“When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.”
This short excerpt from Longfellow’s equally brief “There Was a Little Girl” can be re-jiggered and re-appropriated to describe a lot of different things. In the current media landscape, no work feels more deserving of the description than HBO’s Game of Thrones. Season Four has seen its fair share of highs (the death of one sniveling Boy King) while also delivering some truly dismal lows (the rape of Cersei by her otherwise redemption-bound brother, not to mention the general mistreatment/prop-relegation of many of the show’s female characters). But this season’s sixth episode, “The Laws of Gods and Men”, is a healthy reminder of why we shouldn’t just throw out the proverbial “baby with the bathwater”. Yes, some moments might be extremely “problematic” for most viewers (a word I’m learning to despise due to its overuse by seemingly joyless cultural watchdogs), yet to discount the series as a whole because of a few (admittedly major) missteps would be doing many viewers a rather large disservice. Because the final twenty minutes of “The Laws of Gods and Men” represent televised drama at its finest.
In Braavos, Stannis and Ser Davos are applying for a loan, and the High Council they are pleading to are only interested in “numbers” instead of Stannis’ claims of “blood rights”. Just as they’re about to be sent away, Davos delivers an a rather impassioned speech (Liam Cunningham absolutely kills in these opening moments) about how Stannis is the rightful king and an honest man. However, the Braavosi seem to be unmoved, causing Stannis and Davos to have to rethink their current plans.
Who here remembers Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati)? If my own recollections are correct, we haven’t seen him since he saved Davos’ behind following the Battle of Blackwater. The self-described “excellent pirate” commands a fleet of mercenary ships, and Davos goes to him as a “friend” as Salladhor enjoys the company of a few lively ladies in a medieval hot tub. Much like the Braavosi Council, Salladhor is unimpressed with Davos’ initial pleas, but once he shows that he’s got the coin to back up his claims, a big smile comes across the profiteer’s mug.
Many are going to find this hot tub scene to be a display of Game of Thrones’ worst tendencies and, to tell the truth, I can’t blame them. This is truly the low-point of an otherwise excellent episode, as women are yet again put on the arms of a man to represent nothing more than masculine power. It’s a brazen revival of the thought-dead “sexposition” the show was once famous for and feels like a gross regression of sorts (though I guess you could argue the show never progressed at all, given the numerous instances of “shock-for-shock’s sake” sexual assault utilized this season).
The storytelling valley continues, as suddenly we’re off with Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whetan), who leads a rescue party to pull her brother Theon from the clutches of Ramsay Snow. It doesn’t end well, as both sides lose men and Theon — excuse me, “Reek” — remains with his torturous master. The hits keep on coming for poor Theon, as he’s tensely bathed by Ramsay the next day and told that he’s going to have to help take “a castle” from some “bad men”. The Ramsay/Theon storyline is again a representation of Martin’s worst tendencies as a storyteller, as even though the scenes featuring the two are brimming with tension, all of the sadism employed seems to be for nothing more than indulging the more sociopathic sects of the show/books’ viewership/readership. It’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake and it gets tiresome quickly if you have any semblance of a soul existing in your body.
In Meereen, Daenerys continues to learn what it truly means to rule over a people. After her dragons torched a poor goat herder’s flock, she compensates the man three times over for his trouble. Nothing too difficult to handle, right? However, the next complaint she receives comes from the son of one of the noble lords she crucified after liberating the city. Not wanting to be contentious regarding his queen’s decisions, the boy simply asks that Meereen’s customary burial rights be carried on. His father objected to the crimes his peers committed, but they overruled him, and now he hangs with a guilty party he may not belong to. It’s a lesson for the Mother of Dragons that working in absolutes under any circumstance is suspect at best.
Finally, we come to King’s Landing for the trial of Tyrion Lannister. It goes pretty much as the dwarf expects at first, with every witness Cersei parades in front of the court swearing to proof of his guilt up and down. During a recess, Jaime begs Tywin (who acts as judge during the proceedings) for Tyrion’s life to be spared. The two strike a rather shaky deal for all involved: once Tyrion’s inevitable guilty verdict is handed down, the dwarf is to ask for mercy, and Tywin will grant it, allowing his son to be sent to the Wall to live out the rest of his days as a member of the Night’s Watch. In return, Jaime will hang up his white cloak and produce a litter of blond-haired Lannister heirs.
Of course, this isn’t how things go. The next witness called before the court is Shae, who falsifies her testimony to include an admission of having heard Tyrion and Sansa conspiring to kill King Joffrey. Tyrion begs his lost love to stop, but she won’t relent. “I am your whore — remember?” she says with enough spite to slay one hundred Kings, along with the Hands who serve at their will.
Tyrion finally confesses, but not to the crimes he’s accused of committing. “I saved you — I saved this city and all of your worthless lives. I should have let Stannis kill you all.” He says this to the crowd and then accuses his father of putting him on trial for “being a dwarf”. “I wish I was the monster you think I am. I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you.” He sneers at the crowd before making his final request…
“…a trial by combat.”
The entire trial is an absolutely thrilling sequence, capped by an awards-worthy performance by Peter Dinklage, who navigates the emotional terrain of the scene with a graceful ease. Game of Thrones might’ve suffered some truly dismal lows this season, but “The Laws of Gods and Men” is a great reminder of why you suffer through the trash to get to the good stuff. Because when this show is good it is very good indeed.