“The Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts.” – Oberyn Martell
Less than a minute. That’s how long season four of Game of Thrones runs before we hear those haunting violin strings. The same violin strings that Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark and dozens of other Northerners heard before Walder Frey and Roose Bolton re-decorated The Twins with their blood. The violin strings that signal the beginning of “The Rains of Castamere,” Tywin Lannister’s fight song and the Game of Thrones saga’s answer to “The Imperial March.” It’s the unmistakable rhythm of the Lannisters ascendant and triumphant. And make no mistake, the beginning of season four sees Tywin and his Lannister brood at their most triumphant. As Tywin melts down Ned’s massive Valyrian blade into two smaller ones for House Lannister. And it’s hard to tell what’s colder: the icy glean in Tywin’s eyes, or the premiere’s sick-ass cold open.
*For the uninitiated: a cold open is when a show features a short opening scene prior to the credits at the beginning of the episode. It’s absolutely one of my favorite TV tropes and one of the sole reasons I’ve stuck through four disappointing seasons of The Walking Dead. If memory serves, this is Thrones’ first time trotting one out.
Good music has a way of not only crystalizing a moment, but also making you forget that there’s even a past or future beyond it. Tywin in this moment knows he is ultimately in control and cannot imagine a moment he will not be. The viewer does too because, god damn, that “Rains of Castamere” is so good. But remember: less than a minute. That’s the first time we hear the violins and there are still 59 minutes left in the episode, nine more episodes in the season, and God knows how many more seasons to go. If our time in Westeros has taught us nothing else it is that becoming a winner only means delaying the one day where you’ll inevitably lose. Decay is the norm. Forget “you win or you die.” Life in Westeros is, “you win and then you still die eventually because life is short, brutish, and terrifying.” Or as Charles Barkley is fond of saying: “Father time is undefeated.”
“Two Swords,” like all Game of Thrones episodes, is all over the place. There is simply too much plot and too many characters to service any kind of “what did we learn today?” moments. But if anything, the season four premiere seems to be setting the table for a downfall, or at least suggesting that decay is the word of the day. All the fireworks have already left their shells; it’s hard to get more explosive than the “Red Wedding” or score more decisive of a victory than the Lannisters have. This is the season where everything starts to whimper and crumble away. Some characters like poor Jaime Lannister are even literally crumbling away. He’s just, as his son/nephew so dickishly points out, “a 40-year-old knight with one hand.”
If that’s the case, fine. Game of Thrones accomplished the spectacular better than any show in the medium’s history because no other show has even attempted to go as big as the “Battle of Blackwater” or the “Red Wedding”. But it deserves an equal amount of credit for the small moments like Jaime waving a golden hand at a prostitute, or the Hound cheerfully nomming on some chicken after rage-killing everyone in sight. Hell, as long as we get those moments, while we wait for the winner to become just another loser it should be a fun ride. That’s not even to mention the inexhaustible supply of characters fired out of Mt. Badass. It’s like every season producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff by way of novelist George R.R. Martin take the general archetype of a Badass(TM) and add an element to the character into unprecedented levels of badassery. This year’s entry into the Game of Thrones Badass Hall of Fame is undoubtedly Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne. It’s like he was created in a laboratory that churns out people’s favorite characters from fantasy of sci-fi, but still feels wholly original. He’s Inigo Montoya, only if Inigo Montoya grabbed some dude’s crotch two minutes into his appearance of The Princess Bride.
Thematically, the introduction of Oberyn is a helpful reminder that the Lannisters have been pissing Westeros way far before the Red Wedding. Superficially, he’s awesome…just like, so awesome. So awesome in fact that his arrival sends an old Thrones favorite into an existential crisis. Tyrion’s diplomatic skills have got him very far, regardless of how little Bronn thinks of them. But there is no amount of diplomacy that can quell the lust for revenge in this world. In a post-Red Wedding world, revenge is always one violin pluck and some chain mail away. Tyrion is starting to lose control just at the moment he has the most to lose. Certainly Tyrion doesn’t romantically love his child bride* because unlike pretty much every one else in Westeros, he’s not a creep. But damn it all if he’s not going to take at least a little responsibility for her safety. Sadly there’s no longer a precedent for safety when the laws of hospitality were so recently rendered useless.
*”Child-bride” may be stretching it a bit with Sophie Turner, who will likely be 11 feet tall by the end of this season.
The Red Wedding fundamentally changed the landscape of King’s Landing and the world at large but it turns out that its most miraculous and unforeseen consequence was making Jon Snow interesting. Jon Snow has always been the closest to a stereotypical “hero” the show has. It’s a necessary role for the show but has at times made Kit Harrington just come across as an emo-haired, sad-faced Muppet. The death of his brother, however, catalyzes some real change for the Ned Stark’s bastard. It was one thing one his father died because to a certain sad extent in Westeros, that’s just what fathers do: die. But Robb, the brother who couldn’t wait to see him all in black was something else entirely. Robb was a peer and Robb was a better peer. Robb was better at war, better at girls, and just flat out prettier*. Still Robb couldn’t escape the brutality of this world and now Jon understands that.
*I’ll give the pointy end to all those who disagree.
Ygritte was so fond of saying Jon Snow knows nothing and while that may have been true, he’s slowly starting to pick some things up. He yet again “did the right thing” by opening up to the hostile council of the Night’s Watch about his time with the Wildlings but he “does the right thing” this time with a welcome air of hostility and the knowledge that he can say what he wants because The Night’s Watch is going to need able-bodied warriors like him when the “free folk” scale the walls and Mance Rayder lights the biggest fire the North has ever seen. Get it, Jon Snow. Ygritte would be proud…if she weren’t pretending not to be terrified of her new Thenn cannibal allies.
As Jon finally comes into his own, Daenerys continues on her path of liberation. Game of Thrones is at its best when meditation on the nature of power and no other character is a more fascinating exploration of power that Daenerys Targaryen. I know it’s cliche to even bring it up at this point but three seasons ago Khaleesi was just a teenager, sold into sexual slavery basically. Her transformation into a warrior queen is so interesting because there is still no “warrior” part of her.
She doesn’t wield power in a traditional sense, like The Hound’s muscular frame or Jaime Lannister’s skills. Sure, she has dragons but as Jorah points out in this episode: trying to control them is a fool’s errand. But the notion that she is smart enough, pure enough, motherly enough, whatever enough, to control those dragons has been enough to take control of an army that’s storming it’s way across Essos to free slaves and topple cities. She’s still the diminutive teenager but as her promise to view every one of the 163 crucified slaves as a personal penance reveals that’s she’s always been this strong of character. Khaleesi doesn’t need an Iron Throne to rule, she just needs her followers to believe what she says and paradoxically because they believe what she says, they’ll make it so through sheer, brute force and terrible anger. It’s the feedback loop of power.
Back in the Riverlands, Arya is becoming a little Khalessi whether she realizes the Mother of Dragons even exists or not. But while Daenerys has those increasingly unwieldily dragons and an army of believers to unleash her vengeance, Arya only has Needle. And what she does with Needle when she retrieves it and buries it into Polliver’s neck with a carefully planned soliloquy should be shocking in its brutality. This is a little girl for Gods’ sakes. Ned would not have wanted this and there is no reason we should either. But we do because while the rest of Westeros is willing to let time and decay crush an Empire and exact revenge, this world will sadly always be kind to those who find the sword a quicker agent of change…at least for a little while.
HERE’S OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED
- The cold open really was a treat. It would be even nicer if the show felt like it could experiment with flashback a little more. Would 30 seconds of seeing Ice initially forged hurt at all?
- Our two new location additions to the opening credits? The Dreadfort and Mereen. We haven’t seen either onscreen yet though.
- “How many Dornishmen does it take to fuck a goat?” I don’t know the answer to this joke but I would NOT tell it in front of Oberyn.
- “How they sewed his dire wolf’s head onto his body.” – kudos to Sophie Turner for delivering that line and not making it seem ridiculous.
- Half the Starks are dead but Jaime doesn’t get to fuck his sister anymore so…advantage Starks?
- “If we beheaded every ranger who lay with a girl, the wall would be manned by headless men.” Women: rendering the Nights Watch’s vows useless since 8,000 years prior to Aegon’s Landing.
- Oleanna Tyrell’s sincerely excited reaction at seeing Brienne was by far my favorite moment of the episode. The Queen of Thorns is basically the world’s first true feminist and her being unable to hide her glee at seeing a woman physically imposing enough to challenge the Kingslayer was unbelievably charming.
- I’m usually against any and all recasting on principle but Michael Huisman is a much more charismatic and interesting Daario Naharis than Ed Skrein was. Skrein purportedly left the role to join the Transporter movie franchise but I would not have been surprised to hear that the producers just flat out didn’t like his performance. He was the only true casting misstep yet in my estimation.
- “Fuck the King” – the only song on The Hound’s greatest hits collection.