I’ll be posting recaps of each episode in season four the Monday after they air. If you’d like to follow the series, I’ll be tagging them “GoT S4 Recap” and you can see the full series of posts here.
This is probably my favorite season-opening episode of Game of Thrones to date. Like the season two and three openers, “Two Swords” feels a little slow, functioning both as a recap of the previous season’s events and an introduction to season four. The episode also marks D.B. Weiss’s first time directing, and he’s done a superb job, from the first transition to the opening titles to the final shot of devastation in the Riverlands.
My biggest complaint about this episode is that one enormous thing that I wanted to see happen didn’t, but this isn’t truly a complaint about what did happen, which was almost without exception excellent.
Full recap, with spoilers, under the cut.
The episode starts with Tywin Lannister pulling Ned Stark’s greatsword, Ice, from a sheath made of a wolf pelt while “The Rains of Castamere” plays quietly and somewhat ominously (but also maybe triumphantly) in the background. The sword is broken and melted down, then poured into a cast for two new blades, and we see Tywin take the wolf pelt sheath and throw it into a fire. It’s a scene just packed with symbolism and meaning, and there’s no dialogue at all–just beautifully shot imagery and a perfect piece of music. It’s absolutely not what I wanted to see as the opening scene of the season, but it’s such a wonderful scene that I can’t complain. It’s a great way to really convey the most important event of season three–the fall of the Starks and the rise of the Lannisters–and the colors of the forge and the tune of “The Rains of Castamere” transition deftly into the opening credits.
Over the course of season three, we saw several changes to the opening credits sequence, and they’ve changed again for the start of the fourth season. Primarily, the world has (slightly, anyway) contracted again. Riverrun and the Twins are gone from the game board at the moment, being replaced with the Dreadfort in the North (although they’re still including the smoking ruins of Winterfell). Across the Narrow Sea, Astapor and Yunkai have given way to Meereen, which will be Daenerys’s next target.
Straight from the credits, we return to King’s Landing, where Tywin has given one of the new Valyrian steel swords to Jaime. Tywin also wants Jaime to quit the Kingsguard and return to Casterly Rock to take his place as ruler of the Lannister family’s lands. Jaime, however, will have none of this. He intends to remain in the Kingsguard, reminding his father that the Kingsguard serves for life, and Tywin promptly disowns him. Tywin does let Jaime keep the sword, though, stating acidly that “a one-handed man with no family needs all the help he can get.”
Meanwhile, Tyrion, Bronn and Podrick are on the road outside King’s Landing, waiting for a contingent of wedding guests to arrive from the far southern kingdom of Dorne. One thing I noticed immediately was that this scene has been scaled down considerably for the show from what is described in the book, which is a little disappointing although I suppose it makes sense to film this scene as cheaply as possible and save the budget for big battles and so on. Nonetheless, I feel like this scene was so diminished that it unfortunately downplays the importance of the arrival of Prince Oberyn, who, it turns out, isn’t even with the main company of Dornishmen. I did like that they included Podrick’s listing off of the various sigils of the Dornish houses; I can’t imagine that they will be important later, but it helps to create a more fully realised world for the show and it’s something that readers of the books will appreciate.
Of course Prince Oberyn is at Littlefinger’s brothel, along with his lover, Ellaria Sand, and they’re introduced in the middle of picking out a prostitute. Now, in general I’m not a fan of the brothel at all, but I’m pretty sure that this scene is the best use of this set so far. Some reviewers considered this to be “sexposition,” but I think it’s something a step above that. Yes, we get to see some boobs, but the insights that we’re given here into Oberyn, his character, and his relationship with Ellaria are valuable ones that I think this scene worked well to convey without stepping over the line to being gross. Mostly, I was just pleased to see Oberyn’s canonical bisexuality confirmed on the show. Game of Thrones has never shied away from including homosexuality, so I had no reason to think that they would erase this side of Oberyn and Ellaria’s relationship, but it’s still nice to see in a genre show.
Before Oberyn and Ellaria get to the good part of their brothel experience, Oberyn hears someone singing “The Rains of Castamere” in the next room. And so we get to see that Oberyn is dangerous as well as sexy. He’s just stabbed one of the offending Lannisters through the wrist when Tyrion, Bronn and Podrick show up. There’s a great moment between Oberyn and Bronn here as introductions are made, and then Oberyn and Tyrion walk outside to have a talk. This conversation might be the most important piece of exposition in the episode, with Oberyn talking about his sister Elia, Rhaegar Targaryen, and the reason why Oberyn hates the Lannisters so much. Also, “Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts” was a great line.
Next up, we travel across the Narrow Sea to see what Daenerys is up to. She’s sitting on a rock with Drogon’s head in her lap while Viserion and Rhaegal fly above them. All of the dragons have grown considerably, but Drogon, now around the size of a large horse, is by far the largest of the three. The dragons are also getting wilder and more dangerous as they grow, which is never more evident than when Drogon turns and snaps at Daenerys when she tries to calm him when he gets aggressive over a bit of food. It’s quickly becoming apparent that these animals are not pets and can’t be truly tamed, even by their mother.
From here, this Daenerys segment goes swiftly downhill. She and her army are making their way toward Meereen, and Daario and Grey Worm are holding up the whole process while they have some pointless competition going to determine which of them gets to ride next to Dany on the way to the city. I will say that the new actor playing Daario looks much better than the old one ever did, but I’m so far unimpressed with him. The only potentially interesting thing happening with this group is Grey Worm’s apparent infatuation with Missandei. I like the idea of the show exploring a romance between these two characters, but I’m skeptical that this is actually what we’re going to see over the course of the season.
Back in King’s Landing, Sansa is not dealing well with the deaths of her mother and brother. She’s not sleeping or eating, and she looks pale and red-eyed still, weeks after the Red Wedding. The most striking change in Sansa, however, is that everything she says seems to now be tinged with an undercurrent of frustrated rage. Tyrion is at a loss as to how to help her. Although he seems to sincerely want to do something, there’s really nothing he could possibly do for his young wife, who just wants to be left alone. Sansa finally gets fed up with his solicitousness and goes to the godswood, but not before informing him, “I don’t pray anymore. It’s the only place I can go where people don’t talk to me.”
Tyrion returns to his rooms, where he finds Shae waiting to pounce on him. He, on the other hand, isn’t in the mood and rejects her advances. Shae accuses him of wanting her to leave, and while Tyrion doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she accuses him of trying to pay her off with the diamonds that Varys once offered her he also isn’t able to give her the assurance that she wants that he still wants her. Shae rages a little over this and stalks out of the room. Unbeknownst to either of them, the entire exchange is overheard by Sansa’s other maid.
Elsewhere in the Red Keep, Qyburn is fitting Jaime with a new golden hand that Cersei has had commissioned for him. I like that the show is already setting up the intimacy between Cersei and Qyburn, who will become a much more important character later on. After Qyburn leaves, Jaime points out Cersei’s increased drinking, prompting Cersei to explain that she’s been under a lot of stress. The writers worked in a reminder here that Myrcella was sent to Dorne, but I doubt this means we’ll get to see her this season. Jaime tries to seduce Cersei, but it turns out that she’s really, and rather unreasonably, angry with him for what she seems to feel is his abandonment of her. “You took too long,” Cersei insists, when Jaime points out that he’s done nothing but try to get back to her, and it’s obvious that their relationship has been irrevocably changed.
In the North, Ygritte and Tormund are waiting for word from Mance Rayder about the impending attack on the Wall. In short order, a group of Thenns arrive, led by Styr, the Magnar of Thenn. Tormund “fucking hate[s] Thenns” and we immediately see why. Styr is a man of few words, huge and covered with terrifying scars. After answering Tormund’s questions with grunts, Styr does manage to wax eloquent about the quality of meat south of the Wall and we see that the Thenns have brought dinner with them: crow meat.
At the Wall, Jon is grieving for his brother Robb. I like this conversation between Sam and Jon an awful lot, although I missed seeing (or even hearing about) Gilly. Jon also has to explain himself to Alliser Thorne, who is acting Lord Commander, Alliser’s new toady Janos Slynt, and Maester Aemon. Thorne and Slynt would like to have Jon executed for breaking his vows, and they don’t believe him that Mance Rayder is planning on attacking in force, but Maester Aemon intercedes.
After this, it’s back to King’s Landing again, where Olenna Tyrell is trying to find just the right jewels for her grandaughter to get married in. This scene turns into something wonderful when Brienne shows up, hoping to speak with Margaery. I love how enthusiastic Olenna is about Brienne, and I love how Olenna’s approval so quickly helps to put Brienne at ease in what is clearly an uncomfortable situation for her.
There is a truly, hilariously awful statue of Joffrey with his foot on top of a dead wolf in the garden.
Our first scene of Joffrey in season four is him being simply terrible to Jaime, who is trying to work out arrangements for security at the upcoming royal wedding. Joffrey flips through the Kingsguard’s Book of Brothers to point out that Jaime’s entry is woefully short compared to some of the other legendary knights contained in its pages. This scene is interesting to me because it’s invented for the show, but what it communicates is something that occurred with Jaime in a room by himself in the book. Here, Joffrey voices what in the book was only in Jaime’s head. It’s a good way to include, in spirit, anyway, some part of that internal monologue. It also gives us the only scene we’ve gotten in the show so far where Jaime and Joffrey interact with each other, which means that Jaime will have a sense of what Joffrey is going forward.
We go back again to Dany on the road to Meereen, where Daario is shamelessly flirting with her. He brings her a blue rose, which will feel meaningful to book readers, but otherwise I found this scene profoundly uninteresting. New Daario is definitely better looking than old Daario, but I’m really not feeling any chemistry between him and Daenerys. This might be because I never understood Daario’s appeal to Dany in the books, either, to be honest. After this brief interlude, Dany gets back to the front of the column to find that the Meereenese leaders have marked the road to the city–with the bodies of dead slave children at every mile marker. Barristan and Jorah would have them removed, but Daenerys insists on seeing them all before they are buried. The Meereenese may have thought to dissuade Dany from coming to their city, but this only deepens her resolve.
Again back to King’s Landing, where Jaime and Brienne are watching Sansa from an overlook above the Godswood. I love all interactions between Jaime and Brienne and this is no different, as Brienne urges Jaime to remember his oath to Catelyn Stark to protect her daughters.
Down in the godswood, Sansa is being followed by Ser Dontos, the drunken knight she saved at Joffrey’s nameday tournament. He gives her the gift of a necklace with purple stones that he claims is an old family heirloom. I’m a little disappointed that we haven’t gotten to see more of Sansa and Dontos in the godswood, but I think it would have made for terribly boring television if they’d tried to include it the way that it happened in the book. This scene was alright, and it gets Sansa the amethyst necklace (though in the book it was a hair net), which is really what matters.
The episode closes with Arya and the Hound, who are making their way towards the Vale of Arryn, where Sandor hopes to sell Arya to her aunt Lysa. Arya is bemoaning her lack of a horse of her own when they come upon an inn with several horses outside. They’re hiding in the woods, scouting the place out, when out walks someone Arya recognizes: Polliver, who took her sword, Needle, and killed Lommy. Arya is determined to get her sword back, and heads to the inn before Sandor can stop her. Inside the inn, Polliver recognizes the Hound and comes over to brag about how he and his men have been pillaging, raping, and torturing their way through the countryside. While this is going on, there’s essentially a rape taking place in the background, which actually pissed me off because it felt so unnecessary and gross. I don’t quite understand why they felt the need to overlay Polliver’s accounts of torture and pillaging over the sounds of an actual woman in horrible distress. It’s deeply unsettling and not in a good way.
Long story short, Sandor picks a fight with Polliver, and while Sandor fights the rest of the men, Arya manages to retrieve Needle and kill Polliver herself.
The final shot of the episode is Arya and the Hound riding off into what looks like basically a smoldering wasteland, and I both like it and think it’s a little over the top. It’s an incredibly dark and bleak ending to this season opener, but I think it works.