Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 6–The Laws of Gods and Men

“When I see what desire does to people – what it’s done to this country – I am very glad to have no part in it.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

I love a good trial scene! It’s been a few episodes coming, but it can’t have been too much of a surprise that this week, the trial of Tyrion Lannister took centre stage. What may have been a surprise to fans of the book though was the increasing diversion the various plots were taking – even though they ultimately seem to be leading to the same places.

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With the trial – and its preparations – taking up most of the episode, the focus was very much on King’s Landing this week. As ever though, even in such a tightly focused script (by regular writer Bryan Cogman), there was still room for some vignettes from a selection of the other plotlines. The structure of the episode was interesting as a result, with some interesting developments elsewhere interspersed with ever more frequent King’s Landing sequences until the last half of the ep was devoted entirely to Tyrion’s trial.

Before that, we got to check in with Stannis, following Ser Davos’ suggestion of appealing to the Iron Bank of Braavos for a loan. You can imagine the application form – “purpose of loan: to seize the Throne of Westeros. And maybe a holiday.”

It’s a while since I read George RR Martin’s third volume in the series (A Storm of Swords), but I’m fairly certain this sequence was another addition for the TV show. If so, it’s hard to fathom why the showrunners thought it entirely necessary; yes, it’s interesting to see Braavos, but we were due to see it fairly soon anyway for… other reasons. And while it was also interesting to see the representatives of the Iron Bank, I’m not sure the show did itself any favours by casting Mark Gatiss as their spokesman, playing, as ever, Mark Gatiss.

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Still, it’s possible this particular diversion might be leading to more material invented for the adaptation, in which case it may well pay off later. Certainly, Davos’ impassioned plea to the Iron Bankers (and if it weren’t for rights of succession he’d clearly be a better king than Stannis) seems to have got his liege the necessary funds, along with a pirate fleet courtesy of Salladhor Saan (good to see him again). I don’t want to spoiler those intending to read the books, but this would seem to lead Stannis and his faction in a very different direction to the one in which they were going at this point in print.

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The furore over the show’s depiction of Cersei’s rape (which shows no sign of dying down yet) seems to have as much ire directed towards the TV version’s changes to the source material as to the act itself. If so, the new direction for Stannis is unlikely to pacify Martin purists. For me though, it’s actually refreshing to find myself unsure where the narrative is going. Having found myself unable to resist devouring the whole book series in short order before season one of the show had even finished, I’ve been enjoying the adaptation more for its visualisation of events I already expect than for genuine suspense – until recently.

The changes to the plot, while becoming more numerous, are entirely appropriate to Martin’s style, characters and premise. Given that TV is a very different medium to prose, quite a few of them seem, from a dramatic standpoint, improvements over the originals. It’s also possible that the showrunners are anticipating having to wind up their version before Martin winds up his. Even though I gather he has broadly sketched out his planned ending for Benioff and Weiss, they also have the challenge of compressing the increasingly flabby and static plot lines of books four and five. With all of that in mind, I’m pretty sure the diversions from the original are part of an overall plan, which will probably be perfectly justified.

Or perhaps, in some cases, they’re intended to flesh out ambiguous events in the novels while leading, broadly, to the same place. The equally new plot of Yara Greyjoy’s doomed attempt to rescue her brother would seem to fit here. Just as, in the novels, Theon’s ordeal has been alluded to in flashback but here is actually being shown, Yara has declared her brainwashed brother dead after Ramsay’s new identity seems to have truly taken hold. This is all new – but may well, again, lead the characters to similar places as in the (later) books.

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It was also another slightly harrowing depiction of the horrific Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship that’s developed between Ramsay and his torture victim. The new identity of Reek – and his blind devotion to the man who flayed and mutilated him – has totally subsumed Theon, to the extent that he rejected his sister’s attempt to rescue him from his horrific situation.

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It was marvellously played by Iwan Rheon, chewing the scenery as ever, and Alfie Allen, somewhat more subtle as the abject, broken Theon. Just as in the novels, it’s hard to maintain any anger at his treacherous actions in light of the overwhelming pity you feel for him by now. The sequence of Ramsay ‘rewarding’ him with a bath was also deeply unsettling – as much for its sadistic homoerotic undertones as for the suspense of not knowing which way the psychotic Ramsay would jump. His final gloating grin was one of victory; ‘Reek’ now being happy to play the role of someone he no longer is – Theon Greyjoy.

While the brief snippet of Daenerys’ dilemma over her queenly duties was faithful to the source, there were more original diversions in King’s Landing. The magnificent Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell seems to get far more to do than in the books, of which I thoroughly approve. This week’s script also gave him a compelling two-handed scene with Conleth Hill as Varys, returning after too long an absence. Reminiscent of the much-missed verbal sparring with Littlefinger, the scene showed us that, for all his OTT lecherous persona, Oberyn’s no fool. But then neither is Varys, as we were reminded later on.

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For it was the Master of Whisperers who was the first of two surprise witnesses at Tyrion’s trial, which also took some original directions to arrive at roughly the place it did in the novels. As you’d expect, Tywin was in total control of the proceedings, even taking to the Iron Throne as chief judge after Tommen absented himself (and you can guess who gave the new king that idea).

From the beginning, it was clear that Westeros’ version of the Warren Commission was a deck stacked firmly against the defendant. Not only were most of the witnesses those who had grudges and debts against Tyrion (Ser Meryn Trant, Maester Pycelle, Cersei), but Tyrion had neither defence counsel nor right to cross-examine the witnesses himself. But then, the judicial system was far from fair in the medieval Europe to which Westeros is analogous; and it’s debatable whether the one we have now would be any less corrupt in circumstances like these. Just ask Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, if you could.

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Trial scenes usually bring out the best in the actors concerned, and this was no exception. Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage dominated the scene, the latter particularly effective in his final well-written outpouring of bile to the court: “watching your vicious bastard die gave me greater relief than a thousand lying whores!”

For in a shock twist new for the show, the final witness against Tyrion was none other than Shae. Unfortunately, Sibel Kikelli has never been one of the cast’s standout performers, and it was hard to tell whether the ambiguity of her motive was intentional or just a subpar bit of acting. Certainly she didn’t seem her usual self; but did that mean that Tyrion’s well-meant rejection of her was too convincing (Hell hath no fury and all that), or that she was being leaned on by his father?

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Either way, it was this final betrayal that prompted Tyrion’s spite at the capital city’s ungrateful populace. Despite the diversions, he ended the episode at the place the original story led to – demanding a trial by combat. However, I’m no longer sure if that’s going to play out exactly as it did. And I’m enjoying not knowing.

Sex and violence

Not much violence this week, but what there was mostly occurred during the Ironmen’s unsuccessful raid on Ramsay Snow’s Dreadfort (well, it’s his dad’s, but he’s looking after it). Even here, we only saw a (dimly lit) axe to the forehead, and Yara’s slicing of that unlucky guard’s throat (shown from behind and represented by a large splash of blood).

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Not much sex either, which may have relieved those annoyed by yet more rape last week (though I’d argue that showing the events at Craster’s Keep was dramatically necessary for the women involved, given their decision to burn the place at the end). Still, there was some nudity – and given the parties involved, the depictions were far from straightforward.

In the wake of the rape controversy, the old arguments about the show being misogynist and exploitative have inevitably reared their heads. There may be some justification for the latter, especially given that we frequently see non/barely-speaking nubile women in scenes where, dramatically, they’re not strictly necessary. Viz, Salladhor Saan’s hottub scene with two bare chested ladies; though it’s an interesting indicator of society’s double standard toward male and female nudity that I doubt anyone finds it objectionable that he too was bare chested:

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But misogyny? No, I’d argue against that. The show itself is not misogynistic, but it (like Mad Men, which prompts similar complaints) depicts a very misogynistic society. The show itself has complex, strong, even flawed female characters all dealing with that misogyny in the best ways they can. If it were the show itself that was misogynistic, it would be portraying Westeros’ opinion of women as its own, and not presenting us with more believable characters than most telefantasy shows.

But that double standard may rear its head again with some of the nudity here. While I’ll never object to seeing the incredibly sexy Iwan Rheon bare-chested, it was deeply disturbing to wonder why he was so covered in blood having just arisen from sex:

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But that was nothing compared to Theon. Alfie Allen is still a pretty sexy guy, but it was disturbing to think anyone would be titillated by his revelation of his scarred body this week. Although Ramsay’s gaze kept flicking to his captive’s now-deficient groin, the camera direction steered clear of showing us the scars down there. Even so, Theon’s castration (dismissed by claimants of misogyny as insufficient to balance out the many ill-treatments of the female characters) is as shocking for men as Cersei’s rape was for women.

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Generally, then, a good episode, as ones that focus tightly on just a few plots usually are. The trial was gripping (but then I’m a sucker for courtroom drama), but didn’t entirely dominate a well-structured script that took its time to lead up to it before giving it the appropriate focus. Far from a betrayal of the source material, the adaptation’s plot diversions seem increasingly interesting, and certainly dramatically satisfying (apparently George RR Martin has no particular problem with them, trusting the showrunners with a medium not his own). Yes, there were a few missteps – Kikelli and Gatiss leap to mind – but despite internet controversy, this is still a show that knows how to present drama, with or without violence and sex.