Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
“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.
Practicality is also the ruling concern for the bankers of Braavos, which we finally see in its impressively-CGI’ed glory here. In the first of several tribunals shown presiding over the fates of characters, Mycroft Holmes himself extolls the virtues of hard numbers over more mutable words. Stannis has a lofty claim to rule a country, but doesn’t have the numbers to back it up. It takes some quick thinking on Davos’s part to reframe his “king’s” inherent nobility/hard-headedness as an asset to the Iron Bank. After first running down the future prospects of the Lannisters (even he has to admit that Tywin will keep things locked down pretty well for as long as he’s around), he presents Stannis as the ideal client for a money lender. Mycroft and co. may be quick to dismiss considerations of justice when deciding who to bet on, but the fact that Stannis does makes him a more attractive horse. After all, what does a banker dream of, if not borrowers that are honest to a self-destructive fault?
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.
Right, so Dany’s quest may be stalled out in Mereen for the moment, but she is attracting more interest in King’s Landing than ever. The Small Council scenes, for all their constantly shifting roster, have been for my money the most unwaveringly entertaining aspect of the series. Even after losing Tyrion and adding the empty, unctuous gasbag Mace Tyrell (who sort of doubles up on that suck-up dynamic when sitting next to the deflated, unctuous gasbag Pycelle), the Council manages to remain great by introducing Oberyn into the mix. While Tyrion offered a sardonic running commentary to these scenes, Oberyn’s heckling has a more arrogant, antagonistic bent that freshens up the dynamic and avoids having them become airless affairs where everyone nods along with Tywin. And while the lords of Westeros are still underestimating the size and danger of her dragons, it will be interesting to see how they intend to sabotage her camp from afar. One presumes they’ll start by informing the khaleesi that her top general used to spy on her for them.
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.
It’s remarkable how little lying they have to do in order to completely condemn him; the only falsehood that any witness tells the Court is Cersei’s whitewashing Joffrey’s cowardice from her account of the Battle of Blackwater. Until Shae takes the stand, at least. And this threw me for a loop, I’ll admit. Sibel Kekilli has never been among the top tier of performers on the show, so I’m not sure if the performance was unintentionally opaque or I am just an idiot or what, but it seemed a stretch for her character to return on her own to do this solely out of spite. I know she was genuinely hurt by being sent away and hell hath no fury and all, but if she wanted to see him dead, that could’ve been accomplished by…doing nothing. And not exposing herself to the vicissitudes of the Lannisters in the process, which she was given every right to fear. But I can’t figure an angle she could be playing where thinking that testifying against Tyrion would help him, even if she knew that a guilty verdict would not result in beheading. So I’m currently assuming that she was coerced, but didn’t resist too hard because it allows her to exorcise some real anger while she’s up there. And hey, book readers? I’m not looking for clarification in the comments, please and thank you. I’ll find out in a week or so.
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!!