Caution: Spoilers ahead.
“As long as I'm better than everyone else, I suppose it doesn't matter."
The characters in the Game of Thrones universe live their lives based on fear, so in a sense, it’s fitting that the audience does as well: Fear that a favorite character will be killed; fear that something will prevent George R. R. Martin from finishing the books; fear that, for those who have only experienced the television version (this writer included), the events yet to unfold onscreen will be spoiled for them.
The season premiere of the show’s fourth season makes it clear that whatever our fears may be, the ones that our friends in Westeros will face over the next 10 weeks are far, far worse.
The episode begins with Ned Stark’s enormous sword, forged from Valyrian steel, being broken down, melted and made into two separate swords by Tywin Lannister, who is still serving as Hand to the King. It's not hard to sort out the symbolism here. For all the talk throughout the episode about how the war was over — thanks to Stannis Baratheon’s defeat at Blackwater and Robb Stark’s butchering at the Twins — it’s clear that the Seven Kingdoms are as divided as they’ve ever been.
That division spells trouble for everyone. Though the Lannisters appear strong and unchallenged with the Starks out of the picture and Jaime returned home only slightly worse for wear, the cracks are readily apparent. Between the hand missing from his right arm and the Hand of the King pressuring him to accept de facto exile as de facto Lord of Casterly Rock, Jaime finds himself in an unfamiliar position (though one with which Tyrion is altogether too well-acquainted): unwanted.
And if Jaime thought his nephew would be any more grateful for his return, he quickly discovered he was sorely mistaken. Joffrey spent his few minutes on screen this week mocking Jamie for being captured in battle and losing his hand. (It’s fun to remember that Jaime hasn’t seen Joffrey since Season 1, but if he believed that his "nephew’s" reign as king would have made him any less of a brat, coming home must certainly have been a rude awakening.)
Even Cersei, who has been desperate for Jaime return since his capture, seems to want nothing to do with him. “If not now, when? I’ve been back for weeks,” he pleads, but his words do absolutely nothing to shake Cersei’s resolve. “You took too long,” she says, and though it’s clear she’d like Jaime to believe that his inability to escape from Robb Stark has caused the change she keeps mentioning, it’s obvious that Jaime believes it has more to do with the visits she’s been receiving from her doctor. Sure, Tywin gave Jaime a lovely sword, but if we’ve learned anything about the Game of Thrones universe, it’s that it takes more than steel to wield power.
Things aren’t much better for Tyrion, who spends most of the episode running interference on newly arrived Dornish prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). If there’s one area that Tyrion excels in, it’s neutralizing would-be antagonists with his words, rather than his blade. That gift is lost on Oberyn, however, who has a hatred for the Lannisters that only Arya Stark seems capable of matching. Unlike Arya Stark, Oberyn has the means to seek immediate retribution, plunging a dagger deep into the wrist of an unnamed member of the Lannister clan at Littlefinger’s brothel. Seems rather unlikely that it’ll be the last squabble Oberyn gets in during his time at King’s Landing.
Of even greater concern for Tyrion, however, is the fate of Shae, as she continues in her role as most openly disdainful attendant of all time. After spending most of last season abiding Tyrion’s wishes that she keep her distance for fear that Joffrey or Cersei will use her to get to Tyrion, Shae has finally had enough. After watching Tyrion’s pitiable attempts to comfort Sansa — inconsolable since learning of her mother and brother’s deaths — Shae goes to the one place Tyrion has forbidden her to go: his bed. However persuasive, her attempts at seduction are no more heeded by Tyrion than Jaime's were by Cersei, and Shae leaves in a huff after flinging a few choice words in Tyrion’s direction. On her way out, she’s spotted by an attendant who then reports to Cersei that she had heard something “important,” which doesn’t at all bode well for Tyrion or Shae. Cersei might not be in the best of spirits right now, but it’s likely that only makes her more dangerous, not less.
In even more imminent peril are the few remaining members of the Stark clan. Jon Snow manages to avoid execution by being completely honest — a tactic that never served his father particularly well — but certain members of the Night’s Watch council still want his head for killing Halfhand and sleeping with Ygritte. More urgently, Mance Rayder’s roving bands are closing in on Castle Black, and if you thought the Wildlings we had already met were dangerous, Styr’s cannibalistic tribe gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “out for blood.” (It became rather obvious what the Thenns were carrying in those bags only moments after they showed up, but something about seeing a human arm on a spit never fails to be chilling).
Only Arya appeared to come out on top, but it's likely a pyrrhic victory. After leaving the atrocities at the Twins, she and the Hound happen upon a local tavern where a group of Lannister-employed soldiers are preparing to rape the daughter (or wife — it can sometimes be difficult to tell on this show) of the barkeeper. One of the men — who had stolen “Needle” from Arya back in Season 2, and killed her young friend — recognizes the Hound, and their initially cordial conversation takes a turn for the nasty, particularly after the doomed man mentions the Mountain. After a typically gory brawl, Arya herself finishes off the man who had struck up the conversation, sinisterly repeating the words he had once spoken to her back to him, then thrusting Needle into his throat. For other characters, this might qualify as a triumph, but it’s harrowing to watch a child kill so mercilessly. More than any of her kin, Arya is becoming someone who’s capable of surviving in Westeros — but at what cost?
This sort of ruthlessness has been typical for Daenerys Targaryen for quite some time now. She’s become a mother of dragons, acquired a vast army and conquered cities, and accomplished none of these things by being fearful. Her subordinates worship her (and occasionally vie for her affections, none more aggressively than Daario Naharis, who looks a little different than when we first met him). But because so much of Daenerys’ power is based on her children, she could face substantial problems if they continue to misbehave. She hasn’t looked as scared as she did when one of her dragons snapped at her since Season 1. Daenerys will likely need her dragons — and her troops — to keep in line more than ever as she marches on a city that offers crucified children as welcoming gifts.
By all accounts, the season-opener was setting the table for what promises to be a season filled with violence and intrigue. For now, the fear is only creeping in along the edges. Once it arrives in full, that’s when the real fun is likely to begin.
Now for the quick hail of arrows:
The most confusing thing from this episode (if you haven't kept up with casting news) is that Ed Skrein was replaced by Michiel Huisman as Daario Naharis. It's unclear whether he'll have better luck charming Daenerys than did his predecessor.
Jaime even tries turning to old traveling companion Brienen for kind words, but she seems far more concerned with getting him to uphold his end of the bargain that he made with the late Catelyn Stark. Even though Jaime jokes that she must be part of his family with talk like that, at least she doesn't appear to consider him entirely useless. Brienne may want to learn to choose her words more carefully around others, though, as Margaery reminds her while the pair discuss poor, dead Renly.
It's hard to know exactly what to make of Oberyn's companion, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma of Rome fame), but it's clear she calls at least a few of the shots — though even she isn't able to fully control Oberyn's Lannister-induced rage.
- No Lord Varys, Littlefinger, Bran, Hodor or Stannis in the opener, but the next episode is likely to fix that right up.