For three years we've been watching him set the pieces up on the board, and with the opening scene of this season, Game of Thrones is making it clear: get ready for the age of Tywin Lannister. As the episode begins, we see him triumphantly preside over the melting down of Ned Stark's giant ancestral sword and toss a direwolf into the fire, the ominous Lannister score bleeding into the booming opening theme. With grandson Joffrey on the throne, his children by his side (and under this thumb), and his greatest threats crushed by his armies, Tywin should finally have it made.
The rest of the episode serves to remind us that for all of Tywin's tactical genius, he's built a new empire on a terribly weak foundation and utterly failed to guarantee that his heirs can properly run the kingdom he's leaving them. And the spectacular closing scene of the episode, a brutal tavern brawl where the Hound and Arya take down a cadre of Lannister goons, shows us what a miserable heap Westeros has become in the wake of civil war. Tywin's ruthlessness has granted him the power he wants, but it's at the cost of pretty much everything else.
It's all crumbling right from the first scene after the credits, where Tywin presents his son and heir Jaime with a beautiful Valyrian steel sword and tells him to go be lord of Casterly Rock, the Lannister homestead. Jaime immediately shuts it down. Has that happened to Tywin before? People usually tend to do what he wants, but what can he threaten his own son with? The only thing he can deny Jaime is his inheritance, Casterly Rock, and that's one thing Jaime could care less about.
Jaime's stated reason, later in the episode, is that he wants to be closer to Cersei and (I suppose) his children. But that's not all of it. Jaime's all cleaned up now and he has a shiny metal hand, but his mindset's still very much altered after the trauma of season three. As much as he complains about her, Brienne's stubborn insistence on a personal code of honor has gotten to him, and he's still processing where to go from here.
The other Lannisters are in even worse shape. Cersei's hitting the sauce pretty hard these days. Joffrey is as callous and disconnected from reality as ever (that cut from his absurd statue to Joffrey striking a similarly absurd pose was wonderful). Tyrion, of course, continues to have a head on his shoulders, but he's not too popular with the royal family, dispatched to deal with Oberyn Martell, the show's first arrival from Dorne and this week's ambassador of exposition.
Every new season of Game of Thrones begins with a lot of table-setting, and Oberyn is a major part of that here. Yes, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do their best to distract you with a brothel scene, liberal dashings of pansexuality, and a bloody showdown with some Lannister underlings, but there's also several minutes of Oberyn just straight up explaining things to camera. Every year, Game of Thrones expands the audience's view of its universe a little further, and they've done it again. We get that Dorne is part of the Seven Kingdoms, but kinda separate—Oberyn's a swarthy fellow, refers to himself as a "Prince" rather than a lord, and is accompanied by a bastard lady he calls his "paramour."
Dorne is also the kingdom that was closest allied to the Targaryens when they ruled the land, and Oberyn's sister was married to Rhaegar, the oldest son of the Mad King who kidnapped Ned's sister and started the whole rebellion twenty-odd years ago. Rhaegar's wife and kids were killed by the Mountain, Gregor Clegane, likely on Tywin's orders, and Dorne has never really let that go. For fans of the book, this is basic knowledge, but the show is trying to get all this across without ever using flashbacks. There's a lot of characters being referenced who we've never seen and likely will see, and it's motivating a lot of the politicking going on today. That the scene goes over without seeming like too much of a lecture is evidence of just how good Weiss and Benioff have gotten at this stuff over the years.
So Oberyn's in King's Landing, probably looking to cause some trouble just in time for Joffrey's wedding to Margaery Tyrell. We understand that once that happens, Tywin's grand plans are finally sealed into place. With Joffrey (who is both Baratheon and Lannister) on the throne, the North broken and the Tyrells locked in via marriage, the kingdom should be secure. Our time this week with Margaery and her grandmother Olenna seems to suggest that they have accepted Margaery's fate as Joffrey's bride, or are at least resigned to it, in exchange for the power it will provide.
This is one thing Tywin doesn't seem to have accounted for: just how smart the Tyrell women are, especially in comparison to his own heirs. The other thing, of course, is his continued ignorance of what's going on up North. There's not much from there this week outside of the introduction of the Thenns, gross people-eaters from BEYOND beyond the Wall.
Tywin's cold-bloodedness is presented in direct comparison with Daenerys, who marches on the final slave city of Meereen with her dragons, her Unsullied, and her band of maybe-boyfriends (Daario remaining the most straightforward about it) in the face of abominable cruelty. She has become quite the bleeding heart, but I fear what it means for her as a ruler. Daario points out that for all her noble intentions, she barely understands the land she intends to liberate and rule, and since the end of last season I've gotten strong Iraq War "we will be greeted as liberators" overtones from this storyline. Daenerys has all the right intentions, but is she getting herself into a major quagmire?
Any first episode of a Game of Thrones season, as I said before, is a lot of table-setting. So Benioff and Weiss make sure to satisfy our thirst for excitement with that barnstorming final scene, where Arya, motivated by revenge, sics the Hound on the Lannister torture squad she last ran into back in season two. Acting in the name of Joffrey, these guys are raping and pillaging up and down Westeros, the clearest example of what a ruinous kingdom Tywin has created for himself. But Sandor and Arya are almost as bad, cutting a bloody swath through them out of nihilistic revenge. It's hard not to punch the air when Arya gets sweet payback (and her sword back), but the ease with which she dispatches her target is shudderingly creepy. It's a dark new world out there.