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Game of Thrones Season Premiere Recap: Steel Yourself

Jack Gleeson, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Game of Thrones fans have had ten months to get over the Red Wedding and the brutal slaying of Catelyn, Robb, Talisa, and most of the Stark bannermen. (The rains, they weep, they weeeeeep.) However, the people of Westeros are hardier folk than us, because it’s apparently been just a few weeks since the big event and no one’s making a peep about it besides poor Sansa. Everyone else seems too caught up in preparations for the next showstopper wedding: Joffrey and Margaery’s. Which will clearly go off without a hitch, if Olenna Tyrell has anything to say about the jewelry choices.

Still, the opening scene of “Two Swords” made it clear that the massacre has reset the stage. In a pitch-dark room, under dirgelike music, a massive sword is melted down and its steel poured into two new blade molds, one large and one small. In the red light of the fire, we see Tywin throwing what looks like a direwolf carcass on the flames. Old elements are being recast in the wake of the slaughter, and they’re dangerous ones, ready to strike.

Take Jon Snow, for example. He’s back at the Wall and about to face the leaders of the Night’s Watch for having killed Qhorin Halfhand and then gone Full Wildling. As he dresses himself once again in his black crow attire, he tells Sam how he’d always envied Robb, who was better than him at everything — hunting, fighting, loving. It recalls the moment last season where Theon says of Robb, “His life fit him better than his clothes.” But whereas Theon could never be like Robb (too needy, too reactive, too spineless) Jon might, now that he’s gone through his trial by ice and come out of season three the eldest living son of Ned Stark. The scene closes with Jon forcefully telling the council that they’re about to be the lunchmeat in a Free-Folk sandwich, with Mance Rayder coming at Castle Black from one end and Tormund Giantsbane leading troops (including some face-scarred cannibal Thenns) from the other. He asks if he’s free to go, and Maester Aemon reminds him that the men of the Night’s Watch are never free, but they’re not going to kill him today.

Back in King’s Landing, Jaime is dealing with his own changed status. Last season, the elder Lannister boy was humbled and hacked to bits and decided he was done with that whole Kingslayer business, he was just going to be Jaime now, thanks. At King’s Landing, Jaime gets a golden glove to go with his new Valyrian steel, but he’s lost his standing in the family. His father renounces him for refusing to go back to Casterly Rock and rule in his place. Joffrey, whom he’s declared he’ll stay for and protect as a member of the Kingsguard, openly mocks him. Tywin and Joffrey both needle Jaime by pointing out that he’s now 40; too old to be a golden boy. You can hear their jibes hardening into Tyrion-esque epithets: the One-Handed Knight and the Imp, a fine pair of sons.

And Cersei, the Penelope Jaime’s always been trying to return to, tells him bitterly — once he’s pointed that she’s drinking a whole lot more — that everything’s changed now. There’s no logic to Cersei’s claim that Jaime owes her an apology for leaving her since he was, you know, captured, but it makes emotional sense; he doesn’t seem to appreciate how much she has — or feels she has — suffered, and the one thing Cersei really wants is some goddamn recognition already. At least he has Brienne, who can still see through his bullshit to the best part of him. You can cover your stump, Jaime, but not your soul. Not from Brienne of Tarth! Speaking of Brienne: One of my favorite moments in this hour was the way Olenna’s face lit up with genuine pleasure when she first saw the woman warrior. “Aren’t you just marvelous!” the old woman exclaims happily. It’s nice to see someone in the world of the show recognize Brienne for the singular, fantastic character she is. Meanwhile, if you’re a Brienne fan, you should watch this.

Over the sea, Daenerys is on the march with her army of Unsullied, about to enter Meereen and play liberator (“liberator”?) again. But when we first see her, she’s sitting out in the desert watching two of her dragons thrashing about in the air. Drogon’s head is in her lap and she’s stroking the big guy behind his ears. The other two dragons send a goat carcass crashing to the ground and Drogon lunges for it. When Dany coos to calm him down, he whips around and nearly unleashes some dracarys on her. These are no longer cute little egg-babies; Dany’s hatchlings are true monsters now. Jorah is at her side in a moment, reminding her that dragons can’t be tamed, even by their mother. (Lots of mentions of mothers in this episode: Tyrion tells Sansa that Catelyn would have wanted her to go on; Ser Dontos gives Sansa his mother’s necklace; Oberyn Martell lingers over how much Elia loved her children … but more on the Martells in a minute.)

Over the course of the last season, Dany had begun reveling in her own mythology. But now, between her newly ornery dragons and the masses that seem to balloon in her wake — masses that the camera swoops over multiple times, emphasizing their, well, massiveness — it seems that Dany may be teetering on the edge of a dangerous precipice. Luckily she has a little flirty distraction in Daario Naharis, now played by Nashville’s Michael Huisman, who still has decidedly non-canonical non-blue hair and a non-forked beard but makes up for it by giving Dany scraggly little desert bouquets while quoting The Little Mermaid as military strategy. “Become part of their world,” he urges her. But that's not the most appetizing principle when the leaders of “their world” have strung up 163 slave-girl corpses on the road to Meereen.

But of all the characters demonstrating the changes that last season wrought, the one whose story hits most powerfully is Arya. Last season, we watched this little spitfire, clearly the most charismatic person in Westeros, get ground down even further, captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners and then kidnapped by the Hound. We watched as she continued to count out the people who’d wronged her like a rosary and then came so close to reconnecting with her mother and big brother, only to find herself once again witness to a family slaughtering. In last season’s finale, “Mhysa,” Arya stabbed the Lannister man who had sewn a direwolf head onto her brother’s body and it was both satisfying and sad — satisfying to see Arya finally able to express her pain and gain some measure of retribution, but sad because it seemed clear that she was starting to turn a corner as a character.

In “Two Swords,” the bloodlust that broke free in “Mhysa” takes Arya to an even darker place. On their way to the Vale to reach Catelyn’s sister, Lysa, Arya and the Hound encounter Polliver, the Lannister man who stole Arya’s sword, Needle, back in season two and killed Lommy with it, earning him a place on her death wish list. They meet Polliver in an inn; he recognizes the Hound but not Arya, whom he assumes is the Hound’s little piece on the side. After a tense encounter that employs the word “chicken” to equally hysterical and menacing effect, a brawl breaks loose. The Hound is in the mix immediately, thundering about and cracking skulls. Arya hangs back, but then she sees an opening; picking up a sword almost as tall as she is, she runs it through a Lannister man softly, like the graceful water dancer Syrio Forel taught her to be back in King's Landing. Then she picks up Needle and advances slowly upon the fallen Polliver, reciting the words he said to Lommy just before he killed the boy. Just as understanding dawns in his eyes, the littlest Inigo Montoya pushes her little sword right through his neck. Unlike past killings on Game of Thrones, which would have focused on the blood and the burbling, the camera pulls back here, showing Arya standing above him, silhouetted by the light from an open door; the emphasis here isn’t on the killing itself, but what it’s done to Arya. (Oh okay, and then they cut back to the blood and the burbling.) Compare her cool pleasure in this moment to the first time she killed someone — the stable boy in season one — and you can see how far she’s come. Or fallen, depending.

The episode ends with the pair riding out on the road, the Hound eating his chicken and Arya finally on a horse of her own — a white one. A slowed-down version of the theme song plays, still triumphal, but now a little sad. Arya’s smiling to herself, but what exactly has she won?

These characters are most clearly on the verge of change, but let’s not forget about Shae. She seemed pushed to the brink at various points last season, what with her boyfriend refusing to acknowledge her in public and then marrying a teenager who, by the way, she has some pretty complicated mother-hen/jealous-rival feelings toward. Shae’s presence in King’s Landing has always been a ticking time bomb, and while we’ve seen her patience fray before, it’s possible that it won’t be Shae’s frustration that detonates the situation but Cersei’s spy, who spots Tyrion and Sansa’s handmaiden and runs to tattle. Cersei’s foil, Margaery, also gets her hands on a secret when Brienne tells her that Renly was killed by a spectre with Stannis’s face. What will these women do with these new pieces of information?

And finally, speaking of new pieces, here comes Prince Oberyn Martell. Oberyn is from Dorne, a hot and apparently lusty land where people don’t discriminate between man, woman, or farm animal. Naturally, because he is from such a hot and lusty land, he is also hot-headed, and therefore thinks nothing of stabbing a mouthy Lannister in Littlefinger’s brothel and then, because he is hot-headed and from a hot and lusty land, grabbing his paramour for a vociferous make-out session despite the fact that Tyrion is standing right there, dude, trying to play diplomat. (With her long curly hair, heavy accent, and penchant for flowy maxidresses and arched eyebrows, Oberyn’s paramour, the bastard Ellaria Sand, is a vision of what Shae might be given a different set of circumstances.)

Oberyn has decided that Joffrey’s wedding will be a fine opportunity to come seeking vengeance for the 17-year-old death of his beloved sister, Elia. Elia was married to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys and Viserys’s older brother). When Rhaegar abducted Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna — for reasons we still don’t know — it kicked off the civil war known as Robert’s Rebellion, which ended with Robert Baratheon on the throne and the Targaryn family in exile. Elia was raped by the Mountain, Gregor Clegane, and then killed along with her two children.

Still unheard from this week: Stannis’s crew, Bran and Rickon, Varys, Littlefinger, and the Boltons and Greyjoys. What’s been happening with them? See you here next week to find out. You bring the shaved goat, I’ll bring the bottle of olive oil.

Stray thoughts and observations:

* Now we know Podrick is really good at two things: lady-killing and sigil-reading.

* What are the strange symptoms Cersei was seeing (former) Maester Qyburn for? We know that he was stripped of his master’s chain for conducting forbidden experiments

* How long before you can buy an official HBO-sponsored necklace of sparrow heads?

* The Hound and Arya have a rhythm to their interactions that sounds like banter out of any third-rate family comedy starring a gruff adult and a smartass kid, and in the bleak world of Game of Thrones the zingers are a welcome relief. At the same time, this increasingly close-knit pair fills me with queasy dread. I have to admit, though, the shot of the two of them poking their faces through the leaves to look at the inn they’re about to turn upside down is a fantastic sight gag, with him so tall and her so short. It was actually the second visually striking leaf-based shot in the episode, after the moment when Sansa gets chased through the gardens by Ser Dontos. These were standouts in an episode that made really effective use of open and closed spaces to build and modulate narrative tension.

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO