Game of Thrones has always had a fractured structure, be it the result of having to jump great geographical distances to follow all of its characters, or of cataclysmic, splintering events like the execution of Ned Stark just as he emerged as the show’s seeming focus. Judging from the torpor of “Two Swords,” the fourth-season premiere, the residents of Westeros still haven’t put themselves back together in the wake of the Red Wedding. In a series that regularly undermines the tenets of fantasy, replacing a world of chivalry and duty with one of ceaseless rape and murder, the concept of guest rights may be the last shred of honor to which anyone held, and even those who benefit from Robb Stark’s demise seem to worry over its implications.
By and large, the characters—even an outlier like Daenerys (Emilia Clarke)—seem too stunned to know how to move forward. With an army of freed slaves and her trio of steadily growing dragons in tow, Daenerys aims to topple the next slaver city, but also starts to feel the pressure of managing her influx of new subjects, not only in defending them and prospective converts from vindictive slave owners, but simply tending to their needs and understanding their culture. Back in Westeros, central characters take stock of where they are, from Jon Snow (Kit Harington) defending his apparent defection to his brothers in the Night’s Watch, or the one-handed Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau) slowly realizing how his maiming alters others’ perspective of him. Newcomer Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) does nothing to dispel the show’s exotic treatment of any person of color when he arrives as a lothario ordering women and men alike to join his lover in a brothel. Soon, though, even his sexual predilections seem like one more show of hostility in a grudge against Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), whose disgust with perceived deviancy looks comical compared to the role Oberyn contends Tywin played in the murder of his sister and infant niece and nephew. True to the subdued nature of the episode, a significant new antagonist for the Lannisters arrives wielding passive-aggressiveness, not a sword.
Despite the mostly ignored harassments of the Greyjoys and the holdout claim of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the War of the Five Kings is effectively over by the start of the episode, a turning point reflected in a significantly brightened frame. Outside of Daenerys’s desert-set arc across the Narrow Sea, the sun makes so few appearances on Game of Thrones it should get a special-guest credit whenever it shows up in Westeros, but nearly every scene in “Two Swords,” regardless of geographical location, boasts blue skies. Instead of suggesting some dawning optimism in the series, however, the additional light simply throws everything into harsher contrast, surveying broken environments and broken people to ask what, if anything, was accomplished.
If the editing last season moved between characters at a breathless pace to try to follow the nonstop action, the inter-scene cutting here slightly lingers on every place the camera visits, now searching for someone who appears to know where to go next. This added breathing room allows for observations that sometimes got lost in the previous season’s din. When Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) attempts to convey his sympathies to unwitting wife Sansa (Sophie Turner) by noting how much he admired her mother despite Catelyn’s desire to have him killed, a close-up on the actor’s face lasts just long enough to see him start to flash his usual, wry grin before he stops himself to avoid disrespect. Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) continue to pull off both the grimmest and most endearing double act on the show when they stumble upon, and gruesomely dispatch, some of Arya’s old tormentors. For the orphaned Arya and the AWOL Hound, the war will never end, as evidenced in the way that their scene, with its dark, claustrophobic composition, harks back to the style of last season.
Arya and the Hound remind the audience that things can never go back to normal in Westeros, but the episode’s defining image, and an obvious signifier for the season to come, occurs in the cold open. In the act that gives the episode its title, Tywin has Ice, Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel greatsword, melted down and refashioned into two smaller blades. Compared to the usual seasonal opens, this scene lacks any overt violence, yet the sight of the Stark family heirloom destroyed and divided up makes for a haunting reflection on the show’s depiction of war between noble houses, one that not only forces an enemy into submission, but wipes whole families out of existence. The shots of the sword’s unmaking echo in a later scene of Dany and her army coming upon the first of more than a hundred slave-child corpses set up as grotesque mile markers by defiant noblemen. Wars may be averted or concluded in this world through quaint antiquities like political marriages, but they are just as apt to be outright cleansings.
“Two Swords” may be a placid, uneventful episode by the show’s usual standards, but it nonetheless brims with a sense of measured menace that threatened to be lost in the full-on atrocity exhibition of season three. Game of Thrones enters this season at the top of its game, and by taking the time to acknowledge its characters’ bewilderment, the series suggests a carefully considered plan for moving forward.
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