‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: Long Live the King!

What is it with Westerosi and their weddings? In our world, the worst that can possibly happen at a post-ceremony reception is that you choose the fish. On Game of Thrones, you’re lucky to survive until the first dance. I’m not sure if it’s George R.R. Martin’s commentary on the insanity of the bridal-industrial complex or his subtle revenge for a lifetime of Kool & the Gang and lousy cake, but the (happily married!) author clearly has it in for sanctimony and ceremony. At this point, were I a lovestruck citizen of King’s Landing, I would strongly consider eloping. I’d at least start taking Morrissey more seriously.

The union of the “The Lion and the Rose” was a particularly short one, even by Game of Thrones standards. Its rupture wasn’t as savage or even necessarily as surprising as what happened to the Starks last season. (There are some who might argue it wasn’t even cruel enough. Like Sansa or Ros’s next of kin, for example.) But it was rather remarkable. Anyone raised on action movies or video games would have expected Joffrey to die months or even years from now, justly shish-kebabbed on the revenging swords of Arya and/or Jon Snow. But Game of Thrones doesn’t reward anyone’s deep knowledge of cultural clichés. In fact, it treats them much like Joffrey treated the wedding present from his uncle. A show that long ago dispatched the closest thing it had to a hero used the second episode of its fourth season to choke the life out of its most extravagant villain. Being a fan of Game of Thrones is like watching a basketball game with a cloak thrown over the clock — every time you think you’re approaching the fourth quarter, you find out the game is still just getting started.

What to call this latest nuptial slaughter? I’m leaning toward “The Burgundy Wedding,” in honor of both the peacocking frocks fancied by the late, not lamented Joffrey and the wine that finally did him in. (The current runner-up? “Finally!”) Not to mention the appearance of a leather-bound book that quite possibly smelled like rich mahogany. But even if we could agree on a name for the events of tonight, what are we to make of them? As pageantry, it was outstanding. Under the gliding direction of West Wing veteran Alex Graves and sparked with dialogue straight from the quill of Martin himself, the wedding scene was a feast even for those lucky enough not to be in attendance. The revelry combined the extravagant, costumed menace of Eyes Wide Shut with the dry wit of Noël Coward. I especially liked the AARP flirtation of Tywin and Lady Olenna “Foreshadowing” Tyrell (“Killing a man at a wedding? Horrid! What sort of monster would do such a thing?” Mendooooozaaaaaaaa!) and the multistage rocket that is a Cersei tantrum. Only a mother-in-law would take out her frustrations on an old man, but only a Lannister would shaft the poor to prove a point.

Finn Jones and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau were excellent in a Loras/Jaime scene that was basically one long subtweet. And Peter Dinklage proved once again he is the rarest sort of actor: one who is at his best when his character is being treated the worst. There was a shabby dignity to the way Tyrion debased himself to the monstrous whims of his nephew, something touching in the way he sadly patted Sansa’s hand before filling Joffrey’s cup. Everyone else at the wedding seemed to be using the festivities as a chance to sink deeper into denial. Tyrion drinks more than anyone else, but that’s only because he knows firsthand how cruel the world can be. Just look at how he was forced to play things out with Shae. Tyrion doesn’t drink to forget. He drinks because he can’t help but remember.

Once it became clear that Joffrey’s spit-take was fatal, not farcical, a whole world of questions began to swirl. First and foremost, who was responsible for spiking the punch? The obvious suspect is Oberyn Martell. He has the motive and, considering the Lannisters’ taste for Dornish wine, the means. (I would also like to take this moment to vote for a Real Housewives–style spinoff in which Cersei and Ellaria Sand stab each other to death with their rapier wits.) Even so, the apparent framing of Tyrion for kingslaying — it must run in the family — seemed either wildly coincidental or devilishly unfair. I honestly can’t imagine who else might be to blame here: The Starks are too disorganized, Daenerys is too distant. After the way it was treated tonight, Sigur Rós has cause, but I don’t believe there’s a word for regicide in Hopelandic. Though Sansa’s new best friend Ser Dontos clearly knew what was coming, he couldn’t have pulled off such a stunt alone — he can’t juggle balls, let alone schemes. And poisoning seems far too straightforward to be the work of Melisandre; she was probably still trying to work out the logistics of smuggling a smoke leech into the Red Keep when she heard the news. No, I think this murder has Martell written all over it.

Just before his heart stopped, Joffrey had declared an end to “amusement,” braying that “a royal wedding is [a time] to contemplate our history.” Then he staged a dwarf fight. As he lay dying, though, I couldn’t help but wonder about his words. On the one hand, they were prophetic: If I’m right about who poisoned the wine, then it was the Martells’ recent past that ought to have been first and foremost in everyone’s mind. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but those who forget their shared history with vicious, vengeful killers are just doomed.

But the more I think about it, the more I think what was truly revealed at that bloody banquet was nature, not history. Cersei’s chilly cool was blown away by the very real sight of her son dying in her arms. She may behave like a monster, but Joffrey was one of the last things connecting her to humanity. Whether you’re the Mother of Dragons or just the mother of a sadistic little twerp, at the end of the day, you’re still a mother. And what of Tywin and Margaery, both of whom thought they could use said sadistic twerp to advance their own dreams of power? Tywin’s face was unreadable in the episode’s final moments, but one has to think he has a contingency plan. After all, a Hand of the King is only as good as his puppet. As for Margaery, well, she really ought to have known better. What use is a rose to a lion? Predators don’t tend to value the appearance or aroma of the things they stomp on. A Tyrell, even a particularly vicious one, trying to tame a Lannister is like putting lipstick on a pig.

What tonight’s episode finally did — other than free up Jack Gleeson to attend divinity school full time — was burn away the last illusions of Westerosi nobility. Everything about Joffrey’s reign was diseased and illegitimate. Even he was illegitimate: The product of Lannister twincest, he had as much claim to the Baratheon name as Hot Pie. Even so, he served a purpose. He wasn’t a figurehead so much as he was a cork — something jammed into a hole in the world to keep chaos from spilling out. Last season, Littlefinger bragged about how, for some, chaos is a ladder. But for most people, certainly the ones who are going to die and die horribly as the war for the Iron Throne resumes in earnest, chaos is simply chaos. I’m not sure on the rules of Westerosi succession, but I can’t imagine Joffrey’s murder is going to contribute to the continent’s general air of peace and stability. Chaos makes for good television but a lousy life.

This is especially true when you see it up close. Though “The Lion and the Rose” will be remembered for Joffrey’s drinking problem, it ought to be reexamined for what it suggested about the type of world left in his wake. Joffrey was a son of a bitch, to be sure, but better the devil you know than the bastard waiting just around the bend. Ramsay Snow represents a barbarity that makes Joffrey’s brattiness seem almost adorable. The episode began with the sight of him hunting a young woman for sport, and it lingered on the aftereffects of his vicious flaytime with Theon last season. The Season 4 advertising for Thrones brags about how all men must die, but what House Bolton does to people is far worse. As awful as it was to see the once proud Theon shaking and twitching — though holding the razor steady when it mattered most — it was also fascinating, particularly the way Roose Bolton regarded him: as once valuable bait transformed into curious chum.

(This is, I suppose, what book readers meant when they preached patience during all the torture scenes last year. I get their point, but I can’t quite agree. The most impressive part of Thrones is the way even the scenes pitched toward the future feel essential in the present. That wasn’t true during the extended Theon/Ramsay business last year. What I wouldn’t give to have those minutes back so they could be used for more Karate Kid training montages starring Jaime and Bronn!)

As I watched the Boltons smirk in their castle and Melisandre barbecue on the beach, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was evidence of a particularly bloody corner that George R.R. Martin may have painted himself into. If you build a nasty world on the twin pillars of stomach-turning savagery and ambiguous moral conflict — a world in which Jaime and Cersei Lannister can evolve from devils who casually toss a kid from a 10-story tower into people potentially deserving of sympathy — then, at a certain point, you’re going to have to keep lowering the floor. If Joffrey isn’t the worst this world has to offer, what is? Even Ramsay Snow must be scared of something. How gnarly are the chickens that have yet to come home to roost? (And how many of them will the Hound eat when they arrive?) I feel like a pretty savvy Thrones watcher, but I was caught completely off guard by how Joffrey’s death made me feel. I was expecting relief. But what I experienced instead was dread. How low can this show possibly go?

Maybe that realization gives me something in common with poor Shireen Baratheon, caught up in her tower, reading her books, perpetually hiding her face. She’s smart beyond her years and has had any childish optimism ignored right out of her. And yet she seemed more dumbfounded than skeptical when Melisandre, the lady who served as human chimney for her demonic half-brother, suggested that all the stories of the old gods simply aren’t true. Could it really be that there are no seven heavens and no seven hells? “There is only one, Princess,” answered Melisandre. “The one we live in now.” The king is dead. God save us all.

[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]

[Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at askthemaester@gmail.com and come back tomorrow!]

Filed Under: TV, Game of Thrones, HBO

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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