That Big Game of Thrones Moment: Better for Book Readers, or Not?

Our roundtable on "The Lion and the Rose," the second episode of the HBO show's fourth season.


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Orr: So, Spencer, is your appetite for justice at least a little bit sated? Last episode ended with a Stark retrieving her sword and using it to mete out some bloody vengeance, and this one ended with a Lannister—the king, no less—gagging on a cup of the World’s Worst Vintage. Sure, the fact that they’re both children may complicate things morally, but you said you’d like a little payback, and you got it. I have more to say about what’s known colloquially as the Purple Wedding, but I’ll come back to it at the end.

Instead I’ll begin at the beginning, with the reintroduction of Ramsay, the Bastard of Bolton. Did you know that he’s a psychosexual sadist? If that somehow escaped your notice during the eleventy-six hours he spent torturing Theon last season, then you’re in luck! We have a nice remedial lesson lined up here in which he and a lady friend—I’m not sure who she is or whether we’ll be seeing more of her—hunt down an innocent girl and then let her go, literally, to the dogs. (Is it a coincidence that last episode ended with a metaphorical Hound having a bite of literal chicken and this one opens with literal hounds dining on a metaphorical “chick”? I doubt it.)

I explained my unhappiness with the way the Ramsay character has been used at length in last year’s final roundtable, and I won’t re-litigate it here again. I will, however, note that the minor Bolton vassal Locke—the guy who hacked off Jaime’s hand and reappeared at the Dreadfort this episode—is almost as problematic. In the books, the de-handing of Jaime was performed by borderline-lunatic mercenaries who answered to no lord. But Locke answers to Roose Bolton, and the idea that he’d maim a captive Lannister in a fit of class-envy pique and not be punished for it is simply ridiculous. Indeed, Roose notes witheringly to his son Ramsay—in front of Locke!—that “Theon was a valuable hostage, not your plaything.” How much angrier would he be at a non-blood-relative crippling a vastly more valuable hostage? Locke ought to be a dead man—indeed, his death would certainly have been a part of the price Tywin demanded when Roose switched sides—but instead, he’s yukking it up with Ramsay about how much fun it is to mutilate noble hostages. Lame. On the upside, at least Ramsay is getting sent south to take Moat Cailin so he’ll have something to do other than hunt and flay.

The Bran-and-Jojen-and-Meera-go-north storyline isn’t nearly as frustrating, but it is—and I fear it’s likely to remain—a bit dull. At least showrunners Benioff and Weiss have had the sense to generally keep the portions small. And I did like the thematic twinning of Ramsay and his dogs taking down an innocent girl, with Bran, inhabiting his direwolf Summer, feasting on doe. Westeros, as we’re learning, is a dog-eat-everything world.

I’m also looking forward to Stannis finding an excuse to get off Dragonstone. But in the meantime, I like what the show has done with his creepy wife, Selyse, who gets an orgasmic thrill from watching her own brother go up in flames, and his clever, greyscale-marked daughter, Shireen. Moreover, I’ve gradually become won over by Stephen Dillane and Carice van Houten as Stannis and Melisandre. Now the show just needs to give them some meaningful narrative purpose, which—if I’m not mistaken—it will within a few episodes.

Which brings us back to King’s Landing, where the bulk of the episode takes place. (Like you, Amy, I can’t get too much of the capital.) I quite liked the meal between Jaime and Tyrion, which seems to presage a reordering of Lannister affections. Disowned by his dad, semi-rejected by his sister/lover, Jaime may be finding that Tyrion is the only family he has that’s worth a damn. And the scene with Jaime training his left hand with Bronn is—like pretty much every scene involving Bronn—a pleasure.

The pre-wedding brunch at which Joffrey receives his Valyrian steel sword from Tywin (and uses it to chop up the tome on kingship that he got from Tyrion) seemed to me like the punch line of a joke that was set up last week. It was you, Amy, who cited the exchange between Arya and the Hound in which he made fun of her naming her sword. (Her: “A lot of people name their swords.” Him: “A lot of cunts.”) At the time, of course, he was referring to her Needle. But it’s no coincidence that just one episode later Joffrey—whom the Hound certainly considers more deserving of the C-word than anyone else in Westeros—is swinging his new toy around and declaring, “Such a great sword should have a name.” I could almost hear the bark of Hound’s bitter laughter in the distance.

But it’s at the reception following the wedding ceremony—which made up the last 20 minutes or so of the episode—that sparks truly begin to fly. Lady Olenna disses her son, the ineffectual Lord of Highgarden (“Not now, Mace. Lord Tywin and I are speaking”); Jaime and Loras bicker over Cersei; and the ongoing Cold War between Cersei and Margaery heats up a few degrees over the disposition of leftovers from the feast. Best of all, we have the first encounter between Prince Oberyn and his paramour Ellaria Sand, on the one hand, and Tywin and Cersei on the other. There is one passage by Oberyn in this exchange that’s so dense with meaning and inference that I want to pull it out for examination:

In some places, the highborn frown on those of low birth. In other places, the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful. What a fortunate thing for you, former Queen Regent, that your daughter Myrcella has been sent to live in the latter sort of place.

It goes by so quickly you could easily miss it, but in the space of those few words, Oberyn manages to a) register his displeasure with Cersei’s hauteur toward Ellaria; b) remind her that with Margaery’s rise the Lannisters no longer wield unilateral power in the capital; c) make clear to Lord Tywin that he holds the Lannisters responsible for the murder of his sister Elia and her children; and d) issue an implicit threat to Cersei that, if he wished, the same fate could befall her daughter—and soon-to-be-eldest living child—Myrcella, whom Tyrion shipped off to Dorne in season two. I can’t recall if this exchange happened in the same way in the books (or whether it took place at all), but this is great, great writing.

Joffrey’s escalating provocations toward Tyrion were handled nicely, I thought. (And they were not merely toward Tyrion: did you guys notice that the dwarf playing Renly has his fake butt showing and is “riding” a blond figure that could only be Ser Loras? That had to go over well with the many Tyrells in attendance.) And I’m counting on the two of you (and any commenters we can enlist) to help me make “Look! The pie!” a thing. Anytime any of us finds ourselves at an awkward or painful social juncture, we’ll just holler out Margaery’s words and assume it will defuse the situation.

I’ve gone on way too long, so I’ll leave it to you two to further discuss the experience and ramifications of Joffrey finally getting his. There’s no question that having read the books enriches aspects of watching the show—and was a great pleasure in its own right—but I’ll admit that at moments like this I envy those viewers who don’t know what comes next. I watched the episode with a non-book-reader who spent most of the reception scene frantic over the possibility that Tyrion was about to die. And someday perhaps, he will. But to quote the great Syrio Forel from season one, “not today.”

In any case, this was another extremely satisfying episode. I’m curious to hear both your thoughts on the Purple Wedding. In return, I promise not to disclose any of the horrors that will take place at the upcoming Cerulian Name Day, Chartreuse Baby Shower, and Aubergine Festival of the Seven…

Sullivan: Like you, Chris, I sometimes wish I could experience Game of Thrones for the first time as a viewer. But I have to admit that it was satisfying to watch the wedding feast knowing what Joffrey had coming to him. Don’t get me wrong—it was still excruciating to watch Tyrion suffer Joffrey’s demented humiliations. Just slightly less so when I could think: keep it up, King-boy. Pretty soon that tongue is going to be gagging instead of wagging.

Indeed, it’s a measure of how awful Joffrey is—and how fantastic Jack Gleeson has been in portraying that unholy mix of insecurity, cowardice, sadism, and unchecked, uninformed power—that his death seems like it’s over too soon. Shouldn’t someone who delights in the pain and suffering of others have to experience a slow death, with the full knowledge of what’s happening to him? It’s telling that the camera only focuses on Cersei as Joffrey meets his end. Because by this point, she is the only person who could possibly have tears in her eyes—and then only because of the fierce bond between a mother and her child.

Of course, such a sudden and public death of a king will have ramifications for both the haves and have-nots in Kings Landing and beyond. Tyrion, for one, has just traded the sadism of his nephew for the punishing wrath of his sister. But it’s hard to imagine anyone but Cersei weeping for the departed Joffrey. Someone—possibly Tyrion, but yet to be determined—is particularly joyful that the poisoned wine bit worked and Joffrey is no more. Margaery, who just dodged a bullet and didn’t even have to endure a wedding night, would seem to have plenty of motive. Really, though, virtually anyone in Westeros—and beyond—could have wanted Joffrey dead.

Elsewhere in Westeros, I will be fast-forwarding through any scene involving Ramsay for the foreseeable future. [Shudder.] I agree, Chris, that Benioff and Weiss have lost something essential in their streamlining of Ramsey’s story and decision to turn him into a flat-out psychopath. But until you pointed out the fact that Roose Bolton chews out his son for torturing Theon while seemingly doing nothing to the underling who chopped off Jaime Lannister’s hand, I hadn’t fully grasped the ridiculousness of the Locke situation.

Perhaps that’s because I’m still trying to figure out why the Six-Fingered Man is in Westeros, and whether that means Indigo Montoya will soon join the cast as well. Seriously—it’s not like actor Noah Taylor goes around looking like the Six-Fingered Man in real life. The decision to give Locke this extremely distinctive look is confounding and makes for distracted viewing.

HBO / 20th Century Fox

As for Bran and his merry band wandering north of the Wall, I’m happy for their storyline to remain pared-down until it reaches whatever critical point George R. R. Martin has in mind for it (still not clear as of Book 5, by the way.) But I am starting to get very worried that the show is going to have a Walt problem (see: Lost, seasons 2-6) as the actor playing Bran ages to look and sound nothing like a 10-year-old. At this rate, Hodor is going to throw out his back in another episode or two.

Before I pass this on to you, Spencer, let’s return to Kings Landing for a moment to revisit Bran’s one-time attempted murderer, Ser Jaime. One of my favorite aspects of the series—both the books and the show—is how Jaime steadily, and mostly believably, shifts from a despicable to sympathetic character. It helps that he hasn’t done anything more objectionable than make a pass at his sister in a few seasons, while at the same time he’s been both gallant and vulnerable with Brienne. Oh, how I want Jaime and Tyrion to be best buds and bond over the fact that the rest of their family members are just horrible, horrible human beings.

But Cersei could never let that happen. She had so many characteristically awful moments in this episode—including laughing and clapping her hands at the reenactment of Ned Stark’s beheading, which at the time she at least had the humanity to oppose. Her order to give the leftover food to dogs instead of the poor just because she’s jealous of Brienne and Margaery, though, was a sure sign that she has not managed any self-improvement over the past four seasons.

So, Spencer, I’m dying to know what you thought of this episode, as the only one of us who wasn’t spoiled going into it. As Lady Olenna says, “Killing a man at his wedding—horrid. What sort of monster would do such a thing?”

Kornhaber: Ah, I so do wish I could provide the flabbergasted reaction you’re looking for. Unfortunately, a couple months back, I had the Purple Wedding spoiled when some anonymous sadist left a Snape-kills-Dumbledore-style comment on an article I’d edited—an Atlantic piece on True Detective, for whatever reason.

Horrid. What sort of monster would do such at thing?

Of course, such are the dangers of obsessively watching (or, even more, writing about) a book adaptation in the Internet age. Something similar happened to me regarding the Red Wedding, though that was partly my fault for not being more careful with my clicks while double-checking the spelling of Robb Stark’s name. The stages of spoiler mourning are all too familiar by now: first gasping, then clicking “close tab,” then groaning, then attempting to wipe the brain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind­-like. I told myself I’d misread what I’d just seen, or that I’d merely come across fan fiction. Chris was so kind as to offer a white lie, emailing me to say the commenter was mistaken. It didn’t quite restore my blissful ignorance, but it did allow my to maintain some uncertainty watching Joffrey’s wedding day unfold.

In any case, I’m not sure this particular death could have, or should have, come as a total shock. As I wrote a week ago, Thrones has been dropping hints about a Lannister reckoning. Viewers have long fantasized about Joffrey’s demise; so, it increasingly seems, have most residents of the Seven Kingdoms. Just last episode, Jaime pointed out that there are plenty of people in King’s Landing alone who’d want to see Joffrey’s head on a pike. For the crossbow creep to reign on indefinitely would, at a certain point, be harder to believe than the idea that someone, somehow poisoned him at the big banquet.

Even setting that all aside, by the last 10 minutes of the hour, you knew something was about to happen. Episode writer George R.R. Martin (heard of him?) and director Alex Graves deserve big credit for the way they layered tension into the nuptial festivities. Wedding parties are inherently awkward in the real world; one that brings together all of Westeros’ top schemers would seem almost overripe with dramatic and comedic potential. Happily, the show delivered on that potential.

First it offered a series of encounters made hilarious and tense by their blend of forced pleasantry, barbed doublespeak, and outright hostility. Chris, I love your close reading of Oberyn’s chat with the Lannisters, and if we had time we could give nearly the same treatment to each of the quick dialogues between Cersei and Brienne, Jaime and Loras, and Tywin and Olenna.

Next came Joffrey’s long, final torment of those around him. At first his antics seemed like an occasion for more delicious, wedding-typical slapstick: There goes the drunk groom, making everyone else feel uncomfortable. But slowly, things attained an air of real menace. I expect that you could map Joffrey’s treatment of Tyrion onto some psychology-textbook schematic of how bullies work: belittling in the most public of settings, taunting about traits over which the bullied has no control, and inhabiting an unassailable position of power while daring the victim to retaliate.

But it was Tyrion’s oscillation between obedience and defiance that really made the scene rivet. Note how Peter Dinklage maintained a deadpan, sad-eyed affect both while his character deftly deflected Joffrey’s initial provocation (“One taste of combat was enough for me, my grace. I would like to keep what remains of my face”) and while making a dangerous joke (preaching caution towards the lustful Renly impersonator, as “it would be a tragedy for the king to lose his virtue hours before his wedding night”).

Additional kudos should go to Thrones' makeup crew for making the climactic asphyxiation as satisfyingly sick as possible. Amy, you wanted more suffering, but as Joffrey’s pale blue eyes bulged and his mouth constricted a tiny red blot, it did feel, to me, like justice for this unrepentant murderer.

But of course, good feelings are short-lived in Thrones. Within seconds, Cersei is accusing poor, beleaguered Tyrion of murder. That’s preposterous—he had the motive, obviously, but we all know he’s far too smart to poison the very cup he’s holding when the king dies. I’ll refrain from speculating too much—another downside of watching Thrones without having read the books is that most predictions are immediately seen as idiotic by anyone who has read the books. But I will say I don’t expect to be surprised by who the culprit is, because it could be anyone.

That doesn’t mean I’m not excited to find out. Sansa and Dontos in conspiracy seems to be the theory the show wants you to suspect, and that makes sense. But as you hinted, Amy, the Tyrells could have a poisonous case of cold feet about joining up with the traitorous, indebted Lannisters. Oberyn could be extracting the revenge he has so clearly come to King’s Landing for. Daenerys could be unleashing payback for the regime’s assassination attempt against her back in the day. Cersei’s tears and Tywin’s look of distress could even be false. Maybe the string-pullers of the Lannister family decided it was too risky to have a capricious homicidal brat as figurehead.

No matter how it turns out, though, the season has officially hooked me with a whodunit. Now, if only I can avoid learning the answer to the mystery before the show chooses to provide it.