You might have thought the question of Game of Thrones going too far would have been moot a long time ago. This is the show that gave us "sexposition" and Joffrey brutalizing sex workers, after all. But a lot of people seem to feel as though one moment in last night's episode was, finally, too much. Spoilers ahead...
It doesn't help that the terrible scene in question is not in the books — at least, it doesn't happen in the same way, at all. And that makes it seem that much more gratuitous and awful. Is the show finally pursuing shock value for the sake of shock value?
On the other hand, last night's episode seems to have a theme of atrocities begetting atrocities. Before the Red Wedding, the "guest right" that protected guests was sacred — but no more, as Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, explains. Now thanks to Lord Walder, nobody can ever trust "guest right" again. Everybody's going to be expecting betrayal and sacrilege, which will probably be a self-fufilling prophecy.
And maybe the Red Wedding is just one of the unthinkable acts that has stripped away the traditions and sacred bonds that used to protect people in Westeros. And maybe that's the meaning of the horrendous scene that people are so upset about? "Breaker of Chains" seems to imply that a lot of the old chains of honor, duty and piety have been shattered, maybe forever, as a result of some shocking actions.
The episode begins with the aftermath of Joffrey's murder at his own wedding, in a sequence that culminates in a scene where Joffrey's father rapes his mother next to Joffrey's corpse. The episode slowly builds up to that moment, showing other moments of disrespect for the dead, as if hinting that the horrible spectacle of Joffrey's wedding — both Joffrey's behavior at it and his murder — leaves him with no right to any respect in death.
First, we follow Sansa, who's fleeing from the wedding without even quite knowing what she's doing. And having made the snap decision to flee in the company of Dontos the Fool, she becomes committed to it, because her flight makes her look guilty. She winds up on a ship with Littlefinger, who reveals that the whole business was a put-on: Dontos was paid to give Sansa that "family heirloom" necklace, which Littlefinger had made, and to steal her away after Joffrey's murder. Dontos gets his rather predictable reward: an arrow in the heart, to shut him up forever. (So yes, Dontos really was a fool.)
This leaves Sansa under Littlefinger's dubious protection, "sailing home." (He promises her she'll be safe, right after he reminds her that everybody is a liar.)
Then we visit with Margaery, who seems genuinely shaken up by the ghastly death of Joffrey, her second royal husband to die nastily. She wonders if she's cursed — but she also wants to know if she's actually Queen now. Lady Olenna responds that Margaery's royal status is a bit of a gray area — but she shouldn't worry, because the Lannisters still need the Tyrells, and "the next one will be easier." (When it comes to royal husbands, the third one's the charm, maybe.)
Later in the episode, we finally visit with Tyrion, who's pretty much the only suspect in Joffrey's murder — Sansa's flight clinches it, in most people's minds. Tyrion points out to his loyal squire Podrick Payne that if he'd plotted a murder, he probably wouldn't have arranged it so that he would be standing there gawping like a fool at the scene of the crime. But the fix is in — they've already offered Podrick a knighthood to testify against Tyrion, and they won't let Tyrion speak to his enforcer Bronn. So Tyrion orders Podrick to get out of King's Landing before the conspirators decide to use a stick instead of a carrot on him.
Poor Pod — he was, as Tyrion says, the most loyal squire of all.
But the most brutal scene, post Purple Wedding, takes place in the Sept, where Joffrey's body is laying in state. This is where we first met Jaime and Cersei, back in the show's pilot, when the late Jon Arryn's corpse was getting the exact same treatment. Now, Joffrey's grandfather Tywin, mother Cersei, brother Tommen and father-uncle Jaime are gathering around his bier to pay their respects. Sort of.
Tywin seems not at all displeased that Joffrey is dead, and mostly intent on making sure Tommen will be a better king. He quizzes Tommen on the virtue a good king should have — Tommen suggests holiness, justice and strength, none of which Tywin agrees with. (More on this later.) At last, they settle on wisdom — which Tywin defines mostly as listening to your advisors, especially Tywin. Basically, respect for the gods and for some idea of justice are secondary to respect for Tywin's experience and counsel.
Tywin comes out and says, right next to the barely-cold corpse, that Joffrey was not a good king — and if he had been, maybe he'd still be alive. Tywin's implication is that Joffrey forfeited all right to any respect because of his bad behavior, which led directly to him being poisoned and dying ignominiously. (This is only if you believe that Tyrion killed Joffrey, perhaps.) Tywin closes by offering to explain the birds and the bees to the new King — because he has to produce an heir as soon as possible.
All this leads directly to the greatest desecration of Joffrey's corpse — as soon as Tywin is gone, Jaime arranges for Cersei and him to be alone with their dead son. Cersei presses Jaime to kill Tyrion, to avenge their son — but Jaime isn't sure that Tyrion is guilty, and thinks a trial is the best thing. When Cersei tries to insist, Jaime calls her a "hateful woman" and then, basically, rapes her next to her son's corpse. She keeps saying "Stop" and "Don't" and "It's not right," and he keeps replying, "I don't care." (Some people have claimed they see Cersei helping Jaime undo his pants even while she protests, but I rewatched the scene and I don't see it.)
Even with all the other terrible things this show has made us watch, Jaime raping Cersei next to the freshly dead body of their son is a strong candidate for the worst.
Of course, in the books, that scene plays out very differently, and it's much more about Jaime (freshly returned) trying to convince Cersei to marry him openly and declare their incestuous love to the world. And Jaime's declaration of "I don't care" is less about the wrongness of raping his sister next to their son, and more about what people will say if the Lannister twins get married to each other. The actual sex scene starts with Cersei kissing Jaime, after which she protests that they shouldn't have sex in the Sept, because they'll get caught — but then she keeps urging him on, saying, "Hurry, quickly, quickly, do it now, do me now, Jaime Jaime Jaime." [Update: I think after re-reading the book scene, it's way less clear that it's consensual. It's just more ambiguous than the TV version.] So it's easy to see why people are seeing the television version of this scene as especially gratuitous, and maybe a sign that the show is pursuing shock value for shock value's sake. I have a feeling it'll take a few more days for me to decide what I think about this.
But maybe the rape next to Joffrey's corpse is supposed to feel like a sequel to Joffrey's murder — as if one atrocity begets another. Or as if nothing means anything any more. Along those lines, the episode gives us the sequels to a few other notable crimes...
Now back to the Hound and Arya. The Red Wedding hangs over the whole terrible sequence involving the two of them and the farmer who offers them food and shelter. (And this is the first time we've heard it called the "Red Wedding.") The farmer insists that just because Walder Frey violated the "guest right" by killing his wedding guests, doesn't mean the right is now meaningless to everybody. "Guest right don't mean much any more," says the Hound, who's currently a guest in the farmer's house and who doesn't have much patience for prayer, either.
The whole realm has "gone sour," says the farmer — there are raiders everywhere, stealing whatever they can. The lords who rule now, in the wake of Robb Stark's failed rebellion, don't care about protecting the little people. So the farmer tries to get his own protection, by setting up an employer-employee relationship with the Hound. The Hound scares off the bandits and carries some hay, and he'll get some silver the farmer has stashed away. "Fair wages for fair work," the farmer says. Everything can be fair! We can still believe in the gods, and in binding agreements, and so on.
You can see where this is going, and the main surprise is how long it takes. (And the fact that the Hound leaves the farmer and his daughter alive.) He takes their silver and leaves them with nothing, telling Arya that they'll be dead by winter, and dead people don't need silver. "Guest right" cuts both ways, and the Hound basically sees Walder Frey as having voided it once and for all.
All that matters is that the farmer is weak, and can't protect himself, and in this new world, you have to write people like that off, the Hound basically says.
The Red Wedding gets invoked one other way — when Arya is disgusted by the Hound's behavior, he asks how many Starks have to be beheaded before she starts seeing the truth. Both Ned Stark and Robb Stark wound up losing their heads because they couldn't see the way the world actually works.
Speaking of guests mistreating their host, we also see some of the fallout from the massacre at Craster's Keep, when the Night's Watch turned on Craster and each other. That incident cost them their leader, Jeor Mormont, but also thinned their ranks quite a bit. And the remaining brothers of the Watch don't have quite the same sense of purpose, or ability to act on it, that they would have had.
This becomes a vital issue when the Wildlings who got past the wall attack a village of innocent people, slaughtering all of them except a small boy. (Like the farmer and his daughter, these villagers are almost a parody of good honest folk, only with boiled potatoes instead of rabbit stew.) The Wildlings are trying to draw the Crows out into the open, where they can be killed in small numbers, instead of having to attack Castle Black.
And technically, the Night's Watch owes these villagers its protection. Like that horse breeder that Jon Snow refused to kill last season, these people live in the shadow of Castle Black, supplying the Night's Watch in exchange for defense against attackers. But with the Watch so weakened, Ser Alliser argues they have no choice but to concentrate on their core mission of defending the Wall against the impending attack by Mance Rayder and his army.
It's not unlike Sandor Clegane writing off the farmer and his daughter because they'll be dead by winter anyway — the Night's Watch has to write off those villagers, because they're impossible to protect.
Just as the Brothers are debating the issue, two rangers return — survivors of Craster's Keep, who were kept prisoner by the other Crows, who are now abusing Craster's wives worse than Craster ever did. And Jon Snow realizes that if Mance Rayder captures the men who remain at Craster's Keep, he'll find out that there are only 100 men at Castle Black. Not 1,000 men, as Jon Snow told Mance. With such tiny numbers, Mance already has the means to victory — he just doens't know it yet. So they need to kill those deserters before they tell Mance the truth, Jon says.
Meanwhile, one of Craster's daughters, Gilly, is now living at Castle Black — and here, we see the other legacy of the massacre at Craster's Keep. Samwell doesn't trust his brothers not to rape Gilly, because, as he tells her, "you saw what they did at your father's keep." The Night's Watch swore solemn vows — but now that Samwell has seen those vows broken once, he can't trust them any more. And without those vows, a lot of these men are just former rapists, who might do it again. (Notably, Janos Slynt tells Samwell he might give Gilly a copper tonight, and see if she really is a whore.)
So Samwell winds up taking drastic and probably not well-advised action — he takes Gilly to the brothel in Mole's Town where some of his brothers go on the down-low. And he leaves her there, to trade childcare and household chores for room and board. They offer to give Gilly some other sorts of work, and he insists that there will be no other work.
If Stannis had any doubts about the effectiveness of Melisandre's blood magic, they're probably pretty much gone now that Joffrey has died. Stannis threw leeches into the fire and said the names of Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon, and both of them are now dead. (Balon Greyjoy still lives, of course. And Stannis wasn't smart enough to say "Tommen Baratheon" instead of "Balon Greyjoy.")
So there's no question in Stannis' mind that this is cause and effect — but Davos Seaworth let King Robert's bastard son, Gendry, escape. And that means Stannis has no way to use any more Baratheon bastard blood to get rid of Tommen and anyone else who might stand in his way. Having relied on dark magic to get rid of Renly, and now Joffrey, Stannis is pretty much committed to going down that route.
Davos offers an alternative — they can hire a brand new army to press Stannis' claim, maybe a mercenary group like the Golden Company, who have never broken a contract. (Unlike the Second Sons.) Stannis is not crazy about the idea of hiring paid soldiers, and Davos asks, "We're willing to use blood magic to put you on the throne, but we're not willing to pay men to fight?" Even if Melisandre's visions and prophecies are as real as her magic is, visions don't win wars, says Davos — soldiers do.
But not only does Stannis not have any more bastard blood, he also doesn't have any gold to hire an army — so Davos sneaks around behind Stannis' back and writes a letter to the Iron Bank of Braavos in Stannis' name, asking for money to fund a campaign, with the help of Stannis' daughter, Shireen. (Remember that last week, during the wedding, Lady Olenna reminded Tywin that the throne owes a lot of money to the Iron Bank, and if they don't get repaid, they may get upset. In that case, the Bank might well want to fund another contender for the throne.)
The debate about using blood magic versus hired soldiers, two unsavory methods, to gain the throne is sort of echoed when Davos draws a distinction between two kinds of bad behavior: piracy and smuggling. One is theft, the other is just making deliveries without going through proper channels. But Stannis refuses to see any distinction between the two, because, as he's told Shireen, "a criminal is a criminal."
The Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding and Craster's Keep all weakened the traditions and vows that keep people from killing each other for the slightest gain. But the episode ends with Daenerys presenting physical evidence of another time-honored tradition that's been shattered — she bombards the slave city of Meereen, not with big rocks, but with barrels full of broken slave chains and collars. The clearest way to show the slaves of Meereen that their situation is not natural or inevitable.
This is accompanied by Daenerys giving one of her fanciest speeches yet, in which she speaks only to the slaves and ignores their masters, to whom she has nothing to say. She points out that the totally awesome soldiers behind her were once slaves in Astapor and Yunkai, and they are now free. They took their freedom — and it's totally up to the Meereenese slaves to do the same. The real enemy is the slavers, who keep these people in chains and steal their children.
"I do not bring you commands. I bring you a choice," she says — offering to replace the master-slave bond with something new and less defined, something based on loyalty.
As propaganda goes, it's pretty slick.
Before that happens, though, there's rather a lot of dick-measuring and dick-waving that somewhat undercuts the purity of Daenerys' message. The Meereenese send out a single rider, a champion, to challenge Daenerys' own champion. This involves insulting everyone's manhood and Daenerys' womanhood and peeing on the ground. Choosing whom to send against this guy, Daenerys passes over Grey Worm, Ser Barristan and Jorah, each of whom has a key role to play at her side — and instead sends the totally disposable and obnoxious Daario Naharis, who takes out the champion and then pees on the ground as the Meereenese fire arrows uselessly.
Daario wins in much the same way that Bronn won the single combat when Tyrion's life was on the line — by fighting dirty. Instead of getting on his own horse and jousting it up, he stays on foot and throws his knife at the other guy's horse, taking him down and then making quick work of him. Because fighting by the rules is for suckers.
And finally, this episode is also notable for the first mention of Daenerys and her dragons we've heard in Westeros in quite some time. Varys mentions them to Tyrion before the Battle of the Blackwater, and they may have been mentioned one other time. But Tywin is clearly thinking about them, and aware of the threat they will pose when they're fully grown — so he seeks his most daring alliance yet.
Tywin comes to visit Prince Oberyn Martell, who's busy with his companion Ellaria Sand and a variety-pack of sex-workers. (Because as Oberyn explains, life is short and you gotta enjoy as much sex as you can while you can, so it's silly to narrow your options.) Once they're alone, Tywin dispenses with the formality of insinuating that Oberyn had something to do with Joffrey's death (being an expert on poisons) as quickly as possible, so he can get down to the real business at hand.
Tywin wants Oberyn (who's still a suspect) to be one of the three judges at Tyrion's murder trial. This is just one step on the road to an alliance, however — Tywin also wants Oberyn to join the new King's Small Council and offer advice. Because Tywin still doesn't trust the Tyrells, and Balon Greyjoy is still in open rebellion — but more than that, Tywin is keenly aware that Mance Rayder's Wildling army is marching on the Wall and Daenerys will eventually show up with her dragons.
It's that last strategic challenge that Tywin especially wants help with — when Aegon the Conqueror took over Westeros with his three dragons, the only ones who were able to resist him were Oberyn's people, the Dornish.
So if Oberyn plays ball, and helps bring Tyrion to "justice," then Tywin (who denies he had anything to do with the Mountain's murder of Oberyn's sister) will arrange a meeting between Oberyn and the Mountain. And basically, Tywin will throw his old henchman under a bus to get Oberyn's cooperation, and help from the Dornish when Daenerys shows up.
Which brings us back to the lesson Tywin tells the soon-to-be King Tommen: there were three Kings in the past. Baelor was holy, but starved himself to death. Aerys was just, but he was gullible and his brother murdered him. And Robert was strong, but didn't know how to rule after he had won the throne. Tywin means to teach the new King that these three virtues are nothing without wisdom — but an alternate reading is that they're just nothing. You don't need piety, justice or strength, as long as you have cunning and an ability to see which way the wind is blowing.