Our recap of HBO's fantasy hit returns!

By James Hibberd
April 07, 2014 at 01:57 AM EDT
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Recovered yet? Has your anxiety faded? Can you go to a wedding without checking the band for crossbows and nervously checking out the door? After last season’s Worst Reception Ever, King Joffrey and the Lannisters are confidently enjoying their post-slaughter honeymoon period ruling Westeros. The Stark rebellion is crushed and there are no more imminent-threat contenders to the Iron Throne.

And so we begin season 4 with “Two Swords.” It’s an episode that starts and finishes with scenes involving swords and in between there’s a bunch of characters who consider having sex, but don’t. It’s a hugely confident hour that effortlessly dives into nearly all the major storylines, an appealing mix of super-tight storytelling with a relaxed vibe — the actors are so comfortable in these roles, the dialog so conversational and sharp-witted, this hour just flies by.

The cold open this season is a Red Wedding victory lap by Lord Tywin, melting down Ned Stark’s priceless Valyrian greatsword Ice to the strains of “The Rains of Castamere.” In the show’s pilot we saw Ned use this sword to behead a deserter, then Joffrey’s executioner killed him with it, and now Ice is being forged into two swords to be given to Jaime Lannister and King Smirk-Face. Looking at the brooding tyrannical Tywin, it’s almost like he’s melting the blade himself with his searing gaze.

MapQuest updates: In the opening credits, we see the Dreadfort has been added (the keep of House Bolton where Theon is being held and tormented) and we’re introduced to the slave city of Meereen, with its giant pyramid (which is where Dany is headed in Essos).

King’s Landing: Jaime has shaved his prisoner beard. Tywin presents his son with one of the impressive new swords. This seems like a rather cruel gift for somebody who just lost their sword hand, like: Oh you just lost a leg? Here’s an awesome new pair of boots!

And naturally Tywin wants something in return — for Jaime to leave King’s Landing and take over the Lannister keep of Casterly Rock. We have never actually seen Casterly Rock on the show, but one imagines there are a lot of blonde people walking around with a certain degree of cool detachment, like Sweden. Jaime annoys his father by saying something the stern patriarch doesn’t hear very often, if ever:

NEXT: The Hot-Blood Prince

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

Jaime notes the last time his dad asked him to break an oath to a king it got him branded “kingslayer” and everybody teases him for it. So he rather not break his oath again, even if it’s with an honorable discharge. His father asks what he wants and Jaime makes a joke about wanting supper because replying “I want to stay here so I can screw my sister morning, noon and night” would not be a wise response.

Road: Tyrion, his sex savant squire Podrick, and sword/friend-for-hire Bronn have some fun banter while waiting for the prince of Dorne to show up.

“Wait-wait-wait!” you cry, unfolding a map of Westeros on your couch. “What and where is a Dorne?”

Dorne is the southern-most kingdom in the continent of Westeros, another land under the rule of King Joffrey, only we haven’t been there yet. It’s really hot there. Exports include wine, citrus fruit, and swingers.

So a Dorne rep disrespectfully informs Tyrion that Prince Doran, stricken with gout, did not come. This Dorne rep isn’t listed in the credits as “Smarmy Dornishman,” but he should be. He says the younger Prince Oberyn has come instead.

Brothel: In a terrific few scenes, we meet a fan favorite from the books: Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Nearly every Thrones character has a nickname and Oberyn has one of the coolest — The Red Viper. Think of him as the Sonny Corleone of the Martell family. He’s here with his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), who is a bastard (bastress?). The surname “Sand” is to Dorne what “Snow” (as in Jon Snow) is to the North.

So Oberyn and Ellaria check out the brothel lineup and both like what they see, the men and women alike. Ellaria dismisses the model-esque first girl as too timid, and the majority of male Thrones viewers disagree with her. When the brothel manager calls Ellaria a “lady,” she gets annoyed at the b.s. courtesy title. You will find this couple is very big on candor in a city where everybody else is very careful about what they say.

Oberyn overhears a soldier singing the Lannister anthem “The Rains of Castamere” to the hooker on his lap (this is a super dorky move, like serenading your date with “The Star-Spangled Banner”). Oberyn goes to confront him, doing a hand-on-candle-flame maneuver along the way that looks cooler than it should have. They have a confrontation and Oberyn quickly gets the upper hand, so to speak, then passionately makes out with Ellaria. They’re interrupted by Tyrion who pulls the prince aside.

Tyrion wants to know why Oberyn is in King’s Landing. What comes next is total exposition, but is pretty key, so I’ll recount it here with a tad more detail so it’s hopefully even more clear (skip down to Dany if you don’t care): Oberyn’s beloved sister Elia was the wife of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of Aerys “Mad King” Targaryen. Aerys is the most important character in the show that we never saw — the king overthrown by Tywin Lannister, Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, the one Jaime betrayed and killed. So Aerys’ son Rhaegar had two kids with Elia and when Tywin sacked the city, his huge evil knight Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegan brutally killed her and the children, presumably on Tywin’s orders. Oberyn is here for revenge against Tywin and is pretty fearless about letting people know it. Got it? “The Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts,” Oberyn says.

Near Meereen: Dany is having a relaxing moment at the dragon park, where she’s letting her trio of pets go off leash. The dragons are a lot bigger this season, and more independent too. She doesn’t have to feed them and hopefully doesn’t have to pick up dragon poop. She foolishly tries to touch Drogon while he’s feeding and he snaps back, shocking her. Since Dany’s pets are scary dragons, at least there’s no annoying men lingering around trying to hit on her while–

Oh hi, Ser Jorah…

“They’re dragons, they can never be tamed,” her adviser intones. Ser Jorah intones everything.

NEXT: Where are my Daarios?! 

Dany returns to her army and is annoyed two members of her entourage are missing — dashing sellsword leader Daario Naharis and neutered Unsullied leader Grey Worm. She’s irritated they’re making a queen wait. But while she’s been lounging in the dragon park, thousands of her troops have apparently been standing in full armor in formation in the sun so I’m kinda thinking she’s the jerk here.

Daario is— hey, Daario, have you had some work done? New haircut? Different coloring? Maybe an entirely new actor playing you? You know, it’s tough enough to remember who all these people are without the producers changing actors between seasons too, like, “Ha, try and figure out who this guy is now.” I suspect you’re not complaining since last season’s blonde, long-haired Daario was slammed as “Fabio” by readers. The new guy (played by Michiel Huisman) seems more masculine and charismatic. I’m also suspect with Jaime shaving this season, the show’s Beard Quota needed to be maintained.

Anyway, Daario and Grey Worm have been doing a contest of how long they can hold out a sword without dropping it. This should be a Survivor immunity challenge next season.

King’s Landing: Sad Sansa is sad. Sad even by Sansa standards, which are super high. She is not tempted by Pigeon Pie. She is not even tempted by Lemon Cakes. And she loves Lemon Cakes! Can you believe that even a tasty dessert can’t make her forgot her brother and mother were brutally murdered by her father-in-law? Tyrion feels frustrated. There’s nothing he can do to help her, his presence just makes things worse. Sansa says she lies awake all night thinking of The Red Wedding, and more than a few fans can relate. Has Tyrion tried giving her a brownie sundae? Because a brownie sundae should get Sansa to forget about her uncle Edmure, at least.

Later, Tyrion turns down Shae for sex, despite her finger-licking move. I suspect Prince Oberyn would appreciate Shae, they could flick candles and lick fingers all day. Tyrion is trying to distance himself from Shae, trying to emotionally disconnect, because he fears for her safety. So far we’ve seen Tyrion turn down whores at the brothel, turn down Shae, and won’t molest his “child bride” Sansa. It’s quite a celibate reversal for one of the most lusty characters on the show.

Meanwhile: Cersei and disgraced maester Qyburn present Jaime with a golden metal hand to “replace” his lost sword hand. It’s rather awesome appendage bling, but there’s something insulting about it, too. Cersei is trying to make her brother/lover appear whole again as she’s angered by the loss of his real hand and doesn’t want to accept how he’s changed. Once alone, she rebuffs his attempts at twincest, partly because Jaime was once her protection. After he was captured, she had to learn to survive on her own. Now Jaime’s back and appears less strong and capable in her eyes. Selfish Cersei just looks at him like — What do I you need you for now? “You took too long,” she explains.

NEXT: Enter the space jockeys

Near The Wall: Ygritte bitterly makes arrows, surely thinking of firing them into ex-bf Jon Snow. To recap: Ygritte and ginger-bearded Tormund Giantsbane and the rest of this advance party scaled The Wall last season and they plan to attack Castle Black from the south. The idea is to take control of the castle and open its gated tunnel through The Wall so Mance Rayder’s Wildling armies can invade the southern lands. They’ve been holding back waiting for Mance’s orders before they proceed.

Now even if you’ve watched Game of Thrones from the beginning, and seen all the surprising twists and turns, I bet you weren’t expecting the Engineers from Prometheus to show up. The tall pale bald muscular crew that comes into their camp are a Wildling tribe called the Thenns, and they’re here to help with the Castle Black attack. Their leader is Styr, who chats with Tormund and Ygritte. Styr keeps obsessively making comments about how much people weigh, like a personal trainer at your gym trying to get you to buy more sessions. Then we get the reveal: The Thenns want well-fed opponents because they’re cannibals. It’s actually sort of surprising that it’s season 4 and we don’t already have cannibals on this show.

Castle Black: Jon Snow reacts, a little, to the Red Wedding news. He says he was always totally jealous of Robb, but it’s not like he wanted him to get murdered at a wedding or anything like that. Samwell Tarly can relate, having been jealous of Jon. Given the previous scene, we can’t help but wonder how Styr will react to seeing Samwell.

Jon has to account for his actions last season to Night’s Watch command. Among his judges are two characters we haven’t seen in awhile: There’s the weaselly Janos Slynt (the former King’s Landing commander of the City Watch who Tyrion demoted for his role in Ned Stark’s execution in season 2) and Ser Alliser Thorne (the master-at-arms of Castle Black who mockingly dubbed Jon “Lord Snow”).

They want to hang Jon for having cave-jacuzzi-sex and killing the Halfhand last season, while Jon is warning that they’re facing a massive invasion. You want him to paraphrase that great speech by Ripley in Aliens: “If just one of those Wildlings gets that gate open, then all this, all this bulls–t that you think is so important, then you can just kiss all that goodbye!” But that would involve Jon Snow getting really passionate about something.

King’s Landing: Joffrey is trying on outfits for upcoming wedding while Jaime goes over his protection plan. The king rejects the idea anybody in the city would try to harm him — “They know I saved the city, I won the war.” I wonder if Joffrey actually believes this. Joffrey then peruses The White Book, which is like the Kingsguard Wikipedia. He notes Jaime only has one paragraph and now he only has one hand.

Seriously, everybody is giving Jaime grief about his hand, like he chopped it off himself just to annoy them. “How can you protect me with that?” Joffrey sneers. Jaime looks at his secret son and demonstrates a lot of restraint, noting there’s still time for accomplishments. Joffrey is exactly the reason you don’t have sex with your sister. One of the reasons, anyway.

NEXT: A game of chicken

Later, Brienne tries to get Jaime to keep his pledge to rescue Catelyn’s daughters. He points out this is a tad difficult to do since Arya is presumably dead and Sansa is now married to his brother.  Still, the fact he’s even speaking to Brienne shows his inner changes, which Tywin and Cersei do not see since because they’re so distracted by his stump. The old Jaime would have ditched Brienne the moment he returned to King’s Landing, and maybe even had her killed. Speaking of Sansa, Ser Dontos — the former knight she rescued from Joffrey’s wrath in season 2 — gives her a family heirloom necklace as a gift.

Near Meereen: Daario flirts with Dany. He gives her local flowers under the guise of teaching her about the local culture. It’s a clever exchange. “If you want them to follow you, you have to become a part of their world,” he advises. I disagree with Daario here. I’m pretty sure having a massive army and three dragons is enough to get people to follow Dany; nobody is going to quiz the Khaleesi on botany.

Dany is called to the front of the march to see a crucified slave girl. The slave masters of Meereen — the next city she plans to conquer — have posted this girl as a f-you warning to Dany due to her slave-freeing policy and emancipation proclamations. In fact, there’s a crucified slave every mile for 163 miles to the city — which is truly horrific, yet also should make it super easy to find the place. Dany doesn’t want the slaves taken down until she sees each one. “I will see each and every one of their faces,” she says, firing up her rage. These Meereen masters do realize she has dragons, right?

Riverlands: Arya and The Hound road trip adventure time! This sequence is my favorite of the premiere, and I suspect it will be yours too. It’s not just that fan-fav Arya gets to cross a name off her list. The dialogue is cracking (“Little lady wants a pony” … “‘course you named your sword”) and the sequence is suspenseful. Plus, it shows more personality from The Hound than we’ve ever previously seen.

The Hound has decided to take Arya to her crazy Aunt Lysa in the Vale of Arryn (the place with the sky cells where Tyrion was captured in season one). They better hurry since Arya is running out of family members. They find a tavern where several of The Mountain’s men are harassing the barkeep and his daughter (if you own a tavern in Westeros, just lock up your daughters in the cellar). One of the men is Polliver, who in season 2, when Arya and her companions were captured on the way to Castle Black, we saw torture and kill a bunch of people in the prison camp. He’s also on Arya’s death-wish list and stole her sword Needle (and still carries it, which is weird — it’s a kid-sized sword).

They enter the tavern and get a table. Polliver recognizes The Hound and he starts bragging about his torture tour of Westeros now that Joffrey has won. The world is his rape oyster, etc.

The Hound pushes Polliver’s buttons. He wants the chicken Polliver and his men have stolen from the tavern owner and at some point decides that he’s going to kill them all. He just wants Polliver to make the first move. “You’re a talker,” he says, taking Polliver’s drink. “Listening to talkers makes me thirsty.”

FINALLY: Arya victorious; handy links…

The fight starts. Arya cowers. There’s lots of clanging as The Hound fights Polliver and his men. And notice the show’s soundtrack is silent. It’s only when Arya makes her move that the music kicks in. She gets her sword back. Once Polliver is defenseless, she repeats what Polliver told her injured friend right before he killed him in season 2. She drives her sword into him. A name crossed off!

Arya and The Hound ride on. She looks downright happy, for once, and there’s something dispiriting about that. She won, yeah, but lost something too. Bonus: She got a horse.

And that’s it for the premiere. Nope, no Bran, or Theon, or Stannis. They’re all in next week’s second episode, which is definitely a must-see. Yes, I’m aware there were two Alien-universe references in the recap. I’m not sure why, either, it just happened.

A word about spoilers: It would be nice of you not to post book spoilers on our comment boards, but we’re not policing them either. So read at your own risk. More than ever, this is a season where you should try to watch Thrones the night it airs. The shocks can come at any time, not just at the end of the season.

More on Arya: Check out our exclusive interview with Maisie Williams and showrunner David Benioff about Arya’s dark turn in the premiere episode, plus showrunner Dan Weiss talks about that sword-melting opening scene.

Keep up with Game of Thrones news: Sign up for EW’s new Thrones email newsletter.

Some additional reading! The best of our pre-premiere coverage. If you only read four more Game of Thrones stories tonight, it should be these four:

‘Game of Thrones’ handy snarky season 4 map explains where everybody is

‘Game of Thrones’: This showrunners Q&A will get you really excited for season 4

‘Game of Thrones’: Jack Gleeson reveals the meanest thing he’s ever done

‘Game of Thrones’: How Pedro Pascal landed season 4’s coolest, sexiest new role

Follow James on Twitter: Follow @james_hibberd

Until next week, farewell …

Episode Recaps

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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  • 04/17/11-05/19/19
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