The end of Game Of Thrones' third season offered the bloodiest dramatic high point of the series so far. The Red Wedding capped off the darkest year of the show, and effectively offed the family that in any other classical version of this fantasy arc, would end up victorious. (And that's essentially why George R.R. Martin got rid of them—to completely buck that trend.) So the big question at the outset of season four, which will depict roughly the other half of events from A Storm Of Swords, is what the Lannisters at King's Landing will do now that they've wiped out the last fully formed threat to their dynasty.
For Tywin, it's a bit of symbolic, gloating subsumption. Ned Stark's greatsword Ice was one of the coolest props used on the show—and as one final symbol that everything even somewhat closely related to the family Game Of Thrones taught viewers and readers to love can have no place in this world, the Lannister patriarch orders it melted down. It's re-forged into two separate swords, one of which Tywin gives to Jaime. Charles Dance's performance is delightfully villainous, as Tywin justifies splitting the steel into two swords by deeming Ice "absurdly large," a patronizing judgment on an aesthetic weapon choice by a stronger swordsman. The victors write history, and Tywin Lannister orchestrated the dismantling of nearly the entire Stark line. Melting down Ice is akin to Rome salting Carthage: now it can never come back to harm the family.
That scene goes a long way toward establishing just how unhappy all the top-level Lannisters are even when victory provides a brief respite from immediate danger. Jamie is back at King's Landing, though without his right hand, and heads straight into a disagreement with his father. Tywin wants him to return to Casterly Rock to rule in his stead; Jaime wants to go right back to serving in the Kingsguard. Tywin has always been the one ruling the family with an iron fist—yes, we'll get to the irony in a moment—adopting the unforgiving role not-so-reluctantly, and forcing all of his children to do whatever they must to retain power. But now that Jaime has lost his sword-wielding hand, and along with it most of his identity as a fighter, he just doesn't give a rat's ass what his father says. To add insult to injury, Jaime has to endure King Joffrey's chiding remarks, making for the strangest father/son argument I've ever seen on television.
As Jaime notices, Cersei has changed drastically in the time he's been gone. She's somehow even colder, even rejecting him, bitter that he left her alone to weather the family's hurdles at King's Landing. She's got plenty to lament, and the show has gone to great lengths not to forgive, but to explain her frigid and cutthroat demeanor, and it's only getting worse as she leans more heavily on wine consumption.
Tyrion though, has the worst of it, even as he manages to confront the threats in his life with witticisms. In his own words while not giving in to Shae's advances: his nephew (the king) wants to murder him; his wife hates him because his father had her family murdered; and now the visiting Oberyn Martell, younger brother of the Prince of Dorne, wants to kill anyone named Lannister as revenge for what happened to his sister when Robert's Rebellion reached King's Landing before the series began. On top of all that, Shae continues to be the most obnoxious character on the show, entirely oblivious to the dangers of revealing Tyrion cares for her—which, thanks to Shae's loud protestations, has now been overheard by one of Cersei's spies.
Of all the new characters, Oberyn presents the most interesting possibilities for shaking up the calm—especially given the way he deals with two Lannisters in the brothel. Pedro Pascal has the right kind of menacing tone in talking to Tyrion, a fellow second son, laying out exactly what the rumors are about what The Mountain did to his sister Elia and her children. And while he's the agent of yet another sexposition scene in the brothel, he tells the male "procurer" to stay as well, which ends up as a rather feeble attempt to inject the slightest bit of change into the heavily skewed sexual politics of the show.
Sansa, meanwhile, putters along in utter despair. She endures even more news of her family's demise, and seems to merely exist with no determination to keep on living. Her life has been nothing but pain since arriving at King's Landing, the symbol of the slow, tortured downward spiral of House Stark. But there's something going on with Ser Dontos, the former knight and court fool who gives Sansa a necklace. She was instrumental in saving his life at the hands of Joffrey's impulsive rage, and now perhaps the fool is set to repay the favor.
Across the narrow sea, the only problem for Daenerys Targaryen seems to be which one of her devoted followers loves her the most. Daario Naharis and Grey Worm compete in a misguided contest of strength and endurance to see who will ride at her side in front of the army, while Barristan Selmy and Jorah remain ever-faithful servants. Everyone loves Emilia Clarke, and the dragons constitute the best special effect Game Of Thrones has going for it, but Daenerys' plot has always felt the most "hurry up and wait" of any thread in Westeros. Her trials and tribulations take a long time to get to the compelling part, as with last season and the eventual turn to freeing slaves across the eastern continent.
These sections of the show always have a lot to prove in order to make up for the repetitive pattern of showing up somewhere new, appearing to be in danger, and then eluding that danger because she's the Mother Of Dragons or whatever. Sometimes the dragons get lost, sometimes there's another army in the east, but most of the time she's eventually going to steamroll all enemies because she's got the coolest creatures on the show. For all the rug-pull shock of what happens to the Starks, Martin—and by extension showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—hasn't ever done much to surprise during the slow rise of Daenerys Targaryen.
And in the first bit of distracting recasting since the pilot (The Mountain has now been played by three different actors, though Catelyn Stark and Daenerys were recast between pilot production and the series premiere), Michiel Huisman of Treme and Nashville replaced Ed Skrein as sellsword Daario Naharis. The only scene Huisman gets to differentiate himself is in giving Daenerys a few plants from the region, in an attempt to woo her by providing advice for how to win over the region's people. The show still hasn't portrayed the character anything like his appearance in the books (or so I've been told) but my complete disinterest in where that budding courtship is heading just shows how badly this plot line needs some real stakes. When the Mother of Dragons actually has a cause to face—like when she sees the mile marker on the way to Mareen made from a dead child slave and steels her glare—Clarke hits all the right angry notes and suddenly I care about Daenerys.
Up at the Wall, Jon Snow just can't get the senior members of the Night's Watch to understand what he had to do in order to go undercover as a Wildling. Aemon Targaryen is absolutely the only character with a wink of a sense of humor up in all that cold—waving away all Snow's transgressions in light of the information he can provide about Mance Rayder's impending attack on Castle Black. Kit Harrington's reaction to the news of Robb Stark's death could have been a sorrowful moment, but perhaps after Ned's death and all the things he's gone through to get back from the icy north puts things in perspective. He's mostly wistful now, and his scene with Sam picks at the hierarchy of abilities within the Brothers of the Night's Watch. Jon is destined for more responsibility, if only the limiting leaders and his insolent attitude wouldn't clash so often.
That bit of mythic importance gifted to swords pops up in one of the other little arcs as the season premiere jaunts around catching up with nearly everyone but Stannis and his lot. The Hound, still with Arya as his captive, now intends to take the youngest Stark girl to The Vale to ransom her to Catelyn's sister Lysa. The way these two play off each other has always been a grim delight to behold, as Arya tosses barbs and Clegane lets them bounce right off him. While traveling, they happen upon a band of men who fight with The Hound's brother Gregor, including the man who took Arya's sword Needle, one of her last connections to her life before everything went to hell.
This is the representative chaos that Martin is going for in this world, where evil men take advantage of a position of power in order to torture, rape, kill, and steal along the way back to King's Landing. How can people hope to survive in a world defined by this blatant disregard for basic decency? On the one hand there are people like Brienne, still insisting to Jaime that he must take responsibility for the Stark girls and uphold some kind of honor. Then there's Jaime, who within the benefits of his powerful living, rejects the duties his father forces in favor of what he wants. Then there's The Hound, who says "fuck the king" and basically everything else, all to get some chicken—which has the somewhat intended side effect of giving Arya the chance to reclaim her sword and enact her own blood-choking vengeance.
Even in the premieres and finales, which typically run longer than the average episode, Game Of Thrones feels both overwhelmingly expansive and stretched too thin in spots. Given the updated breakdown of characters by screentime, I find it hard to really care about characters far down the list, because the show has to spend so much time establishing characters that it occasionally doesn't get enough time to properly develop them into being an instrumental part of this world. But the visuals are still sumptuous, actors like Peter Dinklage and Dance are still putting such glorious spins on Martin's words, and like Jaime says to Joffrey, the war is never truly over. There's just the calm before the next battle, and everyone has to remain tense. The heat never turns off, it's just down to a simmer for now, until the next violent outburst breaks through.
• If it's not already obvious, I'm not an expert on the books from A Song Of Ice And Fire. I'm a big fan of the show and all of its sprawling locations, but I'm watching from the perspective of someone experiencing this fantasy world for the first time. I can't parse out all the differences in how a scene was filmed versus how it appeared in the book and from whose perspective. But hey—that's what the comments are there for, and I'm not scared of spoilers. Just be sure to clearly mark them so others who'd like to remain in the dark can stay that way.
MVP of the supporting players continues to be Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell. She does the most with the least amount of lines out of anyone in the cast. Her reaction to seeing Brienne is marvelous.
• The Wildlings are starting to regroup south of the Wall in preparation for the two-pronged attack. Ygritte and her band are joined by the Thenns, another Wildling tribe that has a penchant for cannibalism.
• The two places this episode didn't check in: Stannis, Melisandre, and everybody over in Dragonstone, and poor, now nameless slave Theon Greyjoy.
• One last thought on that screentime list: Ned Stark was in more of the first season than Catelyn was in a full three seasons. That's nuts.