Game of Thrones Revisited: 4.01 Two Swords

Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO’s programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world. We head straight into season four now with Two Swords...

Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven…

Season four opens in the usual fashion; revisiting the players after the events of season three and slowly moving them into position for the stories to come over the next ten episodes. However Two Swords is a very confident opener too; not only does it introduce new characters but it also covers a lot of ground breathlessly. No time is wasted, no one story drags. We're nearing the show's mid-point and this is not a time for new viewers to jump on.

I'm not sure whether its because I'm coming into season four immediately having finished the third, but unlike previous openers, Two Swords just picks up where we left on and continues unfazed. Tyrion is still trying to appease grieving Sansa and rejected love Shae, the Hound and Arya are still on their travels (this time to the Vale), the Wildlings are still advancing on Castle Black and Daenerys is continuing her trek through Slaver's Bay, her mission this time to liberate Meereen. Perhaps this sense of continuation is because the fourth season is primarily concerned with adapting the second half of the third novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series A Storm of Swords or perhaps it's because Game of Thrones, riding off its best season yet, is in a state of absolute confidence it doesn't need to catch its breath.

So let's look at the new players first; Pedro Pascal makes his debut as the Red Viper and prince of Dorne  Oberyn Martell along with his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). Their entrance on the show is bold and challenging; they don't arrive with the rest of the Dorne procession to honour Joffrey's impending wedding. Instead they snuck in to enjoy the delights of Littlefinger's pleasure houses. But they sexual delights are just part of their fiery, passionate characters; in his speech to Tyrion, Oberyn is equally consumed with wrath over the death of his sister many years earlier at the hands of Gregor Clegane. It's that anger that will lead to the infamous The Mountain and the Viper later this season. Pascal and Varma also stand out from the ground in their debut and it's understandable why the rest of the Dorne storyline established next season was so disappointing after this impressive start right here.

Another small but notable entrance is Yuri Kolokolnikov Styr and the rest of the cannibal Thenn tribe that encounter Ygriitte and Tormund Giantsbane south of the Wall. There's been something rather likeable about the Wildlings Jon joined last season but this new group, with their scarred faces and hunger for human meat are a frightening new side to the Wildling forces, adding to the threat of the impending battle this season. Jon meanwhile finds himself facing a very different threat in acting Night's Watch commander Alliser Thorne and new ally, the slimy Janos Slynt, who Tyrion exiled from King's Landing in season two. The 'homecoming' is far from friendly, only the very wise Maester Aemon seeing the real threat to come (the late Peter Vauhan having a formidable, wise presence in his scenes at Castle Black).

For Daenerys Targaryen, it's more of the same, continuing the highs of last season as her army marches to the great slave city of Meereen. Daario Naharis is recast and Michiel Huisman brings a lot of charm and vibrancy to the role. I could not have imagined a romance between Daenerys and Ed Skrein's version from season three, but there is real chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Huisman's characters and his energy is infectious. I loved the 'corruption' of Grey Worm by gambling with swords for a chance to ride at the queen's side.

King's Landing offers plenty of great character moments alongside the debut of the Dornish characters. It really feels like the beginning of the end for Tyrion and Shae; she is still reeling from Varys's attempts to buy her off in the season three finale and while it is easy to understand the danger, there was something sad about her attempts to seduce him and his reluctance for fear of getting caught. Diana Rigg stole the show again in her one scene with Margeray as they planned for her upcoming wedding to Joffrey; her admiration for Brienne of Tarth was a particularly delight.

There was also the glimmer of Jamie actually being the one Lannister child to stand up to Tywin, though his noble refusal to give up the King's Guard was soon met with a virtual disowning. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's performance has really matured at this point, that impulsive nature of the early years weathered away. He holds his own with Tywin, bites his tongue against Joffrey's odious taunts (is there anyone who at this point wouldn't be a suspect in his upcoming murder?) and there was a nice continuation of his friendship with Brienne, flitting between fake mockery and genuine respect. It certainly felt like a welcome pay off for their journey last season.

And finally the episode ends in brutal fashion with the bloody adventures of Arya and the Hound. Their grudging partnership works well and will cement over the course of the season. Neither trusts the other but they have worst enemies as the scene in the inn proves. Andy Kellegher returns as the odious Polliver, the Lannister man that stole Needle from Arya and killed Lommy. You can see the blood boil in both Sandor and Arya as Polliver brags about how he and his men have raped and pillaged through the country and the tension rises to the point that Sandor snaps. The ensuing fight is brutal but thrilling and Arya retrieving Needle and using it to kill Polliver was rather satisfying. I loved her smile as she got her wish and rose after the Hound with her horse, Needle at her side.

Two Swords was an excellent season opener, handling multiple storylines deftly. It's not one to engage new or casual viewers instead picking up right where season three left off. It's a standard that will continue through the following nine episodes; season four may not have the really big moments of other seasons but there are still plenty of surprises ahead in what is perhaps the best and most tonally consistent season in the show's run.

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