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TV review: welcoming Game of Thrones, Season 4

'All men must die.'

That's the title of this season's opener and we might wonder whether it's meant as a doleful remark or a savage threat because that's where Game of Thrones excels: in making us ponder questions of loyalty, war, revenge and family in the midst of a gruesome frenzy. It's a dazzling mash of philosophy and guts.

Season 4 opens with a wedding. Fans will still be trembling from last year's horrific Red Wedding where the Stark clan gathered in peace only to have their throats slashed. So with a sly nod to that grisly extravaganza this episode began with preparations for yet another wedding - that of the sadistic boy king, Joffrey.

As usual, Joffrey is petulant and whining and looking ever more like Simon Le Bon with his highlighted hair, eyeliner and sleek gold costume, but these cosmetic fripperies don't make him ridiculous, they just underline how unnatural he is, both as a king and a human being.

One person who is wholly natural, plain and quiet is Sansa Stark. She is refusing food as a helpless gesture of mourning for her slaughtered family. Tyrion, to whom she is now married, tries to coax her to eat only to be silenced when she reminds him 'my mother, they say they cut her throat to the bone' and adding that her brother's head was severed and that of his pet wolf sewn on in its place.

Poor Tyrion tries to lose himself in the gaiety and bustle of Kings' Landing as people prepare for the feast but the light relief of seeing the little man trying to cheer his wife, or puff up with importance to greet the guests, soon gives way to the inevitable darkness for this wedding brings a new character into the story.

Prince Oberyn is a wedding guest with a grudge and an incredible sexual appetite. Sleek, sinister and clad in luxury, he stabs a fellow guest in the palm, ensuring to twist and grind the knife. He then tells Tyrion that he despises the Lannisters for murdering his family - in particular, for raping and dismembering his sister. As Tyrion looks away in shame, Oberyn seizes his face, forcing him to look up, announcing 'The Lannisters aren't the only ones who pay their debts.'

The lead-up to this freakish wedding is going to be tense, with the Lannisters forced to extend hospitality to this most resentful of guests who is nestled at the heart of their clan.

But we soon leave the wintry world of castles and furs. In the last season we saw Daenerys Targaryen - whose name is easier to spell than pronounce - going forth into the deserts as a young widow, accompanied by a band of followers and some dragon hatchlings. Now, the dragons have roared into leathery, colourful dinosaurs and are no longer little cuties. 'They can never be tamed,' warns Jorah, 'not even by their mother.'

With these fiery companions and a new army, the prospect has changed for Daenerys who has surged in strength since the end of last season, but it won't be a straightforward trek across the sands for her. On their march the army find the grey and shrunken body of a child nailed to a wooden post. They inform Daenerys that 160 more have been found hanging along the road, one for every mile of the journey. Her attendants rush to cut them down and protect their queen from the sight, but she demands they stop. She will see the bodies, offer respect to the dead, and will not flinch from horror.

She is no longer the pale child bride but a warrior queen and will continue on her long march to claim the Iron Throne.

This episode was packed with all the blood and horses and swords and sex we expect from Game of Thrones but was sometimes frustrating to watch. Too much was happening and the story hopped madly from one strand to another. A hundred things were occurring and so a hundred plates had to be kept spinning. These were surely just the necessary mechanics of a new season - resuming old plots and cracking open new ones - but there was never the deep satisfaction of an episode devoted purely to storytelling. This one was a workhorse rather than a unicorn.

The season premiere was a 'simulcast' meaning it was shown in America on HBO at the same time as British TV broadcast it on Sky Atlantic. This was touted as a great treat for the British fans as we are normally lagging a day behind the Americans, and so have to spend an uncomfortable few hours dodging spoilers and clamping our hands over our ears. The idea of the simulcast was that the fans would put the kettle on together, settle on the sofa at the same time, and then start watching, gasping and tweeting en masse. However, whilst it's a nice idea, I question whether many fans were devoted enough to stay up till 3am on Sunday night when they could just watch Monday's repeat at a sensible time which won't have them waking up with crispy eyes so, really, the idea of the 'simulcast' wasn't a unifying treat but just a way to dissuade illegal downloaders.

The way we watch TV has changed so drastically now, that most people will probably just have recorded the Sunday premiere, or will wait for Monday's repeat, or maybe watch it later on catch-up, or perhaps just buy the eventual DVD or, of course, download it illegally. We are no longer gathered round the TV together, switching the kettle on at the ad breaks to shake the National Grid. Only the fanatics would have been awake at 3am.

It'd be nice to believe we all watched it together but our smart methods of viewing mean most of us were probably in bed at a sensible hour and snoozily oblivious to the transatlantic furore.

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