Saturday, 12 April 2014
Blood And Gold
"When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives." - Eddard Stark
"Two Swords" is not about two swords, so much as about two pairs of swords. That much is obvious, of course. What is more difficult is deciding what the second pair of swords is. In this sense "Two Swords" may be no more helpful a description than was "The Two Towers".
(Show spoilers below the fold: no book spoilers, I promise.)
It's been suggested by some that the two new Valyrian steel blades that Tywin has made have their obvious counterparts in Ice and Needle. Obviously, this has a certain resonance; as the Lannisters destroy one Stark sword, another is reclaimed.
Whch is a nice point, and it certainly works as a framing for an episode that seems very much about contrasting the two families. We should be careful, however, of taking this approach too far. It is one thing to note the differences between Lannister and Stark, and another to assume that every aspect and action of each house has some kind of mirror in the other.
In the earlier stages of A Song of Ice and Fire, this was admittedly an approach Martin encouraged. The callous, villainous Lannisters were everything the loyal, considered Starks were not. But as with almost every other theme Martin presented us with during A Game of Thrones, this dichotomy was set up only so it could be undermined later on. By this point in the narrative, the Lannisters are no longer the anti-Starks, but their own fully-realised characters (indeed, this process began far earlier in the TV series than it did in the books; see Cersei's conversation with Catelyn at Bran's bedside, or Jaime's struggles with guarding the King who constantly humiliates his sister). They need to be considered as such.
My point here is that whilst the season four opener is absolutely about an aspect of the Lannisters differ from the sorta-kinda heroes of the show, we need to frame these events in terms of the Lannisters themselves, not merely as the not-Starks. Yes, this episode absolutely highlights how the ruling family of Westeros desperately needs lessons in the Stark approach to the family dynamic, but we need a better way in than to simply note the Lannisters would benefit from a little more dedication to the pack mentality.
(Though I guess where the Lannisters are concerned we should really call it more of a pride mentality. Which they seem utterly incapable of because of, amongst other reasons, their pride. The irony; it stings!)
So what should we use to make inroads on the Lannister crisis? How about Jaime? Poor sod has spent one season wallowing in his own filth, and another drinking horse piss and getting his extremities cut off. You'd think the dude might be due a break, but his homecoming is rather muted by his various family members taking it in turns to be, as he puts it, gigantic pains in the arse.
They have to take it in turns, of course, because there's absolutely no interaction between the Lannisters here at all, except in relation to Jaime (the closest we come otherwise is a maid who's spying on Tyrion for Cersei, and doesn't that look like it's going to cause problems down the road?). He returns expecting a family reunion, and instead finds three separate audiences in which he is disowned by his father, dumped by his sister (and how perfect is it that Cersei blames it all on Jaime having been gone too long despite the fact she started fucking her cousin four and a half episodes after Jaime left the capital)., and belittled by what I can only describe as his sonephew. It's only now that the cost of seizing and holding the Iron Throne has become clear to him. More has been lost than just his hand. The Lannister family is now simply the King, and the Queen Regent, and the King's Hand, as scattered and alone and perhaps even as vulnerable as the Stark girls, and with no better understanding of how to find their way back. It's not as though their family has ever been truly close - Tywin and Tyrion have seen to that, albeit in very different ways - but the climb to the top has shaken them still further apart.
This was always going to be the case, of course. Tyrion once pointed out that Cersei didn't understand that strategy and tactics are different things. It was an important distinction to make precisely because Cersei is so unbelievably terrible at long term planning (threatening to murder the daughter of the man running the Great House you're relying on to save you from the last Great House you pissed off has to rank amongst the top ten shitty decisions made by a character on this show, and that's saying something when you've got nine episodes of a living Ned Stark). But how much of that is her problem alone? Jaime certainly shows no indication of thinking more than thirty seconds ahead, or at least he didn't back when he could still play a harpsichord. Joffrey would chop his fiancee's head off if it gave him a better view of having some guy's tongue ripped out. It's not even clear how sound a strategic thinker Tywin is - indeed, the books go some way to questioning his skills there during the many, many parts of the story of Robb's war the show pissed away or utterly fucked up. And why is this surprising? When your default response to any problem is to throw gold at it until it goes away, you don't need to think any further ahead than your next pay packet.
And so the family ends up here, holding the three most powerful ranks in the country with no useful communication between them, surrounded by bitter enemies and uncertain friends who are more likely to join the former group every day. How you end up, as Tyrion observed last season, creating two new enemies for every old one you kill.
Which brings us back to those two swords. What matters here is not that the Ice melts just as the Needle is once more pulled (Polliver's death was awesome, by the way; Stark fans have to take their victories where they can, but that was glorious), but that Arya is now being backed up in her campaign of bloody revenge by Sandor Clegane, brother of a loyal Lannister bannerman and former sworn sword to the (to all intents and purposes) Lannister king. Tywin removed the sword of one of his enemies at the same time a former ally joined up with an enemy to start sapping his power, one inn at a time.
This is the message of "Two Swords". Not that the Starks live on, but that every few days they gain another ally simply by dint of the Lannisters being - as Renly put it - "thunderous cunts" to every human being in Westeros who lacks a lion sewn to their shift. One sword forward, two swords back. It's a simple question of numbers. With Robb dead and Jaime home, the Lannisters are at the absolute peak of their fortunes; their family has quite literally never had it so good.
But the swords are gathering against them, and no-one seems to have any idea what to do about it, except to birth still more.