This week on “Game of Thrones,” having a righteous cause is no guarantee of success when it comes to “The Laws of Gods and Men.”
Seeking the funds to mount another attempt at taking the Iron Throne, Stannis Baratheon sails to Braavos for an audience before the Iron Bank. But the men who hold the pursestrings (led by led by “Sherlock”’s Mark Gatiss)that fund rivals to kings who may be backsliding on their debts — the Lannisters have deferred a couple times by now — aren't interested in the legitimacy of his claim. Whether Stannis is the rightful successor to Robert Baratheon or merely a jealous usurper depends on whose story one believes. But the fact is that the Battle of Blackwater put a serious dent in his creditworthiness when it comes to a conquest loan. “Our books are filled with numbers — we prefer the stories they tell. More plain, less open to interpretation,” the lead banker says. Translation: We verified your income, and we're all out of adjustable rate mortgages.
But Ser Davos recounts, on the four stubs of his fingers, how his king is just, in the prime of his life, battle-tested and worthy, the only real challenger left when the true power in King's Landing, 67-year-old Tywin Lannister, dies. Apparently, the Braavosi may not give thieves titles, but they do take their word as collateral for loans. Stannis is back in business.
Few causes in Westeros are as just as seeking vengeance for the torture that Theon Greyjoy has suffered at the hands of Ramsay Snow, and his sister Yara’s ship has reached the Dreadfort to save him. Except when the Ironborn rescue party finds Theon sleeping with the dogs, he refuses to let them take him, insisting that his name is Reek and that his loyalty is to Ramsay.
Yara Greyjoy retreats, telling her men that her brother is dead. As a reward for his loyalty, Theon is granted a hot bath, with Ramsay creepily running a sponge over his scarred body while asking if he’d be willing to help him take Moat Cailin … by “pretending to be Theon Greyjoy.” Given the state of Theon's addled mind, this might be a taller task than breaking him in the first place was.
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen is beginning to regret not listening to Ser Barristan's advice to temper vengeance with mercy. As she settles into the Meereenese throne after her celebrated victory liberating its slaves, she must answer for her dragons flambeing a citizen’s entire herd of goats, while it turns out one of the men she had crucified was in fact an outspoken opponent of stringing up slave children as mile markers. “Is it justice to answer one crime with another?” his grieving son demands. And those are just the first two supplicants she’s received today — there are 212 more waiting!
Prince Oberyn also objects to the duties of his office, specifically the early hour of Small Council meetings. But the kingdom doesn’t run itself. Sandor “The Hound” Clegane was spotted in the Riverlands and earns a 100 silver bounty for the slaying of five Kingsguardsmen (though no one wonders beyond an idle comment what would possess him to pick that particular fight). Lord Varys is tasked with getting another spy into Daenerys' ranks, since Ser Jorah Mormont no longer seems to be in the Lannisters’ service.
After the meeting, Oberyn tries to make friends with Varys by inviting him around to the brothel to meet his paramour and drink Dornish wine — “not the swill they serve here” — but he’s confounded three times in the conversation. Though everyone calls him a lord, Varys is not actually a nobleman; he is asexual (“When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad I have no part in it.”); and he wants the Iron Throne just as much as anyone. Oberyn may want to sit up a little straighter at the next Small Council meeting and pay attention — he’s got a lot to learn about politics in King’s Landing.
And there is no more poignant demonstration of Westerosi politics than the trial of Tyrion Lannister, to which the episode devotes nearly its entire second half. Not so long ago, it was Jaime Lannister who held the title of Kingslayer; that has now passed to Tyrion, as a member of the gallery calls out while he’s marched into the throne room. As promised, his father Tywin, Mace Tyrell and Oberyn sit as his judges before a parade of witnesses, all with an axe to grind against Tyrion and his less-than-diplomatic approach to life and the fools he must suffer in it.
Ser Meryn recalls Tyrion calling Joffrey a halfwit and wishing him the same fate as the Mad King. (This happened while Joffrey had a crossbow pointed at Sansa, whom Meryn was beating at the time. But, details.) Grand Maester Pycelle says his poison stores were plundered after Tyrion had him arrested for spying on him on Cersei’s orders; speaking of his sister, Cersei says it was Tyrion who insisted that Joffrey lead the Battle of Blackwater from the front lines. And Varys, who once told Tyrion that he was all that kept Stannis’ army from sacking King’s Landing, now calls him a Stark sympathizer.
Jaime can see which way this wind is blowing and approaches his father during the recess to plead for Tyrion’s life. As he’d made clear during their last father-son chat in the season opener, Tywin’s priority remains carrying on his family’s legacy. Jaime points out that could be rather difficult after the one son who could still provide him with an heir is found guilty and executed. Tywin keeps enjoying his food and wine as Jaime rails against Cersei’s blatant witness tampering and reminding his father that he, too, has slain a king and continues to have a head on his shoulders.
But it's not until he makes one last desperate grasp for Tyrion’s freedom by offering to renounce his position in the Kingsguard and return to Casterly Rock to “father children named Lannister” (heh) that he seems to get Tywin's attention. He accepts immediately — the shock of which takes Jaime a couple seconds of hilarious fish-mouthed gaping to accept. In fact, Tywin’s already got the whole scenario planned out, down to Tyrion’s departure date to join the Night’s Watch. It seems there's a politically expedient angle for everyone involved with this trial, except for Tyrion.
But before he could be allowed to plead for mercy and be granted a one-way trip to Castle Black, the crown pushes its luck too far. To the shock of all assembled (except Cersei), the prosecution’s last and starring witness turns out to be Shae, who likely had little choice in the matter (or content) of her testimony. Nonetheless, she seems to take strength from her anger and pain at Tyrion’s dismissal to deliver her script of lies, punctuated by the most intimate details about their relationship perverted into that of a callous man and his whore.
Tyrion, who had largely sat sullenly through the testimony so far, reaches his thin red line. King’s Landing could ignore his triumphs on the battlefield, they can criticize his sarcastic attitude, trample his honor, but he will not abide his dignity being called into question. So he wraps his own anger and resentment around himself to deliver a scathing monologue about standing a lifelong trial for being a dwarf, that he should’ve thrown open the gates of the Red Keep to welcome Stannis, but of all the reasons everyone seems to want him dead, the one thing he’s not guilty of is poisoning Joffrey.
And if his family wants to play dirty, so can he. Tyrion demands a trial by combat, presumably counting on Jaime, who loves him enough to bargain with the devil to spare his life once, to stand as his champion. This puts Tywin right back where he started unless he can find someone willing to die by Jaime’s less-than-Kingslayer sword — and even then, his grandson’s killer walks free. How’s that for justice?
Next week, Jaime confronts Tyrion about throwing him under the bus, Daario, the Mountain and Arya are all bloodthirsty, Lady Melisandre plays with fire again, and Lady Arryn is as crazy does.
Episode grade: A-
While Shae’s return wasn’t shocking, her willingness to turn on Tyrion was not easy to watch. I’d ordinarily deduct for lack of Starks, since they're usually the only humanizing element of the show, but it was nice not to march half-starved through the countryside/beyond the Wall or try to escape the clutches of insane relatives for a week.
Though we knew Oberyn is a passionate man, it turns out he does ennui with equal fervor. “Am I supposed to be master of something now?” he idly wonders to the assembled Small Council, slouching in his chair in the same impudent but elegant way he does everything.
Oberyn was impressed by what he saw of the Unsullied warriors during his five years in Essos - though not their skills in the bedroom. Lest you began to forget that he has a weakness for the flesh, the lack of which Lord Varys claims as his own strength.
And finally, Tyrion’s bon mot of the episode: “I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores.” Tell us how you really feel.