Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is put on trial, wrongfully accused of plotting to murder a child. He says he wants to confess, and then—in a fantastic monologue—confesses to everything but the crime with which he's charged. Finally, seeing no hope of justice, he demands a trial by combat.
Elsewhere, peasants petition their ruler for relief after a vicious attack. The ruler says they cannot restore the dead, they can only offer justice for the loss.
Meanwhile, the rightful king of Westeros, deposed and in exile, has been reduced to begging foreigners for gold.
Does this all sound familiar?
It should. These things happen, of course, in "The Laws of Gods and Men," the sixth episode of Game of Thrones' fourth season. But all of these things also happened exactly three years ago, in the sixth episode of the first season, "A Golden Crown." Back then it was Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie) putting Tyrion on trial. Back then it was Ned Stark (Sean Bean) who uncomfortably sat a throne and tried to mete out imperfect justice to powerless people. Back then it was Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) pleading for an army to reclaim his birthright.
The parallels are not perfect, but they're also not a coincidence: like "A Golden Crown," this week's episode is all about the concept of justice, and whether it is something that can ever be expected from gods or men. A lot has changed over the past three seasons of Game of Thrones, but some things never change: life still isn't fair.
But I've already written several times about the concept of fairness—or the lack thereof—in Game of Thrones, and I'm sure we're all sick of my blathering on that topic. So let's approach this episode from a different, more character-based angle. Because it strikes me that there may be another kind of justice, handed down by neither gods nor kings, arising not from without but from within. Maybe a lot of this boils down to how people judge themselves. Maybe character really is fate, as Heraclitus said. Maybe everyone gets exactly what they deserve—or what they think they deserve.
"...I consider it an honest accounting."—Davos Seaworth
It's an obvious visual motif, but height is a factor throughout this episode, as those with power sit on high and hand down "justice." Director Alik Sakharov often shoots Dany and Tywin from below, so they loom large over those they judge. Reek, on the other hand, is usually cringing low, looking up at his betters. And Tyrion's size, obviously, makes him seem that much smaller in the courtroom, where even the witness-box for his accusers is placed higher than Tyrion's own. The court of justice is not an even playing field: those with power will always have the advantage over those without.
Here, Davos (Liam Cunningham) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane) have gone to plead their case to the Iron Bank of Braavos, and they are put in their place with some classic corporate power plays: first they are made to wait half the day, and then they are forced to sit in seats slightly lower than those of the bankers, looking like children begging at the grown-ups' table.
I'm not going to discuss this scene much this week, but there are a couple of things I think are worth noting. First, though it seems disconnected from events elsewhere in the episode, this does echo back subtly to Tyrion's trial. The trial, as we'll discuss below, is a constant attempt to discredit all of Tyrion's good works and good qualities: his job as Hand of the King, his victory at Blackwater Bay, et cetera. Here, we are reminded that Tyrion did kick Stannis's ass, and sink Stannis's fleet to the bottom of the bay, and that is the entire reason Stannis is now reduced to begging for help. It also confirms that Tyrion was a good Hand, because he predicted this: he continually expressed concern that the crown was millions in debt to the Iron Bank, and last season (in "Walk of Punishment") he told Bronn explicitly that, if these debts weren't repaid in a timely fashion, the bank could decide to start funding the crown's enemies.
Second, what strikes me as important about this scene for the rest of the episode is that it establishes justice not as a question of facts, but as a question of character. The head banker, Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss), believes in facts: he believes in numbers, and the numbers don't bolster Stannis's case. He has just 4,000 men, and 32 ships, and no crops to support his army. "You can see why these numbers seem unlikely to add up to a happy ending, from our perspective," Tycho says.
Stannis is ready to give up, but Davos makes a different appeal, based on Stannis's character. He points out that Tywin (Charles Dance) is old, and after he dies there will be no one trustworthy to sit the Iron Throne. He shows the bankers how Stannis had his fingers cut off in punishment for his crimes. "This was the payment that was demanded by Lord Stannis for my crimes, and I consider it an honest accounting," Davos says. ("You were a hero and a smuggler," Stannis told him, when they discussed it once. "A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad the good.") Davos agreed with this assessment of his own character, and now uses it as proof of Stannis's own. "He is an honest man, and he's your best chance to get back the money you've soaked into Westeros."
This notion of justice as an "honest accounting," based on character, is one that permeates the rest of the episode.
"I've always been Reek."—Theon Greyjoy
What led me to start thinking about all of this is a throwaway line spoken by Reek, the creature formerly known as Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Yara (Gemma Whelan) has come to the Dreadfort to find what's left of her brother. She frames this raid as a mission of justice, an honest accounting for the crimes Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) has committed against all Iron Islanders. ("Everything they've done to him, they've also done to you," she says to her crew, rallying them for battle by appealing to their sense of honor, much as Theon himself tried to do once.)
In truth, she just wants her brother back—but she isn't prepared for what she finds. All last season, Ramsay Snow employed textbook techniques of physical and psychological torture to systematically dismantle Theon's persona, and now all that remains is this cringing thing in the kennels. "Reek!" it insists, when she calls it Theon. "My name is Reek! I've always been Reek." He refuses to leave with her, and—driven from the Dreadfort by Ramsay's other dogs—Yara seems to accept that the brother she knew is dead.
But is he? It's that "always" that caught my attention: I've always been Reek. Yes, we can read this as just a side-effect of Ramsay's programming, of how successful his eradication of Theon's former identity truly is. But the line seems more poignant than that, and sadder. After all, in a way, hasn't Theon always been Reek? All his arrogance and bravado, all his puffed-up honor and sexual braggadocio: wasn't that just overcompensation for insecurity, desperation, and self-loathing? Way back in Season Two, he confronted his father: "You gave me away," he sobbed. "You gave me away like some dog you didn’t want anymore..."
So on some level Theon has always been a dog, unwanted and unloved: he's always been Reek. Could Ramsay's reprogramming have been so effective if Theon's identity hadn't been so fragile all along? ("You're not the man you're pretending to be," Maester Luwin [Donald Sumpter] told him once.) Would it have worked so well if Theon hadn't already felt discarded (for being cast off by one family), and damned (for betraying another)? Wasn't there probably a part of Theon that felt everything Ramsay did to him was an honest accounting? Perhaps he doesn't want to go with Yara because he's finally where he belongs. Perhaps he's finally the man he was always meant to be.
That's what makes his final scene this episode so ironic, and so fitting. Stripped naked, in every sense, Reek is finally himself, and living the life he thinks he deserves—but then Ramsay tells him he needs a favor. "I need you to play a role, to pretend to be someone you're not," he says: "Theon Greyjoy." That, of course, is the role Reek has been playing—unsuccessfully and unconvincingly—all his life.
"Is it justice to answer one crime with another?" — Hizdahr zo Loraq
"A Golden Crown" was, arguably, the episode where Dany became a queen. There have been many major milestones in her development, but several important things happened then. She received and accepted the adoration of her people as khaleesi, triggering Viserys's jealousy and rage. She first demonstrated her steely-eyed ruthlessness, watching unblinking while Viserys was murdered. And, of course, with her older brother's death, she literally became the Last Dragon, the Queen of the Andals and the First Men, the rightful ruler of Westeros.
So it's appropriate that, in this linked episode about justice, we now see her take those responsibilities for the first time: she has been a leader before, but now—as of last episode—she has decided to actually rule. This is the first time we've actually seen her sit a throne, and her scenes atop the high platform of the Meereen temple mirror the throne room of King's Landing, where we saw Ned sit in "A Golden Crown," and where we see Tywin (Charles Dance) sit elsewhere in "The Laws of Gods and Men."
What Dany's view from up-on-high is showing her is that being a queen isn't as easy as she thought it was. First of all, it's tedious. (She has 214 petitioners waiting to see her—though it would go considerably faster if she could forego recitation of all of her titles: "Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khalessi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons." We get it, you rule.) The first we see is a shepherd, whose entire herd became hor d'oeuvres for Dany's dragons. It's here that she echoes Ned's words from "A Golden Crown," though then it was people Ned said he couldn't bring back from the dead. The deliberate callback seems like a bit of ominous foreshadowing: we see the dragon attack, and it could easily have been the shepherd's child who was killed. How much longer before Dany's increasingly unruly dragons do something unforgivable?
And this seems foreboding in other ways. I've written before about the equation of people with animals in Game of Thrones—the sigils representing not only family brands but also human natures—and Dany, like her dragons, is growing larger, and more powerful, and potentially more dangerous. That is the lesson she learns from the second petitioner we see, Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry). His father—by reports a good and decent man—was among the 160-odd noblemen of Meereen that Dany ruthlessly and indiscriminately crucified when she took the city. "Is it justice to answer one crime with another?" he asks her. "My treatment of the masters was no crime," she replies—but she doesn't seem so sure about that now. Justice is a tricky thing for a ruler to dispense, and it's also a tricky thing for a ruler to face.
Like Reek, in a way, Dany is playing a role, and is not quite the confident, all-powerful, all-knowing queen she pretends to be. She's risen from her brother's helpless pawn to become a powerful queen, but the crown still sits uneasily on her head: we get frequent hints that she's not at all sure she knows what she's doing. (This, to me, is what some critics of Emilia Clarke seem to miss about her performance: the insecurity and vulnerability she deliberately layers beneath Dany's surface strength. I think she's playing it exactly right.) After a while, this steady accumulation of grandiose titles starts to seem like it stems from a desperate need to define herself, to convince herself of what she is. A good act doesn't wash out the bad, nor a bad the good. Will history judge her as the "Breaker of Chains," or will she be seen as just another power-mad Targaryen leaving death and destruction in her wake? And how, in the end, will she be forced to judge herself?
"I'm guilty of a far more monstrous crime."—Tyrion
And how will history judge Tyrion Lannister? How does he judge himself?
Tyrion is another person whose sense of identity—and sense of his own self-worth—has always been precarious. All his life, he was branded "the Imp," demonized and despised by most everyone—especially his own father (who blamed him for being a dwarf) and sister (who blamed him for their mother's death). Alienated from most traditional roles in this society—one of the "cripples, bastards, and broken things"—he's had to forge his own role and find his own path. "My brother has his sword, and I have my mind," he told Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in Season One, explaining why he felt the need to be smarter than most everyone else: being intelligent was his only compensation for being a dwarf. And he did need to be smart: in that season he continually found himself blamed for crimes he hadn't committed, thrust into situations for which he was dangerously unsuited, and generally met with derision, suspicion, and hostility wherever he went.
Season Two saw him achieve the height of his powers: when Tywin (reluctantly) appointed him Hand of the King, Tyrion found his role and found his stride. "I like it," he told Shae (Sibel Kekilli). "I like it more than anything I've ever done." But even then he was despised. He tried to keep a firm hand on Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), even as he found himself publicly blamed for the giggling monstrosity's actions. (In the eyes of the common folk, he was the "demon monkey" who controlled the king.) At the Battle of Blackwater Bay, Tyrion became the warrior no one thought him capable of being, and saved the entire city—but then found himself scrubbed from the history books when his father swooped in to take his job and all the credit.
As I wrote at the time, the sad thing about Tyrion's fall from power was that he didn't even seem surprised by it. He never expected power, or respect, or adoration: what he expects, deep down, is to be despised and abandoned. Like Theon, he has been unloved all his life, and some part of him believes it's because he's unlovable. "I'm a monster, as well as a dwarf," he told Shae, after his fall from grace—and he fully expected that she would despise him and abandon him as well. This, after all, is the lesson Tywin taught him, when he was just a young man, and it was the most important lesson of his life: someone might pretend to love him—for money—but no one ever really could.
These insecurities have plagued all of his relationships—his "friendship" with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) is almost never mentioned without a reminder that Tyrion is paying him—and none more so than in his relationship with Shae. He did genuinely love Shae, I believe, but he never completely trusted that love, and never trusted that it was returned. ("I pay you, and you lie to me," he told her once, describing their "arrangement.") And in truth, though he wanted her to believe it, his own insecurities made her doubt it as well. After the Battle of Blackwater, after he'd been humiliated by his father, she tried to get him to leave King's Landing with her, to just be happy together, to just "eat, drink, fuck, live." That might have been his moment, his chance at happiness—but it wasn't enough for him. "These bad people: what I'm good at—out-talking them, out-thinking them—it's what I am." Perhaps because he could never trust that could truly be loved, he still needed to prove he was smarter than everyone else. They could be happy together somewhere else, but anywhere else in the world, he'd be just a dwarf.
And so Shae grew increasingly more resentful: we don't know yet exactly why Shae does what she does here, but certainly some of it is Tyrion's own fault. They did love each other, but that love was not enough for him, and he refused to leave with her and go somewhere where she could have been his wife, instead of just his property. "I'm a whore," she said bitterly last season. "And when you are tired of fucking me, I will be nothing." When he tried to send her away—though it was for her own safety—perhaps she thought that day had come.
Throughout the trial Tyrion has watched as all the good things in his life—the things he thought made him worthwhile as a person—were taken away from him: his efforts to contain Joffrey's monstrosity, his victory at the Blackwater, et cetera. He sees the people he thought understood his value—like Varys (Conleth Hill)—now turn against him. But Shae's betrayal is the one that finally breaks him: it is the final nail in the coffin of his self-worth, the final confirmation of everything he has always feared about himself. Like his long-lost wife, Shae only pretended to love him, for money. There is a level, of course, in which he knows Shae is lying: that she is punishing him now by pretending her love was all an act. But it doesn't matter: the tragedy of this is that her testimony makes both their greatest fears come true. She becomes just the whore they both feared she was.
Is this an honest accounting? Perhaps what hurts Tyrion most is that—apart from a few carefully planted lies about Joffrey's murder—every word she (and everyone else) says is absolutely true. This is not a revision of facts, but a revision of context, a revision of character, a revision of the emotional truth of Tyrion's entire life. The people who valued him now confirm that he is worthless. The woman who loved him now proves she didn't.
It goes without saying that Dinklage is tremendous in these scenes, as Tyrion's entire, carefully constructed identity crumbles around him. Though less openly brutal, this is every bit as systematic, cruel, and complete a dismantling of his persona as what happened to Theon Greyjoy. All his insecurities about himself have been confirmed: he has been out-played, he has been out-talked, he has been out-thought, and—most importantly—he was never truly loved. Again, none of this really comes as a surprise to him: as it did with Theon, it strikes Tyrion, I think, as a form of justice, as the universe putting him in his proper place. Like Theon, Tyrion dared for a long time to believe that he could be something more, that he deserved to be happy, but now he realizes he was fooling himself. This is who he is. This is his life. He has always been this.
He announces that he is ready to confess—but what he confesses is that he is ready to stop fighting for their approval, and that he no longer expects to be loved. It doesn't matter that he is innocent of Joffrey's murder. "I'm guilty of a far more monstrous crime," he says:
"I'm guilty of being a dwarf...I've been on trial for that my entire life...I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish that I had. Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores. I wish I were the monster you think I am. I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you. I would gladly give my life to watch you swallow it."
But even in his bitterness and despair, Tyrion, to his credit, is stronger than Theon ever was. Theon, we suspect, would happily die at this point in his life, but Tyrion isn't willing to: despite everything, he still wants to live. "I will not give my life for Joffrey's murder, and I know I'll get no justice here," he says. "So I'll let the gods decide my fate. I demand a trial by combat." Tyrion has never believed in the gods, and he certainly has no reason to believe that, if they exist, they are likely to treat him kindly. But throwing his fate to chance is the only way he has to stop this unrelenting assault on his identity, this "honest accounting" of his worth.
If character is fate, he'll take his chances with the gods.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Apologies as usual for being late. (At what point do I admit that posting Wednesday or Thursday is actually "on-time" for me? I guess I'm not ready to admit that yet.) But it's been a busy week, and this long post got away from me a little.
- As I said, we still don't know the full story behind Shae's betrayal, so I haven't speculated on that too much: I suspect we'll have good reason to reexamine their entire relationship more thoroughly a little later. We also don't know exactly why Varys turns on Tyrion. Varys is a practical man, and it's possible he just saw which way the wind was blowing. (Varys was sympathetic to Ned Stark's plight as well, but not to the extent that he'd raise a finger to help him.) But we get a hint of Varys's motives in his discussion with Oberyn (Pedro Pascal), when he says he has never been plagued by desire of any kind. "When I see what desire does to people, what it's done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it." Varys tried last season to get rid of Shae so that Tyrion could become the man he was meant to be. "Tyrion Lannister is one of the few people alive who can make this country a better place," he told her. Is he bitter, now, that Tyrion squandered his potential out of something so petty as desire?
- Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tries to save Tyrion's life by bargaining with his father: Jaime will leave the Kingsguard, and rejoin his place in the family line, if Tywin spares Tyrion's life. (Whether that deal still stands after Tyrion's final outburst remains to be seen.) Though the episode is focused on Tyrion, this becomes an interesting character note for Jaime: it represents his turn back towards the family he'd been trying to pull away from, but it also represents his turning away from Cersei (Lena Headley). (Being close to her was the only reason he joined the Kingsguard in the first place, and assuming his place in the dynasty means taking a wife to whom he is, presumably, not related.)
- HBO's famed CEO of Tits must be behind on his quota: I'm really not sure what Ramsay Snow's sex scene with Myranda (Charlotte Hope) added to the proceedings, or why Davos's (otherwise amusing) meeting with Saladhor Saan (Lucien Msamati) needed to take place in a hot tub.
- A reminder: though he doesn't appear this week, nearly everything can be blamed on Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). To his long list of crimes—which are responsible for nearly every major plot point in the series, including Tyrion's trial—we can add the fact that he's the one who put the kingdom so far in debt to the Iron Bank. He's this show's Big Bad, and—if the title of the episode is any indication—we're going to spend some time on him next week.