The second installment in my collaboration with Mason. Here, we take on “The Lion and the Rose” in all its gory glory. Enjoy!
R: Well, last Sunday’s episode was a shocker. Having read the books, I knew what was coming–and I thought it was about time–but, as usual, HBO raised the bar set by George R.R. Martin’s writing (but that’s another rant for another time). I shall, of course, address what is now being called the “Purple Wedding,” but first I’d like to mention the incorporation of some other plot threads, which was admirably done considering the overwhelming climax of this episode. I’ll limit myself to one and let Mason bring some others in!
The Bastard of Bolton proved himself as horrifyingly disturbing as ever, but the interactions between Ramsay, Roose, and Reek (formerly proud Theon) added an interesting element of tension. We hate the Lord of the Dreadfort after the Red Wedding–if you don’t shudder at his appearance, you have no soul–but he showed a subtle, slight regard for Theon that shows some cold remnant of morality. And his fury at his bastard son establishes the possibility of even more conflict in the Northern leadership. This element of tension lays a subtle foundation for events to come; I’m interested to see how HBO plays it out.
Anyway, let’s talk about the most exciting–and, for some, shocking–event of the episode: the demise of a certain boy king. I have heard some fellow viewers express their shock that Joffrey was killed off, considering the level of drama and gore his supremely sociopathic nature lent to the show. But–and this is a rare compliment–I think Martin was wise to eliminate him at this time. While Joffrey was indisputably a madman, the proclaimed legitimacy of his rule as the heir of Robert Baratheon did provide some manner of stability to the Seven Kingdoms. An odd claim, perhaps, considering the strife and chaos of waging two wars against two other claimants to the throne, but Joffrey clearly came out on top. Were he to continue his rule, the Seven Kingdoms would potentially find its way to–could it be true?–proper stability. And what would the Song of Ice and Fire become with stability? With Joffrey’s death, the realm will plunge into even greater chaos, and the Game of Thrones will continue at an even more vicious rate than ever. I’ll go into greater detail on the scene itself (Lady Margaery, anyone?) in a moment, but for now, it’s over to Mason.
M: Rachel, your lovely opening statement reminds me of a topic we forgot to broach last time ‘round. Since you’ve read all the available tomes in Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire saga (the final two remain to be released), you know an awful lot more about future goings-on in Westeros than I do. Since I merely tune into the show every Sunday, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen to these character’s after each week’s episode. Our respective situations afford us some unique insights, I think.
Anyhow. Yes. Ding-Dong. The King is dead. Which old king? The most hated one in the history of television, the only monarch real or fictional who stood to give ol’ Henry the VIII a run for his money. Indeed, the entire episode was centered around Joffrey’s poisoning. Yes, I know, the episode caught us up with Ramsey/Reek and Stannis/Melisandre prior to that Purple Wedding, but I think that even those scenes are there to sort of pre-emptively set up the new villains in a universe that has, by the end of this episode, lost its Big Baddie. In a show shot through with moral grayness, we need a few characters we can unambigously hate. Ramsey and Stannis’s loony wife are nowhere near as hateable as Joffrey, but their increased presence will help fill the emotional void left by his absence.
Not surprisingly, Rachel, I agree with you in that said absence is a big deal. I like how you remind us that Joffrey’s death is not just cheapie fan-service, but a way for Martin to shake things up yet again. Joffrey was a contemptuous inbred monster, but his cruel rule might have put an end to the endless jockeying for the Iron Throne—and the loss of life and limb that such a struggle entailed. This is part and parcel with Throne’s chief message—every decision has complex consequences. The sadistic death-dreams of a mad Joffrey Baratheon may sow seeds of peace, while the honorable attempts of a man like Ned Stark may let loose the dogs of war. Joffrey’s death is probably a net positive for those who knew him and suffered by associating with him, but God knows how much havoc it will wreak on the realm as a whole.
But all of that is for later episodes. This episode is, first and foremost, about a royal wedding that turns into a stage for Joffrey’s most depraved desires, and then into the site of his untimely death. The build-up to said death was, I think, too much. Rather than going for a subtle sense of mounting dread, a la the Red Wedding, the screenwriters resorted to dropping heavy-handed hints (“Killing a man at wedding? What sort of monster would do such a thing?”), and shoving in plenty of portentous close-ups. Once the sword hit the pie, however, Thrones returned to the type of nuanced emotional explorations that is one of its strong suits. Jack Gleeson has always played Joffrey as a monster driven purely by fear, abusing his power as much as he can in case it is one day taken away from him. It is appropriate, then, that in his last moments, the sheer terror in his bloodshot eyes pierces us like a blade.
It is a powerful performance, topped only by Lena Headey’s incredible work as Cersei. This woman has lost has both her official power and her beloved offspring within a matter of hours, and, in the episode’s final moments, Headey plays out the entirety of her dizzying emotional turmoil on her face. As she always has, Cersei takes her animal pain and turns it into useful rage. We have seen this process before, but never with such horrifying clarity. Cersei now stands where Catelyn Stark did in the moments before her death—a woman adrift, her life’s work undone in a matter of minutes.
Finally, I’ll just note that the Thrones slow-crawl technique was used to excellent effect in this episode. That movement towards Tyrion’s face as he realizes what deep shit he’s in allowed us to reach this realization alongside him—all without a single word spoken. The episode ended with another powerful, silent shot: a still frame of our young demon-king, who was dealt the fate we wished for him in a manner we would never wish on anybody.
R: I’m so, so very glad that you mention Cersei, and that’s a fascinating comparison to Cat; we love to hate one, loved the other, yet they’re two undeniably similar women. Thrones forces us to see parallels we’d rather ignore.
In terms of the wedding feast scene itself, I certainly think you’re right to call the buildup to the climax a heavy-handed–ostentatious, almost–treatment of something that could have had even more shock value had those hints been less obvious. I’ll admit, however, that I rather enjoyed the way the episode manipulated our feelings during the feast. With its quick progression from encouraging disgust at Joffrey’s depraved choice of entertainment to inciting horror as he chokes to his poison-induced death, the episode juxtaposes two extremities of emotion in a very short time. And it left me reeling, even though I already knew the plot; that alone is testimony to Thrones’ incredible dramatic capacity.
Now, on to my favorite part of the wedding scene: the magnificent, ever-diplomatic, and brilliantly cunning Lady Margaery. We know that Margaery does not love Joffrey–but neither does she fear him, as has become clear in our glimpses of her conversations with Olenna and Sansa. Natalie Dormer is, as always, incredibly adept at showing us Margaery’s skillful navigation of Joffrey’s unpredictability. During the wedding ceremony itself, she appears demure, suggesting that she’ll fulfill her expected submissive role as wife and queen; but immediately before the ceremony begins, when the two mount the stairs in front of the priest, her face flashes with triumph and ambition. She’s got Joffrey where she wants him; Margaery Tyrell has no intention of playing the role of docile queen. Here, we see the realization of her earlier, incredibly powerful statement: “I want to be the queen.”
I’d like to discuss in greater detail one of the show’s most exceptional qualities: its neverending capacity to build tension to a breaking point. “The Lion and the Rose” was absolutely bursting with tension, and not only during the wedding. In the aforementioned scene with our favorite flayers, the tension between Roose, Ramsay, and Theon plays a palpable role. When Theon shaves Ramsay, that tension reaches an almost unbearable peak; I was almost convinced that HBO was about to abandon the plot line of the show and have Theon slit the Bastard’s throat. And, surprisingly, it’s simultaneously an incredibly subtle moment. For a few seconds, the razor pauses on Ramsay’s throat; we see Theon shaking, we see the razor pressing into Ramsay’s skin; and then it flicks up, continuing the simple task of shaving. So much physical and emotional tension.
The wedding feast practically runs on tension; you don’t need me to tell you that. What I want to highlight, though, is the manipulation of that tension, the way it comes and goes, the way it breaks and rebuilds. And no one is better at those manipulations than Margaery Tyrell. Throughout the feast, she works to diffuse the tension inevitably created by Joffrey’s cruelty. It reaches its highest point when Joffrey, in his usual efforts to shame Tyrion, attempts to force his uncle to kneel before him as a cup-bearer. As usual, noble Tyrion stands his ground while Joffrey becomes increasingly incensed. I began to fear either of two things: one, that Tyrion would give in and break my heart, and two, that Joffrey would reprise his earlier show of chopping things with his new Valyrian steel sword. Luckily, Lady Margaery eased my fears with her immortal exclamation: “Look! The pie!” Such an adept, non-confrontational method of shattering that tension. If Westeros were a democracy, Margaery would definitely have my vote. She’s diplomatic, effective, and incredibly clever, and I’m ready to see more of her in the future.
All in all, “The Lion and the Rose” was a delightful romp through the increasingly chaotic scenes of Westeros–well, delightful if you thrive on tension, as I clearly do. I worry that the title will mislead viewers as to the nature of the interactions between Lannister and Tyrell, as it seems to imply an adversarial relationship, but that’s not really my concern. You’ll get no spoilers from me! A warning, though: by now, we know that nothing in this particular game can be taken at face value. Joffrey’s death is no exception; do not make assumptions at this early stage. We’re making a descent into unprecedented depths of intrigue.