The following post contains spoilers! Continue only if you wish to see discussion of plot points from season four of Game of Thrones.
This week, Game of Thrones returns to our television screens with the premiere episode of season four, “Two Swords.” I find it somewhat ironic that it is in April, in the midst of spring, that we return to Westeros, a land soon to be afflicted by the terrors of winter. What follows are my thoughts on this episode.
Forging of a New Order?
The episode begins beautifully with the forging of what appear to be the two swords described in the name of episode. There is no dialogue, no flashy action here to grab our attention. Instead, we are greeted by the haunting tune of “The Rains of Castamere,” the very song that played as the Lannisters’ allies cut down Robb Stark at the Red Wedding.
So, with the melting down of Ice, the Stark family sword, in the fires of the forge, Tywin Lannister finalizes what he thinks to be the utter destruction of his enemies. Two of the symbols central to Game of Thrones, fire and ice, clash again, and here, Ice, the strength of the North, is crushed. He tosses the wolf pelt covering Ice into the flames: the Starks are no more; the Lions are victorious.
Tywin then forges two new swords, and in doing so, he creates two very tangible symbols of his family’s supreme political authority. Never before did the Lannister family have Valyrian steel blades in its possession, but now, the strength of House Lannister seems impregnable, having been enshrined within these two deadly weapons.
The destruction of Ice and the burning of the wolf pelt, along with the creation of new Lannister family blades and “The Rains of Castamere” in the background, lead us to believe that the brutal power of the Lannister family has at last been secured. Together with the name of episode, we might even imagine that the rest of the episode would depict the continuing rise of Lannister domination.
As we have seen, the primary unit of political power in this medieval setting is family. Tywin would very much like to show the world the continuity of his family line–and thus his family’s continuing political dominance–by passing one of these blades onto Jaime, whom he orders back to Casterly Rock to rule in his stead. A beautiful and deadly symbol of Lannister family authority, in the hands of his son and heir: a powerful message indeed.
But no: Tywin’s attempt to assert his authority over his own family fails. Jaime refuses and chooses his personal desires over family interests. He remains in the Kingsguard and does not become Tywin’s heir. In fact, he is disowned, and yet he is allowed to keep the blade for himself. What should be a sign of family power ends up in the hands of a man who, as Tywin says, now has no family. Further, Jaime, with a hand missing, cannot even wield the sword properly: the power of the Lannisters seems unbreakable, yet it has already been broken.
Oaths Kept and Broken
Thematically, this episode is dominated by the making, the keeping, and the breaking of oaths: it seems that we are defined by the oaths we make and the degree to which we can uphold them.
Marriage is a type of oath that is essential in this world of family politics. By marrying Joffrey and Margaery, the Lannisters and the Tyrells will have made a binding oath, which secures the new political order through the creation of an alliance. But, the seemingly solid foundations of Lannister-Tyrell power are fragile: Margaery herself recognizes that she will be marrying a monstrous, sadistic king. There is an uneasiness in the oath she will have to make.
The arrival of Brienne reminds us that Margaery had once made a similar binding oath of marriage to Renly Baratheon. Margaery, in her pursuit of political power, was willing to put aside those vows after Renly’s death and become the betrothed of King Joffrey. Oaths are made to secure power, but are abandoned when no longer useful.
Brienne, though, is a woman of great honor: she continues to vow vengeance for “her” king, Renly, whom she had promised to guard with her life. Margaery gently reminds her that Joffrey is now the king: it is not safe for Brienne to hold so strongly to the oaths she has made.
Nevertheless, the idea of keeping one’s oaths remains ingrained within her, for she demands that Jaime keeps his promise of bringing the Stark girls to safety. According to Brienne, all oaths must be kept, even when it is inconvenient, but Jaime protests that the circumstances have changed and that it is impossible to uphold his promise.
But when it comes to his duty to protect the king as a Kingsguard, Jaime attempts desperately to hold on to what is an increasingly difficult oath to keep. His honor and reputation are already in tatters: he is the Kingslayer, famous for breaking his Kingsguard vows when he cut down the Mad King; even without the sword hand that had made him a powerful fighter, he is unwilling to break the one oath that he still may be able to uphold.
Underlying his decision to remain in the Kingsguard are whatever promises he may have made to Cersei, but again, circumstances have changed and time has passed by: he simply was gone for too long. Whatever vows of love they have made seem to have just fallen away.
In a similar sense, the relationship between Tyrion and Shae is starting to collapse, now that Tyrion is married to Sansa. Circumstances have changed. Tyrion tries his best to help his wife, but with everything that has happened, it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to keep to the marriages vows that he has made.
And, of course, we cannot move on without mentioning Jon Snow and the oath he has broken in having a relationship with Ygritte: should he be punished? Does there exist room for flexibility in the oath of the Night’s Watch, or should we be bound absolutely to the promises we make?
Reciprocity: Revenge and Rewards
Oberyn Martell is a new character this season, and he injects a wonderful amount of anger and instability into the political scene at King’s Landing. He is driven purely by the desire to avenge his sister and her children, slain by the Mountain, likely on Tywin’s orders during the rebellion against the Mad King. It seems to me that his unpredictable and wild nature may be a threat to the seemingly solid foundations of Lannister power.
Revenge is one forth of reciprocity: violence in return for a crime or perceived injustice. However, Sansa’s scene in the Godswood shows us that it is possible to earn aid in return for our kindness. Ser Dontos, now just a fool, gives Sansa a gift, in return for saving his life; though this is a very small gesture, it lets us see that in this world of death, violence, and backstabbing, there remains some possibility for kindness.
Of course, her sister Arya presents a stark (ha!) contrast: she regains her sword Needle and earns her revenge against Polliver. He is only one of the people who have wronged her, but even so, it is almost a relief that she is able to achieve some semblance of justice in a world that has gone through hell.
From the beginning of the episode, we had imagined that the titular two swords were the new Valyrian steel blades forged by Tywin Lannister. With the melting down of Ice, he has solidified what he thinks to be the utter destruction of the Stark family; with these new blades, he has secured his political authority.
But here we see another possibility as to the meaning of the title: perhaps we are meant to think of the two Stark swords, Ice and Needle, one destroyed and the other regained. Even with Ice gone, even with the extinguishment of the Stark line completed in Tywin’s eyes, we see that the strength of the Starks is still alive in Arya and her blade Needle. Perhaps Arya may be able, someday, to avenge the deaths of her father, mother, and brother.
Tywin Lannister has symbolically destroyed the Starks and replaced their power with that of his own family, but Arya’s blade offers a competing explanation of what these “Two Swords” really are: the episode ends with us thinking of Stark weapons, not the Lannister ones with which the episode began.