Richie Feathers, Arts Editor
Last Sunday, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” premiered its fourth season to 8.2 million viewers–a network high since 2007’s finale of “The Sopranos.” As good an indication as any, these ratings–as well as the simultaneous crash of the website, HBO Go, from such high demand–showcase the ever-growing level of interest and attention that the show has drawn since the very beginning. Amid its monarchal politics, fantastical elements and epic set pieces, what has always made “Game of Thrones” such a rewarding television show is its massive spectrum of deeply felt and fully realized characters. Sporting an astounding 29 series regulars, the show, based on the richly-intricate novels by George R. R. Martin, truly offers somebody for everyone to root for. Despite the daunting task of reintroducing so many characters, the opening episode managed to spend time with many favorites. [Spoilers Ahead]
Tywin Lannister began season four by melting down Ned Stark’s longsword to make two smaller swords–one for the recently returned, maimed Jaime and the other as a wedding gift for King Joffrey–as a final blow to the Stark family after last year’s infamous Red Wedding. This introduction seems an appropriate place to start a season that members of the cast simply and unanimously say is “dark.” Although viewers may wonder how show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss could possibly go any darker than killing off three beloved characters in a matter of minutes, with so many familiar faces still left in play, the stakes keep growing as deep wounds continue to fester and the game’s eventual victor is far from being revealed.
This is made even more apparent with the introduction of a new key player, Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Oberyn is a prince of Dorne, the southernmost realm in Westeros, with a deep hunger for vengeance. His interactions with show favorite Tyrion Lannister–as well as those in a brothel, his chosen first stop in King’s Landing–illustrate a dangerous and unpredictable addition to the game.
Tyrion spent the episode trying to comfort Sansa Stark–who also gains a new ally–after her family’s murder at his family’s bidding, as well as trying to comfort his secret lover, Shae, as she grows restless playing an unrewarding role. In addition, Tyrion’s siblings share screen time together as Cersei tells Jaime that the game–as well as their relationship–has changed since he’s been held hostage.
Also in King’s Landing, acting vet Diana Rigg’s always-entertaining Lady Olenna of Highgarden and granddaughter, queen-to-be Margaery Tyrell, discuss the upcoming wedding to Joffrey, another strategic arrangement that foreshadows future political ripples. And later, Brienne confides in Margaery about the true cause of Renly Baratheon’s death in the second season.
Up north, Jon Snow has recovered since his arrow wounds and faces the council of the Wall for breaking his oath as a brother of the Night’s Watch. Despite his promise to Qhorin Halfhand and the useful information he’s learned while living among the wildlings, Jon’s death is nearly sealed before Maester Aemon speaks up against it. But his troubles are far from over as an angry and heartbroken Ygritte waits with Tormund Giantsbane for the arrival of the Thenns, another terrifying tribe from beyond the Wall, and a sign from Mance Rayder to attack.
Across the sea, Daenaerys Targaryen continues to lead her army and freed people through Valyria to conquer Meereen. The famed dragons that will help her reclaim her rightful place upon the Iron Throne are growing bigger and stronger, but are also becoming harder to control. Add that to the gruesome welcome to her destination and it’s clear that Dany will also have a lot to face in season four.
Instead of giving updates on Bran and his small troupe north of the Wall or Theon’s state while in captivity of Ramsay Bolton, the episode ended with an extended look at Arya and The Hound as they make their way to the Vale to ransom the young princess to her aunt. Further proving that these two would make the best road trip duo, watching Arya’s evolution continue to unfurl from an ambitious scamp to a vengeful outlaw is both rewarding and worrisome.
As a climax to what was a satisfying opener, the Hound’s skilled fighting and Arya’s triumphant defeat of an old enemy showcase the dual nature of “Game of Thrones”: it can balance thrilling action with emotional heft, proving it’s a one-of-a-kind hit. And with season four (of a planned seven), viewers can look forward to a continuation of this successful stride.