For the Best Episode of Season 4 poll, our staff argued for our favorite episodes of the season…
“Two Swords” opens with “The Rains of Castamere”. It opens with Tywin Lannister melting down Ice, the blade of House Stark. The first time you see his face, the camera is low, staring up at the Lannister patriarch. It is his moment of symbolic triumph. The Starks are gone. The Lannisters triumph. He even tosses the wolfskin into the flame, just to hammer it home.
I’m a fan of great season premieres. They rarely get the attention that finales do, for one thing, even though their job can be so much harder. A finale resolves, triumphs, or destroys. A premiere? That has to build. That has to keep things interesting, to create a new status quo, to set up the entire thrust of a season.
That’s a difficult enough job on its own, but “Two Swords” also has an even higher degree of difficulty: it’s coming after the most shocking event in the entirety of Game of Thrones, the Red Wedding….
The entire story before this has been Starks versus Lannisters, with both sides showing power and having a chance at victory. Yet we’ve had three seasons of Lannister victory after Lannister victory: crushing Ned’s coup, routing Stannis’ army, and having Robb and Cat murdered. And in response? “Mhysa”, for all its strengths, ended on an uncomfortable note of pure Daenerys propaganda, instead of anything to indicate that the Seven Kingdoms were anything other than the playthings of King Joffrey Baratheon-Lannister and his Hand, Tywin Lannister. Tywin manifests that power in the very first scene.
And then Jaime tells Lord Tywin “no.”
And then Oberyn Martell shows up seemingly out of nowhere wants to kill the Lannisters for singing their anthem.
And then Brienne of Tarth and Olenna and Margaery Tyrell and Sansa Stark are there in King’s Landing, a small cabal of decency in a land run by Joffreys and Tywins, and enforced by Meryn Trants and Pollivers, who think they can say things like “Think about it. We can do whatever we like. Wherever we go! These are the king’s colors. No one’s standing in his way now. Which means no one’s standing in ours!”
And then The Hound says “fuck the king” and all hell breaks loose.
Even in a place where the chatty sociopaths and uncaring patriarchs dominate, there are still opportunities for resistance. Jaime Lannister can tell his father no, he can not let his overbearing father win total victory. Sandor Clegane can say “fuck the king” and shock the entire room, because nobody can say that about Joffrey. But people can say it. They can say it and mean it, and they may have to fight dirty, they may have to cause adolescents to cross shocking moral boundaries, but that resistance provides its own triumph and hope.
Saying “no” in the face of victorious villainy is what’s left for the surviving heroes of Game of Thrones. “You win or you die” may have been the story of the first three seasons, but in “Two Swords” that’s converted to “If you’re not dead, you still winning.” The season premiere had to totally rebuild the conceptual thrust of Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding destroyed it—and “Two Swords” did so magnificently.