“Walk of Punishment”
April 14th, 2013
“A person could almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re at war.”
“Walk of Punishment” opens with something of a comedy routine. Edmure Tully is attempting to send his father off to the afterlife with a flaming arrow, but the arrow misses. And then misses again. And then misses again. It’s only then that his uncle, the Blackfish, steps in to fire the arrow necessary. Edmure is made to look the fool, the Blackfish is made to look like a man who suffers no such characters, and our first glimpse of Riverrun has served its function, in part, through comedy.
Of course, it’s also a funeral, which makes its comedy somewhat dark. It helps that we don’t actually know much about Hoster Tully, a character in the books and more of a symbol in the series. It also helps that the scene works the joke perfectly: I resisted laughter on the first miss, found it on the second, and felt the tragedy sneak back in on the third. The scene never feels at odds with the moment or the episode around it except when it’s supposed to feel like it’s at odds with the moment because, well, it is. A world of war and tragedy is not a world without comedy, but rather a world where comedy is rarely allowed to continue unabated for very long.
Catelyn’s quote above, spoken to the Blackfish, captures Benioff and Weiss’ approach to lightening the mood in Westeros. At any given point, there are characters in situations where they could forget about the gravity at hand, where the inherent humor of human interaction overwhelms the threat of widespread conflict. Sometimes it’s Talisa tending to two young captives, wanting to keep them from thinking about the world around them; sometimes its Tyrion wanting to give Podrick a gift for his loyal service. And in a previous time it was Jaime and Brienne, alone on the road, bantering their way toward King’s Landing.
But banter, like all men, must die.
“Walk of Punishment” ends with a punishment, but it also begins with a realization that the punishment is coming. Jaime and Brienne, tied up on a horse being escorted along by Bolton’s men, are bantering like they did before. There’s a brief moment where it looks like this could still be a charming captivity for the two characters, but then Jaime drops a dose of reality: when they stop, Brienne is going to be raped. He makes a crack about Renly that would have been a joke in last week’s episode, but it’s a foreboding statement here. The storyline only grows darker for Jaime, although he finds a moment of selflessness as he saves Brienne from being assaulted. One could even argue the episode implies Jaime would have avoided having his hand chopped off if he had simply allowed Brienne to be dishonored and kept his mouth shut.* The moment is darkly comic in its own way, if you’re of the mind that Jaime is someone who deserves to have his hand chopped off, but the series definitely works to complicate such a reading with his choice to protect Brienne from a terrible fate.
* I expect that non-readers will spend more time dissecting the loss of Jaime’s hand than readers, although the scene was bloody effective either way; just not quite as novel when you know it’s coming.
There’s a moment where any story must shed its comic skin, in a way. Hot Pie being left behind at the Inn could be seen as simply the end of the character’s journey, but it also takes away the most blatant “comic relief” character in Arya’s storyline as though to signal a heightened sense of dramatic weight ahead. Similarly, Samwell Tarly stopped being a comic character when he stopped being a sidekick, his story now the tragic viewpoint into the Night’s Watch’s march back to the Wall (and the birth of Gilly’s doomed son). Arya no longer has the luxury of a Hot Pie, nor does Sam have the luxury of being a lovable buffoon: Craster’s “Ser Piggy”-esque crack could have been a playful jab from one of his fellow crows back in the first season, but it’s taken on a new tone in light of recent events.
As a whole, “Walk of Punishment” spends a lot of time on the edge of comedy and tragedy, with Benioff’s directorial debut pushing the boundaries of how funny something can become within such difficult circumstances. This is perhaps no clearer than in Daenerys’ time in Astapor, and the continued game of translation going on between Kraznys and Missandei. There’s nothing funny about his sexism, mind you, but watching Missandei struggle to turn his disrespect into something more cordial has a light-hearted feel to it, one which stands in obvious contrast to the plight of the slaves in Astapor. I’d almost describe it as a dark-hearted comedy, one that briefly distracts from but ultimately reinforces the harrowing circumstances the characters are facing.
Perhaps this offers a way to interpret the show’s comedy more broadly, in that its sense of distraction rarely lingers for particularly long. Podrick’s gift from Tyrion is the episode’s most explicitly comic storyline, and extends the episode’s argument that the Lannisters have the privilege of light-hearted tomfoolery. Cersei and Tyrion’s musical chairs might have undertones of the sibling rivalry that nearly led to the latter being killed on the battlefield, but the stakes of the Small Council meeting in question are about entitlements and paying for a royal wedding, not survival. Similarly, while Podrick is being rewarded for his actions in the midst of a heated battle, he’s being rewarded in a period of relative calm, at least in King’s Landing, and within a space—Littlefinger’s brothel—that has often been seen as a sanctuary from the trials of war (except, as Tyrion points out, if you’re a King’s bastard).
The scenes with Pod stuck in my mind in the weeks after watching them, both because I found them extremely funny and because they felt at odds with the show around them. It’s a charming turn of events, one that gives Bronn and Tyrion a chance to banter, Podrick a chance to bashfully admit to his sexual prowess, and a sense of mirth and merriment that the show has rarely been able to achieve as the show has progressed. And yet as refreshing as that was, it’s tough to reconcile it with the show around it when you’re also following Brienne and Theon almost being raped, or the suffering of the slaves of Astapor. Of course, this implies that we’re supposed to reconcile it. Perhaps, not unlike the individual moments of “dark-hearted comedy” in the episode, we’re meant to almost feel guilt about the comedy of it all, our knowledge of the stakes outside of King’s Landing in stark contrast to the capacity for those inside the capitol to remain ignorant.
It’s possible for Game of Thrones to be a funny show, and “Walk of Punishment” offers perhaps the largest number of examples of this in a single episode. It also does so later in the series: while Tyrion’s time at the Eyrie with Mord the jailer were certainly quite comical, that was a time before Ned Stark was beheaded, and before the Battle of Blackwater Bay. However, there’s evidence to suggest the tonal clash is purposeful, a test of comedy’s ability to sustain itself in Westeros this far into the series. The Hold Steady’s version of “The Bear And The Maiden Fair” is upbeat and poppy, far from the funeral dirge of The National’s “The Rains of Castamere,” but perhaps that’s the point. After a moment designed to shock the non-reader audience, it’s only fitting that the song is itself a shock, confusing in tone not because the show itself is confused but because it wants the viewer to have to confront that confusion.
While the Blackfish implies that there are places in Westeros where people are simply living in peace while the war wages on elsewhere, we don’t have the luxury of isolation. Game of Thrones is going to take us to the places of war immediately after we get a brief moment of comic relief, the contrast here becoming a key function of the episode as the show delves further into its third season.
- While we get the haunting visual of the dead horses art installation at the Fist of the First Men—a callback to the series’ prologue—the scene mostly serves to move Jon Snow along: he’s now officially headed South to the Wall with Tormund.
- Small Council scenes are a really convenient form of exposition: Varys’ explanation of Robb’s movement is a nice way to remind viewers what Robb is doing at Riverrun without having to laden the opening sequences with dialogue.
- Speaking of Hoster, the character’s lack of any actual dialogue really does streamline things, framing Catelyn’s grief for her father into her grief as a mother. It isn’t quite the complicated portrait of her childhood that the books worked to render, but her scene overlooking the river was a strong one for Michelle Fairley.
- No closer to any real answers in Theon’s storyline, but I appreciated the energy of the horseback sequence: the show can’t really do large-scale action in each episode, but I think they saw Theon’s blank slate from the books as a chance to inject something a bit livelier into the story at this stage.
- Readers Corner: There’s a line in this episode that, if you were a book reader watching with a non-book reader, you probably made some kind of noise that raised eyebrows. Hopefully you brushed it off successful.