.Aaaaaaaaaaaaah, that hit the spot.
Game Of Thrones, much as I lurve it, can be a punishing experience. A big part of the series’ point of view is that a feudal system like that of Westeros allows those in power to inflict terrible injustices upon those they rule over. And the lords of Westeros are behaving particularly badly in “The Lion And The Rose”, which opens with Ramsay Snow and one of the vamps he used to torment Theon last year re-enacting his favorite Ice-T movies at the expense of a terrified girl (who might be the other one, but I haven’t checked). It’s hard for Game Of Thrones to shock me when it comes to abject cruelty anymore, but this was a particularly stomach-turning effort, it must be said.
As Bolton returns, we see that Ramsay and Locke are old buddies (of course they are) and that Theon’s spirit remains utterly broken, as he can’t even take up his tormentor on the invitation to cut his throat. We also see that old man Bolton is none too impressed with his work, though that’s more out of disdain for the strategy than disgust for the sadism. He sends the boys to go take back a Northern castle from the Ironborn, which is disappointing in that it probably puts a couple more episodes distance between the bastard’s torso and 30 inches of Yara’s spear.
Things are even less cheery at Dragonstone, where Stannis is joylessly (how else?) burning “infidels” at the stake, up to and including his brother-in-law, whose ships and men it sounds like he cannot afford to lose. This didn’t work out so well for Robb Stark when he pulled a similar move with Lord Karstark, but then he didn’t have a fire witch in his corner. And it seems like for all her hemming and hawing about the leech ritual being weak sauce compared to a proper blood sacrifice, it has proven remarkably effective so far. Balon Greyjoy better watch his back, not that he wouldn’t be already. I did like the scene between Shireen and Melisandre for what it was, but the overall sense I took away was disappointment that after last year’s climactic decision to mount up and do something about the White Walkers, this storyline has inexplicably returned to Sleep Mode.
But who cares about that, and who cares about Bran (HODOR cares!) and the Reeds in the North. The main event and bulk of the episode is Joffrey’s wedding. And it’s wonderful and awful from start to finish. It would’ve been a standout if it had just delivered the 20 minutes we got of terrific character details and interactions, be it Olenna amiably sparring with Tywin, or Tywin less-amiably sparring with Oberyn, or Cersei needling Brienne about her relationship with Jaime, or Loras making eyes at Oberyn, or Varys getting bumped on the head by one of the dwarf kings.
But it is going to be remembered as one of the very best episodes of the show because all of that is leading up to one of those absolute jaw-droppers of a twist that makes me love Game Of Thrones so very, very much. I mentioned the idea that this is a system with no almost checks on the abuse of power, but the flip side to that is that those in power never have but a tenuous grip on it. Tywin is so dangerous because he never forgets this for a moment, no matter how secure the Lannister position might seem. Littlefinger is dangerous because he delights in that uncertainty, believing it affords the chance to leap up the socio-political ladder to those who have no family name but a gambling spirit. Joffrey never let himself believe it was true, probably because it would mean facing up to the fact that he had no useful skills to contribute to his own success, and was wholly dependent on others to prop up his rule. And he is struck down at the very height of his vindictive, petty, sadistic hubris. The king is dead. Long may he burn in the deepest of the 7 Hells.
I realize that I am cheering the murder of a disturbed teenager, in front of his parents and bride, and that could be considered, in the scheme of things, a bit gauche. But I couldn’t give a straining, dusty Pycelle shit. Joffrey was one of the most singularly hateful characters in the history of fiction, and I celebrated his death like college kids celebrate ethnic holidays, which is to say soberly and tastefully.
As I said, this turn completely floored me. I have heard the mantra that “no one is safe” on this show so many times, and thought that I had accepted it, but I realize now that I had also internalized Sansa’s assertion that “the worst ones never die”. I thought that our more heroic characters would remain in genuine jeopardy, but I thought that Joffrey would outlive the likes of…well, a lot of people, but I took Jorah in the First Dead pool my friends made prior to the premiere (hey, his daddy won it for me last year). I do a lot of praising of the show on this basis, but the fact is I loooove being surprised by fiction, and it doesn’t happen all that often as I get older and experience more and more of it and spend objectively-pitiable amounts of time analyzing it on the internet.
See, with most shows, the crowd-sourced nature of internet commentary allows for just about any reasonable plot variations to sussed out (or at least wildly guessed at) before the season gets there. But with GoT, perhaps because we all know the answers are out there if we want them, I/we seem to get it wrong so much more often. It’s not that no one had ever considered that Joffrey might be murdered (although “fantasized” might be a more accurate term), it’s that no one had really put forward that he might be poisoned at his wedding. Two episodes into the season, no less! This feels all the more remarkable because the answers are out there, a Google search or careless tweet away, but actually I think that probably helps cut down on it because it undercuts any fleeting internet-glory/”I told ya so!” cred by ensuring that everyone will just assume you looked it up. Whereas with Mad Men, everyone and their dog will be taking stabs in the dark all year about how it will end, secure in the knowledge that they will get to shout “Called It!!” If they turn out to be right, and no one will remember or care that they made 32 other wrong calls on the way there.
All of this is to say that I love that GoT can still shock me this deep in the run. The deaths of the various Starks taught me that this was not a series that would play by the rules of other fantasy epics, but “The Lion And The Rose” showed me that it would not even play by its own rules. Or at least that I was wrong to think I had figured out what those might be. Since I thought that a cornerstone would be that a monster like Joffrey would hang around until the endgame commenced. Of course, we have yet to see what sort of hydra heads will pop up to replace him now that he’s gone…
I generally don’t do bullet points, but it appears this week I have more thoughts than segues, so…
– There has already been an immediate flurry of speculation already as to the identity of the poisoner, but I didn’t come away from the episode thinking it was a whodunit. Ser Dontoss the Fool tells Sansa they have to leave if they want to live the moment Joffrey starts to cough, which is a weird conclusion for him to jump to if he wasn’t behind it. But seeing as how no book readers have stepped in to clarify that it was definitely him, I infer that this is something the books treat as a mystery for awhile. By the way, book readers, that is REALLY, REALLY NOT an invitation to step in and clarify in the comments. Anyway, Olenna seems to be the current prime suspect, but I don’t see that only because I think she would give her granddaughter’s position as queen to have more time to solidify before overthrowing the reign they’ve worked so hard to insinuate themselves into. Not buying Tywin either, because no matter how much he might loathe the boy, I keep going back to his introductory lecture to Jaime back in S1, about how a public attack on even the lowest of them (Tyrion) makes the entire Family look unacceptably weak. I certainly wouldn’t put it past Oberyn, but I think he’s a little too fresh to the narrative to be responsible for such an enormous plot development. And then there’s sweet Sansa herself, who has all the motives in several worlds to do the deed, and the Stark simple-mindedness not to realize that doing it this way would cast suspicion directly upon her already-downtrodden husband…
Hmm, maybe Sansa could be in on it. Although I think the most fruitful dramatic avenue would be that Dontoss did it, and she is forced to choose between letting Tyrion hang for it or condemning the Fool to torture and death in order to exonerate him. We shall see in the coming weeks I suppose.
– Another week, I would have full paragraphs about the awesomeness of Jaime and Bronn as secret sparring partners (and the gorgeous location for that set), and Tyrion finally pushing Shae all the way out of the capitol, not to mention Bran’s vision. But the King was the man of this hour.
– It’s kind of amazing to me that they didn’t force this into last year’s finale, but instead chose to let the bitter, bitter aftertaste of Red Wedding linger for a full year. I could say the same about the Hound/Arya finale to last week’s premiere, which would’ve been even easier to move up to leave such a brutal season on a higher note (plus her killing of the Frey goon in the finale seems like a less potent version of the same scene anyway). Between seeing these villains get theirs and Shae (apparently) escaping a nasty fate at the last second, the 4th season seems to be starting on almost indulgent terms, which of course only makes me more nervous for what horrors await in the back half.
– Add Sigur Ros to the ranks of The National, Coldplay and The Hold Steady on the list of contemporary bands that have contributed a cover and/or cameo as musicians to an episode of Game Of Thrones. I like how they’ve established “Rains Of Castamere” so well that they can just play a few bars of it and hustle it off like the pop song from last summer that every ended up hearing way too many times. Oh, and Sigur Ros are pretty great. Weird sound, but there’s no one that sounds like them. Best I can do is they sound like maybe what would happen if Bjork fucked Slint.
– I did less pictures this week and mostly just reposted .gifs and vids from the message board reactions. What can I say, they made me laugh.
Is it next week yet? Oh, come on!