Curse you, HBO. Of all the days in the year you could have broadcast the Game of Thrones 4th Season premiere, you did it on the day when half the shows in my Spring anime elite list premiere too? Thanks a pantload.
That said, here we are again with probably the best show on American television, and probably the most expensive. It says something about how good GoT is that it has many flaws that are increasingly showing as it progresses (as a direct consequence of the source material rather than anything the adaptation is doing wrong) and still be head and shoulders above almost everything else. Almost ten months away from this series is more than enough to remind us unequivocally just how unique and magnificent it is.
“Two Swords” takes a more or less comprehensive approach in re-introducing us to most (though not all) of the major plotlines running through the series (I believe the quasi-official count is 17 of them). It opens with one of my favorite characters, the magnificent bastard Tywin Lannister, melting down Ned’s Valyrian steel sword (too heavy for a Lannister) and re-forging it into two, one of which he gives to Jaime. But all is not wine and roses between father and son – Tywin wants Jaime to return home to Casterly Rock and stay out of trouble while he “officially” carries on the Lannister line, but Jaime only wishes to stay at King’s Landing as head of the Kingsguard – despite his handicap.
What this episode really shows for me is that whatever criticisms one might level against George Martin in terms of pacing and letting his story grow out of control, he’s virtually unparalleled at creating fascinating anti-heroes. Tywin, Jaime, The Hound, even Tyrion himself – these are only a few of the incredibly interesting characters in this story who blur the line between hero and villain. And we meet another such figure in Dorne’s Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), the second son sent to attend Joffrey’s wedding in what appears to be a slight against the Lannisters, but who in truth is in town to settle some old scores. He dominates a stretch of the narrative starting with a visit to a “Lannister whorehouse” and running through an incredibly tense conversation with fellow second son Tyrion (I especially loved the moment when Bronn – yet another of Martin’s indelible rogues – responds to the accusation that he’s a hired killer and the question of how he became a Knight with “I guess I killed the right people.”)
Things are generally a mess with the Lannisters – pretty much no one is getting along, including Jaime and Cersei, who tells him he “took too long” being a prisoner and getting his hand cut off. In truth Jaime’s experience has profoundly changed him more than just physically, and I think it’s that more than anything that’s putting Cersei off her incestual feed. Also at King’s Landing, Sansa is growing increasingly depressed and generally indifferent to life – you can’t begrudge her the grudge she holds against Tyrion for the Red Wedding, though Tyrion himself would never have condoned it. Her only solace (though unknown to Sansa Brienne is arguing her case with Jaime) is the knight turned fool Dontos, whose life she saved from one of Joffrey’s many cruel whims. He gives her a necklace – the last vestige of a once-proud house – and begs her to wear it so that his name can have one last moment in the sun before it dies away forever.
The other interesting arc this week is Arya’s – now inexorably tangled with that of The Hound. Arya is undergoing a transformation just as fundamental as Jaime is, though of a rather different sort. I’ve come to really adore The Hound over the course of the series, and Rory McCann is a standout even in this standout cast. When Arya wonders why he didn’t simply steal from Joffrey before he left King’s Landing, he haughtily replies “I’m not a thief.” This man, for all the blood (including the Butcher’s Boy) on his hands, does have a code – and Arya, who once saw the world so clearly in black and white, is being forced to reassess her assumptions about the man whose death she wished for every night. Game of Thrones is a great series for odd couples, and Arya and The Hound have become one of the best.
There’s not much time spent with the genuinely good members of the cast this week – that brief scene with Brienne (and another where she tells Margeary Tyrell of how Renley died), and a check-in at The Wall with Jon and Sam. Quorin Halfhand’s order to Jon isn’t so easy to defend without Quorin around to confirm it, and it’s only the old Maester Aemon – so respected that he commands enough respect even to check the idiots now running the show with the Night’s Watch – who manages to win him a reprieve. We also meet The Thenns, genuine cannibals and no friends to Tormund even if allies; and a new face playing an old face, as Michael Huisman takes over from Ed Skrein as Dario Neharis. he looks less like Fabio, which is a plus, but – as has usually been the case with the HBO series – he’s still way too pretty based on how Martin described the character in the books. Next week, we catch up with at least two of the major arcs for the first time this season – Bran and Stannis – but hopefully not Reek and Ramsey Bolton, a blind alley that amounts to the adaptations most obvious misstep so far.