|Tywin plays The Witness|
State of Play
The choir goes off. There is a cold open lasting two minutes set in Kings Landing. The first image is the wolf pelt in which Ice is wrapped.
The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell,
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Barratheon
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
The Dog, Sandor Clegane
Shields of King’s Landing: Brienne of Tarth
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont.
The Dreadfort is unmanned. Dragonstone is abandoned. Winterfell is in ruins and empty.
The episode is in eight parts. The first runs fourteen minutes and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section lasts three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is via image, opening with Jaime holding up one of the swords forged in the cold open. The second lasts three minutes. The transition is by family, Jaime to Tyrion. The third lasts eight minutes. The transition is via dialogue, with Tyrion and Bronn talking of where Oberyn might have gone to Oberyn.
The second part runs three minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is via hard-cut, from Tyrion looking nervous after Oberyn’s ultimatum to the hill upon which Daenerys sits with her dragons.
The third runs eight minutes and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section lasts five minutes; the transition is via hard cut, from Grey Worm reacting to Dario’s insult to the banquet table from which Sansa is being served. The second lasts three minutes. The transition is by family, Jaime to Tyrion.
The fourth part runs seven minutes and is in two sections; it is set at the Wall. The first lasts three minutes. The transition is via hard cut, from the handmaid arriving to tell Cersei to an establishing shot of the terrain the Wildlings are camped in. The second lasts four minutes. The transition is via object and dialogue, with the Magnar of Thenn displaying a dead man’s arm and talking about eating crow to men of the Night’s Watch drawing their bows.
The fifth is in two sections, and is set in King’s Landing. The first part lasts two minutes. The transition is via dialogue, with Maester Aemon saying that he grew up in King’s Landing. The second part lasts two minutes. The transition is via image, from a statue of Joffrey to Joffrey himself in a similar pose.
The sixth part runs three minutes, and is set in Meereen. The transition is via image, the white of the White Table of the Kingsguard to a barren white mountain range across which the Unsullied march.
The seventh runs four minutes, and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is via hard cut, from the crucified slave to Sansa kneeling, their positions in the frame paralleled.
The last runs ten minutes, and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is via family, Sansa to Arya. The last shot is of Arya and the Hound riding off, Arya landing on a ladder, and being reunited with her sword.
In both title and structure, the episode flags its role in the larger plot. It is not subtle in doing so (the game rarely is, after all), but it is intelligent, especially in the way that the title shifts meaning over the course of the episode. The cold open appears to offer a complete definition – the title refers to the breaking down of Ice into what will eventually be called Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail. Its meaning is thus emphatically stated in that scene as the Stark theme smashes emphatically into “The Rains of Castamere.” In the final scene, however, the second sword becomes Needle, with the first implicitly becoming the unsplit Ice. So the episode moves from Lannister swords to Stark swords, and in doing so highlights the fact that the season will be moving from a starting point of Tywin’s seemingly complete triumph towards the Stark restoration.
Which is where to start, as it’s blatantly the most clever thing the series does this year. In book terms, there are only two Arya/Hound chapters after the Red Wedding. The show, however, correctly recognizing that Maisie Williams and Rory McCann are the single best double-act it is ever going to get to serve up, decompresses this marvelously, giving them a total of six appearances over the course of the season. Here they get a positively decadent ten minutes, which is the longest single sequence in the episode, and one that’s packed full of delightful and quotable moments. (“What the fuck’s a Lommy?” “Lots of people name their swords.” “Lots of cunts.” The entire chickens sequence.) Arya gets to be chilling and murderous like she was in “Mhysa.” It’s phenomenal stuff, not just selling the Stark restoration as a thematic thing, but unabashedly declaring Arya to be one of the highlights of the season.
Notably, this clever Tywin-to-Arya structure is not really something with any basis in the books. There is no novel that commences with Tywin’s ascendency and closes with the budding of the Starks’ return. To keep the focus just on these two elements, the reforging of Ice and the reclamation of Needle are not even particularly close to one another in A Storm of Swords, and certainly don’t form any sort of defining structural moment in it. And yet as a frame for Season Four, they’re perfect, giving both “Two Swords” and the season as a whole exactly what Season Three lacked, namely a coherent shape. More to the point, the show has put no small amount of effort into making this happen, making chapters 32, 62, and 74 converge into a singular event.
It’s worth, in particular, considering this as a counterpart to “Mhysa,” which failed to construct an ending out of a bunch of middles in Storm of Swords. Here the show has what is almost but not quite the exact same task, constructing a series of beginnings out of the middle of a book, and it works out surprisingly spectacularly. The resulting difference between the two seasons is night and day, or, I suppose, fire and ice. Where Season Three felt like it had no ideas beyond the shock of the Red Wedding, Season Four, though it still has missteps, really knows what it’s doing at almost every moment. Which we’ll unpack over the next ten posts, but is an important thing to put out at the start, as a sort of thesis statement for looking at this run of play.
But this larger structural cleverness is matched with the beautifully ruthless efficiency by which all of the other elements of the season are introduced. The Oberyn sequence is perhaps the most instructive. First, he’s matched with Tyrion, which has obvious implications for the larger season structure, but is also straightforwardly the easiest way to make the scene fun. (It’s tempting to add the caveat “within King’s Landing,” but frankly, Tyrion is the most straightforward way to achieve “fun” the show has in general.) He gets to hit all the important notes – sexy, stabby, funny, and dangerous – and manages it all along with a massive exposition dump about who the hell this guy is in just eight minutes. It’s as efficient as the show’s use of narrative space gets.
And this sort of calm, fun efficiency carries over elsewhere. Not every scene is scintillating by any measure – the Wildling scene feels longer than its three minutes, in particular. But they’re all doing clear-cut and straightforward work – without the check-in with the Wildlings there wouldn’t be any sense of urgency in the actual Wall scene. With it, the overall shape of the Wall arc for the season is sketched out. (And notably, Jon’s scene is a solid delight, mainly because of Maester Aemon throwing glorious amounts of shade. This is a heck of an accomplishment, given that Jon has hardly been a reliable highlight of the show prior to this point. Among the many things that Season Four marks is him finally coming into his own as a television character and starting to match the quality of his book chapters.) Daenerys’s two scenes serve to introduce the new and improved Daario, who gets a nice bit of showboating to confirm that he’s actually likeable and entertaining this time around, as well as to set up Meereen as an issue. (And between the year’s gap and the gruesomeness of the crucifixions, the prospect of Daenerys sacking another city actually feels lively again, as opposed to the faltering tedium of “Mhysa”’s ending. Even comparatively minor characters are well-treated – Brienne, in particular, gets a remarkably fast run-down of her goals and motivations in the course of two fairly short scenes.
Part of why this works so well is a decision to dramatically reduce the number of characters focused on. “Valar Dohaeris” already marked a steep drop in percentage of characters shown from “The North Remembers,” but this drops even further, with only eighteen characters appearing, a mere 67% of the cast. This is tightly focused, and allows everything room to breathe. The result, pleasantly surprisingly, is a masterpiece, with the show unexpectedly crafting its best season premiere save arguably for “The North Remembers” out of a bunch of mid-book plot threads. On the one hand, it’s an impressive start. On the other, the show is, rather literally, just getting started this season.