Game of Thrones 4.01 Review – Two Swords

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Directed by: D. B. Weiss

Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

As far as Game of Thrones premiere episodes go, “Two Swords” is probably the best since the pilot. “Winter is Coming” worked very well as our introduction into the word of Thrones, as among other things, its focus was quite narrow. Since then, the writers have been plagued with the tendency to bring the viewers up to speed with as many characters as they can within an hour, oftentimes nonsensically and to the detriment of the episode’s cohesion. However, thankfully that is not the case here.

“Two Swords” is the second episode directed by Benioff & Weiss, and it’s a nice return to the high standard they set themselves with “Walk of Punishment” last season. The pacing is quite solid throughout, and everything just seems to click together very well in easing viewers back into Westeros before moving forward more quickly in the coming weeks. It is quite heavy on recapitulation and exposition, but that is only to be expected in such a sprawling show after a year between seasons.

The cold open is a masterful work of symbolism, and accurately sets the tone for what should now quite obviously be a Lannister-centric season. As The Rains of Castamere plays ominously, the ancient heirloom of the Starks is reforged (by the hand of Tommy Dunne, Game of Thrones‘ Weapons Master, who has his second cameo of the show here) into two new weapons for Lannister use. Despite the inaccuracies of just how a sword is forged/reforged, the scene does its job well. As the wolf pelt sheath burns – and the Stark legacy with it – Tywin looks on in pride; his enemy vanquished, his own legacy augmented. It is no coincidence that the episode is bookended with two swords; Ice symbolizing the final dissolution of House Stark, and Needle representing the hope of a possible rejuvenation through Arya.

One aspect of the episode that stood out was the use of wide, scenic shots. These have been sorely lacking in previous seasons. Now that the ever-increasing budget can (presumably) facilitate them, we may finally see Westeros and Essos getting the expansive scope they deserve. Make no mistake, this is a massive land, and at times I have felt that the sheer scale of the word hasn’t been accurately portrayed in past seasons. The best of these establishing shots was obviously that of Arya and The Hound riding off into the pillaged remains of the Riverlands/Northern countryside, although the various shots of King’s Landing, the road to Meereen, and the crags around which the wildings were hanging all deserve worthy mentions.

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Storywise, I felt that most of the plot threads for this season were appropriately teased. Top of the list is Oberyn Martell, the famed Red Viper of Dorne, who has come to the capital in search of vengeance for the murder of his sister and her children. With all of the hype surrounding the casting of Pedro Pascal, one could easily worry that the on-screen character might not meet the high expectations. However, such feelings were thankfully misplaced. The Red Viper is such a memorable character in A Storm of Swords, and Pascal confidently brings all of the brashness and emotional weight required. His introduction (along with his paramour Ellaria Sand, played by beautiful Rome alumnus Indira Varma) is one of the most memorable character introductions in the show thus far, and he is instantly likable and intriguing. Yes, it is a pity that we don’t get the extended conversation he and Tyrion have on the road to King’s Landing as in the book, but this is one moment where the show really proves true the common understanding that on-screen, actions often speak louder than words.

Tyrion didn’t have anything of note to do in this episode, yet it is never a pity to see Peter Dinklage in action; he clearly relishes his scenes. One problem I did have, however – although it is so small as to almost not warrant mentioning – was that the Tyrion of the books would probably not have resisted Shae’s sexual invitation. Speaking of Shae (and avoiding delving too far into spoiler territory), I do like that the tension in the Tyrion/Sansa/Shae triangle is ever-increasing – it will make more sense in the long run.

Sansa’s scenes see the return of Ser Dontos, who we last saw in his Captain America-esque armor in the second season premiere, “The North Remembers”. It’s invigorating to finally see Sansa smile out of pure happiness, her situation has been continually tragic and difficult, a political difficulty that often goes over viewers’ heads. Since I’ve mentioned Sansa, it did unnerve me slightly to see Jaime revert to his smarmy past self in conversation about her situation as he and Brienne observed her in the godswood. At this stage in the book, Jaime is a much more solemn man due to recent events, and may not have acted as such with Brienne…however, we will never know, as at this stage in the book, he and Brienne are still en route to the capital. But I digress, I am by no means a book-thumper, and fully understand and appreciate most of the adaptive choices so far. On top of that, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie have such glorious chemistry together, and are great to watch regardless of context. A brief note on Brienne before moving onto Jaime’s scenes: while it was a delight to witness her scenes with both Olenna and Margaery (the latter’s being a welcome callback to their previous relationship-via-Renly in season 2), they didn’t serve any ulterior purpose, and seemed shoehorned in simply because the writers were excited at the prospect of these starkly different women interacting.

The cracks between Jaime and his other family members (minus Tyrion, and I can’t wait for their scenes together) are beginning to show. Narrative awkwardness as to why these conversations are only happening now as opposed to when Jaime returned notwithstanding, both Tywin and Cersei clearly view him in a very different light than they did the proud lion in shining armor he was back in season 1. His loss of a hand provides Tywin with a perfect excuse to release him from his Kingsguard vows (which Tywin has always wanted), so he can assume his rightful place as lord of Casterly Rock, and uphold the Lannister legacy once Tywin passes. This scene provides a stunning contrast to the one other scene Tywin and Jaime have shared, back in “You Win or You Die”. In season 1, Jaime is initially cocky, but eventually defers to Tywin’s judgment. In “Two Swords”, Jaime rejects his father’s non-offer, not to spite the family or uphold his besmirched honor, but because he believes it’s the right thing to do. His time spent with Brienne (and the horrors that went with it) have changed him for the better, and his is one of the more fascinating arcs. Also, before I forget, the scene in the White Tower between Jaime, Joffrey and Meryn Trant (the ever-underappreciated Ian Beattie!) was one of my favorites of the episode. While the reminiscence over past Kingsguard Lord Commanders happens in Jaime’s head in A Storm of Swords, it was a great idea to give it to Joffrey as yet another moment of villainy. I’m sure many a book reader jumped to attention at the mentions of Arthur Dayne and Dunk the Lunk, two characters firmly rooted in the history of Westeros.

Near the Wall, we’re introduced to the cannibalistic Thenns, an alien and untrustworthy tribe of wildlings from the far north. Russian actor Yuri Kolokolnikov instantly makes an impression as Styr, Magnar of Thenn, their intimidating leader. Anyone who can get Tormund Giantsbane’s attention can sure as hell get our attention. At Castle Black itself, Kit Harington seems to have finally inhabited Jon’s character as he should. Just as Jaime had a powerful arc last season, this season belongs to Jon, and Harington’s newfound stronger charisma bodes well for the future. Viewers will recognize Owen Teale returning as Alliser Thorne, and Dominic Carter as Janos Slynt, former commander of the King’s Landing City Watch, who Tyrion so gracefully sent to the Wall in season 2. Their distrust for Jon after his extended stay with Mance’s host should prove to be an interesting development as the season continues.

gameofthrones14_04__1396886606_80.111.179.106This won’t be a popular opinion, but I think Daenerys – like Bran, Theon and others – could have sat this episode out. While the CGI was top class – and incredible to behold on a TV show – and it’s an interesting tease that her dragons are no longer the tame little pets from previous seasons, the screentime could have been better spent elsewhere. Most of her scenes served only to reacquaint viewers with the newly recast Daario Naharis, now played by Treme alumnus Michiel Huisman. A recasting of a character as in-your-face of Daario is always going to be difficult to handle, and while it wasn’t done perfectly here, neither was it a disaster. While I am a fan of Huisman (he’s honestly a great actor), and I think he will be a good Daario in the long run, he just seems a bit too normal. Daario is a ridiculous character, and while Ed Skrein‘s version was toned down, Huisman’s seems to be a man of a completely different attitude. The relationship between him and Dany feels different than what was established last season. However, I think we should forgive this minor misstep, and give Mr. Huisman the chance he deserves. Judging by his past work of playing insufferable sleazeballs (see Sonny in Treme), he is definitely a great fit on paper for Daario.

The final scenes of the episode upped the pace considerably, and give credence to the claims of the cast and crew that this season will be a lot more action packed than before. Rory McCann continues to nail his role as The Hound. Too often in the past his character has been subdued by the script, but it’s in well-written moments such as the inn confrontation that he really shines. As an aside, he has obviously been catching up with his HBO shows, because he was channeling two of the best in his scenes here (see Bunk Moreland’s “A man must have a code” in The Wire, and Bill Hickok’s “cunt mouth” poker monologue in Deadwood). We see both the return and departure of Andy Kellegher as Polliver, as Arya firmly delivers Stark justice upon him. The fight scene is one of the better ones so far – in that it actually feels like a fight rather than a carefully choreographed sequence of maneuvers – due in part to its claustrophobic and scrappy nature. As much as we may root and cheer for Arya in situations such as this, it should also be clear that she is still a child, and very deeply damaged. Her satisfaction in killing, as much as it makes for great television, signifies that she is on an extremely dark path, one which the company of The Hound will only further facilitate. All in all, this scene is a thrilling end to a solid premiere episode. It’s good to be back.

Here’s a preview for next week’s episode, “The Lion and the Rose”: 

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