The Game of Thrones season four premiere enticed 6.6 million viewers, up 52 percent in viewership since the season three debut. Meanwhile, HBOGo.com was publicly humiliated after a crash effectively decapitated the online service. Too soon with the decapitation jokes?
Not if the Game of Thrones model holds true: Violence is viewership, after all.
In the first minutes of the episode, Ned Stark’s valyrian steel sword “Ice” is re-forged into two blades for Lannister hands. This is a metaphor for the shattering of northern power after the deaths of both Ned and his heir Robb at the hands of the Lannisters and their allies.
Back at Kings Landing, the political epicenter of Westeros, Sansa Stark mourns the death of her mother and elder brother. The Sansa scenes are by far the least significant moments in the show. Sansa has no political power and no special skill set. Instead, she emotionally bears the burden of knowing that evil is winning, and viewers have to watch her struggle. She is the Frodo Baggins of Game of Thrones. I await the moment where her existence proves integral to the plot.
In this episode, we meet a lustful and vengeful Oberyn Martell, who has arrived representing his father at the royal wedding. We quickly learn that he holds Tywin Lannister—and his obedient strongman known plausibly as “the Mountain”—responsible for the rape and subsequent murder of his sister Queen Elia.
In a brothel, Oberyn makes his motives clear to Tyrion the imp: He is here for revenge. This is not the first time two men talk world politics while two women make love in the background. It likely won’t be the last.
Meanwhile, beyond the wall Jon Snow “eats crow” by admitting that he killed his brother-in-arms Qhorin Halfhand and betrayed his vows of celibacy with Ygritte. He warns of the wildlings’ coming attack on the Castle Black.
By far my favorite aspect of the series is the interactions of unlikely characters paired together by fate: Brianne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister and Bronn, and Arya Stark and The Hound.
The climax of the episode deals specifically with the relationship between Arya and The Hound. The Hound helps Arya enact justice on Polliver, the Lannister strongman who murdered her friend Lommy. Some ball-busting sword action ensues, and pre-teen killing machine Arya Stark performs tortuous facial mutilation.
Mutilation, massacre, and macabre revenge—all in a night’s work.
As much as I wish HBO would tone down the sadism, Game of Thrones is frighteningly accurate in its portrayal of humanity’s moral struggle. Each of R.R. Martin’s characters is a collage of good and evil with a smattering of familial loyalty thrown into the mix.
The Hound embodies this moral hodgepodge for better or for worse. When Arya corners The Hound about his previous murder of a young slave boy and contrasts it with the murder of the rapist Polliver, he responds, “A man’s gotta have a code.” It just so happens that morality often takes a back seat to self-preservation.