Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 6 - The Laws of Gods and Men
May 11, 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.
Among the many ways Game of Thrones explores power, the one it is most fascinated with in “The Laws of Gods and Men” is legacy. Power is the ultimate goal of virtually everyone on this show (even Varys, who claims to lack all desire, gives a long glance at the Iron Throne when asked what he can focus on due to his utter lack of interest in sex), but power is fleeting. Power has a way of slipping through your fingers, a tendency to be far more elusive than we imagine. Power is also bounded by one of the most sacred rules of Essos: Valar Morghulis. All men must die. “The Laws of Gods and Men” takes us from the harbors of Braavos (which looks absolutely incredible) to the deserts of Meereen, from the throne rooms of King’s Landing to the dungeons of the Dreadfort. But, like the best episodes of Game of Thrones, it is tied together by its examination of legacy.
Stannis Baratheon wants power, but he wants more than that. He sees himself as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, as the man entitled to be ruling the country, and to be cementing his legacy as King Stannis Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm (we here this list of honorifics no less than three times tonight, and regarding Stannis, Tommen, and Daenarys, who has attached so many honorifics to herald her accomplishments at this point you could get in a solid nap during her introduction). That title means more than just power. It means a place in history. Whoever holds the Iron Throne is remembered throughout history, and it is additionally significant that all three of the candidates for the Kingdom who are introduced this week would be the first of their name. Stannis is initially turned away by the Iron Bank of Braavos as a pretender with few men, little land, and no powerful alliances, the sort of horse too weak to back. Yet Davos points out that the only real source of power in Westeros right now is Tywin Lannister, an aging man who owes the Bank untold amounts. Stannis gets his money tonight, or at least, enough of it to win back Sallador Saan and put himself back into the war in the biggest way he has been since the Battle of the Blackwater. Stannis’ chief flaw is his entitlement, his sincere belief that the people of Westeros who have not rushed to his side are traitors against the crown. Stannis believes his legacy has already been built, but with Davos’ guidance, he is finally reaching out to take it.
Daenarys Targaryen sees her claim to the throne in similar terms, yet she has chosen to rule Meereen to prove her mettle before marching on Westeros. Tonight, we see but a glimpse of the various difficulties this is presenting to the young Queen, as one of her dragons destroys a local shepherd’s flock, the aristocrat Hizdarh zo Loraq begs her to allow the powerful families of Meereen to bury the people she crucified, and over two hundred other supplicants stand waiting for an audience with their Queen. In the two interactions we see, Dany handles herself justly, trying to do right by her people. But in the juxtaposition between the poverty stricken farmer who is jubilant to be paid three times the worth of his flock and the aristocrat asking her not to let the grandest traditions of Meereen (one of which, obviously, is slavery) die under her rule, we see the various factions Dany will have to please to be taken seriously as a ruler.
Then there is young King Tommen, who is introduced in “The Laws of Gods and Men” just so that he can recuse himself from the trial of his uncle Tyrion. There is no question in anyone’s mind who is running things, and the boy King is shunted off the stage quickly, so that Tywin Lannister can sit the Iron Throne in his stead. Tommen is still too young and inexperienced to truly be thinking of his legacy, so his role within the episode is not surprisingly sparse. Instead, he is shunted aside for the event we have all been waiting for: the trial of Tyrion Lannister.
“The Laws of Gods and Men” lets this trial play out in a long sequence (another marker of solid Game of Thrones entries is how long they stay in one spot. The more focused this series is, the better it becomes) that sees Tyrion contending with his legacy. We are reminded of Varys’ speech to Tyrion after the Blackwater, about the fact that while history will never remember him, while he will be granted no legacy, there are those among the living that will not forget his role in saving them. As one after another of these people are tramped to the witness stand to decry Tyrion, he sees that his legacy is to be that of the Evil Imp, the scheming, whoring kinslayer who murdered Joffrey Baratheon out of pettiness and spite. Tyrion is an easy fall guy—he has never been beloved by his family, and the kingdom mocks his deformity and assumes his indecency by virtue of his appearance. But when Shae arrives to claim that Tyrion and Sansa conspired to kill Joffrey, Tyrion finally breaks, rebuffing the offer of mercy that could have sent him to The Wall in order to decry his family, the people he saved, and anyone who dares to think of him as the monster he has been painted to be his whole life. Tyrion does the only thing he can do to stop this sham of a trial. He does the only thing he can do to preserve his chance of being recognized and remembered for any of the things he actually is, instead of as a broad caricature of depravity and malevolence. He demands trial by combat.
Peter Dinklage is consistently excellent as Tyrion Lannister, but “The Laws of Gods and Men” is an absolute tour de force. Dinklage is tucked in the corner of framer, hidden at the bottom of the screen for much of the trial. This is not about the real Tyrion Lannister; it is a simple campaign of defamation, a sham that will end in his execution. But when Tyrion speaks up, the camera pushes in until Dinklage fills the frame. Tyrion Lannister has not been handed a legacy by virtue of birth like Daenarys Targaryen, nor by virtue of death like Stannis Baratheon. He has been denied a chance to make his way in the world at every turn. But with his death on the line, he chooses to seize a legacy for himself. If he is to go down as a Kingslayer (and not even the first of that name in his family), he will do so in a blaze of glory, with a champion standing to defend him.
Power is the concern of all who deign to play the game of thrones, but it is a short term consideration for the wisest of them. Power does not outlive you, it follows you to the grave. Even the strongest people are laid low by the inexorable passage of time. Tywin Lannister rules Westeros with an iron fist, but all men must die, and he knows this more than most. Securing a legacy is the only way a person can hope to live on past their death. By building something that outlives you—an organization, a piece of work, a dynasty—you can in some sense continue on. The specter of death hangs over everyone on Game of Thrones, a show notorious for its repeated reminders that no one is safe. The only hope these people have is to convince the world of their worth and to leave something behind to carry on their works, whether it is an heir, a happy people, or enough bloody vengeance to ensure they are never forgotten, to make sure they slip away just a bit more slowly, in hope that the monuments they’ve built to themselves crumble to dust just a bit more slowly for their efforts to maintain them.
- -I have sort of lost patience at this point with the gratuitous nudity on this show. It had backed off on that a bit in seasons two and three, but season four has ramped it up again. Perhaps I am just still smarting from the whole “Rape as set dressing” moment a few weeks ago, but the scene where Salladhor Saan sits in a hot tub full of naked women made me feel immediately uncomfortable for how glibly exploitative it felt.
- -I’ll confess that most of the show’s treatment of Theon and of his sister Yara has left me cold in the last two seasons. Tonight, she tries to free him (after another speech about the legacy of the Ironborn, a legacy worth protecting in her eyes) only to basically immediately run away when she sees how far gone he is. This moment didn’t really work for me, but then, since this plotline hasn’t in a long time, your mileage may vary.
- -“And you claim your blood gives you a claim to our gold?” “More than any man living.”
- -“You could see how these numbers might not add up to a happy ending from our perspective.”
- -“When Tywin’s gone, who do you back?” “That is a problem for another time.”
- -“Pretend to be who?” “Theon Greyjoy.”
- -“These meetings aren’t always going to be this early, are they? I was up late last night.”
- -“Lord Varys.” “Only Varys. I’m not a nobleman, no one is under any obligation to call me ‘Lord.’” “And yet everyone does.”
- -“Everyone desires something.” “Not me. When I see what desire does, what its done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it.”
- -“So you would blame the bakers?” “Or the pigeons. Just leave me out of it.”
- -“I saved you. I saved this city and all your worthless lives. I should have let Stannis kill you all.”
- -“I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish that I had. Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores.”
- -SPOILERS: The whole Theon plotline is such a mess at this point I barely know where to start. They are pulling forward elements from A Dance With Dragons in a desperate attempt to keep Theon on the screen, and Yara’s appearance here (obligatory note that she is Asha in the series, and a much more complex and well-rounded character there) undermines much of the work the show had done to establish her as a persistent bad-ass. She has spent the last season or so traveling to rescue Theon, only to immediately retreat when things get tough. As for Tyrion’s trial, the shifts in the witness list make sense here, even though Shae’a appearance continues my worry that the show will not be able to pull off Tyrion’s murder of her in the slightest. Tywin’s death, though, is foreshadowed once again, to the point that I wonder if it will even be a surprise at this point. Two of the three season’s preceding this one have climaxed with a character in a position of power and respect murdered, and if Tywin’s death is slotted into episode nine, it may not have the impact it should. Then again, killing Tywin Lannister does kind of change everything, so I think it will be pretty hard to screw that one up.
Among the many ways Game of Thrones explores power, the one it is most fascinated with in “The Laws of Gods and Men” is legacy.