Warning: This article contains spoilers. Duh.
To the unsettling tune of Lannister song The Rains of Castamere, Games of Thrones season four, episode one, hits the ground running. Our first glimpse is of Ned Stark’s prized possession, his sword of Valyrian steel, as it is melted down at the hands of Tywin Lannister.
Tywin is creating two new swords from the old steel and, when he lays a wolf pelt across the newly-forged blades, the audience is given a heavy-handed reminder that the Lannisters have conquered the Starks. For now.
This is only the beginning of a distinct shift in power on the show, with things noticeably less hopeful for certain parties than they once were. While the premiere contains far less overt violence and scheming than audiences are accustomed to, one gets the sense there is deep trouble brewing. Uneasiness permeates even the lightest of moments.
Our first exchange of dialogue comes from Tywin and his son, Jaime Lannister. Tywin presents Jaime with the new sword, but urges him to return to Casterly Rock to rule, rather than continue to fight one-handed in the King’s Guard. A determined Jaime refuses, offering to return the sword to his father. Tywin waves him away.
“A one-handed man with no family needs all the help he can get,” he reasons, thereby disowning the son he once worshipped.
Across town, Tyrion Lannister intercepts new arrival Prince Oberyn of Dorne, known to fans of the book as the Red Viper. He’s in town for Joffrey’s wedding in place of his brother, Doran. Oberyn comes as package deal with his beguiling and conniving lover, Ellaria Sand, and a sharpened dagger, which he uses with aplomb.
It soon becomes clear the Prince isn’t in town for the free drinks; his sister, Elia, was brutally murdered at the hands of Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on the orders of Tywin Lannister.
“The Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts,” he cautions Tyrion.
Sansa Stark is, understandably, not eating much and Tyrion, as her committed husband, attempts to intervene. His kind words do nothing to soften the blow of her family’s death, and Sansa barely tries to hide her disdain for him.
Also not a fan of Tyrion is his mistress, Shae. She’s sick of waiting for his attention and, frustratingly, her angry remarks to him are overheard by Cersei Lannister’s handmaiden. We smell trouble.
Joffrey’s still a jerk, Brienne is still very tall and honourable and Queen-to-be Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother, Olenna, are still the sole sources of hope and humour
In the same vein as most of the women on the show, Cersei Lannister is also miserable, despite the return of Jaime. It seems her brother is not as attractive with a steel hand and she shows him no sympathy after he reveals their father has disowned him.
“You took too long,” she says coldly.
Somewhere in Essos
Daenerys Targaryen, meanwhile, may control an army of Unsullied, the leader of the second sons (Daario Naharis) and a mass of slaves, but is clearly struggling with her beloved dragons. Episode one finds her atop a cliff, watching her noticeably larger babies display their newfound strength with the slightest whiff of fear.
She knows no fear, however, when doggedly shrugging off the advances of Daario Naharis, who many may realise looks slightly different to last season. It’s a new actor – Michiel Huisman. Rumours are that the old choice got a better offer … the next Transporter movie.
The Wall and beyond
Over at the Wildling camp, we meet an ominous new presence in the form of creepy cannibal Styr, leader of the Thenn wildling tribe. His bald-headed, dead-eyed men appear at Ygritte’s camp with a sack of humans to roast. Winter-hardened Ygritte does us proud, however, and doesn’t bat an eyelid, proving to be the perfect antidote to Styr’s spine-chilling nonchalance.
At the Wall, Jon Snow has started radiating a cool confidence that can only come from facing death several times and bedding a ferocious Wildling girl. The latter he readily admits to the men of the Night’s Watch, who hold back from beheading him for betrayal thanks to the useful information he carries – Wildlings are coming to Castle Black from both sides and they must prepare accordingly.
In a nutshell…
Joffrey’s still a jerk, Brienne is still very tall and honourable and Queen-to-be Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother, Olenna, are still the sole sources of hope and humour in all of the noticeably bleaker Seven Kingdoms.
It’s all great scene-setting and tension-building but we soon catch ourselves feeling a little, well, bloodthirsty.
Thankfully, the dream team appear – the bantering, delightfully mismatched Arya Stark and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane. Young Arya is now understandably desensitised to violence and cunning as a fox, while the hulking Sandor can use the C-word with flourish like no other. Together, they make one bada** pairing.
As if reading our minds, they deliver the bloody goods we crave, entering a tavern filled with heartless Lannister men. Arya recognises one of them to be Polliver, the man who stole her sword ‘Needle’ and murdered her young friend.
As The Hound systematically destroys every occupant in the joint, Arya holds her own. When she is finally reunited with her precious sword, twisting it deep into the throat of her enemy without batting an eyelid, it’s clear there’s a new force to be reckoned with and she won’t be taking any prisoners.
It’s a solid, humble start for a show that captivates millions weekly. Luxuriate in this somewhat gentle awakening because we have a feeling it won’t last long.
Ah, Westeros. It’s good to be back.