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The Best Writing on “Game of Thrones'” Season 4 Premiere, “Two Swords”

The Best Writing on "Game of Thrones'" Season 4 Premiere, "Two Swords"

One of the exhilarating things about great TV is that it brings out the best in those who write about it: With “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” it’s as if critics have tacitly agreed to bring their A game every time they open a new document. But with “Game of Thrones,” an addictive, well-crafted show that rarely rises to the level of being genuinely interesting, there’s a lot more writing than there are writers with anything noteworthy to say. So at Criticwire, I’m going to depart from the usual practice of trying to corral all the writing on a given episode and pick out a few pieces each week that go beyond colorfully recapitulating plot and tossing in a few stray observations here and there to focus on those that are genuinely pushing the discussion forward.

At the A.V. Club, Erik Adams says that the opening scene of “Two Swords,” a rare pre-credits sequence with Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) melting down the late Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel sidearm and splitting it in two, is a mission statement of sorts.

Right off the bat, season four sends the viewer a signal: Forget the Westeros you knew. Forget where on the board you’ve mentally placed any of “Game of Thrones’” chess pieces. It’s not a reboot, but “Two Swords” is a starting place that feels distinct from where “Mhysa” left off. 

At Dear Television, Phillip Maciak says that it’s not simply a question of the show shifting protagonists — from Ned Stark to Robb Stark to ?? — but of shifting away from the idea that the “Game of Thrones” version of real life allows for main characters at all.

Since Ned Stark, the fake protagonist of the first season, was de-meloned, “Game of Thrones” has been stridently anti-protagonist. To talk about the ballsiness of killing off central characters presumes that central characters exist. “Game of Thrones” isn’t brave because it kills its protagonists. It’s brave because it doesn’t have any. 

For a point-counterpoint on “Thrones'” predilection for offings its leads, see Esquire‘s Calum Marsh, who praises the show for prizing artistic vision over audience satisfaction, and Indiewire’s Ben Travers, who writes, “Many find the idea that anyone can die at any moment thrilling. Yet a nagging part of me has seen too much bloodshed, too much misery, and too few scruples.”

In Time, critic James Poniewozik announces that he won’t be recapping every episode of “Game of Thrones'” fourth season but weighing in periodically as events merit — a thoughtful approach to the format I wish more critics would adopt. (Of course, the magazine is also hedging its bets by running weekly here’s-what-happened coverage.) In his first installment, he focuses on the interaction between Arya (Maisie Williams) and the Hound (Rory McCann), whose wandering takes them away from the castles where Westeros’ would-be rulers make their strategy and into the metaphorical trenches where the ramifications of their decisions are made brutally clear.

It can be easy sometimes to forget that “Game of Thrones” is a story about a war. Not just a “power struggle” of political machinations, not a 3-D chess match, not a mythological, magical saga — though there are elements of each. There’s an actual war for control of Westeros, which we rarely see because it mostly happens offscreen, and we spend most of our time with the parties calling the shots, not with those firing them.

Finally, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg breaks down “Two Swords” as a struggle that’s less about control of territory than of narrative:

In a storm of swords, the most dangerous weapons are not always the ones deployed on the field of battle. Tywin Lannister can burn a wolf’s head or melt down a sword. But words cannot be burned. And stories are harder to reforge than even Valyrian steel.

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