The Pure Pleasure of Game of Thrones' Season 4 Premiere

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


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher 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.

As for the idea that the show was about the acquisition of items, Spencer, you left out the closing-scene kicker: for all his grousing, the Hound lets Arya have her own horse after all! If the show didn’t already have plans for her, Arya could star in her own spinoff, Have Needle – Will Travel, in which she’d wander the highways and byways of Westeros, offering her lethal talents to those in need…

I did quite like her scenes with the Hound, though. They’re developing quite the rookie-cop/grizzled-vet chemistry, aren’t they? And, yes, the closing confrontation at the tavern was first-rate—especially the bit about the chickens. I should note here that Rory McCann, who plays the Hound, doesn’t get as much credit for his performance in the role as he probably should. He’s really come to embody the character in a profoundly satisfying way.

So, too, with the magnificent Charles Dance as Tywin. Though if he were to star in his own show it would have to be titled Father Knows Best, You Miserably Disappointing Ingrates. Last season opened with Tywin caustically declining Tyrion’s request to be made lord of Casterly Rock. This time around we have the reverse, with Tywin essentially disowning his other son, Jaime, for refusing to accept Casterly Rock. In between, of course, he told his daughter, Cersei, that she was not as smart as she thinks she is, and forced both her and Tyrion to commit to unsavory marriages. You just keep setting that parental bar low, Tywin! My dad-skills may be imperfect, but at least I’ve never called either of my kids an “ill-made, spiteful little creature.”

And while we’re on the subject of the Lannisters, did you notice that, while in the process of receiving her long-lost brother/lover Jaime with less than total enthusiasm, Cersei also thanked Qyburn for his help in relieving some ostentatiously undisclosed “symptoms”? It sure sounds as though he may have provided her with some kind of medieval morning-after pill. I’m not sure with whom she might be frolicking post-Lancel, but she has proven herself a “love the one you’re with” kind of a gal in the past.

It’s been a while since I read the books, so I’m not certain, but I think the idea of the Magnar of Thenn being a cannibal is an addition by Benioff and Weiss. Regardless, it’s a nice touch, reminding us that not all wildlings are as innocent as Gilly or as marvelous as Ygritte. And how great is it that the actor playing him is named Yuri Kolokolnikov? They could almost have let him keep that name. If he can’t parlay this performance into a role in the upcoming Mad Max reboot, there is something genuinely wrong with the universe.

As for your wondering whether a certain family of supercilious blonds is finally going to get its comeuppance, Spencer, I’ll offer two contradictory bits of evidence. In George R. R. Martin-world, it’s precisely when someone’s fortune seems to be improving that it tends to reverse itself most dramatically, as countless Starks and the invading army of Stannis Baratheon could well attest. On the other hand, as Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion masterfully intones in the season trailer, “If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

I already shared a few other thoughts in my curtain-raiser—on the awesomeness of Prince Oberyn, the enduring lameness of Shae, the brand-new lameness of Daario Naharis 2.0, etc.—so I won’t revisit them (yet).

I’ll just close by saying what a pleasure it is to be back with so many familiar faces of Westeros: Sam and Jon Snow—the Ernie and Bert of the North—reunited at last; Margaery, with her navel-split necklines and knowing smiles; Joffrey, with his fancy tunics and off-kilter death-stare; Daenerys, with her smitten menfolk and bigger, badder dragons. And for the true Westeros obsessives among us, it was nice to hear a brief shout-out to Ser Duncan the Tall of the “Dunk and Egg” stories. It’s almost enough to make me forget that the Dreadfort has been added to title sequence, promising more sessions with my least-favorite bastard. Oh well, we can’t have everything.

What about you, Amy? Were you as satisfied with the season-opener as Spencer and I were?

Sullivan: It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of a show that gives us the pleasure of the immensely entertaining Lannister clan. I could listen to those family members insult each other for hours. It’s becoming a bit of a problem, in fact. I used to experience a little thrill when the show’s action switched to King’s Landing and Tyrion tossed off a sarcastic little riff or Tywin verbally shredded one of his offspring. Now I just feel disappointed when we’re torn away to follow the Khaleesi on yet another endless march through inhospitable lands.

The always-awesome Diana Rigg—another Martin character that has benefitted tremendously from an expanded role in the televised version—further stacks the deck for King’s Landing. The increasingly isolated Cersei is looking outmatched by Margaery and her gram. Lady Olenna is old enough to be one of the series’ honey badgers—she and Maester Aemon are actually quite similar in their “I’ll say whatever the hell I want” candor. And that potentially makes her one of the more dangerous characters in this world.

Like you, Chris, I appreciated the impressive comic timing of Arya and the Hound. (“My sword—Needle.” “Of course you named your sword.”) However, my nomination for a buddy comedy—or maybe True Detective 2.0?—would be a show starring Ser Jaime and Brienne of Tarth as two bickering colleagues with grudging affection for each other. Their very brief scene on the wall, watching Sansa just whet my appetite for more of that classic Season 3 banter. Who’s with me? It would totally fit with this sensibility. (“Starring Gwen Christie and Nick Waldo!”)

And just as I’m ready to reluctantly turn my attention to other parts of the Seven Kingdoms, Prince Oberyn Martell joins the gang in the capital. Here again is a character who failed to make any lasting impression on the page but who came to life in just a few scenes in this season premiere. The bits in the brothel were fine, if a bit ho-hum after all the time we’ve spent dealing with sexpositions in past seasons. But Oberyn’s chat outside with Tyrion immediately established the Dornishman as a riveting threat to the royals from Casterly Rock. I cannot wait to see Oberyn and Tywin in a room together, though I fear the levels of mutual disdain would cause everyone around them to spontaneously combust.

One last note on the Lannisters (I really, really hate leaving King’s Landing…): There are plenty of contenders for the Tywin Lannister quote that launches a thousand therapy hours. But that remark to Jaime, who is slowly learning to make his left hand dominant, that “It’ll never be as good” was devastating in its cool, easy delivery. Way to be supportive, Dad.

Across the narrow sea, there are indeed some new faces surrounding Daenerys. But hush your mouths, both of you! Michiel Huisman is so much better than last year’s pretty-boy Daario. Just wait until he trades in that sword for a guitar and starts rocking out—that will make Rayna…er, me…er, Daenerys swoon.

As for the Khaleesi’s latest adventure/target of liberation, we got some chilling signs that Meereen isn’t going to throw the advancing army a welcome party. That mile marker we saw was one of more than one hundred disemboweled slave children who have been strung up and posed along the road to Meereen as a warning. History tells us that Daenerys doesn’t pay much attention to warnings—and her disinclination to accept the danger that her dragons pose is more evidence that she often lives in her own reality—so don’t be surprised if the body count continues to rise on this side of the narrow sea.

This season should only get better—thanks for letting me join the House of Atlantic to discuss it with you. What say we get together for an episode-watching potluck party or two? You really have to try Crow.