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Game of Thrones Recap: It’s Only Wine

This week’s episode featured shocking deaths at either end. I spent most of “The Lion and the Rose” trying to make sense of the opener, in which Ramsay and a new character, Miranda, chase a screaming girl through the woods for sport, with Theon/Reek stumbling behind. Eventually, after they shoot her down and flirt while she pleads for her life (“She thinks she’s pretty. Let me put one through her face,” Miranda coos, hoisting her bow and arrow), they let their dogs finish her off.

It’s a thrillingly shot scene that makes excellent dramatic use of the landscape to heighten the tension, alternately hiding and revealing the players with quick jump cuts, the sun-dappled foliage and the gauzy white of the victim’s dress making a pretty and ironic counterpoint to the gory subject matter. It’s a tightly composed scene that makes a chillingly calibrated turn, about a minute or so in, when you realize that this is a game for only two of the four players. But the artistry felt empty to me, precisely because this was just a game – there was no “point” to this death, and that’s fine; plenty of people die in this show for no “good” reason. But I also couldn’t discern a point in making us watch this girl die, in such drawn-out and lovingly crafted fashion.

Usually when I talk to other GoT fans about the violence in the show, the justification for all the stabbings and beheadings and maulings and defenestrations is that Westeros is a cruel and unyielding place where no one can ever be truly safe. Okay, sure. But I don’t really know how many times we need to be reminded of this, especially when the show’s already conveyed this message in truly original, moving ways, like the Red Wedding. And after half a season of watching Ramsay flay Theon into sniveling, pathetic Reek, I’m not sure how much more evidence I need of his capacity for sadism. Maybe this scene will lead to something in a future episode, but for now all it did was remind me of Ros’s killing, which I’ve always felt was GoT’s lowest point. At some point you’re just gilding the violence lily.

The one thing I could think of was that maybe George R. R. Martin, who wrote the episode, intended the girl’s death to be a counterweight to the episode’s ending; a sobering reminder that for every brutal act we take pleasure in, there’s going to be one we can’t enjoy – so maybe we should rethink that pleasure in the first place

Of all the deaths we’ve witnessed so far, there’s been none that’s felt more deserved than Joffrey’s; none that the show has so insistently set up to feel so right, proper, and satisfying. Joffrey was a bright pantomime villain in a murky, morally confusing world; hating him felt restful, almost pure. The only thing that redeemed him – or at least made one occasionally second-guess the harshness of our collective thumbs-down verdict – was that he was so clearly a child. He was petulant and capricious, with mommy issues out the ying-yang, but he was also scared and needy.  That was also, of course, what made him a terrible king. All of these facets were on display in the extended wedding reception sequence that capped the episode, which presented us with a leisurely reprise of some of Joffrey’s Greatest Hits before offing him in the least heroic, most public, and most calculatedly pleasurable way possible, because for Chrissake, the kid had it coming.

Joffrey’s wedding to Margaery was always going to be an opulent production (and Margaery’s Jessica McClintock-goes-medieval get-up did not disappoint). Game of Thrones stresses again and again how pageantry and performance are crucial tools for establishing power, and Joffrey’s particular genius for crude, bro-ish showmanship has never been more repulsively compelling.

At a pre-wedding party, Tywin presents Joffrey with the second Valyrian steel sword and the boy king uses it to gleefully hack apart the massive royal history book Tyrion has just given him. After declaring that every time he uses “Widow’s Wail” it will be “like cutting off Ned Stark’s head again,” he turns to Sansa and sheathes it suggestively. The moment recalls the one in “Blackwater” when Joffrey made Sansa kiss his sword/phallic stand-in Hearteater, or the scene where he let Margaery fondle his crossbow: Joffrey is a boy who likes to show off his shiny, metal toys. (Taken along with the book-hacking, the act proves twice over that Joffrey has little use for the niceties of history, considering he didn’t actually swing the sword that took Ned’s life – a cowardly failing Game of Thrones has already established as a black mark against a man’s honor.) 

Later, at the post-wedding party – which more or less matches my mental picture of Burning Man – Joffrey one-ups the stilt walkers and fire blowers and Margaery’s hair by rolling a red carpet out of the mouth of a large lion-shaped structure and bringing out a troupe of little people. To uproarious laughter, the five performers clown around and bounce off one another in a ringling re-enactment of the War of Five Kings. The player dressed as Renly has his pants around his ankles; at one point the Joffrey pretends to bugger the chopped-off head of Robb Stark’s direwolf. As in previous large crowd scenes, the camera lingers on a number of reactions, and in this case few of the non-Lannisters seem anything like amused. Tyrion, Sansa, Varys, Oberyn, Loras, Mace, and Olenna are all either stony-faced or distraught– even Margaery the unflappable puts her hand to her mouth in a rare, unguarded moment.

Rewatching this scene, you realize there are any number of people who might have wanted to poison Joffrey. But things certainly don’t look good for Tyrion. During the clown show, he murmurs to Podrick to give each player some money, but that he’ll have to find “another way to thank the king.” Ever looking for ways to humiliate the uncle who flouts his authority, Joffrey mockingly invites Tyrion to put on a costume and join the performance. For all he’s been beaten down, though, the older Lannister is a much smoother player; he begs that he’s done fighting but facetiously urges Joffrey to step down and show the gathered crowd “how a true king wins his throne” by demonstrating his fighting prowess – knowing full well that Joffrey isn’t capable of anything of the sort. (Then, because he’s Tyrion, he deadpans that Joffrey should be careful about having his virtue forcibly taken from him by one of the actors who is clearly “mad with lust.”)

Well fine, if Joffrey can’t out-smooth his uncle, he can out-bully him: he walks over to Tyrion and slowly pours a goblet of wine on his head, announcing that he can be his cupbearer “since he’s too cowardly to fight.” Earlier, Tyrion extended his elder brother a kindness when Jaime’s pretty but clumsy new gold hand caused him to knock over a goblet and Tyrion said, “It’s only wine,” while pouring him a new glass. Joffrey’s behavior here is like a parody of that familial feeling. He rubs salt in the wound by kicking the goblet under the table; after Sansa retrieves it and hands it to him, Tyrion offers it to the king while pointedly avoiding eye contact – which causes Joffrey to scream at him to kneel. The scene threatens to drag on interminably, neither side giving way, until finally everyone is saved – momentarily – by the arrival of a giant pie. Joffrey gleefully splits it open with Widow’s Wail, sending doves flying. Surely that is not the most dignified use of your new Valyrian steel, Joffrey? But watch out – even if Margaery claps and call you her hero, and everyone’s entranced by the big bird show, there are more than a few bloody carcasses left behind in the shell, which can’t be an auspicious sign for your nuptial day. And indeed, it isn’t, for immediately after throwing back another cup handed him by Tyrion, Joff begins to cough. In a matter of moments he’s crashing down off the stage and Cersei is screaming and he’s shuddering on the floor, going foamy at the mouth and white in the eyes; he’s bleeding out the nose and then suddenly, he’s dead. Just like that, Cersei is screaming to have her younger brother hauled away for regicide, and it seems Stannis and Melisandre’s spell has claimed its next victim. It’ll be a long time before I forget that closing shot of Joffrey’s face.

The whole wedding reception sequence is so tight and well-choreographed; it builds around the mounting discomfort that ends with Joffrey’s death, but like any good party, a thousand other complicated dramas are blooming on the sidelines. Oberyn and Ellaria ogle just about everyone, including Loras, who seems game for being ogled and possibly for more. Jaime ruins Loras’s good time, though, by telling him that if he goes through with marrying Cersei, she’ll murder him in his sleep – and if he managed to get her pregnant, she’d kill the baby, too. Luckily that won’t happen, because you won’t marry, Jaime threatens; Loras retorts that neither will he.

Olenna reaches out to Sansa, offering condolences for Robb’s death and inviting her to Highgarden – not to mention dropping a prophetic line about how war may be war, but killing a man at a wedding is horrid. But it’s Ser Dontos who may be Sansa’s best ally, as he comes to her while everyone’s distracted and tells her to come away with him if she wants to live. Whether she goes or not, we’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, Cersei, newly deposed from her role as Queen Regent by her son’s marriage and presumably very put out by this, is stirring up trouble all over the place: trading thinly veiled barbs with Oberyn and Ellaria; shocking Brienne by suggesting that the warrior lady didn’t just rescue her brother, she loves him; ordering Pycelle to circumvent Margaery’s announcement that all the leftovers from the party will be given to the poor and deliver them to the kennels instead. Cersei’s arc throughout the past few seasons has been one of increasing bitterness; how much more can she take before she completely explodes? Widow’s Wail indeed.

Okay, a lot of other things happened in this episode, too, so let’s run through them quickly:

* Tyrion gets Bronn to discreetly train Jaime to fight with his left hand. Sometimes Lannisters can be something approaching nice.

* Tyrion also bites the bullet, finally, and decides to have Shae sent away to Pentos. Varys tells him that Cersei knows and that it’s only a matter of time before their father finds out. So the next time Shae visits him, Tyrion puts on a song and dance about not wanting to make his wife suffer, and then, as she protests, calls her a whore and causes her to run from the room weeping. Later, during the wedding reception, Bronn tells Tyrion that she’s boarded the ship, that no one knows but the two of them and Varys, and that he should go drink till it feels like he did the right thing. But this story probably isn’t done: earlier in the episode, Cersei leaned into Tywin and, while looking at Shae, whispered “She’s the whore I told you about”; Tywin responded, “Have her brought to the Tower of the Hand before the wedding.”

* Ramsay welcomes home his dear old dad, eager to show him his Greyjoy handiwork, only to have Roose chastise him for destroying Theon when he would have been a more valuable bargaining chip whole; he’d wanted to trade him for Moat Cailin. When Ramsay protests that the family has been flaying enemies for centuries, Roose points out that he’s not a Bolton; he’s a Snow. So Ramsay demonstrates just how fine a craftsman he is by having Theon/Reek shave him with a straight razor – and while he does, breaking the news to Reek that Robb Stark is dead with some snide condolences. Reek pauses for a moment at the news that his near-brother is gone, but keeps shaving. Impressed, Roose tells Ramsay to go to Moat Cailin with Reek and take it – for the family. Ramsay smiles his evil little smile; even psychopaths in Westeros, it seems, are not immune to the power of having a proper name and rank within an established family structure. Roose, meanwhile, plans to find Bran and Rickon, now that Reek has told him they didn’t die at Winterfell and that Jon Snow is at Castle Black, possibly sheltering them, Roose muses.

* A very-much-older-looking Bran has been spending too much time inhabiting Summer; Jojen and Meera warn him that if he pushes things too far, he’ll lose himself in the direwolf. Later, Summer leads them to a heart tree, and as Bran reaches for the carved face in the trunk he has a jumbled vision: I caught the three-eyed raven, a crypt-like hallway, a sword being cleaned (his father’s sword, Ice?), what look like Ned Stark’s eyes, a figure in fur in the snow, birds, birds, more birds, a horse, the Iron Throne, himself falling from the tower, dragon shadows being cast on red roofs, and a command: “Look for me beneath the tree: North.” Bran falls back from the tree, opens his eyes, and says, “I know where we have to go.” Guesses on where that is are welcome in the comments. The Godswood at Winterfell?

* Even creepier than dead Joffrey’s bulging eyes and veins is the joy with which Selyse, Stannis’s wife, witnesses the burning death of her brother and two other “infidels,” whom she rapturously exclaims have been cleansed of their sins and are now with the Lord of Light. It’s clear from Stannis’s grimaces that, despite defending the decision to Davos, he doesn’t believe with the same fervor as Selyse or the conviction of Melisandre. Though it’s also possible Stannis’s face has only two settings, grimace-y and grimace-ier, it seems more likely that Stannis, having seen evidence of Melisandre’s power, is simply holding fast to the most efficient course, even as he finds it distasteful. As he tells Selyse, while ostensibly talking about dinner-menu options, “I hate a great many things but I suffer them all the same.”

But there are other cracks forming here – specifically, around the princess Shireen, the only person Stannis has ever really shown a lick of tenderness toward. Selyse and Stannis argue, mutedly but fiercely, about whether she deserves a beating for what Selyse sees as her stubbornness and wickedness; Stannis says plainly that she is his daughter and will not be struck. In Game of Thrones, claiming someone as your child is a powerful thing – I’m looking forward to seeing what role Shireen ultimately plays in her father’s campaign. I fear that, as we watch Stannis take down his enemies through supernatural means, the karmic laws of Westeros – to the extent that they exist – may mean bad things for this sweet, feisty little girl.

All in all, it was a dense, elegantly woven episode that should reset a lot of storylines. So much for the end of the war. We’ll see how this plays out next wee – oh look, a pie!

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Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO