April 6th, 2014
“Killed the right people, I suppose.”
The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.
We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.
This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?
“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.
That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. “Two Swords” begins with the symbolic melting down of Ice at the orders of Tywin Lannister, forging new swords from its Valyrian steel. It’s a passing of the narrative torch, as it were, from one family to another: if the first three seasons were focused on the Stark family as the great hope for Westeros, the Red Wedding tipped the scales in favor of the Lannisters both in terms of who was winning the war and in terms of who now represents the larger portion of the series’ narrative. It was not a coincidence that it was the Lannisters, and not the Starks, who dominated the cover of Vanity Fair for their recent cover story on the series.
And yet Game of Thrones doesn’t feel like a different show. It doesn’t feel like Jaime has replaced Robb, or that Cersei’s role has in any way changed based on Catelyn’s absence. Unlike other examples of series losing long-term characters, the nature of the source material means that the writers have plenty of time to plan out their next move. Some strong work on Jaime’s storyline in the third season successfully transformed the character into a more ambiguous presence than his lineage suggests, while the expanded role for Tywin has made his relationship with each of his children a more substantial throughline to rival that of the Stark clan. Once Tywin is done tossing the wolf pelt into the fire, he has a conversation with Jaime that’s effectively the reverse of the conversation he had with Tyrion last season: whereas Tywin refused Tyrion’s desire to be Lord of Casterly Rock, Jaime refuses Tywin’s offer of the same title. And while that direct connection to last season is strongest, we can take that relationship all the way back to the scene that first introduced Tywin back in season one.
A lot has changed since then—it’s what Cersei tries to get across to Jaime when she’s explaining why she can’t just settle back into whatever their relationship once was. It’s a complicated scene, both in terms of narrative and character dynamics. For Jaime, his relationship with Cersei is part of his status quo, something he aims to reclaim if only to say that the loss of his hand hasn’t kept everything from him. It’s the same reason he can’t give up his place in the Kingsguard, a pride that will be threatened for the rest of his life by the golden hand staring back at him. For Cersei, meanwhile, so much has happened between then and now that to go back—to feel Jaime’s hand on hers again, for instance—is a reminder of the weight of those events. As much as Cersei’s retelling of her experiences in Jaime’s absence serves to remind the audience of various details—like Myrcella! Remember Myrcella? She’s back, in monologue form!—it’s also reminding Jaime of things he didn’t experience.
Meanwhile, as I realized watching the scene, it’s also giving us what is the most concentrated glimpse of Jaime and Cersei’s relationship we’ve gotten since the beginning of the first season. These are two people who were ostensibly in love, and yet the show has never had time to really explore the reasons why. For the first time—despite, as Jaime notes to Joffrey, Stannis still plotting off-screen—the Lannisters aren’t truly at war with anyone, and there’s time to focus on weddings instead of battles. There’s a future to be had for Jaime and Cersei, but neither can comfortably grasp onto it without dredging up the chaos that happened in between.
And those are the characters who have the luxury of forgetting. For the remaining Stark children—Sansa, Arya, and Jon—they don’t get to forget. When we first see Sansa, she’s refusing to eat, prompting Tyrion to try to reason with her. He admits that what happened to her family was an injustice. He says her mother would want her to go on. And yet as the scene progresses, Weiss keeps the camera on Sansa even as Tyrion is talking, slowly zooming in on her face struck cold with grief. It is unchanged by his words, even if he means them, and all Sansa wants to do is live with her grief by herself, alone.
For Jon and Arya, they’re too busy focusing on tragedies of their own to focus too heavily on what befell their family. And yet we still first see Jon reflecting on Robb before heading to hear the treason charges against him, and Arya’s quest to regain Needle is in part driven by the fact it was her brother—Jon, in this case—who gave it to her. But both Jon and Arya are being forced to confront the choices they’ve made in the thick of this war, compared to Sansa who has largely been sheltered from the events themselves if not their aftermath. This is not to diminish Sansa’s grief, but rather to contextualize why Arya’s grief manifests as murder instead of meditation.
Arya regaining Needle is a tremendously important moment for this character. When the chain of custody changed from the books—where, for non-readers, another character took the sword—there was never any doubt they would replicate this sequence more or less as it was written. It comes at a moment when Arya has been splintered from her family, the Hound’s captive, far from the “young lady” she was brought to the capital to become back in season one—her rejection of that title was swift (and mirrored by Ellaria Sand’s rejection of the courtesy), but it was also tenuous. You could perhaps still imagine a world where Arya is brought safely to the Eyrie, and ushered back into a life more like the one she lived before.
That no longer seems possible. When she takes up a sword in the fight against Polliver and the rest of the Mountain’s torture crew, she owns who she threatened to become while whispering to Jaqen at Harrenhal and wandering the countryside with Gendry. There is no turning back for Arya at this stage. She had kept her hands mostly clean at Harrenhal, and you could write off the dead stable boy back in season one as a simple mistake. When she kills Polliver, she kills him—for all of the reasons he deserved it (including his threats against the proprietor and his daughter), and for all the fist pumps it may have earned, Arya has made a clean break from the life imagined for her. I wouldn’t normally think of Jaime and Arya as parallels in the series as a whole, but they represent two sides of the coin: while both were separated from their families and the life they knew, Jaime takes his harrowing experience back to King’s Landing, while Arya rides off on her own horse to a fate far different from what even a girl who preferred swordfighting to sewing could have imagined.
The reclamation of Needle is the episode’s finest sequence, one I’ve been waiting for for four seasons and delivered on every level. However, the episode’s most substantive contribution to the broader fabric of the series came in the introduction of Oberyn Martell, the first of an indeterminate number of Dornish characters to enter into our central story. Pedro Pascal makes quite an entrance, one that works to both connect with and yet diverge from the dominant themes and norms established in the series thus far.
In regards to the series’ lore, the death of Elia following her marriage to Rheagar is rightfully treated as something more than exposition, as it drives everything Oberyn does. That isn’t information that Oberyn tells Tyrion because the audience needs to learn it (although, as with Cersei above, it’s a useful byproduct). Rather, he is someone who—not unlike the Starks—holds onto the past, and whose quest for vengeance has never been resolved.
He’s also introduced in a brothel. Ahead of the season, I had an extended Twitter discussion with—soon-to-be Buzzfeed’s—Anne Helen Petersen regarding what she terms the show’s use of “narratively unmotivated full-frontal female nudity,” a claim I objected to. As I said at the time, I would never argue that introducing Oberyn in a brothel picking out of a line of prostitutes and disrobing two of them was necessary. There is no doubt that one could have introduced him differently, and avoided the nudity entirely, if the writers had been so inclined. And I would also agree that the lack of gender parity—and the presence of nudity in general—across HBO programming has broader cultural meanings that need to be unpacked.
However, I think we need to acknowledge the difference between engaging with premium cable nudity writ large and engaging with it as a part of an ongoing television series. At this stage, nudity means something specific to Game of Thrones: it isn’t just the idea of sexposition (a practice the show has largely steered away from, in which nudity was used to make info dumps more interesting), but rather specific meanings tied to how we understand it in this space. In the case of the sex workers in Littlefinger’s brothel, they have served a specific function in mapping out the culture of the King’s Landing elite, and the brutish, simplistic way they tend to perceive sex and sexuality. Does that also happen to manifest as the basic objectification of the female body for a primarily male audience? Absolutely, but it has been so closely isolated in conjunction with King’s Landing and its culture that it has taken on meanings both outside and within the series.
Oberyn challenges those latter meanings. As much as there is still nudity in the scene that introduces him to the audience, there is frankness to his discussion of sexuality that sketches out the more open nature of Dornish culture. As it is, he has come to King’s Landing with a mistress instead of a wife, and embraces his bisexuality in a way that certainly differs from how Loras approached his own affair with Olyvar (Littlefinger’s lone male prostitute) last season. Although Oberyn is still a man with sexual urges, and the show still gets to place the female body on display, the scene tells us some of what distinguishes the character—and the land from which he resides—from the “knights” of Westeros we’ve met previously.
There were other ways this could have been done—I make no arguments that nudity and sex were the only tools at their disposal. However, at this stage, nudity is part of the thematic fabric of Game of Thrones—it’s been part of the show, it will continue to be part of the show, and that ship has sailed. So as much as I continue to sign off on larger pieces regarding how HBO nudity functions, I would argue that this is a successful use of pre-existing norms of nudity in the series as a point of comparison to differentiate a new character—or two, if we count Ellaria—and our first real introduction to the desert lands to the south. While that work could have been done without nudity, the way it was done actively engaged with the meaning of that nudity, and reframed it to serve the show’s future.
It’s an example of how the show is reframing—or, one could argue, melting down and recasting—itself slowly but surely. It’s not dramatically altering what it’s about or what tools it’s using, but it’s having to acknowledge the forms are changing, and the focus changes with them. That change will define this season.
- My goal is to keep these weekly reviews throughout the season, although I make no promises on length as we get deeper into the season.
- You’ll notice I’ve not addressed Daenerys above, which is true! As is often the case, Dany’s off on her own. My only real response thus far is that I’m very pleased with Michiel Huisman taking over the role of Daario, and that I’m glad to see them sketching out some fun—Fun! Imagine that!—dynamics between Daario and Grey Worm. The road to Meereen is long, but some productive work can be done in that space.
- The question of how much of Dorne the show wants to deal with remains unclear: Oberyn is a showy character, and converges with ongoing stories in King’s Landing very clearly, but there’s a lot of story in Dorne in the books that remains disconnected. I would agree with those who think Dorne is useful, but at the same time I don’t know if it’s so useful that we’ll see it deployed in full. We shall see as the story progresses—they did remind us about Myrcella existing, after all.
- Hey, remember Tommen? Well, Jaime did, in mentioning his name while preparing security for the wedding. Be prepared for him to have changed his looks dramatically (not that you probably remember what the old Tommen looked like).
- “I’m not anybody’s”—Ygritte and the Wildlings remain a part of the narrative despite Jon’s return to Castle Black, a departure from the books but a chance to introduce more of the Wildling horde (here the cannibalistic Thenns).
- “What the fuck’s a Lommy?”—I want this on a t-shirt.