Poor Ned Stark. Just when we thought he could suffer no greater posthumous indignity — when last we saw his bones, they were stashed in a box that’s presumably going to linger forever in the depths of Walder Frey’s nefarious coat check — Season 4 of Game of Thrones begins with the sight of the last Lord of Winterfell’s mighty broadsword being smelted in a raging fire. It was a canny way for Maesters Benioff and Weiss to begin another year in Westeros: with an image that served as both its own grisly recap of where we’ve been and a tease as to where we might be headed. It also was a definitive reminder of where we are now: marooned in a realm that is utterly under the thumb of the Hand of the King.
Tywin Lannister is the steel that girds the Iron Throne. Importing a blacksmith may have been necessary to split Ned’s sword in two, but the radical thinking behind it was all Tywin’s. This is a changed world; the old gods still hold sway, but new methods are now required to hold on to power. Ever since Bran Stark dropped like a dead raven out of a tower window, those who remained attached to outmoded concepts like “honor,” “loyalty,” and “revenge” have lost — some figuratively, others their lives. The current winners in the titular Game of Thrones are those who are willing to play fast and loose with the rules. So far, this has meant good things for Tywin, a man who uses his children as bargaining chips and orders wholesale slaughter with the stroke of a pen. It takes a flexible mind like his to consider the fearsome symbology of a giant Valyrian sword and realize that two sharper blades are a lot better than a single, clunky one. Maybe not at representing anything, but definitely in terms of killing. Which, when you think about it, is really all that ought to be required of a sword.
Yet why did Tywin’s victory lap in the opening moments of “Two Swords” feel so much like the end of something? Perhaps it was because, after an entire season of watching him wreak havoc by longhand, someone finally insisted on a rewrite. Jaime Lannister’s time in captivity changed him mightily. (As he says to Brienne, since returning, “every Lannister I’ve seen has been a pain in my arse.”) By refusing his father’s demand to become his rightful heir, Jaime drove his blade right into the heart of Tywin’s one vulnerability: time. As this season begins, Tywin is the most powerful man in Westeros, but he’s just one man. And, thanks to HBO’s current advertising blitz, we all know what happens to them. Tywin can move the chess pieces to the perfect spots, but he can’t control them once they’re there. And the next generation of threats — dragons to the east, wildlings and White Walkers to the north and, right under his nose, imps and little girls — all have plans of their own. “The war is over. The king is safe,” Tywin intones in the voice of someone unfamiliar with the legal teachings of House Murphy. “The king is never safe,” Jaime replies. He should know: He’s already killed one himself.
One way to regard Tywin Lannister is with fear. Another way is with patience. He’s an old man with a lunatic grandson on the throne, an alcoholic depressive daughter upstairs, and two sons: the one he disdains and the one he just disowned. The future of Westeros can’t be written. At least not from behind a desk.
Just as Tywin can’t control what’s coming, neither can we anticipate it. It’s foolish to make predictions at the start of a new season of Game of Thrones, other than “really terrible things will happen.” (Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’ve read the George R.R. Martin books upon which the series is based — and get ready for nine more weeks of me reminding you that I haven’t.) Still, I can’t shake the feeling this will be the year when the old Game board is finally tossed aside completely, revealing an even more chaotic and fearsome competition in its stead. The deaths of Robb and Cat Stark eliminated the last of the dreamers. Those remaining are either hardened realists like Tywin and the Hound, scarred survivors like Jon Snow and his half-sisters, Arya and Sansa, flexible outcasts like Tyrion and Shae, or those representing something completely new, like vision-questing Bran (who was MIA this episode) and saber-rattling Daenerys. (I suppose you could also add one more category: those who look completely new, like Daario Naharis, who ended last season looking like this and now has morphed into the junkie busker from Treme.) I’m hoping this will be the year the corners of Thrones’s ever-expanding map finally begin to fold in on themselves, allowing for collisions, connections, and the settling of scores that have been years in the making.
But as I wrote last week, I’m not going to spend these first hours of Season 4 mentally fast-forwarding. Just as there’s a wrong way to play the Game of Thrones, there’s certainly a wrong way to watch it. The show’s many pleasures tend to culminate in jaw-dropping moments like the Red Wedding, but they surely aren’t limited to them. Some may find the disjointed, expository nature of a Thrones premiere exhausting or at least inferior to whatever bloodbath it inevitably leads to. But I actually prefer this quieter, throat-clearing version of the show. There’s a fun “getting the band back together” feel to hours like “Two Swords.” They provide a chance to both see and feel the great sweep of the show’s canvas: Here is Ygritte, licking her emotional wounds by licking her arrows, and here is Jon Snow telling his elders exactly how much he’s learned to go on top of the “nothing” he once knew. These episodes offer room for the small character beats that might not make it out of the editing suite later in the season, like the delightful wit and wisdom of Bronn (“I’d probably go to sleep but I’m getting old”), the budding bromance between Daario and Grey Worm, or Lady Olenna gawping at the sight of Brienne as if she were the world’s tallest lemon cake.
But hours like these are also the best showcases for the real skill required to adapt and run a series like Game of Thrones — which is to say “Game of Thrones,” because there’s never been a series quite like this, certainly not in ambition or in execution. Take, for example, the introduction of Prince Oberyn Martell, an alluring, pansexual libertine with revenge on his mind. (Thanks to Pedro Pascal’s wriggly performance, Oberyn reminded me of Inigo Montoya, had he hailed from Sodom instead of Spain.) The expository chatting at Littlefinger’s brothel — spiked with a little bit of stabbing — gobbled up more than eight minutes of screen time, which is more than twice as long as a standard TV scene. It flowed from pure sexposition, in which the baring of acrobatic limbs helped establish Oberyn and his “paramour” Ellaria Sand (the terrific Indira Varma) as truth-telling kink merchants, into a second sub-scene in which Oberyn was given the chance to prove both his anti-Lannister bona fides and his effectiveness with the sharper of the two weapons he keeps near his waist. From there, the action moved outside, to allow Oberyn one more chance to Dornesplain his beef — or should that be mutton? — directly to a crisis-managing Tyrion. Oberyn hates everyone who ever crawled out from beneath Casterly Rock, you see. And even though he’s in town thanks to Lannister largesse, that’s not going to stop him from trying to murder as many of them as possible.
The first time I watched the episode, I was enthralled by the way the scene unfolded: the mix of performative swagger and slow-building menace, the way Oberyn and Ellaria had no time for the subtext — to them, one kind of poking is as good as another. When I watched it a second time, I could suddenly see the seams. I was amazed how declarative it all was, Pascal reading pages of explanatory text that, in the wrong hands, could come off as clunky as a book report. But instead it soared as nimbly as Dany’s dragons. Pitch-perfect performances aside, how is such a thing possible?
In a word: strategy. What makes Game of Thrones such great entertainment is the knottiness of Martin’s story, sure, but also the artful way Benioff and Weiss choose to unspool it. And the sumptuous “Two Swords” was one of the finest examples to date of the elegant way they course out a meal. Think of the appetite-sparking tartness of Jaime’s reunion with his sister/lover Cersei: he with his gold hand, she with her stone heart. Or the dense chewiness of the lopsided Sansa/Tyrion/Shae love triangle. The once ribald Imp is falling deeply in love with responsibility, which, to Shae, is as good as falling in love with Sansa. Not that Sansa would even notice, or care. The once-pampered princess’s epic, self-starving grief (OK, she’s still pampered — do you know how many people in Flea Bottom would riot for a pigeon pie?) appeared like an impenetrable wall, even icier than the one to the north. Ser Dontos’s gift seemed to be the only thing that lifted her spirits. But I wonder if she took it as a sign of her enduring value or for what it really was: a sentimental gesture binding together two ruined houses. Baubles are valuable for Margaery’s wedding. When it comes to addressing the side effect of real life known as misery, they’re as useless as an honest man in the Red Keep.
The episode ended with the reclamation of a third sword: Needle, the thin blade given to Arya by Jon Snow before everyone’s world turned to wildfire. D.B. Weiss directed the hour, and he used claustrophobia and sound to imbue the final tavern showdown with all the delicious tension of a classic Western: Polliver’s thickheaded provocations, the clink of mugs, the gulp of ale, the crying of a woman, the slow, inevitable sizzle of the Hound’s temper. When the violence was over, five men lay dead — the last of whom, Polliver, was dispatched in brutal and theatrical fashion by Arya herself, who recited the words Polliver had once used on her friend Lommy back on the road to Harrenhal. She then pierced Polliver’s throat, a smile flashing on her face as the man died drowning in his own blood.
At the premiere screening of the episode, the crowd of jaded journalists and society types erupted into cheers at this moment, and the adrenaline was undeniable: Finally, a Stark fights back! Arya gets her revenge! The Hound gets his chickens! But look deeper, and an ugliness begins to pool just beneath the blood. Arya is still a child; watching her kill someone, even a prick like Polliver, shouldn’t feel so exhilarating. I hope her buddy comedy with the Hound plays out for a few more weeks at least, if only so that she might learn something other than how to hold her nose around an unwashed knight.
“A man’s got to have a code,” the Hound said just before the stabbing started, echoing another beloved killer who once prowled HBO’s schedule. Left unsaid is that a successful man’s code ought to be one of his own devising, not an outdated oath to a higher power like the one Jaime Lannister swore, or the hot-tempered swearing of revenge that may now have blinded Arya. These are the sorts of oaths and codes that leave little room for fulfillment, let alone survival. In the moment, they can provide armor against the chaos of the world, but they soon reveal themselves as straitjackets. Not all games are worth playing.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]