Game of Thrones – “The Laws of Gods and Men”

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“The Laws of Gods and Men”

May 11, 2014

“We prefer the stories they tell. More plain, less open to interpretation.”

This is why the Iron Bank of Braavos prefers numbers.

They’re strange, in this way: whereas the other groups who jostle for power in Westeros (and across the Narrow Sea) are interested in histories and lineages, the Iron Bank is only concerned with numbers. It’s why they’re unmoved by Stannis’ claim to the throne by blood, and why they’re won over by Davos’ claim that Stannis is the closest Westeros has to a stable ruler should Tywin Lannister meet his end.

Interpretation is at the heart of law, of course, and of the men and women who enact it. Although the majority of the episode is taken up by an actual trial, the storylines that precede it show the reverberations of other forms of justice, in which similarly cruel acts are taken for fundamentally different reasons.

The question becomes whether history will interpret them differently.

Daenerys was enacting justice when she crucified the masters of Meereen. To Hizdahr zo Loraq, she was murdering a man who had fought against the crimes his kind had committed, and who had been a valued architect and restorer of Meereen’s illustrious palaces. More important than that, she was crucifying his father, an act that will never be perceived as justice in the way Daenerys intended it. What to Dany represents a symbol of justice being served is to Hizdahr no more than his father’s body being given to the vultures and denied the proper burial she had offered the slave children placed as mile markers on her path to the city.

There is no paying Hizdahr with gold, as she did when Drogon burnt a goatherd’s flock to a crisp. There is no way she was going to convince him that what she did was something other than torture and cruelty, even if he was swearing fealty to her cause amidst his protest. There was also no way that Dany was going to refuse to have the request for a proper burial, considering that she is at her core a person who has empathy for her subjects and their fates. However, it is a reminder that the people who are now her subjects will not interpret her actions precisely in the way she intended. Were they aware of what had happened to the slave children, all of them? Do they have the same perception of justice as she does? How many of the 212 supplicants are there simply to tell her she made the right decision? How many different wrong decisions do those 212 believe she has made?

Daenerys enacted cruelty in an environment where her actions extend far beyond her immediate circle. Ramsay Snow’s cruel treatment of Theon could never truly be claimed as justice, although in his letter to the Greyjoys it very much is: Theon’s castration and torture is framed as an act of war, as the Boltons strike back against the Greyjoys for occupying land in the North. Balon had indeed proclaimed himself a King in much the same way as Robb had, and thus technically speaking Ramsay was simply doing what he thought best to secure his family’s claim. The torture has been kept largely within the walls of the Dreadfort, away from prying eyes. As much as Ramsay is a sadist, and as much as we know that Ramsay far extended his father’s orders as it related to their prisoner, the fact remains that Daenerys’ cruelty—despite being a response to a specific crime of similar scale—is on some level indistinguishable from Ramsay’s transformation of Theon into Reek.

The episode is interested in the audience working through these details. It forces us to reevaluate the moment of “justice” back in “Oathkeeper,” reminding us that cruelty is in the eye of the beholder. By comparison, Ramsay presents a later stage in the cycle of torture and cruelty, in which any act of kindness is perceived as love, and where Ramsay has successfully transformed Theon into someone who would turn away his sister’s rescue and work to protect his lord. He is still being tortured, but he has lost sense of what torture means, whereas the people of Meereen remain acutely aware of when Daenerys has or has not crossed a line from their perspective.

Tyrion’s trial is another set of questions entirely. It’s similar in regards to interpretation, as the trial is very much about perception more than reality: none of the evidence against Tyrion is entirely true, and none of it successfully links him back to Joffrey’s murder, but there are enough truths sprinkled in and enough facts omitted for the people to see him as the cruel and vengeful dwarf Cersei believes him to be. The presence of a gallery is important to the scene, their titters and gasps a reminder that the court of public opinion is very much a reality. In fact, given the way both Cersei and Tywin are effectively operating a Kangaroo Court, it’s really all for the people: the goal is to convince the people Tyrion is guilty, and provide enough semblance of guilt to make his inevitable sentencing feel like justice.

They’re doing a fine job of it right up until they decide to torture him. Tyrion struggles to sit through Meryn Trant’s lies, given that his threats were to protect an innocent young girl from being tortured by a mad man. He bristles at Pycelle’s framing of Joffrey as noble and true, which even Cersei admitted to Margaery last week was a complete falsehood. He even puts Varys on the spot to try to remind him that he had once spoken of him with great affection, and acknowledged that even if Tyrion would never have his moment of glory with the people his efforts had been respected. But even if Varys still believes that to be true—his answer, that “sadly, my lord, I never forget a thing,” is purposefully vague—he can’t admit it in this setting, because everything that’s being said has been carefully calculated. And Tyrion to some degree acknowledges this, spending the episode slouched in the corner of his “stand,” barely in the frame.

This changes with Shae. Shae is torture, plain and simple. It is Tywin—who, you’ll remember, asked to have Shae taken to his chambers during Joffrey’s wedding—punishing his son for keeping a whore, more than it is necessarily Cersei punishing him for killing her son. Cersei might believe that Tyrion did it, but Tywin only believes in his own form of justice, in which his son should be forced to pay for his actions well beyond Joffrey’s death. It also sends Tyrion into a spiral, in which he acknowledges the larger trial facing him as a dwarf his entire life, and in which he pushes back against the so-called justice on display. He wishes he had let the city burn during the Battle of Blackwater Bay. He wishes he had murdered Joffrey. And eventually, he takes the whole affair out of the hands of those in front of him and places it with the gods, requesting trial by combat.

It’s one of the show’s best sequences, strong not simply because of Peter Dinklage’s performance but because of how long it takes before that performance emerges. In what will undoubtedly be Dinklage’s Emmy tape, he spends most of his scenes observing, taking in the falsehoods one by one. In talking with fellow critics, I suggested it would make a strong Emmy tape because trials are often showy and clearly legible highlight reels for actors, and Dinklage has that in his final moments. But he also gets to spend much of the trial slunk down on the stand, gradually falling further and further into a rage that has been building up since long before he was accused of murder. It is a reminder that he has been a victim of “justice”—much of it equally enacted by his father—for his entire life, and Dinklage does a marvelous job of bringing all of that to the surface and bringing the episode to its cliffhanger conclusion.

The final sequence is also a strong piece of direction from Alik Sakharov. Although the episode features a few too many extraneous shots of sex and nudity—the parallel editing between Yara’s march on the Dreadfort and Ramsay in bed with his mistress was particularly pointless—there’s a wonderful economy to the way the trial itself is shot.

Tyrion, after first facing his charges, centered in the frame.

Tyrion, after first facing his charges, centered in the frame.

There’s the framing of Tyrion, in which he begins the trial centered but then shifts to the margins of the frame as he is forced to witness the falsehoods put before him.

This is one of a number of identically framed shots, in which Tyrion's positioning reflects his marginalization from the trial narrative being put forward by the Crown.

This is one of a number of nearly identically framed shots, in which Tyrion’s positioning reflects his marginalization from the trial narrative being put forward by the Crown.

There is also the haunting shot of Cersei’s empty chair right before she is revealed on the stand, as we see her voice as the camera pans back away from the chair before cutting to Cersei.

The empty chair, with Cersei in voiceover.

The empty chair, with Cersei in voiceover.

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Note that the chair is established in this earlier shot, and is distinct from Oberyn and Mace’s chairs.

The framing also shifts toward the end of the scene, pulling away from the fairly static shot of the stand to a more dynamic camera that captures Tyrion’s growing frustration.

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This kind of dynamic angle is absent earlier in the scene.

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We also see here the use of the shot-reverse shot pattern to establish that the real battle is now between Tyrion and Tywin, and not Cersei, again pulling the camera closer to shift away from earlier patterns.

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There is an austerity to courtroom drama as a device, and on the page is has the potential to read as dull—however, Sakharov made some intelligent choices in how to frame the “action” as it were, and helped to deliver a sequence that manages to find the spectacle in the mundane (or rather brings to the surface the spectacle that underlies stories and events that would typically be mundane in shows other than this one).

Cultural Observations

  • We haven’t gotten a “Varys talks to someone else about power” scene in a while, so it was nice to get one with Oberyn. The framing would suggest that Varys is interested in the throne, which felt a bit imprecise given that his goal of power is more ambiguous than the throne.
  • While reduced to a thematic starting point in this review, the work in Braavos did some nice work setting the stage for a lot of different things, really.
  • Lots of visual effects work in Braavos: the shot of the city was one of the most substantial pieces of virtual backdrops the series has done, while they clearly built only a small portion of the Iron Bank room and then filled in everything behind Stannis and Davos with a virtual set. As far as virtual sets go, I thought it was pretty seamlessly done.
  • I very much enjoy Jaime’s failure to cite any other Lannister names than Lancel’s, a fun nod to the fact that the show has excised many of the other Lannister cousins featured in the books. I always do enjoy a good wink in a Bryan Cogman script.
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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Game of Thrones – “The Laws of Gods and Men”

  1. Pingback: Game of Thrones Season Four | Tired and Bored With Myself

  2. Did not see the parallels you pointed out while watching but they’re undoubtedly there and make these threads connect in stunning fashion. I agree, Dinklages Emmy tape is here and I think he’ll get another nod if not a win.

  3. Pingback: Game of Thrones The Laws of God and Men | Tired and Bored With Myself

  4. Pingback: Written Recap Roundup: Season 4, Episode 6 The Laws of Gods and Men - WinterIsComing.net - News and rumors about HBO's Game of Thrones

  5. Great writing as usual, Myles. One thing. I read the Varys-Oberyn scene as Varys suggesting to Oberyn the idea of aspiring to be more than a hedonist and take seriously the possibility of exercising power. Hence the scene lingering with Oberyn regarding the *throne* and not staring after the departing Varys. Varys is smart enough to know that he has no shot whatsoever at ever holding the throne; Littlefinger has a low, low chance, but the path is at least conceivable, but Varys (like Tyrion) has a well-known feature that the crowds in the GoT would view as a bar to his rule. Oberyn, on the other hand… a lot of possibilities there. Handsome man of a noble family. And Varys I think is planting that seed. And in Varys-like fashion, the reasons why are thus far unclear.

    That’s my read, at least. I haven’t read the books, so I could be missing something.

  6. Whoa, good point there, Eric! Maybe Varys was like, hey, Oberyn, you’d make a good king w/ his speech/looks in that throne room scene. Varys can’t be king, I’m pretty sure; we learn that he’s not even a “lord” in Westeros. Also, this reminded me that MANY ambitious/powerful/wealthy ppl these days (esp. in Western society) are unmarried & childless (not that they’re eunuchs w/o “desire”).

  7. I think the trial by combat will also lead to Oberyn vs. the Mountain. My guess is that by giving Oberyn what he wants, Tyrion will gain a powerful ally. How that squares with the Old Man remains to be seen. Even worse, if Tyrion emerges victorious, it will likely drive Cersei closer to madness.

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