A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I taste some grilled seagull…
There are times when I feel like a broken record on the subject of “Game of Thrones” and my wish that Benioff and Weiss didn't have quite so much story to deal with, or at least that they could re-structure the show in a way that would allow for longer stints in each destination, if not for periodic single-location episodes like “Blackwater.” But then we get an episode like “The Lion and the Rose,” in which the first half is structured like your typical “Game of Thrones” episode, while the second half is essentially one long scene at Joffrey and Margaery's wedding, and I'm reminded all over again of the power of concentrated storytelling over the diffuse kind that Benioff, Weiss and company (including George R.R. Martin, who wrote this script) usually have to practice.
The first half of “The Lion and the Rose” is very good, even if most of the characters who make their season 4 debuts here feel a bit like the Westeros second string (but also Hodor), after we got so much of Arya and Dany and other favorites in the premiere. The second half, though? It's special.
Now, the episode would be memorable no matter what, due to the death by poisoning of Joffrey. The writers and Jack Gleeson(*) have made Joffrey one of the most genuinely evil, sadistic characters in this medium's history – a weak, cowardly boy who has decided that great power should bring with it not great responsibility, but great cruelty – and one whose death we've all been rooting for at least since Ned Stark lost his head, if not since the incident in “The Kingsroad” led to the murder of the butcher's son. His death any way, any time, at anyone's hand, would make this a signpost episode for the series just like “Baelor” or “The Rains of Castamere.”
(*) And anyone affiliated with the show who is ever asked about Gleeson in an interview – like, say, Sophie Turner by me – always tries to make abundantly clear what a superb performance this is, given what a nice and peaceful human being he is when the cameras aren't rolling. Allegedly, he wants to get out of acting, and if there's something that gives him more joy, I can respect him pursuing that. But the show and the business are losing a great young actor.
But by putting it at the end of this 20-minute-plus scene featuring every character who could plausibly be in Kings Landing at the time, riddled with moments both small (Cersei meets Brienne and immediately recognizes that this giant woman cares for her brother, even if I think Brienne's actual feelings are more complex than romantic love) and big (Joffrey publicly and repeatedly trying to humiliate Uncle Tyrion), it becomes not just a significant death, but a masterclass in suspense filmmaking by Martin and director Alex Graves. I had unfortunately been spoiled on Joffrey dying at his wedding (if not the exact timing or manner) by certain sad individuals with nothing more interesting to do with their time(**), but even if I hadn't, the way Graves assembles the sequence makes it clear that this wedding is going to turn into cause for somebody's funeral. There are too many blood feuds represented at that reception, too many people who have been wronged by the Lannisters, and too much preening and taunting by Joffrey for the party to conclude in a wholly peaceful manner. Nor would this show – which, by design, has to display symptoms of narrative ADD simply to fit in all the relevant pieces of Martin's books – devote so much precious time in a 10-episode season to letting the Lannisters gloat and celebrate without incident. Because the sequence just keeps going and going and going, we knew something was going down at this wedding. And as the tension mounted and the little people kept doing their pantomime recreation of the War of the Five Kings, I would understand any non-reader fearing very deeply for Tyrion's life.
(**) After “The Rains of Castamere” ended, I noted that the lack of surprise coupled with the show's previous struggles to make Robb interesting took away a lot of the power the scene was meant to have over me. Because I was invested in Joffrey's fate in a way I never was with Robb or Catelyn's, I enjoyed this episode significantly more, even though the technical achievements of each are about on par. (Which, according to Fienberg, makes me strange. But c'est la vie.)
Instead, it's Joffrey who dies – from poison apparently delivered by knight-turned-fool Ser Dontos, who re-entered Sansa's life last week and here spirits her away from the reception before Cersei or Tywin has the chance to erect roadblocks – and now things get very interesting, indeed. Tyrion is the obvious suspect – and Cersei's rage at the thought that the loathed freak of a younger brother who already killed her mother would now murder her son is among the best and scariest moments Lena Headey has yet gotten to play – though he at least seems to have scared Shae into taking the ship to Pentos before all this went down. Sansa's now a fugitive with Dontos, Margaery has now been twice-widowed by a “king,” and the Lannisters have just suffered an enormous defeat on the biggest stage possible. And yet at the same time, their grip on the Iron Throne hasn't changed much, if at all. Tywin has been the real power all along, and that won't change no matter which of his children or grandchildren has the most impressive royal title. If anything, Joffrey's predilection for inflicting pain – which, among other things, inspired the whole northern rebellion by Robb and his bannermen – was more of a detriment to the family than his position on the Throne was an asset. This is a terrible thing for Cersei and Jaime, who loved the little monster as only parents could, and it's bad for Tyrion, who makes an easy patsy, but for the larger power structure of the series, in some ways this strengthens House Lannister's position.
Again, I think Benioff and Weiss are doing as spectacularly well as can be expected in trying to squeeze so much story and so many characters into so little time. But the world Martin created, and that they've brought to life on screen, is so rich, and the characters so intriguing and complex, that I always want to take more time with each group of people in each setting than the show can usually give me, because it has to rush off to the Riverlands, or go north of the Wall, or pop into whichever slave city Dany is liberating this week. Once Joffrey and Margaery got married, “The Lion and the Rose” felt no need to rush, and the rest of it – both the intersection of so many characters, and the mounting tension that erupted in Joffrey's assassination – was so much more satisfying for it.
Some other thoughts:
* I interviewed Alex Graves (who also directed next week's episode) about the experience of crafting such a long and memorable sequence. Look for that tomorrow morning on the blog; I'll link to it here when it's live. UPDATE: Here's the Graves interview.
* In case you missed it, HBO responded to the premiere getting the highest ratings for any single HBO episode since “The Sopranos” finale by ordering two additional seasons, which will at minimum give the show six years.
* The wedding may have overshadowed what came before, but an awful lot of interesting things happened earlier, especially within the Lannister clan. Note that Jaime can only confess his weakness to Tyrion – he's been the one member of the family who seems to actually like his brother – which in turn leads us to the wonderful spectacle of Jaime getting schooled by Bronn. I'd have enjoyed Brienne playing his fencing tutor, but Bronn is a ton of fun in his own right, starting with his explanation for why he knows this spot is secluded enough for Jaime's purposes.
* Ramsay Snow makes his return, along with poor Theon – or, as he was dubbed at the end of last season, “Reek.” Given the monotonous sadism of the Ramsay/Theon story last season, I'd have been perfectly happy to see Theon slit the guy's throat, get stabbed in return by Bolton and this entire corner of the show be excised. That said, the shaving scene was as tense as designed, and there was at least an effort made here to show how Ramsay wound up as the monster he is, given his relationship with Bolton. And their discussion of whether he'd get to take Bolton's name nicely echoed the scene where Ellaria explains that in Dorne, bastards (there named “Sand” rather than “Snow”) aren't shunned like in other parts of Westeros.
* We get our first check-in of the season with Stannis and the rest of the fun-loving, people-burning gang over at Dragonstone. The most notable development there is our first significant exposure to Stannis' wife, whose attitude towards their disfigured daughter made me just a bit less sad that Stannis is giving all his loving (and all his sanity) to Melisandre. Also, despite Stannis being the one authority figure in Westeros to seem concerned with news from Castle Black at the end of last season, there doesn't seem to be any particular urgency on the matter here.
* Also making their season 4 debut: Bran and his traveling party – aka Hodor and the Gang (Hodor!) – where Jojen is starting to get concerned with how much time Bran is spending getting his worg on of late. Though they've been traveling progressively northward, Bran's vision when they get to the tree with the face includes glimpses of Kings Landing and what looked a bit like the frozen throne room from Dany's own vision of the future a few seasons back. When he says he knows where they have to go, is there a chance the whole group might turn around and make a beeline for the south?
* When Tywin and Lady Olenna are chatting after the wedding ceremony, they briefly discuss the Iron Bank, a financial institution I don't recall hearing about before on the show. But given that Olenna tends to be right about almost everything, my guess is the Iron Bankers will be causing grief for Tywin within due time. UPDATE: A few people have reminded me that the Iron Bank has, in fact, come up in the past, most recently when Tyrion was named Master of Coin and realized just how in debt the crown was to the Bank.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com