They said the royal wedding would be the most anticipated celebration King's Landing has seen in years. They couldn't have known how right they were.
By next week's episode, we may see the capital of the Seven Kingdoms turn up like Storrs, Connecticut after an NCAA Championship. But tonight's episode, the Alex Graves-directed "The Lion and the Rose," cuts off at the buzzer-beater. His Grace, Joffrey of the Houses Baratheon and Lannister, the First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm, the second-best character on Game of Thrones and the greatest villain on television, is now an ex-monarch. Ding dong, the little douchebag is dead.
In the books, Joffrey's death is upsetting despite the sheer abundance of absolute-power bad behavior. Yes, he's genuinely horrible; he's also a child, spending his last moments in agony and terror. That's an awful thing to witness in anyone, let alone a kid who wouldn't yet have graduated high school. But both practicality and propriety dictated that the younger characters, along with everyone else, be aged up for the purposes of the live-action adaptation, so that pathos is largely lost here. The burst blood vessels, the wide eyes, the facial discoloration that helped give this event its color-coded nickname in the lore of the fans – ghoulish though it may be, it's tough to see the Purple Wedding as anything but punishment befitting King Joffrey's crimes.
So instead of focusing on Joffrey's suffering to make the moment more complex than mere catharsis, the show counts on his family's strife — and the gambit works. Jaime rushes to the scene of the crime like a man who knows he's gonna miss his train but keeps running anyway, arriving just in time to watch a son he was never allowed to claim die disliking him. Tywin stands powerless at the table of honor, likely already calculating his next move. Tyrion, most likely drunk and most definitely seething with rage after a long afternoon of humiliation, just stares at the guilty goblet; he can't quite wrap his head around how a glass of wine could instantly solve a problem he himself had struggled with for years. Joffrey's newlywed bride Margaery appears genuinely shocked and stricken. Her grandmother Olenna barks out commands that double as insults upbraiding the assembled guests for failing to do anything until she thought of it first – these are the words of someone who's spent a lifetime believing herself to have outsmarted everyone else in the room at any given time. Only Cersei, Joffrey's mother, has the freedom to express (most of) what she truly feels: This is her son. She loved him. He's dead, and the brother she hates is responsible.
Of course, that hatred is irrational, as is the charge. Tyrion Lannister is many things, but not even Cersei would argue that "stupid" is one of them. What else to call the idea of killing a king who'd been picking on him in front of hundreds of witnesses all day in such a way that he wound up holding the murder weapon himself. "Killing a man at a wedding — what sort of monster does that?" Lady Olenna asked while fiddling with poor Sansa's hair; it seems safe to say that the monster in question is something other than an Imp.
But Cersei seems determined to turn potential allies into enemies at every turn: spurning her brother Jaime; tormenting her loyal lickspittle Grandmaester Pycelle; perpetually sniping at the Tyrells; coming close to playing into Oberyn Martell's hands by condescending to his paramour Ellaria Sand (dressed as if she rode all the way from David Lynch's Dune to be there), at least until her politically savvier dad steps in; and in one memorable scene, needlessly needling poor lovestruck Brienne of Tarth over her obvious feelings for Cersei's brother. Jaime has got something of his sister in him as well (rimshot!), taking a page from the Cersei/Margaery playbook to convert cordial small talk with his future brother-in-law Loras Tyrell into a barely veiled murder threat.
Indeed, up until the groom's death ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?") the only Lannister who really seemed to be enjoying himself was Tywin, in the company of his frienemy Olenna Tyrell. As they walk to the reception, the typically all-business patriarch seems pleased to spend time with one of his few peers. It wouldn't be surprising, in fact, if this is the first conversation we've seen Tywin have in which he wasn't trying to extract a concession or issue a command. Rather, he's talking to her because it's fun.
Now's as good a time as any to point out that this episode was written by author George R.R. Martin — a smart move for several reasons, one of which involves defusing potential complaints about the show's now-innumerable deviations from the source material. For example, sexual sadist Ramsay Snow taking on a female partner in crime was a headscratcher, though that kind of killing couple is hardly without precedent (google the Moors Murders, if you can stand the result).
The other advantage is to allow the series' demiurge to try his hand at its unique strength: pairing off characters and just letting them talk. Jaime and Bronn, Roose Bolton and Ramsay and "Reek," Melisandre and Stannis and his wife Selyse, Cersei and Brienne, Jaime and Loras — the list of dynamite dialogues goes on and on. The dessert course may overwhelm the palate somewhat (loved that close-up of the bird blood in the pie!), but the whole episode is a feast of conversation, cooked up by the master's hand. And note that in Martin's original novels, Jaime and Brienne don't make it back to King's Landing until after the wedding, meaning some of the episode's best exchanges wouldn't even be possible without the show's changes.
But many of its strengths do indeed originate with the originals. The entire ghastly, endless humiliation of Tyrion by Joffrey came straight from their pages: destroying Tyrion's painstakingly selected wedding gift, hiring dwarves to put on a grotesque show and damn near forcing Tyrion to participate, dousing him with wine and ordering him to serve as cupbearer. Most revealing is Joffrey's adamant refusal to let Tyrion play any of this off as accidental, or as "an honor." Joffrey wants everyone to know exactly what's going on, and nothing short of spelling it out will do. Joffrey's not just cruel, he's stupid — a terrible politician who likely wouldn't have lasted long on the throne regardless. His final act is to point at the wrong man, for crying out loud. Here lies Joffrey Baratheon: He was the worst, even at dying.
If there's a throughline for this episode – though complaining when there isn't is a mug's game when it comes to a show this jam-packed – it's found in Tyrion's terrible time at the wedding: examining what people will endure to get what they want, or simply to survive. Margaery will marry a sociopath. Oberyn will attend a party thrown by the man who ordered his sister's rape and murder. Sansa will sit silently while her brother's death is mocked; Loras will storm off when the same thing happens to his late boyfriend. Aging golden boy Jaime will pay to be mocked and roughed up by a ruffian who can help train him to fight. Tyrion will hurl hurtful words at the woman he loves (Shae) until she runs away for her own safety. Selyse Baratheon will have dinner with her husband's lover, a lover she encouraged him to take. The broken man formerly known as Theon Greyjoy will withstand brutal murders and the news that his old friend Robb Stark was murdered by his new master's father – anything to avoid further torture. And Bran Stark will trudge further into the frozen unknown, bedeviled by visions of dragons flying over King's Landing and White Walkers marching over, well, everything. "There is only one Hell, princess," Melisandre tells Shireen. "The one we live in now." Consider that thought your wedding favor.
Last week: Say Hi to the Bad Guys