TV Review: Game of Thrones – Season 4, Episode 1 “Two Swords” (USA, 2014)

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It’s finally back! The long and torturous wait between seasons is a testament to how deeply involved the world has become in the Game of Thrones universe. The series’ fourth season kicked off with the mostly excellent ‘Two Swords,’ doing a nice job of making sure we’re up to speed while also setting up some of the new character dynamics that we have been waiting a year for. 

We start the episode with a call-back to the spine-chilling execution of Ned Stark, as Lord Tywin (Charles Dance takes Stark’s signature sword ‘Ice’ and has it broken down into two smaller – but equally powerful – swords in a fantastic opening sequence. The darkness of Tywin Lannister watches over ‘Ice’ as it is whittled away with the ‘Reigns of Castemere’ humming in the background. Half (one sword) is given to Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau); It’s brutal symbolism, as one of Ned Stark’s defining possessions is casually handed to the son of his rival family; a cruel reminder of the harshnesses we have witnessed over the previous three seasons.

We have entered a new era in this fascinating world; one where there is no capable adult Stark member to directly oppose the Lannisters; the closest would be Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) but as we see, he has too much on his plate to even begin thinking of about avenging his father, brother, and mother-in-law.

Tywin’s conditional acceptance of Jamie Lannister reminds us of his cold nature as he is quick to disown the King Slayer when Jamie wants to remain in the kings guard instead of rule at Casterly Rock. We later find out that his reason for persisting as one of the Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) sworn guardians has more to do with his sister than it does with his honour. And now even that little relationship has irrevocably changed. Not only has his right hand been taken, but Jamie’s entire world has been flipped on it’s head.

From Joffrey’s brash dressing-down to Cersei’s (Lena Headey) distant dismissal, Jamie’s re-introduction into King’s Landing is a strange one and further endears us to this complex character. The man who was once seen as the series’ biggest villain is now one of the series’ most sympathetic characters. What’s more is that this gradual shift in Jamie’s character has been done skilfully and has felt organic. It’s a testament to how well these characters can be developed by the writers, and how someone can become an entirely different person a few episodes later. It’s something which keeps us on our toes and firmly cements the show as one of the most engaging TV dramas of our time.

There was less splintering here as there was in Season three’s disappointing premiere, and the show still found time to properly introduce us to the Dawnish realm via Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Oberyn’s cool and calm demeanour is slightly scary to watch, as he is obviously a very capable and reputable warrior. His reason for being in King’s Landing was exposed with a nice scene between him and Tyrion in which he explains his hate towards Lannisters, in particular Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and Tywin Lannister because of what happened to his sister during Prince Rhegar’s downfall.

Oberyn’s scene had a lot of expository dialogue, but the pacing felt right; unlike the forced dialogue between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), and Cersei and Jamie. Both Peter Dinklage and Lena Hardy have given scene-stealing performances before; but here the writers use their knack for exceptional acting to hand-hold viewers through pivotal moments in the series. Though, in a series this complex, a few scenes packed with expository dialogue is unfortunately a necessity.

There were many great exchanges here, in particular between the wildlings and those scarred, creepy cannibals – the ‘Thenn’. Now with Jon gone, Ygritte (Rose Leslie) needs to be developed back into a strong character if the wildlings are going to be taken seriously; there is something about Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) that inspires irreverence rather than respect.

Everyone’s favourite bastard Jon Snow finds himself contesting with the panel of the arrogant Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), the equally reprehensible baby-killer Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), and the frail but clever Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan). Having Snow explain away his time with the wildlings is a much more welcome bit of hand-holding that nicely moves his story arc along and reminds us of the conflict that pervades this group of outcasts.

Quite a bit of action from the earlier episodes of Season 2 made a return. The former knight turned fool Dontos Hollard (Tony Way) comes back to thank Sansa (Sophie Turner) for saving his life 20 episodes ago. It’s unclear where his reintroduction will lead (if anywhere) but since we are in King’s Landing and Joffrey is still king, things can’t be looking too bright. In a similar call-back to the series’ sophmore season, we see the King loyalist Polliver (Andy Kellegher) in what is unquestionably the episode’s stand-out sequence.

Lommy’s death comes back to bite the cocky Lannister man-at-arms as Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) venture on a little tangent to find Ms Stark her very own pony. The award for best dialogue goes to Clegane as he muddles in genuinely hilarious banter amongst his drab one-sentence-at-a-time disposition. The Hound is quickly turning into one of the best characters in Game of Thrones and pairing him with another fan-favourite in Arya makes for a team whose scenes will always be welcome.

The way Arya delicately and smoothly inserts a sword into her victims is effective and quite telling of her potential as the Stark name’s unassuming champion. Her sequence with Clegane was absolutely brutal and incredibly fun to watch. Seeing this girl who has been through so much in a position of power over someone who represents the Lannisters is hopefully foreshadowing a more emotionally satisfying Season 4.

The weakest sequences in this episode unfortunately belonged to the Daenerys storyline, barely driving her plot forward and serving more as visually impressive fan-pandering where we get to see the awe-inspiring dragons. The terrifying creatures are appropriately balanced between tame mother-loving sons and wild beasts; it’s quite obvious that a big chunk of Dany’s arc this season will be dedicated to trying to tame these dragons and it should make for some very exciting TV.

The recasting of sellsword Daario Naharis (now Treme’s Michiel Huisman) is a massive change of pace for the character. Ed Skrein’s classically handsome, smug Daario is now completely absent. This is an understandable change, as Dany seemed kind of weak against him, but the allure of Naharis that was built up in the last half of Season 3 has now pretty much crumbled.

Overall ‘Two Swords’ did a really nice job in bringing us back to the battleground that is Game of Thrones, setting off a lot of the threads which will weave throughout Season 4, placing it as potentially the most action-packed season yet. Next week we’ll hopefully catch up with Gendry, Stannis, Theon/Reek, the Brothers Without Banners, and villainous House Bolton/House Frey among others as everyones’ story slowly converges and new dynamics come into play.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Positives:
1. The Hound and Arya: hilarious and brutal
2. Jamie’s role in Kings Landing changed
3. Prince Oberyn is a fascinating character

Negatives:
1. Daenary’s scenes relatively dull
2. Tyrion and Shae scene
3. Brothel/Prince Oberyn scene moved very slowly

Episode M.V.P: The Hound

Game of Thrones airs Mondays at 3:30pm on Showcase