Game of Thrones Season 4 Ep. 1, “Two Swords”

This week’s episode of Game of Thrones brought to you by pansexuality, the sweetness of revenge, the robust tastes of chicken and human flesh, pretty jewelry and Lannister family values.

Game of Thrones Season 4 presents viewers a wider world than ever. As showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss become old pros at the adaptation game, the series grows wonderfully adept at parceling out storylines. As yet, no drama on TV since The Wire has had as rich a world with as many fascinating characters and as much emotional and allegorical meaning, and only Orange is the New Black exceeds it as a showcase of strong women operating in open or covert defiance of an inherently patriarchal system. In overall quality, only The Americans and Hannibal eclipse it in terms of shows currently airing. “Two Swords” served as an excellent aperitif. For the ease of readers, let’s do this recap by geography.

Tywin Lannister, Hand of the King, melts down the late Eddard Stark’s greatsword Ice and shapes it into two blades. His expression is initially stone, before he allows himself a sickening small smile while burning a direwolf pelt in the forge. He operates under the guise of pragmatism – someone who does the unpleasant in the service of a greater political good. But he’s clearly a clandestine sadist.

That smile makes King Joffrey’s genuine psychosis all the more understandable, to say nothing of Cersei’s pettiness/paranoia and Jaime’s ego. Tywin’s only potential downfall is his adherence to retrograde ideas of legacy, as seen when Jaime (still wisecracking, but humbled by maiming and ashamed of his past crimes) refuses his father’s offer of Casterly Rock’s lordship to remain in the Kingsguard and Tywin disowns him. This poisoned family tree has grown branches that closely resemble nooses.

Only Jaime and Tyrion have chances of thwarting their ancestry. Jaime’s still learning this a bit slowly. He attempts to reignite his relationship (ew) with Cersei (double axel vomit-fest). Then sees how her alcoholism has progressed and how immune she is to reason – blaming him for being captured and “leaving her.” Perhaps he’s understanding how long he’s spent on the wrong side. Joffrey’s mockery of Jaime while the latter attempts to lay out security plans for the royal wedding hammers this home, despite Jaime brushing it off in the moment.

Tyrion, meanwhile, receives misfortune from all angles. He’s serving envoy to the Dornish, specifically the hotheaded, bisexual Prince Oberyn. Despite being the most human of all Lannisters, Oberyn loathes Tywin and his pet monster Gregor Clegane, responsible as they are for the rape-murder of Elia of Dorne. He views Tyrion as an extension of that evil. (Oberyn is introduced in a crackerjack eight-minute scene that shows his sexual hunger and violence – he buys a man and woman to fuck and manages to stab a smug Lannister cousin.)

The Tyrells, Princess Margaery and her venom-tongued hilarious grandmoms Olenna, are busy planning floral arrangements and showcasing their utter contempt for the House into which they are marrying. Which, naturally, is delightful, particularly Margaery’s line about Joffrey thinking a necklace of sparrow heads would be an appropriate gift. We also have our first glance at Brienne of Tarth in (bizarre) civilian garb, looking to find a place in the backstabbing mess of King’s Landing, trying to keep Jaime on the righteous path. (Request for show/books deviation: Please let Jaime and Brienne make out. Or bang. They’re perfect.)

Finally, Sansa Stark, Tyrion’s betrothed, remains deep in mourning for her mother and brother, slaughtered at the Red Wedding. (First acting shout-out: Sophie Turner has never been better than she is here, subtly playing Sansa’s quiet whirlwind of emotions.) She deflects her husband’s attempts at kindness, which is both understandable and heartbreaking to watch. She’s smart enough to know he had no role in their deaths but broken enough to blame him by Lannister association. Later on, her retreat to the royal godswood for reflection is interrupted by a visitor. Dontos, once a knight and now a court jester, visits her to thank her for saving his life two seasons ago, and slips her a gift – a necklace of his mother’s. Why did he wait this long to thank her? Book readers know; I will say nothing.

Back at Castle Black, Jon Snow attempts to deal with the consequences of his time undercover with the wildlings last season. Before a council of elders, he admits to riding with them, killing Quorin Halfhand (at Quorin’s behest, to establish his cover) and sleeping with the wildling woman Ygritte. Ser Alliser Thorne, Jon’s nemesis from Season 1, wants him hung for this, aided in this desire by Janos Slynt, now in the Night’s Watch after Tyrion dismissed him from King’s Landing in Season 2. Fortunately, Jon has Maester Aemon on his side, and even Thorne relents (for now) upon hearing Jon’s intelligence regarding the forthcoming wildling attack on the Wall. (Kit Harington, as Jon, was not always the best actor in Game of Thrones, but he’s coming into his own.)

Elsewhere, the wildling band that made it south of the Wall last season, led by Ygritte and the giant-bearded Tormund Giantsbane, runs into another group sent by the King-Beyond-The-Wall, Mance Rayder. These bizarre beings are Thenns, cannibal psychopaths who make Tormund and Ygritte look like Boy Scouts by comparison. Here we see the tensions between wildling groups that Thorne alludes to when interrogating Jon, and wonder how they could possibly unite.

The three short scenes featuring Daenerys Targaryen and her marching army of Unsullied soldiers and freed slaves don’t unravel much plot. However, they show us that for all her hard-won power and support, she still has a ton to learn. In a brief moment with her hunting, nearly full-grown dragons, when one of them screeches at her she’s reminded that these aren’t pets, but beasts of war that must be carefully controlled.

Her lover/warrior Daario Naharis (recast with Michel Huisman, whose acting abilities far exceed last year’s Ed Skrein) similarly uses a rundown of Essos plantlife, poisonous and otherwise, as a lesson for his beloved Queen. While this scene is total mansplaining, it doesn’t make what he says less valid. Daenerys remains undeterred, though, and isn’t intimidated by the corpses that the Meereenese have left along the road to her next targeted slave city.

The episode ends with a long scene that works as a master class in building tension and relieving it through violent action. Arya Stark and her captor/protector Sandor “The Hound” Clegane are broke and hungry. They come upon a tavern currently occupied by Lannister soldiers, one of whom, Polliver, helped torture prisoners when Arya was captive at Harrenhal and murdered her friend Lommy with her stolen sword.

Arya and The Hound’s banter is as gleefully profane and enjoyable as it was in Season 3’s latter episodes:

Arya: “He killed Lommy.”

Hound: “What the fuck’s a Lommy?”

Arya: “My friend. He did it with my sword. He’s still got it.”

Hound: “Got what?”

Arya: “Needle.”

Hound: “Needle. Of course you named your sword.”

Arya: “Lots of people name their swords.”

Hound: “Lots of cunts…”

Once inside, The Hound attempts to play it cool by pretending Arya is his girl. (Gross, yes, and a reminder of Westeros’s rampant misogyny, but for all his brutality The Hound is neither a rapist nor a pedophile, and in his protection of Sansa Stark during Season 2 he basically served as a male apologist for Joffrey. He basically maintains that role now.) Polliver and his band aren’t buying it, and attempt extortion when Clegane asks for roast chickens. They’re also holding the tavern-keeper’s daughter hostage, intending to rape her.

That don’t go too well for them. Within minutes, The Hound is carving up four of Polliver’s men and smashing their teeth in. Here we have the only moment of disgusting violence in a fairly quiet episode, with Clegane stabbing a man repeatedly in the face at close range and tearing off his nose in the process. Arya takes care of the remaining two Lannister soldiers, including Polliver, reclaiming her sword and impaling him from the throat to the back of the skull. It’s both an exciting moment on a base/id level and a reminder of how truly cold and vicious Arya has become. While Game of Thrones never makes its real-world political parallels obvious, it’s hard not to think that in our universe, child soldiers and terrorists are usually made, like Arya, through personal tragedy, not born. Her cause is just, but she is not – and probably won’t ever be – an agent of justice, only furious vengeance.

Missing this episode: Stannis Baratheon, Davos and Melisandre (on their way to the North); Theon Greyjoy/Reek (imprisoned by Roose and Ramsay Bolton, likely half-insane); Yara Greyjoy and the ironmen (searching for Theon); Bran Stark, the Reed twins and Hodor (beyond the Wall); Rickon Stark and Osha (hiding in the North).

MVP Awards: Arya and The Hound (tie), with an honorable mention for Prince Oberyn.

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