Stannis and Davos set sail with a new strategy. Dany meets with supplicants. Tyrion faces down his father in the throne room.
“The Laws of Gods and Men” is a welcome return to form for Game of Thrones after a pair of uneven efforts, and just as we hoped the trial of Tyrion Lannister proves every bit as compelling as we thought it could be. Like “The Lion and the Rose” before it, the episode’s first half ranges into disparate story lines in various areas—with more uneven results, admittedly, but on the whole a positive effort compared to the ill-conceived Craster’s Keep narrative—before the second half of the narrative narrows down on King’s Landing and the trial itself. Bryan Cogman’s excellent adaptation work—some of his best on the series to date—provides a platform for one of Peter Dinklage’s very best performances to date on the series, and gives returning director Alik Sakharov a framework to present a few more masterpieces of direction and visual composition. All in all, this episode is mostly a return to top form for the show, and suggests that the back half of this season may merit all the excitement that was generated in the run-up to the season.
The proverbial “laws of gods and men” are on display in almost every storyline, and it’s that “almost” that suggests the least effective storyline of this season. The assault on the Dreadfort by a small band of Greyjoy warriors was clearly conceived as a means of having Theon’s sister discover just what has become of her brother. And that specific moment—the intensely-shot, claustrophobic fight as Reek struggles and screams his loyalty before getting away and diving back into a kennel—is a rich and powerful one, well-played by all involved. But everything around it feels senseless. Nothing is done to establish that the castle is almost empty of a garrison, so the assault as it’s shown simply doesn’t make sense. If it is supposed to be empty, why haven’t we been told this?
And then the notion of the escape, where the dogs appear to have been inordinately slow to give chase, or… something. It’s not at all elegant and organic. The show dared something last season by developing this notion of Asha trying to rescue her brother, and it seems clear that it was supposed to lead to this all along. So why does it come off so poorly, simply in the logic of it? It feels as if perhaps an attempt was being made to parallel the attempt with Theon’s own taking of Winterfell, but the circumstances seem quite different (and again, if they aren’t, something could be done to establish that). Is this a story thread that had been conceived as something more significant, which was pared down to just enough to deal with the dangling plot thread of Asha’s journey? One can only speculate. Besides establishing that the garrison was almost entirely gone (and the ironborn actually being aware of this), it would have seemed more reasonable to have the ironborn ambush Ramsay with Reek while Ramsay was on one of his “hunts”, and that something could have been contrived to lead Reek to do something similar. It would have strained credulity less, given the apparent circumstances.
It did, at least, also accomplish setting up the scene that follows, as Ramsay lets Reek take a bath, and presents him with a plan. Iwan Rheon and Alfie Allen provide fine turns here. Imagine if these two scenes were our re-introduction to Theon after his capture at the end of the 2nd season—they would have worked perfectly, would have indeed been made even more powerful, as a way to bring the character back into the fold. As it is, it still works very well, because one can see the way Reek has now been turned into a whipped dog—the kennels are a metaphorically symbol as much as anything—who both dreads his master’s abuse and tries to please him all the more. The two actors tap into that, as we see how Ramsay looks on Reek very much as a pet.
But that aside, the rest is stronger. Everything else ties into the laws men set for themselves, or believe the gods have set, and it’s shown to good effect. The proper introduction of Hizdahr zo Loraq follows Daenerys dealing with a somewhat more mundane matter of law—replacement of destroyed property, caused by her increasingly-large, increasingly-hungry dragons—and then turns to something straight out of Antigone as Hizdahr makes an eloquent, emotional plea for permission to give his father’s remains a proper burial. It highlights the fact that Daenerys’s act of collective punishment didn’t entirely strike its mark, and more importantly it highlights Daenerys’s struggles with her own temperament (which appears increasingly quick to lash out) and the needs of ruling as a queen. Emilia Clarke has lately come under some criticism among fans for her performance of late, an issue which we’ve started to see, and nothing quite highlights this as her extraordinary rebuke when Hizdahr zo Loraq uses an interlocutor to speak to her.
The delivery is basically so over-the-top that it didn’t seem to come at all from the same Daenerys we’ve been watching through three and a half seasons. Where did it come from? I don’t know. It was jarring, exceedingly so. The growing aggression, perhaps even megalomania, of Daenerys is a perfectly worthy character development… but it has to be a genuine development, and not seem presented as a fait accompli as is done here. Clarke tones it down afterward, thankfully, and one can see in her response to Hizdahr’s argument that what she did was a crime that she is bluffing her way through her current position, insisting on refusal of criticism as the way to develop a regal persona. It’s a dangerous road she has taken, and despite Clarke’s apparent uncertainty in how to show the inner conflicts and the progression of her character, the soundness of the basic underpinnings of her narrative (established, as they were, in Martin’s novels) should provide worthwhile dilemmas for the character as the season wears on.
Elsewhere in Essos, in the opening of the episode, the production goes all-out on the VFX with its magnificent recreation of the Free City of Braavos, clearly drawing from the city map Martin provided for the Lands of Ice and Fire collection. Then the Iron Bank itself is presented, and what we get is a largely-wordless performance by Stephen Dillane, who conveys so much of Stannis’s frustrations with just a look and the relentless pacing back and forth. When the bankers enter (led by Tycho Nestoris, played by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, who fans of that show will recognize as Mycroft; he has many other notable credits to his name), and Stannis is invited to sit, Sakharov’s framing—the bankers seated on very throne-like seats, Stannis standing over a low bench (such as a poor man might have in his home, though in wood rather than marble)—combined with Dillane’s body language says all you need to know: Stannis has come as a supplicant, and he hates it. What follows is a nicely handled scene as the Iron Bank refuses Davos’s arguments… until he finally raises the best argument of all: the Iron Throne will not always have Tywin Lannister to support it, and once he’s gone, who will succeed him? It’s a pragmatic argument, that Stannis is the only man left who can be trusted to shepherd the realm (and repay the realm’s debts).
It’s one that succeeds, as we see when we get the welcome return of Salladhor Saan (in, I must note, a very amusing reintroduction, even if the location of it was apparently selected by whoever keeps track of meeting nudity quota among the producers). My only critique here is a minor one: are we to take it that the Iron Bank has withdrawn all support from the Lannisters and thrown it to Stannis instead, or is this to be seen as a kind of bridge loan to simply keep him as an option as they wait to see what happens with the Iron Throne? I’m guessing the latter—it would make no sense at all otherwise—but I can already see viewers quite confused on the lack of any statement giving a sense of just how successful Davos’s argument was.
And then King’s Landing. Who knew a trial could be so fascinating, or could provide such a rich canvas for writer and director alike to work? Performances are uniformly strong in King’s Landing, striking all the right notes. The small council scene reveals the interplay between the various people seated there, and the only fault I can really find there is the insane rapidity by which news has traveled between King’s Landing and Meereen and back again, and the way Mace Tyrell is treated as little more than an errand boy by all and sundry; how could this man have managed to ignore his mother’s protests when he wed Margaery to Renly? They’ve gone too far in the name of comedy, I think, turning him from somewhat incompetent to completely ineffectual, a non-player who takes up space on the show for no real reason other than it exists. But look at the rest of it—the interactions, the way Tywin moves the business along briskly, the way Prince Oberyn is a study in comfortable insolence and watchful observation.
Pedro Pascal is particularly sharp here, and when Bryan Cogman conceived the notion of having Varys and he speak afterward before the Iron Throne, it was a stroke of genius. Pascal and Conleth Hill play effortlessly off one another’s characters, as Varys proves inscrutable even for the observant prince. What lessons are to be taken out of that scene, beyond the fact that Oberyn really did move into the brothel (we were only joking when we suggested that appeared to be the case)? I would take out of it that Oberyn’s playing a deeper game than simply aiming for his heart’s desire, the death of Lannisters… and that Varys is playing a game not so dissimilar from Littlefinger’s own, with the Iron Throne (or at least its power) as the ultimate prize. It leaves Oberyn thoughtful, and sets the stage for the trial.
Many moments of the trial scenes are amazingly shot. Tyrion’s placement in chains by his own brother is matched by Sakharov’s use of the chiaroscuro effect of the blackness of the cell consuming half of Tyrion’s face, while a beam of light illuminates the other half, setting it off and enriching the emotion. As Tywin questions Tyrion, the camera is tilted just so, framing them all and suggesting the way they’re looking down at him. There’s an exquisite control of the camera and lighting in these scenes, making this episode the most visually sumptuous of the season. But Sakharov’s camera work needs performances to match, and it gets it out of Peter Dinklage. It’s a tremendous performance as he unleashes all of his hurt and frustration and rage on the crowd, and makes his call for a trial by combat—in a deviation from the novels, but one that works well enough with their much more emotionally-charged betrayal by Shae—seem all the more like the lashing out of someone who can’t hold back any longer, and who isn’t thinking clearly. Sibel Kekelli’s performance helps Dinklage’s own, as she presents “just the facts”... and then, once her nerves are past, once it comes trippingly off her tongue, Tyrion begs her to stop… and she reminds him, voice suddenly quavering with emotion, that she is a whore. It’s a fantastic moment that captures everything about Tyrion. While I’ve never felt they succeeded in genuinely showing that relationship—never making it understandable what needs drove Tyrion to loving her, unlike the Tyrion of the novel whose failings and neediness are more readily graspable—that moment between them is absolutely an earned one.
It’s simple enough to say that this is the best episode of the season so far, even despite the Dreadfort misstep. One can only hope for more like it, episodes that provide the same sort of rich thematic material, the interactions between complicated characters, and the willingness to give the scenes room enough to breath.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Tyrion IX and and part of Tyrion X.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Added scenes of note:
The Iron Bank: Tycho Nestoris is a character introduced in A Dance with Dragons, appearing first at the Wall in search of Stannis. The episode takes an element from that plot—namely that the Iron Bank determines to provide Stannis financial support due to deteriorating relations with the Iron Throne—and turns it around, making Stannis seek out that support proactively. He does not travel to Braavos, as shown. The precise nature of the Iron Bank’s offices, and how it conducts business within them, are not yet revealed in the novels.
Salladhor Saan: As noted in season 3, Salladhor actually remains with Stannis throughout A Storm of Swords, so his return to Stannis’s cause in this episode is moving back towards the continuity of the novels. However, in the novels he is continually strained in his dealings with Stannis by the lack of payment for the ships he brings him, whereas this episode appears to resolve that issue (at least for the time being).
Ironborn at the Dreadfort: The events depicted here do not happen anywhere in the novels to date. As noted last season, in the contemporaneous time in the novels, the Greyjoys are not even certain Theon is alive, and even if he is, his sister does not contemplate a rescue mission at this time.
Reek and Ramsay: Although no scene precisely like this has appeared in the novels, the plot detail in its is inspired by the end of Reek I (ADwD), where Ramsay reveals to Theon that he has plans to have him serve him as he rides to war. At this time in the novels, Ramsay frames it as a matter of fetching his virgin bride—Arya Stark, although in reality Jeyne Poole—which is not a plot point that the TV show has introduced to date.
Dragons and goats: In Daenerys I (ADwD), Daenerys’s dragons—Drogon in particular—do start falling upon sheep belonging to shepherds, who bring the burnt remains to petition Daenerys for compensation. After a number of such claims, Daenerys offers to repay in coin or in kind provided that the shepherds are willing to swear the truth of their claim before the Ghiscari gods.
Daenerys and Hizdahr: Hizdahr zo Loraq in the novels is presented as something like a Roman patrician, cool and stoic, not particularly passionate or emotional. He is already the chief of his family in the novels, and there is no mention of his father dying in the course of Daenerys’s conquest of Meereen. Daenerys is not petitioned to take down the bodies, so far as we know, and does not make special exemptions. However, in the books she herself orders the bodies to be removed and buried once the flies they attract cause a public health hazard.
Small Council: No scenes with Prince Oberyn seated in the small council appear in the novels, despite the fact that he arrived as a proxy for his brother Prince Doran, who had been offered a seat. Besides this, the most notable detail is the fact that the council openly discusses Daenerys’s conquest of Meereen. Besides the fact that it would have taken months for the news to reach King’s Landing (a matter compounded by the previous episode’s statement from Jorah that Joffrey was dead), in the novels the long distance leads to much of the news becoming corrupted, growing in countless retellings. This leads to news of the hatching of three dragons in Qarth—as it is presented in the novels—being dismissed by Tywin Lannister as worthless gossip, rather than a matter that requires dealing with as in the show.
Varys and Oberyn: No such scene appears in the novels, but that Varys indicates his origins as Lys are correct to the books.
Jaime and Tyrion: Jaime does not interact with Tyrion at this point in the novels.
Jaime and Tywin: This is an interesting deviation from the novels, as it is something that Jaime could have done. He is present in King’s Landing for the trial—he notes that Tyrion doesn’t see him or doesn’t acknowledge his presence—and could very well have approached Tywin if he felt that Tyrion’s life was in danger. Yet it does not happen there. Several arguments might be used: Jaime’s trust that the trial would reveal the truth of matters, Jaime being incapable of seeing himself out of the Kingsguard, and even the metatextual one that Martin simply didn’t think of the idea himself. In any case, in the novels it is Tywin himself who proposes that Tyrion confess in return for being allowed to take the black, through the agency of Ser Kevan. No bargaining is required.