- "Game of Thrones" began its fourth season on Sunday
- Critics say it upheld the show's reputation as one of the best programs on TV
- While it wasn't as action-packed, it did explore character development
- The subsequent two episodes are expected to be just as good
HBO's deadly "Game of Thrones" returned Sunday night with one ominous rallying cry -- "All men must die" -- and few disappointments.
Now that it's in its fourth season, the fantasy series could be excused if it started to show wear and tear. After all, we've seen programs with simpler plots and fewer cast members lose their edge in less time.
But Sunday's premiere, "Two Swords," proved that creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are just getting started.
(In fact, the only real letdown for fans didn't have anything to do with "GoT" at all, but HBO's mobile platform HBO Go, which crashed due to an overwhelming demand for Sunday's premiere.)
Adapted from George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series, "Game of Thrones" is at its heart a bloody race for power between competitive houses in Westeros. After the third season left avid watchers in a state of shock thanks to a gruesome wedding ceremony, they returned on Sunday to find the "Game's" major players repositioning themselves on the board.
With the famous Stark Valyrian steel sword split in two by Hand of the King Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), viewers were made keenly aware of the fissures that abound throughout the Seven Kingdoms.
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is building an army while trying to keep a handle on her still-growing dragons, and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has begun to cross out names on her list of vengeance.
In the North, the Free Folk -- or the Wildlings as they're called -- have their eyes trained on breaching the Wall where the men of the Night's Watch, including a Jon Snow (Kit Harington) ready to pay for his broken vows, stand guard.
And in King's Landing, where the precious Iron Throne sits, the ruthless and rich Lannisters are not as secure as they'd like to believe. With a grand wedding approaching for the young King Joffrey, there are visitors from Dorne afoot -- and they, too, like to pay their debts.
"Right off the bat, season four sends the viewer a signal: Forget the Westeros you knew," warns the A.V. Club's Erik Adams, who gave the episode a B+ grade. "Forget where on the board you've mentally placed any of 'Game Of Thrones'' chess pieces. It's not a reboot, but 'Two Swords' is a starting place that feels distinct." While "fortunes have risen and fallen while we were away, and the awful power of King Joffrey seeps deeply into the Seven Kingdoms," the episode "stealthily belongs to the Starks -- who are down, but not out. That's an enticingly rich way to begin a season."
Time magazine's Eric Dodds agrees that while "the Lannisters appear strong and unchallenged with the Starks out of the picture and Jaime returned home only slightly worse for wear, the cracks are readily apparent. ... By all accounts, the season-opener was setting the table for what promises to be a season filled with violence and intrigue. For now, the fear is only creeping in along the edges. Once it arrives in full, that's when the real fun is likely to begin."
It's true that not much happened in the way of action -- by "GoT" standards, anyway -- but it was rich in character development, says The Daily Beast's Andrew Romano.
"(A)nd character, ultimately, is what 'Game of Thrones' does best," he observes. "Some viewers might even complain that there wasn't enough sex or swashbuckling in 'Two Swords' -- that the episode was 'slow.' But it is in these slow moments -- the moments between each big plot twist, when showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff decelerate the narrative to linger over the nuances of character -- that 'Game of Thrones' truly distinguishes itself from other epic television series."
Even better, The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman says that the next two episodes should be just as good.
"The consistent excellence in 'Game of Thrones' is truly something to behold," Goodman says in a review. "Even in three episodes, viewers will sense things tightening up -- that winter and war are coming and they are coming on full-stop. If there's anything to complain about with 'Game of Thrones' it's the 10-episode seasons, which cry out for 13 episodes given the immense world that 'Thrones' inhabits."