For most television shows, table-setting episodes aren’t very compelling because the present is often neglected in favor of setting up the future, and thus, there is very little forward momentum in terms of plot.
“Two Swords,” the relatively subdued and at times awkward fourth-season premiere of “Game of Thrones” is such a table-setting episode. However, it is far from boring. The episode spends most of its time checking in with every character (save Theon, Bran, and Stannis), introducing a few new ones, and moving the show’s many story pieces around to set up this season’s action. Because “Games of Thrones” has mastered the art of juggling multiple storylines at once, it’s hard for any episode to be truly boring.
Following the events of the Red Wedding, everyone in King’s Landing thinks the war has been won, or has at least stalled for the time being. Little do they know, however, that a war is brewing in the North at the Wall as Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Night’s Watch prepare for an attack from the Wildlings. This is, however, of little interest to the Lannisters as they are more concerned with forging new swords of Valyrian steel and planning King Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) wedding to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is still traveling with the Hound (Rory McCann) and seems to have picked up some of the disgraced knight’s ruthlessness.
The awkwardness present in “Two Swords” is to be expected. It picks up in the middle of one of the books unlike the past three season premieres, which have begun at the beginning of the books. Moreover, “Game of Thrones” is both blessed and cursed with a large, albeit very talented, cast. On the one hand, a large cast of characters, played by very talented actors, allows for many great stories to be told. On the other hand, it also means that for premieres the show has to devote a significant amount of time checking in with almost every main character lest we forget them, and neglects any strong plot development.
“Two Swords” is a successful episode because it grounds the show’s expansive plot, with all of its characters, in several strong and artfully shot two-person scenes. In a recent review of “Bates Motel,” the A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff said that two-person scenes are the building blocks of any good TV show because they reveal so much about character and situation. Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) scenes with his father Tywin (Charles Dance) and his sister/lover Cersei (Lena Headey) are great examples of this. Both of these scenes reveal just how tenuous the bonds holding the Lannister family together have become. It is scenes such as these that make it easiest for the audience to understand each character’s motivations.
Tonight’s episode also saw the introduction of Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) of Dorne, a man who is even more lascivious than Tyrion and likes things “his way.” We meet Oberyn in a brothel, laying in bed with his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), as the two of them are presented with a choice of the establishment’s many offerings. His pleasure-seeking lifestyle helps to illuminate just how far Tyrion has come since we met him in the first season. Moreover, Oberyn’s otherness in King’s Landing is emphasized by his sexual fluidity and his willingness to stand up to the Lannisters and quite simply speak truthfully. When Tyrion asks why he has come to King’s Landing, he tells the truth and even delivers a chilling threat: “Tell your father I’m here. And tell him the Lannisters aren’t the only ones that pay their debts.”
The second and third episodes of the season make it clear that the table-setting in “Two Swords” was absolutely necessary—those episodes would not have worked nearly as well without the character work done in the premiere.