There’s a lot going on in HBO’s epic fantasy series, and the first episode of the season four gets the plot back on track before the brutality.
If you haven’t caught up with HBO’s Game of Thrones show since the last episode aired in 2013, we’ve got you covered with a gif-by-gif recap here. Even if you don’t need to click on our guide, show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do a good job of filling in the audience as to what’s happening in the many, many plots and subplots of the story. The premiere episode is called “Two Swords”, and the silent cold open immediately shows you why with Tywin Lannister overseeing a blacksmith at work on … you guessed it, two swords. From there, the episode’s locations jump around from the capital to the Wall to what the Queen of Dragons is up to on the other side of the world. Notable characters like Littlefinger and Varys are missing from the King’s Landing bits, but we did get a nice return from that jerk who killed a kid in season two – no, the other one … no, the other one – and a very necessary recasting of the mercenary captain Daario Naharis .
You know, the guy who plopped the heads in front of Daenerys last season? You don’t remember? I’ll get to that in a second, but first …
Be warned – Some spoiler-ey stuff might sneak its way into our recaps of season four of Game of Thrones, but we’ll be sure to call all of that out as much as possible so your experience isn’t ruined. Anything that’s happened in the show so far is fair game – so if you haven’t seen up to season three and you care about spoilers, you better stop reading now.
/end obligatory spoiler warning.
The episode title “Two Swords” refers to the blades Tywin Lannister has forged from the greatsword wielded by the late Lord Eddard Stark. As I said, the cold open – TV-speak for a scene that appears before the credits of a show – doesn’t have any dialogue. All we see is the hot metal being poured into two molds, and the blacksmith banging on the blades to make them sharp once they’ve cooled. Tywin is overseeing the process with the smug expression Charles Dance always brings to the role. At the end of the sequence, Tywin takes a wolf’s hide and throws it on the fire. He smiles.
The Starks of Winterfell have the direwolf as the sigil of their house. Last season, Tywin Lannister engaged in an elaborate conspiracy with Walder Frey and Roose Bolton to kill Robb Stark, his pregnant wife, and his mother Catelyn Stark in a horrible scene known as the Red Wedding. It was pretty much the worst thing to ever happen to characters you’ve grown to love, and the show was just as good as the books in shocking its audience right down to the core. In Game of Thrones, it wouldn’t stylistically work to show all that violence again in a lame visual recap, so this cold open with the blacksmith and Tywin is the closest we’re going to get to the show being like, “Hey? Remember? Tywin is a right asshole.”
Not only did he kill the Young Wolf without ever defeating him in battle, but he also secured the loyalty of the North by naming Bolton as Lord and giving the Freys what they wanted most – revenge. By out-maneuvering both Stannis Baratheon and Robb Stark in seasons two and three, the Lannisters are now in a pretty good position to rule the Iron Throne for years to come. That should work out well for them.
The opening credits roll, and we see the same old map we’ve seen a few dozen times before. I always enjoyed how it explained the geography of the series – and the locations shown often change with where the action takes place in the episode. In this sequence, we pan across the sea to the city of Meereen, with its pyramids topped by statue of a harpy, and I couldn’t help but groan. “We’re going to be here a while, Khaleesi.”
If you were wondering just what the whole two swords thing was all about, the next scene pretty much tells you straight out. Tywin gives a Valyrian steel blade to his eldest son and heir, Jaime Lannister. Neither of them flat out says it, but the sword taken from Eddard Stark at his beheading in season one has been melted down and reforged. “You’ve always wanted one,” Jaime says to his father.
Not much is made of the named Valyrian steel swords in the show – naming your sword is a fantasy trope that’s hard to get across when there’s already too many names to remember for television watchers. With Valyria gone in a massive cataclysm – this world’s Atlantis – there’s a finite number of swords made with the magic and metallurgy of the ancients. Many of the houses of Westeros have treasured their Valyrian blades as a family heirloom passed to the eldest son; they are priceless. The Lannisters lost theirs long ago, and attempts to purchase a Valyrian sword from lesser houses with the vast riches they are famous for have been refused.
So not only has Tywin Lannister elevated his house to the Iron Throne and defeated his two main rivals through battle and cunning, but he also finally got a Valyrian blade to be passed down to the sons of Casterly Rock. Except … Jaime doesn’t play along. He refuses to be dismissed from the Kingsguard. Jaime changed in his travels with Brienne last season, not just by getting his hand cut off but by choosing to rescue her from the bear pit at Harrenhal. “You’ve heard what people call me,” Jaime tells his father. “Kingslayer, Oathbreaker, man without honor. You want me to break another sacred vow?” Tywin says he can keep the sword, because he’s not a part of the family anymore.
Jaime’s smirk as he leaves the Hand’s chambers is glorious. Standing up to Tywin is a sure way to get on the audience’s good side, and Jaime cemented his transformation from villain in this scene. In many ways, he’s the star of this episode – appearing in no less than three whole scenes! – and we’ll see even more hints that this Jaime is not the same guy who pushed a kid out of a window in the pilot.
The meat of the episode introduces a new character and culture we haven’t seen before – Prince Oberyn of Dorne. Watchers of the TV show have only very briefly heard of Dorne as the kingdom Joffrey’s little sister is shipped off to right before the unwashed crowds throw poop at the king and go crazy in the riot of season two. So a little background – Dorne was the last of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros to be brought under the rule of the Iron Throne, generations after Aegon the Conqueror, and only through marriage, not conquest. It’s a mostly dry peninsula on the southern tip of the continent separated by mountain ranges, and its culture and ethnicity is very different than the pale folks to the north. Think of a warlike and fiercely independent Mediterranean culture – complete with cuisine known for hot spices – and you’ve got Dorne.
The ruling house of Dorne are the Martells – and in this episode they were supposed to meet little Tyrion Lannister on the Kingsroad. There’s some tasty banter between Bronn and Tyrion as they wait, but the bannermen of the Martells show up and explain that Prince Oberyn has come to King’s Landing for Joffrey’s wedding, not the ruling older brother Prince Doran. Oh, and Oberyn snuck into the city the night before. “He’s not one for welcoming parties,” says the bannerman.
But he sure likes the ladies … and dudes, apparently. Cut to one of Littlefinger’s brothels, and we get our first nudity of Game of Thrones season four when Oberyn and his lady friend try to pick a companion for some dirty morning sexytime. As s-exposition goes, this scene isn’t terrible. The writers are able to show Prince Oberyn’s character, and his relationship with Ellaria Sand, pretty well without exactly showing us a sign that reads “He Likes Sex” or “He Goes Both Ways!” They did have to include Sand outright stating she’s a bastard, and not actually married to Oberyn at all. And when our Prince hears some Lannister guards singing the Rains of Castamere next door – seriously, does everyone in this show only have sex in the daytime? – well, it’s pretty cool to see him threaten and then calmly stab a dude in the wrist. Tyrion comes in to save the day, and Oberyn immediately lets the guards scamper off.
The two second sons then do some Sorkin-style walking-and-talking through King’s Landing, and Oberyn tells Tyrion exactly why he’s come. It all goes back to that fated rebellion of Robert Baratheon against the Targaryens. The Dornishmen supported the crown, because Oberyn’s sister Elia was married to Prince Rheagar Targaryen. When Tywin sacked King’s Landing, he ordered Gregor Clegane to kill Elia and her children. The Mountain-That-Rides did as he was told, and much more – raping Elia before he killed her and chopping up her babies before wrapping them in a red Lannister cloak. Oberyn spouts all these charges to Tyrion, setting up a major conflict of the season and we don’t even care that the writers basically told us everything we need to know. Having a character exactly outline his intentions is just as good at creating drama as obfuscation.
Speaking of Targaryens, Rheagar’s sister Daenerys has got some really big dragons now. They look amazing, and powerful, and generously detailed. The dragons’ wings alone feel very real when they flap and rustle, reminiscent of elephant’s ears. The CGI budget for this season four premiere is well spent showing the beasts as big as horses, and none too well behaved. The black Drogon seems cowed by Daenerys stroking his head, but he quickly growls viciously in her face over a bit of goat the other two were fighting over. “They can never be tamed,” says mopey Jorah Mormont. “Not even by their mother.” Foreshadowing!
The rest of Daenerys’ scenes involve reintroducing Daario Naharis as a man she could actually find attractive – apologies to Ed Skrein. The new actor Michiel Huisman definitely brings more of the loveable cad to the role than Skrein ever achieved. His opening scene with Grey Worm, captain of the new slave army Daenerys acquired at the end of last season, does well at reacquainting the audience where everyone stands. Ser Mormont is smitten, check. Ser Barristan is a stickler for formality, check. Daario is a scoundrel, check. Grey Worm is a eunuch, check.
Daario does try to win over the outwardly reluctant Daenerys with some bullshit about strategy and knowing the land you are conquering, but it’s all just an excuse to give her some flowers. “You are a gambler,” she says to the guy who murdered the people he was sworn to just a few episodes ago. Daenerys is just a young girl, what does she know about dudes three times her age trying to woo her? Kidding aside, the scene is actually pretty sweet and seeing the Mother of Dragons consider something more than survival and bellowing about freeing slaves is kind of refreshing.
It doesn’t last, sadly. The column of Unsullied former slave soldiers stops, and Daenerys rushes to find out why. She is marching on the city Meereen , in case you missed that, and the rulers of the city know she is bent on freeing all slaves. Rather than capitulate, the Meereenese have nailed up a slave on a pole at every mile marker on the road to their city. The grisly shot of the young girl, who it must be noted bears a passing resemblance to the queen, pointing the way to the city is terrifying. “How many miles is it to Meereen?” Daenerys asks. “163.” That’s a lot of dead slaves. Daenerys grimly bellows she will witness the face of every slave before they are taken down and buried. Sigh.
Ser Dontos is back!
You know, the guy who drank all that wine in the first episode of season two, was sentenced to death by Joffrey, only to be pardoned due to Sansa Stark’s pleading and then never seen again? Right. That guy. Dontos was a minor character I fully expected the writers to abandon rather than try to flesh out further, but it looks like his role in being a confidant to Sansa was vital to the story. At least, it will be. I’ll say no more!
The Sansa-Tyrion-Shae not-quite-love triangle gets some play, with the whore-turned-lady-in-waiting getting unreasonably jealous of the young girl her little man is ostensibly married to. Tyrion is caught up with all of the intrigue going on that he can’t (or won’t) make some daylight-sexytime with her, but listing the three things that are bothering him feels like a writer’s way of making sure we’re aware of those things. It just doesn’t feel natural, even for an actor as great as Peter Dinklage, to rattle off plot points in a heated moment.
Jaime and Brienne look at Sansa, the object of Jaime’s vow to the late Catelyn Stark. All of the hardship these two have been through to get Sansa to safety is within their grasp, but it’s never black and white, is it? Sansa is actually Sansa Lannister now. Should Jaime send her away from her husband? Where? The Starks are all dead. Brienne, who still looks appropriately out-of-place despite getting cleaned up, gives him a sisterly stare. Is Sansa really safe in King’s Landing?
The fact that Jaime’s real sister was also his lover further muddies his loyalties to Brienne and Sansa. He and Cersei spend a scene together and she basically rebuffs his sexual (again daytime) advances. “Everything has changed,” she says emphatically, after listing another series of things that are bothering her just like Tyrion did. Unless listing off bothersome events is a Lannister trait, which it very well might be, having two characters do the same thing in back-to-back scenes is jarring evidence that the writers of Game of Thrones really need you to remember what’s going on.
I don’t envy the writers’ task in further condensing such an already-dense plot, but the seams are beginning to show to those of us who pay attention to structure and craft. That’s why this episode feels like it is just marking time – catching us all up with the threads the previous season left dangling. It may be too little too late, but the writers do try to resolve something for the audience by whisking us off to a wang-bang ending sequence with Arya Stark and the Hound.
These two witnessed the aftermath of the Red Wedding and the slaughtering of the Stark army at the Twins, but they are now wandering the wilderness , hungry and wet. The easy banter between two very different killers is funny, with Arya easily pointing out she would die without the stronger warrior to protect her, so she totally deserves her own pony. You know, come to think of it, I would totally watch a Stark and the Hound sitcom, especially after Arya recognizes a Lannister man-at-arms outside a tavern as Polliver, the guy who stole her sword “Needle” and killed her friend in season two.
“Of course you named your sword,” the Hound says with derision.
“Lots of people name their swords,” Arya replies.
“Lots of cunts.”
There follows a tense scene between Polliver and the Hound in the tavern which predictably ends in some brutal fight choreography. The Hound handles most of the heavy-lifting, finally wrestling with a chap and smashing his eye sockets onto an open blade in the episode’s gross out moment. Arya gets her revenge on Polliver by jumping out from behind an overturned table and hamstringing him. He falls on his back, giving Arya time to take back Needle and creepily recite Polliver’s dialogue from when he killed the boy back to him. The soldier doesn’t really know what the hell she’s referring to, until maybe, just maybe, his wide eyes betray a glimmer of recognition right before Arya slides Needle under his jaw and into his throat.
Cut to Arya and the Hound munching on a chicken leg as they ride. Arya got the horse she wanted after all. Uplifting music plays. Hero shot. End credits.
The way Arya’s murder of Polliver is shot doesn’t feel quite that heroic though. I don’t know about you guys, but a little girl reciting words somebody said 2 or 3 months ago as she’s coldly sliding a metal rod through his neck isn’t pure justice. She tortures Polliver with panic and confusion and just when he gets what Arya’s talking about, she ends him. The preceding scene tries to make you hate Polliver as much as possible – he assumes Arya is the Hound’s sexual plaything, and he tries to recruit the Hound to basically rape and plunder in the name of the King. Polliver deserved to die. No doubt about that. But Arya may not be right in the head as she does it. For many, this may be the first hint our little Arya may be more than what she seems, and none of it “good” or “moral.”
Seeing as the show has been cherry-picking events from books four and five for use in these TV seasons technically much earlier in the chronology, it will be interesting how much we see of Arya’s travels. We may have to wait until actress Maisie Williams gets a bit older, though. She’s only sixteen, which means she can’t be on set for endless filming sessions due to labor laws.
So while this episode admirably accomplished its task of refreshing our memories, and ended with a fantastically funny, emotionally complex scene with Arya and the Hound, it left me feeling like nothing had actually happened. You get these kind of episodes mid-season occasionally as plot points align for the climax, but I feel that a first episode needs to do more than just catch us up. I wished there was more progression with Jaime, instead of his biggest moment coming in the first scene with Tywin. I wish Oberyn wasn’t just dropped into the story and then never seen in the episode. I wish this was Game of Thrones the sitcom.
Until episode two…
If you’re itching to hear a roundtable discussion of the show, have a listen to our Game of Thrones-cast discussing the premiere episode of season four here.
Or if you want to take out your frustrations with George R. R. Martin’s writing, you can Pick Your Path in this comedic take on the series by Mike Kayatta: End Game of Thrones.
Think Game of Thrones is overrated? Well, so does No Right Answer. Watch Chris Pranger’s rant on the show here.
Matt Lees has been condensing the series to its funniest overdubbed moments in Game of Thrones Abridged and has seasons 1 through 3 ready. Look for the first episode of season four to be “Abridged” on Wednesday!
Finally, if you want to find out which (surviving) character you most identify with, you can take our personality quiz starting on Monday. Which Game of Thrones Season Four Character Are You?