It must be difficult for Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to decide how to begin a new season. So many characters, such rich source material — what's the perfect image to launch season four of the wildly popular HBO series?

Well, for "Two Swords," Sunday night's episode, the duo found the perfect answer: Tywin Lannister melting down the famed Valyrian sword of Ned Stark — a chilling act that cements the Lannister family's dominance over the Starks and attempts to erase the legacy of their once-powerful rival.

Let's take a step back and appreciate the depth of knowledge it takes to fully appreciate what happens in that cold open. First, the viewer needs to remember that Ned Stark — who died 21 episodes ago — carried a greatsword. (Game of Thrones drops a second hint when Tywin drops the wolf pelt onto the flames — but of course, you need to remember that the sigil of House Stark is a direwolf to appreciate that.) Second, you need to understand the significance of Valyrian steel. Third, you need to recognize that the song that's playing is "The Rains of Castamere" — an ode to the triumph of the Lannisters, and the kickoff to last year's Red Wedding.

Game of Thrones assumes that viewers are familiar enough with its intricacies and symbols that the show doesn't even bother to drop Ned Stark's name. That's confidence, in both your storytelling and your audience.

That same confidence is on display throughout "Two Swords," which zips through a variety of locales to make sure most of the show's major surviving characters get a little face time. (Only Stannis Baratheon and Bran Stark sit this one out.) With several Starks dead, Game of Thrones does feel a little smaller than it did last season — at least by its own absurdly inflated standards —but it's no less compelling to see the narrative pivot from the wars among Westeros' most legendary families to the deep internal dysfunction of the Lannisters.

On the surface, the Lannisters are on top of the world. It's no great insight to say that history is written by the winners, but the speed at which King Joffrey has rewritten the utterly inessential role he played the Battle of Blackwater and the Red Wedding is pretty breathtaking. But just as the statue of Joffrey shooting a direwolf to death is an absurd distortion of the real story — and just as Jaime's new golden hand is a ridiculous attempt to make a horrific act of violence look beautiful — the Lannister family's apparent triumph is a total sham. Despite their vast power and wealth, these people are miserable.

For the first time in the series, Tywin Lannister and his three children are in the same place. Tywin delivers his newly forged sword to Jaime while dismissing him as "a one-handed man with no family." Cersei rejects Jaime as "too late" to win her back. And Tyrion has been assigned to deal with another little-loved second son: Prince Oberyn Martell (newcomer Pedro Pascal, making a big first impression), who has come to torment the royal family on the eve of Joffrey's wedding.

Oberyn's presence offers a chilling reminder that no one, no matter how powerful or wealthy, gets to whitewash their own legacy. After stabbing a smug Lannister for hiding behind his "lions and gold and gold lions," Oberyn turns his fury to Tyrion, recounting the story of the night his sister Elia was murdered by the Lannisters' most infamous soldier: "What I keep hearing is that Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, raped Elia and split her in half with his greatsword.... Tell your father I'm here. Tell him that Lannisters aren't the only ones who pay their debts."

It makes no difference that the event in question took place when Tyrion was just 9 years old, or that he was thousands of miles away when it happened; he's a Lannister, which implicates him. In the same way, Tyrion's wife Sansa Stark holds him accountable for the brutal treatment of Robb and Catelyn during the Red Wedding, no matter how many times Tyrion tries to call it a "terrible crime."

But despite all the nastiness of King's Landing, Game of Thrones offers an uncharacteristic glimpse of hope from an unlikely source: Dontos, whose life was saved due to Sansa's intervention at the beginning of season two. Dontos finds Sansa in the Godswood to bring her a necklace — the only physical remnant of his once-proud family. "House Hollard was strong once. House on the rise," he says. "That's all that's left of those days, thanks to a few sad fat drunks like me. I don't have anything left. That's all. Take it, wear it. Let my name have one last moment in the sun before it disappears from the world."

Some people don't even get that much. Take Jon Snow, the bastard whose life has literally been defined by his lack of legacy. (It's right there in the Night's Watch oath: "I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.") In "Two Swords," he arrives with invaluable intel from his time undercover with the wildlings. But his actions are unappreciated by the skeptical board demanding an explanation. And even if he were more warmly received, his station would always preclude him from receiving accolades from the world at large for his honor and bravery.

But what is legacy really worth, anyway? The last and best scene of "Two Swords" comes down to Arya Stark, whose bloodline would make her an immeasurably valuable hostage if anyone recognized her. Of the show's many, many characters, Arya might be the most divorced from the legacy of her family, due to gender, age, and birth order. Her time in the wild means that she's been shaped by a number of mentors: Syrio Forel, Jaqen H'ghar, Yoren, and even ostensible enemies like Tywin Lannister and The Hound.

Who is she now? We find out at the end of the episode, when Arya gets to cross a name off the list that has become her nightly prayer. While traveling with The Hound, Arya stumbles upon Polliver, who stole her sword and killed her friend Lommy Greenhands at the end of season two. "Fine little blade. Maybe I'll pick my teeth with it," she says, stabbing the man through the throat at the end of an extended fight that she and her unlikely travel companion handily win. It's a rare and powerful moment of karma in a world where injustice is rarely punished — and if it's any indication of what's to come in season four, I'd be afraid to be a Lannister.