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His grace, Joffrey of Houses Baratheon and Lannister, first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm, is dead. The exact cause of death is unknown, but early evidence indicates poisoning. He was 19. He will be mourned by no one.
That’s not strictly true: Considering the anguish on Lena Headey’s face and the way Jamie rushes through the confused masses of wedding guests, the boy’s family will grieve. They had the Seven Kingdoms on a platter, but an act of betrayal on a day that was all about them took that away. Judging by Cersei’s behavior in her final moments as queen regent, she weeps for the loss of power almost as much as cries for the death of her son.
It’s in the real world where Joffrey’s death will inspire no requiems. One of the most hated figures in recent television history has kicked the bucket, at the end of an episode that’s a greatest-hits compilation of his cruelest deeds. “The Lion And The Rose” is one of those Game Of Thrones episodes that had me thinking “God, when is this kid going to do us all a favor and die already?” 15 minutes in—to the point that I thought he was faking it when he grasped his throat in the international sign for “An entire television audience’s wish has been granted.” Surely, there can’t be justice in the final five minutes of an hour in which Jack Gleeson’s character takes a sword to Tyrion’s wedding gift, forces his uncle to play cup bearer, and stages the most inappropriate garden-party entertainment since Roger Sterling’s 1963 Kentucky Derby shindig. The choking bit has to be his latest act of barbaric bullshit.
But then Gleeson spits a glob of goo onto the ground (top-notch work this week, props department!), and the truth of the matter sinks in. In that moment, I remembered why Game Of Thrones weddings are to be feared, not celebrated. And that’s kind of what I’m worried about with regard to “The Lion And The Rose”: That a tremendous cheer will rise up from within the viewership of this show, prompted by the death of a loathsome product of George R.R. Martin’s imagination. (This episode is the fourth in the series whose script was written by Martin. Notably, he also wrote season two’s “Blackwater.” So there’s a second portent to watch out for in future episodes: a ceremony celebrating love and fidelity and “written for television by George R.R. Martin.”) That’s what makes the shots of Cersei’s distress so important, and that’s why it’s so crucial that the camera holds on Gleeson’s face until the life goes out of Joffrey’s eyes. In a world where life is increasingly cheap, the viewers must be wary of schadenfreude. King Joffrey is dead, long rot in shit and die a million deaths for eternity King Joffrey—but to actively revel in this plot point is to be no better than the horrific boy king himself.
I know this is unavoidable. I know that I’ll wake up tomorrow to social networks choked with headlines like “Twitter’s best reactions to Joffrey’s death” and “Joffrey’s death in 7 GIFs” and “Which viscous substance pouring out of Joffrey’s face are you? (POLL).” But I deeply, sincerely wish that I wouldn’t, because that’s giving in to the basest, least human elements of a very good piece of television. “The Lion And The Rose” isn’t good TV because it’s “The One Where Joffrey Finally Gets What’s Coming To Him, That Little Prick.” It’s good TV because the episode builds to that moment, with tiny choices made by Tyrion and Joffrey finally hitting the fan when the boy king hits the floor. It’s good TV because it sustains tension in the King’s Landing storyline even as the show does the season-premiere catch-up dance with characters we didn’t see last week. Season four is still revving up its engine for most of the hour, and I have to believe it hasn’t shown us the best stuff yet. Because, c’mon: If this is the season in which Joffrey dies two episodes in, what else might be in store?
Besides: It’s not like Game Of Thrones to vanquish one monster without another being around to take his place. Rising up from the muck and the mire of last season’s most grueling story thread, Ramsay Snow bursts onto the scene with an archer in tow and an unarmed waif in his sights. Young Ramsay hasn’t had much in the way of a change of heart since last we saw him, and his surroundings at Dreadfort remain the show’s dankest this side of Harrenhal. Someone who has changed is Theon Greyjoy, now answering to Reek and requiring a great deal more trembling from Alfie Allen. It’s tough to see him like this—a lot of “The Lion And Rose” is tough to watch, but it beats all of those torture scenes from season three.
The tortures being executed by the two tyrants on either side of the episode are psychological this time around, as Joffrey toys with his uncle and Ramsay dangles his control of Reek in front of his skeptical father. These two portrayals of madness are similar, but they’re distinguished through presentation. In the airy, well-appointed settings of King’s Landing, surrounded by monuments and bathed in sunlight, Joffrey’s unreasonable commands are granted an air of petulance, his severity a result of supreme spoiling. Drop that kind of behavior into Dreadfort, however, and it’s a whole new kind of crazy. It’s the kind of thing we’re more accustomed to as viewers, and I think that has to be part of the reason Joffrey is so widely detested while Ramsay could be lumped in with the show’s second-tier villains. Both are wicked and inhumane, but the former is wicked and inhumane from a place of extreme privilege, and that puts a larger target on his back. Yet it’s important to note that the shaving scene at Dreadfort lacks for no tension when compared to the “kneel” exchange between Joffrey and Tyrion. Ramsay hasn’t earned the vitriol that Joffrey did, but he’s still capable of creating white-knuckle scenes like this one. (Credit due to director Alex Graves for framing Iwan Rheon in such a vulnerable position, with what little light there is in that set glinting off of the razor blade in Reek’s hand.)
Because if there’s one thing I can comfortably say I enjoyed about tonight’s big finish, it was the final face-off between Joffrey and Tyrion. It doesn’t matter who did what to whatever ended Joffrey’s life (there’s still a lot of ambiguity there)—that he dies thinking his uncle is responsible is the best kind of revenge. The wedding feast turns into a torture chamber for Tyrion and Sansa, the pantomime war aimed nastily, specifically in their direction. The thing is, Joffrey needn’t have bothered: Tyrion’s been laid so low by the most recent events regarding Shae that the festivities of the feast merely adds insult to injury. The most damning evidence in the case against Tyrion might be that he just had to send his true love across the narrow sea; motive can be read into that move, as well as a desire to protect Shae from the consequences of a plot to kill the king. But I don’t want to delve too deeply into “Who killed Joffrey?” detective work. I’m sure much of the non-Song Of Fire And Ice-reading world will devote the coming days to puzzling that mystery out—besides, the scenes leading up to the death give Game Of Thrones its own “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” in the way suspects and motivation flit in and out of view before the deed is done.
And yet I keep coming back to the “kneel” exchange, the last moment like that we’ll ever get between Gleeson and Peter Dinklage. It’s shot for maximum humiliation on Tyrion’s part, the camera placed at Dinklage’s shoulder level, glaring up at Joffrey’s awful face in reluctant deference. It’s an evident breaking point, and even if Tyrion isn’t Joffrey’s killer, the boy died because he spent his life treating other people like this. It comes together marvelously, and if there’s anything to celebrate about “The Lion And The Rose,” it’s filmmaking like this. (It’s also a spotlight moment for Ramin Djawadi’s “Lion And The Rose” score, an ominous drone billowing into the spaces between the dialogue.) When the camera later sweeps upward to Tyrion on the elevated platform, it instantly changes the tone of the proceedings. What was a celebration for one person (and an annoyance for the other guests) has turned into a trial for another. It is a line in the sand, the true beginning of Game Of Thrones’ fourth season. The revelry in the “peace” brought about by Tywin’s war is at an end. The wedding is over; let the funeral begin.
- In the other parts of Westeros, things are much less conclusive: Religious frenzy is at an all-time high on the island of Dragonstone, where Stannis torches family members who didn’t properly dispose of their non-Lord of Light idols and Melisandre is developing an interest in young, cloistered Shireen. To the north, Bran is spending far too much time as Summer, but he also has a prophetic vision of dragons descending on King’s Landing. That vision is a mish-mash of jump cuts and flashbacks, but that most important, final image is cleverly echoed in the establishing shot leading to the royal wedding, sans dragon. These little progress reports aren’t the episode’s most compelling sequences, but they’re well-deployed as breathers in the main events in the south.
- The primetime soap hidden within Game Of Thrones continues apace, with a face-off between Tywin, Oberyn (speaking of possible Joffrey murderers), Cersei, and Ellaria that’s worthy of Dallas or Dynasty. Surely, Cersei and Ellaria will settle their differences in a fountain by season’s end.
- This week in “Yes, the showrunners pay attention to the Internet”: Bran is pulled out of his vision by the season’s first “Hodor.”