In Game of Thrones, power is often a zero-sum game. One house’s loss is another house’s gain. In “Two Swords,” Tywin Lannister literally and figuratively reforges the history and prestige of the Stark family into his own.
The episode opens on a shot of the Stark’s sword, Ice, enveloped in fire: a clever homage to the name of the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. This greatsword was passed down through the Stark family for over 400 years. It was made of Valyrian steel, which is harder, sharper, and lighter than other swords because it is made with magic. Since then, the ability to forge Valyrian steel has been lost to time, and only less than fifteen weapons still exist.
Tywin Lannister has spent his whole life trying to reestablish the once-great history of the Lannister family after the misrule of his father. The aging Lannister is obsessed with the legacy of his family and what he will leave behind, which is why Tyrion’s very life is such an insult to him. It only makes sense that after having Robb Stark murdered, Tywin would take the giant sword and have it reforged into two smaller blades, bestowing the greatness of ancestral Valyrian steel swords onto his own family. To further this theme, the musical score in this scene brilliantly morphed from the Stark theme song to the Lannister’s “Rains of Castamere” just as Ice was reforged into two separate blades. Though the expression on his face belies nothing, Tywin clearly takes great pride in the fall of House Stark, and is using what’s left of them (Ice, Winterfell, and Sansa) to enhance the standing of his own family.
The Lannisters have made more than a few enemies in the process of claiming the kingdom as their own, though it doesn’t seem to bother them. Cersei once famously declared that “power is power,” and this might as well be the new house motto. But, from the outside looking in, the Lannisters are surrounded by few true friends, more opportunists, and many enemies. Our new favorite character, Oberyn Martell, puts it rather succinctly: “Do you know why all the world hates a Lannister? You think your gold and your lions and your gold lions make you better than everyone.” Tywin himself is unlikely to refute this claim, and even more unlikely to care about whether they are hated or adored; as we see in the end of the episode, his forces are pillaging and burning the countryside in his family’s name. He is not in the business of being well-liked.
When Tywin gives Jaime the sword, he also asks him to return to Casterly Rock, their seat of power. Even though, typically, the first son would inherit the castle, Jaime has sworn on as a Kingsguard for life, and he is loath to shirk this duty. It seems his time spent with Brienne helped him to realize that he desires more for himself and his legacy. “If serving as a glorified bodyguard is the sum of your ambition, then go. Serve,” his father says.
Though he openly admits his “bloody honor is beyond repair,” Jaime is suddenly dreaming of knights who left pages of great deeds in the White Book, the book that records the history of every knight who has ever served in the Kingsguard. A famous knight named Ser Duncan the Tall (whom George R.R. Martin wrote about in his short stories, “Dunk and Egg”) has four pages detailing his accomplishments. Joffrey was sure to call his uncle/father’s attention to this fact as he riffled through the White Book, coming at last to the half page on Ser Jaime Lannister. “Someone forgot to write down all your great deeds,” he teased. In the books, Ser Barristan Selmy remembers the White Book fondly, recalling the stories of the greatest knights: “The best of them overcame their flaws, did their duty, and died with their swords in their hands.” Though it took him 40 years and a hand to realize it, Jaime is finally understanding that this is his true ambition.
In addition to the new sword, Jaime was outfitted with a golden hand by Not-A-Maester Qyburn (last season, Qyburn admitted that he was stripped of his title of “maester” because he was performing experiments on live humans in order to better understand their anatomy). He also tries to rekindle his relationship with Cersei, but she seems scared and fragile. She has been drinking in excess and taking cures from Qyburn for unknown ailments. When Jaime confronts her on this, as well as the distance between them, Cersei blames him for not being there when she needed him. King’s Landing has twisted her, and not for the better. She admits that she did not expect to survive Stannis’s siege, and events like these have clearly affected her emotional well-being. The Lannister siblings/lovers have suffered greatly over the last few years and have acquired both physical and emotional scars, a fact which Cersei is having difficulty overcoming.
Their other scarred sibling, Tyrion, is sent to meet an important wedding guest on the Kingsroad. Prince Doran Martell, Lord of the Sunspear and Prince of Dorne, does not end up arriving, though a lavish party of Dornishmen is met on the road. Later, Tyrion and Bronn find the prince’s younger brother, Oberyn, in a famous Littlefinger whorehouse with his Dornish lover, Ellaria Sand. They know to look there because Oberyn, a bisexual, is almost as famous for his exploits around Westeros as he is for his prowess on the battlefield.
Dorne is the southernmost region of Westeros and has not been mentioned much in the series so far. Back in Season 2, Tyrion had Cersei’s daughter Myrcella married off to Oberyn’s youngest brother, Trystane. This strategic marriage alliance was only one of many feeble attempts to reconcile the Lannisters with the Martells. Their bad blood goes back beyond the start of the series and has been referenced a couple times throughout.
Oberyn reminds Tyrion and the viewers that the Martells are not over the murder of his sister, Elia. The Lannisters are said to have ordered the deaths of Elia and her two children when they invaded King’s Landing during Robert’s Rebellion. Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, Elia’s husband and Daenerys’s brother, had already been killed, and his family was killed off in order to solidify the Baratheon (and ultimately, Lannister) position on the Iron Throne. The Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane, is said to have raped Elia and cut her in half with his greatsword (unlikely to be innuendo on that one, but you never know), then murdered her two young children.
Therefore, when Oberyn tells Tyrion that the Lannisters are not the only ones who pay their debts, it is a serious threat. At the very sound of “The Rains of Castamere” (also the song that was playing as Robb and Catelyn were murdered), Oberyn is ready to spill blood. His vengeful and unpredictable behavior will make for an interesting wedding, as King’s Landing prepares for the union between Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell.
Lady Olenna and her granddaughter, Margaery, are themselves preparing for the wedding when Brienne approaches them, wishing to have a word. Lady Olenna’s delight at seeing the fabled female knight in the flesh is a magical moment, her verbal wit a treasure not unlike Tyrion Lannister’s. Brienne explains the mystical circumstances of Renly Baratheon’s murder by shadowbaby-Stannis as they walk by a horrific new statue of King Joffrey and his favorite crossbow.
Later, Brienne meets with Jaime to try to convince him to fulfill his vow to release the Stark girls to their mother. He tries to get out of it by arguing that, for one, their mother is dead, and two, Arya is nowhere to be found. Brienne is unimpressed, but Jaime refuses to make any commitments, especially now that Sansa is married to his brother.
Tyrion and Sansa’s marriage is still a sore spot for all involved, despite the Imp’s valiant (but futile) efforts at cheering his young wife. Sansa is little comforted by the fact that she has been forced to spend the rest of her life with her family’s murderers, no matter how nice Tyrion might be. Shae tries to get Sansa to eat, but is unable to ply her with pigeon pie (no wonder) or lemon cakes (now you know there’s trouble: those are Sansa’s favorite food). Her depression is deep and her helplessness profound, though Tyrion tries his hardest to support her by offering kind, unsolicited words about her mother and brother.
“Your mother… I admired her. She wanted to have me executed, but I admired her. She was a strong woman, and she was fierce when it came to protecting her children. Sansa, your mother would want you to carry on. You know it’s true.”
When Sansa goes to the godswood, Tyrion assumes she is going to seek religion in her pain. “I don’t pray anymore,” she replies numbly. “It’s the only place I go where people don’t talk to me.”
However, in the godswood, she is not alone. She is tracked down by Ser Dontos, a drunken fool whose life was saved by her cleverness back in Season 2. When he showed up to Joffrey’s tournament drunk, the king had a mind to pour wine down his throat until he died. At first, Sansa convinced him it was bad luck to kill someone on your nameday (effectively, your birthday). Joffrey, hardly one to back down from an opportunity to maim or murder, decided to lock up Ser Dontos and execute him the following day. Sansa managed to persuade him to make the man a fool instead, praising Joffrey’s eye for idiocy. Joffrey’s desire for adulation perhaps outweighs his desire for murder; he accepted both the praise and the idea, and Ser Dontos has been a court fool to this day.
Indebted to Sansa, Ser Dontos seeks her out in a place where no one is watching. He gives her an amethyst necklace, which he says is the only remaining object of his family’s former glory. As the last of the Hollard family, Ser Dontos the fool and his other male counterparts have squandered away his family’s fortune, but this necklace was worn by his mother and grandmother. He is just pathetic enough that Sansa accepts the gift and tells him that she will wear it with pride.
While Sansa is in the godswood, Shae sneaks into Tyrion’s marital chambers and tries to seduce him to no avail. Their relationship has been strained since Tyrion’s marriage to the younger Sansa Stark. Shae does not know that in last season’s premiere (“Valar Dohaeris”), Tywin threatened that if he found another whore in Tyrion’s bed, he would hang her. Especially now that his son is expected to be producing heirs with Sansa, Tywin would not take too kindly to the needs of Shae and Tyrion’s relationship. Shae, who has always wanted to be treated more as an equal than as a kept woman, would not understand the weight of this threat, but no one knows Tywin’s capacity for vengeance better than Tyrion.
To the North, Jon Snow successfully defends his traitorous behavior before a tribunal consisting of Maester Aemon, the acting Lord Commander Alisser Thorne, and Janos Slynt. The silver-bearded Slynt you may recognize as the former commander of the Gold Cloaks, or the King’s Landing City Watch. He was rewarded by Joffrey for his help in the betrayal of Ned Stark and was given a coveted spot on the king’s small council. However, as Hand of the King, Tyrion punished Janos (and Joffrey) for the murder of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children and for his duplicitous dealings leading to Ned’s arrest. Unable to trust him, Tyrion sent him to the Wall. Slynt and Commander Thorne are particularly unimpressed with Jon Snow’s defense, but blind Maestor Aemon manages to convince them to spare Jon’s life. After all, he says, he can tell when someone is lying based on his history in King’s Landing (his nephew was the Mad King Aerys Targaryen). Jon Snow completes his mission to deliver intel on Mance Rayder’s troop movements and is rewarded for it by keeping his head.
Meanwhile, Tormund and Ygritte are camped and waiting for Mance Rayder’s signal to attack Castle Black. Tormund confirms our suspicions that Ygritte intentionally shot Jon in noncritical areas: “I’ve seen you slip a shaft through a rabbit’s eye at 200 yards. If that boy’s still walking, it’s ’cause you let him go.” I have always thought that Ygritte shot Jon in the tradition of wildling marriages, when the men have to steal women away from their clans, and the women are expected to put up a fight. This violent courtship asserts the power and strength of both parties. Perhaps Ygritte hoped that Jon would steal her away to his camp of crows, but he left her heartbroken and vengeful, crafting enough bows to take down all of Castle Black herself.
Another band of wildlings joins Ygritte and Tormund’s group, much to the ginger man’s disappointment (“Thenns. I f***ing hate Thenns.”). As we learned in Season 3, Mance has done something rather miraculous in uniting the various clans of Free Folk north of the Wall. It’s why the men in charge of the Night’s Watch do not believe Jon Snow when he tells them of Mance’s plan of attack: they do not believe that Mance could unite all of the very different tribes, and especially not under a single commander (part of the reason many live north of the Wall is in order to serve no master). The Thenns are highly-trained warriors, both large and intimidating (Ygritte told Jon she slept with a Thenn boy who was “built like a mammoth” in the episode “Kissed by Fire”). They eat the flesh of those they conquer, and serve up a hearty meal of roast crow after attacking members of the Night’s Watch. It is hard to imagine how Jon Snow and his band of misfits are going to manage to defend themselves against such a hardened bunch of wildling attackers.
To the far east, Daenerys’s dragons have grown large and increasingly unmanageable, though the army she leads to Meereen is as disciplined as ever. They’ll need to be; Meereen is the greatest of all the cities along the aptly-named Slaver’s Bay. Clearly, they have heard of Daenerys’s exploits to the south and mock her by hanging hundreds of murdered slaves to point the way. With her faithful commanders, including the eunuch Grey Worm (head of the Unsullied) and the mercenary Daario Naharis (head of the Second Sons), Daenerys marches on. Slowly, she is being wooed by Daario, the dashing young general who killed his commanders in order to bend his knee to her. (Daario, by the way, was confusingly recast from last season.)
Before this episode, the Starks had only two swords in this world: Ice, the ancestral greatsword, and Needle, the thin blade given to Arya by her half-brother Jon Snow. One of them was lost forever when it was reforged, and the other was thought to be lost after it was stolen by a man named Polliver in Season 2. Polliver and his men captured Arya and her friends, then murdered one of them (Lommy) when he was too injured to walk, stabbing Needle through his throat. After that, Polliver was added to Arya’s prayer (read: hit list), along with a host of infamous names that include King Joffrey, Cersei, and even the Hound, her current captor.
The final scene opens on Arya still riding with the Hound on his horse, demanding one of her own. The Hound does not trust her enough, fearing she may ride off without him being able to ransom her to Lysa Arryn (her aunt; Catelyn’s sister). They stumble upon Polliver and his gang of Lannister men-at-arms in a tavern, where they have been pillaging chickens and ale. Inside, the men boast of their exploits in the Riverlands and how they are facilitated by the king’s colors. The Hound can hardly help himself from treasonous blasphemy: “F*** the king,” he says once more, echoing his sentiments from the Battle of Blackwater.
For some reason, Polliver takes it upon himself to deal out the king’s justice and a tension over chickens (yes, chickens) boils over into a bloody combat. At first, Arya stands by and watches, undecided about whether to help the Hound or not; after all, he is on her list after he murdered her friend (on Joffrey’s orders) back in Season 1. But, something changes in Arya: something that has been building for the last few seasons. Unable to stand by and watch things being done to her and her family, she decides to act. She stabs a man and cuts the legs out from underneath Polliver. She reclaims Needle and recites what Polliver said to Lommy word-for-word, like a prayer, sliding the thin blade through his neck just as a moment of recognition flashes in his eyes.
In the end, Arya takes back the last remaining Stark sword, along with her ability to meet injustice with action. The Stark family may have fallen on hard times, but there is hope for them yet in the hands of Arya. After the fight, we have to assume that the Hound’s name has been removed from her list. “A man’s got to have a code,” the Hound told Arya to explain why he will murder, but not steal. Arya has developed her own code, one where murder is also justified if it supports her family’s goals.
Mismatched as they are, the Hound and Arya have been able to find a common ground and purpose. The episode ends with Arya riding her own horse behind the giant man, while the Hound once more satiates his post-killing appetite with a hunk of meat.
Other thoughts from “Two Swords”:
- Oberyn mentions that Rhaegar Targaryen abandoned his sister for another woman. That is likely in reference to when Rhaegar is said to have kidnapped Lyanna Stark, Ned Stark’s younger sister. She was betrothed to Robert Baratheon at the time. That act is what launched Robert’s Rebellion and led to the eventual demise of the Targaryen dynasty… for now, at least.
- The newest location in the opening credits is the Dreadfort. Though we did not go there this episode, it was revealed at the end of last season that this is where Theon is being tortured by Ramsay, Roose Bolton’s bastard.
- Jaime’s new haircut makes him look even more like Joffrey, doesn’t it? Joffrey clearly doesn’t take after Robert Baratheon one bit.
- 8.2 million people tuned in to the two airings, making it the second highest rated episode in HBO’s history (after the famous series finale of The Sopranos). Of course, with so many people tuning in online (that is, when HBOGO is working) and pirating the episode, real numbers are in fact much higher. We may never know just how many people turn in to Game of Thrones, but it is clearly building an audience every year. That speaks to the power of the show and its broad appeal.
- The showrunners have said that Game of Thrones will only last seven seasons, if it even gets renewed for that many (it most definitely will). So, by the end of this season, we will be over halfway done with the series. For some reason, I’m having a really hard time coming to terms with this.