‘Game of Thrones’: Bloody Good
Matthew Munhall | Monday, April 7, 2014
Season four of HBO’s wildly popular “Game of Thrones” began Sunday night, re-immersing viewers in the world of Westeros. After last season’s bloody Red Wedding all but wiped out the Stark family, the season four premiere got to work rearranging the pieces on the game board that is Westeros.
Like most “Thrones” premieres, “Two Swords” is mainly exposition, laying the groundwork for the inevitable conflict to come in the episodes ahead. At the risk of spreading itself too thin, the premiere deftly reintroduces the characters and where they stand after three seasons of conflict. Despite its thrilling action sequences, the characters remain the show’s most compelling aspect.
The episode opens with Tywin Lannister forging Ice, Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel great sword, into two new swords, one of which he bestows on his newly-returned son Jamie. The scene symbolizes that, for now, the Stark family has been effectively extinguished. The protagonists introduced in the first season are no longer real players in the power structure of Westeros.
Yet the Lannisters, who have seemingly quashed every obstacle on their way to complete dominance of the continent, are not content. Jamie is back in King’s Landing, although he was not met with a warm welcome as his father threatened to disown him, and Joffrey mocked him as “a 40-year-old knight with one hand.” Tyrion is stuck married to Sansa, whose depression has only spiraled since the Lannisters killed most of her family, while Shae is angered by Tyrion’s attempts to end their relationship. Even Cersei drowns herself in unending glasses of red wine and complains that Jamie “took too long” to return home. Back in season one, Cersei told Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” While the Lannisters have managed to survive thus far, winning the game doesn’t guarantee any happiness.
Apart from the Lannister clan, the episode also offers glimpses into numerous other plot lines: Daenerys Targaryen and her ever-growing dragons, Jon Snow reporting the Wildling’s amassing army to the Night’s Watch, the introduction of the Lannister-despising Oberyn Martell. All discussion of the state of affairs must be qualified ⎯ the Lannisters rule “for now” ⎯ because, as always, change is the only constant in Westeros. As the massive Wildling army crosses south of the Wall and Daenerys amasses an army of freed slaves in Essos, the power struggle is certain to continue tumultuously.
The final scene of any “Thrones” episode is generally reserved for its most shocking and exciting moments, and “Two Swords” is no exception. The episode’s final moments focus on Arya, who is still sharing a horse with the Hound on the way to her aunt in the Vale. She spots Polliver, the Lannister soldier who captured her and stole her sword, Needle, back in season two. A brawl breaks out in a tavern and Arya gets her revenge, killing Polliver and reclaiming her sword. Arya triumphantly rides away on her own horse, with Needle proudly by her side.
Although the scene is a much-needed victory for the youngest Stark daughter, it’s also a chilling reminder of how death looms over the series. That the premiere’s most redeeming moment comes in the form of a 12-year-old’s violent revenge speaks volumes about the series’ persistent darkness. War has ravaged all of Westeros, stripping even children of their innocence.
HBO has promoted the fourth season with the tagline “All men must die,” and it seems likely that this season will continue the series’ descent into brutality and misery. There will certainly be more deaths ahead ⎯ yet, in “Game of Thrones,” staying alive is just as terrifying a prospect. The War of the Five Kings may have ended, but death has only begun to exact its toll on Westeros.