Game of Thrones begins its 36th episode with a very theatrical visit to Braavos. A ship with red sails bearing the flaming stag’s head sigil courses through the legs of a massive warrior statue, carrying on its deck a financially desperate Stannis Baratheon and the Onion Knight Ser Davos. They are going to the bank to ask for a loan.
While waiting in the polished and empty chamber of the Iron Bank, Davos attempts to halt the impatience of his Lord, musing on the mutable nature of time across cultures.
“Easterners have a different sense of time, I’ve often found,” he says, trying to pull any sort of thing resembling patience out of the elastic band anxiety-ball that is the would-be king.
It is a statement that’s coming at a very opportune moment in terms of the series. Episode six has reached us now, and as of the first scene described above, we are on the back half of a season that has been much more contemplative than jam packed with twists, turns and major character deaths (though there was at least one of those).
“The Laws of God and Men” sticks with this study-on-a-theme pacing, not offering up very much forward momentum, but instead delivering a very solid hour of characters finally having to contend with their past actions. It is at once satisfying and emotionally coherent without having to rely on White Walker teasers or wedding massacres to be memorable.
The long wait is broken as the representatives of the Iron Bank, led by Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame), enter the chamber.
These men of numbers and coin don’t care for the traditions and formalities of the Seven Kingdoms, and the culture conflict leads to some excellent comic beats. Stannis thinks it’s kind of weird, but he is such a goddamn sad sack that he just takes a seat with an implied “Fuck it, what else is new?” while Davos is compelled to stumble through a formal introduction before following suit.
Stannis and Davos are framed to look like children staying after class to answer for an unfinished group history project. Gatiss is perfect here, playing his ever attentive and always judgemental type with just enough sympathy to believe that maybe an argument can be made in favor of the “one true king’s” campaign.
As you’d expect, the men from the Dragonstone, having nothing but stories of blood and gold to their names, fail to qualify for the Iron Bank’s financial aid. Tycho lays it all on the table: on paper, Tommen Baratheon is the rightful king beset by a few rumours of incest, and Stannis is an angry man in his like, late 40s, with a bunch of barren land and forward-thinking ideas about religion. One of these descriptions is of a man with a good credit rating.
Ser Davos appeals to Tycho’s love of balanced scales and honest accounting, raising his maimed hand as proof that these are not men who leave debts unpaid.
Cutting to the Braavos bathhouse, the pirate Salladhor Saan is regaling two prostitutes about the buccaneer who wore a red shirt into battle so that his men wouldn’t know when he was stabbed. It turns from apt parable to well known poop joke just as Davos enters and buys the admiral’s service with his Lord’s newly won funds.
Stannis might not have been able to answer for all of the ships he lost to the green flames in the siege of King’s Landing, but the Onion Knight could. It is a testament to the strength of Davos’ character that in his appeal to the Iron Bank it suddenly made sense that House Baratheon (the real one) should sit on the Iron Throne.
The sole remaining Baratheon has never seemed like he deserved anything, constantly making mistakes in his midlife crisis of a war, but having his knight take a moral inventory in front of the most pragmatic man in Westeros I finally saw things from his perspective.
Perspective is the name of the insurmountable obstacle that Yara Greyjoy encounters when her fleet of Ironborn finally make it to the Dreadfort on a mission to liberate her flayed baby brother Theon. She leads her team of seaborne warriors on a raid, commanding them like Theon never could, holding their pride over them like a dangling sword.
Yara is the first over the wall, killing her way to the kennel where Theon sleeps next to Ramsay’s hounds. Of course, this is not her brother anymore. He won’t be called by his name and he won’t be rescued, making enough of a racket to bring forth the demented Bolton bastard (shirtless and armed, fresh from fucking and killing) with a retinue of guards.
Ramsay Snow sends Yara packing when he releases the hounds. She takes to the boats declaring her brother dead.
The next day Ramsay rewards Reek with a bath. An actual bath. Not some sort of fake bath where the water is acid or at the end his eye is gouged out or something, but a real bath. It’s such a relief that the Stockholm syndrome is contagious.
“Do you love me, Reek?” Ramsay asks his man hound as he actually bathes him with a cloth.
Reek can’t even contain his gratitude. He loves the magnificent bastard more than anything.
The flayed slave is informed by his master of a new role he will need to play, in order to please the man he loves. Reek will need to pretend that he is Theon Greyjoy – his former self.
In terms of the overall series plot, this is potentially the first step in a sequence of events that may well lead to the death of Balon Greyjoy, as prophesied by the blood magic performed by Melisandre in season three. The two other usurpers that Stannis named when he threw the magic leaches into the flame, Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon, both suffered grisly deaths while attending weddings.
Thematically, on an episode level, this is the comeuppance of a father whose contempt for his (admittedly bratty) son will lead to his demise. As the Manchurian Candidate of the Iron Isles, Reek will serve the results of a mistake that Balon can’t take back.
Daenerys is also learning the consequences of her actions. Having taken Meereen as her capital from which to rule her new kingdom of freepeople, she is seeing to the requests of supplicants.
The first of these is a goatherder, who lost a flock to Dracarys when the dragon went on a trip to the field to get a snack. It is a consequence that the Queen of Meereen will easily cop to. She pays the mourning peasant three times the value of what he’s lost and sends him on his grateful way.
Next up is a man named Hizdahr zo Loraq, and he brings with him not only a servant to do his speaking, but a big ol’ moral responsibility for the brutal (former?) Khalessi. His father was among the masters crucified outside of Meereen in one of Dany’s do-unto-other-ing fits of revenge-sploitation.
All Hizdahr wants is for his father’s body to be taken down from the cross and buried with dignity, and though the Queen Targaryen is reluctant, she eventually concedes to the young man’s request.
Daenerys finally has to look at her victims as human and it’s a refreshing turn of events to say the least. I’ve complained before that her frequent liberation slaughters have become exploitative story beats. Having a character stand right in front of her and show her the human pain that she has been creating while manufacturing emotionally cathartic television is responsible storytelling, plain and simple.
The Mother of Dragons is still young, and has endured a great many traumas getting to where she now sits. Now that she is determined to take a more responsible role, having her grapple with the moral grey areas of her post-liberation vengeance truly promises to build her character for the first time since the beginning of season three when she started this crusade.
Our final stop on this worldwide reconciliation tour is King’s Landing, where Tyrion will finally be attending court hoping to dodge the charge of the sexiest of all murder-types: regicide.
Prior to the appointment, Tywin holds council with Mace Tyrell, a sleepy Prince Oberyn, Cersei, Pycelle, and Varys, who updates the team on the big stories that are trending on the little-bird-Internet. It turns out that The Hound’s countryside murdering and sloganeering (“Fuck the King!”) have gotten him noticed, so Tywin has a hundred silver stag bounty placed on his head.
Next up on the docket is an update from Daenerys’ side of the world. All of the smart people in the room are duly afraid of what she is capable of, now especially, since she has the Unsullied, the Second Sons, and three growing dragons on her side. Tywin orders that she be dealt with but doesn’t get specific, promising some fun plot points across the Narrows Sea in the weeks to come. I’m sure will inevitably feel like stalling, but lead to a satisfying season finale.
Jaime regretfully retrieves his brother from the dungeon, escorting him though the courtroom to a temporary pedestal where he will be judged. As the siblings approach the bench, accusations of Kingslayer are tossed at Tyrion, Jaime having officially outlived his euphemistic title.
Tommen steps down from the proceedings, allowing his grandfather to sit on the Iron Throne and proceeds with a line of questioning befitting the father of Lions:
“Did you kill King Joffrey? Did your wife, Lady Sansa?” he asks, receiving an obvious two negatives.
“How would you say he died then?”
We get some classic Tyrion snark followed by a parade of his enemies. All the time that the Imp has been doing the heroic thing to the satisfaction of viewers everywhere – locking Pycelle in the dungeon, threatening Cersei, and slapping Joffrey in public – he has been tying his own social noose. The testimony all adds up: even Varys admits that Tyrion had expressed an alarming thirst for regicide.
This slight from the Spider bites hard, but it’s nothing compared to what lies on the other side of a one hour recess.
Jaime confronts his father, the judge, in private, defending the new Kingslayer. He holds the Lannister legacy over Tywin’s head, promising to step down from the King’s Guard if Tyrion gets to keep his head.
Tywin will not be told what to do, clearly having thought of everything beforehand. He will find Tyrion guilty, have him plead mercy and offer him a chance to take the Black. After this, Jaime will retire from his not too successful career of Kingsguarding and sire an heir as Lord of Casterly Rock.
Court is back in session and Jaime lets Tyrion know the plan. The little Lannister cleverly points out that he is being offered the same deal that Ned Stark was given before he unjustly lost his head.
It’s a fun nod to the meta-dangers presented whenever Ned’s name is invoked, namely: a surprising, nearly immediate demise. It’s not too much to worry about though, because the final witness is a knife to Tyrion’s heart.
Shae takes the stand, either intercepted on her way to Pentos or here of her own accord. She recounts their entire relationship from the perspective of a whore, violently forced into servitude. It’s a familiar humiliation for Tyrion, and after a brief look into Shae’s pain when he pleads with her to stop, we see that if this is all part of Littlefinger’s pristine conspiracy, she is a willing participant.
“I am a whore, remember?” she says looking him in the eye, repeating the words he said not too long ago to get her to leave.
At this point, Tyrion takes the opportunity to confess. Peter Dinklage is often the standout actor of this show and the subsequent speech is a highlight not only of his performance on Game of Thrones, but in the series’ four year history of cathartic moments.
The exceptional thing about this is that the moments I’m referencing are very rarely (if ever) text based. The Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Ned’s unjust execution and any time the White Walkers provide a mythological stinger: these are all surprise reveals. Daenerys’ satisfying slave liberation scenes: they’re paint by numbers revenge-sploitation. This speech: this is just amazing, character-based storytelling.
Tyrion confesses not to poisoning the king, but to being a dwarf. Standing before his ex-lover, his father, sister, brother, and the men and women of the court who despise him simply for existing, he admits that he would love to kill them all.
“I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish that I had,” he says, turning to Cersei. “Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores.”
This “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills” moment has been a long time coming, and as a fan who hasn’t read the books, I never thought it would happen so directly. To have Tyrion call the game bullshit and then wish a painful death on everyone in King’s Landing is more emotionally satisfying than all the Joffrey-deaths you could pack into an episode of TV.
What began as a man standing before the contemptful gaze of his father to answer for his nature as an outlier turned into a mission statement for the show moving forward: your honour might mean nothing but a death sentence in this world, but your actions do have consequences – whether you’re teenage ruler with class issues, a once rich man with pipe dreams of monarchy, or an unloving father.
Invoking the laws of the Gods, Tyrion requests trial by combat, staring down the leonine visage of his father, counting on the fact that Jaime will fight for him.
Cue “Rains of Castamere,” roll credits, and think about all that you’ve done.