Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
Opinion writer

Every week, I will be looking at the big themes of each episode of “Game of Thrones,” from the perspective someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, while my colleague David Malitz, who has not read the books, recaps them here. We will also be discussing the episodes in a new video series. My posts, while informed by Martin’s novels, will not always involve direct comparisons between the shows and the books — for those of you who are watching but not reading, I will give you a warning when I am going to do that. This post discusses the events of the April 13 episode of “Game Of Thrones,” “The Lion and the Rose.”

So, who killed Joffrey Baratheon? “The Lion and the Rose,” superbly directed by Alex Graves, who joined “Game of Thrones” for the first time last year, shows much more than it dares to speak. I watched “The Lion and the Rose” three times to see if I could find the moment when poison made its way into Joffrey’s cup. Graves and George R.R. Martin, who wrote the episode, seem determined to keep some logistics secret, or at least preserved for a later date, as Martin does in the novels. Still, during Joffrey and Margaery’s vows, when the High Septon declares that the pair are “one heart, one flesh, and one soul. Cursed be he who would seek to tear them asunder,” the camera catches Olenna Tyrell looking less than celebratory over her granddaughter’s shoulder. Later, when the couple are locked in a clinch, the camera cuts off her applauding hands, emphasizing her ambivalence. And during the wedding feast, Olenna comes to speak to Sansa, and on the pretext that “The wind has been at you,” straightens the girl’s braids and then her necklace — if you watch closely, Olenna appears to be palming something when she pulls her hand away.

So what are we to make of the Queen of Thorns, now that it appears she is a murderer, and the author of a particularly cruel murder at that? Joffrey is not stabbed by a catspaw in a private moment, or killed in the frenzy of battle in a death like the one Cersei tried to deliver to her brother Tyrion. He chokes to death, vomits, and hemorrhages out at his own wedding, in front of hundreds of guests. Joffrey is not just killed: He is made ridiculous in death. I have no love for Joffrey Baratheon, who showed himself to be a petty tyrant, a sexual sadist, and a nasty example of what happen when boys are literally taught the world is theirs to command, all before he entered his third decade of life. But as Joffrey died in his mother’s arms last night, he looked terribly young and very small. For a boy to earn this sort of death before he grows to maturity is a horrible “achievement.” The cruelty Olenna Tyrell visits on Cersei Lannister is inextricable from the mercy she shows her granddaughter Margaery in sparing her a marriage to Joffrey.

“The Lion and the Rose” spends more than 24 minutes on Joffrey’s wedding, a remarkable piece of social theater. But cruelty is the real theme of the episode, rather than the rather more obvious lesson that you never, ever want to go to a wedding in Westeros. It is for that reason that the episode begins with the only character on “Game of Thrones” who can situate Joffrey’s behavior on a continuum with other human beings: Ramsay Snow.

Ramsay, acted with tremendous power by Iwan Rheon, shares a taste for casual cruelty with Joffrey, though he has more leeway to indulge it. He hunts a woman through the woods for sport, telling her “your presence has become a bit of a problem.” But more than Joffrey, Ramsay understands the power of cruelty and pain to not just cow a person, but reshape them entirely. His father Roose Bolton may be a traitor to the Starks, descended from a line of men who flay their enemies, a teetotaler in an age where almost everyone is sedating themselves against the past or the present. But in this, Roose’s thinking is more conventional than his illegitimate son’s.

One of the most remarkable scenes in “The Lion and the Rose” is the one in which Ramsay educates his father in the efficacy of his methods. “Reek, how could you let me stand before my father unshaven. it’s disrespectful,” Ramsay baits his prey, ordering a razor given to the shell of a human that was once Theon Greyjoy, and that has so much cause to hate him. Ramsay bears his neck, and in a cool display of confidence, gets Reek to admit that he never killed Bran and Rickon Stark at all. And then he goes even further. “The Starks have always ruled the North. If Bran and Rickon are alive, the country will rally to their side, now that Robb Stark is gone,” Ramsay pauses, letting Reek hear the news that might spur him to murder. “Oh, that’s right, Reek. Robb Stark is dead. Sorry. I know he was like a brother to you, but my brother put a knife through his heart. How do you feel about that?” And instead of shedding Ramsay’s blood, the razor sweeps clean. 

Ramsay may be mad — it is more comforting to think of him as insane than to believe that this is sanity — but he is not exaggerating the efficacy of his methods. And other characters turn to the same tools repeatedly during “The Lion and the Rose.” When Tyrion’s appeals to Shae’s safety and his love for her fail to get her to leave King’s Landing, he falls back on cruelty. “You’re a whore. Sansa is fit to bear my children and you are not. I can’t be in love with a whore. I can’t have children with a whore? How many men have you been with? 500? 5000?” Tyrion tells Shae, who is shocked by what he is telling her. But what come after when she throws his sexual history back at him is even worse: “I have enjoyed my time with all of them, and I have enjoyed my time with you most of all. But now that time is over.”

Tyrion may not be nasty by nature, but his relatives certainly are. “The Lion and the Rose,” which ends in death for Joffrey and tremendous pain for Cersei, takes particular note of incidents in which both son and mother are cruel merely for the pleasure of it. At the breakfast before his wedding, Joffrey uses his new Valyrian steel sword both to hack up a book Tyrion gave him as a wedding present, and to terrorize Sansa. “Widow’s Wail. I like that,” he declares, naming the weapon. “Every time I use it, it’ll be like cutting off Ned Stark’s head all over again.” At his wedding feast, Joffrey stages a cruel pantomime in which dwarfs play the challengers for his throne, mocking his uncle’s stature and making a joke of Sansa’s brother’s death.

Cersei, meanwhile, amuses herself by mocking Brienne of Tarth, the woman who brought her brother Jaime back to her. “You’re Lord Selwyn Tarth’s daughter,” Cersei tells Brienne after Brienne congratulates the couple on their marriage. “That makes you a lady whether you like it or not.” Having mocked Brienne’s self-presentation, Cersei goes on to shame the bigger woman for her affection for Jaime. “You’re in a good mood,” Tywin tells her after the exchange. “Small pleasures,” Cersei tells him. As Margaery Tyrell rises higher and higher through kindness, ugliness seems to become a kind of drug to Cersei, who increasingly depends on spite to bolster herself.

Cersei, Tyrion and Ramsay recognize (to some degree at least) what they are doing. In one of her rare appearances on the show, Stannis Baratheon’s queen, Selyse, is so focused on her new faith that she cannot recognize what she is doing to the human sacrifices she burns as devotions, or to her young daughter Shireen, who has a disfiguring skin disease. “She’s sullen and stubborn and sinful,” Selyse says of her child over dinner. “Why else would the Lord of Light have seen fit to mark her face? She needs the rod.” To Selyse, Shireen is merely another unbeliever to be forcibly converted, and physical punishment is a logical way to do it.

While all of these adults, all of these putative heads of state, do such harm to each other, it falls on Jojen Reed, a young man with no formal power and no great house behind him, to show greater maturity than all of them. When Bran Stark shows signs of wanting to disappear into Summer forever, rather than live in his broken body, Jojen cuts to Bran’s secret wish with a clarity that is both wounds and provides a balm. “It must be glorious to run, to leap, to jump,” Jojen tells Bran. “To be whole. I know it’s tempting. But if you’re trapped in Summer too long, you’ll forget what it means to be human.” “The Lion and the Rose” reminds us that wargs are not the only ones who face that risk.

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