I’m not entirely sure — I’d have to go back and watch the previous ones — but last night’s “Two Swords” might have been the best season opener Game of Thrones.
With a cast, a world, and a tangle of narrative threads this huge, individual episodes can devolve into a series of isolated vignettes rather than a coherent tale. That danger looms especially large at the beginning of a season, when the plot threads are first taking off.
But show writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss dodged that bullet this time in two ways. One, they judiciously avoided getting back into some threads — we didn’t see anything of Bran, Hodor, or the Reeds last night, nor did we check in with Theon Greyjoy, his tormentor, or his sister Yara. The other thing Benioff and Weiss did was they stuck with particular characters for several scenes in a row, and often layered the tail-end of one batch of scenes for one character onto the beginning of another batch for another character. The overall effect was one of increased solidity; remembering what’s happened in a TV show is often a matter of relation and reference. Last night’s approach gave us enough mini-arcs that we could actually identify a “Point A” the characters started from and a “Point B’ they wound up at. That gave the events of the episode a bit more mental purchase. (I think, anyway.)
No where did this work better than with the introduction of Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal), the emissary of House Martell to Joffrey’s impending wedding, and the big new cast addition for this season. We dropped in on Oberyn and his paramour, Ellaria (Indira Varma) selecting a prostitute they clearly intend to enjoy cooperatively — followed by Oberyn’s demand that the male overseer get in on the act. So we got a feel for his relationship with Ellaria, his sexual appetites, and his sense of princely entitlement. Then there was the encounter with Lannisters, which showed off Oberyn’s hatred of the rival House and his unnerving capacity for violence. Also, the dude has a really creepy smile when he’s twisting a knife in someone’s wrist. Finally there was the conversation with Tyrion in the alleyway, which revealed a desire to avenge women and children that seems slipped in from that strange other medieval world where chivalric ideals actually mean something.
It was, in other words, a whirlwind of information about a genuinely complex and fascinating character, delivered in three concise scenes. Hell, it even managed to make the show’s now-notorious penchant for spicing up exposition with female nudity momentarily seem like a legitimate storytelling tool again.
That alleyway conversation also segued us back to Tyrion and Shae, where things are not going well. The investment the show’s built in these two individuals derives from their genuine affection for one another, however dysfunctional the contours of their relationship may be. It was genuinely ennobling and moving when Shae refused Varys’ offer of escape from King’s Landing at the end of last season. But now it looks like the spy may have known what he was doing. Shae has the courage to brave Tywin’s wrath, but she doesn’t have the emotional dexterity to parse the political marriage the Lannister patriarch has forced Tyrion into. The raw emotional symbolism of the marital union is too much, and Shae can’t help but treat Tyrion with suspicion. Tyrion himself is too bloody decent to treat Sansa with the kind of absolute coldness that would be required to convince Shae of his intentions, making the situation even more perverse.
So when the servant girl goes to Cercei to spill the beans, it’s not just terrifying because Tywin is going to find out, and we know his perfectly capable of having Shae killed – it’s terrifying because the bond between Shae and Tyrion is most likely too brittle at this point to survive the reckoning.
There were other ominous signs as well: the cannibal tribesmen that joined up with Ygritte and the other wildlings to march on Castle Black, for one. Then there was the hint that Daenerys’ dragons have become powerful and self-possessed enough that they may even threaten her, should she step wrong. And that gnawing doubt is hitting just as Daenerys moves to sack yet another city, her blood once again boiled to righteous fury by the East’s practice of slavery.
But for all the portents, Benioff and Weiss had the sense to end the episode on a scene-stealing bar brawl that served as a bonding exercise of sorts between Arya and the Hound. Taking the capability of someone as young as Arya to murder, and using it as a source of excitement and self-actualization, is a moral screwiness that’s now a classic touch of the show. And of course it’s great to see Needle back in the proper hands. But the real joy of the scene was the teamwork between Arya and the Hound, their mutually mocking banter, and that final shot of Arya riding out on her own horse. For a while now, Game of Thrones’ premiere misfit duo was Tyrion and Bron. But now that the latter appears convinced his benefactor is a sinking ship, Arya and the Hound are poised to take up the banner.
One final thought: a friend recently asked me if – now that so much TV is consumed via Netflix or HBO Go or some other Internet venue that lends itself to binge-watching – we’re going to start seeing shows abandon their opening credits sequences in the name of speed and efficiency. I certainly hope not. At its best, a show’s opening credit sequence gives the audience a kind of emotional recalibration – a primal aural and visual reminder that you’re re-entering a particular narrative world, and this is what it feels like.
For my money, no sequence does that better than the one that opens Game of Thrones. Geroge R.R. Martin’s books are an impressive achievement, but you appreciate them the way would some mammoth factory mechanism — i.e. from a safe distance. The show, on the other hand, has become one of the richest immersive experiences on TV.
So I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to be singing this all week: