Every week, I will be reviewing the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” informed by my reading of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. My colleague David Malitz, who is new to the story, will be recapping the show on The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of “The Laws of Gods and Men,” which aired on May 11, in detail, and references the events of Martin’s novels through “A Dance With Dragons.”
Tyrion Lannister’s trial for the murder of his nephew, the late, little-lamented King Joffrey, which occupies the second half of “The Laws of Gods and Men,” is technically an application of the titular statutes. But though the words attributed to Tyrion are real, spoken in the heat of a lifetime of anger, the proceeding is, as Jaime Lannister puts it to their father, a farce.
As “Game of Thrones” has taught us all too well over four seasons, there is almost nothing that can constrain human behavior. The Seven and the Old Gods are invoked to justify savagery, and Melisandre of Asshai’s Lord of Light demands sacrifice and slaughter. The needs of practicality commanded Elia of Dorne’s death, if not her rape, overriding any laws that are meant to govern war.
So there is something almost odd about an episode of “Game of Thrones” in which people are frequently decent to each other, or try to be. “The Laws of Gods and Men” invokes the formal requirements that compel such goodness. But despite its title, the episode suggests that kindness comes from stranger, more informal places entirely.
The episode opens with one of the longest sequences the show has devoted to Davos Seaworth. The former smuggler-turned-King’s Hand may have begun his career as a criminal, but he is the most thoroughly well-intentioned character in “Game of Thrones,” and the most maturely principled. Both of the men he is devoted to, the brittle King Stannis Baratheon and the overwhelmingly supple pirate Salladhor Saan, are tremendously flawed. And Davos’ association with the latter meant the former felt required to take his fingers. But there is still real pleasure in watching Davos interact with both in ways that reveal the basis for these long, and intertwined connections.
When a representative of the Iron Bank of Braavos (Mark Gatiss, who plays Mycroft Holmes in “Sherlock”), expresses skepticism of Stannis’s request for a loan, he makes a stark case against Stannis’s quest for the Iron Throne. “You feel your blood gives you claim on our gold?” the man says, bemused. “Here, our books are filled with numbers. We prefer the stories they tell. More plain. Less open to interpretation…You can see why these numbers seem unlikely to add up to a happy ending.”
Davos, who has more cause to know the sting of Stannis’s profound rigidity, manages to turn his king’s character flaw into an asset. More than that, he manages to turn an emotional appeal into a case for Stannis’s creditworthiness. Showing the bankers his shortened fingers, Davos tells the bankers, “He doesn’t just talk about paying people back. He does it.” Thanks to Tywin’s admission that the Casterly Rock mines have been tapped, we know that Davos and Stannis have a stronger case than even they are aware of. But Davos’s respect for Stannis’s harshness and clarity is still compelling on its own. After a career based on uncertainty, Davos knows where he stands with his king.
Certainly, without that rigidity, Salladhor Saan’s friendship would come as less of a relief. When Davos finds his old compatriot in a Braavosi brothel, telling the same tired jokes to prostitutes who surprise Saan by already knowing his punchlines, it could have been a sad scene. Instead, there is a real sense of fun to it. In Davos and Salladhor’s relationship, the pirate plays the tempter while Davos gusts him towards respectability. When Davos tosses a purse of gold by Salladhor’s bath, the enjoyment he gets in reversing that dynamic, in using his old skills for badness in the service is good, is obvious.
Back in the watery parts of Westeros, a less happy relationship is tested when Yara Greyjoy, threatened by Ramsay Bolton, tries to recover her troublesome brother from his imprisonment. Theon Greyjoy sexually harassed his sister; he believed he could threaten her pride of place on the Iron Islands. Certainly, when Yara decides to come for him, her appeal to her men is based on their honor, rather than any sentimental tie she has with Theon.
When she finds him in his cage in the kennel, though, there is some real tenderness in the way Yara tries to make her brother see her. She is a warrior, and an impressively pitiless one: the Hound would appreciate the way she slit the throat of the young man who brought her to Ramsay’s dogs. “We’re going home,” Yara promises the broken thing who calls himself Reek. “It’s all right. It’s me. Yara…You’re Theon Greyjoy.” Her brother’s response is terrible: “I’m not anybody,” he tells her. “I know who I am.”
There is something bitter in the recognition that Ramsay gives Yara when they face off over the creature who is Reek to him, who was Theon to her. “You’ve got bigger balls than he ever did,” the now-legitimate son of Ramsay Bolton declares, giving Yara credit Theon never granted her. Worse still is Yara’s recognition that the tie that bound her to Theon, a skein that was tangled up in her devotion to the Iron Islands, and her desire for recognition from her father, is broken, tangling up the braid of her life with it. “My brother’s dead,” Yara tells her men as they flee Ramsay’s holdfast.
Yara’s decision to abandon Theon is terrible, but in a way, her choice is clearer than the family drama in King’s Landing. Jaime, sensing that Tyrion’s trial is going poorly, begs for mercy from their father. “I’ll leave my place in the Kingsguard and take my place as your son and heir, if you’ll let Tyrion live,” Jaime promises, offering up the last thing he has to give Tywin. To Jaime’s surprise, and seeming disappointment, Tywin accepts the offer.
Just as inescapable blood ties, mixed up with the demands of honor like poison in wine, compelled Yara to go after Theon, the Lannisters’ patterns are too deeply set for the deal to hold. After Shae, who represents all the women who Tyrion used to flaut his family, betrays him, Tyrion cannot bring himself to accept the deal Jaime bought for him at such great cost. He upsets the court proceedings to demand trial by combat, if only to cause Tywin some measure more pain. The same relationships that ought to bring out the best in us seem to animate only the worst in the Lannisters.
Over in Meereen, “Game of Thrones” digs into the sense of self-satisfaction that can animate goodness. After Dany’s dragons immolate a herd of goats, rising up out of the chasm where a simple man’s son was throwing rocks, it pleases her to be generous to him.”Tell this man I am sorry for his hardship. I cannot bring back his goats, but I will see that he is paid their value three times over,” she tells him through Missandei, pleased with the man’s shuffling reaction.
Dany is much less sure of herself, though, when Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry), the son of one of the leaders of Meereen Dany had crucified, comes to beg to give his father a decent burial.
Dany has been aged up from Martin’s novels, but as her audience with the goatherd showed, she still takes a childish pleasure in being able to take actions that cost her nothing, but that seem fantastically generous to her beneficiaries. She performs less well, however, when someone wants something that requires moral reflection from her, rather than gold. Hizdahr, in the books, was an effete symbol of the slavers’ moral degradation. Here in the show, writer Bryan Cogman and director Alik Sakharov, have made him a very different kind of brown-skinned challenge to Dany’s Great White Mother act.
Just as it pleased Dany to pay the goatherd, it pleased her to crucify one of the masters of Meereen for every slave a faction of the city’s leadership used to mark her path to the city. Hizdahr, inconveniently, complicates Dany’s sense that she dispensed justice.
“My father spoke out against crucifying those children,” he tells her, presenting Dany with a position she had neither the maturity nor the wisdom to consider previously — that not all members of a ruling class are the same. “I cannot defend the actions of the masters. I can only speak to you as a child who loved his father…Let him be buried with dignity in the temple, that he might find peace in the next world.”
And in King’s Landing, Varys tells Oberyn Martell that “I was never interested in girls, either….When I’ve seen what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I’m very glad to have no part in it.” But when he nods towards the Iron Throne to acknowledge his aims, Varys is telling us only what drives him, not what constrains him. We know he hates magic, but otherwise, Varys is a man without friendships, without family, without love, and without the need for esteem. Last week, “Game of Thrones” suggested the Petyr Baelish might be the most dangerous man in Westeros for his cunning. In “The Laws of Gods and Men” imply a rather different formula for that calculation, with Varys as a possible answer. None of the numbers imply a good ending, much less a happy one.