When Game of Thrones has worked brilliantly over the past three seasons, it’s because an individual episode will manage to rein in all the disparate characters and locations and find a unifying plot point or theme to unite them. Episodes like ‘Blackwater’ and ‘Rains of Castamere’ perfectly illustrated how all various playing pieces on the board in Westeros are singularly defined and connected by major moments of conflict, especially since the first season of the show was all about sundering what connection these characters had to each other.
In this opening episode, ‘Two Swords’, the connection is far more thematic, and works as a perfect illustration to the state of the disunion after the events at the end of Season Three. Strangely, much is given away before the episode even begins properly. The opening previously on covers much of the obvious – Joffrey’s a monster, Daenerys has an army, the Red Wedding – but also some less so, as we’re reminded of seemingly innocuous moments, like Ser Dontos being saved by Sansa’s goodwill in the opening episode to Season Two. Additionally, there’s the relationship with Shae and Tyrion, which audiences are more aware of, but given that he’s now (forcibly) married to Sansa and the relationship over, it seems odd that the show runners would want to remind us how much Shae means to Tyrion.
Then we’re treated to an interesting montage, that cross-cuts between the pilot and the penultimate episodes of Season One. Nedd Stark’s ceremonial broadsword Ice, first used to execute a deserter, then on Nedd’s own neck, the sword becomes our visual entry into Season Four. In a cold open, Tywin Lannister melts down the sword and burns the wolf-pelt sheath, and out of its molten steel he forges two new swords. It’s a moment heavy with symbolism, and the score echoes this with a refrain of the Rains of Castamere, establishing clearly that the Lannisters have managed to seize the world, and now control it. Tywin has brought destruction, to make the world his own way, and this episode is largely about the consequences of Tywin’s actions.
All this before the credits. And with the credits, in the now familiar trawling across the lands of Westeros, we’re treated to an odd departure from tradition. Usually, the opening credits would hover over the areas of the map that would be featured most in each episode. Each credit sequence then was unique. In this, however, we travel to King’s Landing, Dragonstone, the Dreadfort, Winterfell, the Wall, and Meereen. Only two of these locations are actually visited in the episode. There’s something in this, I think, in that the vast movements of armies and individuals in previous seasons is seemingly over, and this season will potentially be more stable, location-wise. If not, it’s odd that they would feature these places in the credits.
King’s Landing really is the major location of this episode. The vast majority of scenes occur there, with only brief trips to Daenerys in the Summer Isles, to the North, and the Riverlands. For the most part, we’re witnessing the growing discord between Jaime Lannister and his family. Tywin presents Jaime with one of the newly forged swords, as a retirement gift from the Kingsguard, but Jaime will have none of it. Through this scene, a later one with Cersei, and then with Joffrey, Jaime is positioned in opposition to his family, or at least those who he was tied to previously. It’s a part of his character that has been building since the pilot episode, but realised only now.
Tyrion, always the bastard, is also still pushed aside. He’s now Master of Coin, sent on an errand to welcome the incoming Dornish convoy, here for Joffrey’s wedding. Sansa wants nothing to do with him, Shae is causing him trouble, and while his marriage was seen as a way of making Sansa a Lannister, it’s actually aligned Tyrion more with the Starks than ever before. He and Jaime appear to be the only true familial connection in the Lannisters now, and Tywin’s reign is presented not as victorious, but shaky in this episode.
The Dornish, only on the edges of the story until now, have arrived, and we’re provided with one of the more entertaining moments of the episode. Prince Oberyn is introduced to us in true Game of Thrones fashion, in Littlefinger’s brothel. Except we can get a latch onto the character as someone unexpected, given how this ‘normal’ scene of debauchery is then turned on its head. Oberyn turns first from trying to bed women, to men, and then to challenging some Lannisters next door for daring to sing Rains of Castamere through the walls. Just as Oberyn puts a knife through a Lannister wrist, Tyrion arrives to interrupt, and let Oberyn provide the audience with some context.
He and his family, the Martells, have typically aligned themselves with the Lannisters, but Tywin’s actions, particularly in supporting Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane who raped Oberyn’s sister before butchering her. He’s a fascinating character, upon this introduction, and given to us with efficient wit and danger, threatening for someone so close to the royal family.
There’s some brief moments with Cersei who makes Jaime a golden hand, and Margaery and Brienne who are united in their loyal loathing of Joffrey and Stannis. Joffrey, meanwhile, is doing his best to look like he’s been dressed in Maria Von Trapp’s finest curtains, and irritate anyone within spitting distance.
Sansa runs into Ser Dontos (remember?), who drunkenly gives her a necklace as thanks for saving his life so long ago. It’s an odd moment, and jarring for both readers and non-readers, given the character’s long-ago introduction. Regardless, Sansa is thankful, though there is an air of convenience around the whole thing, given that Dontos waited until now.
Elsewhere, Daenerys is finding her dragons more dangerous, and uncontrollable. It’s a wonderfully visual moment, and sets up some conflict for her character, in what is probably the most tonally discordant strand of the plot. She’s still battling off her various male escorts, but just enough so that we can get a grip on Daario, who has been recast with a different actor.
In the North, Ygritte and Tormund are south of the Wall, awaiting Mance Rayder’s attack from the north. They meet up with the Thenns, who are another invention/extrapolation from the books. Hairless, pale and covered in keloid scarring, they’re also presented as cannibals, and fearsome even to the wildlings. I’m curious as to why they’ve been introduced, though it does give a greater threat to the looming attack on Castle Black, where Jon Snow is returned and being questioned over his time with the wildlings. It’s a token gesture, just long enough to reiterate the threat of on the wall, and reintroduce Ser Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt, as well as drop some sort of hint that Maester Aemon used to live in King’s Landing. Brief, and to the point.
But the coup de grace belongs to Arya and The Hound, Sandor Clegane. In the longest sequence of the episode, the odd couple arrive at an inn in the Riverlands, currently occupied by five Lannister soldiers, including Polliver, who dragged Arya off to Harrenhal a while back. Arya is keen on revenge, and so too, it seems, is The Hound. Rory McCann has been nailing this character since Season One, and it’s great to see him get excellent scenes like this to work off.
It’s a brutal scene, and each death resonates, as The Hound takes the Lannister men on and takes them down, except for two, who Arya sees to. It’s designed to make us cheer in Arya’s vengeance, after so many episodes of her being bundled off by one group or another, she’s finally able to put actions behind her words. Her taking back of Needle, the sword that Jon Snow made for her, is a reclamation of the episode’s first image, the destruction of Ice. However, Arya’s growing sociopathy as a soldier on the field of war signifies the endless repercussions of Tywin’s actions. He may destroy a sword, or a family, but they come back.
There has been a growing trend in the series for the deaths to become less and less ritualistic and ceremonial, and the Red Wedding made murder commonplace and all too easy. This scene with The Hound and Arya is basically the net result of that. The overwhelming impression of the episode is that the Lannisters are now the family at the front, but that means they’ve vulnerable and under threat for once. The House Lannister saying, ‘a Lannister always pays his debts’, appears violently ironic now, with all of Westeros lining up to make the Lannisters pay what’s owed.
- Valar Morghulis: five Lannister men, including Polliver, taken down by Arya and The Hound in the Riverlands. Nobody important died, thankfully.
- Bran, Meera, Jojen and Hodor not sighted. Neither were Theon, the Boltons, Stannis, Davos and Melisandre. Given that the books now separate characters, we may well see more episodes that focus on a smaller group, rather than canvassing the whole.
- Best line goes to The Hound: ‘What the fuck’s a Lommy?’ He’s responding to Arya, who is remembering how Lommy died because of Polliver’s cruelty. Remember Lommy? Nah. The Hound is right to voice what we’re all thinking, when asked to emotionally connect with a minor role a few seasons back.