GAME OF THRONES: “Two Swords”

Welcome back to Westeros, where the good times never cease! The Lannisters have won. So what now?

Your mother…I admired her. She wanted to have me executed, but I admired her.

–Tyrion

As I kick off my recaps of Game of Thrones for the next ten weeks (barring a childbirth here or there, in which case Chase will have it covered), I want to let you know a couple of things up front: first, though I have read all of the books, I will keep these things spoiler-free. Because I care about you. This will not devolve into an endless list of comparison points — there are many excellent places you can go for that. But that said, this is going to be the best season of the current best show on TV, so BUCKLE. UP.

King’s Landing. Picking up what seems to be only a matter of weeks after the events of “Mhysa,” we find Westeros more united than any time since before King Robert’s Death By Boar. The Lannister clan, having destroyed their enemies on all sides, can finally relax and have a little fun…or what passes for fun, at least. To most, that means prepping for Joffrey’s sure-to-be-charming wedding. To Tywin, that means melting down Ned Stark’s “absurdly large” sword, Ice (as “The Rains of Castamere” plays on the soundtrack), and re-forging that top-shelf Valyrian steel into the two swords of the title. His face is the first thing we see to start the season, the face of the man who won a war from behind a desk, all but wiping out the Starks, though he faces his greatest challenge yet in keeping his psychopathic grandson under control — not to mention his children, all of which have disappointed him in various ways, as he is eager to remind them.

One of the swords goes to Jamie, Season 3’s breakout character (“He’s the Sawyer of Thrones,” I kept saying. No one believed me until they did.) I had almost forgotten what Jamie looked like cleaned up. But, of course, he looks great. Jamie accepts the sword despite being down a hand: “A true swordsman uses both hands,” he remarks. “You’ll never be as good,” Tywin counters, helpfully. (Three-time defending Father of the Year right here!) Jamie insists on staying in King’s Landing and returning to his assignment with the Kingsguard; Tywin wants him home back at Casterly Rock and starting a family. As everyone is quick to remind Jamie this week, he’s 40. Tywin probably also wants him away from Cersei, being fully aware that the rumors about their, ahem, “relationship” — not mention Joffrey’s true parentage — are true. But he relents, after once again letting Jamie feel the full weight of his dissatisfaction.

Amusingly, all three Lannister children believe they are their father’s least favorite. “You’re all he’s got,” laments Cersei (to Jamie), who is bracing for her own impending wedding to Loras Tyrell by being perpetually drunk. (And let’s be real: Drunk Cersei is the best Cersei.) Has Jamie’s experience — his long captivity, his road trip with Brienne — really changed him? Maybe some, but not completely, as he takes another pass at his sister. But Cersei rejects him, too, saying he “took too long,” and claiming that everything that has happened is his fault because he picked a fight with Ned Stark. Ouch. Jamie’s not a fan of the new golden hand Qyburn made for him (“If you like it so much, why don’t you chop off your own hand and keep it?”) It’s a rough week for the Kingslayer, because when he’s not being put down by his father and sister, his own son — still in the dark about that bit — is having a grand time insulting him about his new handicap. While perusing the biographies of Kingsguard heroes past (Dunk and Egg shoutout for the fans!), Joffrey remarks how little there is on Jamie’s page. We can see how much this bothers Jamie, who is long tired of being sneered at as an “Oathbreaker,” and might be ready to make some good choices…

Oh, well. At least Tywin still his has (actually least favorite son) Tyrion, “accomplished diplomat,” who we find at the edge of the city waiting to greet the entourage from Dorne — in particular the Prince of Dorne, who RSVP’d for the Wedding of the Century. Except, unfortunately, the Prince is no longer coming. But he’s sent his brother, Oberyn Martell, instead. Tyrion immediately knows this is bad news. Oberyn, in addition to being a skilled fighter (and apparent pan-sexual demigod, in the season’s first scene of Gratuitous Nudity shows), has revenge on his mind: revenge for the killing of his sister, Elia (Rhaegar Targaryen’s wife) at the hands of Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. So Oberyn — played excellently by Chilean actor Pedro Pascal — is here for the wedding, but not to have fun. His nickname is “The Red Viper” for a reason.

Perhaps one of the best things about life in Westeros is that everyone gets a nickname.

But Tyrion, already hamstrung as Master of Coin while King’s Landing is throwing the most expensive nuptials in history, has even bigger problems: his poor child bride, Sansa, is — shockingly — still not over the death of her entire family (no one knows where Arya is, and Bran and Rickon are still presumed dead, and no one cares about Jon, so that makes her the Last Stark Standing.) For the second time this episode, Tyrion finds himself apologizing for his family’s misdeeds. Sansa flees to the local godswood, the only place where no one will bother her… save one. As it happens, Ser Dontos has never forgotten how Sansa’s quick thinking saved his life back at the beginning of Season 2 (when Joffrey decided to make him the court fool instead of executing him), and wants to thank her by gifting a necklace of sapphires. It’s a sweet moment, and Dontos’s sudden reappearance in the story is important, surely…

Meanwhile, while tossing considerably more expensive necklaces off a balcony, Margaery and Lady Olenna come face to face (or is it face to shoulders?) with Brienne — “Aren’t you marvelous! Absolutely singular!” exclaims the Queen of Thorns, awesomely — who finally has a chance to share the truth about what happened to Renly Baratheon. Brienne also goes to Jamie for help in getting Sansa the heck out of King’s Landing, but at the moment there’s not much anyone can do. Not even Tyrion, who’s having a hard enough time as it is convincing a jealous Shae that he doesn’t love Sansa. Shae finally gets around to bringing up that time Varys tried to get her on a boat with a bag full of diamonds, something she mistakenly believes Tyrion was behind, and when he claims ignorance (which is true), she storms off. Tyrion, as sad as he’d be, needs their relationship over. (Never a more loaded question than “Can I have a moment alone with my wife?“) But seven hells hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Whew! All of that was just King’s Landing? And that was only half the episode? We better keep going.

Across the Sea. Dany, breaker of chains, is on her way to Mereen, with freed slaves and massive army in tow. (Man, the CGI budget must have increased again this year. The scope of her Unsullied warriors is quite impressive.) Not to mention her beloved dragons, who are unruly teenagers at this point, becoming harder and harder for even Dany to control. But she needs to conquer Mereen, not just because it’s the final slave city within feasible distance, but because she will soon need to stop marching and actually learn how to rule. And she’s still getting unwarranted advice from everyone: Ser Jorah, who wants to protect her because he’s in loooove, Ser Barristan, who’s here purely for tactics and his own pride, and the newly acquired (and newly recast) Daario, played this season by Michael Huisman — and thank heavens, because that smug Fabio guy did not work for me.

But Daario is still a flirt and a gambler, though immediately more likable than his previous incarnation. He uses a lesson in local botany as an excuse to give her a bouquet of flowers, for example. And there’s a brewing bromance between him and Grey Worm, which should be fun. (He needles the enuuch for his crush on Missandei, which…being a enuuch, that sucks. Poor Grey Worm.) But on the road to Mereen, they come across a horrifying sight: a crucified slave child, one strung up at every mile marker for the next 160 miles. Jorah asks to have someone go ahead and take them down, but Dany belays that command. She wants to look upon every single one. Because that city’s going to burn.

(It’s worth mentioning, as always, how fantastic this show looks. It’s the most complex production basically in history, sending crews to Croatia, Iceland, Morocco, Ireland, and more on a yearly basis, but it yields stunning vistas that add immeasurably to the realism. It’s just gorgeous.)

The Wall. As the Wildlings continue to gather their forces for an assault sure to come by season’s end — this week we meet the Thenns, a crazily-pierced tribe of cannibals with extremely short fuses — Ygritte is still smarting over her betrayal by Jon. Tormund, however, says what we’re all thinking: given her skill with a bow, if she put three arrows in our favorite emo Night’s Watchman and he survived, it’s because she let him go. But their reunion, whenever it happens, will not be pretty.

And as the Thenns get ready to enjoy the taste of Crow, who get to stuff their faces with livestock behind the cozy confines of Castle Black, cut to… Sam. (Editing! Funny!) Jon’s back, obviously, and recovered from his many wounds, which means he’s about to face judgement from Ser Thorne, Maester Aemon, and Janos Slynt (who Tyrion sent to the Wall back in Season 2). Jon whinges a bit to Sam, like he always does, remembering how inadequate he felt compared to his half-brother Robb, who was better than Jon at everything. But to Sam, Jon is better than everything. So get over yourself, Jon.

But whether because of Sam’s encouragement or not, Jon fesses up to everything — killing Quorin Halfhand (on the Halfhand’s orders, a point Thorne and Slynt dispute), and getting cozy with the Wildlings…quite cozy indeed, as a matter of fact. Most of the council wants him hanged for breaking his vows — especially Slynt, former commander of the City Watch, to whom Jon cracks “Now you’re here. You must not be very good at your job.” — but it’s Maester Aemon who comes to Jon’s defense. If they beheaded every man who went looking for ladies at the local tavern, “we’d have a wall guarded only by headless men.” Moreover, Jon has provided some good intel about Mance Rayder’s plans, and will be quite indispensable as Castle Black needs all the men they can get. So Snow is spared, for now, and exhibits some actual, much-needed swagger for the first time. New Jon! Jon 2.0!

And finally, somewhere in the Riverlands… The best buddy comedy on television continues apace, with Arya and the Hound on their way to her crazy Aunt Lysa Arryn’s in the Vale. Watching our favorite Stark (let’s be honest) sand down Clegane’s edges, while he sharpens hers, has been a treat, but it takes an even darker, more disturbing turn this week. Arya suggests stealing some chickens from a nearby inn, which the Hound balks at — he’ll kill people with impunity, but he’s no thief. “A man’s got to have a code.” (So that makes him, scarred face and all, the Omar Little of Westeros, a statement that fills me with glee.) But when Arya recognizes Polliver — he who stole her sword, Needle, and killed the boy Lommy back in Season 2, earning a spot on her nightly prayer list — she bolts inside, and the Hound has to follow. (The shot of the two of them peering through the leaves was a delightful sight gag.)

It isn’t long before the Hound is recognized — though Arya, remarkably, is not — and Polliver asks Clegane if he wants to bring his little piece on the side and come hang out with the King’s men, as they ride up and down the countryside taking whatever (and whoever) they wish. The Hound’s brother, the Mountain, is — bless him — quite good at what he does, but man, all that sadism just gets boring after a while, you know? “Drains the fun right out of it!” The Hound, having heard Polliver prattle on about his two least favorite subjects — his brother and the King — sternly warns him to stop talking. Then, he drops the bombshell: “F–k the King.” (Arya gives him a side-eyed smile. The Hound returns it. My heart melts.) The tension ratcheted up to unbearable levels, it promptly turns into a bloody barroom brawl, with some particularly grisly kills even by GoT standards, and even Arya gets involved — no longer afraid to embed a sword deep inside a full-grown man. Whatever childlike innocence she had was stamped out long ago, as she ultimately gets the drop on Polliver and finishes him off with Needle, repeating his words to Lommy right back to him.  Another name off the list. She and the Hound continue on, now on separate horses, their bond and mutual respect forged in blood.

It could be played as a purely triumphant moment for Arya, but…man. She’s gone dark. From where she’s going — psychologically if not geographically, as she and Clegane ride across a scorched earth ravaged by war and the lawlessness that followed — there’s no returning. But if you’re expecting anyone, even Arya, to survive to the saga’s end and not be fundamentally transformed by the journey, you don’t know Game of Thrones. Onward, into Season 4. We’ve still got half the cast to catch up with.

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