This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
The king is dead.
In all my years of television watching, I do not think there has been a single moment of more instant, unified gratification than when every HBO subscriber from sea to shining sea got up off their couch and screamed to the gods above and below, “Yes, yes, you little blond-haired demon-spawn from Satan, YES! DIE! DIE, NOW!” And then there was much rejoicing.
Tonight, Game of Thrones finally did it: they killed off Joffrey Baratheon! And I am honestly sad to see him go.
Ever since the fateful words “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head” ignited a skirmish between Houses into a full blazing war—and perhaps before that for some—this Joffrey Baratheon who looks ever so much like a Lannister has been the most hated, the most reviled, and the most despised character on TV. And yet, there is a certain beauty to this schadenfreude. True, that German sensation of joy at the misfortune of others reached a fever-pitch when the little Aryan whelp of a man-child turned a shade lavender and cried out for his mama (Game of Thrones book fan language for this event is the “Purple Wedding,” by the way), but try as they might HBO, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, nor even George R.R. Martin himself could make us feel bad for this little sociopath.
His death was a long time coming, and therein lies the rub. After so many years of waiting for this character to die, we have taken for granted hating him week-to-week, as well as glossing over Jack Gleeson’s tour de force performance as everyone’s favorite-least-favorite character. Genuinely, Gleeson seems like a very bright young man—you should seriously watch his remarks before Oxford about the corrosive influences of celebrity culture—and the fact that he is giving up acting after Game of Thrones is an even bigger loss than that of Tyrion’s Slapping Bag. No more shall Tyrion’s hand strike the incest-baby’s face, and no more shall we applaud at his humiliation (which has mostly been his role ever since Tywin Lannister and Margaery Tyrell came to court in Season 3, bringing the boy king to heel).
Nevertheless, the standing ovation-worthy scene capped off an amazing hour of television and one of Game of Thrones’ finest moments in its whole four-year run. But sadly now, it appears that Tyrion is the one to become the Capital’s new punching bag…
It is hard to believe how much changed in a simple hour of television. At the start of the show, Tyrion Lannister was having his first onscreen rendezvous with Jaime Lannister since the older brother’s return to King’s Landing. It is an honestly very touching scene, because it demonstrated that even if Jaime truly loves Cersei, he trusts Tyrion more than any other family member. Tywin suggested last week that Jaime’s sword fighting days were done, but Jaime insisted that any good swordsman can use both hands—consider right handed Maisie Williams learned with her left to be book-accurate to Arya Stark—and as long as he is better than everyone else, it’s all good. When son/nephew Joffrey mocked him too, Jaime suggested that it only makes it a better contest for everyone else. But when exchanging pleasantries with Tyrion, the truth comes cascading out: he can no longer fight worth a damn. Luckily, for a Lannister that is still worth quite a bit. In a positively awesome change from the books, Tyrion sets Jaime up to train with everyone’s favorite roguish sellsword, Bronn of…you wouldn’t know him.
It should be noted that in the novels, Bronn was not Jaime’s swordsman partner, but rather Ser Ilyn Payne. But Ser Ilyn has not spoken a word since his tongue was removed, and Bronn is the funniest character on the show whose last name does not end in Lannister. So, it’s obvious that this meeting had to happen like the one between a Baratheon hammer and a Targaryen skull.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there for Tyrion. First, there is the matter of Shae, whose life is now in mortal danger after Cersei’s spies uncovered her secret relationship with the Imp. To protect her, Tyrion tries to send her away for the umpteenth time. When Shae rejects this offer he tries a different tact: he slut shames her for her given profession as a woman of the night. It is a harsh scene, because while I am not a fan of the Shae character, Tyrion has to totally and utterly destroy a woman he obviously loves. It is a transparent ruse when he pretends that Sansa is the girl he loves and that he cannot wait to have children with his child bride. But it still works when Shae is taken away crying and screaming by the same sellsword who first introduced this lady to her own Lion of Lannister.
It is an agonizing scene and a curious one. I will not give away any spoilers for the non-readers, but I will say that this is a sequence made of whole cloth for the show. Tyrion never attempted to send the prostitute he fell in love with away. I do believe it will be used to better serve Tyrion’s isolation in the condemnation to come. And any book reader should see how, but it is a tragedy that befalls Shae right when their story probably could have used as few potholes as possible for these characters. Truly, Tyrion’s day was already going to be bad enough as is…
But before we reach the wedding bliss, it should be worth noting that this week did in fact feature other characters! The most interesting of which is the new(ish) creation of Reek. Which rhymes with weak, meek, and sneak. And all of those words apply! Alfie Allen worked overtime in creating this character from the bones and ash of the one they called Theon Greyjoy. That was before Reek knew his new name, but he really is a good dog now, he is, sir. Honest.
He is just as gung-ho about the hunt of a woman through the woods as Ramsay Snow, his new lady love, and all the rest of the dogs beside Reek. Indeed, it could be a legitimate question as to why Ramsay did not require that Reek to join in the feasting on her face…kidding aside, this was a warped scene. It demonstrates that while Joffrey is gone, even more perverse and demented characters exist to make Game of Thrones a hellish fantasy to wish for. In fact, I’d daresay that Ramsay Snow is an even worse cretin than Joffrey Baratheon. They bear plenty of similarities. Ramsay is the Bastard of Bolton, and Joffrey is an honest-to-seven bastard of Jaime Lannister; Ramsay is cruel and twisted in his tortures; Joffrey is sick and disgusting in his murders and mind games. Still, Joffrey is stupid and easily manipulated by his grandfather, his mother, and his (ever so brief) wife. Conversely, Ramsay is very smart, which makes his twisted actions all the more disturbing. When even HBO has to tone down his vile crimes against humanity—in the books he hunts multiple women from Winterfell naked through the woods before raping them, flaying them, and then feeding them to his dogs—one realizes that in terms of Westerosi relativity, Joffrey was a pussycat.
Ramsay also gets to show off his new pet in Reek and all the tricks he can do when Roose Bolton comes home to the Dreadfort. Reek can sit on command, fetch, and even shave your face with a straight-edged razor while you brag about how your father slaughtered his best friend from another life. It is enough to cause even cold-blooded Roose to give pause at his son’s depravity…and reward it! Ramsay will earn the distinction of using Reek to take Moat Cailin back from the Ironborn.
We also were reintroduced to the comings-and-goings on Dragonstone. And a lot of souls were indeed going up in a bright light when Melisandre got to do her thing. It is remarkable for such a non-believer how much Stannis Baratheon will tolerate. But this episode is not really about him, even as we get a nice look at the family life between him, his fanatical wife, and the mistress whom they both share for different kinds of worship. No, it is about Melisandre reaching out to Stannis’ daughter Shireen. Like most of Stannis’ court (who hasn’t been lit on fire), Shireen still believes in the Seven and refuses to accept Melisandre’s one true god. It is a chilling sequence, as it is not hard to imagine that wife Selyse would tolerate Melisandre setting her own living child ablaze, but to Melisandre’s credit, she does not seem interested in that.
Instead, she sweetly monologues about her early hardships, hinting of a past that includes being sold as a slave to the Red Temple when she was only a child. She also gives some humanist rhetoric to Shireen. According to Melisandre, there is no Hell, but the one we are living. Kind of a demonic form of humanism, Melisandre is preaching some interesting notions about not being beholden to idols or a fear of the afterlife. If it wasn’t for the human sacrifice and praying to what I suspect may be George R.R. Martin’s version of a demon, I would think Melisandre was speaking some common sense. As it stands, I really do not like the way Selyse looks at her daughter, and am thankful to the Seven, R’holor, or their true GRRM god at the very least, that Melisandre seems to be the more motherly of the two.
There is also a moment spared for Bran Stark’s reintroduction and his trip on the other side of the Wall. However, since that is literally all we saw, the most I can say is that I sympathize for Hodor. In the book, Bran is still only nine-years-old, but on the show, he ready to take Meera Reed to prom. Good luck trucking that to the Three-eyed raven, Hodor.
Which brings us back to King Joffrey Baratheon, First of His Name, and his wedding to the fair Margaery Tyrell. And as with everything Joffrey related it begins with somebody’s humiliation, preferably his uncle and his newfound aunt, Sansa Lannister. This endlessly entertaining mean-streak is showcased early during the pre-wedding breakfast during which Tyrion gives his king a rare and respected volume on four kings of importance in Westerosi history. Joffrey attempts to fool his uncle and the audience by suggesting that as the War of the Five Kings winds down, and he looks to take Margaery as his bride, that this means he is ready to move on past childish things. He then takes off the metaphorical crown and puts on his snot-nosed kid hat again by cutting up Tyrion’s well-meaning gift with his new sword.
For even the most casual Game of Thrones fan, obviously something was off about this week. Joffrey has never been anything short of a monster, but this episode underlined this despicability more times than Sean Bean characters have died onscreen. The writers were really driving home just how much we should hate this perpetual temper tantrum with a crown.
During the actual wedding, Joffrey mostly behaved himself, giving his bride a luscious kiss in the Great Sept of Baelor, and being quiet enough during the afternoon’s festivities to let the labyrinthine’s worth of subplots to play out. My personal favorite was Prince Oberyn firmly squeezing himself into the show’s dynamics as everyone’s favorite new character. I praised Pedro Pascal last week for capturing the right alchemy of suave and smarm for a character too smug to be a hero. But in a world like George R.R. Martin’s, and in a place like the Red Keep, that may be exactly what makes him so quickly endearing. This is a new player of the game of thrones, and he appears as one who will last when he can both supplant Tywin and Cersei Lannister with some deadly verbal jousting, and then seduce Cersei’s betrothed, Loras Tyrell, with a simple look and gesture from across the feast. In a city crawling with Lannisters and Lannister sycophants, it is especially pleasing to see a Lannister foe stand there in broad daylight and still outmaneuver them in the titular game, if ever smiling. Perhaps Ned Stark should have journeyed more often to Dorne? Pascal has done an amazing job of convincing us that we didn’t know we were missing his Red Viper all this time.
Meanwhile Loras too at least got one good dig in at Jaime Lannister’s expense. When the Kingslayer attempts to threaten the Knight of Roses about not being able to marry his sister, Loras reminds Jaime that neither shall he ever marry her. And if that wasn’t cold enough, things get quite frosty (and soapy) when Cersei confronts her brother’s new preferred companion, a knight who ever looks so much like a lady. Cersei is wise to point out that Brienne of Tarth’s track record on servitude has not ended well for herself or her employers, be they Renly Baratheon, Catelyn Stark, or now Ser Jaime. When Brienne insists that she is merely freelancing for the queen’s brother at the time being, Cersei cuts even deeper (and more astutely) by hitting the nail on the head: Brienne is in love with Jaime. The eye daggers that Lena Headey was firing transcended Cersei’s usual cattiness and entered the realm of Regina George. In a just world, Brienne might be our Winona Ryder to take down this Heather, but the thing about justice and Game of Thrones is that it never comes from the right or expected place.
Take for example, Cersei’s son, a bastard in every sense of the word. For four seasons, we have watched Joffrey foolishly execute sympathetic leads, terrorize the smallfolk for no good reason, play with prostitutes like a serial killer tortures bunny rabbits, and make Sansa’s life a living, breathing Hell with every waking moment. He truly outdid himself during this feast when he was able to crush her spirits and Tyrion’s simultaneously. And yet, it was the last horror he’d inflict on anyone, save the attending courtiers’ stomachs in just a few moments, that really etched in stone that he is the Seven’s perfect asshole.
In a truly grotesque diversion, Joff brought out dwarfs to behave as how most dwarfs tend to act in other fantasy fiction, including the sacred Lord of the Rings. They’re buffoons behaving foolishly for Joffrey’s amusement. This includes reenacting Robb Stark’s death in front of Sansa with an added crotch thrust into the Young Wolf’s effigy head. It is a cruel act that Margaery can barely pretend to laugh at. It is also only the beginning. When Joff demands that Tyrion join in the mockery, his uncle turns it around on his nephew by pointing out that only one of them has seen battle. Being a big man with a big stick, Joffrey spends his last moments of life humiliating Tyrion one final time by demanding that the Imp be his cupbearer after pouring wine on his head.
This moment should be savored and rewatched several times by all fans for multiple reasons. Besides acting as the prelude to the most satisfying death in TV history, it is a wonderful character study of everyone at the wedding—a special feat when one realizes we recognize almost all of them. Each character has a different reaction that says much of where they stand in relation to Joffrey, the Lannisters as a whole, and just how much simple human decency they contain within their souls.
The aforementioned Prince Oberyn is a new character to be thrown into the mix, and one who has more than enough reason to hate any golden haired westerner. But despite his pre-existing prejudices and his own questionable moral debauchery, he shows pure disgust at the immaturity and monstrosity of a family behaving like this. They may have vanquished the Starks (for now), but the Lannisters are more dysfunctional than the recurring guest stars on a Jerry Springer program. Beyond him, Varys also reveals his true colors of repulsion at the family he is now serving, with nary a smile or even a faux giggle like all the sycophants around him. And this is a man whose life depends on staying in the king’s good graces, as he so helpfully reminded us tonight.
Upon the royal dais of honor, Sansa is justly horrified. As much as she may be weary of Tyrion’s scar, age, and lineage, she clearly admires and sympathizes with her husband, who she attempts to aide with a cup of mercy. Meanwhile, her father-in-law is radiating pure rage and fury from a barely controlled silence. If Joffrey had lived into the evening, the King’s Hand would have been around the boy’s throat for making such an intense mockery of his family in front of the whole court. Tywin may not love Tyrion, but seeing his son disgraced before hundreds of lesser families probably burned more than the fires that melted Ice last week. And then there’s Cersei, who shows that for however much she fears losing control over her evil son, she really did give him his wicked streak. Her barely hidden glee at Tyrion’s expense is the most fun Headey’s character has had in over a season, and it should make any viewer’s blood run cold.
And that cold, finally brings us to those characters that audiences should keep their eyes on the most. The bride’s family had muted reactions that spoke volumes: Margaery feigned humor at her groom’s sadism, but by the end of Tyrion’s torment, she could do nothing but cringe and avert her gaze. However, there was another Tyrell who did not look away, nor did she miss a second of this entire wedding. And unlike Margaery, Olenna, Queen of Thorns, didn’t force a laugh. Not once. She also didn’t scream when “tragedy” struck. She did nothing but play a part that she has spent a lifetime rehearsing for.
When Joffrey finally began to croak, I too didn’t laugh. I merely breathed in every waking moment of the life fading from his eyes. I did not want to miss a millisecond of the blood pouring from his mouth and dripping down his throat. I couldn’t dare blink during a vision that every viewer, book reader or not, has longed for with each passing week. For those who yearned last week to see more vengeance like Arya’s meticulous murder of Polliver, here it is. Justice has arrived.
The king is dead. And George R.R. Martin is officially the worst wedding planner ever.
In many ways, Joffrey is a victim of his circumstances too. Born of incest, there is a nigh biological certainty that more than a few of his loose screws rambling around that blond head were a product of conception. Further, if his real father is an apathetic bodyguard for Joffrey’s whole childhood, and the man he believed to be dad was little more than a drunkard who took no interest in any kid lest they work a King’s Landing brothel, it left Joff solely in the arms of Cersei. While the show has done an admirable job of sympathizing Cersei herself, an action the writers wisely avoided for Joffrey, she still was the one who spoiled him rotten and left Joffrey thinking his narcissistic whims were divine visions being cast to stone.
At the end of the day, Joffrey remains a through-and-through sociopath, a killer of babies (on the show at least), a torturer of women, and as Tyrion noted in Season 2, a vicious and stupid king. If he were merely cruel, he could still be an effective tyrant (look at Tywin); but he is also an idiot, hence the execution of Ned Stark, hence the alienation of allies, and now hence his untimely death.
For the time being, we know with certainty that a conspiracy was at hand, as Ser Dontos (hardly a mastermind of anything) whisked Sansa away before Queen Cersei’s burning anguish descended upon her head yet again. And we can reasonably assume Tyrion would not have played a role in this murder, because he has publicly threatened Joffrey enough times that even at his most snarky, he’d know better than to hand Joff his cup of death. No, look around those reaction shots again at Tyrion’s shaming. In those faces, the true scope of the assassination takes hold. May the gods bless them.
I am sorry to see Jack Gleeson’s wonderful performance have its final curtain call this evening. But for the sake of Joffrey gagging the taste of crimson and (god willing) some of his own intestinal lining? It could not have been soon enough. This is a series best.