Game of Thrones season 4, episode 1, TV review: Breasts bared, blood spilt – yes, it was worth staying up for

A few dragons can’t disguise the story’s basis in real British geography and culture

It’s a testament to the special devotion of Game of Thrones fans that Sky Atlantic opted to “premiere” the opening episode of the show’s fourth series twice; once at the usual time of 9pm this evening and once at 2am this morning, to coincide with the first US East Coast screening.

There aren’t many TV shows worth missing sleep for. But then, like the Lannisters, HBO’s hit fantasy adventure always pays its debts. It’s not 10 minutes into this episode before breasts have been bared, blood has been spilled and the balance of power has shifted once again. That’s what you came for, right?

We arrived back in King’s Landing in the run-up to the royal wedding, and since it’s fair to say that weddings never go smoothly in the Seven Kingdoms, the air of foreboding was even more evident than usual. Evil boy-king Joffrey is due to marry Margaery Tyrell, so the Lannisters can get their hands (or “hand” in Jamie’s case) on the Tyrell family dosh.

The King in the North might be dead, but there’s still Stannis Baratheon and his sorceress plotting up there and Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons approaching from the east, all with their eyes on the Iron Throne.

Even in a show with more than 200 characters, pleasingly, there’s always room for more. Without a doubt, the most exciting of these new arrivals is Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Prince Oberyn, aka “the Red Viper”, is a sex-mad southerner with a long-standing grudge against the Lannisters, and rumoured to play a pivotal role in the events of the fourth series.

 

His memorable first scene (set in a brothel, naturally) was enlivened by the presence of his equally lascivious companion Ellaria Sand, played by Indira Varma, who’ll be familiar to British TV audiences from her roles in Luther, Silk and What Remains.

For British fans, casting like this has always been part of Game of Thrones’ special appeal. It may have had massive international success, but a few dragons can’t disguise the story’s basis in real British geography (see the wall like Hadrian’s to the north) and history (the Wars of Roses, mainly) and culture. You’ll notice, for instance, how accents are usually indicative of character, with Northerners from Ned Stark to Lord Davos, being trustworthy, brave types, while all the slippery no-gooders speak like Londoners.

This blatant, anti-Cockney prejudice was evident again in this episode, when Arya Stark and her kidnapper/bodyguard “the Hound” got into a brawl with some cor-blimey-guv’nor ruffians at a roadside tavern. If you thought the Red Wedding in series three was gory, the sight of the Hound repeatedly impaling a man’s eye on his sword will make you recalibrate your definition of gore. Arya too, had her own moment of homicidal madness. Should we be worried about the little lady’s growing taste for blood? Not in kill-or-be-killed Westeros. Here, she’s growing into a fine woman. Valar morghulis, as they say.

Read more: Don't moan about GoT spoilers, the books were published years ago
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