“The Laws Of Gods And Men” was a tight, by relative GoT standards, episode that only found time for checking in on a scant 4 plotlines in total. Noticeably absent from the entire affair was any sight of Arya, Bran, Sansa or Jon Snow – any of the remaining Starks, emblematic among all the houses for being most concerned with traditional concepts of justice and fair play. It makes sense that this season, which finds the Starks’ influence at its absolute wane, is shaping up to be the most concerned with the difficulty of serving justice in a world ruled so much by intractable class systems and the whims of those who, by way of bloodline or swordpoint, find themselves in power. Remember that the whole season started with a pre-credits sequence, which had been previously reserved for teasing the White Walker menace that will presumably dictate the entire series’ endgame, depicting Tywin Lannister destroying the blade that stupid, honorable Ned Stark used to dispense harsh but honest justice in the North. The sword was described as impractically large, and while that is true, that is because its primary function was as a symbol of a concept that by its nature must transcend practicality. So of course Tywin had it dismantled and refashioned into smaller, more effective weapons. He is nothing if not a relentlessly pragmatic thinker.
We also, finally!, check in with Yara’s efforts to exact some justice for her brother’s torture and mutilation. Being Ironborn, her plan is to take it by brute force, rather than through appeals to any higher power or sense of honor. And she carves a quick, bloody path to him, only to find that the physical damage pales in comparison to the mental scars. While flanked by two remaining soldiers, her own tribunal that fails to deliver the justice she desired (too much of a stretch? yeah, probably too much), she is forced to conclude that there is no putting Theon together again, and flee from the unhinged Ramsey Snow. I still don’t entirely buy Ramsey as a person, but as a one-dimensional villain, his flamboyance certainly stands out on a show that is so devoted to ethical ambiguity. That he reacts to his castle being invaded in the middle of the night with delight for the diversion is unsettingly effective. His scenes with Theon still feel more drawn out and sadistic than is necessary to get their point across, however.
In Mereen, with Jorah and Selmy completing her own judgmental trio on the dais, Dany begins to learn that doing what queens do is easier said than…do. In actuality, it involves attempting to determine how to punish wrongdoing without endlessly perpetuating a cycle of retribution and suffering. It wasn’t really a question that she would let the nobleman bury his father, as she has every reason in the world to emphathize with the children of the coup d’etat-ed, but one also wonders how long she can afford to pay triple for the damage done by her dragons. The dragons that represent her power and legacy, but are also forces of nature. They are uncomprehending and indifferent to any talk of rights or justice, and I did notice that while there are three of them, only one was represented in scene where the goat was flambéed.
But the Council scenes, and also the similarly great one between Oberyn and Varys, are just preambles to the main event of Tyrion’s trial. There is much greatness here, and the show wisely allots the time to spend the last half of the episode just luxuriating in the performances. I figure anyone reading this is likely to also be familiar with Alan Sepinwall over at Hitfix. He’s a great critic, but his common refrain for at least the last couple seasons now has been that GoT’s storytelling is too diffuse, and only reaches its full potential when it hunkers down in one place and tells an extended, focused chunk of story, like in the Blackwater and Red/Purple Wedding episodes. And while I agree that those parts do represent the high points of the show, I do think (with all due respect, as I regularly read and enjoy his work) he’s wrong to want the show to be that thing all the time.
It’s like this: a block down the street from where I’m sitting is Shaw’s Crab House. Great stuff there, and when I can afford it I will splurge on a lobster dinner. Now, the lobster is without question the highlight, but that doesn’t mean the experience as a whole would be improved if they switched the salad to another portion of lobster, and the sides to another portion of lobster, and the dessert, and the wine. That’s not a meal, it’s a pile of sea monster guts.
These episodes where various storylines and characters converge only stand out because they are exceptions to the show’s rule. They’re payoffs, whether they come at the climax of a season or not, and payoffs require a set up to work. And they are even more satisfying when they can tie together really disparate threads; a very big part of what makes Game Of Thrones’s storytelling so satisfying is that it has the ambition to tell its tale on such an insanely-broad canvas, without forgetting that this allows for the highest drama to occur when the action collapses down to a single focal point. But you can’t collapse without first sprawling.
The reason I support the show’s sprawl is that it engenders not just thrilling climaxes, but the sense of unpredictability that I constantly cite as the series’s greatest strength. With such a wide canvas, we don’t even know (outside of what hints the credits sequence provide to those of us that pore over it each week) what characters we’ll be seeing, or in what context. If the show were to fall into a steadier, more “focused” back-and-forth structure between storylines, where I knew that one week being a Dany/Theon/Bran/Littlefinger week meant the next would be a Jon Snow/Stannis/Arya/Lannister week, then I would at least subconsciously have a better idea of what to expect as I sat down. Same if I knew that a character appearing in one scene guaranteed a certain amount of time with that storyline for the episode. It doesn’t have to be specific details to get me to lean back in my seat a bit.
Anyway, the point of this tangent is certainly not that Sepinwall or those that agree with his take (which many do) are dummies, because the trial sequence is stronger for allowing us to stay in the moment with Tyrion for so long. Really, the whole thing probably treads too closely to what we saw at the Eyrie in Season 1, right down to the fake-out confession before demanding trial by combat. But it’s brought off by the radical difference in the intensity of Dinklage’s performance, and the novelty of seeing pretty much everyone that Tyrion has had a meaningful interaction with throughout the series, sans Bronn, show up to damn him from the witness box.
But anyway, man, how about Dinklage’s performance when Tyrion’s had enough of his judges pretending they are seeking justice, and not simply the “truth” that best supports their interests? And how will this play out? Is he allowed a champion, like at the Eyrie? If so, will Jaime fight for his brother or the Kingsguard? Will Tywin allow Bronn to serve? If the Mountain arrives to serve as the representative of the Lannisters, will Oberyn be able to resist volunteering on the Imp’s behalf?
Is it next week yet? Oh, come on!!