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There was a casual, almost languid pacing to “Two Swords”, the Season Four premiere of Game Of Thrones. It was a solid episode that re-introduced us to our favorite — and not-so-favorite — characters, as well as brought us up to speed on a few new ones. After the tumult of the past few seasons, it helped to re-center the series, allowing us to catch up to each character and locale, while also setting the stage for the next round of machinations and turmoil.
It began in King’s Landing, where the Lannisters, despite their gruesome victory over the Starks, remain ill at ease, mostly for reasons of their own creation. Tywin prepares a new sword for Jaime, one forged out of stolen steel and the creatures of dying houses, a gift for the man he hoped his son would become. Yet as is always the case, his children never quite live up to his expectations, and Jaime refuses his offer to return to Casterly Rock. Jaime is a man without purpose now — spurned by his sister, loathed by his bastard son (who has somehow gotten even more despicable), disdained by his father, a swordsman without a hand and a lord without a home. Yet there’s still a lingering nobility to him, and he chooses to manifest it in his stubborn determination to remain a member of the King’s Guard. For Jaime, duty is all that he has left — family, honor, friendship, love — all of those things elude him, and thus a return to his old post is all he can do.
As for Tyrion, he remains at odds the new life forced upon him by his father. The new Master of Coin is flailing, trying to find his footing — his floundering attempts at diplomacy with the Dornishmen fail miserably (much to the wry Bronn’s glee), and his wife, Sansa, is a hollow shell of a woman. It’s one of the show’s most fitting and cruelest ironies, that Tyrion, the great whoremaster, would be cursed with a bride who loathes his family so vehemently that she could never bear his touch, much less endure his love. Yet Tyrion remains faithful to a woman who could never have any faith in him, while the woman he loves (loved? We can no longer tell) is forced to serve his bride. Shae’s frustrations are turning bitter with each rejected advance, and yet that may well be the least of their problems, as Cersei’s spies linger at every corner.
Tyrion’s greatest obstacle may be the show’s newest character, Oberyn Martell (known in the books as the Red Viper), played absolutely perfectly by Pedro Pascal. We met him in one of Littlefinger’s houses, a man of seductive grace whose sexual appetites appear to be matched only by that of his paramour, Ellaria (Indira Varma). Yet there is a red-hot fury that boils beneath that slithering sensuality, and his brief talk with Tyrion — after mutilating an unsuspecting Lannister bannerman — threatens to bring it raging to the surface. As is often the case, one-on-one encounters with Tyrion are frequently the highlight of a given episode, and this one was no exception. While Tyrion was clearly off-balance, there’s a confidence to Oberyn, a determination that is made even more apparent when he talks of the slaughter of the children of his House, of the horrors committed by the Mountain. Oberyn is here for more than a wedding, one must suspect, and that hunger for vengeance is a terrible and sinister beast lurking within him.
Far away from King’s Landing, trouble continues to brew at the Wall. Jon Snow has grown — as a man, as a soldier, as a Brother of the Night’s Watch, and that growth, that newfound sense of purpose, is what ultimately saves him when he stands trial. It is no small thing to admit the acts that he has committed, and it is only his singular sense of duty and honor that enables him to stare into the faces of his judges, to throw back their accusations and anger. Kit Harrington has always been the weakest of the Stark family actors, yet now that he’s allowed to abandon the persona of the uncertain, lost youngster, he suddenly appeared far more at ease in his role. On the other side of the wall, we found Ygritte and Tormund, warriors in Mance Rayder’s wildling army, conflicted with each other over the treachery of Snow, but also with their new “allies”, the horrific Thenns. Interestingly, the depiction of the Thenns is rather at odds with those of the books — here, they are a tribe of nightmares, scarred and feral and full of grinning menace, eaters of human flesh and trusted by no one, the wildest of Wildlings.
At the other end of the world, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen and her army continue their march, now headed towards Meereen, the great slave city. This was the most jarring sequence, mostly because of Daario 2.0, as the original actor was replaced by Michael Huisman, who is totally different not only in appearance, but also in delivery. It was at first a little off-putting, but his final scene, wherein he deftly charmed a caustically miffed Dany, quickly endeared me to him. As for Daenerys herself, she actually got to be a little playful in this episode, tolerating none of the silliness of Daario and Grey Worm, and using their cockiness as grounds for punishment. Yet we remember, at the end, that her mission is one of horrible purpose, as she finds the road to Meereen lined with crucified corpses. It will not deter her, however, and Emilia Clarke continues to improve, to show Dany as more and more of a queen as time goes on, standing unflinching in the face of such grim deterrents. Dany’s greatest challenge may well be her own children, as her dragons have grown huge and terrifying, creatures who seek her touch one moment, and scream in anger at it in the next.
We closed with the best vignette of the episode and the one that likely was the most anticipated, that of Arya and The Hound. Of all the unlikely pairings that this show has offered over the past three seasons, this is the one that is most unexpected, and yet there’s some absolutely wonderful chemistry between Maisie Williams and the massive Rory McCann. Arya realizes that for now she must remain with him, and yet as we quickly see, she’s not exactly helpless, either. The final scene in the tavern was one that built up gloriously — you could feel the impending violence, as Sandor Clegane stared with empty eyes at the swaggering, arrogant Polliver, as Arya sat at his side, seething silently at every snide remark. And when the Hound finally showed his hand, cursing the king, the room exploded. The Hound fought with such unbridled and unrivaled savagery that to witness him was to witness a veritable force of nature, punching, kicking, stabbing, snapping bones and skulls. Yet despite all of his menace and all of the chaos that he wrought, it was Arya who was the most chilling. There was nothing but a cold, detached hatred in her as she faced Polliver. Giving his words back to him as she reclaimed Needle, she paid him in kind for his cruelties, and she never blinked. And it was capped off with a strange, satisfying charm (horses and chickens for everyone!) as they rode off to whatever’s next.
“The Two Swords” was a stage-setting, and a marvelous one at that. As with so many episodes, the writers and directors manage to cram a ridiculous amount of activity into an all-too-short hour — we didn’t even touch on Sansa and her meeting with the sad drunk Ser Dontas, who tried to give away what little honor he had left, or the fantastic meeting between Brienne, Margaery and the always-amazing Queen Of Thorns. But there will be time for them, for one of the show’s greatest strengths is that it neglects none of its characters, be they doomed or destined for greatness. And so, we returned to this vast, complex, dangerous world, rejoining the ones we loved and hated, and meeting newcomers as well, watching as new plots and schemes unfold as they march once more towards uncertain futures.