Game of Thronesby Jac Bergenson

All men must die. The slogan emblazoned on television screens and posters, billboards and buses, the four words could hardly be truer in relation to HBO’s Game of Thrones. In last year’s penultimate episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” the show yet again cast aside a number of its most beloved characters by arrow, by sword, by betrayal.

“Game of Thrones’” unpredictable twists have kept millions of fans on the edges of their seats for three seasons now, with 5.4 million viewers tuning in live to last year’s finale.  The unsullied (that’s fan speak for non-book readers) took the events in with shock, and the sullied found entertainment in their reactions.

On April 6, the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” premiered, preceded by massive amounts of hype, with an episode entitled “Two Swords.” Did HBO’s flagship series live up to its fans’ expectations, or was the episode as doomed as ancient Valyria?

(Warning, some SPOILERS for the premiere episode, “Two Swords,” follow)

(S)exposition

The show, produced by Dan Weiss and David Benioff, is known for many things—among them, the dreaded “blood and (for lack of better words) boobs.”  To address the topic, yes, the premiere does prescribe a dose of both.

The latter comes into play fairly early on, as newcomer, Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne, is introduced in his element—picking among an assortment of women at a Lannister-run brothel. Beside him is his “paramour,” Ellaria Sand.

Ellaria, played by Rome actress Indira Varma, is a confident woman with fire in her eyes.  Called a “lady,” by an attendant, who eagle-eyed viewers will recognize as a spy in Littlefinger’s (Aiden Gillen) employ, Ellaria responds “I’m not a lady.”

“The term is a courtesy in this establishment,” responds the attendant.

“A lie anywhere,” she snaps back.

Oberyn, portrayed by Chilean actor Pedro Pascal, is equally fiery, taking whatever he wants, so long as it stands in his path—be it man, woman, or blood. He is in town for King Joffrey’s imminent wedding.

Though it comes as no surprise to returning viewers, Game of Thrones introduces a game-changing new character through, for lack of better terms, (s)exposition.  A fan-favorite among book-readers, Oberyn is sure to jump off the screen; his character’s introduction, on the other hand, plays off as a way for HBO to meet its nudity quota.

Oberyn eventually learns Lannister men are using the brothel’s services. “You think your gold and your lions and your gold lions make you better than everyone,” Oberyn tells them.

He eventually meets Tyrion Lannister, who senses that Oberyn has other intentions. It is here that Pedro Pascal steals the show. “Tell your father I am here, and tell him the Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts.”

The second son of Dorne is just one of Tyrion’s worries, however. More than ever, Tyrion’s lover, Shae (Sibel Kikelli) finds herself jealous of the attention he gives his forced bride, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). Shae watches in rage as Tyrion consoles Sansa in the wake of her family’s tragedy. Shae had been bribed with diamonds in the third season, in an attempt to lure her away from Tyrion and King’s Landing. Shae thinks Tyrion was behind it, and that he is betraying her love; her eyes telegraph that she may turn against her lover in the future.

Exposition

The premiere wouldn’t be complete without breakout star, Emilia Clarke, appearing as Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys finds herself in awe of her growing dragons, until two of them drop a bloodied goat carcass at her feet.

“Dragons, Khaleesi, they can never be tamed,” says her advisor, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). “Not even by their mother.”

Early on, Daenerys’ storyline reeks of a more traditional exposition. To be fair, any premiere episode of a television show needs to bring new viewers up to speed. The problem is exacerbated by the show’s recasting of Daario Naharis (Michael Huisman), Daenerys’ new confidante and possible love interest. 

“Where is Daario Naharis? Where is Grey Worm?” calls out, sure to use their full names as if the rest of her men had no idea who she was talking about.

Daenerys’ storyline stumbles on poor humor and trips on the blooming flowers of love before it settles on the crucified body of a slave.

Daenerys refuses to look away from the body of the slave. “Remove her collar before you bury her,” she tells her men.

All the King’s Men

Back in in King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, all things are abuzz around the royal wedding of King Joffrey Lannister (Jack Gleeson).

Joffrey, the object of nearly every fan’s ire, is absent, except for one scene with his father/uncle, Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Jaime, one of the more tortured of last season’s characters, is back in King’s Landing as well, and Coster-Waldau continues his grand performance in the season’s premiere.

Jaime, formerly the poster boy of the Lannisters’ golden strength, finds himself more and more a man in the middle. He connects tangential storylines like that of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and his own sister and lover, Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady), and in last night’s episode, he finds himself more and more distant from his own family.

“You come back after all this time with apologies and one hand and expect everything to be the same,” Cersei tells him.  “You left me, alone.”

Jaime pleas that he spent every minute plotting his escape so he could run back to her arms, but she retorts, “You took too long.”

With timing that cannot be taught, Coster-Waldau’s non-verbal acting is the strongest of the show’s premiere. The conflicted mind of his character should prove to be a strong point in coming episodes.

Stark Contrast

The show spends the rest of its time with the three of the remaining Stark children—or two, depending on how you count them. All three have found themselves in precarious situations.

As mentioned before, Sansa finds herself tortured by the deaths of her brother and her mother.

“My mother,” she tells Tyrion, eyes red. “They say they cut her throat to the bone and threw her body in the water.”

Sansa is ever the bystander as her family finds new ways to get slaughtered, but her story ends on a hopeful note, with a returning face from Season 2.

Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the bastard child of Eddard Stark, is back at the wall, and faces punishment for crimes committed while he was among the “free folk.” On the other side of the table are a couple of brothers of the Night’s Watch last seen in Season 1, and a former commander of the Gold Cloaks.

Harington is a newly-minted leading man, the lead actor in the blockbuster “Pompeii,” and his character’s lines carry more weight than they did in seasons past. Whether from better writing or better delivery, Harington plays the part with conviction, and should reverse the common opinion that his storyline is among the show’s weakest.

And then there was Arya and the Hound. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) are the episode’s highlight. The two play off each other like cat and mouse, each meeting the other’s sarcastic remarks with a witty reply.

When Arya spots Polliver (Andy Kellegher), a man who killed one of her former companions, she rushes into action.What follows is a tense (and sometimes humorous) sequence of events. Although the sequence is interrupted by more bad bouts of exposition, it culminates in one of the most satisfying moments in a show where the good guys rarely win, and the bad guys usually get off scot-free.

A Good Start

By the time the theme plays it off into the credits, “Game of Thrones’” most recent season premiere reaffirms the show’s unofficial definition: the finest of cinema, on the small screen.

The works of George R.R. Martin promise a tale full of twists and turns to come. But for now, fans should be delighted by the first of the ten hours of Season Four. The episode is not without its faults. But when “Two Swords” delivers, it delivers.  With the clunky exposition out of the way, the next episode, “The Lion and the Rose,” should be something special. It is a good time to be a Thrones addict.

Overall Grade: B+