So where was I?
I believe when we last met around the ol’ throne we were lamenting the loss of the Stark army along with Robb and Catelyn. The tears are not yet gone in the premiere and it’s a smart move as the slaughter that occurred near the end of season three has given the show a new level of preeminence. Game of Thrones rubs it right in our faces with a pre-credits sequence of Tywin Lannister melting down Eddard Stark’s sword and creating two new ones out of it. In a story filled with misery, Tywin is one of the few that seems at least somewhat content. Joffrey, too, but how much of a person is he?
Everyone else is miserable and the only escape from the misery appears to be death, an idea Jaime pointed out to Brienne at the episode’s midpoint. It was an interesting idea, especially since he was referring to serial killer in training Arya Stark. Arya, seemingly everyone I talk to’s favorite character, has gone from witty, tough girl to a bit of a psycho. We got a hint of it at the end of last season when she attacked a few Lannister men, but her killing of Polliver, as she repeats his words back to him, is some black belt psychopathy- Patrick Bateman would be proud. As a reader of the books, I knew how far Arya would fall, but I didn’t think the show would go too far at the risk of alienating the audience. Thankfully, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who both wrote and directed the episode) don’t seem to be particularly worried about alienating the audience- they’re following in the footsteps of George R. R. Martin whose books hold no punches. Thinking back on Jamie’s words, I’m forced to wonder if Arya might be better off dead than becoming a monster like the Hound or even worse.
Compared to previous season premieres, Two Swords feels darker, more cynical, as if certain no one in this world will get a happy ending even if they’re on the winning side. One of the few happy moments in the episode, Dharrio trying to woo Daenarys, is interrupted when Daenarys’ army stumbles upon a crucified slave whose had points to Meereen.
Let’s talk about that moment. It’s a stunning visual. We associate crucifixion with Christ, but here the show makes the crucified look not so much tragic as incredibly vulgar. The girl’s tattered clothes, her diminutive stature, her long dead body, and her finger feebly pointing all lead to a sense of violation, a loss of humanity. It’s appropriate considering she is a slave and Mereen is a city built upon slavery. It’s clear the citizens of Meereen know Daenarys is coming for them and they appear to be not worried at all, ready to mock her by nailing one of their slaves to a cross for every mile of the 163 she has to cross before arriving at Meereen. I immediately though of The Stand by Stephen King because the Dark Man lined the streets to Las Vegas with crucified followers. I know Martin is a fan of King so I don’t know if the idea came from King’s book due to his input, but it’s a hell of an effective image.
Images like this are important for Game of Thrones because no matter how great its CGI is, and tonight is sure was great, it will never be able to show the full scope of Westeros in the way the books can- and even they can’t show everything considering how large the world is- so they have to make do by using images as representations of larger events. The shot of the crucified girl is one such instance because it tells us everything we need to know about what goes on in Meereen and how the slaves are treated. The episode’s other striking image is that of burning buildings in the distance as the Hound and Arya ride away. We see no close ups of the destruction, but the scope of the image is large enough that it’s clear the War of the Five Kings has ruined the lives of many who were not involved in it. Many of the show’s characters are higher class so it’s important the show reminds us how horribly the average person of Westeros is suffering thanks to the egos of a few.
Game of Thrones’ other technique for sketching out a larger world we’ll never see all of is that of the monologue. Many of Game of Thrones’ episodes consist largely of two characters telling the other either stories about their past or a parable using an historical event. It’s a technique I never tire of as the stories are always smart and the dialogue is always expertly delivered by the actors. We don’t get much of this in Two Swords because we’re constantly dropped in on characters before being whisked away since the premiere is trying to catch up with everyone and give us an indication of where the action might be going. However, we do get something of a monologue from a new player, Oberyn Martell, a character who, for me, came alive on screen much more than he did in the book, a rare feat considering how rich Martin is able to make his characters, sometimes just by using a few lines. Martell’s speech about the sacking of King’s Landing at the end of Robert’s Rebellion is vivid and actor Pedro Pascal delivers it with just the right amount of anger and sadness that it doesn’t matter he’s talking about a massive, history changing event we’ve never seen involving many players we’ve never met along with a few who are long dead (RIP Ned).
As we begin season four I’m curious to see how Game of Thrones will continue to use these techniques to explore an ever widening plot. I’ll be there for every episode this season.
You should feel free to comment and tell me what you thought about the episode, what you agreed with in my analysis, or what you thought I was completely wrong about and should be beheaded for.
HBO Mandated Gratuitous Nudity Count: One scene. We met Oberyn Martell and his girlfriend in a brothel and Oberyn strips down two women. He also propositions a man but other events interrupt before the man gets naked, sorry ladies. The fact that Oberyn is bisexual and is interested in a man somewhat saves this from being too sleazy, but it’s still rather ridiculous and ends up in our count. The gratuitous nudity is the show’s only consistent flaw so I’ll be keeping a critical eye on it this season.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.