The long-awaited follow-up to the Red Wedding has arrived, and the "Game of Thrones" season four premiere, "Two Swords," held almost nothing back.
It was a quieter episode, especially compared to the slaughter of "The Rains of Castamere," the penultimate episode of season three, but season four promises to be even more intense and action-packed — and that's saying something.
This season will adapt the second half of the third novel in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series, "A Storm of Swords," which pulls no punches even after two of the main characters perish in the first half. While show-only fans (affectionately termed "Unsullied" by fans) were stunned by the brutal murders of Robb and Catelyn Stark, the upcoming season is going to blow their minds. If you've not read "A Storm of Swords," be warned: spoilers abound.
The season four premiere begins with an ominous shot of a burning wolf pelt and a reforged sword — the greatsword Ice that had been handed down through the Stark line for generations — while a haunting version of the Lannister theme song plays. It's not a subtle moment but an in-your-face reminder that House Lannister is ascendant and House Stark divided and conquered (for now).
Writer and producer D.B. Weiss explained the episode's title: "It was intentional that we would begin the episode with the loss of one Stark sword, and what Tywin (Lannister) thinks is the death of the Stark line and legacy, and end it with finding another Stark sword, and kind of implied rebith of that Stark ability to act in the word through Arya (Stark)."
The episode also introduces the audience to House Martell of Sunspear, the seat from which they rule the principality of Dorne, the most independent of the Seven Kingdoms.
This marked the first time Elia Martell's name was mentioned on the show, though she is an incredibly important character in the books.
Her death, some 17 years prior to the main conflict of "Game of Thrones," nevertheless echoes through the series as her brother Oberyn arrives in King's Landing on the pretense of attending the royal wedding between King Joffrey Baratheon and Lady Margaery Tyrell.
Oberyn, however, is no idle wedding guest. His purpose is simple: to avenge his sister's brutal rape and murder by killing as many Lannister bannermen as he can. As he tells Tyrion, "Lannisters aren't the only ones who pay their debts."
From King's Landing we go to the road along Slaver's Bay, in the far southeast. Daenerys Targaryen marches her army, her freedmen and her dragons from the defeated Yunkai to the rich slave city of Meereen, guided by the grisly sight of 163 dead children nailed to stakes with their arms outstretched, pointing in the direction of Meereen.
Most of the episode that follows, while highly faithful to the book and beautifully rendered, is bereft of action-packed battle scenes. Instead, each scene serves as exposition for the major conflicts that will come to fruition as season four continues: Daenerys and Meereen, Shae and Tyrion, Arya and the Hound, Jaime and the Kingsguard, Jaime and Cersei, Cersei and Margaery, Jon Snow and the Night's Watch, the Night's Watch and the wildlings.
The action in "Two Swords" is mostly confined to Arya's storyline, as she wanders the Riverlands with Sandor Clegane, King Joffrey's former sworn sword who ran from the capital during the Battle of the Blackwater. There she encounters Polliver, one of her former captors during her time at Harrenhal who killed her friend Lommy (per the Hound: "What the f---'s a 'Lommy?'") and assisted in the torture of innocent peasants.
Here, Arya watches as the Hound takes down several of Polliver's fellow "King's men," in the service of the Lannisters and King Joffrey, before retrieving her own sword Needle, a gift from Jon Snow way back when in season one.
Echoing Polliver's own words as he killed Lommy, Arya stabs Polliver through the neck with Needle, then smirks in a self-satisfied way as she and the Hound continue through the Riverlands on horseback. It's not the first time Arya's made a kill, but it's the first time she's clearly been happy to do so.
Two of the Starks remain unaccounted for (we're counting Jon Snow as a Stark here), but doubtless one of them will show up soon.
Bran may see what is possibly the least action of any other character, but unless he crops up in the next episode or two, the show-only audience is likely to forget about him entirely — and his is ultimately an important storyline that should not be forgotten (at least, we hope so).
The season ahead
There's a lot to look forward to in season four, not the least of which is the death of one of the show's most hated characters.
It's also worth noting the changes to the opening credits sequence, which includes Dragonstone and introduces viewers to the Dreadfort and Meereen for the first time. Neither Dragonstone, the Dreadfort or Meereen actually appear in "Two Swords," but we'll certainly see each location before long.
Fans of Stannis Baratheon will be thrilled with the later episodes this season, but until then they'll have to make do with a few non-canon scenes in the city of Braavos, no doubt inserted to keep show-only fans interested in the one true king of Westeros.
Doubtless the showrunners will have no such trouble interesting their audience in the Martells, with their unrelenting thirst for vengeance and their overtly sexual natures — just what was missing from "Game of Thrones" until their arrival.
From here, we'll see more of Daenerys' continually-growing dragons, Jon Snow's last interactions with his erstwhile lover Ygritte, Sansa's flight from King's Landing to her aunt's stronghold in the Vale and Tyrion's flight across the Narrow Sea.
We can only hope this season lives up to its wildly high expectations.
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