Stannis Baratheon was broken by Tyrion Lannister in his failed naval assault on King’s Landing.
Robb Stark and his mother and nearly all of his generals were murdered by the Boltons and the Freys at Twyin Lannister’s behest, during last season’s gruesome Red Wedding.
Joffrey is safe on his throne with Tywin by his side. Being a Lannister, it turns out, isn’t half bad.
Unless, of course, you happen to be any of Twyin’s children. Season 4 reintroduces us to the web of misery inhabited by Tyrion, the Imp, and his twin siblings Cersei and Jaime, none of whom appear to be happy in their current roles.
Tyrion is navigating the treacherous terrain between his family and his new wife, Sansa Stark, in what must be the most uncomfortable in-law situation in the history of Westeros, following the murder of another two members of the Stark family at the hands of the Lannisters.
Meanwhile, Jaime and Cersei have a falling out, with Cersei apparently cutting off ties with her incestuous paramour due to his being “too late” in returning from captivity. I’m not sure this plays as well in the show as it does in the books. Cersei’s earlier desperation to see her brother returned is at odds with her current coolness, and now more than ever Cersei needs allies like Jaime, right hand or no.
As far as episodes of Game of Thrones go, ‘Two Swords” manages to cover lots of ground without ever getting dull. In fact, it’s one of those episodes I wished would keep going—an hour often isn’t long enough for this show.
Like so many season premieres, we get a wide glimpse of the full story; little snippets of what’s going on across Westeros and beyond. Daenerys and her dragons; Arya and the Hound; Jon in his first real rundown with the Night’s Watch; the introduction of Oberyn Martell, the second prince of Dorne. It’s an episode with lots going on, but one that still manages to never feel too rushed or too sparse from one vignette to the next.
This is a tricky balancing act, and one that Game of Thrones isn’t always great at.
Fortunately, Sunday night’s episode manages to pull it off. We’re brought up to date on last season’s bloody fall-out.
Finally Some Backstory
One of the best things about the start to Season 4 is the new hints at the backstory of Westeros and the war and its place in history.
Oberyn Martell informs Tyrion not just that he’s here on vengeance for the Lannisters’ murder of the Targaryen/Martell children during Robert’s rebellion. He also mentions that Rhaegar Targaryen left his wife, Elia Martell, for “another woman.”
[Book Spoilers begin]
Readers may recognize this as Lyanna Stark, Ned Stark’s sister and the likely mother of Jon Snow (the father being Rhaegar.) The show hasn’t hinted much at this relationship or its implications, so this is a remarkable episode in that regard. I’ve been wondering how they’ll introduce these crucial details now that Ned’s gone. Between the Dornish conflict and Bran’s storyline we may find out more.
This also makes me hopeful that we’ll get the bick Barristan/Jorah showdown soon. This would be a ripe time to get more of Barristan’s story out in the open.
[End Book Spoilers]
A Time to Kill
Perhaps the best scene in the episode belonged, once again, to Arya Stark. Arya and The Hound are on their way to the Vale of Arryn where Arya’s (absolutely insane) aunt rules. The Hound hopes to sell her off there and be on his way.
Of course, even the best laid plans of hounds and men don’t always come to pass and Arya spots Polliver, one of the Mountain’s men who took her sword, Needle. The ensuing bar fight is bloody and intense, showing off the sheer physicality of The Hound. Even against unfavorable odds, he’s a force to be reckoned with—a good reminder that his brother, the Mountain, is even more deadly.
But it’s also the first time Arya really gets involved in a real fight, and she walks away with three more corpses notched on her belt, looking understandably smug. ”Stick ‘em with the pointy end,” I said, as she did just that onscreen.
We’re beginning to see the bloodier side of the youngest Stark daughter, as well as something of an uneasy camaraderie developing between her and the Hound.
There’s safety in numbers; or perhaps, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Arya needs the Hound still, and he needs her.
North by Northwest
We caught our first glimpse at Jon Snow’s political maze at the Night’s Watch, as they put him on trial for breaking his vows and siding with the enemy. Like everywhere else in Westeros, the Night’s Watch is plagued by self-important, petty leaders eager to see head’s lilting on pikes.
Snow, with the help of Maester Aemon—who also gives us a tiny snippety of backstory—manages to walk free, but we’re introduced to another important conflict.
(Kit Harrington, as Jon Snow, managed to pull off one of his better performances in the process.)
We also get a brief glimpse of wildling politics, as Ygritte and her merry band meet up with an even wilder bunch of wildinglings with a penchant for human meat.
But that’s the North; the meat of the season premiere takes place further south in King’s Landing. Here we meet faces old and new, with Oberyn the most notable of the latter.
Oberyn Martell, a prince of Dorne (or Spain, whatever you want to call it) isn’t precisely as I pictured him. I always imagined the Red Viper as more outlandish; someone who could entrance an entire room with charm and menace in equal measures. HBO’s Oberyn feels smaller by comparison, though not bad by any means. I’m withholding judgment for the time being.
Jaime continues down his road of self-examination, though he’s only too happy to take the Valyrian steel sword his father makes him from the Stark’s blade. Jaime is still in that awkward position of being a really awful human being and wanting to be something better. Brienne of Tarth also makes a brief appearance, urging compassion toward Sansa and vengeance against Stannis.
(Book Spoiler: I suspect one day Brienne will have to face a choice about Stannis, whom she blames for Renly’s murder, who also may be only of the various kings pointing his army in the proper direction. That’d be an interesting twist, in any case, Brienne grudgingly fighting alongside the person she hates most, to do the right thing.)
Notes and Conclusions
The first major, noticeable casting change also helped confused viewers Sunday. A new actor plays mercenary Daario Naharis. This is confusing at first—when Dany scolds Daario and Grey Worm for gambling. But I think the recasting of Ed Skrein, who played Daario last season, is a smart move, confusion or otherwise.
Skrein seemed better suited to a Collective Soul album than to the role of a mercenary and lover to Daenerys. The new Daario, played by Michiel Huisman, is better, though I always pictured Daario as quite a lot larger than life, much more exotic and absurd in his amorous intentions than either Skein or Huisman’s portrayal.
We didn’t see Bran or Rickon. There was no Stannis and no Melisandre. And, luckily, no Theon in captivity. So we didn’t get the full scope of Season 4, but we saw most of it.
All told, a well-paced, economical introduction to the fourth season of Game of Thrones. The episode managed to re-introduce a lot of disparate plot threads, reveal some new characters, and remind viewers what happened last season, all without getting lost in sprawl or tripping over itself. All while looking characteristically expensive and gorgeous.
Big things are coming this season, and the momentum is already building just one episode in. If the series can continue to balance the narrative against top-notch action sequences like the ones we saw tonight, we should be in for a merry—and very bloody—ride.