I’m fairly certain that if you bent an ear towards an open window at around 9:55 pm last night, you could hear a celebratory din off in the distance, as millions of Game of Thrones viewers cheered in unison the long awaited and painful demise of the series’ most hated villain, the odious, inbred boy-king Joffrey Baratheon. While the delicious schadenfreude of that moment alone would be enough to elevate “The Lion and the Rose” to series’ classic status, George R.R. Martin’s annual contribution had much more to offer than the gratifyingly brutal and purple-faced end of Joffrey’s reign.
While the show’s vast geography and massive cast of sinuously connected characters usually necessitates the writers’ cramming a lot of far-flung and disparate plot threads into a single episode, Game of Thrones is often at its most satisfying when the writers slow down the pace and zero in on one epic set piece, as was the case with season two’s Battle of the Blackwater and last season’s devastating Red Wedding. This tight focus on Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell’s ill-fated wedding day, which takes up approximately half of the episode, did more than merely serve up a major and crowd-pleasing (for once) death, also providing fascinating glimpses into the entire Lannister clan. We see Tyrion and Jaime share a brotherly moment, as Tyrion hooks his wounded brother up with a sparring partner to help build his left-handed sword skills, the always entertaining Bronn. Later, after Varys reveals that both Cersei and Tywin know of Shae’s true identity and plan to execute her, Tyrion is forced to abruptly and harshly break up with her in order to send her away to safety. Of all the deviations from the source material, this one troubled me the most as I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to result in her and Tyrion’s storyline playing out much differently than it does in the books. We’re also treated to a dazzling display of former Queen Regent Cersei’s trademark nastiness, bullying Maester Pycelle, sniping at Brienne and Oberyn Martell and his lowborn paramour, Ellaria Sand (Oberyn’s retort that the Cersei’s daughter Myrcella is lucky to be in Dorne, where rapists and murderers are looked down upon, but not the lowborn is an expertly crafted insult that slyly throws Myrcella’s inbreeding back in Cersei’s face), and taking food from the mouths of the poor simply to spite her new daughter-in-law.
But of course, the man of the hour is the groom himself, King Joffrey. In the days leading up to the wedding and all the way through the moment he receives his just dessert, Joffrey continues to reach new heights of douchebaggery, for example, initially feigning uncharacteristic gratitude at Tyrion’s wedding gift – a rare and priceless book – and then immediately and gleefully destroying it with his brand-new Valaryian sword. Not satisfied with degrading Tyrion, he takes yet another swipe at Sansa, proclaiming, “Every time I use it will be like cutting off Ned Stark’s head all over again,” a petty, boastful taunt that perfectly encapsulates all of Joffrey’s character. Everyone in attendance knows that it was Ilyn Payne, not Joffrey, who beheaded Ned Stark. In fact, Tyrion’s book is the only opponent Joffrey’s ever bested at sword play, but he’s so convinced of his own ordained greatness and fearsomeness, he thinks everyone else is similarly blind to his true cowardly nature and shamelessly brags about his non-existent bravery and badness. It’s mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing, and small – a lovely little sample of eau de Joffrey.
Since it is Tyrion who has traditionally been the only Lannister who dare stand up to him, Joffrey has long loathed his uncle and now, presented with the very public forum of a royal wedding, he seizes the opportunity to humiliate Tyrion before an audience. Much to his own drunken amusement (and solely his amusement, judging from the uncomfortable looks on the guests’ faces), Joffrey arranges to have a troop of performing dwarves bawdily mock the events of the recent war. (Sansa’s silent seething at the portrayal of Robb Stark was amazing. Sophie Turner was totally snarling with her eyes – Tyra Banks would be proud). Afterward, Joffrey attempts to get Tyrion to join the performers and when he declines, he empties a glass of wine on his head and orders him to serve as his cupbearer – not an honor, he corrects his trying-to-keep-cool uncle, but a disgrace. Ever the diplomat, Margaery tries to direct her husband’s attention and the mood of the celebration back towards bridal pleasantries, but Joffrey is unrelenting and keeps attacking Tyrion, drunkenly dropping his goblet and ordering his uncle to fill his glass anew. And as the newlywed king sips from that newly-filled cup, he begins to sputter and choke, oozing blood from all of his orifices before collapsing on the ground and, with his last ounce of life, fingering his stunned uncle as the culprit. Joffrey’s poisoning was a rapid, yet excruciating decay from the inside out, yet while watching the scene play out, my husband said he wished he had suffered more. A young boy bled out of his eyes and died with his face contorted in ghastly agony and yet my husband still wasn’t satisfied – a fact which serves as a testament to just how loathsome Joffrey was and also how wonderful Jack Gleeson has been at bringing the character to life.
What made Joffrey so repugnant was that he was a straight-up villain as opposed to an anti-hero. Whereas an anti-hero does bad things or may even be pure evil through and through, he also possesses some redeeming qualities that make him fun to root for – be it cunning, wit, or bad-assery. Joffrey, on the other hand, had literally no good points – cowardly, soft, and dense, his villainy neither purposeful nor inventive in nature, just stupid and cruel for the sake of being cruel. As such, we don’t mourn the loss of the character, but instead celebrate his finally getting his gloriously horrid comeuppance. Was there any other fate for such a character or did he solely exist to bring us the pleasure of his gory demise?
On the other hand, Roose Bolton’s bastard, Ramsey Snow is easily as vicious as Joffrey (in fact, one could readily imagine His Late Grace delighting in Ramsey’s sadistic dog hunt), but far more charismatic and thus more dangerous than the spoiled boy king. Ramsey’s expert deconstruction and transformation of the once proud Theon into the “creature” Reek evidences a frightful capacity for psychological warfare, intimidation, ruthlessness, and a terrifyingly creative sort of viciousness. Though his father (last seen putting a knife through Robb Stark’s heart) is initially angry for his squandering of a huge bargaining chip with the Greyjoys, Ramsey’s deft display of just how much control he exerts over the broken Theon – entrusting “Reek” to shave him, razor at his neck, while he taunts him and details his torture to his father – serves to convince Roose that Ramsey is a valuable asset. After Ramsey reveals the useful information he’s been able to extract from Theon, Bolton entrusts his bastard with the task of capturing Moat Cailin and sics Locke (Jaime Lannister’s maimer) to find the surviving youngest Stark boys.
While no one knows (or cares, really) where Rickon is, we do get a glimpse of Bran Stark and his travelling companions, Hodor and Jojen and Meera Reed. (Isaac Hempstead-Wright hit a major growth spurt since last season and it’s starting to look like Hodor’s having trouble carrying him.) Bran’s warg skills continue to improve and he spends so much time abandoning his broken body in favor of running and hunting in his direwolf’s body, that Jojen has to warn him about the risk of losing himself and the need to stay grounded in his own reality. Bran also has a striking vision at a heart tree, featuring images of the undead, a frozen Iron Throne (very similar to that of Daenerys’ vision in the House of the Undying in season two), a massive dragon shadow cast over Kings Landing, and the cryptic message, “Look for me beneath the tree. NORTH,” which seems to cement the group’s path as the season progresses.
We also check in with Stannis, his creepy zealot wife, and Melisandre, who are still just as fun as ever, burning non-believers at the stake in what passes for a beach party on Dragonstone. Davos remains the loyal, mostly ignored voice of reason and sweet, but disfigured Shireen is still the most likable of the bunch.
“The Lion and the Rose” is yet another classic installment of Game of Thrones and a game changer, as the death of King Joffrey has the potential to shatter the tenuous and fragile peace established by the end of the War of the Five Kings. With the fallout from the king’s murder, ensuing instability on the Iron Throne, and the advancing, though largely yet unheeded threat of an ancient evil from the frozen wilds of the North, it seems that the only certainty that lies ahead is chaos and the fact that valar morghulis – all men must die.