This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
The last scene of “Two Swords” depicts the Hound and Arya riding away from the inn where they’ve just overwhelmed a small force of men in a fight. One of the men, Polliver, was the guy who took Arya prisoner way back in season two, and she finally has her revenge on him by reminding him of who she is right before she kills him with the sword he took from her. The camera first focuses on the two travelers riding toward us, Arya finally on a little pony of her own, the Hound licking chicken grease off his fingertips. But then we cut away to see them riding from the camera, out into an uncertain landscape, marked by clouds of smoke billowing up from the countryside far below. There, in an image, is where this season of the show is going, I imagine: The War of the Five Kings is largely over, or at least in the beginnings of a considerable intermission, but the scars left by it are not so easily cleaned up. Westeros has been torn apart and ravaged, and even though Joffrey’s claim to the throne seems sound, it’s not as if people are suddenly going to start liking the kid.
That final shot, in a way, serves as a neat bookend to the first, chilling scene, in which Tywin has Ice, Ned’s greatsword of Valyrian steel, melted down and made into two swords, which he hopes will remain in the Lannister family for ages. He gives one to Jaime, as if to underline his point to the rest of the kingdom: This is now the Lannisters’ world; the other characters are forced to live in it. But that includes the Lannisters themselves, who have to pin their hopes to the vain, preening, psychopathic Joffrey, a child ruler so cruel that he taunts his “uncle” for having one hand and having turned 40. In pursuit of power, the Lannisters have ultimately achieved their ends—but they’ve set fire to their own family tree as well.
In the tradition of Game Of Thrones premieres, “Two Swords” is a bit scattered between storylines, trying to make sure we’re caught up on almost everybody. We don’t get a chance to check in with Stannis, but we can presume he’s still licking his wounds from the end of season two. Nor does Theon appear, but that might be a relief. Also missing in action: the Bran crew. Perhaps that’s why this premiere struck me as a distinct improvement over the other three in the series’ history. Perhaps since the show was anointed the most-watched HBO show since The Sopranos, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who also directs here) could breathe a bit more easily about not having to catch everybody up with what’s going on. There’s less clumsy exposition, and the episode isn’t afraid to take its time on, say, that final scene in the inn, which goes on for an eternity in Game Of Thrones time but is all the richer for it.
It also reminds me of the chief peril of reviewing Game Of Thrones on an episodic basis: So much is going on in any given episode, that it becomes tempting to simply turn these articles into a long list of what happened in the episode. Yet at its best, Game Of Thrones finds thematic and narrative links between the characters and storylines, in ways that might be surprising, or might inform us in new ways about what the characters are thinking. One of the pitfalls the show could fall into is the fact that, for the most part, the characters are so geographically scattered that they’re all sort of trapped in their own little television shows. So much of TV is about trying out new character pairings and finding new ways to mix and match the ensemble cast, and Game Of Thrones simply doesn’t have that option. This, in particular, often fells the Dany storylines, which can be labored and unconvincing if Emilia Clarke isn’t surrounded with just the right actors (or, in this episode, just the right special effects, because those dragons were seriously impressive). Where Game Of Thrones overcomes this is in having fascinating characters in all of its location but also in drawing visual and thematic links between them, to underscore for us how they’re all going through similar situations.
In this episode, as mentioned, what’s being underscored is that they’re all living under the terrifying reign of Joffrey Baratheon, who’s about to get married and further consolidate his hold on the throne. (The only character not directly confronted with this reality who appears here is Dany, who nonetheless deals with some similar circumstances when she sees what the citizens of Meereen are capable of.) What’s interesting is how small of a presence Joffrey is in this episode, even as he looms especially large in the backs of the characters’ minds. The conversations between Lannisters—between Tywin and Jaime and Jaime and Cersei, especially—are especially weighted with this knowledge. They may be in power, yes, but it’s because their rule is based on a particularly bad king sitting on the throne, one whose capricious whims must be tolerated, even if, as we see with Tyrion, they don’t find Joffrey honorable or even worth following.
See, you can kill as many competitors for the throne as you like, and you can buy off as many others by creating alliances through marriage. But sooner or later, you have to create a world of peacetime, a world where the commoners can legitimately think their lives are pretty okay, or at least one where you keep them distracted enough with bread and circuses that they don’t start contemplating revolution or anything similar. The other Lannisters know this, but it’s never been clear that Joffrey does. For him, rule is basically one long excuse to get other people to have to be nice to him while he throws taunts and jabs in their general direction. Tyrion and Cersei have gotten used to that, more or less, but it’s clear from the little time Jaime spends with his secret son that he has not.
What’s more, Jaime’s story throughout this episode is about how he defines himself. His journey from captivity and back to King’s Landing with Brienne was one thing, but now that he’s back among the very people where he’s spent most of his life, he finds himself confronting the thought that Cersei may have stopped loving him and that he’s a disappointment to his father without his best sword-fighting hand (and, honestly, may have been a disappointment to him even before then). Uneasy relationships between parents and children run rampant throughout this show now that both Stark parents (and their oldest son) are dead, but the relationship between Tywin and Jaime is especially bitter. Tywin, who’s already got one son he views as an eternal disappointment and/or abomination, can’t believe that Jaime wouldn’t go and sit as the new head of the family, marrying and bearing new heirs. Jaime just wants to stay on the Kingsguard, mostly so he can be near Cersei. But she’s cooled to him, too, even if her reasoning (he “took too long”) seems a bit harsh.
One of the reasons this premiere moves along so well is because so much of it is set in King’s Landing, which has become the series’ richest setting. While we spend plenty of time with the Lannisters, we’re also spending a surprising amount of time with Lannister-by-marriage Sansa, who’s still mourning her brother and mother and isn’t helped by the gentle ministrations of either her husband or Shae (who’s dealing with her own issues now that Tyrion is forcing her to end their relationship). Who does help is the former-Ser Dontos, who provides her with a necklace meant as a memory of a time when his own house seemed like it might be a player on the scene. It was quashed out by bad decisions and drunkenness, and now, its chief memory is with a girl who is too young to remember any of it. And yet by giving Sansa that necklace, perhaps Dontos can preserve what was just long enough for others to remember it.
“Two Swords” is full of those moments where the past is reshaped and reforged by those who lived through it. Ned’s sword gets broken down, while Arya gets to turn one of her darkest moments into a setup for a later triumph. But the past leaves scars, as we see with the introduction of the episode’s one major new character, Oberyn Martell, who hails from the land of Dorne (Westeros’ southernmost state) and is presented here as a kind of pansexual demigod who’s, nonetheless, on a mission of vengeance. See, Oberyn’s sister, Elia, was married to Rhaegar Targaryen, and she died in the previous war, during the sack on King’s Landing. Oberyn’s hoping to obtain justice for her death, and to do so, he’s not above shedding a little Lannister blood. As an important ally that could shift the balance of the kingdom, the Lannisters need to keep Dorne appeased. (Remember how they wed Myrcella off to a prince from there in season two?) But how far does that appeasement go? How long does it take before vengeance runs its course, and everybody is dead?
These are, of course, potent questions for both classical tragedy and for Game Of Thrones, a series where war so marks the characters that they’re still trying to heal the scars from the last one (as we see with Oberyn). For as much as you can vanquish an enemy and turn his greatest weapon into two, much smaller weapons, you can never rebuild every farm that’s been burned or heal every scar on the soul caused when you arrange for the deaths of someone’s mother an sibling. Those things have a way of sticking around and getting stuck in the psyche, until they fester and turn rotten. That’s why this episode ends not with a moment of Lannister triumph, but with a moment of Arya’s triumph, which is, nonetheless, a time when we get to see her at her most terrifying. The world has reshaped a once spirited little girl into someone who can be a stone-cold killer and really damn good at it. War doesn’t leave survivors; it leaves new weapons.
- Welcome, again, to our “experts” reviews for Game Of Thrones. These are primarily intended for those who have read the books (as I have) or have just read all of their summaries on the Wiki of Ice and Fire (as I frequently have when trying to remember something off the top of my head). However, we have a fair number of newbies reading along, and even though there’s much less for us to spoil now that we’re past the Red Wedding, it’s still nice to put spoiler warnings on things of particular import. However, all newbies be aware: Once you read “Here Be Spoilers…” there be spoilers. And I mean it. To all you book readers: Hello! I will never talk as much about minute divergences from the source material as you would like, and I’m sorry. Fortunately, Sonia Saraiya and I are working on something just for you. You might see it in a few weeks. Also: I will almost certainly spell something wrong and/or ask a dumb question that will cause all of you to doubt I can even read my own writing, much less these books.
- Of all of the storylines we drop in on in this episode, the one that most concerns me is Dany’s, which is fine and all but doesn’t have much in the way of momentum, and we know how the show can get that character mired in a pointless slog like none of its other one can. (Okay, maybe Bran.) There’s some good stuff here, but when it comes to supporting casts in the many, many TV shows contained within Game Of Thrones, I don’t think Dany’s supporting players really match up to the others.
- Clumsy exposition alert: “Hey, Maester Aemon, you know all of this stuff, and you can always tell when someone is telling a lie, which is something we all know by now, surely. Can you tell us why?” “I grew up in King’s Landing, which you knew already and probably could have guessed!” “Hopefully, the audience appreciated us telling each other all of this, because they’re the only ones who could have possibly benefited.”
- Back-story corner: For all of you wondering who the fuck those guys the Wildlings ran into were, they’re Thenns. I have absolutely no idea how the show is going to adapt them (with cannibalism, apparently), but in the books, they’re a particularly well-organized “tribe” of Free Folk, who believe in their ruler as an unquestioned god. This, as you can imagine, gets them into all sorts of scrapes, few of which actually occur on the page.
- Adaptation choices corner: Book readers have been freaking out about all of the changes to Arya’s story that the show has wrought (occasionally pointlessly) since roughly the middle of season two. Sure, things need to be condensed, but the show has also occasionally seemed to sand off some of the character’s rougher edges. And, yes, this episode finally culminates with the scene from the books where Arya repeats something someone once said to them while killing them viciously. Is it as fraught with emotions as the book’s version? No. But I think it’s in the spirit of those books without turning us against Arya forever (since onscreen adaptations tend to make things so literal that they can be hard to take), and Maisie Williams sells the hell out of it.
- The technical elements of this show, of course, are superb, but I really love how the costume department always puts Joffrey in the most ridiculous outfits when he’s being a total dick. It just underlines how soft and pompous he is, in addition to being a total a-hole.
- I don’t know why Jaime wants a hook. That metal hand is something I would gladly wear.
Here be spoilers! (Book spoilers follow):
- We’ll start with a mild one to chase off any of the non-readers who are still dallying below the header, even though we told them not to. It was very exciting to me when I watched this episode to see that the show was indicating Joffrey’s wedding was coming very soon, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
- I think it’s also a really bold choice to open the season with Tywin, because this season will also include his death at the hands of his son. (But, see, non-readers who are still reading, you don’t know which one yet. Just kidding, it’s Tyrion. But you asked for it.)
- Also some neat foreshadowing, assuming the show gets to Lady Stoneheart at some point this season (and it almost certainly will): Sansa mentions that her mother’s neck was cut, and she was dumped into a river, which is where she’s found when she’s resurrected.