Given just how phenomenally popular it has become, it’s hard to imagine that the Game of Thrones almost never made it to our television screens at all. But according to star Sophie Turner, the pilot episode was so substandard that US broadcaster HBO was ready to pull the plug. They didn’t, of course – the pilot was re-shot, three epic seasons followed and Game of Thrones went on to become the world’s most popular (and pirated) television series ever.
So here we are on the verge of a fourth season (unless you’re part of the scarily committed brigade that stayed up to watch Sky Atlantic’s US simulcast at 2am this morning, you bleary-eyed thing you). With the Lannister’s betrayal putting marital bliss to the sword in the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode and the ascent of Daenerys Targaryen and her brood of dragons combining to send fans into hysterics by the end of season three, the global clamour for revenge and retribution ensured #GOT, #GameOfThrones and a myriad other related hashtags littered the Twittersphere for hours on end yesterday.
Under the weight of such expectation, does Season Four opener ‘Two Swords’ live up to the hype? The answer is a categorical ‘Yes!’… and then some. Most impressive is the deftness with which it reintroduces us to what must be the largest cast a drama series has ever seen – and throws in a few new faces to boot. In lesser hands it could have been a mere televisual rogues’ gallery, but under the direction of showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss the episode not only reacquaints us but sets in motion the narrative strands that will wind their wicked ways across Game of Thrones’ geographically vast backdrop and wrap around the rest of the season.
In the North there’s Jon Snow, fully recovered from the three not-so-Cupid’s arrows fired into his torso by spurned lover Ygritte and ready to rally the Night’s Watch against the horde of Wildling invaders en route to Castle Black. Down in skullduggery central that is Kings Landing, Tyrion Lannister (as deliciously droll as ever thanks to the masterful Peter Dinklage) is struggling to play diplomat with a Dornish Prince who holds more than just a grudge against his family, whilst caught between the duty of an unwanted marriage to poor Sansa Stark and the need to keep his affair with lover Shae from prying eyes.
Across the water to the south Daenerys’ three dragons have hit the troublesome teens, adding to their mother’s burdens as she marches her army onwards to recapture the Iron Throne. And somewhere in between are the odd couple that is Arya Stark and The Hound, who get to bring proceedings to an end with a suitably bloody bang. All with an infusion of the blackest humour that keeps proceedings zipping along, without ever threatening to veer into self-parody. A supremely satisfying scene-setter, Two Swords comes out swinging and connects with every strike.
Game of Thrones Season Four begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic