This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email toddvdw at gmail dot com or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and he’ll take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
From one perspective, the one Tywin Lannister would have us subscribe to, “Two Swords” is the first look at a Westeros under Lannister rule. As far as the Hand is concerned, all challengers to the Iron Throne are defeated or in the grave: Stannis Baratheon was soundly defeated all that time ago at Blackwater, and the last known remnant of House Stark has been married away to his least favorite son. And with the weddings of Joffrey and Cersei on the horizon, power is all but consolidated under the banner of the lion. “Peace” is the watchword of “Two Swords,” and the characters at King’s Landing are insistent about establishing an air of harmony and tranquility, as sunny as those shores whose water is no longer glowing an unearthly shade of chartreuse.
But that’s one of the great things about Game Of Thrones’ far-flung characters and multiple POVs—we don’t have to believe everything Charles Dance tells us. Because if this world truly was at peace, then George R.R. Martin could keep lounging about in his velvet-lined Grotto of Not Writing, as the TV show would be over and the author wouldn’t have to worry about churning out additional literary source material. In truth, unrest persists in Westeros, just as it persists within Tywin’s own family. With the aftershocks of the Red Wedding still reverberating, the Tyrells consigned to subplot, and the Baratheons (legitimate Baratheons, at least) nowhere to be seen, the Lannisters get to be this week’s spotlight Game Of Thrones soap opera—and it’s fucking delicious. “Two Swords” sets the stage for the season to come, so it’s necessarily talky—but when that talk involves two members of House Lannister, it’s compelling on a sniping, intimate level that suggests there’s a great family drama called Always Pays His Debts pounding away within Game Of Thrones.
In this time of “peace,” enemies amass within and without King’s Landing, but a Lannister’s most dangerous adversary is another Lannister. Tywin and Joffrey appear to be the only members of the family who are on good terms right now, but we don’t even see them interact this week; otherwise, there’s a lot of disagreement and withering sarcasm and cheap shots at Jaime’s missing hand. Cersei’s half in the goblet when her brother-lover pays her a call (and who wouldn’t be, given her current situation?), and there’s a sense that as juicy and entertaining as anything involving a Lannister is this week, it’d be even more juicy and entertaining if they were all this drunk. Technically, the king and his hand (that has to sting every time Jaime hears it) are drunk with power, but “Two Swords” awoke in me a previously unknown desire to see a Game of Thrones version of Girls’ “Beach House,” in which Dance, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Jack Gleeson decamp to some seaside Lannister retreat, raid the wine cellar, and bitch about all of the various ways they’ve disappointed one another. (Of course, that can’t happen, because there’s no way that weekend ends without Tywin poisoning the lot of ’em.)
With a script by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the season premiere splits itself pretty evenly among the realm overseen by Benioff and Weiss—yet it still feels like a Lannister-centric hour. That might have to do with how the impact of its many checkpoints is felt most acutely by Jaime and Tyrion. They’re each dealing with a new status quo, neither of which they decided for themselves: Jaime’s status within his father’s army and his relationship with his sister were altered while he was away; Tyrion, meanwhile, struggles to keep Sansa from feeling like a prisoner while failing to acknowledge the painful bit of captivity his true love, Shae, is railing against. Season three was the year that Coster-Waldau truly came into his own as Jaime, and that sense of vulnerability and world weariness carries over to his scenes here. Now that they’re in the same space again, it’s fascinating to see how Jaime and Tyrion have almost become equals in the eyes of their father and their kingdom. I hope they get to share some moments of wounded cynicism together later in the season.
Not every character gets a compelling catch-up, but the world of the show has grown so large that many of the major players can’t get more than five minutes of screentime. And that world continues to grow as the people of Dorne arrive for the royal wedding—their main emissaries in “Two Swords” being Oberyn Martell and his paramour, Ellaria. Oberyn’s vendetta against the Lannisters (an Inigo Montoya vibe given a nice, psychotic edge by Pedro Pascal) gives him a decent point of integration in his scene opposite Tyrion. Less elegant is the sexposition Oberyn and Ellaria engage in under Littlefinger’s roof, which answers the Martells’ bloodlust with their lascivious appetites—but four seasons into Game Of Thrones, is it really a surprise that anyone in Westeros has lascivious appetites?
Excess and lack of self-control is better explored in the way certain reliable symbols of the Game Of Thrones universe are starting to break down. In Daenerys’ first scene of the season, she’s reminded that dragons cannot be tamed—“not even by their mother.” And it turns out the oath of The Night’s Watch isn’t as sacrosanct as Jon Snow was lead to believe, as the men weighing his traitorous offenses among the Free Folk basically scoff away the whole “chastity” deal. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” indeed.
And then there are the “Two Swords” of the title, which ostensibly refers to the pair of blades Tywin’s smiths forge from Ice, the Valyrian steel beauty that was both Ned Stark’s most trusted weapon and the sword that took his head. The whole mythology surrounding Valyrian steel is that it’s basically indestructible, and only the most experienced weaponmakers can rework. Right off the bat, season four sends the viewer a signal: Forget the Westeros you knew. 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 from where “Mhysa” left off. Fortunes have risen and fallen while we were away, and the awful power of King Joffrey seeps deeply into the Seven Kingdoms.
What we have taken for granted about Game Of Thrones may have changed, but “Two Swords” also ends on a circular note: Arya Stark, in possession of Needle once more, exacting vengeance for Lommy and crossing one of the names off of her “prayer” list. From one perspective, “Two Swords” and the weapons it describes belong to the Lannisters. From another, the episode is bookended by scenes about two swords belonging to the Starks. If we want to go even deeper into the significance of the title, it could refer to Needle and the executioner’s sword avoided by Jon Snow (for the time being). From that angle, “Two Swords” stealthily belongs to the Starks—who are down, but not out. That’s an enticingly rich way to begin a season.
- Welcome to the newbies reviews of Game Of Thrones fourth season. David Sims left some big shoes (big, New York Knicks-colored shoes) to fill with his coverage of the first three seasons, but I’ll try my best to make them fit. I’m not one for mixing it up in the comments, but if you need to raise an issue with a review or want to dig deeper into an episode, you can find me on Twitter.
- I’d also watch a spin-off devoted exclusively to soon-to-be-new-best-friends Brienne of Tarth and Olenna Tyrell. Diana Rigg continues to do so much with so little dialogue, and her “My word!” at Gwendoline Christie’s entrance is priceless.
- What body parts are being eaten on Game Of Thrones this week? An arm, tantalizingly served up on a spit by the Thenns encountered by Ygritte and Tormund.
- “If we beheaded every ranger who lay with a girl, the wall would be manned by headless men.”—Honestly, I think that might be more intimidating than Jon Snow and friends.