The Laws Of God And Men ring cold in Game of Thrones [s4e6]

Peter Dinklage delivers the speech of the season as Tyrion Lannister, facing the false justice of the kingdom--and his family. Kevin McFarland reviews the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

For two weeks in a row—and many other episodes before that—Game Of Thrones has employed a relatively simple structure: bounce around the map to highlight events, crisscrossing characters to check in with the Aerie, Arya and the Hound, the Wall, the Dreadfort, and the rest of the myriad locations within Westeros, before ending with one extended sequence that takes more time. But like last week, which ended with an extended glimpse at Jon Snow’s assault on Craster’s Keep in the north—or the Purple Wedding—“The Laws Of God And Men” concludes with the best episode of Law & Order: Westeros Corruption Unit ever assembled, a trial that dwarfs what Tyrion experienced at the Aerie back in the first season. It’s a marvelously complex display with brilliant dialogue and a barnburning performance from Peter Dinklage.

But let’s circle back to the trial in a bit, after a round-up of the other developments this week. Though Joffrey is no more and Tommen has taken the throne in his place, the Lannisters still rest at a point of relative calm in the war for the Iron Throne. Daenerys grows stronger, but she’s staying in Essos for the time being, content to learn how to rule before staking a claim on King’s Landing. Stannis, meanwhile, still has next to nothing to mount a second assault on the capital, so on Ser Davos’ advice journeys across the Narrow Sea to Braavos for an audience with the Iron Bank—which, as Tywin made clear last week, holds the purse strings for anyone hoping to conquer and rule. They’re arguably the most powerful organization in the world, and just about the only thing the Lannisters fear is the Iron Bank calling for their gold, which they always collect, whether it’s easy like paying back through mining, or the hard way, by swiftly bankrolling a replacement regime.

At first, when Stannis meets with the head of the Iron Bank (Mark Gatiss, co-creator and Mycroft Holmes on Sherlock), the staunch financial institution refuses to help him. Westeros deal in terms like “usurper” and “blood right,” but the bank deals in numbers, and Stannis only has a few thousand men, a handful of ships, and not enough supplies. By the simplicity of ledger calculation, Braavos cannot help. But then the episode gets the first of two great speeches, from Ser Davos, who lays out in passionate logic why the Lannisters can’t be trusted. Tywin is 67 years old, with an iron-fisted grip on power but still advancing in age as the debt to the Iron Bank remains. When he’s gone, there’s inexperienced boy-king Tommen, vow-breaker Jaime, and pernicious Cersei—none of which are reliable figureheads to get the Iron Bank its gold back. In some ways, Davos is articulating for his life here, since Stannis’ glares say that if he’s turned away, Davos will lose more than just the fingers on his hand. But that becomes part of the thief’s pitch too, as he demonstrates Stannis’ leadership quality, his battlefield experience, and earns enough gold to hire more sellswords to take back to Westeros.

In Meereen, the slow arc to make Daenery’s intriguing again continues, with yet another small bit of progress made so that she isn’t just the nebulous “Mother Of Dragons” who does nothing but conquer and instead faces some semblance of difficulty with the process. The new Queen presides in the largest pyramid, holding court and lending and ear to the problems of the people, once again projecting an image to go along with her words and actions, that she cares about all of these people and wants them to have freedom and justice. The only problem is that soon it won’t be so easy to settle, which is made readily apparent in three steps during this scene.

First, the seemingly facile problem of Daenerys’ dragons flambéing and eating a goatherd’s flock, which the queen allays by paying triple the value to the man. Throwing money at the problem is simplistic thinking with a short-term solution, and proof positive that while Daenerys can quell those small fires (sorry, couldn’t resist) for now, the dragons will keep growing and continue to pose an uncontrollable threat to peaceful rule. But for now, overpaying for this comes off as generous, yet another sign that this queen makes amends and takes care of her people—even though they aren’t her people, and trying to solve problems with money proves she doesn’t fully understand them. This is such an easily identifiable parallel to our world, where throwing money or the resources money can buy at a struggling place in the world without understanding or addressing the key underlying cultural issues hindering overall progress. It’s a credit to episode writer Bryan Cogman that this action lands as generous at first, but slowly looks both more like a beginner’s mistake and a pleasant reaction that would only happen during the opening few opportunities to speak with Daenerys.

The second supplicant is Hizdahr zo Loraq, a Meereenese noble who I take it from gauging the reaction on Twitter has a bit of a history from the book series. Here, he’s the son of one of the men Daenerys had crucified, a slave master who Hizdahr says did not want to hang dead children along the road to Meereen, but was overruled. He wants something more complicated than retribution for livestock: proper Meereenese burial rites for his father, who still hangs crucified in the city. In King’s Landing, the traitorous had their heads mounted on pikes—Joffrey tormented Sansa by taking her to see her father’s. However unjust, those decaying symbols served as reminders to enemies of the crown that treason (or other crimes of that severity) could not be tolerated, however cruelly and improperly they were enforced. Daenerys is caught between being a merciful, kind ruler who allows a nobleman to bury his father, and a stern emancipator who will not tolerate what she declares a black and white injustice. She needs to please both the storied families of Meereen and the teeming masses, but there is no decision to appease everyone. In the end, she chooses mercy, which will undoubtedly send a message to the people that she’s willing to send a message, but can be convinced to alter the severity of a punishment so that it’s not a permanent desecration. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Hizdahr in the future.

And third, when Daenerys asks how many more people are waiting for an audience with the queen, and learns that over 200 supplicants remain. That moment, when after only a few steps the effort exerted feels like a marathon—that is the daunting task of ruling an entire nation as a beloved problem-solver feels like. To her credit, Daenerys steels herself—and she’s sitting, while Jorah, Ser Barristan, Grey Worm, and the rest stand around her throne—and digs her heels in for the long haul. But the slow grind of universally revered ruling will take its toll, for the everyday monotony of ruling a tenuously maintained order while also remaining an idolized talisman of freedom has never been easy, especially for those who conquer and preside over unfamiliar cultures.

And it’s exactly the approach to leadership that has long been abandoned by those in King’s Lading. What’s important there—to Tywin Lannister at least—is preserving a vice grip on power to establish a dynasty, and let the commoners fall in line behind the entrenched royalty. There is no appeasing others below a certain threshold of significance, only making power plays with and against the other dominant houses. The trial of Tyrion Lannister for regicide is a meticulously crafted farce, designed to turn any onlookers entirely against Tyrion and back him into a corner where only Tywin’s goal can be achieved. The throne room is converted into a courtroom set, but what really stands out over this sequence is the depth of despair in Tyrion’s face, and the dark shadows of his prominent facial scarring—proof staring everyone in the face that he, not the cowardly whelp Joffrey, defended King’s Landing against the nigh-insurmountable forces at Stannis’ disposal.

Ser Meryn Trant recounts all the times Tyrion berated Joffrey, always using the term “imp” to convey maximum disdain; Grandmaester Pycelle lists poisons gone missing from his stores, and reveals Sansa’s necklace, found on the body of Ser Dontos, which presumably washed ashore; Cersei recounts her argument with Tyrion before the Battle of Blackwater; and even Varys, knowing the way the wind is blowing, casts his lot with those who will survive and keep him in elevated company, though he acknowledges what he’s doing to Tyrion.

To no surprise, this is all dispiriting to Tyrion, but more importantly it infuriates Jaime, who loves his brother, though Cersei sees it as pity and Tywin sees it as foolishness. Tywin has hated Tyrion since the birth of his second son came at the cost of his wife. But why, after all the time since deciding against casting that infant into the sea, after putting Tyrion in battle in the first season, making him Acting Hand, seeing him defend King’s Landing, making him Master Of Coin, has Tywin decided to finally put his son in mortal danger, at the hands of his own family no less?

It’s yet another calculated chess move, this time against Jaime, who earlier this season refused to leave his post in the Kingsguard to take his father’s seat at Casterly Rock and continue the Lannister line. Tywin’s dastardly bargain: Tyrion will be found guilty, plead for mercy, and be spared, exiled to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch. In exchange, Jaime agrees to forgo his vows, return to Casterly Rock, and father Lannister heirs with a respectable woman. Tywin gets his legacy while erasing the part he’s most embarrassed by, the bastard king rumors fade with time, and once again, the Lannister patriarch ruins the lives of his children in order to make himself happy—all while stressing the importance of family reputation above individual desires. It’s a masterful hypocrisy.

As for Peter Dinklage, the end of this episode may very well be the best competition Woody Harrelson will have for Best Actor In A Supporting Role – Drama at the Emmys this year. If this isn’t his Emmy submission, I’ll eat Ser Pounce. The true death blow is the final surprise witness: Shae, who turns on Tyrion and spins a yarn of him conspiring with Sansa to poison Joffrey, before also revealing she was his whore and embarrassing Tyrion in front of the hundreds of gathered observers. It’s meant to shame him and cut him to the core, betrayed on every level, just as he was when his father and Jamie intervened with the woman Tyrion loved.

Dinklage channels years and years of lived-in rage and disbelief, spitting at his father that he’s really on trial for being a dwarf. Tyrion won’t go along with his father’s wishes, and he won’t do what Jaime asks—even after that last tender moment between the Kingslayer brothers before the trial resumes when they establish a touching bit of trust—instead flying into a speech where he snarls at the crowd that he should’ve let Stannis kill them all. Those final minutes constitute the best single speech of the season, and it’s so well-delivered that I’m struggling to remember the last time I was as impressed with the acting on Game Of Thrones:

“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 was 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 all swallow it…I will not give my life for Joffrey’s murder, and I know I’ll get no justice here. So I’ll let the Gods decide my fate. I demand a trial by combat.”

The stage is set, just as it was in the Aerie back in season one. Tyrion will choose a champion for trial by combat—which is a legal thing excellently elaborated upon in Vulture—and in sidestepping his father’s cruel master plan, the Lannister name will die out. It’s a final bit of vengeance that ensures, even if Tyrion manages to survive, that his father, for once, doesn’t get what he wants at the expense of anyone and everyone else.

 

Extra Thrones

• The only part of this episode I skipped over is the ongoing conflict between the Iron Islands and whoever holds the North, at this point in time Roose Bolton and his bastard Ramsay Snow. Asha attempts to rescue Theon, but he’s so far gone as Reek that he unwittingly thwarts his sister’s plans—which so disappoints her that she angrily says her brother is dead when her forces retreat. I have to admit, despite that brutally damaged character, I don’t much care about what’s going on in this region at the moment. I don’t know what it has to say other than Ramsay Snow is a vicious bastard, just like Joffrey, just like Karl. There are insufferable, brutish men to be found everywhere, and like Cersei said to Oberyn last week, “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”

• That scene in the throne room between Varys and Oberyn is one that I suspect isn’t in the books—but please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. It’s a great bit of verbal sparring, revealing the height of Varys’ ambition, and explaining how he plays his card during the trial.

• The version of “The Rains Of Castamere” that plays during the final shots of this episode is the best I’ve ever heard.

• Like I imagined last week, the Braavos segment of the opening credits did not disappoint, especially the construction of the Titan right at the end.

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Published 6:35 am Mon, May 12, 2014

About the Author

Kevin McFarland is a freelance writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming at The A.V. Club, Paste Magazine, This Was TV, and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.

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