When we last left Westeros, it was with a heavy heart, was it not? Fresh off the horror of The Red Wedding, fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones were left with the sinking feeling that a tectonic shift was underway in the narrative landscape built and then often destroyed by author George R.R. Martin. Even those who had read Martin’s books, fully prepared for the events, were shaken by the imagery of watching several beloved characters die violently and unexpectedly.
In that moment, the battle for power in Westeros was changed in a manner so irreparable that no matter how much justice is delivered upon those who orchestrated the story’s bloodiest moments, it may never be enough. But that still won’t stop the show from trying. In season four, with this world-altering massacre behind it, Game of Thrones sets an accelerated course toward vicious revenge. If the events of season three took place to show us that no one is safe, season four has arrived just in time to hammer the sentiment home.
In this review of season four’s opening frames — the first three episodes, to be exact — it’s important for me to note that we’re not going to be talking too much about the details. That’s not fair to anyone, book reader or casual watcher alike. The purpose of providing an advanced review of a show like this isn’t to spoil the experience, but to give you a sense of what’s in store and where it fits with what has come before. Plus, there’s this creeping up my spine that has me convinced that all the secret handshakes and sworn oaths that lead one to the privilege of early looks at a show like this also come with some sort of literal interpretation of the poster tagline “All Men Must Die.” As Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) once advised his new friend Bronn, “if the day ever comes when you’re tempted to sell me out, remember this: whatever their price, I’ll beat it. I like living.”
The most important thing to note about the show’s forthcoming season is something we’ve already learned: that there are no rules left in Westeros. “Guest rights don’t mean shit anymore,” explains The Hound (Rory McCann) early on in the new season. He’s right, the rules we expect to be true in a fantasy world such as this — that of honor, justice and the notion that good guys will win in the end — don’t apply to the stories that come spewing from the mind of George R.R. Martin. The same is applied to the show itself, which now finds itself living in a less innocent, post-Red Wedding world. Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have lived with a very effective formula for the show’s first three seasons. The timeline has been predictable. The first eight episodes have plenty of intrigue, but they’re always building toward something big for episode nine. The final episode in each season is used to reset the pieces heading into the offseason. Or in the case of season two and Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) big “Dracarys” moment, it’s used to offer us one more cool moment before closing shop for the better part of a year.
Season four no longer lives in that formula.
As any reader of the books can tell you, things get out of hand following The Red Wedding. The earliest episodes of the new season reflect this perfectly with pace and atmospheric tension. Benioff and Weiss, who co-wrote and directed the opening episode “Two Swords” don’t hesitate to remind us of what horrors have come before. But they also don’t stand around and gawk over it. There is a great deal of forward momentum in season four right from the first few minutes. The momentum isn’t always created solely on the back of plot points, but on some very sharp writing (the dialogue is excellent, as ever) and a surprisingly steady-handed editing effort. In past seasons, the show has at times gotten itself into trouble in the early stages of seasons (two is a good example) by jumping around hard and fast in an attempt to get us caught up with the many sprawling storylines. In a dense world such as this, the inability for each storyline to take a breath can not only be constricting for character development, it’s confusing for viewers. The opening third of season four gives a greater deal of breathing room to each story and character. It doesn’t hurt that a few storylines were just buried.
This of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t new faces, the most impressive of which is Pedro Pascal as Prince Oberyn Martell. When we meet him, he’s come to King’s Landing to attend the wedding of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery (Natalie Dormer). He’s got all the flair and panache of a prince with plenty of danger in his eyes. Oberyn — described as someone who is known for sleeping with half of Westeros — is a character fans will undoubtedly enjoy. Because now that we’re running low on Starks, we are going to need a few new characters to like.
As season four gets up and takes off running, we are reminded why Game of Thrones is such an engaging hour of television every Sunday through April and May. Even its slowest moments are intriguing because its characters are boldly written and sharply tongued. Its action beats are intense and violent. Its sexuality is in no way subdued. And at its best, the show is completely unpredictable and meticulously detailed in its orchestration of pain and agony. So far as we can tell, season four stands to be its finest frame yet.
Our episode recaps will begin when Game of Thrones premieres on Sunday, April 6. For those who missed it, here is HBO’s 14-minute preview of the upcoming season: