Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 1 - “Two Swords”
April 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be going that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
When Arya Stark and The Hound ride up to that end in the final sequence of “Two Swords,” she is on his horse, a prisoner agitating for her freedom more out of a sense of will than out of any likelihood her pleas will be heard by her captor. Her situation has gone from bad to worse pretty much since she witnessed the death of her father, Ned Stark, back in season one. Arya has seen the dark side of Westeros, the part that chews up the weak and spits them out, and it has changed her. But she has not let it break her. When Arya and The Hound leave that Inn, she rides her own horse, and carries with her, for the first time since season two, her very own sword. She has exacted revenge on one of her enemies, and earned the respect of Sandor Clegane. The point being, that on Game of Thrones, things change. Alliances shift. Nothing is stable except the fact that no one can be trusted.
We reenter the world of Westeros as The War of Five Kings seems to be waning. Renly Baratheon is dead. Robb Stark is dead. Stannis Baratheon has been broken at the Battle of the Blackwater. The Lannisters prepare to cement their alliance with the Tyrells,and to clench ever tighter on the power they have seized. Yet out in the wilderness, in the world that Arya has grown accustomed to, Westeros is still scarred, burned and broken, the landscape covered with bodies of those who have fallen in the conflict or the chaos that has followed it. Even steps from the palace where King Joffrey prepares to marry his bride, the people starve, crime is rampant. All is not well in this kingdom, even if the war is experiencing an intermission.
“Two Swords” opens with Tywin Lannister coldly melting down Ice, Ned Stark’s sword and one of the few blades of Valyrian steel that still existed. He turns Ice into those titular weapons, and hands one off to Jaime, speaking of legacy and of the newest triumph of House Lannister (Tywin has long craved a Valyrian weapon for the family). Tywin instructs Jaime that he will be removed from the King’s Guard and sent back to rule over Casterly Rock, but Jaime refuses. He is not the man that went off to fight in his father’s war. He is not the golden boy who shared his sister’s bed, who had the admiration of Joffrey, and the grudging respect of the rest of the King’s Guard. He is a broken man, a one-armed warrior who has lost the thing that defined him, and found himself in the process. Jaime Lannister’s name is mud throughout Westeros. He is called Oathbreaker, and he is hated. But he has stopped hating himself. He has seen that he can be better than he was, and though he attracts vitriol from his family for it, Jaime Lannister is trying to be a better man.
Usually, the season premiere of Game of Thrones is scattered, little more than a quick succession of scenes where we check in on all of the characters, across continents, and mostly just see that they still exist. These episodes often serve mostly as reminders for viewers who haven’t visited this world in a while, which may make them handy, but can also make them a bit tedious. “Two Swords” is probably the best premiere since the show’s pilot, though, ditching various plotlines (we don’t see Stannis, Bran, or Theon here, for example) to allow for a greater focus, moving along all of the plotlines at least slightly, and giving itself room to breathe and explore the characters and where they stand.
That also gives the episode time to meditate on how much the ground has shifted beneath these characters. We see Brienne talk with Margaery Tyrell, and are reminded that just two seasons ago, they were both in league with Renly Baratheon, in open rebellion against the king Margaery is now prepared to marry. We see Arya and The Hound’s relationship changing, even if only slightly for the moment. Even over in Essos, we see Dany’s newly formed inner circle (which itself includes former Lannister spy Jorah Mormont and former bodyguard of Joffrey Barristan Selmy) begin to consolidate, even as she grows more accustomed to being a ruler with actual subjects.
And we see the Lannisters, who are by most measures victorious after this Civil War, each of them miserable in their own way (excepting Joffrey, of course, who just makes others miserable). Tywin has back his favorite child, only to be disappointed by him. Cersei is furious at Jaime for having abandoned her, and is still drinking too much. Tyrion is respected by no one, perhaps least of all his wife Sansa. No one, not even their subjects, loved the Lannisters.
Which brings us to Oberyn Martell, perhaps the most significant introduction in “Two Swords.” A Prince of Dorne, Oberyn arrives in the capital ostensibly to attend the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery, but he wastes no time establishing his real motive: to seek revenge against the Lannisters for the rape and murder of his sister Elia Martell. In one of those beautiful monologues Game of Thrones does so well, we learn that Elia was the wife of Rhaegar Targaryen, and that she was raped and murdered by The Mountain, Gregor Clegane, during the sack of King’s Landing. Her death was almost certainly ordered by Tywin Lannister. So while Oberyn is there as an envoy of Dorne, to attend the wedding, he has other things on his mind, and immediately lets Tyrion know he will be a threat to everything House Lannister holds dear. The War of the Five Kings may be declared virtually over tonight, but Oberyn’s presence, and his fiery anger, serve as a reminder that nothing ends quite so easily. Robert’s Rebellion was over twenty years ago at this point, and Oberyn Martell is still on a mission of vengeance. What remnants of this last conflict may come back to haunt its victors? Can they possibly see them coming when they are too busy embroiled in their own intra-family struggles?
That brings us back to Arya Stark, who kills Polliver tonight with a glint in her eye that says this brings her some triumph. If anyone is likely to become The War of Five Kings equivalent of Oberyn Martell, it is young Arya Stark, who has slowly grown into a stone-cold killer, and whose list of enemies is a long and powerful one. Actions have consequences. War leaves survivors, and those survivors tend to have long memories. Bitterness builds up over time. Anger and strife can pass from generation to generation. The Lannisters can barely hold themselves together; that they have kept Westeros from splintering is due largely to subterfuge, betrayal, and the fact that they can buy off many of their enemies. But the hatred they leave in their wake will come back to get them, no matter how many swords they have forged from the weapons of their vanquished enemies.
- -“I suppose you want the sword back.” “Keep it. A one-handed man with
no family needs all the help he can get.”
- -“Your famous for fucking half of Westeros, you’ve just arrived in
King’s Landing after two weeks of bad road. Where would you go?” “I’d
probably go to sleep, but then, I’m getting old.”
- -“Why not use the right words? I’m a bastard, she’s a whore.”
- -“Which was do you like it?” “My way.”
- -“What are you, his hired killer?” “Used to be. Now, a knight.” “How
did that come to pass?” “Killed the right people, I guess.”
- -“Tell your father I’m here. And tell him the Lannisters aren’t the
only ones who pay their debts.”
- -“I don’t pray anymore. It’s the only place I can go where people don’t
talk to me.”
- -“I murdered people so I could be here with you!” “You took too long.”
- -“You always know when a man is lying. How did you acquire this magic
power?” “I grew up in King’s Landing.”
- -“Someone forgot to write down all your great deeds.” “There’s still time.”
- -“You lived your life for the king. You gonna die for some chickens?”
- SPOILERS: The various conversations about the wedding, and the fact that next week’s episode is called “The Lion and the Rose” make me think we are in for a doozy next Sunday. We also open this season with Tywin Lannister coldly destroying a valuable memento of an enemy to secure his legacy. Since this will be Tywin’s last season on the show, and since his efforts at legacy-making will prove his undoing at the hands of his son, I thought this was an excellent choice. Sansa also cannily foreshadows Lady Stoneheart by explicitly explaining how Catelyn Stark’s body was disposed of.