Warning: Spoilers, a little uncouth language, and some really screwed up stuff. (But no more dangling hand around Jaime Lannister’s pretty neck! Thanks the gods, old and new, for that.)
“The war is over,” Tywin Lannister tells a newly-returned, clean-shaven Jaime as he gifts him a freshly-forged sword of Valyrian steel in one of the first scenes of tonight's season premiere. For a moment it may sound like an offer of sweet reprieve to the viewers: less dreary battle planning, less mud, and fewer perplexing lists of bannermen’s Houses to keep straight. Technically, the War of Five Kings has reached an end. But this is Game of Thrones, people. It’s only going to grow bloodier and more complex. If you think the war is really over, you’re as delusional as Sansa. In reality, it’s simply retreated off the battlefield and into back chambers.
The premiere is almost entirely dedicated to those back chamber machinations raveling and unraveling at King’s Landing. (There are only brief interludes of action near The Wall and across the seas in Essos. There are no scenes at all for Bran, Rickon, Varys, Littlefinger, Beric Dondarrion, Roose Bolton, Stannis, Melisandre, Balon Greyjoy, and—mercifully, because this viewer cannot stand one more second of horrific torture—Theon Greyjoy). But that doesn’t mean it’s dull. In fact, this episode highlights the reason why, even when there’s no Red Wedding butchery to gawk at or castrational torture to shiver over, Game of Thrones remains riveting entertainment: its commitment to smart, charismatic verbal jousting done in pairs.
With such a massive cast, complex plotline, and epic topographical scope, it would be easy for the series to devolve into a rickety mess of bloody sword fights and bare breasts. But while the terrifying, gasp-inducing scenes often happen en masse (e.g. The Red Wedding, Renly’s murder, the slaughter at Craster’s Keep, the pyrotechnic Battle of Blackwater, Bronn’s battle for Tyrion’s life, Beric Dondarrion’s miraculous rise from the dead), it’s the small, intimate dialogues that keep Game of Thrones from being a string of showy but substanceless spectacles.
Tonight’s episode, in particular, showcased a few of the show’s best pairings.
Tyrion and Oberyn Martell: Peter Dinklage has been praised to the heavens for his complex portrayal of a man who everyone tries to step on (though nobody quite can)—and for good reason. Dinklage improves every scene he’s in, and perhaps more than any other cast member, completely captures the character the way George R.R. Martin wrote him. Oberyn Martell, a Dornish prince called the Red Viper who organizes an orgy and stabs a rowdy Lannister through the wrist in his first scene, makes for the perfect new sparring partner for Tyrion, who's bantered with nearly every Lannister, Stark, Tyrell, and Baratheon. With Oberyn's swarthy good looks and untamed bloodlust, Tyrion looks almost meek. But the conversation—the entirety of which is a barely-veiled threat from the Viper—serves as a reminder of how cunningly Tyrion pulls information from his foes.
Tyrion and Sansa: Sansa Stark isn't given a lot of credit. She simpers, she whines, and despite everything she's been through, remains vain and cossetted. But in her interactions with Tyrion, Sansa becomes almost likable—and certainly pitiable. It may be because in a world where nearly every sentence is a lie or a threat or a riddle, she brings out the simple, honest decency in Tyrion. In tonight's episode, as he consoles her and begs her to let go of her grief over her mother and brother's deaths, he reaches across the table and grabs her hand. On a show where nearly every touch is the stroke of a naked body or a brutal hand-to-hand combat scene, it's an incredibly tender show of humanity.
Margaery and Olenna: Margaery has been playing the doe-eyed chit with Joffrey for so long, it's hard to know if she's an amazing actress or an incredible fool. But she and her grandmother, Olenna Martell, turn a simple wedding task—choosing a necklace—into a case study of the surface and the real. The contrast between the silly, flittering girls who run off to find more wedding jewels, and the jaded, self-aware Margaery is stark: Joffrey, she says, would put "a string of dead sparrows" around her neck if he had a choice. Olenna wisely counsels her that even alone such things shouldn't be said (the "little birds" are everywhere after all). Generationally and temperamentally the two women couldn't be further apart. But this quick, simple scene offers entirely new ideas about how women wield power in Westeros.
Brienne and Jaime: “Are you sure we’re not related?” Jaime asks Brienne in tonight’s episode. Nobody else but his family is able to get under Jaime's skin so easily. The pairing, like that of Tyrion and Sansa, is of course meant to be a study in contrasts. After Jaime's naked breakdown in front of Brienne in Season 3, however, it became clear how raw the two become in each other's presence, how aware they become of their own flaws.
The Hound and Arya: If you weren’t a little bit worried about Arya’s emotional state before this episode, you are now. Believing her entire family (except Sansa) to be dead, having been passed from captor to captor for the better part of a few years, made to watch other children be murdered and tortured, and the witness to both her father’s beheading and the aftermath of her mother and brother’s brutal slaughter, it's no wonder she's teetering on the edge of psychopathy. The Hound has gone from her sworn enemy to, by the end of this episode, almost a comrade. But unlike most of the other duos on this show, who bring our the softer, more humane parts of one another, The Hound only inspires Arya to yearn for more blood, more vengeance, more death. Previously, Arya's sauciness towards him was only a sign of his weakness for her. Tonight, their repartee (Arya: "Lots of people name their swords." The Hound "Lots of c*nts.") evolved past simple cheek. And while The Hound's tender spots are starting to show, watching the two of them ride off together at the end of this episode was almost chilling.