It’s hard to recover from the Red Wedding. Not just for the characters, who we join at the start of Season 4 still in a state of shock, but for Game of Thrones as well, which would probably explain why the writers decided to kick off the new season with an episode of pure exposition.
That’s not to say that “Two Swords” isn’t good. Despite being primarily designed to introduce the characters and conflicts that the season will center around, it still manages to keep your attention, moving quickly from Lannister to Stark to Targaryen, establishing where the characters are and where they’re going, and only occasionally dragging. As someone who has always found the novels’ long passages of clunky exposition a slog to get through, it’s always a pleasant surprise to find the show moving through those scenes with efficiency. The episode never spends enough time with any single person long enough to explore any of their issues too deeply, but that also means that we don’t get bored of them, either.
If anyone feels like a central character in “Two Swords” it’s Jaime Lannister, who, along with his brother, appears to be the focal point of the Lannister stories this year. Newly returned after being captured – which Joffrey and Cersei seem to believe was intentional on his part, a development that is played hilariously by Jack Gleeson, Lena Headey, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – and without his sword hand, Jaime is determined to retain his position in the Kingsguard and return to his normal life. Coster-Waldau carries the episode well, playing up Jaime’s desire for honor and dignity now that he’s lost such an integral part of himself.
It’s not the first time that Jamie has had to deal with such open contempt and derision, but it is the first time that his own family has turned against him, leaving him without that extra layer of Lannister armor. Returning to the status quo, even if that means fighting with his left hand or reneging on his promise to Catelyn Stark, is clearly his way of coping with the blows he’s been dealt. But nobody else seems as willing to let him slip back into being the old Jaime. Placing Jaime squarely in between his old life and family and his new relationship with Brienne adds new layers to the character, and the constant references to his career as a knight seems designed for foreshadow a shift in his alliances.
Meanwhile, Tyrion is also stuck between two allegiances: his love of Shae and his promise to protect Sansa. It almost seems pointless to state that Peter Dinklage is a wonderful actor, and yet, as Tyrion bounces between the two women in his life, attempting to hold everything together so that he can hold onto his life, Dinklage hits every beat perfectly. However, the true highlights of the episode for Tyrion are his interactions with Oberyn Martell, the Dornish Prince who has come to King’s Landing for the royal wedding… and revenge. If Tyrion isn’t one step ahead of everyone at all times, he’s at least great at giving off the impression that he is, but he’s clearly floundering now.
He’s also met his match in Oberyn, who is introduced via one of Game of Thrones’ famous brothel-set expository scenes. Though I’m often wary of these sequences, which are usually just a blatant attempt to liven up a boring monologue, this one worked for me, establishing the Red Viper’s promiscuity, arrogance, and deadliness without feeling gratuitous. Pedro Pascal clearly enjoys playing Oberyn, as he hungrily chews the scenery in a confrontation with some minor Lannister cousins. Pascal makes for an excellent match for Dinklage, who also seems to find his job a great deal of fun. It’s going to be a pleasure watching these two verbally spar, so I’m hoping the inevitable comes later in the season, rather than sooner.
Tyrion’s other major challenge this year is looking after Sansa, who is in a deep state of grief over the death of her mother and brother. Sophie Turner plays her devastation beautifully, as if this major, tragic loss is the final piece needed to shut Sansa down completely. After three seasons of torture, though, it does seem as if things might be looking up, with Ser Dontos gifting her an amethyst necklace as thanks for sparing his life. Watching Turner’s face slowly light up at this tiny act of kindness is almost as heartbreaking as watching her stoically starve herself at breakfast, and is the clearest sign of the toll this whole ordeal has taken on her. Her sister Arya, however, seems to be in slightly better spirits, riding down the Kings Road with the Sandor Clegane like some kind of awkward medieval Bonnie and Clyde. She’s reacting to tragedy in a much different way than Sansa, choosing to lash out instead of retreating inward, and as she smugly kills a man in an act of revenge, she couldn’t be farther away from the little girl who left Winterfell.
Of course, as this is Game of Thrones, there are still a million other plots and characters left to check in with, but “Two Swords” doesn’t pay them much attention, and that’s where the episode starts to drag. Daenerys is still trudging through the desert, albeit with an army this time. The Wildlings are still prepping to take charge the wall. And Jon Snow will get to keep his head for another day. Their scenes all feel as if they’re meant to be cursory reminders of the other arcs the show is supporting, and once we’ve checked in with them, they’re mostly ignored until a later date. It’s this dismissive nature that ironically makes these brief scenes feel longer than the ones in King’s Landing. Game of Thrones benefits greatly from pitting the characters against each other, and watching Lannisters bicker for days on end or seeing blood spurt from someone’s wrist tends to make up for any lags in the plot. With Danaerys, Ygritte, and Jon so isolated from the rest of the world, something needs to happen soon in order to keep us invested, or else the show might be better off picking up one of the other plot threads that were left dangling at the end of Season 3. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of story to go around.
All in all, though, the most disappointing part of the episode was that Jaime never slapped Joffrey across the face with his ornate gold hand. Just because you can’t swordfight with it doesn’t mean you can’t put it to good use, right?
Episode rating: B+, or three swordfighting Aryas.