It may seem a strange thing to say about a massively successful TV show with three full seasons already under its belt, but this season will be make-it-or-break-it time for HBO's Game of Thrones. Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have said that when they originally envisioned building a TV series around George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the event that called to them most strongly was the Red Wedding. ("When we read the books, we knew we just wanted to get to this scene, and do this 'holy shit' moment justice," Weiss has said.) In the penultimate episode of Season Three, "The Rains of Castamere," Benioff and Weiss finally got to do that moment justice, and bring the main storyline that had begun back in Episode One to a shattering, irreversible climax.
Viewers of Game of Thrones for the first three seasons could be forgiven for thinking that the heart of the story was the War of Five Kings and House Stark's quest for justice, a clear narrative thread at the center of a tangled web of secondary subplots. Now, as Season Four begins, that thread has snapped: the war is over, and House Stark is no more. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss built a rich and impressive world around that apparent main storyline, but now that world is all that remains, background moving to foreground as our previous focal point has vanished.
So it's no wonder that Season Four begins with a symbol of new beginnings, or repurposings. In my review of "Fire and Blood," the last episode of Season One, I noted that it began with the image of Ned Stark's bloody sword, symbolizing not just Ned's death but also a savage severing of everything that had come before. Now, in "Two Swords," we return to that image, once again reminded that the only constant on Game of Thrones is change. The past is gone, and the story only moves forward, and the future will look very different from what has come before.
"Everything has changed," Cersei Lannister says this episode, and she's right. Everything has changed, and everything changes—but nothing is ever truly lost, and nothing is ever forgotten. The future is forged from what has come before, the elements of the past destroyed and remixed and hammered into new forms. Just as one war ended with swords being melted into a throne, back in the show's pre-history, now one sword can become two, its precious alloys reshaped and repurposed. The future rises from the ashes of the past; one story becomes many; the world grows more complicated, not less, as time moves forward.
And for the people in the story—who all began their lives, back in Season One, with their roles and identities firmly locked into place—the process is the same. The story is a cauldron, a forge, a fire that will see them all tested, and tempered, and hammered into new forms. No one gets to stay who they were when they began, no one escapes the fire, and no gets out unchanged.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones.
"You'll never be as good."—Tywin Lannister, to Jaime
For Jaime Lannister, the cauldron was the War, as he found himself tested as he'd never been before. Used to wealth and privilege, he spent most of the War of Five Kings being imprisoned, beaten, mocked, tortured, humiliated, and eventually dismembered. Now he has returned home to his position of wealth and privilege, only to find that—as his sister says—everything has changed. With the loss of his sword hand, he has been condemned to uselessness in the minds of his family. His father wants him to resign from the Kingsguard and go home to Casterly Rock; his nephew/son, the odious king Joffrey, openly mocks him; both, suddenly, feel the need to point out that Jaime is 40, his best days far behind him. "A one-handed man with no family needs all the help he can get," Tywin tells him, giving him the new sword forged from Ned Stark's blade.
"Father disowned me today," Jaime tells Cersei, but he barely cares: his one goal has been to return to his beloved sister—for whom, after all, this entire war was ultimately waged. (Way back in Season One he told her he would happily fight "The War for Cersei's Cunt," and that's more or less exactly what was fought.) Now, however, his emasculation is complete as Cersei makes clear that their relationship has changed as well. "You took too long," she tells him, about his quest to return to her. On the surface, it's a rejection based on his new loss of status: without his sword he is no longer her fierce protector, no longer the male half of her soul, no longer able to fight the battles her sex precludes her from fighting herself. But it's also a reordering of Cersei's world order that she can't forgive: rejected by her father, unloved by her husband, robbed of both her mother and her daughter by Tyrion, Jaime was her only ally all her life, from the moment they left together the womb they shared. Now—though it was hardly his fault—she can't forgive him for leaving her alone to fend for herself.
So everything has indeed changed—except, really, it hasn't. Tywin is the same loveless father he always was, caring about his children only as they are useful to the Family. Cersei is the same treacherous bitch she always was, truly loving only her children. (And Joffrey is—well, Joffrey.) What has changed is Jaime, and how he sees them. "Ever since I returned, every Lannister I've seen has been a miserable pain my arse," he says—but, significantly, he says this to Brienne of Tarth, in many ways the catalyst of his change. Continuing the ongoing theme of found-families in Game of Thrones, Brienne is his sister now, in all but name. ("Are you sure we're not related?" he asks her, jokingly.) It was on the road with Brienne that Jaime rediscovered his humanity—saving her when he had no selfish reason to—and now she plays the role of his conscience, reminding him of his oath to save Sansa Stark. He tries to be flippant and dismissive about it—his honor, as he told his father, is beyond repair—but the former "Oathbreaker" no longer finds it so easy to ignore his obligations to other people.
It's no coincidence that, in an episode that began with new steel cast from old, Jaime gets not only the fresh-forged sword—a transformed relic of the most honorable man in Westeros—but also a newly forged hand. A piece of himself has been cut away, and forged anew: he fought the Lannister war, and his reward is that a piece of him—the best of him, he thought—has been replaced by something rich and pretty and soft. Emerging from the cauldron of the war—and one of the most remarkable character arcs in the entirety of Game of Thrones—he has a choice: take up Ned Stark's sword—in defense of Ned's daughter—or find himself transformed, piece by piece, into nothing but Lannister gold.
"You know why all the world hates a Lannister? You think you're gold."—Oberyn Martell
One of the challenges for this season—and for Game of Thrones going forward—is the way these forking narratives are going to require viewers to get to know more and more new characters. (My reviews have always been, and will continue to be, free of spoilers from the books, but I will say that: 1) yes, all these new people are important; and 2) yes, the constant river of new characters tried my patience at times in the books.) We meet two impressive new figures this week in Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), and his lover Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). They are (I believe) the first characters we've seen from the fabled, far-off land of Dorne—which, if I understand my Westerosian geography correctly, is the furthest kingdom to the south, as far from the northern realm, where we began, as it's possible to go. In a story as entrenched in custom and cultural protocols as this one, new people from new lands are exciting: they represent a different way of doing things, and a challenge to the established order everyone fights so hard to defend.
At least that's my impression so far of Oberyn, who swaggers into King's Landing—ostensibly for the royal wedding—with a refreshing disregard for diplomacy. He slips unnoticed past the official welcoming committee, heads straight for the brothel for a bisexual foursome, and picks a fight with some minor Lannisters when he hears them singing "The Rains of Castamere." (Minor complaint: are there really only two songs in this entire goddamned world? Does no one have anything in their repertoire other than this little ditty or "The Bear and the Maiden Fair?" Can we at least hear the one about King Robert getting gored by a boar again? But I digress…)
What makes Oberyn most exciting is that he doesn't fear the Lannisters—at all. In fact, when questioned by Tyrion—who claims to be "an accomplished diplomat"—Oberyn more or less admits he's come to town to seek his revenge on the entire clan. Here, too, is an echo of the episode's general theme, for—as I said—everything changes but nothing is every really forgotten: the future rises from the fires of the past. The Lannisters built their power over the bodies of the Targaryans, which–we learn now—included Oberyn's sister and her children. It's a monstrous crime we've heard referenced before—how Gregor Clegane, Tywin's enforcer, supposedly raped and murdered Rhaegar Targaryan's wife and slaughtered her children—but now we meet someone for whom that crime is still fresh and in need of avenging.
"I wasn't there," Tyrion protests feebly—but that doesn't matter, and he knows it: his entire family carries that sin, forged in that fire, just as Jaime now carries a sword that has the crimes against the Starks folded into its metal. Everything changes, but nothing is forgotten. "Tell your father I'm here," Oberyn says to Tyrion. "And tell him that Lannisters aren't the only ones who pay their debts."
"Let my name have one more moment in the sun, before it disappears from the world."—Ser Dontos
Let us turn our attention now to the surviving members of the Stark family, beginning with one who has—as Oberyn's sister did—married a Lannister. If I may stretch my thin metaphor a little further, Sansa Stark has been passed from hand to hand exactly like a piece of gold: like a soft, pliable, chiefly decorative object, she's been traded like a commodity and reshaped to the purposes of others. The character with perhaps the least agency of any on the show, she's never been allowed to make a decision, or have a real influence on events, or define a single thing about who she is: her entire identity has been forged by others. She was promised to Joffrey, then Loras, then Tyrion. She has fallen constantly under the hands of those who would use her to their own purposes, whether it was Cersei, or the Tyrells, or Littlefinger. And all along she has done what she was told, and been polite and pleasant, and poured herself into whatever shape she was required to wear.
But each time she has been melted down and hammered into a new form, the sins against her and her family have been folded into her makeup. Now, those seem to be all that is left to her: she is haunted by the images of her family's murder at the Twins, and she doesn't want to eat, and she can't bear to be around other people. Once the happy little girl who believed in fairy tales, the cauldron has burned away every bit of optimism in her, and now she no longer believes in anything. She goes to the Godswood not to pray—"I don't pray anymore"—but because it's the only place she can be alone.
Interestingly, however, she finally does smile this episode, and it's during an unexpected encounter. The drunken Ser Dontos (Tony Way) finds her in the Godswood: he was the knight Joffrey was going to murder for sport—way back in "The North Remembers"—until Sansa stopped him. "Anyone would have done the same," she says, modestly. "But only you did," he says. It's a nice moment, one that lifts her spirits when nothing else can: poor Sansa, who never gets to do anything—the one Stark who never gets to play the hero—once saved someone's life. There may be some Stark steel mixed in with Sansa's soft gold after all.
And she relates, too, to Dontos's account of his family—once a house on the rise, now all but forgotten. Sansa, remember, thinks she is the last Stark left alive—and she's not even a Stark anymore, but a Lannister. This episode is haunted, as I've said, by precious metals and jewelry. (Margaery and Olenna have a long conversation about necklaces as well, the Queen of Thorns rejecting all but the best.) Here, Dontos asks Sansa to wear a necklace from his vanished family, another repurposed piece of metal representing the sins of the past and some slim hope for the future. "Let my name have one more moment in the sun, before it disappears from the world," he asks her, and it's a request she understands.
"I've done plenty wrong."—Jon Snow
There is a minor secondary theme working its way through "Two Swords," and it is the question of "second sons." Oberyn is a second son, and so is Tyrion, as they discuss. ("Speaking as a fellow second son, I've grown rather used to being the family insult," Tyrion says.) Jon Snow was the family insult all his life, the bastard son of his father, and standing in the shadow of his brother Robb. "I was jealous of Robb my whole life," he confesses to Sam. "The way my father looked at him, I wanted that. He was better than me at everything…I wanted to hate him, but I never could." (Sam confesses he's had the same feelings about Jon.)
Now, however, Robb is dead, which makes Jon—in spirit, if not in legal fact—the first son of House Stark. Jon has been through his own war, his own trial by fire: like Jaime—a first son who has become a second—Jon has been forced to question everything he ever knew about himself, breaking every vow he ever thought was important. But Jon has emerged from his experiences transformed, hardened, with new steel and resolve: we almost see him put on his new responsibilities here as he dresses for his meeting with the leadership of the Night's Watch. Where once he stoically deferred to men like Allister Thorne, now he stands up to them, telling Thorne, Aemon, and Janos Slynt—the repellant former commander of the City Guard, whom Tyrion banished—that their silly rules scarcely matter. "While we sit here debating which rules I broke, Mance Rayder marches on the Wall with an army of 100,000."
Throughout "Two Swords," the real question every character is asking, after emerging from their various trials, is Who am I going to be now? Jon, reforged by his experiences, has become his father's son—a leader, a flawed but good man who can do what needs to be done. Here, standing with fire at his back, he already seems so much larger and more powerful than the petty men to whom he reports—which is a good thing, as the Night's Watch prepares for "the biggest fire the North has ever seen."
"My brother gave me that sword."—Arya Stark
Though the title of this episode can be seen as referring to the two blades forged from Ned Stark's one, the real second sword referenced is Needle, which Arya finally reclaims from the man who stole it.
"Arya and the Hound" has become one of my favorite road movies. In the previous episode, at the end of last season, she committed him to a fight when they stumbled upon some Lannister men boasting about the murders of Robb and Catelyn Stark. "Next time you're going to do something like that, tell me first," he warned her—but she doesn't. Now, as they stumble upon some more Lannister soldiers—including Polliver, the man who killed her friend Lommy with Arya's own sword—she once again commits him to a fight he doesn't really want.
Or does he? Unlike in the previous incident, Arya doesn't swing the first blow here: the Hound sits and has a drink, and draws Polliver's sycophantic attention. Rory McCann is one of the unsung heroes of Game of Thrones, and has consistently given a marvelously subtle performance as someone who is apparently the most blunt of men. Here, his growing disgust with Polliver—and what Polliver represents—is nicely played. "We can do whatever we like, wherever we go," Polliver brags. "These are the king's colors. No one's standing in his way now, which means no one's standing in ours." The Lannisters have won the war, and can set about reworking the world in their image, and the Hound may not like that possibility anymore than Arya does. "Fuck the king," he says—as he said to Joffrey himself once—and starts one of the more brutal fight scenes we've seen so far.
But if it's the Hound who starts the fight, it's Arya who finishes it. Like her sister, Arya has been passed from hand to hand during the war—but she has seen different things, and her teachers have been of a very different nature. Moving from Yoren to Gendry to Tywin to Jaquen to Beric to the Hound, Arya has been shaped by very dangerous men in very dangerous times, and their lessons have been stamped into her. She has even learned from teachers like Polliver himself, as she proves now by repeating his own words back to him and killing him exactly as he killed her friend. She has regained her sword: a gift from her beloved brother Jon Snow, a bit of steel forged at Winterfell, a weapon with which to carry on Ned's legacy and revenge the crimes against her family. The episode ends with Arya astride her own horse for the first time, her sword at her side, riding alongside the Hound almost as an equal: she has regained her agency. Game of Thrones is a cauldron for its characters, and it's a bittersweet triumph that Arya has emerged from her fires transformed into something strong, and hard, and more than a little frightening.
"The Rains of Castamere" will always be a watershed for this story, a dividing line, about halfway through, which separates everything to come from everything that came before. The old order has been destroyed, its former elements destroyed and melted down and reconfigured into new arrangements. Who will I be now? is the question every character must ask in Season Four, even as the series itself asks What will this show be now? Everything has changed, but all the sins and lessons of the past live on in new forms, and the story only moves forward.
It's going to be a great season.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Welcome back to my old readers, welcome to the new, and I hope to hear from both in the comments. I'd remind everyone again that—while I have read the books—I am reviewing the TV show alone. I try hard to not only avoid spoilers in my reviews, but also to keep foreknowledge of events from influencing them. I'd ask you all to do the same: please avoid spoilers (even vague ones) in the comments.
- I should also let my new readers know that, yes, my reviews are usually this long, and yes, they are usually this late. Sorry, that's just how I roll.
- I skipped over Daenerys's story this week—mostly because I'm not interested in her flirting with the new Daario Naharis (Michael Huisman) any more than I was her flirting with the old Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein). (I'm all for Dany having some enjoyment in her life, but I'm not impressed with this particular suitor: Drogo is a tough act to follow.) Dany's story will no doubt pick up some steam as she heads into Mereen—the people of whom, it should be noted, have some fucked up street signs.
- Apparently—since the joke is made twice—the common wisdom about Dornishmen in the capital is that they fuck goats. As backstories go, it's not much to work on, but we'll presumably be learning much more about our neighbors to the south. (Fuckin' goatfuckers.)
- In the larger picture, we should note some interesting alternate history we receive this episode. The story we've always heard—first from King Robert—about the war that deposed the Targaryans was one of Rhaegar Targaryan (Dany's older brother) kidnapping and raping Lyanna Stark (Ned's sister, and Robert's bride-to-be). Now, however, Oberyn tells it differently: according to him, "beautiful, noble Rhaegar Targaryan" left his sister for another woman—presumably Lyanna. I suspect this will be very important later on, but for now I'll just say that this is another thing new characters from different lands bring to the show: a different perspective, different knowledge, and perhaps a conflicting version of the truth from the lies agreed upon in the capital.
- I also skipped over Shae's growing resentment of Tyrion's neglect; Tyrion's futile attempts to be a good husband to Sansa; and Ygritte's continued fury at Jon Snow's abandoning her. In the latter case, we also meet some more new people, the scary and cannibalistic Thenns, led by Styr (Yuri Kolokolnikov). We'll get to all these things in due course.
- Diana Rigg continues to produce delight every time she opens her mouth. Here, I adored Lady Olenna's reaction to meeting Brienne of Tarth. "My word!…Aren't you just marvelous! Absolutely singular!"
- Next week, we are cordially invited to the royal wedding of Joffrey Baratheon to Margaery Tyrell. Weddings are always a joyous affair on this show, and I expect this one to be quite the to-do. See you all there.