Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 2 – The Lion and the Rose
April 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
“There is only one Hell, Princess. The one we live in now.”
All too often on Game of Thrones, the bad guys win. The world of Westeros is not a fairytale utopia; this is not the type of story you tell your children before you tuck them in at night. This is a cold, brutal, uncaring universe where the strong generally triumph over the weak and the powerful tend to keep their clutches on power. This is life. But sometimes, even in life, the wicked get what’s coming to them, and in “The Lion and the Rose,” the cruel, merciless reign of King Joffrey Baratheon comes to a suitably gruesome end.
Calling the death of Joffrey just feels inaccurate (sort of), but his death certainly comes at the end of a long string of atrocities that make it hard to weep for the newest King to be claimed by the war everyone in King’s Landing keeps saying is over. Joffrey’s death is, if nothing else, expedient: He was a bad man and a bad King, but perhaps worst of all, he was bad for publicity. His preening, his stunt with the midget reenactment of the War of the Five Kings, the way he publicly demeans his uncle (who is the former Hand of the King and current Master of the Coin), and the reputation he (rightly) has among his subjects all make it harder for the Lannisters to retain their rule. The looks on the faces of everyone as he lords his power over Tyrion at the wedding make it clear that few will truly mourn King Joffrey. Except, of course, for Cersei, who has lost another child to the relentless game of thrones.
The wedding takes up roughly half of “The Lion and the Rose,” yet another example of this series feeling less need to jump restlessly from plot point to plot point. There is a lot of ground to cover, but Game of Thrones is almost always at its best when it slows down and lets the import of all that is occurring sink in. The cuts between plots are never what keeps us in the seats. It’s the little moments, the pieces of accumulated history, the tiny glances, the ponderous monologues that make this series truly great. The first half of “The Lion and the Rose” feels too frenetic by half, like it is checking off all of the boxes on characters we didn’t see last week (and, really, it is: we check in with Theon, Stannis, and Bran, all of whom we’ll get to in time), but by the time we settle down at the Purple Wedding (as fans of A Song of Ice and Fire know the nuptials that lead to Joffrey’s demise) all of this hurry seems justified. This episode is moving fast to slow down, speeding along so it can linger over what counts. And boy, does it count.
Cheers went up around me as this episode ended, riffs on “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and other such revelry. Joffrey is the type of villain people love to hate, a monstrously spoiled, horrendously entitled little psychopath who was handed the keys to the kingdom and saw the opportunity to turn Westeros into his depraved little kingdom. Few characters inspire the vitriol Joffrey Baratheon commanded (Dolores Umbridge comes immediately to mind), and yet, his death is not simply a cause for celebration. Joffrey’s death changes everything, not just for the people of Westeros (who shall soon have a new King), but for us as viewers of this story. One of the great villains on Game of Thrones is no more. But at this point in the series, we are all well accustomed to the fact that in Westeros, cutting down one monster just leaves a vacant seat of power for greater foes to vie for.
Game of Thrones has long been arguably the most novelistic show on television. It is more than serialized; sometimes its episodes barely work as individual pieces of the narrative, so tied are they into the greater whole that is each season and, eventually, the series. This means that the show is structurally fairly unique (and its cross-cutting is occasionally brilliant and occasionally its greatest handicap), and it also allows it to do things that no other show would likely be able to pull off? Who is the main character on Game of Thrones? It used to be Ned Stark, but he’s long cold at this point. After that, you could argue perhaps Tyrion Lannister, who is carted off by palace guards at the end of the episode, immediately charged with Joffrey’s murder. Or maybe its Daenarys Targaryen, but then she is trapped across the narrow sea, thousands of miles from any other plotline. No, the main character on Game of Thrones has always bee more nebulous than that, harder to track, constantly elusive: the main character here has always been power, or perhaps, more accurately, control.
And who can keep control, now? The greatest candidate is Tywin Lannister, but he is hardly well loved in Westeros. There’s a reason Tywin has always stayed hidden behind the horse he has chosen to back, why he has never tried to rise above Hand of the King. It’s the same reason he was never particularly happy with Joffrey as King: The King needs to be beloved by his people so that his counselors can actually take care of the business of running the Kingdom. The King needs to command loyalty so that he can have a prayer of keeping control. Westeros dances closer and closer to pure anarchy as this show moves forward, further and further from any figure who could take back control, or anyone who would really have any right to. Little is keeping this Kingdom from descending permanently into chaos, and even less ties the people already feeling that chaos to the Iron Throne.
The chaos we saw during Arya and the Hound’s trek last week is the sort that rarely reaches all the way to the Iron Throne, however. One of the things Margaery Tyrell has tried to bring to the palace is a greater sense that the people in power understand the pain of the lower classes. But the Lannisters have no desire to empathize; they know only how to crush anything that happens to find its way beneath their boot. Tonight, though, The War of the Five Kings intruded on their blissful idyll. It reminded them that power isn’t so easily maintained. It reminded them that everyone has something to lose. Even those at the top of the pyramid of suffering.
I knew what was coming this evening, and still, that long, drawn out final act of “The Lion and The Rose” was incredibly tense television. This is thanks in large part to Alex Graves, whose direction ramps things up considerably throughout. Graves takes time to give us little moments (like the way the pie collapses in on itself after the doves escape) that foreshadow what is to come, and also elegantly sets up the mystery of who, exactly, is responsible for Joffrey’s death. The real key to this, though, is that drawn out final conflict between Joffrey and Tyrion. Peter Dinklage is great as always here, but the way he plays Tyrion’s repressed disgust and shame, and the cordial way he phrases politically tactful putdowns to Joffrey is a thing of beauty to behold. Tyrion knows he has to tread lightly, but ultimately he just can’t help himself. He has a Lannister’s pride even when he shouldn’t, and he goads Joffrey just a little too much (Joffrey, for his part, is pushing Tyrion far harder, but then, such is the King’s prerogative).
The rest of “The Lion and The Rose” feels a little bit like homework by comparison, as if episode writer George R.R. Martin knew he had to check in on Theon, Stannis, and Bran before getting to the good stuff. The biggest chunk of this goes to Theon and Ramsay Snow, a plotline I have long thought the show is handling poorly. At least we are mostly past the torture porn now, and the largest sequence here has Roose Boolton reprimanding his Bastard for flaying Theon before being persuaded that there is perhaps some use in a cowed Greyjoy at his command. The movement to have Ramsay and “Reek” ride to remove the Greyjoys from Moat Cailin shows, there may be some life in this old dog yet—at least for his master’s purposes.
The burnings are still going on at Dragonstone, and Melisandre gets a very good, long speech about her one true religion, where there are only two gods, and where Hell is the place these people occupy right now. The details of Melisandre’s belief system are complex and fascinating, and the show is smart to begin doling them out in small pieces now. Meanwhile, North of the Wall, Bran has a vision of the Three-Eyed Crow that tells him where he is headed, in predictably obtuse fashion.
Ultimately, though, “The Lion and The Rose” is all about the Purple Wedding, the long, drawn out moments before Joffrey finally dies, purple-faced and in agony, blood spurting from his nose. Though the episode rushes through a bunch of appearances that qualify as little more than cameos to get there, the reward is worth what came before. That sequence is completely arresting—deeply suspenseful, horrifying psychologically and viscerally, brutal in a way built to last. It’s life in Westeros, writ small, a place where life is only measured as a means, and the end is always enough control to keep the chaos at bay just a little while longer.
- -“Your new hand is nicer than the old one.”
- -“A toast to the Lannister children: the dwarf, the cripple, and the mother of madness.”
- -“No one weeps for spiders. Or whores.”
- -“We’ll fight them together. It’s like I said. I am yours and you are mine.” “You’re a whore!”
- -“She’s gone. I know you don’t want to believe it, but she is. Now go drink until it feels like you did the right thing.”
- -“War is war, but pity a man who kills at a wedding. What sort of monster would do such a thing?”
- -“I don’t serve your brother, your grace.” “But you love him.”
- -“Can’t say I’ve never met a Sand before…” For non-readers, Sand is the name reserved for bastards in Dorne, the equivalent of Snow in the North. So, yeah, Cersei is being just as bitchy as you’d expect.
- -“Fine vintage. Shame that it spilled.”
- SPOILERS: The episode does a brilliant job of laying out who is really responsible for Joffrey’s death in a way that makes it clear to those in the know, but throws out red herrings for those who are not. It places Olenna Tyrell in a shot with that poisoned chalice for long enough to make it clear just who took down Joffrey. Also, Dontos smuggling Sansa away from the wedding means we are about to see the return of Littlefinger to the narrative, and I am veryexcited for all the complex perviness that will lead to. Also, the show is still bungling the Tyrion/Shae arc. At this point, it is pretty much irreparable, I think, but I am still interested to see how they get us to Tyrion’s killing her by the end of the season.