A few notes before we begin:
1. This will contain spoilers and also assumes knowledge of the first three seasons of the show, and to an extent, George R. R. Martin’s books.
2. If the HBO version of the series is, like, your holy text, well, you’re probably not going to like this, so it’s okay if you don’t read it. Really.
3. It’s pretty out of order because I didn’t rewatch the episode, nor did I read any other reviews lest I inadvertently steal from them.
4. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Now, some background: When I was a bookish teenager, I was sure fantasy was only for boys. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, after I watched The Two Towers with my friend and her kid brother, that I gave The Lord of the Rings a chance. I fell in love with Aragorn, but I certainly noticed the absence of women characters at the helm of their own adventures. I found the Harry Potter series a bit problematic too—more as I’ve gotten older—because all of the female characters seemed to be bossy, hysterical, or paragons instead of the messy mixture of those things and more that make up actual human beings. Still, I was and am able to love both series.
Like Lord of the Rings, I came to the Song of Ice and Fire series through its adaptation. I sort of figured HBO was taking advantage of its premium status to reel in viewers with all the bare breasts and meticulously groomed vulvas we were shown during the first season. There were plenty of other problematic scenes, including repeated scenes in which it was clear that Daenerys had not yet consented enthusiastically to her husband, Khal Drogo. Still, all the intrigue and the down-in-the-dirt way Martin chose to interpret and represent human history made the books feel less like fantasy and more like a forgotten history. Not perfect, but definitely full of women who were more dynamic than Arwen or even Hermione. There, I found loads of sex and violence and sexual violence. In particular, though, the difference in the ways the book and show depicted Dany and Khal Drogo’s relationship immediately clued me in that Martin had created a world of humans, whereas HBO would likely continue to choose bizarre elements of the story to change around in ways that made them more disturbing but still seemed to have titillation in mind. Though there are many arguments against the feminism of Martin’s series, it is my view that feminism in media needs to include portrayals of all types of women, from sex object to queen, madwoman to high priestess, and everything in between.
Fast forward to Sunday night’s season four premiere. It begins with Charles Dance vying for an Emmy just by being onscreen, as he has Ned Stark’s sword, Ice, melted down into two new blades, finally giving the Lannister family swords of Valyrian steel. Ice had been kept, apparently since Ned’s death, in a direwolf pelt, which Tywin throws into the fire after the swords are forged. After the Red Wedding and the role he is implied to have played in it, this is a chilling symbolic act. As far as the Lannister patriarch is concerned, the Starks are no longer a problem. I love Dance, and I have a grudging respect for Tywin’s mercilessness, so this scene confirmed that all of my excitement over the better part of the last year was not in vain.
Oh, but then. After the opening credits, we see that we’re about to meet Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne, arriving at King’s Landing for Margaery Tyrell and Joffrey Baratheon’s wedding. But he’s not in the Dornish party that arrives; Tyrion instead finds him back in the city, in a Lannister brothel. This is where HBO completely lost me, minutes into the episode, by reminding me that they’re still pretty sure fantasy is only for a certain subset of dude. In the brothel, there are three prostitutes on offer, and for absolutely no reason other than that HBO can, Prince Oberyn strips them down to show us some female skin. Barely past the opening credits, and already some gratuitous female nudity.
Let it be known that I believe sex work can absolutely be a feminist act, and there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with nudity. And I mean, I get it: a sexually liberal Dornishman and his sexually liberal paramour would naturally visit a brothel—he even propositions the young man who has presented the ladies to him; still, scenes like that take me out of the story completely. I had been so looking forward to meeting this awesome character onscreen, but my excitement was overshadowed by the fact that HBO still doesn’t mind alienating the show’s overwhelmingly large number of female fans by often treating women like mere scenery.
In the book, the Red Viper establishes himself as the badass he is reputed to be through a series of moves that Tyrion, as part of the Welcoming Committee, can’t discern as innocent or calculated. The reader also knows Oberyn has come to King’s Landing not only in ailing Prince Doran’s stead, but also to avenge the deaths of his sister, niece, and nephew at the hands of Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane, and at the command of Tywin Lannister.
The show’s watered down and greatly altered version of Oberyn—all the Martells’—introductory scene left me trying to rebuild and reinvest my considerable excitement, which I was never quite able to do. Long past the point of being able to roll my eyes when a male character causes the dress to literally fall off the body of a woman who’s basically there as a prop, I was primed to notice only the flaws. I even felt a little chastened because HBO reminded me that it has no problem alienating fans like me. (Which, I should share this bit of anecdata: I know far more women who love the books and the show than men.)
Fortunately, Sansa and Arya were there to remind us lady fans that there’s more than one way to be a girl. The Tyrell women and Brienne reminded us there’s more than one way to wield female power. We also got varied explorations of the sibling relationship: Jaime and Cersei, Sandor and (the absent) Gregor, Jon and the deceased Robb as well as Jon’s sworn brother Sam. All of these were wonderful. Also Daenerys was there with Fake Daario Naharis, learning the role of mother to her dragons and her band of freed slaves.
I love Sansa Stark-Lannister, and I love Tyrion’s attitude toward her since becoming her husband. He refuses to violate her and recognizes her for what she is: a child who does, in fact, still need protection—even longs for it—but has no father, mother, or older brother left to provide it. After Sansa relates the events of the Red Wedding and reveals that they’ve kept her from sleeping at night, Tyrion offers to get her a sleeping potion. Sansa has no desire to talk anymore: she departs the scene for the godswood, where she now goes so that no one will bother her, but not to pray, as she doesn’t pray anymore. Later in the episode, when she’s returning to the castle, she discovers she’s being followed by the former knight Ser Dontos, whom Joffrey has appointed fool, and who gives Sansa a necklace that had belonged to his mother. She accepts it and promises to wear it with pride. Readers recognize this small change from the book’s storyline, but understand that the necklace will become crucial in episodes to come.
Meanwhile, Arya’s on the road with the Hound. Make no mistake: the Sandor “the Hound” Clegane is not a good man. Contrasted with his brother, however, he seems like a right adorable puppy dog indeed. These unlikely contenders for a buddy-comedy spinoff tussle with some jerks over some chickens, kill said jerks, and Arya gets her beloved sword, Needle, back. We see by the smirk on her face that Arya has begun to relish killing, that unlike Sansa—the very picture of quiet, considered endurance and survival—Arya plans to take vengeance for the death of her family. Which is not to say that Sansa won’t find a way, too, just that Arya’s way will likely always be visceral and blood-soaked rather than carefully calculated (because Sansa is going to prove herself the smartest person in Westeros, just you wait).
Margaery and her grandmother, honorary Golden Girl Olenna Tyrell, try to find Margaery’s perfect wedding jewels and discuss her future husband, the monstrous idiot Joffrey. Margaery quips that she might just let King Bieber choose for her, but would likely end up with a necklace of sparrow skulls. Lady Olenna warns her to speak carefully, even in only her company, then calls in the handmaidens to seek out the best necklace (the finder of which gets to keep the second-best). It’s all very bright and sweet, but the dark undertone is always present: Joffrey is a monster, and though Margaery is a smart woman, even her immense cunning may not be enough to protect her.
Brienne (the best knight in all the land) and Margaery go for a walk, and Brienne fills Margaery in on the details of what happened to King Renly, Margaery’s former husband, who was murdered by the vagina demon with Stannis Baratheon’s face that the Red Priestess Melisandre birthed. (Side note: Melisandre is the one of the most interesting characters in the whole thing to me, and I hope we hear more from her POV in The Winds of Winter and/or A Dream of Spring.) Brienne slips and calls Renly “our king,” and though Margaery corrects her, she also makes it clear that she still thinks of him that way, too. Renly would have been a hell of a king, what a shame, damn you GRRM.
Up in the Super North, Jon Snow must answer for his time with the Wildlings, and when he shares his inside information, it seems he should have little to answer for. Ygritte, for whom he forsook his Night’s Watch vows, wrestles with herself for letting him go when she learns he’s still a Crow, as she is berated by Tormund Giantsbane for doing so.
Jon, like Sansa and Arya, is dealing with the news of having lost his brother Robb and the only mother he ever knew. He tells Sam how much he’d envied Robb, who was better at everything that he was: hunting, fighting, girls. Sam, his sworn Night’s Watch brother, confesses that he’s jealous of Jon for the same reasons. Except Sam is better than Jon (and everyone!) at reading, which is why he is my favorite character. Samwell the freaking Brave whose greatness awaits him.
Jaime is still awesome, on the road to becoming awesomer. He gets his golden hand and one of the new Lannister Valyrian steel swords forged from the former Ice, which he’ll need to learn to wield left-handed as he hopes to remain in the Kingsguard. Cersei’s eyebrows are flawless. Their relationship still defies norms and is still somehow believably loving, which makes it even more disconcerting. The best bit between them this episode is when Cersei says she spent days with the goldsmiths trying to get all the details for his prosthetic hand just right, to which Jaime replies skeptically, “Days?” Cersei then admits it was actually “the better part of an afternoon.” Lena Headey’s perfect portrayal of that wine-swilling broad does not get enough attention.
Stuff also happens with Daenerys, but her storyline includes Not-Daario now, and I can’t even go there because of my grief. Of course, I’ll be greatly consoled if Ed Skrein does indeed become the new Transporter. The whole mhysa thing really bothers me. Barristan Selmy, however, needs to come be my grandpa. I might even take Jorah as a slightly creepy but harmless and good-hearted uncle, too.
I think that’s everything. I did warn you it would be out of order. What did you think? How did it stack up to your expectations?