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★★★★½

As bleak as the world of Westeros seems, this episode DOES end with hope on the horizon. While Arya’s dark grimace as she rides her white horse is troubling (and she has become the poster child for PTSD), the Stark sword is reborn through her “Needle.” Currently, the scorecard favors the Lannisters. But mostly because of addition by subtraction. Ned, Catelyn and Robb—DEAD. Sansa is a Lannister. Theon, once loyal to Winterfell was instrumental in its demise and now has been disowned by his birth father due to his clipped manhood. Jon Snow is at the moment still a member of the Night’s Watch. So it is the puppies who must grow into their roles as the wolves of the house. Bran, now beyond The Wall, is absent from this week—as well as Rickon who is under Osha’s protection. Arya, with a big assist from The Hound, makes the most headway in her campaign to restore the Stark name.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two characters with the most transformative potential are young women. Daenerys Targaryen has a substantial army now. Between the Unsullied and the slaves of Yunkai, she’s got to have over 10,000 able-bodied soldiers by now. Plus, she has her triumvirate of protectors: Jorah Mormont, Ser Barristan Selmy and Daario Naharis. And let’s not forget the dragon triplets she birthed back in season one. How legitmate could her conquest of Westeros be? With the preoccupation of the White Walkers and the building resentment toward the reigning family, I’d say it’s absolutely legit. Everywhere she has gone, she has added to her following. She has recruited disciples not through intimidation, but adoration. And yet she is ruthless to those who wrong her. Sounds a lot like Arya Stark. Considering the accomplished swordsmen who have schooled her, Arya could have the skill and the spine to bring the new Warden of the North—Roose Bolton—to his knees.

If there’s one thing creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss have been deliberate in depicting it’s the overbearing nature of the patriarchy and its resulting misogyny in the Thrones universe. So who else could bring down the powers that be other than a defiant young woman? While the two swords of the title likely refer to those Tywin Lannister forged from Ned’s Stark mammoth blade—or the Stark swords, one destroyed and one reclaimed—or even the two swords GreyWorm and Daario Naharis gamble with, for me the two swords that clang the loudest are the twin female oppositions to Joffrey represented by Daenerys and Arya. Ironically, it is those without plalluses that carry the biggest sticks. In a show criticized for its excessive female nudity, one can be pleased to see the evolution of these feminist champions taking center stage in this premiere.

Clearly, you see where my allegiance lies. The Targaryen and Stark daughters are by far the characters I’m rooting for the hardest. But there’s an abundance of plot left to delve into. Like the mesmerizing intro sequence, I’ll be bouncing around the map to bring you up speed on the goings-on in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea.

King’s Landing

As already mentioned, Tywin Lannister sets the tone for the fourth season with a grand gesture worthy of him. He melts down Ned Stark’s legendary steel to craft two new Lannister swords (the only newly forged Valyrian steel swords in the land) and put a period on the War of Five Kings. It signals not only the downfall of House Stark but the supremacy of the Lannisters. The thrill of victory doesn’t last long though. Jamie, after receiving his new weapon, disappoints his father greatly by refusing the lordship of Casterly Rock.

Daddy doesn’t believe his eldest can retrain himself as a lefty swordsman, so he asks him to resign from the Kingsguard and rule over their homeland in his stead. Jamie refuses to break another vow—he’s already called the Kingslayer and the Man Without Honor for crying out loud—and has no interest in a wife or children. While Tywin is the hardest father to please in the land, I might have humored him if I were Jamie. His odds of dying in the line of duty are literally doubled, he has to serve the most insufferable nephew-son in the Seven Kingdoms AND he’d have an excuse to break it off with his sister-lover. However, as miserable an existence as it is, it’s the only one he knows.

Forever the family punching bag, Tyrion is dumped with the drudgery of greeting guests to Joffrey’s wedding along the Kingsroad. In particular, he awaits the Prince of Dorne, Doran Martell. Apparently, like half the families in Westeros, there’s beef between the Martells and the Lannisters. It turns out the prince isn’t coming. He has the sniffles or something. So the ruling house of Dorne sent their second son and renowned warrior Oberyn Martell in his stead. This makes Tyrion anxious because Oberyn a.k.a The Red Viper’s reputation as a hothead precedes him. Tyrion deduces he has probably hit the brothel already. He describes Oberyn as having “fucked half of Westeros” and has been traveling for weeks. He asks Bronn, “Where would you be?” Bronn retorts, “I’d probably go to sleep, but I’m getting old.”

After an entire offseason of hearing about Pedro Pascal’s new character, I was mighty eager to meet Mr. Martell. He didn’t disappoint. Thrones has a knack for big entrances, too. We find Tyrion was right on the money and The Viper is inspecting the women of Littlefinger’s establishment along with his “paramour” Ellaria Sand (evidently like “Snow” in the North, they name bastards after their land’s elements in the desert city of Sunspear). As soon as Ellaria finds an adventurous woman to makeout with, Oberyn overhears someone singing “The Rains of Castamere” in the room over. And suddenly Tyrion’s apprehension over Oberyn’s rage becomes realized. The Lannisters cousins don’t do much to smooth things over. They joke that the Dornish man needs no woman. His standards are so low a shaved goat and olive oil would suffice. Oberyn returns his jabs with one about how the Lannisters are not golden lions, but simply pink men too slow to the draw. A few tense seconds later, the Lannister reaches across his body and immediately has his wrist driven into the table by Oberyn’s knife. Blood spurting, he suggests to his cousin that he tend to his wound before it’s irreparable.

It’s at this moment that Tyrion walks in, too late for intervention. After his brutal atttack, Ellaria attacks his mouth and makes it quite uncomfortable for Tyrion to welcome him. The pair of second sons go for a walk, and initially bond over their status as family embarrassments, but when Oberyn brings up the last time he was in the capital, the mood changes. As far as exposition dumps go—and with the vast history of Westeros, they happen often on this show—it was fairly elegant. Oberyn’s younger sister Elia was the wife of Rhaegar Targaryen—older brother of Daenerys, and heir to the throne of their father, The Mad King. Rhaegar, however, had his eyes on Lyanna Stark. His “kidnapping” of Ned’s sister started the war that would lead to Robert Baratheon overtaking the throne. But what really gets Oberyn’s blood boiling is what the Lannisters did to his family. His niece and nephew were swaddled in Lannister colors and slaughtered, and The Mountain raped and sliced his sister in half. So, he is understandably pissed to be back in the company of the Lannisters.

Another spurned child of a prominent house, Sansa Stark, is rejecting food offered to her by Shae. Tyrion tries to console her (as Shae looks on jealously), but it’s hard for her to feel anything but contempt for her new husband. While he certainly does not represent Lannister interests, he wears the same colors as those who ordered her mother and brother to be slaughtered. Tears drip down as she describes the horrific treatment of their bodies by the Frey bannerman. Tyrion eulogizes Robb simply as a good man he didn’t know. Catelyn, he expresses admiration for, despite her wanting to have him executed. Even he recognizes her fierce defense of her children.

Back at his quarters, Shae is laying on his bed undressed. With all his stresses, he can’t bring himself to satisfy her sexually. Shae attributes his reluctance to a budding love for Sansa, though he vehemently denies it. She grills him about Varys appraoching her with a sack of diamonds requesting she leave for Essos, but he has no idea to what she’s referring. When Shae leaves in a huff, another handmaiden sees her. Later, that same handmaiden reports to Cersei, so next week might be a rough week for Tyrion.

Speaking of the incestuous queen regent, Cersei gifts Jamie a golden hand that Qyburn helped design with the goldsmiths. Jamie is ungrateful since it isn’t as practical as a hook nor does it help his sword fighting. Jamie tries to get a spark going between them—little sis hasn’t put out since he got back (I feel so filthy and despicable for writing that)! Cersei can’t just pretend like things are back to how they were. And I think her hesitation is valid. The feud with the Starks began because they were spotted doing the nasty and since he left the capital late in the first season, Cersei has been through a ton! She is betrothed to Ser Loras Tyrell now, she survived a (rather short) siege and her son is marrying her soon-to-be sister-in-law. Jamie wants to press reset, but there’s no going back. Cersei and Tyrion discussed solemnly last season about how their misery will only end once all their enemies are vanquished. While for now there’s no contest, their triumphs have only given rise to more enemies.  The relative peace they enjoyed before when their affair was fresh is truly a thing of the past. Cersei believes that Jamie took too long, and her feelings have went with the months that passed in his absence.

My favorite blunt old bat, Lady Olenna Tyrell, is unimpressed with the jewelry selection for her granddaughter. Margaery quips, “Perhaps I should let Joffrey choose—I’ll wear a chain of sparrow heads around my neck.” Her grandma cautions her from those sorts of comments, even in the safety of her company. Brienne of Tarth interrupts their chat and I love Lady Olenna’s astonishment. Her remark that she is “absolutely singular” is dead-on. Brienne walks off with Margaery to tell her what she saw when Renly was murdered. She swears by the Gods it was the shadow of Stannis Baratheon. As she thanks Brienne for her honesty we see a new, redonkulous statue commissioned by Joffrey—the boy king standing atop a vanquished wolf. He’s TOO much.

Then there is a beautiful transition from his statue to his statuesque pose as he is briefed about wedding security by Jamie. Joffrey mocks his uncle-father for having such a small excerpt in the Kingsguard Book of Brothers after Jamie disses his leadership, saying that Margaery is the beloved ruler and not him. Later, Jamie meets with Brienne where she implores him to get Sansa out of King’s Landing. If you forgot, he made an oath to Brienne that he would return both the Stark girls to their mother. He tries to claim his oath is null and void after Catelyn’s murder, but Brienne won’t let him get away that easily. She wants him to help her escape King’s Landing to where she’ll be safer.

As her ears are no doubt red from their whispers from above, Sansa gets some peace and quiet in the Godswood. She feels she is being followed and is startled when out of the brush appears Ser Dontos, the former knight turned fool that she had saved from Joffrey’s torment on his nameday. He gives her a necklace, the last remnants of his house. He hopes by her wearing it his name will have its last day in the sun. She promises to wear it with pride. She needed a pick-me-up, and Ser Dontos delivered.

Night’s Watch

I didn’t realize how much time we spent in the capital! Well there’s some action elsewhere, too. We quickly are assured that Jon Snow survived. He broods over Robb’s death in true brotherly fashion, lamenting over how he was better than him at everything. Samwell responds that he feels similarly about Jon, except that he is better at reading, to lighten the mood. Jon then meets with the Night’s Watch leadership including Janos Slynt, Maester Aemon and acting commander Allisar Thorne. Jon’s on trial for his actions while living among the Wildlings. I’m glad Maester Aemon said what I was thinking, he should not be punished for sleeping with Ygritte. You just KNOW that every other ranger has paid for sex during their Watch. Eventually he reveals Mance Rayder’s plan to attack Castle Black and Maester Aemon trusts him. When Thorne asks how he acquired the skill of knowing when someone is lying, without missing a beat he says he grew up in King’s Landing. *Rimshot*

Meereen

On the way to another slave city, Dany’s dragons (stunning visual effects in their aging process) fight over a goat corpse. Jorah warns that even their mother cannot tame them. Daario Naharis and Greyworm are gambling over who will ride by Dany’s side by seeing who can hold their sword up the longest.

I’ll use this time to comment on Daario Naharis’ recasting. Michael Huisman replaces Ed Skrein, and while I can already see more potential with Huisman’s ability to play charming suitor and strategic asset, I wish they had found someone who looked even a little like Skrein. While “pretty boy” isn’t a positive in Westeros, he had the air of a man who would lay his life down for Dany’s beauty. Huisman looks more calculated and scruffy. Like he would abandon Dany if she got slightly clingy. It’s nit-picky for sure. Because this premiere presents new and old arcs with grace. It just stuck out as the only moment where I was drawn out of the Thrones universe and into the world of storytelling. I suppose it can’t be helped. And like I said I’ll give Huisman the benefit of the doubt for a few episodes.

When Daario approaches her along the route, Dany definitely seems like she is keeping her guard up while definitely intrigued by this man. He holds out some flowers, but slyly explains he just wanted to school her on the flora of the land she is about to liberate. I like that after Khal Drogo, Dany isn’t eager to hitch herself to a man, but her curiosity makes her human and adds risk and emotion to her so-far rational annihilation of the slave cities.

Dany spots a mile marker of a dead slave girl pointing up the road. Disgusted, she asks Jorah how many more there are…163. They suggest sending some soldiers ahead to bury them, but she insists at looking each girl in the eye before they bury her. She also demands their collars be removed. I wonder what might corrupt her cause? The closer she gets to the throne, I imagine the temptation to be ruthless above compassionate will be strong.

The Riverlands

And of course we end with the best buddy comedy on HBO, Arya and the Hound. The tavern they approach is crawling with Lannisters, but they’re starving. Against The Hound’s better judgement, they stroll in. Arya instantly spots Polliver, the man who killed her friend and stole her sword Needle when she traveled with The Night’s Watch. Then Polliver captured her and imprisoned her at Harrenhal. After a beautifully directed suspense sequence (artfully executed in his first time directing by D.B Weiss), revenge is sweet when after growing impatient with Polliver’s incessant talking, The Hound incites a brawl. Among the shocking death blows are a sword to the groin and a knife turned against its owner and thrust repeatedly into his face. But the bone-chilling Needle poke to the throat of Polliver, courtesy of Arya, steals the show. Let’s not ignore her Karate-Kid homage as she sweeped the leg before making Polliver beg.

How cold-blooded was she reciting the conversation he had with her and her friend before she took his life away? Like I said, her PTSD is problematic, but if we can point to a reason why the Starks continue to diminish in numbers, it’s that they are TOO honorable and trusting. So I like Arya’s chances to shake shit up with her disregard for gore and penchant for vengeance.

Now before I ride off on my white horse with a menacing grin on my face, I want to make a BOLD PREDICTION. Next week’s episode will center around Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding. The episode is titled “The Lion and the Rose.” There has been rumblings that Joffrey has GOT TO GO for a while now. So, for the record, here’s my prediction. The Tyrells orchestrate it somehow that Joffrey drinks a poisoned cup of wine, AND they frame Tyrion. Why? Well, one, the previews for the new season show Tyrion in prison. Two, it’s believable, and both his sister and father would LOVE a reason to have him executed. Three, with Sansa married to Tyrion, they need him gone if they are to go through with the intended marriage of Loras and Sansa. What about Cersei, you ask? I think they try and kill her too and the attempt fails. I could be WAY off, but I think the chances that Joffrey survives these nuptials is slim. And with Shae already doomed, I think Tyrion has just the worst week. I love Tyrion. After Dany and Arya, I root for him the most to buck the system. But he’s also the perpetual punching bag.

What does everyone else think? What are you looking forward to in the new season? Will next week’s wedding end blissfully?

DISCLAIMER: I am not a reader of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Please, by the light of the Seven, DO NOT DARE speak of spoilers—meaning any plot point or character revelation that hasn’t happened in the TV show—or I will show no mercy. If you are not an avid watcher of the show, I will be operating under the knowledge that you HAVE seen seasons 1-3. So any questions about previous episodes is acceptable. We will only be discussing events as they have unfolded on the show. I am not in the business of comparing two distinct works of art. I’m only here to discuss the merits of the stories as they have been told in the television medium. I respect the books as their own entity, please respect the show as its own thing. Basically any mention of “the books” will not be tolerated. Thanks.

About The Author

Christopher Peck is a former Blast television editor

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