“Laws of Gods and Men”
There are certain episodes of Game of Thrones which make me think it would be better not to write these posts at all, because it’s awfully hard to talk about them without spoiling a lot of very important stuff. And this is one of those, of a certainty. So by necessity I’ll try and avoid the many minefields that have been laid for book veterans here.
In effect, this episode was really two halves – or, looked at another way, an extended preamble before the main event. What happened at King’s Landing was obviously the headline attraction, but there was some important and worthwhile stuff in the prologue too. If last week’s episode was a survey course on the state of the Starks, this one was the opposite – completely Stark-free, it brought us up to speed on the various B-plots in a way that felt a little too rote to be really effective. That said, there were individual moments that worked.
Two of the storylines covered early in the episode – Danerys and the Greyjoys – are among my least favorite. I’m also not that crazy about the Stannis plot, but mostly because Game of Thrones has not done justice to the character as written in A Song of Ice and Fire. But this time it offered an extended showcase for Davos Seaworth, who’s one of the best (in every sense) characters in either version (Liam Cunningham is delivering one great performance among many in this show). Stannis is a bit of a sad-sack, but he does have one thing going for him that no one else does – he actually is the rightful King by Westeros Law. And whatever we may think of Stannis, the fact that he’s able to inspire such great loyalty from a man as noble and wise as Davos is a huge point in his favor. I loved the speech he gave to the Iron Bankers of Braavos (one of whom was played by Sherlock veteran Mark Gattis, a familiar name to anyone who follows the rebooted Doctor Who) and I loved the way the city of Braavos was depicted. It’s also great to see Salladohr Saan again – it’s been almost two years.
The Yara-Reek stuff with the reprehensible Ramsey Bolton felt tacked on to me, honestly, but the truth is GoT taken what was already a mediocre storyline and reworked it to the point where I have no clue and not much more concern about where it’s going. Better was the scene in Meereen, one of the best in Dany’s arc in quite some time. I like any scene that shows her up for the fraud she effectively is, a girl with delusions of grandeur who loves grand gestures but isn’t much for the hard grit and grime of governance. Hizdar zo Loraq (Joel Fry) was substantially reworked from the books, and for the better – he’s a real reminder here of what a moral fraud Danerys is, and the fact that she caves to his request is further proof that she’s incapable of understanding the implications her pronouncements can have down the line.
But obviously the episode is really all about Tyrion’s trial, which finally kicks into dramatic high gear after a very sluggish start. GoT has reworked this quite a bit, removing a lot of conversations that took place in Tyrion’s cell before the trial. I’m not sure why, but it has the impact of making the courtroom drama seem to come upon us rather suddenly. This is an area I can’t really discuss in detail, but the affairs of the trial itself are pretty transparent. This is a lynching, plain and simple, and everyone involved knows that. Indeed, the only one who seems to give a whit about Tyrion’s fate is Jaime (whether out of love or true belief that his brother is innocent is for us to decide). What does Cersei believe? Does she truly believe Tyrion killed her son, or is she simply using this as an excuse to vent her rage at what she sees as her cruel lot in life on the imp she’s loathed from the moment he was born?
Another thing these scenes in King’s Landing offer is a long overdue showcase for Varys. The Spider is someone whose importance far exceeds his screen time – and that’s a real shame, because he’s one of the most fascinating people in the cast to watch. As usual he’s the only one providing useful information at the Small Council – though Tywin seems in no hurry to act on the news he brings of Danerys’ developments. Even more interesting is the conversation he has with Oberyn Martell – not least to speculate on why it’s taking place at all. When Varys talks it’s always a good idea to listen, and Oberyn seems to be one of the few people smart enough to understand that. When Varys talks about his lack of desire and how that makes him different from other people, time seems to stand still in the throne room.
The trial itself is a sham, as you would expect (only Oberyn asks the odd intelligent question, but he seems to be rather enjoying himself). As GoT depicts it, it reminds me a bit of the finale of Seinfeld, where the petty sins of the characters were paraded before them (and us) by all the people they’d slighted over nine seasons. Tyrion is no doubt hoist by his own petard here – he’s lived a life of loose tongue and loose morals, and made a great deal of enemies. Much of the true testimony is damning enough, but where that’s lacking Cersei has plenty of fictionalized material to bolster it. It hurts deeply when Varys takes the stand and offers his own damning (though never technically untrue) testimony, prompting Tyrion to ask the only question his father allows him over the course of the trial – he asks Varys if he’s forgotten what he told Tyrion about his saving the city during the Battle of Blackwater. “I never forget anything.” The Spider says with more than a little sadness, and walks away.
Again, it’s only Jaime who seems to spare a thought for Tyrion’s life, and he confronts his father about the farcical nature of the trial during a recess. Ultimately, he offers his own life in exchange for Tyrion’s – if Tyrion is spared, Jaime will leave the Kingsguard and do his duty in carrying on the Lannister name. The fact that Tywin accepts in machine-gun fashion can only be interpreted in one way, it seems to me – though I leave that to you to decide for yourself, as I did. If Tyrion pleads for mercy, Tywin will send him to The Wall. Tyrion is understandably skeptical, given what happened to Ned Stark – but as Jaime is communicating this offer to him, Tyrion doesn’t seem to be possessed of a lot of choices.
Here, though, the ones who have all the power get greedy and overplay their hand. Shae’s surprise testimony is painful to watch, not least for Tyrion himself (even if it’s not very convincing). This speaks to me of a desire not just to condemn Tyrion (all of this was surely not necessary for a conviction, certainly) but to cause him as much pain as possible. It’s been a quiet season for Peter Dinklage, but it’s as if the script has been saving his brilliance up for this moment. He reveals much in his face, silently, and even more when he begins to speak. It’s an incredibly Shakespearean moment (The Merchant of Venice, to be precise) when Tyrion finally vents his rage at all the humiliation and injustice that’s been heaped upon him simply because of the circumstances of his birth, and it’s an incredibly powerful piece of acting.
This moment is much more than that, though. It’s also Tyrion raging at himself for being a better man to the rest of King’s Landing and his family than they deserved him to be, and it’s a stark reminder that of all Tywin’s children it was clearly Tyrion who inherited his vision and backbone. It’s only Tywin’s – careful, meticulous and practical Tywin – own irrational hatred of Tyrion that’s blinded him to it. Dinklage and Dance, two titanic actors facing each other down across the throne room – it’s a great spectacle by any standard, and Tyrion’s demand for a trial by combat at least gives him the satisfaction of spoiling Tywin’s carefully managed plans. It’s an act of desperation, surely, but more than that of defiance – I don’t think so much out of hope to live, but out of a refusal to give his father the satisfaction of writing the final chapters in Tyrion’s life.