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.

By the lofty standards of this excellent season, I found tonight’s episode a bit of a letdown—though probably as much for what didn’t happen as for what did. In last year’s roundtable, we talked a lot about the pace of the show, and how some episodes moved along at a leisurely amble while others sped through significant developments with scarcely a backward glance. So far, I thought this season had done a much better job of maintaining a steady narrative velocity. But this episode felt slow to me—especially given that there’s a ton of important ground still to be covered in the remaining four(!) episodes of the season.

Just over three weeks ago, I wrote a short, spoiler-y postdon’t click on it if you haven’t read the books!—on six of the big scenes we could expect by season’s end. Three episodes later, Benioff and Weiss haven’t yet delivered a single one of those scenes, suggesting that we’re in for a late-season pileup of holy-shit moments that may detract from the individual power of each one.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s overall a positive thing that Benioff and Weiss are writing more of their own material and staging more departures from the script laid down by the books. (They’ll need to be good at this when they get deeper into the problematic material of the fourth and fifth novels.) But this particular stage in the overall storyline—the most drama-packed section of all the novels—is exactly the wrong time to devote precious screen minutes to unnecessary discursions.

As you noted, Spencer, during the previous two episodes we got the Craster’s Keep subplot, which was entertaining enough on its own but left us exactly where we’d been before: with Bran heading North and Jon back at the Wall, their paths having (again) come within a hair’s breadth of intersecting. This week it was Yara’s exceptionally unsuccessful rescue of Theon/Reek, which accomplished—what exactly? I suppose you’re right that it hammered home the idea that Reek is now fully Ramsay’s creature, but I thought we’d gotten a pretty good sense of that in the shaving scene back in episode two. Speaking of which: Didn’t Roose tell his bastard to go take Moat Cailin from the Ironborn all the way back then? If I were Ramsay, I’d spend a little less time engaging in loud, scratchy coitus with my lady friend and a little more time doing as Dad commands. And a double-ditto, Spencer, on the Ironborns’ whole, “We’re just going to just stand here watching Ramsay while he monologues like an early-era Bond villain and slowly opens the dogs’ cages…”

Perhaps it’s to be expected that I’d be disappointed with this episode, given that it marked the return of my two least favorite characters on the show, Ramsay and Shae. I know the latter’s A Woman Scorned routine at Tyrion’s trial was supposed to feel like the ultimate betrayal, but by the time it arrived it felt to me almost like piling on. (Also, in the books, Shae’s nickname for Tyrion is not “my lion,” but “my giant of Lannister,” which makes for a much better punch line when it’s publicized at the trial.)

Though it had its moments, the entire trial sequence seemed overlong to me. I mean, we already knew that everyone in King’s Landing was going to testify against Tyrion—some of them even truthfully. Did we really have to sit through it all? Yep, I remember when Tyrion said that to Ser Meryn Trant; and that to Joffrey; and that to Cersei; yep, yep, yep. (For those of a forgetful nature, a few of the exchanges were even featured in the "previously on" intro.) It’s funny that you mention the Seinfeld finale, Spencer, as I had almost the exact same response: It reminded me of one of those “greatest hits” episodes that sitcoms loved to do back in the day—which Seinfeld was parodying—where the characters all sat around reminiscing as an excuse to play past clips from the show. And then we got Varys’s betrayal, and then Shae’s… (As for Cersei, Spencer, there is an additional reason for her hatred of her brother—beyond the facts that her Mom died giving birth to him and that his ugliness is an affront to her entire genetic worldview. But the show hasn’t yet mentioned it, and I don’t know whether it ever will, so we’ll leave it there for the time being.)

I can see how someone might love Tyrion’s finally losing it and going all You can’t handle the truth during the trial. But to my mind it wasn’t the best use of Peter Dinklage. He’s such a wonderfully subtle, ironic actor that it seems a waste to watch him go the full Nicholson.

And then, at last, the moment we book-readers were waiting for, the announcement that Tyrion will seek trial by combat, and (!)…

Well, and nothing. As you note, Spencer, the show uncharacteristically leaves us hanging. We’re just a few sentences of dialogue away from learning what this trial by combat will entail—and I don’t think it counts as a spoiler for me to say merely that it will be awesome. But for now we have to wait until at least next week to find out. Shame on you, Game of Thrones. You’re better than this.

Again, I’m probably grading on a curve due to my eagerness for things yet to come, but I thought there was filler pretty much everywhere tonight. The Daenerys scene was fine, but it, too, seemed to drag on longer than necessary. (Also: I hope she understands that by paying three times the value of any goat eaten by her dragons she’s establishing an extremely perverse incentive structure. Pretty soon every goatherd in Slaver’s Bay will be setting his flocks on fire for profit and no one in town will have anything to eat.) The small council meeting, meanwhile, lacked the zip and crackle we’ve come to expect, and the scene with Varys and Oberyn was fine, but hardly as terrific as a scene between the two of them might have been.

As for that opening scene in Braavos—well, I’ll admit to mixed feelings. I definitely felt an adrenaline rush at seeing the city in the title sequence and then, again, as the ship bearing Stannis and Ser Davos sailed between the massive calves of its Titan. But this enthusiasm for distant lands can be dangerous, as book readers know all too well. In George R.R. Martin’s fourth and (especially) fifth novels, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the author is writing scenes—and even entire storylines—with the principal purpose of introducing us to new locations on his vast map. Here’s Oldtown, here’s Pentos, here’s Sunspear! Benioff and Weiss will have to resist this impulse as best they can, which makes the appearance of Braavos—which we don’t visit in the books until later, and in a different context—feel as much like a warning as it does like a treat.

But the bigger weakness of the meeting between Stannis, Davos, and Mycroft the Iron Banker is that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. The Banker says (quite sensibly) “Here our books are filled with numbers” and then, after Davos proceeds to make a pitch with nary a number in it, changes his mind (presumably) and decides to throw away everything he learned in his Master’s Program in Business at the University of Essos.

Moreover, Davos’s claim that Stannis is the “only … reliable leader left in Westeros” is decidedly problematic given that—as the show makes clear and the books still clearer—no matter how much Stannis may be true to his word and stalwart in battle, nobody in Westeros wants to be led by him. There’s a reason, after all, that at the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings pretty much every rebellious house chose to ally itself with the likable-but-ineffectual younger Baratheon brother Renly. To recap: Stannis’s downsides are that he has no cash, no natural resources, no troops, no significant allies, and an approval rating that tops out (if he’s lucky) in the low twenties. His upside is that he’s very strict with smugglers. If the Iron Bank really decides to open its vaults to him, I hope someone will explain to me what kind of financial instrument I can purchase in order to bet most heavily against that debt ever being repaid.

So, an overlong trial that punts its payoff into a future episode, a characteristically pointless installment of Ramsay Business, and the least persuasive loan application since Buck Swope tried to leverage his porn career into a stereo equipment franchise in Boogie Nights… Am I missing something, Amy? Or was this—again, by the extremely high standards set this season—a pretty disappointing episode?


Sullivan: Spencer is very lucky he watched this episode with me instead of you, Chris. I didn’t have to sit on any spoilers because even though I’ve read all the books, I’ll be darned if I can remember about the trial by combat. I’ll also admit to finding this week’s episode perfectly entertaining. But that may be because my normal entertainment these days is listening to impassioned recitations of “Hop on Pop.” This is what life with two little ones will do to a once-discerning viewer with a steel-trap memory.

That may also be why I was disoriented by the opening visit to Braavos. First Stannis’s ship passes beneath the statue from Lost—except it’s not, as Jack and Sawyer are sadly nowhere to be seen. Stannis and Davos are there for an audience with the creepy loan officers, and instead of following the why of their appointment, I’m still getting over the fact that Braavos is a quick daytrip from Dragonstone. Why oh why does it take some characters in this world seemingly forever to make their way around the Seven Kingdoms when others appear to teleport to their destinations?

And as you point out, Chris, who in Westeros or beyond looks at the current list of claimants to the Iron Throne and says, “Stannis is my man”? The bankers elicit the awkward truth from Stannis directly. He has 4,000 troops and 32 ships—which is not bad if you’re the Dred Pirate Roberts but hardly the might needed to take Kings Landing. And his kingdom is a barely inhabitable volcanic island that is incapable of growing a single thing needed to sustain his people—or anybody else. “You can see,” says the banker-who-talks, “why these numbers seem unlikely to add up to a happy ending from our perspective.” Indeed.

At the same time, Tywin’s real talk last week with Cersei clued us into the fact that the House of Lannister isn’t the dominant force it once was and that the Lannister do not, in fact, always pay their debts. The small council got an update on Daenerys’s army—8,000 Unsullied plus 2,000 sellswords plus three dragons. (“Baby dragons,” said an unimpressed Cersei. I know a few goats who would beg to differ.) And while we don’t know the size—or, more likely, I can’t remember—of Badass Big Sister Yara’s fleet, House Greyjoy still has its own formidable navy. These are reminders that while we deal mostly in the personalities of various claimants, they each have real armies and navies ready to do battle on their behalf.

Which makes it even more clear how alone Tyrion is. His sister threw him in the dungeon, his father is about to pronounce him guilty of regicide, his wife has fled to parts unknown, and his love just threw him under the giant wagon wheels and sealed his fate with a bunch of big fat lies. Jaime still seems to be a loyal brother—his wet eyes when he came to bring Tyrion to the throne room got to me, although as Tyrion dryly noted, Jaime isn’t exactly a profile in courage here: “We mustn’t disappoint Father.” So Tyrion can be forgiven for ignoring Jaime’s pleas to follow a plan that will save his life.

Was anyone else surprised that the courtroom scene morphed into CSI for a moment there? Shown Sansa’s necklace, which was recovered from Ser Dontos’s body—nice job destroying the evidence there, Littlefinger—Maester Pycelle testifies that he has inspected the jewelry and discovered residue of a highly effective poison called The Strangler. Did he do DNA analysis as well? Should Lady Olenna be worried?

I found the conversation between Jaime and Tywin—the “judicial snack-break,” as you put it, Spencer—to be as interesting as the courtroom scenes. When Jaime tells Tywin that the Mad King had demanded his head, the elder Lannister pauses and looks surprised for perhaps the first time ever. He did not know that. It reminded me of the scene from a few episodes ago when Bronn tells Jaime that Tyrion initially wanted his brother to stand in as his champion at his trial in the Vale. These family members have complicated and unnatural relationships with each other, they scheme and lie and wish each other dead. But they also keep secrets regarding good things they have done for each other, about the rare goodwill that exists. “I saved your life—so you could murder my brother?”

Yet it’s not that argument—or this new knowledge—that moves Tywin. It’s simply a transaction. Jaime leaves the Kings Guard and returns to Casterly Rock as the heir. Tyrion get to live. Not because his father gives a damn whether he lives or dies, but because that’s the transaction. What a family.

“All men must die.” Who will it be next week? I wish I could remember. 

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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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