If you're the sort of person who is inclined, like me, to argue that Game of Thrones is the best fantasy show ever, then there are few episodes in particular that you probably tend to cite as proof. The one with Ned Stark's beheading. The one with the Battle of the Blackwater. The one with the Red Wedding.
Sunday night's Season 4 premiere, on the other hand, was exactly the sort of episode that Game of Thrones evangelists typically leave out of their sermons. “Two Swords” wasn't about spectacle, or surprise, or even plot development. But even so, I think it made as strong a case as any explosion, decapitation, or matrimonial massacre for the awesomeness of GoT, in its own quiet way.
Why? Because “Two Swords” was all about character—and character, ultimately, is what Game of Thrones does best.
Consider what really happened Sunday night. Not much. Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister has returned to King's Landing with half as many hands as he had when he left. His father Tywin gives him a fancy Valyrian steel sword and urges him to return to the family seat in Casterly Rock. Jaime refuses. He tries to reignite his romance with his twin sister, Cersei, but she brushes him aside. “You took too long,” she says.
Meanwhile, their dwarf brother Tyrion has an awkward breakfast with his new wife, Sansa Stark (because that's what happens when your father indirectly slaughters your wife's mother and brother), and an even more awkward exchange with his prostitute paramour Shae (because that's what happens when you hire your secret lover to wait upon your child bride).
In the north, Sansa's half-brother Jon Snow is tried for sleeping with the enemy but spared a beheading when the authorities decide he's telling the truth about the wildling army marching south—an army that has just added some hungry bald cannibals to their ranks.
Margaery Tyrell is about to marry the sadistic boy-king Joffrey Baratheon (but she hasn't yet). Daenerys Targaryen is about to arrive at another defiant slave city, Meereen (but she hasn't yet). In fact, the only real action in “Two Swords” is the appearance in King's Landing of Oberyn the “Red Viper” Martell—a fearless, pansexual hedonist who heads straight for Littlefinger's brothel, where he proceeds to inspect the inventory, initiate an orgy, and stab a minor Lannister in the wrist for interrupting his debauchery with a song—and the fight sequence at the end of the episode in which Arya Stark and her captor-turned-protector The Hound slaughter a tavern's worth of Lannister lackeys.
If I had to guess, I'd bet that these are the parts of Sunday's season premiere that will get the most attention online. Some viewers might even complain that there wasn't enough sex or swashbuckling in “Two Swords”—that the episode was “slow.” But it is in these slow moments—the moments between each big plot twist, when showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff decelerate the narrative to linger over the nuances of character—that Game of Thrones truly distinguishes itself from other epic television series’. And “Two Swords” was one of the show's finest character-centric episodes to date.
I'm thinking of the way that Jaime Lannister struggles to slide his new sword into its sheath, or the way he bluffs, first to his father and then to Joffrey, that he is still the old Kingslayer. “You'll never be as good,” Tywin warns. “As long as I'm better than everyone else,” Jaime replies, “I suppose it doesn't matter.” In the past, Jamie clearly believed his own braggadocio. Now he's trying to convince himself.
I'm thinking of the strange, poignant pas de trois that takes place between Tyrion, Shae, and Sansa Stark. “If I could have a moment alone with my wife?” he says. Shae stares at him, defiant, but Tyrion returns her stare, flicks his eyes toward Sansa, then looks back at Shae and nods—a silent summary of their entire relationship. This is my wife now, Tyrion seems be saying, as much as I might prefer otherwise.
I'm thinking, really, of any number of such moments. The worried expression on Daenerys’ face as she begins to realize that her dragons cannot be tamed. The way Cersei says she spent “days with the goldsmith getting the details” of Jaime's fake hand “just right,” then, sipping a glass of red wine, revises her estimate down to “the better part of an afternoon” the second that Jaime expresses incredulity. The haunted look in Jon Snow's eyes when he admits that he “always wanted to hate” his half-brother Robb but “never could”—and the longing for family that look implies. Margaery Tyrell's joke about the necklace Joffrey would choose for her, if given the opportunity: “a string of dead sparrow heads around my neck.”
Even the “action sequences” in “Two Swords” were primarily about character: the way that Oberyn Martell craves vengeance against the Lannisters who slayed his sister, the former Targaryen queen; the way that Arya Stark is learning to take better care of herself than her father or brother ever could. “Funny little blade,” she says as she retrieves her sword, Needle, from the man who once stole it from her, quoting his old quip back at him. “Maybe I'll pick my teeth with it.” Then she coolly plunges the dagger into his Adam's apple.
In the end, “Two Swords” didn't move the story of Game of Thrones forward all that much. But that's why Game of Thrones is so great: it realizes that motion is meaningless without momentum. A spring is compressed before it's released; the viper coils before it strikes. Every major character on the show is now in flux. Frustrated. Challenged. Unsettled. Displaced. Some want what they can't have; others have what they don't want. They're all searching for a home, or a purpose, or even just a moment's peace. And we're with them—we care about them—because of it.
After all, any series can kill off its characters in spectacular fashion. Fewer can do what Game of Thrones does so well, especially in its slower moments: make them feel spectacularly alive.