Yes, I know: all anyone really wants to do after viewing “The Lion and the Rose” is celebrate the fact that—for just about the first time since Game of Thrones went on the air—someone we didn’t like actually died. I mean, there have been a few other reprehensible characters who have met ugly ends along the way, but those were mostly minor-league sadists: soldiers and slaveholders and torturers and the like. (I’d argue that the last time a major character got what was coming to him was in Season One’s “A Golden Crown,” and even there Viserys had a pathetic humanity that made his murder rather more tragic than triumphant.) For nearly thirty-two episodes, we’ve seen the good suffer, and we’ve seen the bad prosper, and we’ve seen very little evidence of anything resembling justice.
What does it say about a show that one of the most shocking things it can do is to show a villain getting his comeuppance? For one thing, obviously, it reminds us of what we have known all along: that creator George R. R. Martin (who also penned this episode) does not necessarily believe in a just and moral universe. As I’ve written many times before, Game of Thrones eschews the narrative ruts that most other fictions—particularly genre tales—fall into so naturally. Most fantasy stories take place in a comforting alternative world in which everything, eventually, works out exactly as it should—but the universe in Game of Thrones works pretty much like our own does. In the words of Steven Sondheim: thieves get rich, and saints get shot, and God don’t answer prayers a lot.
So while it is an understandable impulse to celebrate the death of King Joffrey the First (Jack Gleeson), we should probably not take too much overall comfort in it. It would be pretty to think that this event represents the hand of divine intervention striking down a terrible monster—but that would be believing in the fairy tale, and denying the very humanistic nature of Game of Thrones. Joffrey was many things, but he wasn’t a monster: he was a spoiled, warped little boy with too much power, too few boundaries, and some highly questionable genetic material. And whoever killed him was no doubt just a person too, acting out of secular interests, and probably motivated by nothing so noble as justice.
“There is only one Hell,” Melisandre (Carice van Houten) says this episode. “The one we live in now.” Melisandre may be one of the most (scarily) religious figures in Game of Thrones, but “The Lion and the Rose” makes it clear that it is people, not Gods or fates, who make the world what it is.
“I trained him. He was a slow learner, but he learned.”—Ramsay Snow, on Theon (“Reek”) Greyjoy
Melisandre’s comments about Hell also include the observation that the forces of light and darkness are eternally at war. It’s a particularly timely point to make, for, as we discussed last week, this season of Game of Thrones finds the Seven Kingdoms newly controlled by darkness. When the Starks were powerful and Robert Baratheon was on the throne, Westeros was not a perfect place, but there was a balance: a counter-force of decent people to counteract the indecent.
Now, however, things have changed. The show is too sophisticated to truly view the world in terms of “heroes” and “villains,” but—for simplicity’s sake—I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the war is over, and the villains won. Virtually unhindered by the pesky voices of ethics and morality, they are now free to reshape the world in their own image. (“We can do whatever we like, wherever we go,” the odious Polliver said last week.)
“Winter is coming,” everyone kept saying throughout the first half of Game of Thrones, and, in retrospect, we can see that this is one of the things that prophecy meant: Westeros is entering a long dark night of the soul.
That means that men like Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) are in ascendance. (If you were wondering who you could possibly learn to hate as much as Joffrey, Ramsay is conveniently stepping forward as a viable candidate.) The episode opens with Theon “Reek” Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) accompanying Ramsay and Myranda (Charlotte Hope) on a foxhunt, with a hysterical young woman (Jazzy de Lisser) playing the role of the fox. (Ramsay’s playmate, Myranda, is one of the two women who presided over Theon’s seduction and castration last season. On first viewing I thought their quarry here was the other woman present—which would have lent some credence to theories about karma and the wages of sin—but in fact it’s a different actress.)
As I argued when I wrote about “The Climb,” Ramsay Snow personifies the absence of divine justice and the chaos of an indifferent universe. “This isn’t happening to you for a reason,” he said then, while torturing Theon. “Well, one reason: because I enjoy it.” That final explanation is important: like others we see this episode, Ramsay makes a Hell on Earth simply because he likes it that way. And in an episode largely about the way our “villains” are reshaping the world, “Reek” stands as one of their proudest achievements. For, in the time-honored tradition of torturers and sadists everywhere, Ramsay has systematically broken Theon Greyjoy down and rebuilt this creature called Reek from scratch, and now he gets to unveil his creation to Roose (Michael McElhatton). When his father doesn’t seem suitably impressed—Roose wanted Theon whole, to use as leverage—Ramsay stages a demonstration: he has so thoroughly broken Theon that Reek can now be trusted to hold a razor to Ramsay’s throat.
Obviously, there’s a nice parallel here between Joffrey and Ramsay. They both enjoy cruelty for its own sake, even when it’s politically unwise. (This all started, remember, when Joffrey ignored the political ramifications and executed Ned Stark for fun.) This puts them slightly at odds with the heads of their families, Roose and Tywin (Charles Dance), who employ cruelty for practical purposes. Men like Tywin and Roose created, by example, this next generation of human monsters; now the new generation is going forth and recreating the world in their own image, with diminishing returns that tend towards chaos.
“He worshiped the gods of his fathers, and their fathers before them. They were the gods of your fathers too.”—Davos, to Stannis
In “The North Remembers,” the first episode of Season Two, we first met Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) on the beach of Dragonstone, watching Melisandre burn the statues of the Seven, the old gods, to make way for her Lord of Light. For Game of Thrones—as the War of Five Kings was just getting underway—the flames represented the destruction of the old order, a signal that the world we’d come to know in Season One was about to change.
Now the war is over, and our first encounter with these characters in Season Four is a deliberate echo of that scene, finding these characters having yet another bonfire on the beach. The only difference—and it’s a big one—is that now Melisandre is burning people, not statues. The world is no longer changing, the world has changed, and mass human immolation is now an acceptable thing.
“The Lion and the Rose” spends a lot of time on various forms of evil, and it occurs to me now that there are at least two major categories we should distinguish between. People like Joffrey, and Ramsay, and Theon, and even Cersei (Lena Headey), are one kind of evil: they are obviously cruel—even sadistic—and they often express their twisted natures in highly creative and destructive ways. But their evil is relatively small; it expresses itself in personal, intimate ways, and it is clearly born from personal, intimate damage.
That doesn’t make them any less nasty, but it makes them more human, and it makes them amateurs compared to people like Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey, and Balon Greyjoy. These are the truly dangerous people, and it’s precisely because their crimes are not personal: men like Tywin and Roose don’t care enough about individual lives to bother with intimate evil. (We see this in the difference between how Ramsay Snow and his father see Theon: the one sees a soul to tenderly corrupt, while the other sees nothing but an asset to be traded. Roose and Tywin can callously arrange for the slaughter of hundreds, but they are big-picture thinkers: individual people don’t matter, so they would never bother spending months carefully destroying a single soul.)
We’ll get into this a little more below when we come to this episode’s main event, but my point here is that Melisandre belongs in the company of the real villains of Game of Thrones: her motivation (and justification) is couched in religious terms, but it seems to me that this is simply the show’s observation that religion can be every bit as dangerous as politics and war. Tywin’s concerns may be practical, and Melisandre’s spiritual, but they both exhibit precisely the same disregard for individual human beings, the same willingness to kill one or a hundred or a thousand with the same dispassionate ease. Melisandre’s view of the world is as ruthlessly unsentimental—even when it comes to family—as any of the others. (Selyse [Tara Fitzgerald] and Stannis have both fallen under her sway enough that they allow Selyse’s brother [James McHale] to be one of the offerings.)
And, as always on Game of Thrones, we can recognize goodness by its concern for individual lives. Davos—one of the most decent men in Westeros—makes the case that the condemned men could be forgiven for ignoring Stannis’s orders and continuing to honor the gods of their fathers. Davos is not particularly a religious man, so it’s not about that—it’s about understanding human nature and recognizing basic human emotions.
And sweet little Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram) isn’t buying Melisandre’s program any more than Davos does. It is to Shireen that Melisandre delivers her speech about Hell and darkness, but Shireen is wise enough to see that the real darkness is coming from Melisandre’s direction. “He was always kind to me,” Shireen says of her uncle, for kindness is what ultimately matters. And, conversely, cruelty is what matters: the causing of suffering is the mark of evil. “They’re in a better place now, Princess,” Melisandre says. “But they screamed,” Shireen replies. It’s a child’s logic, but it’s probably as accurate an assessment of the morality of Game of Thrones as we could get: no one kind can be truly evil, and no one who intentionally causes others to scream can possibly be good.
“Killing a man at a wedding. Horrid. What sort of monster would do such a thing?”—The Queen of Thorns
So let us turn now to this week’s main event: the wedding of King Joffrey the First and Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
That Game of Thrones finally did away with one of its most hated characters—arguably the most hated character—is obviously what started me thinking about evil this week. And—until his untimely demise—Joffrey is in particularly fine form this episode. It’s his big day, and he gets to have everything exactly the way he wants it, and that means making the people he detests as miserable as possible.
Some of his whimsical cruelty is directed at Sansa (Sophie Turner), as Joffrey delights in rubbing her nose in the deaths of her father, brother, and mother. Some of it spills over on relatively innocent bystanders like Loras (Finn Jones), who sees a crude effigy of himself as the steed being ridden by a bare-assed “Renley Baratheon” in Joffrey’s dwarf olympics.
But most of Joffrey’s gleeful bile is vented on his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Contrary to tradition, it was apparently the groom, not the bride, who was allowed to pick the theme of this wedding, and the theme seems to be “Humiliate Tyrion.” First, Joffrey chops up Tyrion’s thoughtful (if vaguely insulting) gift with his new sword, which he christens “Widow’s Wail.” (“Lots of people name their swords,” Arya said last week. “Lots of cunts,” the Hound replied.) Then comes the staging of the War of Five Kings, a crude farce that manages to insult just about everyone while still being targeted directly at Tyrion through its use of dwarf actors. “Pay them each 20 gold when this is over,” Tyrion instructs Podrick, trying to soothe his own shame by soothing theirs.
(One of the nice things about this scene—and the rest of Joffrey’s antics—is that it serves as a litmus test to identify who at the party does and does not have a soul. Most of the crowd is laughing uproariously, of course, and even Tywin and Cersei look amused. Tyrion and Sansa, of course, are not laughing, and neither is Oberyn [Pedro Pascal], or Olenna [Diana Rigg], or Varys [Conleth Hill]. Margaery, of course, tries throughout to play peacemaker, offering cheerful if ineffectual distractions from the worst of Joffrey’s offenses.)
Then, finally, Joffrey forces Tyrion to be his cupbearer, shaming his uncle into submission. (Both actors, typically, are excellent here. Gleeson seems to revel in his last chance to play this odious character—neither he nor Joffrey has ever had more fun—and Dinklage walks a razor-thin line between abject humiliation and smouldering fury while still trying to maintain some dignity and decorum.)
So yes, Joffrey is being particularly Joffrey-like at his nuptials. But what really got me thinking about different kinds of evil this week is the realization that all of Joffrey’s cruelties here are so childish, and so petty, and so ultimately small. This little fête is Joffrey’s opportunity to reshape the world to his liking—he clearly designed the entire program himself—and his imagination is really very limited: he just wants everyone to kowtow to him, and he wants to make juvenile jokes, and he wants to stick pins in the people that bother him. While he has committed greater crimes before—like ordering the murder of all Robert Baratheon’s bastard children—Joffrey is, at best, a minor-league sadist, a twisted boy who enjoys pulling the wings off flies.
This is the brand of petty evil he learned from his mother, who—frustrated with her loss of status as Queen Regent—wanders the party sticking pins in people who annoy her, from Pycelle (Julian Glover) to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) to Margaery herself. Tellingly—after countermanding Margaery’s orders that the leftover food be fed to the poor—she tells her father she’s been taking “small pleasures.”
For another, outsider’s view on what constitutes true evil, however, we go immediately from Cersei’s line to an encounter with Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). Cersei tries to take some “small pleasures” from mocking Ellaria’s bastard status, but Oberyn puts their cultural differences into perspective. “In some places the highborn frown upon those of low birth; in other places the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful.” The dig is at Tywin—who ordered the slaughter of the Targaryans, including Oberyn’s sister—but Oberyn has a more personal point to make with Cersei as well. “How fortunate for you, former queen regent, that your daughter Myrcella has been sent to live in the latter sort of place.” It’s a veiled threat, but it’s also a judgement and accusation: Cersei Lannister’s daughter has been sent to live in a more civilized place, among a kinder people than the Lannisters themselves could ever claim to be. Children are safe in Dorne, which is more—it turns out—than can be said of the capital.
Alas, someone has slipped the groom a fatal mickey, and just like that the reign of King Joffrey the First is over. We aretempted, of course, to celebrate—as we have all wished Joffrey dead since almost his first appearance—but it’s to the credit of Game of Thrones that this scene is not played as a triumph, or as justice, or as comedy. It’s a rather horrible scene, in fact, prolonged and messy and disturbing. Whatever satisfaction we take in this bit of karmic retribution is tempered by seeing Joffrey’s suffering, and undercut by the genuine horror and concern of the mother and father who rush to his side. Cersei is a cold-hearted, dangerous woman, guilty of many crimes—but she loved her son. Even as she seeds further evil by accusing Tyrion—falsely, we assume—we still recognize her as a grieving mother cradling her dead child. (In that moment she is a spiritual sister to Catelyn Stark, watching her eldest son get murdered in “The Rains of Castamere.”)
When I read the books, I was—like a lot of readers, I suspect—somewhat disappointed with Joffrey’s death. It seemed vague, and anticlimactic, and ultimately unsatisfying. I’m not going to get into who killed him here, but that doesn’t matter: it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted it to be a clear blow struck for justice. I wanted revenge. (I wanted Arya or Sansa to STAB HIM IN HIS SMUG FUCKING FACE.) But after having spent so much time thinking about this story, and watching it play out on the show, I think this, too, is part of the point: that kind of satisfying revenge scenario is the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. Life doesn’t work like that, and it shouldn’t work like that: wishing for it is edging a little too closely to Joffrey himself, who triumphed in his theatrical revenge against the Starks and—like a cunt—named his sword “Widow’s Wail.” We should, I think, take a lesson from Shireen, and not relish in the screams and suffering of others, however they may be justified. (Though she doesn’t appear this episode, Arya Stark—who also named her sword—is the “hero” most in danger of ignoring this lesson.)
And we must recognize that, ultimately, Joffrey’s death will not make much difference. As I’ve said, in the hierarchy of the “Hell” Melisandre says we’re living in, Joffrey was at best a minor demon—just the twisted and petty by-product of larger, more dangerous evils. He was, as Sansa often called him, “a monster,” but he was a human monster, human-sized and human-scaled, born for human reasons. Greater monsters—like Tywin, and Roose, and Melisandre herself—are still holding all the power, and they are not human-sized: gorged with power and nearly stripped of emotion, they lack humanity almost completely. (“You ought to try enjoying something before you die,” Olenna tells Tywin. “You might find it suits you.” But the capacity for joy—like the capacity for affection, and compassion, and sadness—is a human quality that men like Tywin lack.)
This, I think, is the point that ties in this week’s scene with Bran (Isaac Hemsptead-Wright) with the rest of the goings on this episode. Bran, crippled and paralyzed, has understandably been spending more and more time possessing his dire wolf, Summer. “It must be glorious,” Jojen Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) admits—to run and jump and hunt, to feel the power and freedom of being a wolf. But Jojen warns him against embracing that power: “It’s dangerous,” he says. “You’ll forget what it’s like to be human.”
So RIP, Joffrey, of Houses Baratheon and Lannister, First of Your Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. If you were a monster, it was because you learned from the example of people—like your grandfather—who embraced their power too strongly, and surrendered their emotions, and completely forgot what it is to be human.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Not for the first time—and not for the last—I’m running a little late with this review: my apologies. (This week, let’s blame whatever monsters designed IRS tax forms, as they have also clearly forgotten what it is to be human.)
- “The Lion and the Rose” is constructed a little like an Agatha Christie murder mystery: there is a gathering of people, and there is an odious victim, and there are plenty of suspects with plenty of motives to go around. (Seriously, who—apart from his mother—didn’t want Joffrey dead? Even Tywin and Jaime—though they’re unlikely suspects—had plenty of reasons to be sick to death of the little creep.) As I’ve read the books, I know the probable answer, so I’ve steered clear of speculation on that point—but there are indeed clues to be found in the episode itself.
- I skipped over a few key scenes this week, most importantly Tyrion’s cruel dismissal of Shae (Sibel Kekilli). It’s thematically relevant, as Tyrion’s genuine love for Shae is one of the things that separates him from being his father or his sister, and his denial of that now—even if it’s intended to save her life—is a dangerous, troubling thing. I actually have a lot to say about this relationship—more than I had space for here—and I’m confident I’m going to get the opportunity to blather about it at length in reviews of future episodes. (The repeated assurances Bronn [Jerome Flynn] gives Tyrion that Shae is safely away sounded less reassuring with every repetition. I did, however, like Bronn’s advice to Tyrion afterwards: “Now, go drink until it feels like you did the right thing.”)
- I also skipped over Bran’s vision at the Heart Tree, about which I have less to say. I’m sure there are people on the Internet dissecting every frame of it for meaning—White Walkers, Heart Trees, Ned, stock footage from Dany’s vision, etc.—and, if that interests you, go forth and obsess. Personally, most prophecies in fiction bore me, and this one is no different. (Where it will interest me is long down the road, on the day when I’ll be forced to contend with whether my pet theories—about how Martin has created a largely godless, orderless world—will be proven wrong by all this mystical mumbo-jumbo. That day, happily, is not today.)
- I’m like to think Game of Thrones isn’t amused by juvenile humor and cruelty for cruelty’s sake, but it’s hard to give the show the benefit of the doubt sometimes. Whom do I blame—Martin, or director Alex Graves—for cutting straight from the castrated wreck of Theon Greyjoy to a shot of a sausage impaled on a fork? Yes, we get it: they cut off his dick. I’d be happy if it never came up again (no pun intended).
- A nice throwaway joke is called back here as we meet the new Lady Bolton (Elizabeth Webster). (At the Red Wedding, Roose said that Walder Frey offered to pay the weight in silver of any Frey girl Roose chose as a bride—so Roose just picked the largest one.) And credit to Webster for making the most of her brief appearance: Walda barely has a line, but her nervous little smile of surprise when Ramsay kisses her and calls her “mother” is heartbreaking.
- Does anyone else like to play hypothetical games of Shuffle-the-Cast? For example, according to DVD commentary on Season 3, Iwan Rheon was high on the list to play Jon Snow before Kit Harrington was cast—a somewhat terrifying prospect now that we’ve known him as Ramsay Snow. And I always think of this when I see Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth: I don’t know if he auditioned for it or not, but I think he would have made a good Ned Stark. (Not better than Sean Bean, of course, but good.) I adore Davos, and laughed at his sly reply to Selyse’s statement that her brother and the other sacrificed infidels had all their sins burned away: “I’m sure they’re more than grateful, my queen.”)
- There were a lot of subtle moments and visual call-backs at the wedding scenes: my favorite may be Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) casting a fond eye on his old friend, the contortionist whore (whose professional name in real life—I swear to God—is “Pixie Le Knot.”)
- Note to self: when attending a Westerosi wedding, avoid the Pigeon Pie.
- In fact, come to think of it, avoid Westerosi weddings altogether.