TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - Two Swords

After what feels like an interminable wait, Game of Thrones returns for its fourth season, promising the usual brand of sex, political wrangling and violence.

When a new season of Game of Thrones arrives, the first episode always has the most difficult job of the ten instalments, re-acquainting everyone with how Westeros lies after the events of its previous season. After the monumental events of the last season, Two Swords appears to have had the toughest job of the season openers so far with the status quo disrupted like never before. It is a testament to DB Weiss and David Benioff that it succeeds brilliantly, once again immersing us in the world and feeling for all the world like it had never been away. Using the tried and tested method of moving across the map and zooming in on the main players' activities, Two Swords gets the audience swiftly up to speed and hints towards the big events for the upcoming season.

The first episode opens with the re-forging of Ned Stark's sword, Ice, overseen by Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in a slow-burning (pun intended) metaphor for the climactic events of last season, which saw him cut down the final threatening members of the Stark clan. With Tywin looming out of the shadows, Game of Thrones quickly reminds the audience that the landscape of Westeros has changed hugely again. Gone are the Starks and therefore the last great threat to Joffrey's power and through underhand tactics; the honour that the family prided themselves on has always been their downfall and now, the Lannisters have sent a clear message that trying to attack them with honour is never going to work. Sleights of hand, betrayal and tricks are the way forward.

Speaking of which, we're swiftly introduced to a new political player, one who appears to understand the Lannisters more than most. Dornish prince, Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), also known as the Red Viper, is in town with his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) at the King's invitation for the upcoming nuptials. In this scene, Game of Thrones gives us an info-dump of great proportions The Martells' chequered past with the Lannisters has only previously been mentioned in passing when Myrcella Baratheon was married off to a Dornish prince. However, it's in these scenes that the writers really excel, granting us exposition through clever dialogue and thinly veiled political antagonism. We're soon up to speed on the nature of the tension between the Dornish and the Lannisters, as well as the nature of the Red Viper himself, without feeling subjected to endless exposition. Newcomers Pascal and Varma feel like they've been with us the entire time, so easily do they slip into the series' cast, and I'm especially impressed with Pascal, who fills the Red Viper with a calm and quiet rage, threatening to spill out at any second.

North, on the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) must deal with the fallout from his undercover mission with the wildlings, a mission so secret only Quorin Halfhand knew of it before he did. Jon Snow, like Ned Stark, has always been a bit of a one-note, if fascinating, character, bound by honour. He got interesting last season because he is forced into breaking his oath, engaging in a little duplicity and learning a few other things besides. In his one scene here, we're reminded of that conflict and the guilt that has resulted from both his espionage and his relationship with Ygritte (Rose Leslie). Harington shines in Jon's hearing scene, bringing out the Stark belligerence as well as the taunting wit that is a part of his character in the books and this bodes well for the rest of this season as Jon finds himself battling his former companions.

Whilst the entire episode is strong, there are two scenes in which Two Swords really hits its stride for two very different reasons, reflecting with ease the varying scale of the series. First of all, there is a focus in on Dany (Emilia Clarke) now travelling towards Mereen with her army and three growing dragons. Glimpses of the dragons are always at suitably important moments; here they are used to demonstrate Dany's growing power, as well as the instability of her situation. They are tempestuous and violent, scrapping with each other over a dead sheep which hits the ground unceremoniously at Dany's feet. It's an impressively technical scene with the special effects work on the dragons looking superb with swooping crane shots to highlight their growing strength. Alongside this, we also get wide shots of Dany's vast army and the treacherous ground they are covering. It's the biggest scale we see in the entire episode and acts as a reminder that the insular, often petty squabbling of Westeros is threatened by something far greater.

However, the other exemplar scene is one such petty squabble, a close-quarters, high stakes spat between the Hound (Rory McCann), Arya (Maisie Williams) and a group of bandits masquerading as the King's Men. The group includes Polliver, he who killed Lommy and stole Arya's sword Needle. It's an excellent example of a slow build of tension, as the Hound slowly gears himself up to fighting the assembled troupe. And then there is Arya. I spend a lot of these reviews heaping praise on Maisie Williams, but she is once again excellent here in a key scene for Arya's development. In a beautifully shot sequence, Arya strikes a water dancer pose and cuts Polliver down, striking the first name from her list herself. She slowly and deliberately kills him with Needle, repeating the words he himself had said prior to killing Lommy. The final shot of her standing over him, silhouetted in the light, was the perfect capture of her character and the dark acts towards which she has been driven.

A rousing opening then for Game of Thrones and plenty of hints towards what is promised to be an action-packed season. It has got steadily stronger as the seasons have gone on and if this instalment is anything to go by, we're in for more greatness.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of Season 3's final episode, Mhysa, here.

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