Game of Thrones season four begins with Tywin Lannister melting down a blade of Valyrian steel and throwing the pelt of a wolf that once protected the sword into a fire. The greatsword is Ice, the house sword of the Stark family and, despite what is about to be shown, it is the first of the episode’s titular “Two Swords.”
A smith removes the hilt and heats Ice to its melting point before pouring it into a mould. Two new weapons are being made out of the legendary Valyrian blade, a practical act mostly of utility disguising the terrible raging pride of Tywin. At the beginning of season four, the Lannister patriarch has succeeded in decimating his rival house, leaving only scattered children and a bastard roaming about Westeros without even a parent or guardian to rally under.
The symbolic ritual that Tywin engineers is one of pride, but also self assurance. By the end of the hour, when the second of the eponymous swords makes a scene, it will be all too clear that just because Stark family metal is being moulded by Lannister hands doesn’t mean it is any less dangerous.
In between these thrilling and dramatic bookends is a lot of what you would expect from a healthy HBO drama entering its fourth season: lots of statements of intention, the occasional piece of reminding exposition, and a lot of resetting the board for a new ten episode long game of intrigue, brutality, surprise, and maybe (just maybe this time) a little glimmer of hope.
(Full disclosure: I am one of those TV writers who prefers not to read the Song of Ice and Fire books because I love the way this story is told on the small screen. If I’m wrong about the hope part, then hooray, but if I’m right about it or anything else that is forward thinking in these recaps, I promise it is just speculation and not in any way a spoiler.)
One of the resulting minor swords is a gift for Jaime, who has now returned to King’s Landing without his good hand. Jaime marvels at the Valyrian steel asking how his father had forged it, since there are only three known smiths who can work with the exceptional metal. The short answer, as usual with House Lannister, is money.
The gift is a little sinister in nature. Tywin wants to send Jaime back home to Casterly Rock instead of serving the Kingsguard as he once did before his imprisonment and dismemberment. The issue is a simple one, Tywin will have no one-hands in the Kingsguard, despite there not being a strict “No One-Hands” policy actually written down anywhere.
Jaime refuses to back down from his ambition, not eager to add another euphemism to his growing list of titles (Oathbreaker, Kingslayer), and Tywin tells his son to keep the sword.
Meanwhile, Tyrion and Bronn are waiting to play welcoming party to the Prince of Dorne who has been invited to Joffrey’s impending wedding to Margaery. The appropriate retinue of Dornish houses arrive and then blow past the King’s Landing welcoming committee after simply telling Peter Dinklage that the prince they were expecting will not be attending Joffrey’s party, but the MIA wedding guest’s more volatile brother will be.
Tyrion and Bronn set out to find the man of the hour, Oberyn Martell, before he does something rash (namely killing someone). The new character is in the brothel with his female bastard paramour as the two select their whores, Oberyn forcing himself on the brothel master.
This brothel scene is quickly interrupted by the singing of “The Rains of Castamere” from the other room, and we get a demonstration as to why Tyrion was concerned about this guy. He lays down some knowledge as to why his people hate the Lannisters so gods-damn much (mostly their pride) and then stabs the closer of the two extras expertly in the wrist.
Just as the vengeful prince is instructing his victim’s friend to run and find help before the knife is removed and the poor pincushion stands to bleed out, Tyrion and Bronn bust in to welcome the new violent and sexy man properly.
Outside and alone, Oberyn and Tyrion get down to setting the new character’s stakes and motivations: the handsome maniac is in King’s Landing for purposes related to revenge. During the taking of King’s Landing way back during the rule of the Mad King, Oberyn’s niece and nephew were murdered by Lannister soldiers. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane then allegedly raped Oberyn’s sister before splitting her in half with his great sword. He pins the latter crime on Tywin, like a hand to a table: if the Mountain does something it’s because Tywin Lannister allowed him to.
With these season premiere motivations laid out, we get to spring back over to where we were left at the end of season three: with Daenerys Targaryen and her ever-growing dragons.
The monsters are fighting over a lamb and one snaps at its mother’s hand.
“They are dragons Khaleesi,” advises Jorah, just begging to be proved wrong in time. “They will never be trained, even by their mother.”
Daenerys joins with her army of liberated slaves and is told that her champion, Grey Worm, is gambling with her would-be love interest Daario Naharis who looks like a completely different person from last we saw the character.
That is because he is. In season three Daario was played by Ed Skrein, but now the costume is worn by Michiel Huisman (World War Z, Black Book). This gets a pass in my book because if I am being asked to eventually like this sleazy lady’s man (Daario seems to be the Han Solo of the show), I think that Huisman simply sells the lovability more. This stands to be a huge problem though, for casual Game of Thrones viewers, or even big fans who prefer to watch the show over reading the books (this is where I fall in).
Game of Thrones has a massive cast. Aside from its fantasy setting and world renowned brutality, the giant legion of actors that make it move is probably its most distinguishing feature. When a recurring secondary character like Daario is being represented by a human being that I’m not used to recognizing as “Daario,” all I’m left doing is asking “Where’s Daario?” even when he’s right there on the screen (that is, until Grey Worm clumsily uses direct address on him as if he were always called by his full name conversationally).
Jumping back to King’s Landing, Sansa is still grieving the brutal murder of her remaining family members. She is eating with her new husband, Tyrion, and being waited on by Shae, the man’s true love. Peter Dinklage plays the best good guy he can in the situation, sharing in Sansa’s grief, but the former Stark can’t do much other than confirm to her that yes, the Red Wedding was totally gross.
Tyrion meets up with Shae after Sansa excuses herself. The forbidden lovers are having a bit of a quarrel, and as Shae tries to seduce Tyrion into relaxing. He lays out his stakes for season four: his wife hates him, Prince Oberyn wants his whole family dead, and his mad nephew who is also the king would be happy with just his head on a pike.
Stakes are also on the table in the reunion scene between Cersei and Jaime that follows. They catch up. Cersei drinks way more than she used to and Jaime has a golden hand and a raging incestuous lust for his sister (enabled by his refusing to step down from the Kingsguard).
But Cersei is not interested in having sex with her crippled brother, accusing him of taking too long to come back.
The loving siblings are interrupted by one of Cersei’s spies, who overheard Tyrion’s conversation with Shae, and we are taken to the North. The wildlings we’ve come to sympathize with are confronted by more, balder wildlings who are also cannibals. They spit roast an arm after a lot of “we eat people” telegraphing that is pretty funny in a dark way.
At the wall Jon Snow is dealing with his brother’s death, reminiscing about Robb’s superiority as he awaits tribunal. He is on trial for killing the ranger Qhorin Halfhand. Despite an overwhelming number of “kill this traitor” stares, Jon defends himself by unleashing a verbal snowstorm, checking the old men and their pride, and laying down the truth about what’s coming to the wall: an army of 100,000 wildlings.
Back in the warmth of King’s Landing, the Tyrell ladies are greeted by Brienne, who on a walk with the soon to be queen tattles on Stannis Baratheon’s use of dark magic to murder his own brother by means of a shadow-baby.
Meanwhile, Joffrey is being a little asshole to his handless biological father/uncle. He brags to Jaime about winning the war (which isn’t yet won) and pages through a book of great deeds that as of yet the Oathbreaker and Kingslayer has yet to be entered into in any substantial way. It spurs Jaime’s pride in a way that makes you love him now that he is broken.
Speaking of love, the new Daario comes to Daenerys with what he calls a matter of strategy, describing to his leader the properties of local flowers in a roundabout way of leaving the mother of dragons with a bouquet. The cute display is quickly cut short as the marching army is brought to a halt. It turns out that every mile of the road they’ve been travelling has been punctuated by a human road sign pointing the way to the slave capital of the region, and Daenerys’ penultimate destination: Meereen.
In classic dramatic Daenerys fashion, she commands that she be present as each of the human signs is laid to rest and their collars removed.
Our last trip to King’s Landing for the week has Brienne and Jaime, the second most pleasant character pairing of the current Game of Thrones landscape, looking down at Sansa from afar. Jaime muses that the Stark is safest here, now that she is to be a Lannister, but Brienne is skeptical. This disagreement is taken jovially, but coaxes Jaime to finally express the consequences of his character growth over the past season: his family won’t listen to him and neither will his only real friend in the world, who come to think of it has the look of a Lannister too (which is a pretty heavy come-on from Jaime).
The most pleasant character pairing is the final stop of “Two Swords.” The Hound and Arya Stark continue their wandering partnership and come to an alehouse just the younger one is asking for her own horse.
From afar the unlikely duo, who actually share a lot in common, spy five horses, which means five men, which is more than the Hound is willing to kill on an empty stomach. When two of the riders emerge to take a piss, Arya recognizes one as Polliver, the man who killed her friend and took her sword: Needle.
The big burn victim tries desperately to stop the Stark girl from entering the structure, but one of the men inside opens the door as they bicker, forcing the pair to commit and enter.
As Arya and the Hound fly casual to their seats while Polliver and his asshole friends sexually assault the establishment owner’s daughter, essentially sealing their fate from a narrative standpoint, punching the messy stitches from when we last saw the sword thief and making us sore and hungry for sweet, sweet HBO vengeance.
Polliver comes to greet the Hound, asking him to join the team of lesser characters as they take advantage of the king’s colors they wear and raid the countryside. When the sword-thief-turned-overworked-Harrenhal-torturer taps his armour to illustrate the authority his wardrobe allows him the Hound only has one thing to say.
“Fuck the king.”
He calls Polliver a “talker” after the man threatens to have his posse have their way with Arya, and after some haggling over just how many chickens the Hound is going to need to make up for the wretch’s inability to shut his “cunt mouth,” a table gets flipped.
The Hound gets some serious revenge-sploitation killing on, at one point forcing a goon’s head into his own knife three times “stop-hitting-yourself” style, but the real satisfaction happens when Arya sees her opportunity.
She kills a henchman with a piece of pottery and a sword before cutting the tendons in Polliver’s legs. She stands over top of him and repeats the words he once used in front of her.
The shot is poetic as she stands overtop of him reciting the words that have been stewing inside of her: directly in the centre of the frame is an open door, with a beautiful sunny day in which no one is being murdered beyond its threshold. Showing the outside at this moment helps contain the carnage in a way that really highlights the intimate nature of Arya’s revenge. The world is big and doesn’t care about it, but inside the dank alehouse of personal justice it is the very nature of reality.
She presses Needle into Polliver’s throat just as soon as he recognizes her face. He drowns on his own blood, having fallen victim to the second titular sword.
Arya gets her horse in the end, and she rides into a desolate landscape with the Hound.
Therein lies that thread of hope. The second sword made its appearance around the only two people who are truly united in all of Westeros. The whole season four premiere saw characters declaring their loneliness, defending their solitude or mourning their lost companionship and family, that is except for the last sequence with the Hound and Arya.
These are two characters who, despite having had their very identities stripped away, find themselves necessarily drawn together in some sort of practical alliance and it makes them more fit than anyone to brave what lies ahead.
If it were anyone else on those horses riding into that hellish landscape in the final shot, I’d count the hour as a tragedy of divorce. But because the riders are Arya, Needle and the Hound, that smoke might as well be a sunset.