This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Who killed Joffrey Baratheon?
It is the million silver stag question that honestly within the first five minutes of tonight’s Game of Thrones, “Breaker of Chains,” should only be a mystery to the most absent-minded of viewers. Not the kind of writers to hide in the shadows, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with much glee cut away from the savored death of TV’s greatest recent villain to the next story threads with as much coldness as their characters. Aye, save for his mother Cersei Lannister, not a single person takes a moment to reflect on the dead. Now is the time for jostling and shifting for power and position. And in Joffrey’s case that means a very prone one while mom and dad make their moves.
Still, the episode gives us one grace note of beginning again on the purple, bloodied, and all around gloriously dead face of the boy king who is no more!
It is such a delight to see once more across our TV screens that it can almost be forgiven that the “find Sansa” shots of Tywin were almost certainly done in pick-up given the awkward angle that tries mightily to dissuade the viewer from seeing any other character. Give us a dead Joff, and we can ignore the odd nature of this framing. Luckily, it curtails into one of the most atmospheric moments yet in the season when Ser Dontos takes Sansa down to meet another member of this little conspiracy: Petyr Baleish, aka Littlefinger.
Sorry, Tyrion and Sansa shippers, the girlish wolf has caught the last ship out of King’s Landing in the same moment that Ser Dontos caught a bolt to the neck. This sequence brings Littlefinger’s importance in the series back to the forefront in a big, big way. First, it establishes that Littlefinger now has complete power over Sansa’s life (eeewww) and that he has been feeding her false hope through Ser Dontos for several episodes now—I also highly doubt that when he says “sailing home” he means ashen Winterfell. Next, and more importantly for the larger game, it demonstrates just how far this man’s unknown ambition will take him. Littlefinger obviously did not poison Joffrey himself, but he is most certainly a member of a conspiracy that knew when to whisk Sansa Stark out of the Capital and that the king had died within moments of his last joyous gasp. This is a man who was raised up high by the Lannisters and made Lord of Harrenhaal after he negotiated a unifying truce with House Tyrell, and he has now betrayed them all. Or has he? Speaking of the Tyrells…
The next scene takes us to a widow-in-name-only and her even more apathetic grandmother who once made a deal off-screen with Littlefinger several seasons ago. Margaery and Olenna Tyrell consider Joffrey’s death with the same mild annoyance that’s usually reserved for traffic delays and bad sushi for us smallfolk. Neither express much astonishment over the boy’s demise, however Margaery shows some pain toward witnessing the little brat suffocate. This is not out of sympathy, as she also duly notes in the same scene that the departed’s favorite hobby was torturing small animals; she simply did not like watching him choke to death. Olenna comforts Margaery like the priest absolving guilt. “You may not have enjoyed watching him die, but you enjoyed it more than you would have being married to him, I can promise you that…You did wonderful work on Joffrey. The next one should be easier.” It’s almost as if they came prepared for an heir and a spare.
That spare brings us to Tommen, the sweetly angelic boy who has been recast, and that few non-readers recall even exists. The complete opposite of Joffrey in many respects, his good-natured temperament is exactly the kind that Tywin might have wanted all along. Perhaps even enough to kill for—after all Littlefinger did at least once obey him—as Tommen surely shows promise in the making. In rather callous fashion, Tywin uses the empty wake for a lifeless Joffrey body as an excuse to begin schooling his grandson in matters of Westerosi history. If he wanted to be anymore uncaring toward his present, grieving daughter, he could have verbalized what he is probably thinking, “If Tyrion did do it, gods bless that half-man!” Still, to Tywin’s credit, the sooner he gets Tommen away from Cersei the better. Tommen may prove too pliable for the likes of Tywin to bend toward his will, but better Tywin to rule the Seven Kingdoms than the mother who instilled so many wondrous virtues into her first-born.
Indeed, it is only she and Joffrey’s true father who mourn the dead. Also the only two who ran to Joffrey’s aide as the life choked out of him last week, Jaime and Cersei show the genuine grief of parents over Joffrey’s unloved corpse. Jaime even seems to fleetingly consider Cersei’s request to murder Tyrion out of love for her, despite Jaime thankfully doubting the younger brother’s culpability. Still, these are Lannisters, and the Lannister twins at that. Thus, something truly dysfunctional must occur: enter the Twincest.
I am not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, Joffrey’s incestuous parents re-consummating their unholy union before the eyes of Baelor and Joffrey’s very own forever-stilled ones is wickedly funny and perverse, but the execution of it is less so. In fact, it is a change from the novel where it was extremely consensual when Jaime took Cersei before their son. In this moment, it borders on rape, but I’ll leave that slice of added uncomfortableness for the readers to debate in the comments section below.
At the very least, there is some palpable good feeling in King’s Landing showcased this week when Podrick Payne proves to be a better knight than any whose name begins with the “Ser” prefix. For certain, as his squire, Podrick is the only one who can visit Tyrion Lannister and likely would still be the sole caller regardless of circumstances. Tyrion is accused of kinslaying and Kingslaying, making him double the pariah of Jaime, especially as this king’s family is still in power. Tyrion is kind enough to rule out Cersei from framing him for murder, but that does not mean she won’t kill Podrick for staying loyal to Tyrion. Forced to weigh his options, the only ally left to Tyrion after Bronn has been barred from visitation is Jaime, and viewers know well how Cersei would like that reunion to go. It is thus doubly painful when Tyrion “white fangs” Podrick, sending him out of King’s Landing lest he too joins Tyrion’s head on a spike.
The only truly happy ending to any of the King’s Landing subplots this week is Prince Oberyn Martell’s. The man known in Dorne as the Red Viper makes a strong case for bisexuality in his second scene of gratuitous HBO nudity/sexposition. As the desert prince and his bastard wife explain to their whores of every gender in their bed, “The gods made [women], and it delights me, and the gods made [men], and it delights me.” The best transsexual warrior poet since Frank-N-Furter? Perhaps. It undeniably proves that Oberyn is now one of the series’ strongest characters since he has in three short episodes made even sexposition interesting and worthwhile. It also nicely transitions into something substantial with the best news to come out of King’s Landing: despite Oberyn’s posturing that he would wish to slit Tywin Lannister’s throat, he still will take a position on the small council and a chance to have “words” with Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane in return for sitting in on Tyrion’s trial as a judge beside the Hand of the King and Mace Tyrell. It is a masterful stroke on Tywin’s part since it binds him to the only House that wishes his family ill and currently is in a position to (openly) act upon such impulses, and it also denies the Tyrells another small courtesy. Plus, Oberyn might be the only person at that trial who will give Tyrion a fair hearing. Such respect will prove crucial. Oh, and one more thing: the move illustrates that Oberyn in a few episodes can be more riveting to watch than characters who have been around for ages.
I have nothing against Samwell Tarly, as he has shown himself to be a fine lad that is braver than even he knows. He saved Gilly’s life from Whitewalkers and traitorous brothers of the Night’s Watch. He also discovered the Whitewalker weakness of dragon glass (obsidian). Still, it felt awfully close to filler to spend so much time on Sam moving Gilly to Mole’s Town. And on a show bursting with so much plot and narration, and with only 10-packed episodes a season to do it in, so much padding feels bordering on criminal.
Fortunately, the North offered slightly better distractions in the visage of Wildling movement, including Ygritte returning to the show with an arrow through Loving Random Dad #1’s throat. The scene of Ygritte’s Wildling clan rampaging a small herding village like it’s the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and we’re nearing Helm’s Deep is a terrific reminder of why Wildlings coming down south is such a bad idea if left unchecked—and why we may be approaching the show’s version of Helm’s Deep at the Wall this year. Truly, the Wildlings are doing themselves no favors in the PR department when they threaten cannibalism upon the dead parents of a young boy who probably would have gone fleeing without the flesh-eating. Jon Snow may know nothing, but Ygritte’s diplomacy skills should be redacted from her next cover letter.
It also leaves the men of Castle Black in a tricky situation. They cannot protect the smallfolk who live near the Wall, because they are about 100 strong with a force of 100,000 marching on them. High walls can be a great thing, and I’m sure the defenders of the Alamo thought so too. Ergo, the last thing they need to do is send a few dozen into open battle with Ygritte and friends. Unfortunately, there is that ever-persistent moral conundrum that finds Ser Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow in agreement about the need to defend Castle Black. When the Night’s Watch equivalent of Pvt. Gomer Pyle and Sgt. Hartman can agree on a course of action, you jump to it. Also worth noting is how much more heroic and tall-standing Jon Snow looks this season. Breaking his oaths with Ygrrite, and then breaking her heart, has made Jon Snow look like a man who knows many things, and one who will undoubtedly prove vital for the massive battle that is to come.
The other major battle that actually did begin is the siege of Meereen. For those who have not read the books, soak in the greatness that is the slaver city that looks like a cross between ancient Alexandria and how Cortés described the Aztecs to the most gullible of listeners. Meereen is a city of rich opulence, power, and prestige. It is even known in the novels as the city of multi-colored bricks. It is also in need of a good sacking for its compliance in the slave trade.
When Daenerys came to Astapor at the beginning of the third season, she was a beggar queen looking to barter for an army. One year later and she’s a conqueror who treats this old world relic with about as much respect as she does Astapori business contracts. It also feels like a knowing nod to another of Benioff’s other projects. Besides being the author and eventual scripter for Spike Lee’s adaptation of 25th Hour, as well as the writer on Brothers, Benioff holds the arguable honor of being the sole screenwriter credited for Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy (2004). That movie was filled with epic imagery and hilariously hammy chest thumping bravado that set its story by the high walls of a Trojan palace when the Greeks came a-courting. And here too is a foreign horde at the gates of a supposedly great city that sends out a sole warrior looking for an Achilles to his Hector. They even do Brad Pitt and Eric Bana one better when they both literally whip out their dicks out for a pissing contest.
Daenerys being present is thus the best part. She couldn’t care less about who has the bigger sword or much else of their customs. She listens to each of her knights claim that they should be her champion—Ser Jorah will likely circle in his diary tonight that the Khaleesi called him her “best friend”—but gives the title she cares little for to her not-so-secret crush. And as soon as Daario kills this upstart, a mildly bored Dany takes the sand-swept stage to give her latest Spartacus battle cry. While it is no “Dracarys,” it certainly is enough to peek the interest of every slave in Meereen’s attention. That final shot of the broken chains landing over the wall before the slaves is indeed a killer. And so too will be that slave be in a few minutes when he gets his hands on the boss.
That ending really elevated tonight’s Game of Thrones, which for the first time in Season 4 had some slow bits. Beyond Sam and Gilly’s less than riveting relationship-building, Stannis wasted some more time twiddling his thumbs at Dragonstone, and Davos continued his reading lessons. It is abundantly clear that after killing off Joffrey, D&D wanted to take a breather and relish the reactions on the court in the Capital. But as impatient as Tywin and Olenna are to move on, so too were we from the other storylines. In this case, it is an example of when Daenerys’ disconnection can work best while she does her thing for another instant season highlight.
Also, Arya and the Hound should have totally taken that weak farmer up on his offer work by his side. Imagine “papa” and the underfoot’s little Needle learning to toil with the smallfolk, understand the smaallfolk, and become friends with the smallfolk. Or they could steal their silver and move on to their next adventure. That works too. I’m honestly just happy to see those two under any circumstances!
Looking ahead, Meereen should start to crumble next week, and the conspiracy to kill a king will become more transparent. But no matter what happens, Tyrion is probably going to end up getting the short end of the deal. But if it’s anything like “Breaker of Chains,” we’ll be more than satisfied with just such an arrangement.