Was last night's Game of Thrones cathartic for you? It seems to have been for a lot of other people. But don't get too excited — the huge event at the end of last night's outing changes nothing. Because the episode goes out of its way to show that we've only dealt with a symptom, not the disease. Spoilers ahead!
So yes, at long last, King Joffrey gets what's coming to him in "The Lion and the Rose." He's poisoned at his own wedding feast, and we get to watch him turn a hilariously bizarre shade before dying in his mother's arms. But by the time this happens, we've already been dragged through the muck, until we understand exactly why Melisandre says there's only one Hell and it's here on Earth.
So yes, Joffrey finally gets what's coming to him, and the only sad part is that it's over pretty quickly.
But the part of the episode's ending that sticks in my mind isn't actually what happens to King Joffrey — it's the drawn-out, hideous spectacle of Joffrey humiliating his uncle Tyrion and Tyrion's wife Sansa, over and over again. And Tyrion, in particular, struggling to keep his dignity instead of just bending like a reed in a stream — a need for self-respect that winds up painting Tyrion as a murderer. If Tyrion could just fake-joust and caper and kneel for Joffrey, he might not have gotten fingered as a kingslayer and kinslayer, the two biggest crimes in Westeros.
There's a moment early on where Joffrey actually seems like he's going to play things with class — Tyrion gives Joffrey a book as a wedding present: The Lives of Four Kings, "a book every King should read." (Pointedly including Aegon the Unworthy among those four kings.) And Joffrey seems underwhelmed by this gift, coming after his father-in-law Mace Tyrell's lavish goblet. But then Joffrey puts on a serious face, and says that the war is over and it's time for wisdom.
The classiness lasts exactly 30 seconds — until Joffrey is presented with a new Valyrian steel sword, which is freshly forged. (And everybody can guess where the steel came from.) Put a sword in Joffrey's hand, and he has to show off. He slices Tyrion's book to ribbons and starts cracking jokes about beheading Ned Stark over and over again.
From there on, it's all downhill. Even by Joffrey's standards, it's striking how childish and angry he gets — he can't sit still, and he seems genuinely pissed as he throws things at minstrels and his fool Dontos, and then announces that there's been too much amusement. He hires a group of five little people to impersonate himself and the other kings, and creates a campy version of the murder of Robb Stark, in a way calculated to insult both Sansa and Tyrion to the maximum effect.
Joffrey tries to goad Tyrion into joining the other little people on the field, and then pours wine on his uncle's head — Tyrion's attempt to sound gracious while insulting Joffrey's cowardice at the Battle of Blackwater is priceless. Then Joffrey resorts to pouring wine all over Tyrion, and then makes Tyrion serve him as his cupbearer, with Tyrion trying to pretend this is an honor. He keeps throwing the fancy goblet on the ground and making Tyrion pick it up. At last, he tries to make Tyrion kneel, so Tyrion can be even lower before him, and Tyrion refuses.
By the time Joffrey finally chokes on his own bile and breathes his last, he's already pushed Tyrion to the absolute limit.
It's worth noting that this episode begins and ends with spilled wine — wine gets spilled at the start because of Jaime's one-handed clumsiness, when he's at dinner with Tyrion.
In that early scene, Tyrion seems mordantly happy that Jaime has become more like him — because Tyrion really enjoys pointing out to people how their shortcomings are equal to his own, and now at last he can claim that all three Lannister children are a matched set: cripple, dwarf and mother of madness. Tyrion has always touted this as a kind of honesty — calling a bastard a bastard, and a cripple a cripple — but it's also a way in which he can drag other people down to what he perceives as his own level.
This episode uses a lot of camera work to make Tyrion's height disparity with other characters feel even more acute than usual, and yet to put his head in a frame with theirs. There are some clever shots where, for example, Shae is in focus in the foreground and Tyrion is slightly out of focus in the background. Because, I guess, Tyrion is always slightly out of people's range of vision, in a way the episode wants us to be uncomfortably aware of.
The heartbreaking moment is when Sansa hands Tyrion the goblet that Joffrey has thrown on the ground, and shares a look of sympathy with her husband — as if they might finally be finding a way to be something to each other. Too late, of course.
Sansa makes an escape just as Joffrey breathes his last, thanks to Dontos. This is a bit confusing, since Dontos has a much bigger role in the books. In a nutshell, though, Dontos was the knight who was drunk at Joffrey's birthday party and almost got himself executed — but thanks to Sansa's intervention, he's now Joffrey's fool instead. Dontos gave Sansa the necklace she's wearing at the wedding, where he performs and gets humiliated. And then Dontos somehow appears right when shit is about to hit the fan, and helps get Sansa out of there.
Oh, and who poisoned Joffrey? Obviously not Tyrion, even though he gets blamed — he's a most unwilling cupbearer, and never really has an opportunity to slip something into Joffrey's fancy goblet. So who is it? Pay very close attention to who's sitting closest to the goblet just before Joffrey drinks out of it, and then backtrack that person's movements throughout the wedding feast, and you might get a clue.
But as Lady Olenna says, who would kill a man at a wedding? Only a monster!
Why is there so much gratuitous cruelty in this episode, in particular? Maybe it's just because George R.R. Martin wrote it. Or maybe it's to show that King Joffrey, in himself, is just one of a million tyrants, large and small — and that getting rid of one Joffrey, no matter how powerful, will change nothing as long as the systems that keep monsters in power remain in place.
What makes these horrors so awful is that people watch them, and do not act.
First Reek, the servant formerly known as Theon Greyjoy, watches subserviently as Ramsay Snow slaughters Tansy, an innocent girl, for the crime of making his girlfriend Myranda jealous with her beauty. (Incidentally, Myranda is one of the two women who helped slice off Reek's manhood last season.) And then Reek holds a razor to Ramsay's throat, in the middle of shaving him, while Ramsay explains that his father stabbed Theon's former best friend Robb Stark in the heart. And Reek does nothing.
Also, Stannis Baratheon watches as his red priestess, Melisandre, burns three loyal supporters at the stake — including his brother-in-law, Axell Florent, whose only crime was not tearing down his altars to the Seven Gods when Stannis ordered it. And Davos Seaworth watches right alongside Stannis, although at least Stannis takes his King to task for dabbling in human sacrifice.
Let's take these two other monstrous acts one by one.
Reek, it rhymes with "Holy shit, this is messed up"
Reek shaving Ramsay Snow without cutting his throat — even though Reek has just heard Lord Bolton announce that they need him alive, and that Ramsay is a disposable bastard — settles an argument between Ramsay and his father, Lord Bolton, over whether Reek is more valuable to them than Theon. If Theon had remained intact, physically and mentally, they could have used him as a hostage — but Reek, says Ramsay, will never betray them.
Roose Bolton had to sneak into his own lands, because the Ironborn are choking off access to the North through their control over Moat Cailin, a strategically valuable castle on the Neck of the North — and Roose is supposed to rule the North, but he has to win it himself. So he needed to be able to trade Theon, the last heir of the Greyjoys, to the Ironborn in exchange for Moat Cailin. Which might have worked, if they'd approached the men at Moat Cailin directly, instead of just mailing Balon Greyjoy a severed body part, as Ramsay did.
Ramsay is desperate to prove himself to his father, who's not a jolly guy at the best of times. Lord Bolton doesn't drink and seems to regard his new wife, Walda (whom we meet in this episode) purely as a source of gold from her father, Lord Walder Frey. When Ramsay tries to call Walda "Mother," Roose doesn't seem particularly amused. And he keeps reminding Ramsay that he's not actually a Bolton, and that the brutal symbol of the Flayed Man is on "my banners, not yours." Ramsay's been overreaching — even though Roose left him in charge, and deputized him to deal with Theon at Winterfell. Roose seems genuinely sorrowful , showing more emotion than we've ever seen from him before, when he tells his son, "I place far too much trust in you."
But the shaving demonstration more or less proves Reek's total servility and lack of willpower, which are close enough to loyalty for their purposes. (Alfie Allen deserves special props for his twitchy-face, mumbly acting in this episode, which really makes you feel Reek's misery.) So Lord Bolton winds up sending Ramsay and Reek up to Moat Cailin, to see if they can win the castle somehow. If they can, then he'll reconsider Ramsay's position in the family.
At least Ramsay already has a special bond with Locke, the guy who cut off Jaime Lannister's hand, and who's still very proud of it. Locke is sent to hunt for the missing Stark boys, who are believed to have headed for Castle Black to join their half-brother Jon Snow.
There — are — two — gods!
The most terrifying part of the human barbecue might actually be Lady Selyse, King Stannis' wife, who's more of a true believer than Stannis and who freaks out with joy as her brother Axell* burns to death. (Calling her name, in fact.) Selyse tells a weird story about how they were starving during the siege of Storm's End, and Stannis turned books into soup for her, and shot two seagulls on the beach — contrasting Stannis' devotion back then with his grim willingness to do things he hates for a just cause.
Lady Selyse basically abuses her daughter Shireen, who has a slight scaling on one side of her face, because Selyse believes Shireen is being punished by the Lord of Light — and Stannis, who's brooding at dinner, has to forbid Selyse to beat Shireen. To a true fanatic like Selyse, everything is simple and there's always an easy explanation.
Instead of getting beaten, Shireen gets a personal visit from Melisandre, who uses the same mixture of charm and hard-luck stories she used on Gendry last season. (And it's worth noting that now two of the three usurpers that Stannis named when the leeches from Gendry's body were burned are dead. Only Balon Greyjoy remains.) Shireen isn't thrilled that her uncle got flambed.
From Melisandre, Shireen gets a theology lesson — there aren't seven gods, just two. A god of light and joy (who demands human sacrifice) and a god of darkness and fear, locked in combat for all time. And the world we live in now is the real hell.
The royal wedding is ridiculously expensive, even before you factor in the loss of a King. Tywin Lannister doesn't buy Lady Olenna's argument that people expect such a thing — he's not really one for keeping up appearances, especially when it costs money. But Tywin does feel a need to put up a good front about the huge cost of the war, which is owed to the Iron Bank of Braavos. (Whose name is a clue as to how they handle people who skip a payment.) Tywin has to insist he doesn't worry about the Iron Bank, even though Lady Olenna knows better — because his self-esteem requires it, in a way that it doesn't require a lavish wedding.
Jaime and the art of fighting dirty
Meanwhile, Jaime is freaking out because he can no longer fight now that he's lost his right hand. Tyrion tries to advise Jaime to be more like their father Tywin, who commands respect without ever holding a sword in his hand. But Jaime can never be like Tywin, because he's the Kingslayer rather than some flinty-eyed patriarch. (And in fact, Jaime turned down the chance to become like Tywin last week, when he refused to go back to Casterly Rock and become the acting Lord there. After 20 years at Casterly Rock, Jaime really might have been another Tywin.)
So Tyrion helps Jaime find "a proper discreet swordsman" — Bronn, who promptly blows it by telling Jaime that he's fucking another knight's wife, something that isn't terribly discreet. And Bronn doesn't play fair — as he's often reminding people, he doesn't fight with honor. So a lot of Bronn's swordfighting lessons for Jaime seem to involve how to fight dirty.
Jaime tries to have a moment of swagger, warning Ser Loras Tyrell (who's busy flirting with Prince Oberyn) that Loras' marriage to Cersei would be short and end in murder and infanticide — but that Loras won't get to marry Cersei, in any case. But Loras gets the last word: "Neither will you."
Cersei's Doggie Bag
Cersei, for her part, spends her son's wedding feast trying to punch down as hard as she can, because Margaery has replaced her as the queen. (As Prince Oberyn takes great pleasure in reminding her, in the presence of his bastard lover, Ellaria Sand, who flaunts her illegitimacy at their fancy party.)
Cersei gets in a few good jabs at Lady Brienne, who can't curtsey and tries to pretend she's not a lady — and then scores a direct hit, guessing that Brienne is tragically in love with Jaime. (The look on Brienne's face is enough to show that this is true.)
And then Cersei scores a totally petty victory over Queen Margaery, who had announced that the leftover food from the wedding feast would be given to the poor. Cersei orders Grand Maester Pycelle to have the leftovers become dog food instead, while also depriving poor Pycelle of his latest conquest and sending the sweet young girl instead to ex-Maester Qyburn, who was stripped of his rank because of his unnatural experiments. (Qyburn is the man who fitted Jaime with his golden hand, last week.)
Run away, Shae!
But Cersei's greatest revenge is thwarted... or is it?
Now that Cersei knows about Shae, Tyrion's girlfriend is marked for death, Varys warns Tyrion — because Tywin has sworn to hang the next sex worker his son so much as touches. And sure enough, Tywin orders Shae brought to the Tower of the Hand before the Royal Wedding. So Tyrion has to get Shae out of Dodge before the noose comes down.
The trouble is, as Tyrion says, Shae doesn't take the danger seriously — she even tells Tyrion she's not scared of his father or sister, and she and Tyrion can fight the other Lannisters together. (Because she's learned nothing after a year in King's Landing.) Tyrion tries to play the honor card, pretending that he's doing this to be fair to his wife, and that doesn't work. He tries to act callous, pretending that she's just a plaything to him, and that doesn't work. Neither does claiming that he wants to father children with Sansa, who will never sleep with him willingly. Or slut-shaming her.
The only thing that actually works is having Bronn escort Shae onto the boat to Pentos by force — and even that seems like it may not have worked, since Bronn sort of dodges Tyrion's questions about whether he made sure Shae was on the ship when it sailed off, and whether he was followed. Instead, he just advises Tyrion to keep drinking until he feels as though he did the right thing.
Remember who and what you are. Or else.
Meanwhile, Bran Stark is having more of his mystical visions. What does Bran see when he touches the magic tree and then announces that they have to go North to find the raven? It goes by really quickly. But there's a red weirwood tree (in Winterfell?), a three-eyed crow flying through Winterfell's crypts, Ned Stark and his now-ruined sword, a young boy in the snow, a decomposing horse, the Iron Throne in the wintry light, Bran falling, and the rooftops of King's Landing. (That glimpse of the Iron Throne in a ruined throneroom seems reminiscent of Daenerys' vision in the sorcerers' house in Qarth.)
Before that, we're warned that Bran risks losing himself completely if he wargs into his direwolf Summer for too long. He could starve because he thinks he's eating when only his wolf is eating, and he could forget what it's like to be human. He can lose himself in the illusion of being free and undamaged, but only at the cost of his humanity. The only way to survive, advises Jojen Reed, is to remember who and what Bran really is — which is the same advice Tyrion gave Bran, way back in season one. Remember what you are, and never try to be anything else.
Of course, look how well that turned out for Tyrion.
* Sadly nobody has yet created a fanvid of Axell Florent's last moments, to the tune of "Axel F." by Harold Faltermeyer.
GIF via WICNet Tumblr.