Everyone has their favourite scenes in Game of Thrones. Hardly surprising, as the show is packed full of epic battles, incredible monologues and exciting plot twists. And my favourite scene… is none of those. It’s a scene where some old guy hands a sword to a blacksmith for reforging and then throws a wolf pelt in the fire and kinda smirks a little bit, to the extent that Tywin can show joy.
Not exactly riveting stuff, you might think. But no, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. Not more than usual, anyway. This is not a prelude to me putting tinfoil on my head and going to live in a cave in the woods with my imaginary friend so we may indulge our hidden love. Instead I hope to show throughout this article that if only you look below the surface of this scene, it is actually one of the most masterful scenes in the entire show and captures something no scene in season 8 captured. So to quote Tywin Lannister, Hand of the King, Protector of the Realm, Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West: Let’s get this shit started. Might’ve paraphrased that a bit.
Before Game of Thrones Forgot About Symbolism
The first and most obvious thing which makes this scene great is its reliance on symbolism. And this is not the symbolism of season 8 “Game of Thrones.” No Arya riding off on a white pony only to come back on foot an episode later. This symbolism has no ponies, but it has something else. A tiny detail that the writers may have overlooked in that season 8 scene: meaning.
Ice itself was the Stark sword passed on from son to son, from lord to lord, from dour grim-faced cunt to dour grim-faced cunt, for centuries. It represents the Starks and the legacy of the Starks. Its destruction, emphasized by the wolf pelt Tywin passive-aggressively throws on the fire to burn into cinders, is a sign that the Starks have been completely and utterly defeated and destroyed. Our heroes have lost this game. And its reforging into two swords for the Lannisters represents the new era of Lannister dominance.
It was also the tool Lord Eddard used to dispense justice. Or what the Westerosi equivalent of justice is, anyway. Its destruction means an end to any remaining illusion of a side with an honourable cause fighting for justice. A realization that in this brutal world of Westeros only the strongest and most ruthless survive. That is at least… until season 6 introduces a side with an honourable cause fighting for justice.
But what I want to emphasize is that this scene has no need for long speeches. No need for contrived dialogue. Nor even any need for Jon to say he “Doesn’t want it.” This scene communicates everything that needs to be communicated without a single word being uttered. In a visual medium like television that is the gold standard. And no, just close-ups of people staring at the screen without context is not making use of this.
The Dulcet Tones of the Recently Deceased
But this scene doesn’t just take perfect advantage of its visuals. Its audio is also perfectly crafted for the moment.
The scene starts with the familiar tones of a cello playing the Stark theme. To the left, the sound of a warm crackling fire as might be found in the depths of winter in the halls of the their beloved Winterfell. As Tywin’s hand grabs the sword’s hilt, a few stray notes of the Rains of Castemere begin to sneak in.
As Tywin carries the sword to the blacksmiths the Stark theme with its melancholic tones continues to play in the background but with the same stray notes of the Rains of Castemere peppered throughout. After the hand-off to the blacksmiths and as they begin to hammer the sword’s hilt off, near silence. Then as they put it into the flame and Tywin emerges from the shadows to watch the destruction of the sword of his hated rival, the Rains of Castamere starts to take over.
As the two new Lannister swords are forged the Rains of Castamere begins in earnest. By the time Tywin throws the wolf pelt on the flame and we see a close-up where we watch it burn, the Rains of Castamere has reached its familiar crescendo after which it fades into the Game of Thrones theme song.
This musical composition and how it works with the visuals is utterly brilliant. To start with the music, the foley (crackling flames) and the visuals of Ice with its wolf pelt scabbard all evoke in us a feeling of familiarity. A feeling of comfort we associate with our beloved heroes. A positive, perhaps even nostalgic, feeling the show evokes in us so it can pull out its bloodied hammer and crush it good.
Because this is then disturbed by Tywin taking the sword and handing it over to the blacksmiths. We proceed to see the thing we associate with our heroes coldly disassembled and destroyed at the same time as their familiar theme song fades and is replaced by the triumphant tones of the enemy. Just as the Lannisters (let’s be honest, Tywin) overcame the Starks in war, their (his) theme takes over the soundtrack. Just as they were taken apart and erased for Lannister glory, so is the sword. All while the same song we heard at the Red Wedding itself, right before our heroes were horribly slaughtered, plays. We then get a close up, as the song reaches its end, of the man who’s machinations lead to their deaths and who’s brutality the song honours (in-universe) presiding over a miniature replay of their ruthless annihilation.
The Lannisters’ song then transitions into the Game of Thrones theme, the theme representing the show as a whole, as if the two themes were unified. As if they were part of the same chorus. Because at this point the Lannisters are the only players left in the game. They have assumed dominance in Westeros and the game of thrones.
Setting the Stage for Karma
It is also perfectly positioned as the season’s cold open.
At the end of the last season we saw the Red Wedding unfold before our eyes and the death of the young wolf and his mother. This scene, placed here at the beginning of season 4, emphasizes this fact through presenting us with a symbollic replay of it. In doing so creating an immediate, strong feeling of continuity between two seasons that aired, after all, a year apart. And reintroducing into our minds the tragedy of their deaths as if it had happened just yesterday. As if we have to relive it all over again. What lovely sadism.
Since it is the very first scene, it also manages to very well frame the season as a whole.
This moment represents the Lannisters’ zenith. They have completely destroyed their rivals and they stand triumphant and all-powerful. This is emphasized by the shot of Tywin standing over the burning wolf pelt being a slightly low-angle shot. A type of shot often used to emphasize a character’s strength and power. And this is also how this season as a whole starts: with the Lannisters, and Tywin, on top.
But if season 3 documented the fall of the Starks, season 4 documents the fall of the Lannisters. Because throughout the season we will see events unfold, such as the death of Joffrey and the trial of Tyrion, that will eventually bring this Lannister dominance crashing down around them. Even leading to the death of Tywin, the person who loomed impossibly mighty in this first scene, in one of its last scenes. A scene containing a high-angle shot that, might I emphasize, has us looking down on Tywin as if he were weak and vulnerable as he lies dead on the toilet in direct contrast to the low-angle shot in episode 1.
In other words this scene not only perfectly sets the tone going into the season, but allows a wonderful contrast with its ending. Where the Lannister legacy lies in tatters and Tywin sits dead on the loo.
Charles Dance Just Doing Charles Dance Things
Finally, but by no means least importantly, we have my one true love Charles Dance’s performance.
I think few people would disagree that Charles Dance’s performance in this show really raised the character of Tywin to a whole new level. Many would complain (obviously not I, as I am far too good-natured and polite) that several characters in the TV version just aren’t as good as their book counterparts. But Dance’s charisma and presence allowed him to dominate every scene he was in and he projected, on the screen, all of the power and strength of the man the books conveyed through words.
This scene is, of course, hardly Oscar bait. It doesn’t have Charles “the Man” Dance give a long speech. It doesn’t give him the chance to chew the scenery. It doesn’t have him cry a river or raise his voice. But it does allow him to show off something completely foreign to the later seasons of the show: subtlety.
In the books at least it is established that Tywin never smiles and, while that’s not entirely true on the show, it was a breath of fresh air to see it here considering how much it ties in with Tywin’s backstory and who he is. Yet for this scene to work its final shot had to be one of triumph. So, really, they were between a rock and a hard place. They could have Tywin smile triumphantly so the scene worked, or have him stand there stoically to reflect classic Tywin. What ever were they to do? Just let Charles “the Boss” Dance do his fucking thing.
Because as he walks up and dumps the Stark pelt into the fire, in his typical stately manner, we get a close up of Tywin. A moment where he seems triumphant and happy, almost as if he’s smiling and yet he doesn’t smile. That’s right, somehow Charles “the God of All Acting” Dance perfected the art here of smiling without smiling at all. He just implies a smile. Both making the scene work and at the same time staying true to the character of Tywin.
This might seem like quite a small thing, and admittedly it is, but it’s a small thing which was crucial to the character, and the scene, working. In fact most of this article is filled with examinations of small things: Single notes placed at the right time, the absence of a smile, the reforging of a sword which could’ve just as easily been done off screen.
But that’s where the emotional power is. That’s where Game of Thrones’ mastery came from. Paying attention to the little details, the small things, made the show so great. That’s something this scene is filled to the brim with, but which later Game of Thrones simply forgot.
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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.