The Pure Pleasure of Game of Thrones' Season Four Premiere

Our roundtable on "Two Swords," the first episode of the HBO show's fourth season.

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Kornhaber: Westeros: where preteen girls gleefully stab pedophiles in the neck and incestuous royal siblings banter about the scent of rotting cat. Truly, what fun it is to be back!

But I’m also feeling a bit like Ser Jaime facing a newly frigid sister: “Something's changed.”

For starters, director D.B. Weiss seems to be working from a slightly expanded cinematic palette. I don’t recall a Game of Thrones episode ever closing with a swelling remix of the theme song, and I don’t think we’ve had a “cold open” (i.e. scene before the title sequence) since the series premiere. But here we are, at the start of Season 4, watching close-ups of liquid metal and Tywin Lannister’s almost-smile, waiting in suspense not to see what happens but rather for the Pavlovian rush provided by an animated map and the thrum of DUN-DUN-DUHDUH-DUN-DUN-DUHDUH-DUHHH.

That cold open seemed to signal a few things. One is that the central motif of the episode would be stuff: trinkets and weaponry whose significance goes beyond physical worth. Tywin victoriously reforges the big Stark blade into two smaller swords, one of which is a gift for Jaime; I imagine this’ll come back later, so call it Chekhov’s Valyrian Steel. Lady Olenna disdainfully browses nuptial jewelry for the soon-to-be-queen, lecturing about the political importance of pretty baubles. Ser Dontos reappears after 11 episodes away to hand Sansa a family heirloom, which may well be a down payment on a new alliance. And Arya repossesses Needle to ratify her transformation into tiny, violent avenger. 

Tywin’s visually ravishing but dialogue-free trip to the blacksmith also reminded about a central, oft-overlooked fact about Game of Thrones: the show’s appeal is not merely the feast of plot and characters it offers. It’s the stylish execution—scenes that rivet for their look and feel, rather than for the way they advance the story.

The closing confrontation at the inn was a prime example. I can’t predict the greater plot implications of some tertiary goons getting offed, but I can appreciate—through hands over eyes—the way Weiss crafted a tense, Wild West-style throwdown. “You lived your life for the king, you’re going to die for some chickens?” Polliver asks. “Someone is,” the Hound replies coolly. To quote myself, as I watched: “daaayum.” 

You might argue the ensuing bloodshed served mainly as a gratuitous sop to viewers in an otherwise action-free episode. But I thought the whole sequence had nice thematic weight, emphasizing implications of an unchecked Joffrey reign. The king’s soldiers rape and rob the countryside, and why not? “No one's standing in his way now, which means no one's standing in ours,” Polliver says—a notion echoed in the preceding hour by Tywin and Joffrey himself.

Of course, a pissed-off Stark and a turncoat Kingsguard swiftly and fatally prove the cocky Lannister minion wrong. Portentous, perhaps? After all, this episode spent a lot of time outlining just how many enemies of the state remain for Tywin & co. The calm-collected-charismatic killer Prince Oberyn arrives with an old, deep grudge against the Lannisters. Dontos resurfaces, smarting from humiliations at Joffrey’s hands. To the list of threats from the North you can add “cannibals.” To the list of threats from the east you can add … Daenerys’s new knowledge of botany. Soon, I’m sure, we’ll visit with the rightful king Stannis Baratheon.

If any of these folks end up dispensing justice to the golden-haired family that’s spent three seasons ruthlessly consolidating power, well, it’ll be a real change for this beautiful but bleak show. For now, I’ll just observe that Game of Thrones seems more formally accomplished than ever, resentment is brewing across the land, and, uh, Daario Naharis looks really different.

I haven't read the books, but Chris and Amy, you have. Give me the enlightening context for what we just saw—without spoiling what's to come. (That goes to you, too, commenters: I want to read your thoughts without fear of ending up like that sadistic Belgian math teacher's students!) Do we think this all adds up to a promising start for Season Four?

Orr: I thought it was extremely promising, Spencer. One of the things that struck me about the episode—and particularly its first few scenes, including the “cold open”—is that showrunners Benioff and Weiss are finally (if implicitly) telling viewers not to bother trying to pick this show up in the middle. The premieres of seasons two and three both contained a number of awkward scenes that seemed designed largely to introduce the characters to viewers who hadn’t been watching from the start (e.g., here are Cersei and Littlefinger having a discussion that dutifully clarifies who each one of them is). It made for a lot of slow, uninspiring exposition at the beginning of both seasons.

This premiere, by contrast, seemed to take for granted that viewers already know the main plots and players—and for any who don’t, well, tough. Good luck figuring out who the guy with the beard is, and why he’s making swords, and where the original Valerian steel blade he’s melting down came from, and all the rest. The result was a neatly made, well-balanced episode that moved along at a good clip—the best opener, I think, since season one.

Presented by

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club,, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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