Game Of Thrones season 4 episode 1 review: Two Swords

The Game Of Thrones season 4 opener introduces new threats and proves it's still a masterclass in staging on-screen violence...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free episode review is here.

4.1 Two Swords

With every visit to Westeros, there are new faces to learn, new characters to learn, and new relationships to figure out. Who swears fealty to whom? Who wants to kill who over what slight from ages past? Just what is Daenerys going to do with her army of ex-slaves, disgraced Westerosi, crabby teenage dragons, and three remaining Dothraki (remember them?) all the way over on the wrong side of the world?

Between characters dying, new characters joining the regular cast, and the occasional actor recasting between seasons, Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have gotten really good at explaining, as entertainingly as possible, just who these new folks are and why we’re supposed to care about them. Take, for example, the introduction of the Dornish Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) and his paramour Elleria Sand (Indira Varma). As Tyrion waits for them to arrive, he is told in no uncertain terms by the Dornish party that their Prince is already in King’s Landing, and has been for some time, leaving Tyrion to track down the elusive royal.

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Seamless cut to Prince Oberyn and Elleria hanging out at Littlefinger’s brothel. They’re perusing the wares and indulging in a little sexposition, which tells us pretty much all we need to know about Oberyn and Elleria: they’re pan-sexual, always on the prowl, they get what they want, and after they hear a couple of Lannister guards singing The Rains Of Castamere a few rooms down in the brothel, we find out they really, really hate Lannisters (Oberyn goes into greater depth there when talking to Tyrion shortly after stabbing one of the Lannister men in the wrist, showing that he’s great at both being a lover and a fighter). It turns out his sister Elia was the wife of Rhaegar Targaryen, the last dragon, and she was raped and killed alongside her children by everyone’s favorite Mountain That Rides, Gregor Clegane.

It’s a really great introduction for the characters from Benioff and Weiss, who wrote the episode, and Pedro Pascal’s delivery is what really helps sell the lines more so than anything else. It has to be intimidating to walk onto the same set with an actor the calibre of Peter Dinklage, yet here we are. Pascal and Indira Varma more than hold their own with the rest of the folks of Westeros, and there’s an unhinged mania behind the eyes of the Martell family that suggests that their thirst for vengeance against the Lannisters won’t be sated with the blood of some underlings.

Speaking of blood, once again Game Of Thrones proves itself to be a masterclass of how to stage violence on screen. D.B. Weiss (along with Benioff, who directed the episode with him but doesn’t get credit due to DGA rules) gets to take his seat in the big chair as the director of this episode, and it ends up paying off really well. He makes strong use of the show’s big special effects budget by giving us some great scenes of the dragons fighting with one another over the corpse of a sheep (the dragons look better than ever), and he also manages to have some impressive crane shots in the process: Dany and her army on the march through the wastelands leading to Meereen and Arya and the Hound riding through a smoldering, charred hellscape that used to be Westeros.

However, the most stand-out element of the episode is the claustrophobic, impressively-staged sword fight between the Hound, Arya, and a collection of Lannister men, including Polliver (Andy Kellegher), the man who took Needle and put the spear to Lommy Greenhands. It manages to be both frenetic, tightly-shot, and well-executed all at the same time. Arya and the Hound together make a great odd couple for most of the episode, but it was the execution of the combat – the slow burn by Rory McCann as The Hound slowly loses his temper, the sound of the drinking and clattering cups, the screaming and squealing of servant girls being threatened, the way Arya takes her time as she slides Needle into Polliver’s throat, repeating back to him word for word the things he said to Lommy before sticking him with a spear – that really pulls it all together and creates a satisfying moment, capped off with the little satisfied smile Arya has on her face as she rides onward with the Hound.

After the hiatus and the events of the Red Wedding, it’s only natural that Game Of Thrones returns with the need to get on its feet and restock the show’s rogues’ gallery with creepy new Wildling threats like Styr, Magnar of Thenn (Yuriy Kolokolnikov) while returning some older faces Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), Ser Dontos the drunk (Tony Way), and a recast version of Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman). We don’t get any mention of Bran and his fellow wanderers, but there’s plenty of time for them to show back up before all is said and done. Better to stick with victorious Lannister clan and their sniping, Arya and the Hound’s two-person comedy team, and awesome CGI dragons; these are the show’s breakout characters, may as well lead off with strength and catch up with the rest later on.

Read Ron’s review of the season three finale, Mhysa, here.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan is very pleased by the long-awaited return of Game of Thrones to television. It’s been entirely too long since we’ve murdered alongside our Westeros friends. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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