiden. Sansa’s misery is understandable, given the events of the Red Wedding last year; though it’s noticeable that Sophie Turner (now 18) looks to have aged a heck of a lot since then. Stress, I suppose… Reluctant husband Tyrion having failed to cheer her up, she then found an unlikely new confidante in the shape of the drunken Ser Dontos, whose life she managed to save from Joffrey sadistic caprices last year (remember?). Their scene together was sweet and touching; it’s nice to see that Ser Dontos, an important character in the books, hasn’t been relegated to the background as it looked like he might be from last season.

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Still, as Jaime pointed out to Brienne, Sansa’s pretty well off considering the general lot of the people of Westeros. Brienne was still trying to honour her promise to Catelyn of keeping the Stark girls safe; a task rendered logistically difficult, as Jaime pointed out, by Catelyn’s death, Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion, and the likelihood (from their perspective) that Arya is already dead. Touchingly, Brienne also swore to Margaery Tyrell that she would ‘extract vengeance’ for their beloved king Renly, making her possibly the only person in King’s Landing still unaware of Renly’s preference for men.

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With so many of the characters and plots based in King’s Landing, the show’s other settings got less exposure; still, we got snapshots of most of them. Jon Snow, it turned out, had survived being peppered with arrows by Ygritte and was on trial at Castle Black for his ‘murder’ of Qhorin Halfhand (actually Qhorin’s idea) back in season two.

It didn’t help that his tribunal included the sneery Ser Alliser (not seen since season one) and nasty Janos Slynt (banished from the Kingsguard by Tyrion in season two). Fortunately, both seemed to yield to the authority of Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan, still magisterial); but I’m betting that Jon’s troubles with those two martinets are far from over.

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Not too far off, the Wildings were taking stock after Jon’s betrayal. Tormund made the observation that Ygritte could easily have killed Jon, rather than leaving him wounded but able to escape. Such musings were quickly interrupted, however, by the arrival of another new faction – the Thenns, another Wildling tribe who make the ones we know already seem positively cuddly as they went straight to the cannibalism that recent episodes of Walking Dead only implied…

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Over the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen and her slave liberation army also got a quick vignette. They’re on their way to Meereen, last of the slaver cities to be freed, with the grisly spectacle of a slave child nailed to every mile marker on the way – for 163 miles. Nice.

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Still, we know Dany’s made of stern stuff, and she vowed to see the face of every one of the ghoulish ‘markers’. Still, as last year, her crusade against slavery is keeping her further and further from her original intent of storming back to Westeros, dragons on hand, to seize the Iron Throne. Since the show would be considerably shorter if she did, that’s probably a Good Thing.

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She’s also distracted by her love interest Daario Naharis, here recast from last year’s rather wooden Ed Skrein. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman gave a considerably more earnest, thoughtful portrayal, but initially I found myself wondering whether he was quite conveying Daario’s ultra-macho side; the guy is a ruthless ex-mercenary after all. I needn’t have worried too much, though – his sneering comeback to (still hard as nails) eunuch Grey Worm was perfect. “I’d rather have no brains and two balls.”

Last but definitely not least, we caught up with Arya and the Hound, still wandering the general vicinity of the Riverlands after the Red Wedding. Plan A having fallen through after the death of all involved, the Hound has some vague scheme to ransom Arya to one of her few remaining relatives – the mad-as-a-bat Lysa Arryn. I have to wonder if his heart’s really in it, though. These two are a marvellous odd couple, one of the things the show does so well; it’s understandable that they’d end up not just working but fighting together, as we saw here when they encountered Arya’s former tormentor Polliver.

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In an electric scene at an inn, it was plainly just a matter of time before Polliver and the Hound’s pissing contest erupted into full blown fisticuffs. I’d hate to be an innkeeper in Westeros, as this sort of thing seems to be an inevitable consequence of any of the main characters dropping in for lunch.

There was still time for some black humour before the hacking and slashing started, as Polliver bemoaned the tedium of working for the Hound’s brother, the Mountain: “it’s all torture, torture, torture…” Yes, that must get dull eventually. But it was the overtly sexual interest in Arya that really seemed to get the Hound going, and some serious hacking ensued, resulting in many bloodied corpses and yet another ruined set of bar tables.

What was really fun though was seeing Arya – a little girl – joining in, and more than holding her own. She even got to slaughter the vile Polliver, taunting him with the words he used when using her sword Needle to kill her friend Lommy – “a fine blade. Maybe I’ll pick my teeth with it”. Stab. Nice to see Maisie Williams is still the coolest of the show’s impressive roster of child actors!

Sex and Violence

But of course, sir, this is Game of Thrones. We were straight into the gratuitous nudity within about five minutes, as Prince Oberyn leeringly selected his wares from the brothel by means of having them remove all their clothes. There’s been a lot of (possibly justified) criticism that this is pure exploitation, and sexist to boot, as it’s usually only the women who get turned into sex objects.

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That’s not exclusively true (though it is more often than not), as fans of male nudity have had Jaime and Lancel Lannister, Renly Baratheon and Ser Loras, and memorable full frontals from Theon and (of all people) Hodor. Here, we got a bit more ‘redress’ as Oberyn also tore the clothes from the pliable Olyvar (Will Tudor), another who previously bared all for his sex scene with Loras last year:

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Here, sadly, he only got his shirt torn open, so it didn’t quite balance out the two full frontals from the nameless ladies. Score: female nudity 2, male nudity one half.

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Obviously wanting to make his mark, Oberyn was also the first to indulge in the usual violence; though it was small fry by this show’s standards, as he impaled a foolishly confident Lannister through the wrist before yanking out his knife to a spurt of arterial blood.

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After that, it seemed to be largely a violence-free episode – until the Hound appeared, and the claret started spraying everywhere.

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But it was Arya who got the most violent moment, as the camera lingered on her victim while she impaled him through the chin:

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A good start to another season, with the showrunners sticking determinedly to their established style in spite of the (often justified) criticisms regarding violence and nudity. If you’ve stuck with it this far, I’m sure you can cope with those – indeed, it might be what’s drawing half the audience in…

Regardless of that, there were the usual sterling performances, dialogue and direction (courtesy of DB Weiss himself) on display here. Still to be caught up on are Stannis’ faction, the increasingly ill-fated Theon, and Bran Stark’s trek northwards. But this ep covered almost all of the plotlines. As mentioned, that made it overall a little scattershot, but the tightly focused eps usually feature later in the season. As an opener to set out the season’s stall, this was reliably excellent.