The growing confidence that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have in their audience is what’s made Game of Thrones a sharper, more textured, and just plain better show with each season. Theme, more than a single location or event, is what’s holding everything together, and “Two Swords” subtly connects its dots using theme in both a subtextual and visual form. True to its name, the episode is wielding the show’s two best weapons: narrative depth and impeccable production values. After three seasons of struggle, much of the fourth season’s first hour is spent focusing on what winning costs you in this world, while also checking in on some of that world’s most powerful women that are all connected by a piece of visual flair.
Let’s start with the Lannisters, who have all but replaced the Stark’s as the most important family of the series. With the war over (give or take a Stannis), Tywin ought to be happiest man in King’s Landing, having now taken control of the realm by proxy, but his triumph comes at the cost of capable hands to trust the family legacy to. The crippled Jaime rejects Tywin’s offer of rule over Casterly Rock, clinging to the honour of being in the Kingsguard like a life raft, even if fully aware he’s no longer the swordsman he once was. Similarly, Jaime’s long-awaited reunion with Cersei has been dampened by her newfound coldness towards him, a product of her getting back the man she once desperately wanted, but only so long as he was in one piece.
All the Lannisters are seeing the fruits of their successes soured by the means it took to achieve them. Tyrion is no exception in this: wine and Shae may be all he wants out of life, but his underlying need has always been to secure a peace that would allow him to follow such pursuits. In aiding his father, Tyrion has indeed brought the realm to some semblance of order, but made himself almost powerless in the process (a great introductory shot frames Tyrion literally as far removed from the halls of power as we’ve seen him since Season 1). Even with the title of master of coin, Tyrion is little more than a glorified concierge at this point, corralling guests for Joffrey’s wedding when not busy anticipating a backstab that could come from a different direction by the day.
“Every time we deal with an enemy, we create two more,” Tyrion wearily told Cersei at the end of last season, and ‘Two Swords” bears out this aphorism with the introduction of one of those new enemies- or rather, an old one. Oberyn Martell, the fiery, pansexual prince of Dorne has come to King’s Landing to do two things: screw prostitutes, and kill Lannisters (and he’s all out of prostitutes). Tywin’s at the top of his list, as it was the head of the Lannister household who ordered Gregor Clegane to slay Oberyn’s sister during Robert’s rebellion, along with the children she had with Rhaegar Targaryen. When Tyrion finds out that Oberyn, not his sickly brother, is representing the Dornishmen at the wedding, the “uh-oh” look on his face gives us an idea of what to expect from Oberyn, a prodding hint that becomes a dagger to the wrist the moment the prince crosses paths with an unlucky pair of Lannisters at Little Finger’s brothel.
When wars end, weapons and memories are among what remains, but unfortunately for Tywin, he can destroy only one of those things. Each are equally important: speech is the most powerful form of communication in this world, as those few who can read will likely never see a book like the one recounting the deeds of the Kingsguard, and stories inspired by one person’s memory are often used to inspire the actions of others. Tyrion’s recollection of Catelyn might offer Sansa little comfort during her grieving, but that’s all she has left of her family now: words and memories. If those memories are poisoned by betrayal and violence, they can forge their carrier into a being of singular, vengeful purpose, and as Game of Thrones has proven time and time again, personal history is what shapes national history. The Lannisters always pay their debts, and though it’s taken years, Oberyn sees this wedding as his chance to finally collect. In consolidating their power, the Lannisters have made themselves a more prominent target than ever, and their enemies now know better than to declare their intentions on a battlefield.