In a weird way, anticipating “Game of Thrones” is even better than watching “Game of Thrones.” Yes, it’s the best show on TV. But the kingdoms, the characters and the story lines are so endless and enticing that you can truly imagine every episode might just be the greatest episode, even if that only happens once or twice each year. The anticipation is over with Season 4 now underway, as we return to see more fallout from the Red Wedding, if Khaleesi will ever make a serious play for the Iron Throne and if King Joffrey can continue to be the most hated character on TV. The season premiere isn’t an instant classic, as it’s more concerned with reacquainting us what’s happening, introducing us to a new character and reminding us how generally miserable everyone is.
[A brief note before this not-so-brief recap. This will (mostly) be a true recap, taking you through the events of the episode and trying to make sense of what happened. For a complementary and more analytical take, my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg will also be reviewing each episode at her Post blog, Act Four. She’s also a book reader, and can give insight on that front. I’ve not read a page of “A Song of Ice and Fire” and have no plans to.
AS WE RETURN TO WESTEROS, we are greeted by the realm’s most powerful man, Tywin Lannister. He’s overseeing a bit of blacksmithing somewhere in the bowels of King’s Landing. Tywin has come into possession of a choice souvenir from the Red Wedding — Robb Stark’s enormous sword made of now-rare Valyrian steel. That giant sword is, of course, no use to the former King in the North; he, his mother, Catelyn, his wife, Talisa and scores of Stark bannermen were slaughtered as part of a plot carried out by Walder Frey and Roose Bolton, with tactical assistance offered by the Lannisters. [UPDATE: That was apparently Ned Stark's sword; thanks to those who helpfully and politely informed me of this.]
The sword was big enough to be melted down and turned into two swords. Tywin gives one of them to his son, Jaime, who is readjusting to life in King’s Landing while getting used to life without a right hand. Jaime is thankful for the gift, but that Valyrian steel ain’t light; he has trouble lifting it with his still-in-training left arm. Tywin wants to send Jaime back to the seat of the Lannisters, Casterly Rock. (Is there anything on TV better than Tywin Lannister saying the words “Casterly Rock”?) Tywin tells Jaime he’s no longer fit to serve in the King’s Guard and that he’s no longer needed since the war is over and the king is safe. “The king is never safe,” Jaime replies. “How many people in this city alone would love to see his head on a plate?” Jaime continues to push back at his father’s recommendation that he leave King’s Landing; he says it’s because he doesn’t want to break his vow to the King’s Guard, but we all know it’s because he doesn’t want to be away from his lover and his sister. Who are, of course, the same person.
The other Lannister sibling, Tyrion, is hanging out with Bronn and Podrick. A solid trio of dudes. They’re waiting to welcome a traveling party from Dorne, one of those places within the Seven Kingdoms that we often hear of, but don’t really know much about. In a helpful bit of explication, Tyrion says there’s bad blood between the Martells of Dorne and the Lannisters. This isn’t much of a surprise; I assume there’s bad blood between just about everyone and the Lannisters. As the Dornish contingent (coming to town for the big Joffrey/Margaery wedding) arrives, the greeter tells Tyrion that the prince can’t make it. He’s got the sniffles or something. So his brother, Prince Oberyn, will be attending instead. In fact, he’s already in King’s Landing. Upon hearing this news, Tyrion tells Bronn and Podrick that they’ve got to find this guy before he kills or severs somebody. He also notes of Oberyn that he’s “famous for f—— half of Westeros,” so it’s time to search some brothels. Sounds like this Oberyn fellow will fit right in on “Thrones.”
WE MEET OBERYN at a brothel, where he is, shall we say, closely inspecting the merchandise. But in a classy way, like a true connoisseur. His wife/partner/female companion is part of the selection process, so things are a little kinky. Once they find a girl who is to their liking — “not timid” — it looks like that’s that and it’s time for a good old-fashioned menage a trois, Dornish style. But not so fast. After the unselected girls file out of the room, Oberyn tells the male brothel worker to stick around. Then he tells him to take his clothes off. This catches the worker a bit off guard, but he eventually agrees to take part in the debauchery.
But before the orgy can begin, something catches Oberyn’s ear. He hears a song. That song. “The Rains of Castamere.” It is the Lannisters’ signature song. That song is to the Lannisters what “Born to Run” is to people from New Jersey. The last time we heard this song, it signaled the murderous events about to transpire at the Red Wedding. This time it’s just a couple of lower Lannisters singing it with some ladies on their laps. They mouth off at Oberyn, which seems like a bad idea. “You know why all the world hates a Lannister?” he asks them. “They think they’re gold and lions and gold lions make you better than everyone. May I tell you a secret? You’re not a golden lion.” And soon enough someone has been stabbed in the wrist, which is when Tyrion walks in. Well, at least Oberyn hadn’t killed anyone yet.
Tyrion and Oberyn make a bit of small talk that leads to some backstory. The last time Oberyn was in King’s Landing was for the wedding of his sister Elia Martell and “the last dragon,” Rhaegar Targaryen. Then it went something like this: Elia loved him, bore his children and loved those children. But then Rhaegar left her for another woman (Ned Stark’s sister, whom he kidnapped, right?), which started a war (Robert’s Rebellion), which finally ended when Tywin married Cersei to Robert Baratheon, joining those two families and creating an unbeatable army. Those children of Elia’s were butchered. Then there’s the matter of Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, the primary Lannister henchman, who is rumored to have raped and disemboweled Elia, an order that had to originate with Tywin. “Tell your father I’m here,” Oberyn says. “Tell him the Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts.” Foreboding. (If Oberyn’s story didn’t make sense, don’t worry about it. It is absolutely possible to enjoy “GoT” using the Hank Stuever “less-is-more approach” doctrine. That’s part of what makes the show so great. It’s hard enough to keep track of everything happening, let alone the complicated history of the Seven Kingdoms off screen.)
SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY we see Daenarys Targaryen a.k.a. Khaleesi a.k.a. Mother of Dragons a.k.a. when are you finally going to make it to King’s Landing this journey is taking forever, let’s speed things up. She’s chilling, petting one of her dragons as the other two fly around and spar with each other. One of the dragons snaps at Khaleesi; there’s a lot of roaring. Those dragons grow up quickly. Always Concerned Looking Ser Jorah Mormont looks on, concerned. As he does. “They are dragons, Khaleesi. They can never be tamed, not even by their mother,” he advises. As a wise man once said, “A dragon needs room to run, run, run, run.”
Khaleesi heads back to her castrated army, the Unsullied, and asks for Daario Naharis, that suave warrior who recently became part of her wandering crew. He’s not castrated, and that is directly related to why he’s following Khaleesi around. Apparently Daario and Grey Worm, the leader of the Unsullied, are off gambling. Nice. Maybe a little hold ‘em? Or a fantasy Unsullied warriors draft? Nope. Just having some sort of staring contest while holding their swords. (No double entendre, I promise.) And wait a second, since when did Daario Naharis go from looking like the blonde dude from “TMZ” to one of the dudes from the National?
Back to King’s Landing: It’s time to visit with Sansa, who looks miserable, as always. I suppose it’s understandable: Her father was executed; her home was sacked and burned to the ground; she was forced to marry the most rotten weasel in the Seven Kingdoms, who then ditched her for another woman so she couldn’t even get to be queen; her brother and mother were just murdered; she assumes the rest of her siblings are dead; she was forced to marry the imp of the family responsible for all of her hardships. Okay, Sansa. Your misery is earned. I wouldn’t want to eat the pigeon pie Shae is forcing on you, either. Her new hubby, Tyrion, ties to be reassuing, offering her some crucial essence of nightshade — the prescription kind, not that imitation over-the-counter stuff — to help her get some sleep. He speaks highly of her mother, sincerely, but in his own sarcastic way. “She wanted to have me executed, but I admired her,” he says. Sansa just walks away.
Shae is waiting for Tyrion back at his quarters, but Tyrion isn’t exactly thrilled to see her. She shouldn’t be there; their relationship needs to be kept secret. Things are intense, he says, before listing the ways in which things are intense. “My nephew — the king — wants to murder me. My wife hates me because my father murdered her family. Oberyn Martell wants to murder everyone whose last name is Lannister.” Shae’s response to this is to put Tyrion’s finger in her mouth. As he continues to refuse her advances, Shae snaps at him, accuses him of loving his child-bride, Sansa (Tyrion says he doesn’t), and also accuses him of trying to get Shae to leave King’s Landing. First and foremost, Tyrion needs her to lower her voice. Too late, some random maid has heard the commotion and sees Shae stomping out of Tyrion’s room.
Nearby, Jaime is being fit with his prosthetic right hand. It’s all very “Empire Strikes Back.” Cersei observes, with her own sort of prosthetic hand in a tow — a glass of wine. Jaime notes she drinks more than he remembers and it’s list time again, as Cersei reveals the reasons for her new hobby, in another nice and tidy way to get new viewers up to speed: Jaime’s fight with Ned Stark (way back in Season 1) that led to Jaime’s disappearance from the capital. King Robert’s death. Her only daughter being shipped off to Dorne. The siege of King’s Landing. Joffrey having to marry that conniving Margaery Tyrell. And Cersei being forced to marry Margaery’s brother, Loras. (Who would rather be with the boys, if you will.) Jaime tries to put the moves on his sister, but she responds in the same way that Tyrion just responded to Shae. “You left me alone,” she tells him, as if Jaime were just enjoying himself in his long journey back to King’s Landing. The lover’s/sibling quarrel is interrupted by that maid who overheard Shae arguing with Tyrion earlier, whom Cersei had apparently instructed to spy on Tyrion and report back with anything incriminating.
NEXT IT’S OFF TO THE NORTH. I always struggle with what’s happening in the North. Both in terms of comprehension and actually caring. Mance Rayder (played by the great Ciaran Hinds of “Rome”) was a great addition, but then he just sort of disappeared. Anyway, Ygritte and Tormund (whose name I definitely had to Google — “red-bearded wildling guy) and the wildlings are still planning to march on Castle Black. Tormund knows Ygritte didn’t shoot to kill Jon Snow and basically let him live. But before they can discuss this further, the Thenns come marching in. Who? No clue. Tormund is certainly not a fan. Probably because they are scary looking cannibals.
At Castle Black, Jon Snow is facing some sort of disciplinary council, led by his old nemesis Alliser Thorne. He’s accused of murdering his old Night’s Watch comrade Qhorin. Jon Snow did, in fact, kill Qhorin, but it was all part of his deep cover plan to infiltrate Mance Rayder’s army. After Jon Snow drops the term “free folk” (I don’t think he was referencing Devendra Banhart), he’s accused of talking like a wildling. “Yeah, I talk like a wildling!” Snow shouts back. “I ate with the wildlings. I climbed the wall with a wildlings. I lay with a wildling girl.” Okay, that last one just straight up bragging, Jon Snow. He’s sentenced to die but the old, blind, wise Aemon Targaryen has mercy on him, reasoning that if the Knight’s Watch “no sex” rule was enforced, the Wall would be protected by lots of headless bodies. Allowed to live, Jon Snow says that Mance Rayder is marching on the Wall, 100,000 strong, from the north while Tormund attacks from the south.
As the wedding of the century approaches — Joffrey and Margaery’s, of course — Margaery has to accessorize. Grandma Olenna is looking over necklace options with the bride-to-be, but none are up to Olenna’s standards. Margaery jokes that maybe Joffrey can pick one for her, and she’d “end up with a string of dead sparrowheads around my neck.” Solid B+ zinger; I’ll teach you how to work on your delivery and timing, but seriously, be careful what you say, even here in our secluded garden area, Olenna warns. Brienne approaches the pair and Olenna is all, “My word! Aren’t you just a marvel. Absolutely singular!” Brienne has come to talk to Margaery, explaining how it was weird smoke monster/ghost Stannis that killed her former husband, Renly. Brienne vows revenge.
Margaery’s charming husband-to-be is going over some wedding details and trading barbs with his not-so-beloved-uncle-but-really-father, Jaime. Joffrey brags about “breaking Stannis on the Blackwater” (which was, of course, a Tyrion production) and reminds Jaime of his absence during that battle. Joffrey is reading one of those history books that seem to be around everywhere and gets to a page about Jaime, but it’s not filled with a history of great deeds accomplished. Jaime says there’s still time; Joffrey says, for a 40-year-old knight with one hand? That’s no way to talk to your uncle/father, young man!
Back to wherever Khaleesi is: Daario wants to talk strategy. So Khaleesi sends her servant, Missandei, away. Daario’s strategy that he’s been working on is how to get back in Khaleesi’s good graces. He produces a handful of flowers, gives her a little advice — “You’ve got to know a land to rule it. If you want them to follow you, you have to become part of their world” — and Khaleesi smiles and seems smitten again. Let’s get a move on, you two.
Our favorite Season 3 couple, Jaime and Brienne, are conversing back in King’s Landing. She’s reminding him of his vow to keep the Stark kids safe. Reminding, nagging, something like that. He wonders if she’s secretly a Lannister, since she, like every other Lannister, has been making him miserable since he’s returned. “You’ve got the hair for it, but not the looks,” he tells her. Flirty. Sansa is in one of those tranquil garden areas and is apprehended by a random drunk dude. Well, not so random — he’s the one she saved from being forced to drink himself to death at Joffrey’s name day celebration a while back. His life’s a mess now, but hey, at least he’s still alive. He wants to thank her by giving her a necklace, the last thing of value he has. She accepts and seems legitimately touched, but this all seems somewhat fishy.
AND FINALLY, we get to the best current pairing in the Throneverse — Arya and the Hound. After escaping the Twins during the Red Wedding massacre, the Hound is off to the Vale, where he will sell Arya to her rich aunt. Arya is as feisty as ever, telling the Hound she wants her own horse — the Hound’s stench is unfavorable, apparently. Soon they come across a tavern. As they observe the tavern from afar, Arya recognizes someone and something. It’s
Pulliver Polliver, who captured her and took her to Harrenhal, and he’s got Needle, her old sword. Arya runs down to the tavern to confront him, so the Hound must follow. They walk in and it’s about what you’d expect from an establishment in this neck of the woods — dark, dank, a woman being assaulted.
Polliver recognizes the Hound and invites him to join his merry group. He makes a convincing pitch of raping and pillaging, all of which they are free to do since they wear the king’s colors. The Hound has a brief but forceful response — “F— THE KING!” This catches Polliver a bit off guard but he tries to remain cool. The Hound is hungry and demands chicken, but turns down the trade offer of Arya for a chicken. The inevitable battle commences, with the Hound inevitably killing lots of people. He finds himself in peril at one point, but Arya jumps into action. Once she gets a taste for blood, she really seems to like it. A lot. Reunited with Needle, she shoves it slowly and surely into Polliver’s throat, killing him. The pair leaves the tavern, the Hound eating the chicken he so desired and Arya on her brand new pony, a huge smile on her face, her blood lust temporarily sated. A perfect “Game of Thrones” ending — the most pure and just character, a young girl, a huge smile on her face after jamming a sword through someone’s throat. Valar Morghulis.