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.
Joffrey’s wedding, known to book fans as the Purple Wedding (even though George R.R. Martin never calls it that in A Storm Of Swords), is the closest thing the Song Of Ice And Fire series has to a karmic balancing of the scales by this point in its run. After all of the characters readers—and viewers—have gotten invested in that Martin has bumped off, here’s a death that feels, well, not just but certainly as if things are tipping away from the Lannisters a little bit. Even those of us who find the Lannister family dynamics endlessly fascinating can agree Joffrey’s an awful person and an even worse king. Hell, in that scene where everybody has to sit and watch his little pageant put on by little people, seemingly everyone up at the head table of the wedding is having this thought at exactly the same time. Joffrey is a danger to his house and his kingdom. As such, he has to go.
The wedding itself takes up an amazing amount of time, well over half the episode. Just the wedding feast—at which Joffrey drinks from the poisoned cup that kills him—takes up the last 20 minutes of the episode. That’s an eternity in Game Of Thrones time, and the show leaves out many of its other biggest subplots in favor of so much time spent in King’s Landing. (We do catch up with Theon, Stannis, and Bran, about all of whom there will be more in a bit.) This is the right call, I think. There’s a rich tradition of villains the audience loves to hate, both in fiction in general and this show in particular, and Joffrey sits near the top of that list. He’s such an impudent little shit, spoiled beyond all reason and possessed of a cruel, possibly psychopathic streak, that to see his face turning a deep reddish purple feels like a relief. And yet the death of Joffrey destabilizes not just the country but the narrative.
The thing I liked about the season premiere was the way that it suggested a new status quo for the show, one that we would stick to for at least the season. Obviously, I knew something more was coming (and coming soon, given how often the premiere mentioned the imminence of the wedding), but at the same time, I found myself thinking about how much fun a full season of playing out these new relationships in King’s Landing could have been. If I have a criticism of Martin’s work, it’s that I sometimes think he got a little too high off the thrill provided from the death of Ned Stark and then the Red Wedding. Both events were incredibly great twists, but Martin has sometimes seemed (particularly in books four and five) as if he’s struggling in vain to top them. The death of Joffrey is the sort of event the audience needs viscerally, and it certainly creates the impression that, at this point in the story, anything can happen to anyone. But is that always a good thing?
Television often thrives on stability, on the idea that you can tune into your favorite show every week and have roughly some idea what to expect. But stability is the enemy of Game Of Thrones. That’s likely one of the reasons the show is so popular, but with three Starks and Joffrey dead and Tyrion being accused of that murder (so he’ll presumably go to prison), the show doesn’t have even a ghost of a central figure to hang its hat on. (The main character of the show now is just sort of nebulously House Lannister.) As the series introduces more and more characters, it’s always dancing just ahead of swirling into complete and utter chaos. Joffrey, at least, was the character everybody could hate, and even his own parents and grandfather frequently lost patience with the lad. Now that he’s dead, Westeros spins ever more toward anarchy. Because think about it: At this point in the series, what’s really keeping people loyal to the Throne (which will now be occupied by Tommen, by all rights)? It’s pretty much just that Tywin Lannister is one scary guy. And that can’t last forever, not with dragons and White Walkers and the Lord of Light just around the corner.
On the other hand, that embrace of chaos is one of the series’ most potent themes. We talked last week about how the premiere’s final shots indicated how war had torn apart the world of Westeros in ways that might not have been immediately apparent to the ruling class. Yet here is a way that the costs of war are made viscerally real to those rulers. They lose their sons and daughters in violent, unexpected ways. The thirst for revenge is unstoppable. And even those who survive—like Sansa or Arya—are so marked by the event that they can divide their lives into a before and after. Notice how little Sansa reacts to stories about the deaths of her family members, even as Sophie Turner’s eyes key you in to the deep, scarring pain she still feels. This kind of psychological repression is a survival strategy. It’s also the sort of thing that can make a person spin out of control in ways they’re not aware of.
I don’t mean all of this speculation about the series’ master-plot to sound like complaining more than it is simple speculation. “The Lion And The Rose” is one of the best episodes of this show, and Joffrey’s wedding is one of the best sequences in the whole series. So much of this is thanks to a smart script by Martin himself, which very faithfully adapts this particular chapter of the book, while still elaborating in ways that make sense for television. (Martin also deftly plays up the mystery aspect of just who poisoned Joffrey, with several clues for those who want to play along at home.) Just as much can be attributed to episode director Alex Graves, who smartly creates a real sense of tension throughout the sequence, even when nothing particularly dramatic is going on. Think, for instance, of the way that the quick insert shot of the interior of the pie glopping away subtly suggests something rotten in the state of Westeros right before Joffrey takes his fateful drink. Or notice how beautifully he uses reaction shots from all of the major players to let you know that Joffrey has finally gone too far. (My favorites here are all of the times that Graves keeps Tyrion just enough in focus for us to be able to read his expressions during the “pageant.”) Praise also goes to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for having the guts to stick this sequence where it belongs in the chronology, rather than save it for later in the season, when the show has trained viewers to expect twists of this caliber.
But the sequence also gains considerably from the fact that it’s centered on two of the story’s best characters in Joffrey and Tyrion. The former has his moment of greatest triumph undercut by his ultimate defeat (in the true fashion of a character from this series), while the latter is laid low and ultimately arrested for a crime he seemingly didn’t commit. (I am sure there are people who think Tyrion did this, but the visual grammar of that moment when he’s accused of the murder by Cersei is all but screaming that he’s being unjustly accused.) The interactions between these two characters leading up to the former’s murder drip with portent, too. I love how Tyrion insults Joffrey with immense diplomacy, and the moments where he seemingly realizes how deep the hole he’s dug for himself is make the sequence even more potent. The series has gained so much these last few seasons from Tyrion having to bite back all of his true feelings about Joffrey. It’s a shame to have those moments end, but at least we got some great ones in this sequence. (Tyrion’s even more isolated than all that, what with Dontos spiriting Sansa away from the wedding and Shae being sent off to Pentos. Though since we didn’t see her get on the boat, I have my doubts Bronn is telling the truth.)
“The Lion And The Rose” isn’t all about the Purple Wedding—it just mostly is. We do drop in with a number of other characters who didn’t fit in the premiere, spending most of our time with Theon and Ramsay. (“Hooray!” said precisely no one.) If the consequences of war is going to be the season’s major theme, as it increasingly seems to be, then Ramsay’s actually not a bad character to have around, as he’s sort of the ultimate consequence of war and the ultimate causer of destruction. War has a tendency to let casual psychopaths like this guy do their work, and as he tracks down a young woman with some hounds or attempts to impress his father with the depths of his brainwashing of Theon, now known as Reek. These sequences are beautifully played by Alfie Allen and Iwan Rheon—particularly Allen, who seems so horribly, utterly broken—but it’s really hard to imagine how the show is going to keep stretching this out into the foreseeable future, even with Ramsay taking off on a quest to find Bran and Rickon.
We also spend a little time checking in on Dragonstone, where everything is proceeding apace with even more people being burned alive at the stake, and up north of the Wall, where Bran is in even more danger of disappearing into Summer forever and forgetting who he was. Fortunately, he touches a tree and receives a vision that will surely be dissected at length by fans of the show but which was a little too difficult to make out all the details of on my muddy quality screener. (I have a fair idea of what this is getting at but will save it for the spoilers section.) Neither of these plots is particularly necessary, but it’s nice to have the reminder that everybody exists, and particularly on Dragonstone, we get a little of the character work the show is often capable of in the downtime between massive twists, learning a little more about Melisandre’s back-story.
But “The Lion And The Rose” is all about the wedding that gives it a unifying storyline, however. I mentioned earlier how television craves stability and how this show flies in the face of that by constantly tearing apart whatever attempts to come together. That could turn into a headache as the series gets deeper into its run, but so long as the show is capable of pulling off sequences as impressive as the Purple Wedding, I suspect most of us will give it all the leeway it needs. The Purple Wedding is this show in a nutshell: It’s brutal and shocking, and even if it ends in a result that most viewers will agree is a “good” one, it leaves you completely uneasy and certain there’s just more tragedy around the corner.
- This week in “the Middle Ages were not particularly a great time to be a woman, hey?”: I’m not entirely sure we precisely needed the long sequence where Ramsay hunts a woman with his hounds, or the sound effects of the dogs mauling her to death, but I guess it underlines the season’s building themes of casual cruelty and the horrors of war. Sort of. It still toes the line of being wildly exploitative, though.
- I can’t wait for the first children of millionaires and/or billionaires to completely miss the point of this episode and insist upon having a giant lion’s head that opens to reveal the entertainment at their reception.
- Important takeaway from this episode: All bands in Westeros only know the two songs. If you ask them to play anything else, they will stare at you in confusion.
- I love how this episode captures the giddy savagery that teenage boys are capable of. Jack Gleeson has always been so great as Joffrey, but he’s rarely been better than when he’s being disappointed that Tyrion and Sansa got him a book, then destroying it jauntily with his new sword.
- Favorite Tyrion reaction shot: when he looks over at Tommen to silence his laughter at the little people recreating the War of the Five Kings. Peter Dinklage is so consistently great in this part that it’s easy to take him for granted, but in episodes like this one, he reveals over and over again how brilliant his work is.
- Jaime needs to learn how to fight with his left hand, so Bronn takes him down to a seaside retreat where the two of them can practice in peace. Also in Jaime news: He’s the only one who rushes to Joffrey’s side as he’s choking to death, but he’s too late.
- The show has always been so good at showing how Cersei’s casual cruelty to just about everybody stems so much from her inability to wield any real power. This is a great episode for that, as she’s awful to just about everyone, but we remember exactly why she’s acting as she does at all turns. I honestly think this is one of those ways the series has improved upon the books (where she can just seem like a terrible person for no real reason).
- Other favorite thing about this episode: the way that Margaery is basically just a talk show host trying to keep people distracted from an awkward guest interview. “That was weird, huh? But look! The pie, everybody!” (Applause.)
- One change from the book: Ilyn Payne is the one who cuts the pie open there. In general, this series suffers from a lack of Ilyn Payne.
Here be spoilers! (Leave if you haven’t read the books.):
- My favorite thing about this episode is how Martin and Graves lay out exactly who’s responsible for the death of Joffrey, if you’re paying attention to the visual clues. In particular, there’s a long shot toward the end when Olenna and the poisoned chalice are the only two people in the same shot, and she’s glancing significantly at it. It will be interesting to see how many newbies figure this out just because the visuals are telling them the whole story. I would have given the show major bonus points if, as everyone was staring in horror at Joffrey’s body, Olenna had stood up and said, “Hey, we were all thinking it! I just did something about it!” It would have gained super major bonus points if Margo Martindale had shown up as Olenna’s never-before-mentioned sister and said, “It was already in the glass.”
- One thing that seems to have changed: I’m guessing the poison was smuggled in via the necklace Dontos gave Sansa last week, rather than a hairnet, because I didn’t see her wearing a hairnet. I am, however, fairly excited for the return of Littlefinger and the incredible weirdness that is everything that happens between him and Sansa in the next while.
- Finally, we all know Shae isn’t on that boat because she is marked for death this season as well. That said, there’s a little part of me that half thought the Shae of the show is different enough from the Shae of the books that she might be able to escape unscathed and head off to some other land. But we all know there’s no way that’s happening.