Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
Sometimes it’s the grand cinematic sweep of the thing, sure. You can’t help but admire brilliant choreography, sophisticated editing, and panoramic scenery. But the engine that really drives Game of Thrones isn’t huge, clashing battles. It’s chess. It’s two players, head to head, ensconced in a combination of strategy and play; wits and wittiness, machination and sincerity, cerebrum to cerebrum and ventricle to ventricle. It’s two-person dialogues, especially between people who don’t like each other, don’t trust each other, want irreconcilable things, or all three. Lackluster performers are thin on the ground in this series, but some pairs have more intense chemistry than others, and when two great performers share that kind of spark in addition to the kindling supplied by the story, that can really be a conflagration.
All the pas de deux between Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister and Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark in the charcoal-gray ruin of Harrenhal are wonderful, but the single best one is the one at the beginning of “A Man Without Honor.” At this point, Arya has not only succeeded in concealing her identity from the shrewd, hubristic Lord Tywin: She has earned his confidence, even something like affection. One could almost be forgiven for thinking there’s a part of Arya that returns the sentiment: Sure, he’s a monster trying to wipe out her family, and she of course wants to get away from him, but she’s too smart to be a simpleton about it. She has qualities Tywin prizes. Guts. Intelligence. Canniness. A survivor-type quality. He thinks she’s funny, and charming. Part of her seems to like it in spite of herself, not that she likes him exactly. As with all such pairs of characters, she no longer has the luxury of seeing him as one-dimensional.
What is that look on her face, as he commands her to eat the food he doesn’t want, and hands her a knife? It seems clear as he turns to the window nattering about “legacy” and exposing the back of his neck, but at the same time it’s alloyed with… something. Like maybe part of her is a tiny bit relieved when he turns around. When he starts going on about Harrenhal’s destruction by dragons, isn’t there a part of her that wants to have the conversation? She impresses him with details about Targaryen conquerors Tywin himself has forgotten, and it seems like it feels pretty validating to her, even pleasurable. She makes him laugh. It clearly feels restorative, at some level, to both of them, to connect human to human. Even though she also hates him. Even though one slip could end her life. Even though he’d sacrifice her in a heartbeat if he realized who she was. Oh, and that parting shot at her accent: “If you’re going to pose as a commoner, you should do it properly.” And the look on his face after he dismisses her and he’s alone in that charred old hall, camera panning in as if investigating the lines in his face. Wow.
In a relentlessly violent and treacherous landscape, it’s crucial to inject the script with occasional moments of humanity so people don’t tune out. And this scene accomplishes that. But it’s not just that. It’s the dazzling breadth of wonderful little character details it illuminates. Arya’s increasing willingness to take lives and her admiration of woman warriors. Her longing for her father, strong enough that she’ll even take a fatherly moment from Tywin Lannister. Her pride in her own cleverness and how it almost gives her away. Her desire to be heard. Tywin’s far-sightedness and how it’s clouded by his own pride in it—how long would it have taken him to figure out which highborn girl was posing as his servant? The loneliness at the heart of his obsession with his legacy—strong enough that one of the longest conversations he has in the whole series (the only one that rivals it for sustained non-violent content is his education of Tommen on what makes a good king) is with Robb Stark’s sister, an automatic key to getting Jaime back, disguised as a cup-bearer. His desire to feel listened to. Their mutual respect for one another’s intellect and pragmatism. This moment of humanity causes Arya to see someone on her List as a human being. And Tywin, perhaps to his own surprise, is trusting Arya. Can you imagine him having this dialogue with anyone he actually knows? By the same token, Tywin’s the only person Arya has confided in about Ned’s death. It’s a rather remarkable thing to do considering that death is what sparked the war Tywin’s currently fighting against her own family. In the end, Arya doesn’t even name Tywin to Jaqen H’gar (which, as Gendry later points out with understandable outrage, could have ended the conflict or at least changed the terms drastically), and it seems pretty clear a grudging compassion for him has stayed her hand.
That’s a lot for a couple of minutes.
Small, intimate-scale scenes like this one are the soul of Game of Thrones, however sophisticated the dragon renderings and however grand the battle scenes. The psychological complexity of the characters, the chemical reactions that occur when the story throws them together-one good actor playing one good character meets another: A kaleidoscope. Arya was never going to kill Tywin, list be damned. He was too worthy an adversary.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.