In “The Laws of Gods and Men,” one of the series’s most tragic episodes to date, Tyrion Lannister stands supplicant before a court of men appointed to determine his fate. Prior to that, Daavos and Stannis arrive as supplicants to the nongovernmental power of the Iron Bank, and Daenerys hears the petitions of many who have been negatively affected by her naive rule. Even Reek, the man formally known as Theon Greyjoy, appears as a postulant to Ramsay Snow’s torturous household reign, refusing to even acknowledge his sister when she comes to rescue him.
In the end, in all of these cases except for the most beaten man (Theon), it’s the supplicants who manage to take the upper hand. Each of them proves to even the most rational and calculated leaders that “plain” stories told in “books filled with numbers” do not account for the emotions of grieving and aggrieved sons.
If last week was all about how women are able to wield power in a man’s world, this week was about the men. Even Yara, Theon’s sister, is praised for her “balls” when she dares to rescue her brother from the Dreadfort. (“You’ve got bigger balls than he ever did.”) But these aren’t men who fit into the continents’ typical molds of masculinity. Varys and Theon are both eunuchs, Tyrion is a dwarf, Stannis is the forgotten and unloved king, and newcomer Hizdahr zo Loraq is a noble’s son who has recently lost not only his father, but also his ruling power. Despite this, all but Theon manages to subvert those in power in both subtle and overt ways.
Though we visit with several other characters, the core of this episode’s narrative is Tyrion’s trial in King’s Landing. The whole second half of the episode focuses on the fan-favorite, but the beginning still managed to unite many very disparate storylines under several key themes. Not only are there power dynamics at play in each scene, with one party bowing to the authority of a higher power at first (before unsettling it in the end), but we also revisit a couple of Game of Thrones‘s well-worn themes: justice and history in context. With fantastic direction from Alik Sakharov, the camera reinforces the themes of Bryan Cogman’s script throughout.
“The Laws of Gods and Men” was a great episode. Everyone seems to agree that the writers wrote a tight narrative that worked on both a thematic and emotional level. And Peter Dinklage acted the hell out of it.
The episode opens on Stannis Baratheon and Daavos Seaworth sailing into one of the Free Cities (independent city-states on the continent of Essos, directly to the east of Westeros). Braavos is perhaps the most powerful of them, symbolically represented by the giant statue (The Titan of Braavos) flanking the entrance to its harbor. The enormous statue dwarfs the would-be king’s ships just as the man himself is made small by the stoic pragmatism of the men at the Iron Bank, who do not acknowledge him as a man with a claim to any throne they recognize.
Much to Stannis’s shock, the Iron Bank receives him as a supplicant, a mere customer instead of a king. When others would stand before the king until he was seated, the men take their seats immediately and call on Stannis to sit before them as if they were holding court. This makes it clear that the Iron Bank does not bow to the rule of the Seven Kingdoms by either law or convention.
The numbers they have calculated seem to indicate that Stannis’s cause is a lost one; he only has 4,000 men and 32 ships left, with no agricultural base or means to supply those few troops he has. However, Daavos encourages them to make another calculation: Tywin Lannister, the de facto ruler of Westeros, is 67 years old. When he dies, who among them could be competent enough to ensure that the Iron Bank is paid what it is due? “There’s only one reliable leader left in Westeros: Stannis.” He holds his hand up, showing them the severed fingertips as proof of Stannis’s hard economy. In this context, Daavos spins the history of Stannis’s flaws as strengths.
It is a hard sell, but the Iron Bank buys it. They invest in Stannis’s cause, allowing Daavos to coax his old pirate friend, Salladhor Saan, from the warm baths and back onto the sea. With all that gold, the sellsword troops Daavos had promised his king are likely to follow Saan into Stannis’s cause.
We set sail in the next scene, but not with Stannis. This time, we join Theon’s sister, Yara, as she leads a group of expert ironborn soldiers to rescue her brother from captivity. A strong leader in battle, Yara motivates her troops by imploring them not to think of her brother (an unloved prince at best), but their own pride: a lesser lord like Ramsay Snow having his way with a Greyjoy prince does not speak well of the respect the ironborn command in Westeros. She reads Ramsay’s letter aloud to them and commands them to get justice on House Bolton. “Everything they’ve done to him, they’ve also done to you.”
When Yara finds Theon, he has been remade into an alien creature. His home is in the kennels among the dogs. He has been made into a pet of Ramsay, unable to even recognize his own name. “Loyal Reek” comes when he’s called because he has been totally and utterly broken by his torturer. When Ramsay shows up on the scene covered in someone else’s blood, he goes into battle with the ironborn without armor and sics his dogs on them.
Yara flees with her men, declaring her brother dead, which he is in all but his body. Her mission to rescue him, which seemed like it would be a strong plotline when she grandly set sail in last season’s finale, is over in a matter of minutes.
While Daavos coaxed Saan out of the baths, Ramsay coaxed Theon into one. He used the bath as a reward for the broken man’s loyalty. Though the wild-eyed Theon seems just as suspicious as he is grateful for the kindness, he admits to loving his master. Strange as it may seem, the Stockholm Syndrome phenomenon explains what Theon is experiencing. He has come to love Ramsay despite all rationality because that helps him cope with the constant threats. Simply a lack of torture would be seen as a great kindness, but the bath– a real reward– is tantamount to a declaration of love from his master. He is so thoroughly Ramsay’s creation that his next task will be a challenge: “Pretend to be someone you’re not: Theon Greyjoy.”
In Meereen, Daenerys receives petitioners in her new, dark throne room. The first man, a lowly shepherd who speaks a dialect of Low Valyrian that Daenerys cannot understand, comes to her because his flock has been eaten by her dragons. It is easy for her to give him back the value of the goats three-fold, and this seems to satisfy her greatly. This is the vision of rule that she had imagined for herself when she declared that she would stay in Meereen and rule as queen in the last episode. Justice can be done with little trouble. The supplicant never turns his back on her as he shuffles, bowed and bent, out of her presence.
The next petitioner, Hizadahr zo Loraq, is not quite so easily mollified. This finely-dressed gentleman comes to Daenerys with a request that unsettles her. She is proud to receive him when he compliments her beauty, but when she realizes that he is the son of one of the masters she crucified, her face flickers instantly from self-satisfaction to defensive anger. “My treatment of the masters was no crime.”
Hizadahr zo Loraq begs to disagree. His father, a reasonable man who preserved their history through the restoration of the great Meereenese monuments, spoke out against the crucifixion of those slave children. He challenges her decision by asking, “Is it justice to answer one crime with another?”
A couple of episodes ago, Ser Barristan warned Daenerys that sometimes it is more prudent to meet injustice with mercy, but Daenerys insisted on delivering her own brand of “justice.” However, one woman’s “justice” is another man’s “crime.” I said then that her monochromatic view of all slavers as wholly evil was naive and simple, the sign of an immature ruler who still had much to learn. That naiveté has borne the rotten fruit of potential insurgency among the powerful nobles who have seen some of their fathers punished for society’s crime.
Daenerys’s mistake is one common to many who look back on history. All too often, we take people out of their historical contexts. We may denounce them for our own political motives, standing as moralists against individuals who are taken out of the context of their social world. We sometimes condemn people who may be no more than mirrors of their own worlds, reflecting the bad forces that helped shape them.
Though Daenerys grants Hizadahr his wish to bury the rotting corpse of his father, he turns his back on her as he walks away, having little respect for her rule. With 212 more petitioners to receive, Daenerys realizes that being queen is not quite so easy or natural as she thought it would be. She may have royal blood in her veins and a decent motive in her heart, but so far the execution of her rule is left wanting.
On the Small Council in King’s Landing, the Master of Whisperers (chief intelligence officer) Varys admits that though they know much of Daenerys’s progress in Slaver’s Bay, they have lost a major source of information, having been dropped by the spy originally in their retinue: Ser Jorah Mormont. His affection for Daenerys has blinded him to the chance for redemption in Westeros, where he has been exiled from for past crimes. Back in Season 1, he was offered a royal pardon for his crimes thanks to the information he provided on Daenerys and her pregnancy. Eddard Stark was certain that Mormont would do anything for a pardon, considering him to be an ignoble person and unworthy of trust. Despite his original desire to return home, it is clear that Jorah has found a new desire in Daenerys, and has sacrificed what was once his dream in order to follow hers.
Varys, as self-serving as any man in Westeros, would not approve. “I see what desire does to people… I’m very glad to have no part in it,” he tells Oberyn later in the throne room, admitting that he does not desire anyone. Desire, he believes, distracts people from other– he would say higher– pursuits. As he says this, he looks at the Iron Throne meaningfully, drawing Oberyn’s attention there.
Lord Varys (as he’s called, though he lacks any official title) made his way from nothing, a slave boy from the Free City of Lys. We know this story from last season when he told Tyrion about his past and how he came to be a eunuch. He tells Oberyn that only his “friends” know about his past. Despite that, Varys is mostly friendless, with no family to speak of, either. He does not pursue the Iron Throne in the way that other men do, hoping to take the seat themselves; rather, he works as Littlefinger does, pulling strings behind the scenes to put whomever on the throne that will suit his ambition. The Iron Throne in this scene is a symbol of power, and Varys’s lack of desires leave him to pursue that one thing above all else.
Daenerys crucified 163 slave masters because, in her world, justice is an eye for an eye. However, she failed to understand her history. She stood in judgement of the individuals, punishing them for past crimes committed by the group, without thinking that some men could be innocent or simply the products of the world they lived in. 163 slave masters may be dead, but the society that created them lives on, and Daenerys will have to reckon with that as she attempts to remake the world in her own image.
This is important to consider, because only a short time later Varys is in the throne room once again, this time testifying against Tyrion. Before Shae appears, it is his testimony alone that moves the sincerely-hurt Tyrion to offer a rebuttal. Varys has definitely had a certain pragmatic affection for Tyrion (again, he claims to only tell his friends of his past, and Tyrion is one of the few to know it), but he cannot rationalize maintaining that friendship when it is clear that the tides of favor have moved far away from the youngest Lannister.
When Jaime comes to collect Tyrion from his cell, he looks sadly on his brother. “Well, we mustn’t disappoint father,” Jaime says sadly before marching Tyrion off to his kangaroo court. The Lannisters may be a fractious bunch, but all of them faithfully circle in their father’s orbit. They have been raised to be obedient above all else and to protect the family line, no matter the personal cost. Oftentimes, “protecting the family line” looks far more like bolstering Tywin’s own power to rule. After all, the patriarch looks all too happy to take a seat on the Iron Throne as the chief judge in his son’s trial.
What follows is a sham trial designed by Tywin to make Tyrion into a convenient scapegoat. Unfortunately for him, none of the facts presented are untrue; they are simply removed of their proper context. Napoleon is said to have noted, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” The tale told by the witnesses is nothing more than a fable spun from historical facts. After all, he did slap Joffrey (more than once). He did call him a halfwit and threaten him. He imprisoned the Maester Pycelle. He told Cersei that all she loved would turn to “ashes in her mouth.”
What they do not say is that he slapped Joffrey because the kid refused to offer his condolences to his hosts, the Starks, for Bran’s fall. Later, he slapped the then-King Joffrey for inciting a riot over a piece of dung that was thrown at him. He called him a halfwit because Joffrey pointed a loaded crossbow at Sansa and ordered Ser Meryn to beat and disrobe her. He imprisoned Maester Pycelle for spying on him for Cersei. He told Cersei he would get her back after she found out about Shae and threatened to undo their relationship (which she likely did, after all). He threatened Joffrey (“Monsters are dangerous and just now kings are dying like flies.”) when the king made obscene threats against the Sansa, who was then his wife.
All of these scenes were cause for celebration among viewers, and they play a large part in fans’ devoted love for the Imp. However, these amazing moments, taken out of context, paint an entirely different picture of a man completely capable of regicide– moreover, of murdering his own nephew. History is written by the victors, and in this case, Tyrion is the loser. It’s not hard to paint him as the villain when the facts are removed from their context.
With the likelihood that Tyrion would be found guilty of murdering the king, Jaime approaches his father to offer an alternative plea bargain. Tywin agrees to let Tyrion go to the Night’s Watch on two conditions. One, he has to accept the guilty verdict and beg for mercy, therefore becoming the scapegoat Tywin needs for the king’s murder. Then, more importantly, Jaime has to agree to do what Tywin wanted him to do all along: give up the Kingsguard and return to Casterly Rock as the Lannister heir. According to Tywin, only Jaime can produce heirs worthy of the Lannister name, but he’s prohibited from doing so as long as he’s a sworn knight of the Kingsguard.
At first, Jaime comes to Tywin with this proposal himself, but it is immediately clear that this is what Tywin hoped for all along. It didn’t make sense why Tywin was so willing to carry out Cersei’s farcical justice when such an intelligent man must have surely known that Tyrion was innocent. Now, Jaime realizes that it was Tywin’s hope all along that Jaime would agree to be his heir in Casterly Rock in exchange for a lesser sentence for Tyrion. Knowing Jaime was the only one with any love for Tyrion, Tywin was hoping for this opportunity to exploit it.
When the trial resumes after a brief recess, Tyrion looks tired and deflated. He can almost tolerate all of the lies, but it is wearing him thin. He is forced to come to terms with the disloyalty of his father and his sister, who are using his trial to satisfy their own ends, but their betrayal cannot begin to compare to that of his former lover, Shae. Before she appeared, Jaime begged Tyrion to go along with the trial without further comment. He asked that Tyrion trust him, and his brother seemed almost content to do so, until Shae turned up.
We haven’t heard anything of Shae after Tyrion forced her to leave King’s Landing by pretending not to love her any more than a common whore. When she arrives on the stand, she is equal parts betrayed and betrayer, vindictive for what he did to her (not knowing it was for her own sake that he pretended not to love her). Like Podrick, she too was likely threatened into providing testimony against Tyrion. We do not know the circumstances, but we do know that Tywin wanted her brought to the Tower of the Hand in the beginning of the season and had threatened to kill her in the past.
Still, her testimony is damning and degrading. She drags out the sexual nature of their relationship without recounting the love that was there. She breaks Tyrion’s heart because her heart has already been broken. “I’m a ‘whore,’ remember?”
“Everyone is mine to torment… you’ll do well to remember that, you little monster,” Joffrey once told his uncle, putting a name to the prejudices held by many against his dwarf uncle. As George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” It is Shae, on top of all the others, who drives him mad by denying not only his true virtue, but also the love they shared. “Monster,” they call him, so monster he will be.
In an amazing monologue, Tyrion confesses to his crime– though, not of killing Joffrey. Instead, he confesses to the crime of being a dwarf, of being always held inferior in peoples’ eyes. “I wish I was the monster you think I am!” They all see him as an aberration, refusing to see him as he really is: the savior of King’s Landing and the only good man to rule Westeros in a long time. Broken by Shae’s testimony, Tyrion lashes out at the audience and his father, confirming what Cersei told Jaime a few episodes ago: “He’d kill us all if he could.”
In the end, the only way to get back at his father is to deny him the opportunity to continue his proud Lannister line. Tyrion demands a trial by combat knowing that, if he wins or loses, the deal with Jaime is off and there is no heir to Casterly Rock. If he wins the trial by combat, he goes free. Much more likely, if he loses, he spites his father and makes it that much more impossible for the Lannister name to live on. It is unclear if Tyrion intends to fight his own battle this time or to call for a champion, like he did in Season 1 when he stood accused by Catelyn Stark of the attempted murder of her son, Bran. Either way, it is almost certain that Tywin is not going to let Tyrion humiliate him any further, so his opponent will likely be someone formidable.
Always a man with a master plan, Tywin’s schemes have failed him spectacularly in this moment. The camera pans across the other characters as they react to Tyrion’s call for a trial by combat. The Tyrells are stunned, Margaery of course fully aware that Tyrion is not the murderer. Shae’s look betrays the fact that she still cares for Tyrion, for she seems worried about how things have escalated. Oberyn, the third judge of the trial, looks intrigued. When the camera finds him, Jaime looks greatly saddened, knowing full well that the trial for combat will likely mean the death of one of them (Tyrion could call on him once more to fight as his champion, and his chances of victory are not what they once were, handicapped as he is without his swordhand). Cersei seems satisfied, for she’ll get what she wanted all along, but Tywin is quietly raging. For the first time in his life, Tyrion stands up to his father and refuses to play the supplicant, and all of Tywin’s master plans are ruined.
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbor to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
– excerpt from A. E. Housman, “The Laws of God, The Laws of Man”
Other thoughts on “The Laws of Gods and Men”:
- The episode’s credits run with the “Rains of Castamere” playing in background once again. This time, the dark song boasting of the Lannisters’s victory over a rebellious lesser house plays like a funeral dirge for the Lannister’s own name as they tear each other apart.
- Pycelle calls Joffrey the “most noble child the gods ever put on this earth.” That, at least, should have been immediately struck down as false testimony.
- This was the first episode of the entire series that did not feature a single Stark, not even Jon Snow. Much as Tyrion absolutely made this episode, I definitely felt their absence.
- It’s almost laughable how easily Yara and the ironborn are defeated by a totally unarmored Ramsay Snow. He is not supposed to be an action hero, and the Greyjoys are supposed to be fearsome warriors, if nothing else. There is no way that they should have given up so easily, and this storyline feels awkwardly rushed as a result. Yes, Ramsay is insane and that has been known to lead to extreme battlefield heroics, but he is a lesser lord compared to the likes of the Greyjoys, and should not be able to defeat one of their best commanders so easily. In the end, it’s a trivial matter, since the storyline is not a major one anyway, but that one scene rang as false.
- Tyrion’s trial reminded me of one of my favorite historical figures to study, King Richard III of England, the last of the House Plantagenet. Richard III’s true character is not known because no truly unbiased account of his life exists. He only reigned for a short time, taking over the crown when his nephews were ruled as illegitimate heirs to his deceased brother’s throne. The princes went missing and later accounts placed the blame of their murder on Richard III. However, history is written by the winners, and in this case it was written by the House of Tudor. Henry VII and his son, the infamous Henry VIII, would have had plenty of cause to write scathing accounts of the “villainous” Richard III in order to further discredit the House Plantagenet and establish their new dynasty. Shakespeare brought their accounts to life with his play, Richard III, where the king is portrayed as being Machiavellian and severely “deformed, unfinish’d” (a “monster,” like Tyrion). Richard’s newly-found remains did show signs of scoliosis, but the severity of this condition is likely not as the tales describe. Facts of Richard’s life were recorded by biased hands and he has since been remembered as a deformed villain for all of history. One of my favorite historical fiction novels, The Sunne in Splendour, imagines an alternate account of a more human Richard III. Tyrion has been humanized for us as viewers while the people around him have been convinced to think him a monster based on facts presented out of context. His dwarfism is held up as his wickedness made into flesh, much like his historical predecessor.
- Shae did an awful thing, and there’s an understandable amount of vitriol for her out there on the Internet. But, watch her character closely in the scene. Sybil Kekilli does an amazingly subtle job with her performance, both in how she delivers her lines and her silent expressions. She’s been hurt, and her instincts are to hurt back. She does it in the most awful way possible, but we don’t know what Cersei and Tywin have told her behind the scenes. They’re capable of threats, and she is only a whore, after all. Last season Joffrey shot one full of arrows just for the hell of it, and Tywin has threatened the lives of Tyrion’s whore on multiple occasions. Why should they not carry on with those threats now, when her false testimony could serve their purposes? She’s guilty of being weak and spiteful, but she’s not evil, and it’s clear that part of her still loves Tyrion. The hurt, the guilt, and the struggle are far more interesting to behold than a purely evil creature.
- Seriously, I could watch this scene on loop.