***Warning: Spoilers Be Nigh…***
All men must die.
The tag line for Game of Thrones’ fourth season doesn’t read like a warning so much as it does a maxim of inevitability. Last season saw the end of Robb Stark, along with his mother, Catelyn, his wife, Talisa, and an army of Stark banner-men, as they were slaughtered by Walder Frey and Roose Bolton (with a nice tactical assist from the Lannisters) at the now infamous “Red Wedding” (the second event, after the beheading of Ned Stark, that launched a thousand hilarious YouTube “reaction videos”). The Stark rebellion has been crushed, it seems, and there are no more imminent threats to the Iron Throne (unless you count that pesky “Mother of Dragons”, who still needs to cross a vast ocean in order to make a serious play). For once, the characters in the show (as well as the folks who root for them from their couches) can finally sit back and relax — nobody’s going to die anytime soon, it seems. The Lannisters are all in King’s Landing, settling into their domestic roles and midlife crises as their sneering boy king plans for his wedding.
But all men must die. And all peace, as well as the comfort that goes along with it, is only temporary.
Like nearly all of the premieres, Season Four’s is like walking into a chess game midway through a match and assessing the board. Tywin Lannister melts down Ned Stark’s enormous sword, forged from Valyrian steel, so that it can be re-crafted into two separate blades for the Hand to the King. It’s this first shot that lets us all know that, however tranquil life may seem, Tywin knows that he must always be prepared for war. The Seven Kingdoms are still just as divided as they’ve ever been, and that means that stability may crumble without a moments’ notice.
Jamie is finally home, but is not the same King Slayer who left his beloved family. Between the missing hand he lost while imprisoned and his father all but exiling him to being Lord of Casterly Rock, Jamie finds himself in a position usually reserved for Tyrion: the unwanted. This feeling of uselessness is only amplified after we see Joffrey mocking Jamie for allowing himself to be captured and maimed in such a horrific fashion. It’s easy for even the most die-hard GOT fan to forget that the inbred king hasn’t seen Jamie since the beginning of Season 1, thus rendering their relationship damn near non-existent. As always, Joffrey keeps up being the offensive little shit we all know and hate, petulantly treating a man who was crippled fighting in his name like dirt. Even Cersei, who’d been incessantly yearning for her brother while he was away, seems to want nothing to do with him. “You took too long,” she says, rebuking his advances. But Jamie doesn’t buy what she’s selling, thinking that her dilligent doctor’s fequent visits have much more to do with supressing her libidinous urges toward him (this show can be so delciously soapy when it wants to).
Unfortunately, Tyrion’s life isn’t going too much better. The clever imp spends a good chunk of his screen time this episode trying desperately to stop the newly arrived Dornish Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) from murdering the shit out of his fellow Lannisters. However, Tyrion’s usual quick wit does nothing for the quick-to-draw second son, as he seems to share a familiar, vengeful hatred of the ruling family with Arya Stark. Unlike that little lost girl, Oberyn is already inside of King’s Landing, plunging a dagger deep into the wrist of an unnamed member of the Lannister clan at Littlefinger’s brothel. His lust for blood doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop there, either, as he quickly details the massacre that sparked his need for vengeance for Tyrion.
To make matters worse, Shae has finally had enough of keeping her distance from the tiny man whom she loves. Tyrion’s child bride Sansa Stark is now inconsolable since learning of her mother and brother’s deaths, and while she goes to weep in the garden, Shae hops into the imp’s bed, hoping to rekindle the spark that distance has extinguished. Yet her attempts at seduction are no more yielded to by Tyrion than Jamie’s were by Cersei, and Shae can’t help but exit stage right after insulting the Lannisters’ master of the coin. As she goes, a servant sees her leave Tyrion’s room and darts off to tell Cersei, whose bad mood might just lead to the poor girl’s head being lopped clean off.
Outside of cushy King’s Landing, the remaining members of the Stark clan may be in even more imminent danger. Jon Snow manages to skirt by execution by being baring his heart to the rest of the Night’s Watch — a tactic that never served his father particularly well. Ruling members of the guard’s council want his head for killing Halfhand and shacking up with Ygritte. But he urges them all to keep in mind that Mance Rayder’s roving bands are quickly descending upon Castle Black, bringing both Wildlings and giants along for the ride. The honesty impresses one particular council member, whose years growing up in King’s Landing taught him to spot when a man is telling the truth.
It appears that Arya may be the only character to come out clean, and even her victory is hard won. After fleeing the atrocities at the Twins, she and The Hound enter a local tavern where a group of Lannister-employed soldiers are preparing to rape the daughter of the barkeeper (at least, I think it’s his daughter. Could be his wife?). One of the men is a face from Arya’s past; the thief of the “Needle” who used Arya’s unique weapon to gouge her poor young friend’s throat after he could no longer walk. After striking up a conversation with the Hound, the thief stupidly mentions the Mountain, and a spectacularly well-staged brawl ensues. It’s a marvel of fight choreography and photography, ending in sprays of blood as the Hound proceeds to kill everybody in the bar.
Arya polishes off the thief, relishing in the act as she taunts him with the same words he once spoke to her. While this is undoubtedly a triumphant act of revenge, it’s rather unnerving to watch Arya (who has never really been given the chance to show off such a menacing side before) kill a man in cold blood. The transformation of Arya Stark has been one that’s long coming since the beginning of the show, but we may never see the same little girl we once knew and loved ever again. It’s a chilling way to end the episode.
On the other hand, Daenerys Targaryen has gone from meek wife to murderous tyrant, continuing to lead her slave army and fire-breathing dragons. She’s conquered cities while petting her precious beasts in the quiet moments. The men who surround her worship at her feet (and occasionally vie for her affections, none more aggressively than Daario Naharis, who confusingly looks a little different than the Abercrombie & Fitch model that filled the role last season). Because so much of Daenerys’ power is rooted in the “children” she so loves, their misbehavior when we first catch up with her is rather troublesome. It’s the first time we’ve seen fear in the blonde-haired girls’ eyes in some time, and maybe a reminder that not only men, but women, may be stripped of their lives by the things they so love.
All in all, it’s a rather fantastic start to a season that (especially if you’ve read the books) promises to bring catharsis for its viewers as well as some startling revelations. The next ten weeks are going to be something of a roller coaster (as per usual), with the promise of several major characters being cut down in the dirt. Who will survive and what will be left of them? Only time and more episodes will tell. I hope you enjoyed the moments of peace, because death is about to rear its ugly head in the very near future.