The tagline for the fourth season of HBO's Game of Thrones is "All men must die." Given how brutally the series has unfolded to date, I think it's important to note that despite the overall accuracy of the statement—both as a general acknowledgement of human mortality and as a specific advertisement for the show's high mortality rate—it doesn't mean that all men (or women) must die this season. Based on the first three episodes and my knowledge of the George R.R. Martin novels, I'd say the overall body count will be—well, let's just say fewer than a dozen but more than none.
Game of Thrones came out of the gate with murderous speed in season one with the apparent killing (and ultimate crippling) of a child, Bran, followed by the actual killings of Viserys (gratifying), Robert (inevitable), Eddard (I’m still recovering), and Drogo. The second season was tamer, meting out death merely to Renly Baratheon and a few secondary characters (Qhorin, Ser Rodrik, etc.). And as anyone who watched season three knows—and if you haven’t watched it, you really don’t belong here—the penultimate episode outdid itself with the most memorably color-themed wedding since the heyday of Billy Idol, a massacre that essentially ended the Stark family as a political force (at least for now) and spawned a million shocked-response videos on YouTube.
Season four, which premieres Sunday night, will presumably spawn a few million more, though the carnage is likely to be doled out more incrementally. While season three largely crammed its OMG moments into two episodes—“And Now His Watch Is Ended” (the mutiny at Craster’s Keep; Daenerys’s slaughter of slavers) and “The Rains of Castamere” (the Red Wedding)—the fourth ought to have more than a few episodes that leave audiences gaping. I’d place the odds of it surpassing season three in overall quality at better than 50/50, and I mean that as high praise.
Given the show’s ever-multiplying storylines, let’s begin with a quick refresher on where things stand as we return to Westeros. The War of the Five Kings is essentially over, with Robb Stark murdered at the Twins and Stannis stewing impotently at Dragonstone. The happiest wedding to take place last season—between Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark, and yes, we’re grading on a steep curve here—has yet to be consummated, and more Lannister nuptials are already scheduled: first between the vile boy-king Joffrey and the cunning Margaery Tyrell, and then between Jof’s mom, Cersei, and Margaery’s brother, Ser Loras. (As Diana Rigg’s fabulous Lady Olenna noted at greater length last season: awkward!) Complicating matters further, Cersei’s partner in twincest, Jaime, has at last returned to King’s Landing, minus a sword hand. How that may impact Cersei's affections is yet to be seen.
In another reunion, Jon Snow and Sam Tarley have made their snowy, separate ways back to the Night’s Watch. Unfortunately, their celebration is likely to be short-lived, because also headed for a Castle Black rendezvous are a small band of wildlings (including Ygritte and Tormund) south of the Wall and an immense army of them (led by Mance Rayder) north of it. Bran is headed in the opposite direction with Hodor, Jojen, and Meera, toward some mystical encounter with his warg-ish destiny. The Hound and Arya continue their search for a living Stark relative—someone, anyone—to whom he might ransom her. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea in the Eastern Kingdoms, Daenerys has liberated two of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, Astapor and Yunkai, and is now marching on the third, Meereen. As for the “fire” and “ice” of Martin’s series title, the dragons are getting bigger and the White Walkers are getting souther.
The early episodes of season four introduce a new player to the game in Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne, a warrior-lord from the south who is visiting King’s Landing a) for Joffrey’s wedding, and b) to exact a not-particularly-secret vengeance on the Lannister family. As played by Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, Oberyn promises to be one of the greater delights of the season. Deadly, charming, and polymorphously perverse—he’ll occasion more than one sexposition opportunity for the show—he almost instantly joins the pantheon of characters who are better onscreen than in the books (Bronn, Margaery, Tywin, Ygritte…) A more dubious decision was re-casting the role of Daario Naharis, erstwhile sellsword and would-be bedder of Daenerys. Not all viewers were happy with Ed Skrein’s portrayal last season, all Fabio locks and beach-buff body. But his replacement, Michiel Huisman (Treme, Nashville), makes almost no impression whatsoever. With his generic beard and cultivatedly half-shaggy ‘do, he looks like he should be teaching an anthropology class at CUNY.
The only other disappointments from the season’s first few episodes result from choices that showrunners Benioff and D.B. Weiss made last season: specifically with regard to Tyrion’s concubine Shae, who has become almost unbearably tiresome, and to psycho-bastard Ramsay Snow, who’s been that way since we first met him. (Quick recommendation for anyone planning to binge re-watch season three in preparation for the new episodes: If you fast forward through all the Ramsay/Theon scenes, the season is dramatically improved.) In both of these instances, Benioff and Weiss strayed from Martin’s storyline with uncharacteristic clumsiness, and they continue to pay the price. (I wrote about these missteps in the concluding installment of last year’s Game of Thrones roundtable, a tradition we intend to continue. Stay tuned!)
Of course there will always be opportunities to quibble, especially for fans of the books. The good news is that, overall, Benioff and Weiss seem ever more confidently in command of their inherited world. Their additions tend to clarify or amuse and, perhaps more important still, there are early signs (I think) that they may be planning to jettison some of the more tedious storylines that bedevil Martin’s work to an increasing degree moving forward.
For now, though, Benioff and Weiss have a wealth of material at their fingertips. The latter half of Martin’s third novel—from which this season will mostly be adapted—is arguably the richest stretch in the entire series. The coming conflict at the Wall between wildlings and the Night’s Watch should breathe a little life into actor Kit Harington’s occasionally listless Jon Snow. Stannis will be given an opportunity to do more than brood petulantly and burn heretics. Daenerys will continue her conquests, even if they’re taking place on the wrong continent. And of course the Lannister machinations in the capital are always intriguing. Adding in the wild cards of Margaery, Olenna, and now Prince Oberyn should keep the plots and counter-plots thickening nicely.
And, yes: Some characters are going to die. Just not all of them.