“The Lion and the Rose”
April 13th, 2014
“Blackwater” has often been cited as the definitive Game of Thrones episode, capturing the scale and sheer expense that have come to define the series within television culture. It was also an episode that George R.R. Martin scripted himself, finally seeing the scale he had taken to literature to obtain come to life onscreen (albeit still with a degree of sacrifice to his most ambitious visions for the episode).
At the same time, though, Martin’s scale only rarely manifests as the episode’s bombast. It tends to manifest in minutia, in the sheer detail of individual scenes. This has primarily come in the form of feasts, gallant affairs where Martin revels as much in the food on the table as the people sitting at it. It’s an effort to provide scale not in the form of giant explosions, but in the form of atmosphere—he wants you to feel like you’re there, which is often more about tone than anything else.
It’s something the show has rarely been able to communicate the same way: few scenes have lasted long enough to luxuriate in the environment, and to create that sense of becoming lost in the splendor. The closing sequence of “The Lion and the Rose”—detailing Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding and reception—is one of the first, a carefully designed piece of theater that is all about moving pieces, each more detailed than the next. It’s also a scene that deploys that detail for a specific purpose, crafting a sequence that builds to its conclusion at such a rate that even those who don’t know what’s about to happen know that something is about to happen.
That it’s something both readers and non-readers alike have been waiting for is just the icing on the cake.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the luxury of the final sequence—dubbed the Purple Wedding, for perhaps obvious seasons—given how much others will have to say, but I enjoy the relative economy with which it tells its “story,” as it were. There’s obviously little economy in the wedding reception scene given how long it runs, but the scene—which lasts over twenty minutes—sets the stage for Joffrey’s death extremely well. We meet the various parties who could have wanted Joffrey dead, but they unspool without feeling like they’re “suspects,” as this is already a show that is about seeing characters bounce off one another. The scene works as a meeting ground, bringing together Cersei and Brienne, Loras and Jaime, Loras and Oberyn (for a brief glance across the reception), and Oberyn and Tywin, all the while reminding us who’s present and accounted for. It isn’t exactly a murder mystery—there’s a clue as to the culprit for the non-readers, but it may be something only a reader would pick up on—but it’s simply exciting to see all these characters in one place.
Joffrey’s death is cathartic in all the ways it’s supposed to be cathartic. We want Joffrey to die because he’s a terrible person, and the show has doubled down on the character’s despicable behavior (helped by the character being aged up). And yet Joffrey needs to die mainly because it catalyzes the characters around him, and sets in motion the King’s Landing power struggles that have never entirely materialized as long as he was alive. For the first time since season one when Ned and Cersei battled for the throne—and Ned lost his head—there is the sense that King’s Landing isn’t as secure a place as they imagined it to be. If the premiere was comfortable settling into the same familiar themes as previous seasons, “The Lion and the Rose” blows the series’ “plot” wide open, particularly if we take the series’ title—different from the title of the book series, let’s remember—as its raison d’etre.
And yet while this work is being done, another thread of the episode works to subsume a comparatively “new” set of characters into recognizable thematic frameworks. “The North” has never entirely left the series—the burned remains of Winterfell have remained in the credits even though the narrative hasn’t returned there since Theon was knocked out at the end of the second season. Winterfell remains in part because it represents the Starks, scattered but still holding claim to the North. It also, perhaps more importantly, represents the prize that Roose Bolton and his bastard son Ramsay Snow are after. After spending last season waging war against our ostensible “heroes”—provided we acknowledge Theon as a tragic hero rather than a sympathetic villain—the two men finally come together in “The Lion and the Rose,” adding the Bolton “family” to the collection of families represented in the series.
It’s a storyline that carries a somewhat significant burden. Ramsay’s torture of Theon was one of the struggles of the third season, not because it served no function but because it kept serving the same function over and over again—for as much as I think showing Theon’s plight is important, I think it appeared too often for it to resonate. It served only to establish Ramsay as sadistic, and one imagines that a quick montage of what was done to Theon edited into the “World’s Most Dangerous Game” hunting segment that begins their work here would have had much the same effect (while leaving Theon’s fate a relative mystery for the entire third season). I presume the choice to include Theon in season three reflects a desire to offer both an element of mystery and a convergence between Ramsay and his father’s villainy, but I don’t know if it was worth the time spent at the end of the day.
As a result, the efforts to develop Ramsay into more of a character here are integral to paying off the time spent, and this is a productive if also derivative start. Martin is able to script sequences the books never really imagined, and in the process he folds Ramsay into a long line of characters with daddy issues. Like many bastards—or sons who feel like bastards, which includes Theon, Tyrion, and Samwell—Ramsay just wants his father’s approval. He wants his father to respect him, and he wants to help the family’s claim to the North in any way he can, and it makes perfect sense but also doesn’t exactly light the screen on fire. It feels utilitarian, useful for coding the character in language we understand but still not doing enough work to justify the time spent letting the character’s sadism unfurl so often last season.
There’s an obvious comparison between Ramsay and Joffrey, given that their acts of torture are so similar. “The Lion and the Rose” doesn’t make the argument Ramsay is sympathetic—just look at how he revels in what was done to Jaime, and how Locke knows enough about Ramsay to know he would’ve loved it—but it does suggest he has reasons for the things he does. Whereas Joffrey always felt motivated by selfish desire and sheer evil, Ramsay believes he was simply living up to his family’s banner by flaying Theon, and in doing so laying claim to a heritage that isn’t truly his but to which he relates. We will never cheer for Ramsay, but the episode asks us to understand him, a task the third season couldn’t begin given that they weren’t able—or chose not—to tell us who he was (lest we know the Boltons weren’t on the Starks’ side and see the Red Wedding coming).
If nothing else, I thought the work between Roose and Ramsay was compelling as a piece of television: the shaving setpiece was well designed to demonstrate Ramsay’s power over Theon, it was great to see Michael McElhatton get to play a different dynamic than his one within the Stark camp, and by and large the thematic connection of family and bastardhood works to make the storyline serve some broader function than torture porn. And I continue to find Iwan Rheon captivating in the role of Ramsay, particularly his smile, which is among the creepier elements of the series to date. And yet it’s challenging to take a story about a traitor to our heroes being tortured by another traitor to our heroes and spin it off into something legitimately productive—as much as the work done here serves a function, it suffers at times next to the characters who have stronger ties to the big picture of the series.
Game of Thrones faces distinct challenges, at least compared to other series which offer a more clearly centered narrative. In this episode alone, it balances the challenge of blowing up a major dynamic in the death of Joffrey, introducing an entirely new dynamic in the case of the Boltons, as well as injecting life into a somewhat meandering character journey, in the case of Bran’s latest vision. The effort to keep these balls in the air means episodes like this one are overwhelming, but it also means that this is never a narrative that can stop dead, even when the King meets his end.
- “There is only one hell, princess—the one we live in now.” —One of the interesting things about seeing Martin’s episodes, for me, is seeing how he works with characters that would simply never interact in his books. A scene between Melisandre and Shireen is impossible with the books’ point-of-view structure, and while it serves no major purpose in the episode itself it offered a bit more of each character in ways that I imagine showcase George’s thematic interests.
- The series was recently awarded for its location work at the Location Managers Guild Awards, and the location where Jaime and Bronn—a great pairing—complete their sword training was a tremendous find.
- Of the images in Bran’s dream, I’m going to go ahead and say that the shadow of the dragon flying over a city would be the most remarkable (if not, perhaps, the most important).
- I sort of hope the “Previously On” sequence to the episode—which I haven’t seen, having watched a screener—was just every shitty thing Joffrey has ever done, just to make the ending that much more cathartic.
- On the note of the screener, I’ll be curious to see the final version of the episode—there was a lot more “Temp VFX” than usual in the reception scenes, where they obviously intended to do some composite work to fill in the backgrounds.