Monday, April 7, 2014

Game of Thrones Season 4 Episode 1 "Two Swords" Review

You know what the most awful spoiler machine of all is? “Previously on Game of Thrones”. Seriously, the short recap practically tells you the most important plot details in advance. Or were you surprised that Arya met Polliver in the closing scenes of the episode after we saw him murdering Lommy again, in that recap back to season 2 (a long time ago, in a television set far, far away)? But let’s get serious. Last Sunday’s season opener for Game of Thrones’ fourth consecutive season, “Two Swords”, was all about establishment. Establishment of plotlines, of characters and of locations.
A little sun, a dragon, a new dress - ya know, the usual.

Game of Thrones could sell its season four DVD set as “King’s Landing Edition” right now, since that’s where the meat of the action happens now that the whole northern plotline has been cleaved. You haven’t forgotten the Red Wedding, haven’t you? If you did, HBO kindly recapped it on “Previously on Game of Thrones”, just to get the sweet, sweet agony again for a moment. We start off being reminded just who exactly Tywin Lannister is, who, in a scene working perfectly without a single dialogue spoken, unceremoniously melts in Ice, Eddard Stark’s old Valyrian greatsword (which he will later pragmatically dub “absurdly large”) and burns the wolf pelt that Eddard proudly wore. He’s not a nice guy, all right. In the credits, we get our first glimpses of Meereen and the Dreadfort, but we won’t see neither in the episode proper. They will have to wait for episode two, I guess. Instead, the first seventeen minutes of the episode play out entirely in King’s Landing.
And not one minute wasted.
Tyrion is sent to receive Prince Doran who, of course, isn’t coming. Instead, the markedly unfriendly Dornishmen tell them that Oberyn Martell has come, but he arrived already. I miss the dark jab about “How many Dornishmen does it need to start a war”, but perhaps it will come later. Tyrion seeks out Oberyn in the one brothel that exists in King’s Landing (Littlefinger’s joint) where Oberyn and Ellaria Sand work hard at dethroning Bronn as the audience’s favorite badass characters. They’re preparing for a nice foursome when two Lannister guards are stupid enough to sing “The Rains of Castamere”, and only Tyrion’s arrival prevents more bloodshed and lets Oberyn’s new badass image intact. What follows is one of the best expositionary dialogues in a while when Oberyn explains the backstory of Elia and Rhaegar and reminds Tyrion that “not only the Lannisters pays their debts”. Chilling to the bone and very promising of more dialogue to come, especially since we can expect the resolving of this particular storyline only late in the season.
Sex and killing, what else is there?
Jaime, we are informed, is in King’s Landing for several weeks now and has a real penis ache which he hopes to cure with his sister, but Cersei rebuts him cruelly, telling him he should have fled sooner and that now “it is too late”. Jaime doesn’t understand at first, and the acting in this scene is just short of grandiose. Cersei is on the brink, psychologically more than just a little stressed and resorting to whine, lashing out against everyone coming near her. Jaime tries to get back to his former self, but the façade doesn’t really hold up. There is only a hint of the hurt he suffered in his smiling, but it’s there for those who want to see. The scene also gently reminds us of Qyburn’s existence who surely will play a larger role in the things to come.
Plus, he's brown-haired now for some reason.
Tyrion also tries to console Sansa Stark. While he seems to be doing a pretty good job all things considered, Sansa’s obviously not about to forget the murder of her family, as she tacitly reminds him. All his consoling gets him is the ire of Shae, who’s getting increasingly jealous, and the treachery of a serving maid informing on Cersei. Tyrion also neglects to dig in the matter who presented Shae with the jewelry she thinks comes from him. I’d take the guess he’s going to regret that. I have to say, though, that “jealous Shae” just doesn’t seem right to me, and the routine is wearing off a bit. Not that it was bad, mind you, I’m just not really convinced by their relationship.
Here's Shae the Jealous Whore.
In a very small scene, Brienne of Tarth talks to Margaery about Renly’s death, who doesn’t really seem to care that much about the shadow story but also doesn’t really grieve about Renly. I guess the harder conversation is still to come, but Loras was conspicuously absent from the scene.
Several inches of awkward.
Jaime, in the meantime, is presented with the new Valyrian sword (sadly unnamed) by his father, who wants him to rule at the Rock. Jaime, of course, refuses, citing the honor of the Kingsguard, and his father disowns him while still giving him the sword (“A one-armed man without friends or family needs all the help he can get”, oh Tywin). I don’t really understand why they didn’t use the stronger dialogue from the book here – “Go, Ser, and do your duty” – but it works nonetheless, especially in contrast to the face-to-face with Joffrey who gives some exposition on the White Book while reminding Jaime ever so casually that he sucked in battle and was taken captive while he single-handedly rescued the realm. Brat.
Oh yeah, totally did that on my own.
Speaking of things that work, Daenerys’ storyline also gets real traction. We first get a piece of her being “Khaleesi” again (to use an Unsullied term), introducing us to the new Daario Nahaaris, who works, I guess, but lacks the “guy from another world” thing that his predecessor had. Just a matter of taste, hut I’d prefer Essos to be less Westeros-ish. We get two really good pieces in this episode with Dany: the dragons are getting unruly, with Drogon snapping at Dany when she tries to calm him, and the children pointing at Meereen. God, this was a haunting image.
I think there's some retaliation coming, Missandei.
Arya, on the other hand, is still on the road with the Hound. After a little banter where he essentially confirms his status as a badass with a sword (“You murder little boys, but theft is below you?” “Man’s gotta have a code.”), the two of them come across a tavern in which Polliver and his companions are just having a nice little plunder and rape. The Hound doesn’t want to engage them, but Arya sees Polliver and Needle (in a hilarious position as he and a comrade empty their bladders in a high stream) and wants to get at them.
On the road again.
In the tavern, there is an intense moment of cat and mouse where both sides pretend not to know the other. Polliver tries to recruit the Hound for the march back to King’s Landing, raping along the way, but the Hound just empties the jugs and finally starts hostilities by stating a simple “Fuck the king”. It’s not entirely clear whether or not the soldiers are really trying to recruit him or not; in the books, they wanted to get him for “Ser” from the start. Here, they seem a little bit more oblivious. The scene works regardless, as Sandor is fighting them pretty well until he requires Arya’s assistance, which is granted – albeit reluctantly. I’m not quite sure whether Arya hesitates because of the fighting situation (she’s never been in one) or because of the fact that she’s aid the Hound (or both), but finally she gets her revenge on Polliver, forcing him to say the words (“you have to carry me”) before stabbing him in the throat like he did Lommy.
Stabbing people since Season 1.
At this point, we most likely want to get back to the “Mercy”-Chapter that George R. R. Martin released just a few days prior, in which Arya kills Raff the Sweetling in a similar fashion (Sean T. Collins and I discussed it on Boiled Leather Audio Hour). The kill works in both versions, but the show omits the sexual context. Arya is threatened to be raped by the soldiers, but it she’s clearly uncomfortable with the idea and not (yet) ready to play stuff like that. Wonder if the show will ever go there.

Meanwhile, south of the Wall, Tormund chides Ygritte for not killing Jon Snow when she could “hit a rabbit in the eye at 200 yards”, a conversation that’s a bit awkward taking place weeks after the incident and is then conveniently broke off by the arrival of the Thenns. They are visually set apart from the rest of the wildlings we’ve seen by their shaved heads and scary scars, their grunting demeanor and their habits. Everything about them just screams “Orc”, which is why I’m not really excited about them. They are just so clearly evil guys they are boring. This becomes especially poignant when they reveal what they’re carrying and intend to do with in the most painfully slow exposition ever. After some heavy-handed references to being hungry and wanting real meat – like the orcs in “The Two Towers”, just without Hobbits on their back – they’re barbecuing the arm of a dead ranger. Yeah…got it. They’re evil barbarians. Works, like a wrench to the head works. Effective, but not exactly subtle.
"And I was like...whaaaaat?"
The short scene with Jon Snow is better realized: Jon faces trial with Alliser Thorne, Maester Aemon and Janos Slynt (who, for some reason, wasn’t in the “Previously”-section, as if someone remembered him). Slynt is clearly set up to be the new bad guy on the Wall (things will get interesting when other bad guys appear), and at first, their charges at Jon are very one-sided, just like in the books. When Jon gets his story across, though, Slynt wants to ridicule him, but only until he sees Ser Alliser’s face. “Giants? *snicker* snicker* Look at the ranger. *sober face* Really liked that bit, characterizing them with just two facial expressions. Jon admits freely to all sins and broken vows, and Maester Aemon postpones judgement with a quip to his upbringings in King’s Landing, where he learned his ways. End of episode.
What better way to end it than with a Jon-face?
What becomes clear is just how the show aims to get all the Unsullied on board: many aspects are simplified by making characters more easy to grasp (the Thenns, Daario Naharis, etc.) and to convey the mood of certain places by effective visual montages. This of course flattens out some backgrounds from the books, but it was clear from the start that even 70 hours of television couldn’t convey all of it. I have no quarrel with that other than the still a bit botched northern storyline. I sincerely hope it gets better treatment than in previous seasons.

What the show continues to do really well is to keep the sprawling cast together in the viewer’s mind and to give the characters clear-cut personalities. In small, short scenes in witty dialogue or with facial expressions, the essentials of every character are very well transported – just take the melting of Ice to flesh out Tywin yet a little bit more or the small exchanges with Jaime and Cersei. All in all, the season got off to a strong start with the promise to even amp up the value.


  1. Heartsbane of HornhillApril 8, 2014 at 1:09 AM

    With all the marathons I cant remember if it was the actual episode or in the preview for two swords, but they showed the scene where Tyrion banished Slynt.

    Pretty accurate accounting of events in the episode. Funny that QoT & Marge were looking at necklaces, and low and behold Dontos shows up with a necklace for Sansa.

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