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The Best of This Week’s Game of Thrones Season Four Premiere Recaps

Game of Thrones began its fourth season on Sunday, and in some ways it felt like a fresh start: The Stark clan has been decimated, the Lannisters are gearing up for a royal wedding, and Arya got a new pony (yay!). But as Vulture recapper Nina Shen Rastogi writes, “The opening scene of ‘Two Swords’ made it clear that the massacre has reset the stage ... old elements are being recast in the wake of the slaughter, and they’re dangerous ones, ready to strike.” While the direwolf doo-doo may not yet have hit the proverbial fan, Sunday's premiere made it clear that we're in for an even badder and bloodier season than ever before, and one with much bigger dragons. Your recap of the recaps:

Because the Red Wedding happened right before the end of season 3, and because the finale had so many other plots to resolve or advance, there wasn't a lot of time to bask in the Lannisters' absolute triumph over the Starks and the rest of the men of the North. "Two Swords," though, gives the Lannisters a long, luxurious, period of celebration, and it is both wonderful and extremely unsettling. It's good to be the king, or the hand of the king, or the queen regent, or the head of the Kingsguard. Robb Stark's dead, Jaime is returned (even if he is less than whole), Joffrey's wedding draws ever-closer and all seems well in King's Landing for anyone with blonde hair. —HitFix

Yet why did Tywin’s victory lap in the opening moments of 'Two Swords' feel so much like the end of something? Perhaps it was because, after an entire season of watching him wreak havoc by longhand, someone finally insisted on a rewrite. Jaime Lannister’s time in captivity changed him mightily. (As he says to Brienne, since returning, “every Lannister I’ve seen has been a pain in my arse.”) By refusing his father’s demand to become his rightful heir, Jaime drove his blade right into the heart of Tywin’s one vulnerability: time. As this season begins, Tywin is the most powerful man in Westeros, but he’s just one man. And, thanks to HBO’s current advertising blitz, we all know what happens to them. Tywin can move the chess pieces to the perfect spots, but he can’t control them once they’re there. And the next generation of threats — dragons to the east, wildlings and White Walkers to the north and, right under his nose, imps and little girls — all have plans of their own. “The war is over. The king is safe,” Tywin intones in the voice of someone unfamiliar with the legal teachings of House Murphy. “The king is never safe,” Jaime replies. He should know: He’s already killed one himself. —Grantland

And then there are the “Two Swords” of the title, which ostensibly refers to the pair of blades Tywin’s smiths forge from Ice, the Valyrian steel beauty that was both Ned Stark’s most trusted weapon and the sword that took his head. The whole mythology surrounding Valyrian steel is that it’s basically indestructible, and only the most experienced weaponmakers can rework it. Right off the bat, season four sends the viewer a signal: Forget the Westeros you knew. Forget where on the board you’ve mentally placed any of Game Of Thrones’ chess pieces. It’s not a reboot, but “Two Swords” is a starting place that feels distinct from where “Mhysa left off. Fortunes have risen and fallen while we were away, and the awful power of King Joffrey seeps deeply into the Seven Kingdoms. —A.V. Club

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. —Indiewire

To the sinister drone of the “Rains of Castamere,” a now infamous tune thanks to The Red Wedding, season four of “Game of Thrones” arrives with Tywin Lannister melting down Ned Stark’s sword, Ice, for its Valerian steel. He has conquered the Starks – at least, he believes he has. And as the wolf skin scabbard smolders, Tywin may now shift his attention to ruling the kingdom. He’s only the Hand, but we all know who is in charge ... This opening sequence is ably directed by showrunner D.B. Weiss and exemplifies why long-form television drama can be so satisfying: We’ve done our homework. Therefore, without a single line of dialogue, we instantly recognize what it means: It is time to close the book on the Starks. —The Wall Street Journal

Only Arya appeared to come out on top, but it’s likely a pyrrhic victory. After leaving the atrocities at the Twins, she and the Hound happen upon a local tavern where a group of Lannister-employed soldiers are preparing to rape the daughter (or wife — it can sometimes be difficult to tell on this show) of the barkeeper. One of the men — who had stolen “Needle” from Arya back in Season 2, and killed her young friend — recognizes the Hound, and their initially cordial conversation takes a turn for the nasty, particularly after the doomed man mentions the Mountain. After a typically gory brawl, Arya herself finishes off the man who had struck up the conversation, sinisterly repeating the words he had once spoken to her back to him, then thrusting Needle into his throat. For other characters, this might qualify as a triumph, but it’s harrowing to watch a child kill so mercilessly. More than any of her kin, Arya is becoming someone who’s capable of surviving in Westeros — but at what cost? —Time

The premiere is almost entirely dedicated to those back chamber machinations raveling and unraveling at King’s Landing. (There are only brief interludes of action near The Wall and across the seas in Essos. There are no scenes at all for Bran, Rickon, Varys, Littlefinger, Beric Dondarrion, Roose Bolton, Stannis, Melisandre, Balon Greyjoy, and—mercifully, because this viewer cannot stand one more second of horrific torture—Theon Greyjoy). But that doesn’t mean it’s dull. In fact, this episode highlights the reason why, even when there’s no Red Wedding butchery to gawk at or castrational torture to shiver over, Game of Thrones remains riveting entertainment: its commitment to smart, charismatic verbal jousting done in pairs. —The New Republic

Does Game of Thrones: Lannister Edition live up to its predecessor? So far, so good. Think of it as a reverse Breaking Bad: That show's creator, Vince Gilligan, famously said its basic idea was to take a story's protagonist and slowly turn him into an antagonist. Late-season meth-mastermind Walter White works as well as he does because we viewers remember the smart, sweet, conflicted man he used to be. The Lannisters started off in full Heisenberg mode: Jaime a swaggering would-be child killer, Cersei a conniving brotherfucker, Tyrion far less sinister but still just kinda dissolute and deliberately mean. Over time, Jaime's been revealed to have secretly saved the lives of everyone in King's Landing from a murderous tyrant, while his unlikely friendship with Brienne of Tarth helped bring him back from a depressive tailspin after his precious sword hand was cut off. Tyrion's in a continuous process of discovering depths he didn't know he had: of strategic and political ability, of a will to defy his family's more brutal practices, of love for his secret prostitute girlfriend Shae, of care for his child bride Sansa.  —Rolling Stone

Tyrion and Oberyn’s conversation is the perfect set piece for a “Game of Thrones” episode that is all about the power of stories. “Two Swords,” the first hour of the HBO show’s fourth season, is named for the weapons Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) forges out of Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel greatsword, Ice. Like that transmutation, Tywin’s efforts to turn his family’s crimes into evidence of their greatness are the most audacious myth-making at work in this episode. But Tywin is not alone in wanting control of his own legend–or gambling that atrocities will pay off in victory, like the slavers who are trying to intimidate Dany. “Two Swords” is primarily concerned with just how tempting that task is, and how difficult it is to complete when rumors have a life of their own. —Washington Post

In case you forgot that this is a show that will kill your favorite characters—not to mention, everyone else—you’re treated to a full frontal of an “absurdly large” sword, once belonging to Ned Stark who, you know. RIP. It’s melted down courtesy of Tywin Lannister to be cast into two brand new murder weapons made out of Valyrian steel. Then he throws a dead wolf into a fire, because symbolism. (The Starks are wolves. The Lannisters are lions. And the sloths continue to be ignored.) —GQ

Every new season of Game of Thrones begins with a lot of table-setting, and Oberyn is a major part of that here. Yes, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do their best to distract you with a brothel scene, liberal dashings of pansexuality, and a bloody showdown with some Lannister underlings, but there's also several minutes of Oberyn just straight up explaining things to camera. Every year, Game of Thrones expands the audience's view of its universe a little further, and they've done it again. We get that Dorne is part of the Seven Kingdoms, but kinda separate—Oberyn's a swarthy fellow, refers to himself as a "Prince" rather than a lord, and is accompanied by a bastard lady he calls his "paramour." —The Wire

The Lannisters’ debts may be paid and their power consolidated, but this is not a happy clan. Tywin the patriarch would guffaw at the notion that happiness matters, were he physically capable of mirth — the dominance of the Lannister name is all. But we all know what absolute power does, and while the show keeps reinforcing this notion, a larger point seems to be one about the ultimate inconsequence of political striving in the face of a true existential threat. Like, say, an army of the undead bearing down from the north. —New York Times

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. —Entertainment Weekly          

One of Game of Thrones' key themes is the gaping chasm between the songs sung of the noble deeds of war and the brutal reality. History, as Churchill famously said, is written by the victors – he could have added that when they come to write it they tidy up the loose ends and smooth away the trauma. But the greatest thing about this show is that it lifts up the curtain to say, "This is what it costs to win a war." And so the episode began with Tywin melting down Ned's great sword, Ice, and throwing a wolf's pelt on to the fire. The message was simple: the house of Stark has fallen; long live House Lannister. Away from the propaganda, things weren't so simple: Jaime refused his father's order to return to Casterly Rock, Cersei set spies on Tyrion and rejected Jaime (I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that Jaime's sincerity almost had me rooting for twincest) and Tyrion tried to save Sansa, losing Shae in the process. Fittingly, the episode ended with Arya reclaiming Needle following a brutal clash, which ably demonstrated that war's reality is found not in statues or songs but with Sandor Clegane's sword being repeatedly thrust through your face. —The Guardian

And just as I’m ready to reluctantly turn my attention to other parts of the Seven Kingdoms, Prince Oberyn Martell joins the gang in the capital. Here again is a character who failed to make any lasting impression on the page but who came to life in just a few scenes in this season premiere. The bits in the brothel were fine, if a bit ho-hum after all the time we’ve spent dealing with sexpositions in past seasons. But Oberyn’s chat outside with Tyrion immediately established the Dornishman as a riveting threat to the royals from Casterly Rock. I cannot wait to see Oberyn and Tywin in a room together, though I fear the levels of mutual disdain would cause everyone around them to spontaneously combust. — The Atlantic

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO