After a relatively weak turn last week, Game of Thrones turned it up last night with “The Laws of God and Men,” an immensely satisfying episode that finally gave the amazing Peter Dinklage, who has spent the bulk of the season languishing in a prison cell, something meaty to sink his teeth into. “The Laws of God and Men” had a similar structure to the Purple Wedding episode, flitting around Westeros for the first half, catching up with Daenerys, Stannis, and Theon, and then zeroing in on Kings Landing for the second half, culminating in the rigged, yet riveting trial of the falsely accused Imp.
The episode opens with a gorgeous shot of Stannis and Davos arriving in Braavos to meet with the heads of the Iron Bank, their ship passing beneath a striking, massive colossus (another impressive bit of CGI) en route. As the self-proclaimed rightful heir to the Iron Throne waits for hours for the meeting to begin, we get a glimpse of just how much power the Iron Bank wields, as kings are forced to wait for them, like some schlub nervously applying for a car loan. In typical fashion, Stannis insists that the throne is his by virtue of his blood and name and asks for funding to pursue his just cause against the Lannisters. But as the heads of the Iron Bank point out, claims to the throne via lineage are up for interpretation – after all, wasn’t King Robert Baratheon regarded as a usurper himself? Numbers on the other hand, are not interpretive, but purely black and white and since Stannis lacks the manpower, the ships, and the provisions to plausibly mount a real threat to the Lannisters, he’s deemed a poor investment and his request initially denied. The exchange immediately brought to mind Varys’ season two riddle about whether true power lies in the hands of the spiritual leader, the King, or the rich man and in Braavos, it seems the answer is clear.
Although Stannis was unable to convince them, Davos steps up and delivers an impassioned speech that sways the bankers, arguing that all Lannister power resides with the elderly Tywin and once he dies, the Lannister hold on the throne will no longer be secure. Stannis is a man of his word, he argues, and the only reliable choice, as “he doesn’t just talk about paying people back – he does it,” a fact Davos can attest to with his finger-shortened hand. Typically, the Stannis/Davos scenes tend to be a bit boring when compared to the series’ more compelling subplots. These characters fare a bit better in the books where George R.R. Martin can garrulously flush out the inner thoughts and motivations of point-of-view character, Davos, but on this very crowded show with less time available to dedicate to each character, Stannis tends to come off as uncharismatic and rigid and Davos’ staunch loyalty thus seems odd and unexplainable. Here though, through Liam Cunningham’s strong performance, we finally get an understanding of just why Davos is so unfailingly loyal towards his King and the strength and passion of his words provide a glimpse into the reasons why Stannis, for all his rigidity and lack of grace, might be worthy of following after all.
Elsewhere, Yara Greyjoy delivers a rousing speech of her own, reading Ramsey’s terrible letter to her ship full of men (“Ironborn scum,” as he had called them) and riling them up for battle, proclaiming, “They skinned our countrymen and mutilated our brother. Everything they’ve done to him, they’ve also done to you!” Yara and her men attack the Dreadfort, demanding to be taken to Theon. Rather than in the dungeons, they find him in the kennel with the dogs, so thoroughly traumatized and transformed, that he refuses to be rescued, insisting that he is and has always been Reek. Yara and crew flee from Ramsey’s unleashed dogs sans Theon, whom she reports is dead. And it’s true – the ambitious, cocky, foolhardy Theon Greyjoy of yore is indeed dead and all that remains is the terrified, servile Reek. While the scenes between Ramsey and Theon have often veered a little too close to torture porn territory, this week’s was riveting and served to perfectly illustrate just how utterly broken Theon has become. Alfie Allen’s portrayal of Theon’s panic and skittishness, quivering in the bathtub, anticipating yet another setup for impending torture, was some of his best work to date and Iwan Rheon continues to imbue Ramsey with a dangerous, sociopathic charisma (and also got to indulge in some shirtless badassery, making quick work of some of Yara’s men in that close-quarters kennel fight).
Over in Mereen, Daenerys, who by this point is well versed in the act of conquering, begins to get a taste of the difficulty and occasional tedium of actually ruling. While some of the problems of the two hundred plus subjects waiting to see her are easily remedied, others force Daenerys to confront some moral ambiguities about the nature of leadership and justice. The shepherd whose flock was scorched and eaten by her increasingly menacing dragons (I feel like a disproportionate amount of the special effects budget must go towards making the dragons fearsome. Drogon barbecuing that sheep was terrifying and gorgeously rendered, whereas the Stark direwolves often look like overgrown Huskies and a little cheesy by comparison) was easily gratified by being recompensed threefold for his loss, but allowing the nobleman’s son to give his crucified father a proper burial only goes so far to alleviate the pain of his loss. Moreover, his revelation that his father had spoken out against the crucifixion of the slave children illustrates to Daenerys how doling out blind justice can result in some being punished unjustly. Rather than answer injustice with justice as she intended, in this particular case, she answered a crime with a crime. Similarly, although Daenerys wants her strict anti-slavery position to remain clear and worries that allowing the Mereenese nobles to bury their dead will make her appear soft, she begins to see that the way to keep her subjects loyal is through mercy, not iron-fisted justice.
While, growing pains aside, Daenerys does sincerely aim to rule fairly and justly, justice is of little consequence in Kings Landing, where the trial of Tyrion Lannister for the murder of King Joffrey is an out and out farce. Tyrion is led shackled before the Iron Throne, where Mace Tyrell, Oberyn Martell, and Lannister patriarch, Tywin will decide his fate. Though Tyrion had garnered from his jailhouse visits with Jaime and Podrick that the odds were stacked against him, it isn’t until the parade of character witnesses begin to testify against him that he realizes just how fucked he truly is. Initially, Tyrion makes a few sarcastic quips and attempts to defend himself, but soon realizes his objections are fruitless. To be sure, Tyrion has made plenty of enemies within the court during his time in Kings Landing and every single one of them is more than eager to speak against him, twisting and repurposing his actions and words to frame him a villain. Kingsguard Meryn Trant recalls Tyrion slapping and threatening Joffrey, but omits it was done in defense of Sansa, whom Joffrey was having stripped and beaten. Maester Pycelle, still stung by Tyrion’s looting his cache of poisons and potions and imprisoning him, eagerly relates how Tyrion stole “The Strangler,” the very same poison that killed “the most noble child the Gods ever put on this earth” (which, by the way, hilarious). Cersei, of course, adds that Tyrion had threatened her because she had asked him not to entertain whores in the Tower of the Hand and, more surprisingly, Varys seems to betray his promise to remember what Tyrion had done in service of the realm during the Battle of the Blackwater and speaks against him, as well.
The court adjourns for just long enough for Jaime to entreat his father to spare Tyrion’s life. If he allows Tyrion to take the Black (the same leniency offered to Ned Stark), Jaime promises to resign from the Kingsguard, marry, and provide his father with the heirs required to carry on the Lannister name. Tywin agrees almost too quickly and it seems as though that was his plan all along. Charles Dance has been consistently brilliant in the role of Tywin and here, with a flash of the eyes that reveals an inner smirk, he lets Jaime know that he has played exactly into his hands.
As the trial resumes, Jaime advises his brother to plead guilty and assures him his life will be spared. Jaime doesn’t reveal the specifics of his deal with Tywin, but Tyrion’s nothing if not clever and seems to suss it out quickly. Though Tyrion expresses some doubt about the security of this promise to allow him to serve in the Night’s Watch (again, the same fate that was supposed to await Ned Stark), he does trust his brother and seems to be considering it, until the final witness is brought against him. Shae’s betrayal doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us familiar with the source material, but that doesn’t make her testimony any less wrenching. Tyrion may have been able to withstand the character assaults levied against him by Cersei, her henchmen, and even Lord Varys, but as soon as Shae enters the room, he visibly reels. “Please, don’t,” he entreats her, but still scorned from his rejection, Shae damns him, perverting their personal history to paint him as a monster and outright lying about his and Sansa’s involvement in plotting Joffrey’s murder. Worst of all, she recontextualizes their intimacies, Tyrion’s sincere words, to further assassinate his character, playing the victimized prostitute forced to “fuck me like it’s my last night in this world” and ordered “to call him ‘my lion,’” which draws the laughter and derision from those in attendance.
Tyrion’s no stranger to mockery and disdain, from his family and the world in general, but Shae’s betrayal cuts deeper than all of the indignities he’s faced as the lowly Lannister Imp and it serves as a breaking point. In a magnetic and powerful display, the wonderful Peter Dinklage is finally given something to sink his teeth into and goddamn, does he rise to the occasion. Tyrion’s speech pulses with hurt, bitterness, and a long-suppressed rage that can no longer be contained. “I saved you. I saved this city and all your worthless lives. I should have let Stannis kill you all,” he sneers at the crowd, before proclaiming his innocence and turning his anger on Cersei and Shae. “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.” The words drip with vitriol, disgust, and outrage and Dinklage is completely fucking mesmerizing. Rather than falsely admitting his guilt and accepting his father’s mercy, the episode instead closes with Tyrion’s ultimate act of defiance as, in order to permanently break from under Tywin’s yoke, he proclaims his innocence and demands a trial by combat instead. Heartbroken by the final betrayal of his beloved, Tyrion is a man with nothing to lose and would rather put his life in the hands of fate than in the hands of those who have so viciously sought to destroy him. “The Laws of God and Men” thus closes on somewhat of a cliffhanger, with Tyrion’s rage unleashed like Ramsey’s hounds and his fate no longer decided by the mighty Tywin, but in the hands of whomever he can find to champion him in battle. It’s his only chance for receiving true justice, but as we well know, justice isn’t easy to come by in the world of Westeros and the good guys rarely finish ahead.