Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Laws Of Gods And Men”
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The cast of Game Of Thrones (HBO)
The cast of Game Of Thrones (HBO)

Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Laws Of Gods And Men”

Justice will be served—or not

This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

If Game Of Thrones is always asking questions about power (as we discussed last week), then this season of the show is increasingly interested in the flipside of power: justice. Once one has power, it can be used to crush one’s enemies or to rule with an iron fist. But that sort of ruler overstays his or her welcome, creating a terrifying situation where the people have no reason to follow their ruler beyond simple fear. And if the military somehow loses faith in their ruler, then revolution will surely follow. No, the way that the people are allowed to keep their faith in the one holding power over them is if they have some vague sense that his or her decisions are just—or, at least, that the system has built-in protections to preserve that illusion of justice.

Of course, the question of justice is different for everybody. Most cultures—even modern ones—have buried somewhere deep within their social compacts the idea that only God or the gods can effect true justice. And we see an element of that in tonight’s episode, where Tyrion finally plays the one card he has remaining and requests a trial by combat. What I like about the moment is that he has no particular hope of winning, and he’s even been offered an escape route via his brother’s negotiations with his father (negotiations Tyrion is not immediately sure will pay off for him). He’s just doing something that’s worked for him before, because he doesn’t see any other appeal to make. The only way the people might believe him to be innocent after a railroading of a trial is to see his champion defeat the crown’s champion in battle. They need to believe that for whatever reason, the Seven have chosen to smile upon Tyrion Lannister. And, hey, it turned out okay back in season one…

“The Laws Of Gods And Men” spends too much of its time in courtroom drama mode to be wholly satisfying. It comes complete with sounds of shocked courtroom murmurs and surprise witnesses and everything one would expect. It, amusingly, re-contexualizes a lot of big Tyrion moments from the series as moments that mark him as a monster, before the true screw-job that’s being played on Tyrion is allowed to sink in. But there’s not a ton of dramatic urgency to these scenes, even for a show that doesn’t mind taking its time with this. For one thing, the series has made a huge point out of how Tyrion is screwed. We don’t know the precise mechanism of how he will be screwed, but it’s not particularly surprising to learn that it will involve his own words being twisted against him. The witnesses called are all well and good—and it’s nice to have Varys pop up to do something important again—but for as hard as Bryan Cogman’s script works and for as many nice moments as it finds (like Varys wearily saying he never forgets anything), this is still a lot of scenes of characters providing exposition while we wait for the inevitable to happen.

Once Shae pops up on the scene, however, everything starts to get good. The stakes here are higher, because even though Tyrion left things with her in a poor place, we don’t know that he can’t somehow convince her not to go along with his railroading until she’s sitting up there, lying about his treatment of her and how he told her all about how he and Sansa were going to kill Joffrey so Sansa would let Tyrion sleep with her. The eagle-eyed credits watchers in the audience were likely spoiled by Sibel Kekilli’s name popping up in the opening, but that’s unavoidable. What’s true and painful here is the way that Shae is so easily able to retcon her relationship with Tyrion into something so painful and awful, something that she will never be able to get over. Because in a way, that’s true. She’s changing all of the details to suit the ends of those who want Tyrion dead, sure, but she’s also reimagining a relationship that she shouldn’t be so sad over the end of. Game Of Thrones frequently shows us the way that history is rewritten both by the victors and by the survivors. But here’s a more personal exploration of that idea. We all rewrite our own histories every day, just to be able to put that pain behind us. Shae, presumably, is just getting paid to move on with it a little more quickly.

The culmination of all of this is the Peter Dinklage Emmy tape express. Even the mighty Dinklage couldn’t save the fact that much of his storyline this season has involved sitting alone in a cell and waiting to die, but in his final speech to the court, Dinklage finds a way to take Tyrion making his subtext into text and give it real music and life. The courtroom drama is a uniquely well-suited genre for putting all of the subtext right out there, thanks to the impassioned speeches and shocking reveals and everything, and the moment when Tyrion simply says that he’s on trial for being a dwarf is one that could be false or hammy but, instead, plays almost like the only thing he can think of. If these people are so intent on railroading him, so be it. But he’ll make sure they’re forced to look at him as a human being and not as a horrible monster on his way out. I was reminded of Shylock’s famous speech from The Merchant Of Venice in more ways than one—first because Tyrion forces everyone to empathize with him and then because he reveals the depths of his bitterness at what has happened to him.

“Shakespearean” is rarely a bad adjective for a TV show to aim for, and that’s doubly the case for a show based on this particular source material. The characters in George R.R. Martin’s books exist in a kind of weird nether region between modern psychological realism and the more theatrical presentation of Shakespeare’s works. (Obviously, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about psychology, but he was also a master of choosing when and where to make the subtext text.) What’s perfect about this scene and Cogman’s script for it is the way that it forces everyone in the courtroom—and by extension us—to look at Tyrion as someone worthy of our sympathy and, indeed, empathy, before it shows us just how deeply the anger and disappointment in his own family run. Tyrion has every reason in the world to feel this way, but it’s still a shock to see his face twisted by such inchoate rage that so rapidly develops into the full thing. It’s as if this is the first time Tyrion has ever really allowed himself to feel these things, and the more he does so, the more he likes the way it tastes in his mouth. It’s a beautiful sequence, all building to that great cliffhanger, and even though I know where this is going, I’m still on the edge of my seat.

This was another episode that bopped around the world of the show before settling in King’s Landing for around the last third of the episode. It’s a mode the series has adopted a lot this season, perhaps because everything needs to stall a bit while the aftermath of Joffrey’s murder is worked out in Kings Landing. Thus, the episode takes an opportunity to move a handful of storylines forward a couple of inches or so, before making sure it has a thematic touchstone in whatever’s going on with Dany. The series uses this structure a lot in its episodes, and it works really well, possibly because Daenerys is so removed from everything else that’s happening in the show that it’s easy to take any small segment of her story and make it stand in for the rest of what’s going on. But her story this season is also particularly resonant just in and of itself. With the war won, she’s set about ruling, and she’s finding that part more difficult. Yeah, Joffrey was a terrible king, but it’s as if the show is making a specific point of the idea that any time you put all of your power in the hands of one person, it’s bound to end with decisions that don’t make everyone happy.

In particular, Dany has to worry about the fact that her dragons have apparently been roasting cute little goats all across the countryside, then snapping them up as the Meereen equivalent of Tostino’s Pizza Rolls. That’s an easy enough problem to solve: Just repay the poor goatherder the worth of the goat in triplicate. But money can’t solve all problems (and eventually runs out, as Tywin is learning). There’s also the fact that the justice she handed out to the slavers of Meereen means that others have grown aggrieved with her. Letting them cut down their fathers or brothers or sons, letting them offer those slavers a proper burial, that’s something that’s hard to deny, even if she might want to leave those warnings in place for all who dare challenge her—or practice slavery in her territories. Justice, then, sometimes needs to go hand in hand with mercy. The lash is an effective instrument, but only for so long. Fear works best as a muscle memory, but love, respect, admiration—those are the things that become constantly practiced exercises. If you’re going to overturn a social order—not so easy to do—then you’d better find a way to start building up those things and quickly.

Get the blend of power and justice just right, and you might even win something more valuable than the three things outlined above. You just might win someone’s loyalty. In a series about characters who are willing to sell each other out at the drop of a hat, loyalty can seem an unlikely concept, but “The Laws Of Gods And Men” shows how valuable it can be—provided you can keep it. We’re watching an episode ostensibly about justice, ostensibly about the roots of the law, yet it’s one constantly filled with betrayals. Theon looks upon his sister for the first time in ages, yet he remains loyal to Ramsey, so broken and battered is his mind by abuse. Dany still has the people in the palm of her hand, but that relationship is fragile enough to be easily broken under just the right circumstances. And Tyrion is constantly, endlessly betrayed by people who ought to be on his side, from his own family members to the woman he loved.

That’s why maybe the most important scene in this episode is its very first one. Davos and Stannis show up in Braavos to beg for the Iron Bank to back their claim to the throne. The bankers (one of whom is played by Mark Gatiss!) say no, that’s not something they’re going to do, but Davos won’t hear of it. He immediately begins extolling the virtues of his king, of the man who spared his life and made him a knight but still took his fingers. Game Of Thrones rarely tips its hand as to where it believes these various claimants to the throne to be in relation to each other—outside of its general love for all things Dany—but here’s a pretty big moment in relation to this episode. Stannis may not have much, but he has the ability to get men to make huge speeches proclaiming his greatness to rooms full of powerful men. And, ultimately, that might be even more worthwhile than gold.

Stray observations:

  • One of the more prominent and popular complaints that’s developing against the show here in the age of it becoming one of the biggest shows on TV (and last week’s episode set another ratings record) is the idea that it’s just Dynasty set in a fantasy kingdom. Which, yes, is a really reductive way to describe the show, but it’s a really reductive way to describe the show that still sounds pretty awesome.
  • I have dearly missed scenes where the Small Council meets, and tonight’s was a beauty. Was this the first time the show has brought up Ser Jorah selling secrets to the Council? I think prior seasons confirmed this, but I may be confusing myself with book knowledge. Anyway, I do love the Council talking about how something needs to be done about Dany and then basically tabling it until next season. “Someday!” says Tywin.
  • All of the Yara scenes up until she met with Theon sort of felt like the show was dropping us into a previously on culled entirely from footage from a webseries released to promote season four. It was nice to see the character again, but that really did feel like a “let’s get caught up!” montage dropped into the middle of everything else.
  • We also got to see Salladhor Sahn for the first time since season two tonight. This episode probably could have been entitled “What Has Everyone Been Up To Since Season Two?” and gotten away with it.
  • Ramsey’s plan to overtake the castle is to have Reek impersonate Theon Greyjoy. Somewhere, there is somebody trying to write a paper on the psychology of pop culture who is immensely happy right now.
  • I love the way that all of the witnesses in Tyrion’s trial can remember the things he told them, word for word. I get that this is a dramatic cheat the show has to make, but it’s still kind of funny to imagine Cersei immediately going to her room to write down the threat Tyrion just made to her on a Post-It note.
  • Ramin Djawadi’s cello-heavy version of “The Rains Of Castamere” is a great, great musical cue to come up in the conclusion of Tyrion’s speech.
  • I like how the “next week on” trailers increasingly just assure us that we’re going to be seeing all of the people we didn’t see this week in the very next episode. “Don’t worry, guys! You’ll get plenty Sansa action next Sunday!”
  • Mace Tyrell is not only the fanciest character on the show, but he’s also the side character I’m most enjoying this season. I like the way he totters around doing what he’s told.
  • Alik Sakharov is the director for the evening, and he makes the choice not to do a lot of cutting in the courtroom scenes. This saps them of momentum, somewhat, at their beginning, but it pays off when it’s time for the Shae scene and Tyrion’s big speech.
  • A really nice imagined scene between Varys and Oberyn, two characters who have much to discuss. I like the implication that Varys is after the throne and that he was apparently asexual even before he was castrated. It’s also fun to note the way that “desire” as a corrupting influence runs through this series and this season.

Here be spoilers (Do not read if you haven’t read the books):

  • Honestly, I don’t even know why we have experts reviews. With everything that’s happening with Theon and Yara, that’s yet another plot that has completely abandoned whatever’s happened in the book, unless you completely squint and try to figure out what it might be tying in to. I don’t mind this, particularly (since, after all, the Theon storyline has needed something, anything else for two seasons now), but it does make it very hard to not turn these reviews into a laundry list of changes.
  • The trial is also substantially different, but that’s probably okay. The characters called to be Tyrion’s witnesses in the book would have less impact on screen, and the scenes with, say, Varys and Cersei were pretty good.
  • On the other hand, I think this version of the trial does a terrific job of setting up just why Tyrion kills Tywin eventually. Sure, the two of them have always had a terrible relationship, but right now, things are even worse. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m going to buy it if the show has Tyrion insist that he’ll rid the world of Jaime. And does anybody even remember the show’s Tysha analogue?

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