When attempting to describe Game of Thrones, the adjectives we tend to reach for would be better suited to a Clegane brother: enormous, epic, monumental, sprawling, huge. But the reason the show triumphs as a series and not just as spectacle is because showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss never lose sight of the fact that it takes a lot of extremely small moving parts to add up to something so impressive. In their version of Westeros, the littlest things matter, be they slights, second sons, or, as we learned last week, Fingers. On Friday, I expressed some mild concerns over how the increasing presence of CGI and magic might serve to overshadow the very human intrigue and nuance that has made Thrones so compelling even to those mildly allergic to swords and sorcery. After watching “The Laws of Gods and Men,” last night’s spectacular episode, it’s clear that my sense of ironic timing is approaching Robb Stark levels. (“I can’t wait to teach our unborn son how to ride a horse! Wait, I recognize this song. Don’t tell me … ”) Whatever fears I may have had have been put on ice for another season. The episode, written by Bryan Cogman and directed with great care by Alik Sakharov, was a near masterpiece of intimate storytelling. It focused not on the dragons but on the damage done.
It was a change in focus that felt both welcome and surprising — though in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have caught me off guard. As always, Benioff and Weiss twin the types of stories they want to tell with the way they tell them. The first few years of Game of Thrones advanced the plot in great, slashing strokes: Wars were declared, battles waged, cities sacked, heads rolled. But this fourth season began with a different sort of lesson. Remember the long scene in the brothel when Prince Oberyn of Dorne, as fluid with his movements as he is with his sexuality, educated some preening Lannisters? When faced with an unknown outsider, they rested on their privilege and reached for their weapons. Before they could unsheathe anything, Oberyn had a dagger through one man’s wrist and a threatening laugh ringing in the ears of the other. Long swords were well and good during the early days of the conflict, when noble crusaders like Ned and Robb Stark were rallying citizens under the flag of fair play and villains like Joffrey were literally threatening to skin a cat. But Game of Thrones is in the trenches now. If you’re not playing dirty, you’re not playing to win.
Or maybe you’re not playing at all. Ever since communing with Ghost Drogo in Dean Pelton’s nightmare labyrinth back in Season 2, Daenerys has rolled through Essos like a Category 5 hurricane. But conquering isn’t the same thing as ruling — it’s not even the same language. The Unsullied are intentionally a faceless mass — they’re the long sword she has used to cut a swath through every city in Slaver’s Bay. Now, thanks to either her vanity or her decency, Daenerys has made the same mistake Orpheus once did: She turned around. Instead of losing a lover, she lost her momentum — and, hopefully, her lingering naïveté. There’s very little that’s noble about the chaos and destruction left in her wake. To quote a wooden puppet: Freedom ain’t free. Now that she has decided against sailing ahead to her supposed destiny, Daenerys appears ready to sink into a quagmire entirely of her own making.
In my poorly timed post on Friday, I wondered if dragonfire burned nuance as easily as flesh. I shouldn’t have worried. Along with the distinctive odor of burning wool (or in this case, goat), it turns out that nuance is all dragonfire leaves behind. After all, what appears to be a simple snack to one of Daenerys’s scaly children is anything but that to the humble herder left holding the bag (of bones). Still, accidental barbacoa isn’t the worst thing in the world. (Honestly, it’s probably delicious. And with what’s left over, the herder could make a fortune come Passover!) Rather, it’s the sort of problem that can be solved by throwing money at it, a classic method beloved by leaders, fictional and otherwise, who prefer making grand gestures to making tough choices.
The plight of the 162 Meereenese masters currently rotting beneath the hot, eastern sun isn’t nearly as simple. They all died the same way (hint: horribly), but that’s not the way they lived. The best of them argued against the barbaric treatment of slaves. Even the worst of them had families of their own. The arrival of the handsome, exceedingly polite Loraq — he speaks for the treeqs! — represents something new in the Khaleesi’s quest for power. He’s a roadblock that can’t be overcome with money or bloodshed; the handy deployment of a metaphor catapult won’t work, and neither will a flirty horse murder. Yes, all omelets require the breaking of some eggs, but even the best short-order cooks rarely come face-to-face with the grieving chickens.
As Westeros has slid into hell, Daenerys’s adventures in the east have taken on a moral certainty bordering on the evangelical. It’s a conviction that simply can’t be supported by reality — hers or our own. Every ruler wants to be lifted up by her people, but only a good one can maintain equilibrium when everything in the world appears committed to dragging her down. The goatherd and the nobleman were but two of the more than 200 subjects lined up at the pyramid that day — I could hear Barristan’s knees barking from here; 8,000 soldiers and not a single chair? — each with a specific, lived-in complaint that had little to do with puffed-up words like “justice” or “birthright.” Contrary to what Loraq suggested, Daenerys has seen members of her family die horribly. But until now she has seen very little of the way people actually live.
Don’t get me wrong: If the rest of Game of Thrones concerned itself solely with Meereenese municipal board meetings and Braavosi bank holidays, I’d be plenty disappointed. (I’d also be kind of impressed!) But for now it’s a fascinating detour into the game behind the Game, the one with rules that aren’t so easily bent. All told, free lollipops were the only thing lacking from Stannis and Davos’s trip to the imposing Iron Bank — a visit that was established with some of the show’s best use yet of CGI (though I imagine HBO got a discount on the pre-owned mystical statue). Casting the wonderfully supercilious Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes on the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock) as Tycho Nestoris, the lead teller, was equally inspired. No actor alive is better at basting his speechifying with equal measures of authority and disdain. I haven’t heard such a scintillating conversation about commodities futures since the Duke brothers were still alive.
More revealing than Tycho’s words, though, was his behavior. Only a man with numbers — not soldiers — on his side can afford to treat a regal visitor like a schmuck trying to renew his driver’s license at the DMV. Tywin Lannister is constantly referred to as the most powerful man in the world, and he certainly carries himself that way. But the Hand of the King looks as foolish as Ser Dontos compared with the Wallet of the East; he’s an old man whose quill keeps writing checks his barren mines can’t cash. It brings to mind the words of a certain former Master of State who once led a country into an unplanned invasion of a desert nation: If you broke it, you bought it. Fair enough, but what if you can’t afford to pay for the mess you’ve made? What will get broken then?
The business in Braavos was the best illustration yet of the unsentimental “reality” that undergirds George R.R. Martin’s more soaring flights of fancy. Game of Thrones isn’t necessarily contrarian; it doesn’t seek to demonstrate how evil will always outfox good. What it does is show, with increasing specificity, how notions like “good” and “evil” mean little in a universe prone to greed and chaos. As the weeks pass, it becomes more and more clear that the title of the series is meant as a joke. These incestuous ponces with horns on their heads and animals on their banners are playing their games on someone else’s dime — and, often, with other people’s lives. That’s why it was so important to travel from the bank tower all the way down to the bathhouses, where an overdressed Ser Davos paid a visit to his old friend Salladhor Saan, the sex pirate.
Oh, how happy I was to see my favorite character enjoying a well-deserved schvitz in the company of fine women and awful jokes! And it’s not just Lucian Msamati’s merry performance that charms me. I’ve been arguing for years that the sex pirate is the most relatable character on Game of Thrones because he swears allegiance only to House Party. Last night, his welcome presence suggested something even more profound about the way his awful world truly works. Saan is a pirate and Davos is a smuggler — he was before he lost his fingers and, it seems, he will be soon once again. In other words, they are the individuals who move things from one place to another, who do the grunt work the Highborn are neither interested in nor aware of. Who do you think lugged those jugs of Dornish wine that Oberyn was bragging about in the throne room last night? Who do you think picked and packed the lemons that were baked into cakes for Sansa last week at the Eyrie? Seeing Saan and Davos is an important reminder that Westeros wouldn’t cease to function without kings. There are far too many of those as it is. What the world truly requires to function is humble functionaries — and anyone who seeks to hold power would do well to remember it.
Of course, it wasn’t all business last night. There was a bracing action sequence involving Yara Greyjoy’s attempted rescue of The Artist Formerly Known As Her Brother. This was a helpful reminder of the Ironborn’s evident importance to the story as well as a necessary burst of adrenaline to break up all that red ink. But the best part of the episode dove right back into the minutiae of governance — and the irrelevance of the truth. Tyrion’s trial was one of the finest set pieces in a show known for them; it crackled like wildfire; it chilled like a march north of the Wall. Handed the pages for his next Emmy submission reel, Peter Dinklage more than lived up to them. Few actors can glower like he does; none can bleed so palpably without being cut.
Just a few weeks removed from Joffrey’s despicable wedding entertainment, here was another dwarf forced to submit himself to a high-society farce. Everyone played his or her role to perfection, from Oberyn’s crowd-baiting grins to Margaery’s disturbed glances. And it was quite rich, all the well-fed hypocrites hubbub-ing in the aisles, pretending to be shocked by stories of things they themselves dream of doing every night. And Pycelle with his laundry list of poisons! As if the most dangerous venom in King’s Landing were stored in a bottle and not in the Queen Regent’s veins. Yet what stung the most was the cold, Law & Order–like logic of the actual trial. Tyrion wasn’t hoisted on his own petard, he was spit-roasted on it. Every word used to damn him emerged from his mouth over the course of the series, context be damned. (Cersei’s impressive wine consumption clearly has had no ill effect on her memory and uncanny ear for dialogue.)
Jaime’s self-sacrifice was moving — one Kingslayer laying down his life for another — but it was also a trap. The speed with which Tywin agreed to Jaime’s proposal, and the ease with which he referred to the actual parentage of his grandsons (“you’ll … father children named Lannister”), made it plain that once again the Hand of the King was holding all the cards. Instead of killing a son he didn’t love, he gained the son he always wanted. It would have been almost beautiful if it weren’t so cruel. (Also cruel? The instant dismissal of Lancel Lannister, the Frank Stallone of Casterly Rock. Let a dude live!) Like Daenerys, Tywin leaned on the word “justice” like a crutch, a prop to lift himself up even as he stoops into the muck.
It all almost worked, too. Tywin was moments away from having Tyrion banished to the North and Jaime exiled to eHarmony.com when someone overplayed their hand. At first it wasn’t clear whether Shae had returned of her own volition, but soon, as the bitterness flew from her mouth like daggers, it was plain that she was there only to hurt Tyrion as much as he had hurt her. In the end, it wasn’t hard. With his heart separated from his body, the Imp no longer cared much for the fate of his head. And in that moment, instead of making a joke, he chose to make himself heard.
Littlefinger was right when he said that everyone in King’s Landing is a liar, but, for a single glorious moment, there was one man in the center of the throne room speaking nothing but the truth. Yes, he wanted Joffrey dead. At Blackwater Bay, Tyrion had saved a vile city unworthy of his largesse. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again, just as he won’t give the backstabbers and social climbers the pleasure of his continued humiliation. If he must face the noose, he’ll take it into his own hands. A trial by combat isn’t about defending your past, it’s about fighting for your life. (Whether Tyrion will actually pick up a sword this time or once again tag out in favor of a more skilled champion — Bronn? Left-handed Jaime? — remains to be seen. I’m hoping for the former.)
The final moments of the episode zoomed in tight on the reactions of each Lannister with a drama bordering on the operatic. (I’m sure someone with more Internet-ability than me will be able to rescore the scene with its rightful music.) It was a stirring finale to one of the best episodes of Game of Thrones to date, and an appropriate one. In a flash, a global conflict was reduced to a domestic squabble. It made sense. Only family can establish a dynasty; only family can destroy one.
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org and come back tomorrow!]