"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."
So stated Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) during "Two Swords," Sunday night's season four premiere of HBO's medieval melodrama -- and mega-hit -- "Game of Thrones," providing accurate exposition to describe the kingdom's current state of complicated affairs. After a year away from the constant trickery, sorcery, backstabbing, and front-stabbing, it would be easy to get lost during the immediate plunge back into the most ruthless world in television, cheat sheets or marathon catch-up sessions notwithstanding. Some may still be mourning the lives lost in season three's penultimate episode, remorsefully remembered as the Red Wedding, while others were likely eager for more bloodshed, possibly going into withdrawals in the downtime between seasons (there is, after all, a lot of death in "Game of Thrones"). While "Two Swords" offered a little for both parties, it favored laying foundation for future surprises over delivering prompt shocks to its hungry audience.
Familiar faces earn more prominence -- or perhaps I just missed Bronn more than most -- while other faces changed entirely (producers recast the role of Daario Naharris, though he still lacks blue hair), yet the one constant was most welcome: Tyrion, made his way into many of the early scenes in "Two Swords," placing the show's best actor front and center to lead in the new season. While it began with a pre-credits casting of a new, lighter blade for the one-handed Jamie Lannister, the premiere quickly moved to Tyrion and Bronn waiting to greet a new character, a character so threatening his presence wasn't even required for tension to immediately set in. The quick introduction of another character into an already crowded universe at first felt slightly superfluous. Do we need another stimulant for chaos? Certainly there are enough hotheads around to stir up trouble.
Well, no, actually. Much of the Stark house is now dead, and what's left is scattered around in the dark, the few family members still remaining not knowing where their family is or if they're still alive. Jon is still recovering from his arrow wounds and trying to remain in good standing with the Night Watch, a crucial priority considering he's providing advice on how to survive the upcoming assault from the Wildlings (Jon's arrow-shooting ex-girlfriend included, though their parting as it happened still rings false to me). Bran was one of a few characters not to appear in the episode (I still don't care if Theon Greyjoy lives or dies, but some closure would be nice after all the pain he suffered throughout season three). Arya is still forming an unlikely bond with a man she considered killing with a large stone not that long ago. And poor Sansa is apparently still afflicted with bad karma for finding Joffrey appealing even for a moment way back in season one. She's moping around, not eating, ignoring her respectful, drunken husband Tyrion and running from men who want to give her gifts. Honestly, if this girl doesn't get something worthwhile to do soon, misogyny is coming back into the conversation (as should be protocol for "Game of Thrones" when the last challenge faced by a female is rape).
But I digress. The latest character to enter this maxed-out medieval world is Prince Oberyn Martell, a member of yet another family who has a serious beef with the Lannisters. Oberyn also seems to have a healthy sexual appetite, like most men on the show. In a brothel, he doesn't just court a few prostitutes but a male representative as well, both with considerable vigor. His clear interest is nonetheless interrupted by the opportunity to pick a fight with the Lannister clan, a clash that reaches a quick end when Oberyn's knife runs through the back of his offender's hand. Tyrion then walks in with Bronn, interrupting the bloody disagreement and allowing for the best exchange of the night. Curious as to how Bronn became a knight, Oberyn asks, "How did that happen?" Bronn sprightly responds, "Killed the right people, I suppose."
What's both incredibly liberating and then equally frustrating in "Game of Thrones" are characters like Bronn, Jamie Lannister, and a handful of others. They have lines like these, and your heart goes to them. You want to say, "All right. This is my guy. This is my hero, my favorite, the one I'm going to root for." But before you can commit, you're either reminded of their deplorable flaws during the episode or when memories of past transgressions creep back into mind. Bronn murdered a woman when he was 12 years old. Jamie threw a boy out of a window. Even Tyrion is supporting the most atrocious King in medieval entertainment. These are not the actions of anyone I feel comfortable backing let alone laughing with, making most of "Game of Thrones" a slog through constantly fluctuating politics and random instances of gore with only brief moments of true excitement when you know exactly who you're rooting for -- when you can distinguish good from evil.
This is clearly a writer's choice and not one that should be criticized from a structural standpoint, only a moral one. The world of Westeros and Essos is an unpleasant one where even the brief respites of real romance are met with a dagger to a pregnant stomach, Talisa's death forever a sign of the show's disrespect for conventionally protected persons. Many find the idea that anyone can die at any moment thrilling. Yet a nagging part of me has seen too much bloodshed, too much misery, and too few scruples. The idea is exemplified perfectly by the ending of "Two Swords," when two characters come together for a common cause -- not a common good, which is an important distinction to make. Sandor Clegane, who killed Mycah and served as Joffrey's bodyguard during the execution of Eddard Stark, walks into a bar with Arya, who loathes Sandor for his complicity in her father's death and more so for killing her friend. Then the two go about killing everyone in order to retrieve Arya's sword.
While it's a somewhat welcome change of pace to see a woman on a quest of self-empowerment in "Game of Thrones," Arya's bloodlust at such a young age is equally unnerving, and crossed a line when she slowly shoved her blade through her assailant's neck, practically whispering her name in vengeance as she did. How much is too much? When, if ever, will she learn death only breeds more death? It won't bring back her family. Understanding this is a different world with separate rules and a younger age requisite for adulthood, watching it happen on a television in the real world is unsettling to say the least. Shortly before the bloody melee ensues, Sandor tells his young companion, "A man's gotta have a code." Funny. I remember hearing a similar if not exact line on another HBO show. This one also had quite a few characters, an unrelenting and complex story, and even youths acting in ways no adult should. But when Omar uttered those immortal words on "The Wire," he meant what he said. Here, codes change with the wind.
Criticwire Grade: B-