I’ve been a Game of Thrones fan for so long it’s often hard to tell whether I like an episode because it’s genuinely good, or because I’ve been telling everyone I know for years that this is the best show on TV, based on the best fantasy series in print. And as many have pointed out in the run-up to season four, Game of Thrones has firmly established its mood, complexity, and general quality by now; it may waver from episode to episode, but the feel of it is remarkably consistent. Still, it says something that as the credits began to roll, I found myself thinking I’d actually forgotten how good this show is.
First off: the characters. There are dozens of them, but co-showrunners (and “Two Swords” co-writers/directors) David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make sure each one leaves an impression despite their limited screen time. Take that fabulous opening scene: what could be more Machiavellian, more purely Tywin Lannister than melting down the precious metal in Robb Stark’s sword and splitting it in two? The cold open makes for some great Lord of the Rings-style forging imagery, but it’s also a quick refresher course on the Seven Kingdoms’ reigning patriarch. Tywin is as ruthless as he is practical, symbolically spitting on Robb’s grave even as he secures a status symbol for his family. Two status symbols, in fact: why make one Valyrian steel sword when there’s more than enough metal to split it in half?
One iconic credit sequence later, and we’re ready to spend the lion’s share—no pun intended—of the premiere back in King’s Landing. With Robb slaughtered and Jaime returned in less than one piece, the capital is now home to most of the show’s surviving characters. Beyond its shock value of killing off Robb, Catelyn, and any hope of revenge for Ned, the Red Wedding has the interesting side effect of trimming Game of Thrones back down to manageable size. It also has an enormous impact on Westerosi politics: where seasons past were concerned with how wars start and how they’re fought, “Two Swords” shifts the focus to peace, albeit an uneasy one.
The Stark camp has been annihilated, and Stannis hasn’t been a contender since the Battle of the Blackwater. While the latter remains blessedly offscreen, that frees the Lannisters to prepare for the royal wedding. Tyrion, ever his dad’s whipping boy, gets saddled with the task of greeting the prince of Dorne, albeit not the one he was expecting.
Oberyn Martell is Game of Thrones‘s newest player, and his entry into the field gives us our first glimpse at an honest-to-gods Westerosi ethnic minority. Given how disastrously race has been handled over in the Daenerys plot—Dany tames the raping savages! Dany frees the slaves!— Oberyn, Ellaria, and the other Dornishmen represent an opportunity to improve on the series’ second most-criticized flaw. (Gratuitous nudity/sexposition critics, unfortunately, will find little to love in that whorehouse scene.)
As ever, Benioff and Weiss’s world-building is top notch. There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em racist jokes, including a particularly colorful one suggesting Oberyn would be better off with a goat than a prostitute. The prince, his “paramour,” and the nobleman Tyrion meets all seem to share an identical accent. But the costumes are a masterful touch, suggesting a culture that’s definitely separate from Westeros, but not as separate as, say, Qarth. If Westeros is Europe, specifically England, then Dorne appears to be some mix of Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. On the other hand, Game of Thrones‘s newest non-white characters aren’t handled perfectly; Edward Said would have a stroke if he ever watched the bisexual-buffet-under-floating-curtains scene.
While Tyrion is dealing with his guest, the other Lannister son is adjusting to his new circumstances. Jaime knows that his life will never be the same after losing his right hand, but as his one-on-one with Cersei shows, some part of him believed everything would go back to normal once the twins were reunited. But Cersei gives him the rude awakening he’s had coming since he returned to King’s Landing. “Everything’s changed,” she snarls, though not before giving the Internet the Lena-Headey-swigging-wine GIF it deserves. Which means that just as Jaime’s gradual moral awakening leads him to recommit himself to the Kingsguard, his final tie with the cocky, debonair Kingslayer he used to be is brutally cut off. Jaime now stands alone: no father, no sister, no lover, just a lifetime of celibacy and protecting a kid who will never respect him, either as a parent or a Lord Commander.
One of Game of Thrones‘ great virtues is its ability to make the kind of scumbags who murder children and start wars sympathetic; even so, I’m surprised how much I’m rooting for Jaime and Cersei as a couple at this point. Whatever their flaws, the elder Lannister siblings have loved each other with their family’s signature ferocity their entire lives. Few romances on Game of Thrones have such staying power. It’s thus painful to see a decades-long relationship dissipate, even if it’s an incestuous one between two people on such opposite moral trajectories.
Part of the strength of “Two Swords” is that (intentionally, I’m sure) it skims over or leaves out less action-packed story lines in favor of the fan favorites. We’ll pay for that later, but for now, bask in the millions of dollars’ worth of special effects that give us Dany’s rapidly growing dragons—and a revamped Daario Naharis, who looks less like a male model and more like a worthy verbal sparring partner. The exchanges between warrior and commander have a chemistry that’s more than just sexual. Daario is the only one of Dany’s lieutenants who’s not completely deferential to her, and like his fellow sellsword Bronn, he has a canny sensibility that’s a good compliment to Jorah and Barristan’s high-minded approach to warfare. It may have been a flirtation tactic, but Daario’s flower bouquet “strategy” is an important piece of advice Dany hasn’t heard yet: she’s running about liberating a land she barely knows, and that may well backfire on her in the near future.
A brief check-in at the Wall tells us what we already know: Jon will be reluctantly accepted back into the Night’s Watch, and Tormund’s still hanging around with Ygritte, plus a pack of ritually scarred cannibals. That leaves us with Arya and the Hound, my personal favorite of this show’s odd couples (sorry, Jaime and Brienne, “AB-solutely SING-ular” though she may be). Despite their comically opposite physical types, Arya and Sandor are in fact very, very similar. Both are blunt; both have little patience for etiquette or naivete. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy given the influence he’ll inevitably have on his charge, but it’s easy to see Arya growing up to be a lot like the Hound when she’s older. He’s just a more extreme version of her.
The blowout brawl at the inn, then, merely cements their inevitable semi-friendship. Game of Thrones wasn’t about to make it through a premiere without including both sex and violence, and the duo’s faceoff with Polliver happens to incorporate the obligatory gore into the plot rather nicely. Arya gets a revenge murder under her belt, Sandor acts like the killing machine he is, and the whole thing is filmed in the kind of disorienting, up-close fashion that this show constantly uses to deglamorize warfare. (Sex, of course, is overglamorized, but we’ll pick our battles.)
And together, they ride off into the sunset. Welcome back to Westeros!