Seventeen minutes. That’s how much time passes in Game of Thrones‘ Season Four premiere before a scene without a Lannister in it. You remember the Lannisters, don’t you? The people who tossed Bran Stark out a window; who executed Ned Stark for treason; who abused Sansa Stark before forcing her into marriage; who rule Westeros thanks to an illegitimate incest-produced bastard; and who orchestrated the Red Wedding massacre of Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, Talisa Stark, and all we hold dear? On lesser shows, they’d just be thought of as “the bad guys”; here, they’ve become the main characters. As Lord Tywin‘s look of triumph in the opening sequence made clear, Game of Thrones is the now the Lannisters’ show, and the game is theirs to lose.
More than any other aspect of its fourth season’s ever-expanding canvas – more than the arrival of the mercurial Dornishman Prince Oberyn Martell and his quest for vengeance, more than Daenerys‘ mission of emancipation through the slave cities of Essos, more than the surviving Stark kids Jon, Sansa, and Arya’s struggles to stay alive while surrounded by enemies – it’s the Lannister ascendancy that “Two Swords,” the season’s premiere episode, had to sell us on. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss left themselves no choice but to take up that task when they killed off the Stark forces, and the characters who led them, last season.
On an intellectual level, anyone can understand that the series’ endgame will likely involve the fire of Dany’s dragons and the ice of Jon’s arch-enemies the White Walkers. But on an episode-to-episode basis, we’re like the lords and ladies of the Great Houses and their hapless soldiers and smallfolk: It’s the War of Five Kings, and the Lannister vs. Stark spark that ignited it, that captures our attention. The moment that Walder Frey and Roose Bolton delivered their wedding presents – with Tywin’s tacit encouragement – that spark was extinguished. With its driving conflict resolved in favor of the away team, the game as we knew it basically ended. For all intents and purposes, it’s a brand new show.
Does Game of Thrones: Lannister Edition live up to its predecessor? So far, so good. Think of it as a reverse Breaking Bad: That show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, famously said its basic idea was to take a story’s protagonist and slowly turn him into an antagonist. Late-season meth-mastermind Walter White works as well as he does because we viewers remember the smart, sweet, conflicted man he used to be. The Lannisters started off in full Heisenberg mode: Jaime a swaggering would-be child killer, Cersei a conniving brotherfucker, Tyrion far less sinister but still just kinda dissolute and deliberately mean. Over time, Jaime’s been revealed to have secretly saved the lives of everyone in King’s Landing from a murderous tyrant, while his unlikely friendship with Brienne of Tarth helped bring him back from a depressive tailspin after his precious sword hand was cut off. Tyrion’s in a continuous process of discovering depths he didn’t know he had: of strategic and political ability, of a will to defy his family’s more brutal practices, of love for his secret prostitute girlfriend Shae, of care for his child bride Sansa.
Even Cersei, by no means as surface-level sympathetic as her brothers, is now less Evil Queen and more, I dunno, Janice Soprano: Her bad behavior, from her excessive drinking on down, seems driven by a combination of everyday psychological ills and being forced to live in a deeply unpleasant situation her entire life. Without this basic willingness to treat the Lannisters like people, wonderful little character flourishes – Jaime’s disarmingly sincere thank-you to his father for his new sword, Cersei’s sad rejection of Jaime because she’s gotten used to not having him around to lean on – would be lost.
Of course, they’re not the only family in town – and it sounds like if high-profile new arrival Prince Oberyn Martell has his way, they won’t be in town for much longer anyway. As a character, Oberyn – dubbed “The Red Viper” in author George R.R. Martin’s novels for his skill with poison – is our first introduction to the much talked-about region of Dorne, the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms and its most culturally and politically independent. You can critique the hot-blooded Imaginary Latino tropes if you want; God(s) know the show invites it by making Oberyn’s first on-screen acts the purchase of prostitutes and cutting a guy for talking shit. But actor Pedro Pascal, aware of how important it is to give another culture and color some shine even via a fictional analogue, bears the weight of the role admirably – and somewhat literally, in that he always appears to be leaning to the side, as if his number one priority is to remain comfortable. This Oberyn is not a show-off, however showy his actions may be. He’s doing his own thing as a matter of course.
Contrast him with how Emilia Clarke smartly plays Daenerys Targaryen, the faraway queen on a conqueror’s trail. Even when playing with her increasingly large (and beautifully rendered) dragons, chatting with her closest advisors Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan, or flirting with sexy sellsword Daario Naharis (confusingly recast to replace last season’s blond bombshell with the show’s umpteenth bearded brown-haired dude), Dany looks like she’s playing to the nonexistent cameras. She’s unfailingly regal, and while she uses that posture to fire up both her and her followers, it remains just that: a posture. It’s easy enough to look good in comparison to slave traders who crucify children to send a message, but if and when her campaign gets bogged down, believing her own hype could fail her.
Kids on crosses aren’t even the worst behavior on display this episode; for that, you have to turn your eyes North. At the Wall, Jon Snow, back from his undercover mission among the Wildlings, weathers the condemnation of his bosses in the Night’s Watch. Those bosses now include Ser Alliser Thorne, the hardass drill sergeant who used to bust Jon and Sam’s balls, and Lord Janos Slynt, the backstabbing baby-killing commander of the King’s Landing city guards who betrayed Jon’s dad Ned before getting banished to the Wall by Tyrion. Yet Jon’s message – that the Wildings are coming, and we’d better get ready for it – is brought to life in the most sinister fashion imaginable by Styr, ringleader of the bald, scarified cannibals called Thenns who’ve joined Jon’s sexy, angry ex Ygritte in raiding the lands south of the Wall. Maybe too sinister, in fact: A sneering, growling, I’m-good-at-being-bad maneater, the Magnar of Thenn is the closest the show’s come to a comic-book supervillain. The Wildlings are more interesting when commanded by red-beareded Tormund, a decent-seeming fellow who just so happens to need to kill Jon’s people so that his own people might live. Can the cannibalism and stick to the sticky political problems, gang.
Indeed, “Two Swords” biggest payoffs are often its least over-the-top moments. Some are just Easter eggs, in fact: This episode is full of them, from treats for old-school book-reading fans (Ser Duncan the Tall! A blue rose!) to shout-outs to the great HBO dramas of yore (The Hound’s verbatim quote from The Wire: “A man’s gotta have a code”). Others take scenes from the past and give them unintended consequences in the future: Janos Slynt, banned from King’s Landing for bedeviling Ned and Tyrion only to make trouble for Jon at the Wall; Ser Dontos, the alcoholic aristocrat who owes his life to Sansa showing up after all this time to thank her with a priceless necklace; and most importantly, Arya checking a new name off her old hit list.
The entire Arya/Hound sequence, in fact, is a mini-masterpiece. At first a profane odd-couple comedy (“Lots of people name their swords!” “Lots of cunts.”), it segues into a marvel of sustained tension (“You lived your life for the king. You gonna die for a chicken?” “Someone is.”) before detonating in an explosion of brutality. In the process, the scene performs Game of Thrones‘ signature magic of forcing us to experience conflicting emotions and loyalties simultaneously. Do we root for Arya to betray the Hound, who after all really did kill her friend back in the second episode? Or do we want her to save her, since he’s demonstrated he’s a better class of child killer? Do we cheer for her cathartic poetic-justice execution of Polliver, the thug who stole her sword and murdered her companion? Or should we stop to think that an abused child turning into an accomplished killer is deeply sad, no matter how much her victims deserve it? Are they a dream team, or a disaster waiting to happen? Justice and vengeance, allies and enemies, good guys and bad guys: To quote The Wire one more time, it’s all in the game.