“The last time I was in the capital was many years ago. Another wedding. My sister Elia and Rhaegar Targaryen,” muses Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), the prince of Dorne, to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), when these two second sons of great houses meet for the first time in King’s Landing. “The last dragon. My sister loved him. She bore his children. Swaddled them, rocked them, nursed them at her own breast. She wouldn’t let the wet nurse touch him…They butchered those children, my nephew and children. Carved them up and wrapped them in Lannister cloaks. And my sister, you know what they did to her? I’m asking you a question.”
Tyrion, who has no particular love for his own family, but is charged with representing them before the Dornish embassy, tries to step carefully. “I’ve heard rumors,” Tyrion tells Oberyn, smart enough to see the crackling fury behind Oberyn’s mocking courtesy.
“So have I,” Oberyn continues to press him, putting on a smile that carries more menace than any explicit threat of vengeance. “The one I keep hearing is that Gregor Clegane the Mountain raped Elia and split her in half with his greatsword…If the Mountain killed my sister, your father gave the order. Tell your father I’m here. And tell him the Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts.”
Tyrion and Oberyn’s conversation is the perfect set piece for a “Game of Thrones” episode that is all about the power of stories. “Two Swords,” the first hour of the HBO show’s fourth season, is named for the weapons Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) forges out of Ned Stark’s Valyrian steel greatsword, Ice. Like that transmutation, Tywin’s efforts to turn his family’s crimes into evidence of their greatness are the most audacious myth-making at work in this episode. But Tywin is not alone in wanting control of his own legend–or gambling that atrocities will pay off in victory, like the slavers who are trying to intimidate Dany. “Two Swords” is primarily concerned with just how tempting that task is, and how difficult it is to complete when rumors have a life of their own.
Tyrion’s conversation with Oberyn is not the only time in the episode he will be pulled between an honest urge to condemn his family’s worst acts, and his need to remain a Lannister. His marriage to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) has only become more grotesque since the massacre of much of her remaining family at the Red Wedding, an atrocity and a gross violation of guest rights, arranged by Tywin Lannister. Tyrion is trying desperately to be decent to his child bride, but stories are stronger than any of his courtesies.
“I lie awake all night staring at the canopy, thinking about how they died,” Sansa tells Tyrion. “Do you know what they did to my brother? How they sewed his direwolf’s head to the body? And my mother? They say they cut her throat to the bone and threw her body in the river.” If Oberyn’s example is any indication, Sansa’s hatred for the Lannisters will last her well into adulthood. A young girl who is starving herself and fleeing to the godswood to be alone may not seem like a formidable enemy, and Tywin may believe that he has tamed Sansa by marrying her into his family. This season may turn out to be a test of whether the stories of his crimes could be stronger than alliances of marriage and state like the one that compels at least an outward show of courtesy from Dorne.
The stories of Elia Targaryen and Robb and Cately Stark’s murders are public knowledge. But war breeds private narratives, too, as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finds when he tries to resume his sexual relationship with his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey). As I discussed in The Post’s Outlook section this weekend, Cersei is a survivor of repeated and brutal marital rape, who in the past has found comfort in her relationship with Jaime. But the war for Westeros has marked her, too.
When Jaime, who has been a soldier or a knight much of his adult life, demands to know why Cersei has begun drinking more, she unleashes a bitter narrative of the conflict on him.
“Let’s see,” Cersei tells him. “You started a brawl in the streets with Ned Stark and disappeared from the capital. My husband died in a tragic hunting accident…My only daughter was shipped off to Dorne. We suffered through a siege…Rather a short siege that I didn’t expect to survive. And now I’m marrying my oldest son to a wicked little bitch from Highgarden, while I’m expected to marry her brother, a notorious pillow-biter…Everything’s changed. You come back after all this time with no apologies and one hand and expect everything to be the same?…You left me. Alone…You took too long.”
It is naive of Jaime, who has for much of his adult life been one of the most accomplished fighters in the realm, to expect that Cersei, who has many fewer weapons with which to defend herself, would react to mass violence the same way that he as. But as Cersei is explaining to Jaime just how different her experience of the war has been than his, Jaime, who is only recently returned to the capital, has to confront the ways in which the loss of his hand has changed his status, and threatens to disrupt his own grand narrative of his life.
Jaime’s record is hardly clean, of course: While Tywin ordered Elia Targaryen’s death, Jaime killed Aerys Targaryen, her father-in-law. “You know what they call me?” Jaime tells his father. “Kingslayer. Oathbreaker…My bloody honor is beyond repair.” Where Tywin has compartmentalized his crimes, Jaime has incorporated them into his mocking view of the world. But their worldviews mean that Tywin is more comfortable in his own legend than Jaime is.
Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the young man who now rules Westeros, and who is secretly Jaime’s son with Cersei, pokes hard into the open wound of Jaime’s reputation when he looks through the book that records the deeds of the leaders of the Kingsguard. “Sir Arthur Dayne. The Sword of the Morning,” Joffrey, who is the distilled essence of Tywin’s capacity for cruelty, muses to Jaime. “Led the attack on the Kingswood brotherhood. Defeated the Smiling Knight in single combat. Sir Duncan the Tall. Four pages for Sir Duncan. he must have been quite a man…Ser Jamie Lannister. Someone forgot to write down all your great deeds.” Jaime, determined to keep his temper, tells Joffrey, “There’s still time.” And while it is awful to admit that Joffrey might be right about anything, it is hard to disagree when he asks, “Is there? For a forty-year-old knight with one hand.”
For all Joffrey speaks an uncomfortable truth in that moment, he is enamored of the legend his legion of enablers have been building for him. When one member of the Kingsguard insists to Jaime that Joffrey is in no danger because “the people love their king. They know who keeps them fed,” Joffrey explodes at the idea that the might love his queen-to-be more than him. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) feeds the people “By my leave!” Joffrey petulantly insists. “They know I saved the city. They know I won the war…I broke Stannis on the Blackwater. Pity you weren’t there to help.”
There is an insane edge to his sneering — Joffrey has had nothing to do with the prosecution of the war for his throne, and he has no sense of what it has cost to keep him in his position. The older Lannisters at least know the difference between the truth and the stories it is advantageous for them to advance about themselves. Joffrey has no idea.
But can you really replace the truth with a more comfortable fiction? And what does such a desire say about the people who hold it? When Oberyn Martell’s lover, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) is addressed as a lady in a brothel, she rejects the idea that the courtesy is flattering or useful. “A lie anywhere,” she tells the man who tries to ennoble her. “Why not use the right words. I am a bastard. She is a whore. And you are what? A procurer?” 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.