Is Game of Thrones Just Killing Time?

Our roundtable on "The Laws of God and Men," the sixth episode of the HBO show's fourth season.
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Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.


Kornhaber: GAH! Go away, credits!

Game of Thrones doesn’t do many cliffhangers. Sudden calamity followed by slowly unfurled aftermath is more its style. So for the first time in a while, unlike you book readers, I’m now frantically theorizing about what happens after Tyrion's demand for a trial by combat.

Thinking back to previous kangaroo courtroom scenes, at the Eyrie in Season One and at Beric Dondarrion’s camp in Season Three … Tyrion gets to pick a champion, right? And it’s going to be Jaime, right? Surely that’s what all the bro-bond glances between them in this episode foreshadowed. Fighting whom? We just learned Tywin’s 67 years old—too old for combat, no? Is it going to be Ser Meryn, that worm? Or, wait, no, Jaime is going to have to fight on behalf of the crown, isn't he? Where’s Bronn?!

Must. Not. Google. Spoilers.

The moments immediately before the cut to black felt a little silly: shocked-just-shocked reaction shots of each prominent trialwatcher, with final stern-faced closeups of Tyrion and Tywin. I could have sworn I heard a duh-dun-DUN. But prior to that, Peter Dinklage’s full-body performance delivered just the right amount of drama. As he whispered, growled, cried, and shouted, he demonstrated the humanity that much of the rest of the world will always refuse to see in his character.

Tyrion’s right that he has long been on trial for being a dwarf. His dad almost threw him into the sea as a baby for that very reason—even if, as it appeared during the judicial snack-break, Tywin mostly went along with the bogus murder accusations to manipulate Jaime into extending his “dinnesty.” The laypeople gathered in the bleachers, the ones whom Tyrion now regrets saving from Stannis, surely attended to see the final humiliation of someone whose humiliation they’ve always relished.

But the Imp’s hot rage at the other betrayers in the room—Cersei, Varys, Shae—stems in part from confusion. He’s had what seemed like real, humane relations (ok, conspiracies) with each of them. Did those three, all along, really see Tyrion as an “ill-made, spiteful little creature?”

I don’t know. I’ve wondered before what fuels Cersei’s illogical vendetta against her little brother, and the answer didn’t reveal itself in this episode. Chris, you pointed out previously that she’s an aesthete and Tyrion is, in her judgment, an eyesore, but I have a hard time believing the calculating queen would let mere superficiality blind her. Varys, meanwhile, operates off indiscernible motivations—explicitly so, as of his asexual coming-out to Prince Oberyn. But his glance at the iron chair and undermining of Tyrion has me wondering whether his want-not, for-the-realm, just-glad-to-be-outta-Essos humility conceals desires even darker than Littlefinger’s. Surely he can’t sit on the throne. Perhaps he wants to destroy it?

Shae’s slander of Her Lion was so over the top and so personal that it repulsed me as surely as any Ramsay Snow sadism scene. Thrones has consistently portrayed Shae as impulsive, emotional, and, well, kind of dumb (repeatedly misunderstanding why Tyrion wanted to send her away) so at first I wondered whether she came back to kneecap her ex just out of spite. But it’s more likely that Cersei presented her with some false evidence that Tyrion had been unfaithful, thereby motivating Shae to … kneecap her ex just out of spite.

Either way, the mistress with no last name offered the most moving example this hour of how profoundly alliances in Thrones can shift. The first came in Braavos, where Ser Davos’s stub-showing stemwinder apparently convinced the Iron Bankers to back Stannis despite them having given a pleasant-but-firm “no” moments earlier. Next, Salladhor Saan’s voiced what could be the episode’s motto: “You’re not my friend, my friend.”

As an aside: Let’s appreciate that for once, the shadowy moneyhandlers in a popular fantasy setting don’t evoke some fraught racial stereotype a la Harry Potter’s semitic Gringotts’ Goblins or the Trade Federation mandarins of The Phantom Menace. Then again, having the economy-ruling banker be a mild-mannered white guy (Sherlock’s Mycroft Holmes!) does chime with a certain American reality.

The Ironborns’ incursion into Bolton territory recalled last week’s confrontation at Craster’s Keep in that it was made-for-TV action requiring more suspension of disbelief than Thrones usually does. In particular, I didn’t understand why Yara & co. just stood there as Ramsay leisurely delivered a weak line about testicles before Unleashing The Hounds. And the Bolton bastard’s “this is turning into a lovely evening” seemed a little too tailored-for-the-trailers to stomach.

But the Ramsay stuff did work as a particularly chilling demonstration of switched loyalties. Theon’s torture took up so much time last season; now we see the horrifying payoff, in that his total transformation into caged, sister-biting Reek feels plausible. This is the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome imaginable, and the mix of affection, humiliation, and implied violence in this episode’s bathtub scene hinted at how it’s maintained.

Meereen offered some less-subtle symbolism when it took about a minute to get through all of Daenerys’s appellations (“the unburnt” was one I hadn’t caught before) as she sat with the Spanish Steps separating her and a lowly goatherder. Remaining a woman of the people won’t be as easy as becoming one was, it seems. I liked the way the scene echoed previous ones in Red Keep’s and Winterfell’s court rooms; whether you’re Khaleesi filling in for the Masters or Ned filling in for Robert or Bran filling in for Ned, the plebs can be tedious. In this case, though, we have world-class facial expresser Jorah to offer a hilarious ¯\(ツ)/¯ to his queen’s wariness.

Jorah’s name came up back west for the first time in a while, in the Small Council chambers. There, the powerbrokers of Kings’ Landing marveled at the defection of two prominent knights, with Tywin scolding Cersei for sending Barristan away—an example of allegiance-swapping resulting from circumstance and genuine desire, rather than from coercion in Theon’s case or persuasion in the Iron Bank’s. I chuckled when the Hand of the King commanded the head of the Tyrells to “be a good man” and fetch his quill. It was pretty much the last laugh line of the episode, which would soon devote itself to Tyrion’s grim trial.

About which, another question: Did all the witness-stand recounting of Tyrion’s greatest hits remind anyone else of the Seinfeld finale? The sad irony being, of course, that the defendant is one of the few good Samaritans left in Westeros.

Chris, Amy, what happens next? Kidding! Don’t you dare tell me (nor you, commenters). Instead: Your thoughts on the episode?


Orr: You think it’s hard to resist the impulse to seek out spoilers, Spencer? Imagine how tough it is for me not to give them to you.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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