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'Game of Thrones' upholds high standard in season four premiere

HBO

By Alec Stern, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 10, 2014

Spoiler Alert: this review contains major spoilers from every season of “Game of Thrones.”

“All men must die” … or so the saying goes.

Sunday night marked the return of one of television’s most powerful series. With its ruthless reputation and a fan base rabid enough to crash HBO Go, “Game of Thrones” is as formidable a presence as its characters. Despite an expansive cast and sprawling storylines, HBO’s signature drama series continued to showcase cohesive, strong storytelling. “Game of Thrones” is the rare series whose execution surpasses its enormous ambition, and in season four, the stakes are higher, the emotion is deeper and the looming notion that “all men must die” ensures continued excellence and intrigue from the most compelling series on television.

“Game of Thrones” has never been reluctant to put its characters in harm’s way, consistently delivering major deaths in every season — but the Red Wedding has boosted the series to an entirely new level. In the wake of season three’s penultimate bloodbath, there’s a heightened level of suspense throughout the season four premiere. Robb Stark’s vacancy doesn’t dictate a significant amount of the story, though his — and his mother’s — absence is a driving emotional presence.

In the season’s tone-setting opening moments, Tywin Lannister uses the Valyrian steel from Ned Stark’s sword to fashion two smaller blades. With three Starks dead, two missing and another married into the Lannister clan, the titular “Two Swords” served as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Lannister’s dominance over the Stark family.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys’ journey to the Iron Throne continues, as she leads her army on the 100-mile path towards Meereen. Daenerys is testing the limits of both her relationship with her dragons and her potentially romantic relationship with Daario (Michiel Huisman, “Nashville,” in the role previously occupied by Ed Skrein).

Already, it seems much of season four will hinge on transformations — adjusting to new surroundings, realities and restrictions. In King’s Landing, Jaime is forced to adapt to his disability while his siblings, Tyrion and Cersei, settle into equally unfortunate relationships. At Castle Black, Jon Snow must re-acclimate to life in the Night’s Watch after his adventure beyond the wall. And for both Arya and Sansa, their futures are as uncertain as ever, given much of their stories have been defined by the hopes of being reunited with their mother and Robb.

Despite similar themes and locations, the characters — and the actors who play them — are what continually revitalize “Game of Thrones.” The frequent devolution of momentum and power coupled with legitimate character development has propelled “Game of Thrones” into the most elite group of drama series. Showcased significantly in “Two Swords,” the series’ refusal to allow its characters to submit to stagnation has set up an exciting and substantial premise to build upon throughout season four.

Specifically, Arya’s arc from royal to riotous is on full display in “Two Swords” ’s final scene. As Arya becomes hardened by the many setbacks and tragedies she’s faced throughout the series, it’s beginning to feel more and more like she will become a major threat to the Lannisters’ supremacy. Presumed dead by many, Arya continues to travel with the Hound in “Two Swords,” finding any opportunity to avenge the many deaths she’s been witness to. When she sees Polliver, the man who killed her friend and stole her sword, the youngest Lady Stark proves her formidability once again. While the opening moments of the premiere may have been a decidedly strong victory for the Lannisters, the closing moments leave a different mark, once again prompting the audience to root for the Starks in the end.

Juggling countless characters and storylines — and adhering to George R.R. Martin’s intricately assembled source material — “Game of Thrones” is an elaborate balancing act. As such, “Two Swords” excluded a slew of secondary characters (including Theon Greyjoy and Stannis Baratheon), leaving the door open for more premiere-worthy material in future episodes. And with the introduction of an intriguing new character, Oberyn Martell, “Thrones” ’s upcoming nine episodes — like seasons past — will amount to a marathon of complexity, collusion, betrayal and, undoubtedly, murder.

At its best, “Game of Thrones” is a cerebral genre series, as talky and calculating as it is action-packed — and “Two Swords” is just that. Season four’s smart and eventful premiere is yet another solid hour in “Thrones” ’s near perfect catalog. Even more, the episode, like the series as a whole, is perfectly “HBO” — equal parts sexy, foul, fun and significant. As the story continues to build — and “Thrones” ’s upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing down — there’s an unshakable feeling that we’ve only grazed the surface of what this series is capable of.

After all … “all men must die.”